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problem jurisdictions

The Supreme Court’s ruling last month in a case on the limits of jurisdiction, Bauman v. DaimlerChrysler, was on its face a rejection of recently-fashionable notions of “universal jurisdiction” under which disputes labeled as serious human rights matters could be brought to courts more or less anywhere for adjudication. But according to Richard Samp, by clarifying the prerequisites for general jurisdiction, the case could if taken seriously revolutionize (for the better!) some other kinds of litigation for which forum-shopping has been the norm — in particular class action litigation, which is often filed in plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions where the defendants would not be considered “at home” under the standard laid out by Justice Ginsburg. [Washington Legal Foundation]

…are likely to be bad news in more ways than one [Belleville, Ill., News-Democrat on arrest of St. Clair County, Ill. Circuit Judge Michael Cook] St. Clair County is adjacent to Madison County in the Metro-East area of Illinois near St. Louis, and shares in its reputation as a “difficult” jurisdiction for unwary litigants. More: AP today.

Update: Branham v. Ford

by Ted Frank on August 19, 2010

In 2006, I wrote:

In May 2001, Cheryl Jane Hale was driving four children to a sleepover in her 1987 Ford Bronco. She didn’t bother to have the children wear their seat belts, so, when she took her eyes off the road to argue with the backseat passengers, and thus drove off the road and flipped the car, 12-year-old Jesse Branham was thrown from the car and suffered brain damage. A jury in Hampton County, South Carolina (the second jury to be impaneled—the first one was dismissed in a mistrial when it was discovered after two weeks of trial that five of the jurors were former clients of Branham’s lawyers) decided that this was only 45% Hale’s fault, held Ford 55% responsible, which puts Ford entirely on the hook for $31 million in damages.

On Monday, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed because of prejudicial closing arguments that relied heavily on inadmissible evidence. More importantly for lawyers practicing in South Carolina, the Court adopted “the risk-utility test with its requirement of showing a feasible alternative design.”

How bad of a judicial hellhole is Hampton County? Though Hale was a co-defendant, she cooperated with the plaintiffs throughout the trial in their case against Ford, even sitting at the plaintiffs’ table; but because the judge classified Hale as a co-defendant, it meant that Hale got half of the peremptory challenges of the “defense.” More from Comer; no press coverage that I’ve seen yet. (cross-posted from Point of Law)

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The American Tort Reform Association is out with its annual ranking of the jurisdictions where it thinks civil defendants are farthest from being assured a fair trial, and they are:

  1. West Virginia
  2. South Florida
  3. Cook County, Ill.
  4. Atlantic County, NJ
  5. Montgomery and Macon Counties, Ala.
  6. Los Angeles County, CA
  7. Clark County (Las Vegas), Nev.

The list reflects the views of big-company managers and lawyers as to tort lawsuits; a poll of, say, doctors might result in different nominations (Brooklyn, Bronx, Long Island*, Philadelphia) and one of class-action or patent-infringement defendants would likely produce yet other lists.

ATRA has a supplementary “Watch List”, nicknamed by some of us “Heckholes”, of toasty but not quite infernal jurisdictions, on which it places the Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast of Texas, Madison County, Ill., Baltimore, Md., and St. Louis city and county and Jackson County, Mo. It also offers side essays on notable scandals among high-rolling lawyers, trial lawyer-AG alliances, and pro-plaintiff’s-bar lobbying efforts.

Some coverage of the report: Pero, ShopFloor (with this and this on AG alliances), Ambrogi, Genova, CalBizLit (“We’re Number 6! We’re Number 6!), TortsProf, Miller (Baltimore), and Turkewitz (cross-posted from Point of Law; also note this recent post).

* Commenter VMS makes a case that Long Island does not belong on such a list.

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July 6 roundup

by Ted Frank on July 6, 2008

  • Beck and Herrmann fisk a NEJM anti-preemption editorial. [Beck/Herrmann; NEJM]
  • Lessons of the Grasso case. [Hodak]
  • You think BigLaw has it bad? Plaintiffs’ attorney who invented the benefit-of-the-bargain theory for pharmaceutical class actions where no one has suffered any cognizable injury, has made his firm tens of millions, but still hasn’t made partner. “Zigler said he never meets most of the people he represents in these high-profile cases.” [St.L. Post-Dispatch; related analysis from Beck/Herrmann]
  • Speaking of harmless lawsuits, “an atrocity in Arkansas,” as Arkansas Supreme Court ignores basic principles of due process and civil procedure to certify an extortionate pre-CAFA class action from MIller County. [Hmm, that's Beck/Herrmann again; General Motors v. Bryant; related from Greve]
  • Speedo competitor: unfair competition to say your innovative swimsuit has an advantage just because 38 out of the last 42 world records (as of June 30) were broken in the suit. [Am Law Daily]
  • Background on bogus shower curtain scare story (earlier). [NYT; related AEI event]
  • EMTALA-orama: don’t discuss payment in the emergency room if you don’t want to get sued. [ER Stories]

The manual for the L120 John Deere mower reads:

DANGER: ROTATING BLADES CUT OFF ARMS AND LEGS

· Do not mow when children or others are around.

· Do not mow in reverse.

· Look down and behind before and while backing.

· Never carry children even with blades off.

[click to continue…]

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As I’ve previously noted:

“As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone else’s money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families and their friends will re-elect me. ”

– Richard Neely, Justice, West Virginia Supreme Court, The Product Liability Mess at 4

[click to continue…]

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There was an auto accident in Dallas; plaintiffs sued Volkswagen in Marshall, Texas, in the notoriously plaintiff-friendly Eastern District of Texas, which has a hugely abnormal number of product liability cases—17% of all federal automobile product liability lawsuits in the United States. Let us quote from In re Volkswagen of America, Inc., 506 F.3d 376 (5th Cir.2007), earlier discussed on POL Nov. 27 and Feb. 23:

Volkswagen moved to transfer venue to the Dallas Division of the Northern District of Texas (“Dallas Division”). Volkswagen asserted that a transfer was warranted as (1) the Volkswagen Golf was purchased in Dallas County, Texas; (2) the accident occurred on a freeway in Dallas, Texas; (3) Dallas residents witnessed the accident; (4) Dallas police and paramedics responded and took action; (5) a Dallas doctor performed the autopsy; (6) the third-party defendant lives in Dallas County, Texas; (7) none of the plaintiffs live in the Marshall Division; (8) no known party or significant non-party witness lives in the Marshall Division; and (9) none of the facts giving rise to this suit occurred in the Marshall Division.

The district court refused to transfer to the Northern District, VW sought mandamus, and got it on the second try, with the Fifth Circuit ordering transfer. (See also John Council, “5th Circuit Restricts Trial Courts’ Discretion in Venue Motions”, Texas Lawyer, Nov. 5; John Council, “5th Circuit Case Could Reduce Product Liability Caseload in Texas’ Eastern District”, Texas Lawyer, Aug. 7).

In February, however, the Fifth Circuit vacated the decision, and granted en banc rehearing. Argument is Thursday in New Orleans, and the decision will determine whether the Fifth Circuit will tolerate forum shopping in the federal courts. (Michelle Massey, “Appeals court scheduled to hear arguments over forum shopping”, SE Texas Record, May 20). The case is of special importance to the patent bar, given the fact that Marshall, Texas, has become the unlikely capital of United States patent litigation. Blog coverage: PatentlyO, Prior Art.

En banc briefs in 07-40058, In re Volkswagen AG:

Department of Strangely Shifting Academic Positions: In December 2007, law professor Georgene Vairo wrote a LexisNexis Expert Commentary on the Volkswagen case explaining its consistency with Supreme Court precedents, and writing

The Fifth Circuit is not alone in permitting the use of mandamus in limited circumstances. For example, in Lemon v. Druffel, 253 F.2d 680 (6th Cir. 1958), a case decided shortly after Congress codified § 1404(a), the Sixth Circuit ruled that mandamus was an appropriate remedy to test a district court’s discretion on a motion to transfer.

In April 2008, she signed on to a brief taking precisely the opposite position, which does not cite Lemon. Curious.

Overlawyered has more on the Eastern District of Texas, and on Judge T. John Ward.

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Just as I was about to say I needed to revise my top-ten blog list to include the excellent anony-blogger Patent Troll-Tracker, I learned from today’s Recorder and WSJ that he has revealed himself as Rick Frenkel, Cisco IP attorney.

When I started the blog, I did so mainly out of frustration. I was shocked to learn that a huge portion of the tech industry’s patent disputes were with companies that were shells, with little cash and assets other than patents and a desire to litigate, and did not make and had never made any products. Yet when I would search the Internet for information about these putative licensors, I could find nothing. I was frustrated by the lack of information, and also by the vast array of anti-patent-reform bloggers out there, without a voice supporting what I did believe and still believe is meaningful reform.

(For the record, I liked the blog even before they praised me.) Plaintiffs’ attorney Ray Niro had put a bounty on the identity of the Troll Tracker, who had been critical of Niro’s tactics (as have Walter and I). Frenkel is considering shutting down his blog now that he is out of the closet; one hopes someone else picks up the torch, because he was performing a valuable service, to the extent that I had limited my blogging about it because he had the subject-area covered so well.

I missed the debate in November among Dennis Crouch, Michael Smith, and Frenkel on whether the Eastern District of Texas is “waning” as a magnet jurisdiction for patent plaintiffs (May 2006, Dec. 2005, Jan. 2005), or I might have made reference to it in my latest Liability Outlook on patent reform. Frenkel seems to have the best of that debate, and follows up:

Let’s highlight one really outstanding statistic from November: The number of defendants sued in the Eastern District of Texas in November 2007: 244. The number of defendants sued in Los Angeles, San Francisco/Silicon Valley, New York City, Chicago, Delaware, and New Jersey combined in November 2007: 162.

Patent lawyers often seem to be of a different stripe than other lawyers, and there is a similar patent-law-blogging community largely separate from the other law-bloggers. The commenters go mad at Crouch’s blog over the Frenkel revelation because Cisco is a strong patent reform supporter. Elsewhere: IPBiz; TechDailyDose; NetworkWorld; 271Blog; Mises Blog; and the anti-reform Patent Prospector.

Judicial Hellholes 2007

by Ted Frank on December 20, 2007

ATRA’s remarkably successful annual Judicial Hellholes report highlighting the high and low points of several jurisdictions’ legal systems is out. (PDF) Regular readers will recognize many of the stories and jurisdictions (and an op-ed I wrote even gets a shout-out), but the report is a handy summary of the year in tort reform and lawsuit abuse. Lots of news coverage (AP/Fool.com; National Law Journal; the Examiner; others) and blog coverage (Lattman; Bader; Torts Prof; NAM; NAF; Murnane; Pharmalot).

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Survey of Texas judges

by Ted Frank on August 17, 2007

Bill Childs notes a Baylor Law Review study polling Texas judges on whether they think there are problems requiring tort reform based on what they see in their own courtroom.

I can’t imagine why anyone thinks such a study will produce useful results. The study has typical issues, such as the typical anti-reform eliding of what “frivolous” means, ignoring that the state-law definition of “frivolous” differs from the common-sense meaning of the word used by many politicians. Another question asks whether judges have recently presided over cases where compensatory damages awarded were too high, but excludes cases where compensatory damages were required to be reduced by statutory limits, and the authors draw opinions from this intentionally biased question.

But there’s a larger problem with the very nature of the study. Judges who correctly run their courtroom and follow the law are generally not going to have runaway juries, so they are likely to say (and even say correctly) that their juries generally don’t produce outlandish results. The problem requiring reform are judges who are in the pocket of the plaintiffs’ bar, and create judicial hellholes, and let Mikal Watts and Mark Lanier run wild. If such judges thought there was a problem requiring tort reform, they wouldn’t let plaintiffs’ attorneys get away with what they get away with. Most reasonable judges would find it problematic if a plaintiff loaned money to a juror and had phone conversations with them during trial when a jury came back with an implausible multi-million dollar verdict for an overweight 71-year-old man’s second heart attack when he wasn’t even taking Vioxx, but the Starr County judge in Garza v. Merck signed off on the judgment: of course he doesn’t think anything’s wrong with that if he’s polled by professors, but that doesn’t make him correct.

Polling judges in judicial hellholes to find out whether there is a need for legal reform is like polling O.J. Simpson to find out if there’s a problem with domestic violence.

Nevertheless, expect to see the poll widely used by the litigation lobby and their academic water-carriers in upcoming months and years.

Post updated 10:30 PM to clarify nature of questioning.

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Law.com/The Recorder on the movement to curb venue-shopping in intellectual property litigation, a reaction in part to the rise of the plaintiff-friendly little jurisdiction of Marshall, Texas, as noted in our posts of Jan. 14 and Dec. 21, 2005. (Xenia P. Kobylarz, The Recorder, May 9).

“In the last several years, patent lawyers have flocked to Marshall, a small northeastern Texas town of 25,000, because of its speedy court process, patent-enthusiastic judges and juries considered ideal for hearing intellectual property cases. This year alone, the court has seen 59 patent cases, more than triple the total in 2003, which saw just 14 patent suits.” Intel made a $150 million payout after adverse rulings by a Marshall judge, and Cisco is currently being sued in what plaintiff’s lawyers hope will be a big-payout case.

Among those who defend the venue against critics is Charles Baker of Houston’s Porter & Hedges, who concedes “that some defense attorneys are afraid to try cases there because of its pro-plaintiff reputation, which he disagrees with. He said that the [court's] rocket docket also turns off some defense lawyers who feel pressured to produce evidence quickly, leaving little time for preparation.” Curiouser and curiouser: “Baker said that Marshall’s large elderly population also provides a good jury pool for intellectual property cases. ‘There are a lot of old people who don’t have a problem with sitting weeks at a time and listening to complicated issues,’ Baker said.” (Tresa Baldas, “Texas IP Rocket Docket Headed for Burnout?”, National Law Journal, Dec. 28)

For a very different view of the reasons for Marshall’s popularity, check out M. Craig Tyler (Wilson Sonsini), “Patent Pirates Search for Texas Treasure”, Texas Lawyer, Sept. 20 (PDF): “Juries in East Texas, unlike those in Houston, Dallas or Austin, are much less likely to have a member with any technical training or education, which exacerbates the problem from the defense perspective, but makes East Texas federal courts an attractive venue for would-be plaintiffs, who know that the jury will, instead, gravitate toward softer or superficial issues that are difficult to predict.” The result is to facilitate the activities of what Tyler calls “patent pirates”: enterprises that exist to file patent suits rather than to manufacture products, and which benefit from asymmetrical costs of litigation (discovery in a patent case can cost the manufacturer-defendant a million dollars or more, while the plaintiff license-holder may have few or no documents worth discovering).

According to Tyler, a “simple, nonspecific complaint”, which need not identify any infringing products sold by the defendant, “has a nuisance value of a few hundred thousand dollars the minute it is filed and served.” Tyler’s outspoken article in turn drew a response: Michael C. Smith, “”Patent Pirates” Only Exist in Neverland”, Texas Lawyer, Oct. 10 (PDF).

Eagle Pass, Texas, in Maverick County along the Rio Grande, isn’t likely to shake its reputation for plaintiff-friendly jurisprudence any time soon, as a San Antonio Express-News profile makes clear. “L. Wayne Scott, a professor at St. Mary’s University Law School…. who has mediated civil cases in Eagle Pass, estimates defendants there are roughly 10 times more likely to lose than in conservative Dallas and two or three times more likely to fall than in San Antonio. … Indeed, the prospect of facing a jury in Eagle Pass — where Mayor Joaquin L. Rodriguez also is one of the city’s top plaintiff’s attorneys — frequently makes companies more willing to settle and in higher amounts than they would agree to in other venues.” Although a 1995 round of state tort reforms has somewhat curbed the rampant forum-shopping by which plaintiff’s lawyers used to bring suits from around the state to Eagle Pass, there is still a steady diet of cases to be had against major national defendants, including suits against automakers over road crashes and a case against Connecticut-based shotgun-maker O.F. Mossberg & Sons Inc. over a hunting accident that took place in another Texas county. Local plaintiff’s attorney Earl Herring says that a case worth $10,000 in Eagle Pass would be “worth $500 in Uvalde.” (Greg Jefferson, “Eagle Pass remains known as plaintiff’s attorney paradise”, Nov. 2).