- Kagan to senators: please don’t confuse my views with Mark Tushnet’s or Harold Koh’s [Constitutional Law Prof]
- Too much like a Star Wars lightsaber? Lucasfilm sends a cease-and-desist to a laser pointer maker [Mystal, AtL]
- Ottawa, Canada: family files complaint “against trendy wine bar that turned away dinner party because it included 3mo baby” [Drew Halfnight, National Post]
- “House left Class Action Fairness Act alone in SPILL Act” [Wood/PoL, earlier]
- Not so indie? Filmmaker doing anti-Dole documentary on Nicaraguan banana workers says he took cash from big plaintiff’s law firm Provost Umphrey [AP/WaPo, WSJLawBlog, Erik Gardner/THREsq., new plaintiffs’ charges against Dole]
- Will liability ruling result in closure of popular Connecticut recreational area? [Rick Green, Hartford Courant; earlier]
- Class action lawyer Sean Coffey, running for New York attorney general, has many generous supporters [NYDN, more, WNYC (Sen. Al Franken headlines closed fundraiser at Yale Club)]
- “Judge Reduces Damages Award by 90% in Boston Music Downloading Trial” [NLJ, earlier on Tenenbaum case]
- Screening firm hired by Beaumont, Tex.’s Provost Umphrey to do mass silicosis x-rays at Pennsylvania hotels is fined $80,500 for breaking various state rules, like the one requiring that a medical professional be on hand [Childs]
- Milberg Weiss’s special way of obtaining perfectly pliant clients — that is to say by bribing them under the table — harmed other class members by increasing fees but not settlement sums, suggests a new study by St. John’s lawprof Michael Perino for Ted’s project at AEI [Carter Wood @ PoL]
- Time for Texas to join many other states in requiring lawyers to inform clients when practicing without professional liability insurance [SE Texas Record; earlier here, here and here]
- Lawyers, in concert with their public pension fund allies, jockey for control of securities case against Bear Stearns [Gerstein/NY Sun]
- Another court, this time in California, rules that a screw maker can’t sue a law firm on the claim that its solicitation of potential claimants wrongly portrayed the company’s products as defective; amicus brief from state trial lawyers group and Sen. Sheila Kuehl says relevant provisions of state’s “SLAPP” law were “meant to protect plaintiffs groups, not companies” [The Recorder via ABA Journal; earlier case from Tennessee]
- Most lucrative Google AdSense words still dominated by asbestos and other personal injury practice, the top terms being “mesothelioma treatment options” ($69.10 per click, and the point of obtaining the click is not to provide treatment options), “mesothelioma risk” ($66.46), and “personal injury lawyer michigan” ($65.85) [CyberWyre via NAM “Shop Floor”; more here, here, etc.]
- Remember those class actions against tech manufacturers for allegedly misstating the capacity of hard drives? Another one just settled, with buyers in for coupons and discounts, lawyers for $1.78 million [The Register, Cho v. Seagate Technologies settlement website]
- Watch what you say about lawyers, cont’d: Erie, Pa. paper thus far has fended off libel suit by Pittsburgh attorney over coverage of his run-ins with authorities over client treatment [Post-Gazette via Ambrogi]
- New at Point of Law: suicide risk of anticonvulsants?; Ohio AG Dann rebuked on foreclosure activism; simultaneous asbestosis and silicosis happens all the time at some law firms; Bush nominates an ATLA/AAJ member to a federal judgeship; and much more.
- Has a prominent investor with close ties to President Bush set up shop as an East Texas patent troll? [Troll Tracker, The Recorder]
- Embattled Tom Lakin and Lakin Law Firm, once high on the Madison County heap, fight to overturn $3.7 million legal-malpractice judgment [MC Record]
- Brent Coon suing former colleagues at Beaumont’s Provost Umphrey over division of billions in tobacco-fee booty [Texas Lawyer]
- UK judge criticizes “barking mad” human rights rules after prisoner refuses to leave his “comfy” jail cell to attend hearing [Times Online, Telegraph]
- “Six years after Enron, executives face greater risks—but investors are no safer.” [Gelinas/City Journal]
- United Farm Workers union threatens to sue over unflattering coverage [two years ago on Overlawyered]
Houston trial lawyer John O’Quinn saved Democrat Chris Bell’s struggling gubernatorial campaign from financial oblivion this week by making a record $1 million donation. …
“There’s something about a million-dollar check that really warms the heart,” said Bell.
O’Quinn has promised to raise another $4 million for Bell’s campaign, and that could make the Democrat more competitive with all his opponents [incumbent Republican Rick Perry, independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn (herself heavily backed by trial lawyers), and independent Kinky Friedman]. …
Bell said O’Quinn is not looking for special favors from state government.
“There’s nothing that state government can do for John, nor is he asking for anything but good government,” Bell said. …
O’Quinn, Williams and Umphrey were part of a legal team that shared in a $3.3 billion legal fee for settling the state’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
(R. G. Ratcliffe and Janet Elliott, Houston Chronicle, Oct. 11).
To celebrate Beaumont tobacco/asbestos lawyer Walter Umphrey’s seventieth birthday, fellow Texas Tobacco Five member John Eddie Williams took over a private aircraft hangar — Umphrey’s own, in fact — “moved out the two private jets and the helicopter, added on a two-story party tent and threw a no-holds-barred tribute to Umphrey.” Music was provided by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rotel and the Hot Tomatoes, performing on two different stages, and there was some pretty decent food too. Among the 400 attendees: gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn. (Shelby Hodge, “Wild soiree in hangar was Western to the hilt”, Houston Chronicle, May 14). Of course it was a mere kaffeeklatsch compared with a Willie Gary or Mark Lanier party.
Now back to your previously scheduled news story about excessive CEO compensation.
The American Tort Reform Association today released its third annual Judicial Hellholes report — ATRA’s report on the worst court systems in the United States where “‘Equal Justice Under Law’ does not exist.”
Here is the press release from ATRA. The highlights, including the top nine worst areas (seven counties and two regions — all of West Virginia and all of South Florida) and a salute to Mississippi for its tremendous and far-reaching tort reforms are on this page. The full report is in PDF format here.
But there may yet be hope:
Despite objections from rival plaintiff’s lawyers and others, state district judge Donald Floyd in Beaumont, Texas, has approved the settlement of a class action on behalf of consumers who own or owned recalled Firestone tires allegedly prone to tread separation. The settlement excludes anyone who has filed actual claims of personal or property injury related to the tires. Class members (other than 45 named plaintiffs who will receive $2,500 each) will get no monetary compensation, but will have the right to trade in the tires if they did not respond to the earlier recall, and Firestone has pledged another $65 million for education and safety programs. The class action lawyers, meanwhile, which include Beaumont’s Provost Umphrey, will get $19 million. See our reports of Sept. 19 and Oct. 8. (Brenda Sapino Jeffreys, “Judge Approves $149 Million Firestone Tire Settlement”, Texas Lawyer, Mar. 22).
July 30-31 — Tobacco fees: one brave judge. Although most of the press from the New York Times on down continues to ignore this developing story, on July 10 Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Ramos “told lawyers for six law firms that were awarded $625 million for their work in the historic 1998 tobacco settlement in no uncertain terms that he will examine whether the fee award is unethical. The April 2001 decision of the arbitration panel that issued the award set off ‘a flashing light that got my attention’ that the $625 million fee might violate the New York Code of Professional Responsibility’s proscription against illegal or excessive fees, Ramos told the throng of lawyers that filled his courtroom,” reports Daniel Wise in the New York Law Journal. Virtually the entire array of lawyers in the case was lined up against Judge Ramos: the trial lawyers themselves of course were furious, the tobacco companies were disputing his jurisdiction over the matter, and New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s office was defending the mega-fees in a brief. Outside the courtroom, meanwhile, establishment legal ethicist Stephen Gillers was scoffing that “There doesn’t seem to be any legal or ethical basis for this inquiry.” There doesn’t? The state’s Disciplinary Rule 2-106 bars lawyers from collecting “an illegal or excessive fee,” and it says nothing about excessive fees being okay so long as the other parties in the case have been dragooned into not objecting. (Daniel Wise, “New York Judge Begins Query Into Tobacco Fees”, New York Law Journal, Jul. 12)(see Jun. 21-23 and Oct. 25-27, 2002; May 11-13, 2001). Correction Jul. 31: our first report mistakenly named the scene of these proceedings as the Superior Court; it is in fact the Supreme Court (which in New York is a trial court and not the highest appellate body).
On July 25 the judge held a further hearing which even fewer press outlets seem to have covered — the only account we’ve seen ran on the Bloomberg wire (“N.Y. Judge Calls Tobacco Pact Legal Bills ‘Offensive”, Bloomberg News Service, Jul. 25, fee-based archive (search on date in litigation category, pulling up additional screens if necessary)). Judge Ramos pointed out that the $625 million fee amounted to $13,000 an hour, a figure he described as “offensive”. Although the trial lawyers who are set to collect those fees include many powerful insiders in New York politics — the sort of men who can make or break the career of an elected judge — the judge seemed admirably uncowed by them. He compared the lawyers’ overcompensation to “the problems now emerging in large corporate America”, which prompted Philip Damashek of Schneider, Kleinick, Weitz, Damashek & Shoot, which was awarded $98.4 million in fees, to demand an apology for “comparing me and my colleagues to these Enron people'”. And Ramos “ordered another attorney at the firm, Harvey Weitz, removed from the courtroom when he loudly told partner Brian Shoot not to let the judge interrupt him. ‘You’re sandbagging us,’ Weitz shouted at Ramos as he was escorted out. The judge threatened to hold him in contempt.” The judge “ordered the attorneys to file a new application supporting their fee request by August 30, or submit papers challenging his jurisdiction in the matter. The attorneys declined to say after the hearing how they planned to respond.” Addendum: Daniel Wise of the New York Law Journal also covered the July 25 hearing and provides further details of an oral argument that was “unparalleled — for its vitriol, much of it aimed at the judge.” (“New York Tobacco Fee Hearing Has Lawyers Smoking”, Jul. 26).
More: in Texas, Attorney General John Cornyn’s ethics investigation is turning up the heat on the Big Five tobacco lawyers who for years now have dodged being put under oath over the terms of their hiring by Cornyn’s predecessor Dan Morales (Brenda Sapino Jeffreys, “Investigation of Texas Tobacco Litigators Still Smokin'”, Texas Lawyer, Jul. 22)(see Jul. 15 and links from there). (DURABLE LINK)
July 30-31 — Lying’s not nice, especially when representing the bar. “Oregon’s highest court has suspended for two years an insurance defense lawyer who lied, while being deposed, to conceal a strategy that allowed his client to control both sides of a claim. … The lawyer, John P. Davenport of Portland, Ore., represented the Professional Liability Fund, an insurer established by the State Bar to provide mandatory malpractice insurance.” The Fund used a shell corporation to buy up unpaid malpractice judgments at a discount from claimants, which it could then dismiss; the strategy is not in itself illegal, but the court found that Davenport had not provided forthcoming answers to a bankruptcy examiner about the shell’s dealings with a bankrupt couple who had sued their lawyer for malpractice. (Annie Hsia, “Two-year Ban for Oregon Lawyer Who Lied”, National Law Journal, Jul. 18). In other sanctions news, a federal judge has ordered French drug company Aventis “to pay $32.6 million in attorney fees for vexatious conduct in patent litigation against Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. Southern District of New York Judge Robert P. Patterson said last week that [the company] ‘defiled the temple of justice’ by obstructing depositions and discovery, instructing a witness not to answer questions at a deposition and advancing baseless claims.” The finding of vexatious conduct is on appeal (Tom Perrotta, “Drug Company Must Pay Fees of $32 Million”, New York Law Journal, Jul. 29). (DURABLE LINK)
July 29 — “Bush Urges Malpractice Damage Limits”. “President Bush urged Congress today to impose substantial nationwide restrictions on medical malpractice cases, arguing that million-dollar verdicts are driving up health care costs and forcing doctors out of business.” Sen. John Edwards (D-T.Law.) promptly charged that under the White House proposal, when a child is blinded or paralyzed for life, “He [Bush] proposes what they get for that is $250,000.” (Mike Allen and Amy Goldstein, Washington Post, Jul. 26). In fact, as Edwards cannot but be aware, damages to cover the costs of care, lost income and other monetizable damages, which commonly would run into the millions in the case of a paralyzed child, would remain fully collectable as before; the mooted limit would apply only to the portion of awards which covered “non-economic” elements such as pain and suffering. (Bush remarks; White House “Policy in Focus“; HHS report on effects of medical liability, PDF format). The Senate Republican Policy Committee has published a paper collecting some of the malpractice-suit-crisis “horror stories” from recent months, with links to accounts in the press (Jul. 25). See also Steve Friess, “Liability costs drive doctors from practice”, Christian Science Monitor, Jul. 17; “Soaring Liability Costs Blamed for Non-Profit Nursing Home Closures”, Dallas Morning News, Jul. 25 (reg); Corpus Christi (Tex.) Caller special section, letters. Sasha Volokh and correspondents discuss the federalism angles (Jul. 27). (DURABLE LINK)
July 29 — Law lectures needn’t be dull. We were familiar with some of the writings of Harvard law prof David Rosenberg, but we had no idea his lecture style was so … colorful, as evidenced by this best-of collection (Harvard Law Record, 1999) (via Eve Tushnet, Jul. 25, who got it from Stuart Buck, Jul. 22 and Jul. 25; and thanks to Dan Lewis for the web-archive link). (DURABLE LINK)
July 29 — New medium, new opportunities. John Steele Gordon, the history-of-business columnist for American Heritage and author of such acclaimed books as A Thread Across the Ocean and The Business of America, devotes his new column to comparing the rise of online publishing with the technological developments, such as the rotary press, that ushered in the era of the metropolitan newspaper in the years before the American Civil War. “When the young can enter a business and experiment with new technology at little risk, revolution is on the way.” Small internet news-gathering and news-assemblage sites can now “have a great impact. … [One of them] has been giving tort lawyers and activist judges fits by assembling in one much-visited site called overlawyered.com the most egregious lawsuits and decisions from around the country and beyond. It makes for reading that is often hilarious, infuriating, and sad at the same time.” (“The Man Who Invented the Newspaper”, Aug./Sept.). (More on weblog impact: John Leo, “Flogged by Bloggers”, U.S. News, Aug. 5). While on the subject of nice publicity, we won’t even try to summarize all the additional exposure this site and its editor have gotten in the past few days from the lawyers-sue-fast-food controversy, but we will note that our editor’s O’Reilly Factor appearance of last Tuesday, on educational lawsuits, is now online at FoxNews.com (“Watch out Teachers!”, Jul. 24). (DURABLE LINK)
July 26-28 — Fat suits, cont’d. George Washington University law prof John Banzhaf, who got himself so much publicity in the tobacco round, says he’s advising the plaintiff who just announced that he’s suing fast-food chains, so we know the suit must be serious (right?) (Geraldine Sealey, “Fat suits filed”, ABC News, Jul. 25; BBC, “Fat Americans sue fast food firms”, Jul. 25, and “Talking Points“). As for our editor, he’s in considerable demand on the subject, having appeared over the past day on (among others) Fox News Network, CBS radio, and the BBC. This just in: debating our editor on Laura Ingraham’s radio show Friday evening, Banzhaf announced that he is working up a possible suit against milk marketers which will charge that the “Milk Moustache” campaign should give rise to liability because it doesn’t warn consumers that skim milk is sometimes better for you than whole milk. Is he serious? He sure sounded like it (discussion on Democratic Underground). (DURABLE LINK)
July 26-28 — Third Circuit: prisoners may be entitled to watch R-rated films. “Inmates in federal prisons who challenged a ban on allowing them to watch movies rated R or NC-17 have won a new shot at making their case now that a federal appeals court has ruled that a Western District of Pennsylvania judge was too quick to rule in favor of the government. In Wolf v. Ashcroft, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin of the Western District of Pennsylvania ‘did not conduct a proper, thorough analysis’ of whether the ban is ‘reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.'” The trial judge’s ruling against the prisoners, furthermore, “improperly relied on ‘common sense'”. (Shannon P. Duffy, “Prisoners’ Suit Over R-Rated Movies Worth Another Look, Says 3rd Circuit”, The Legal Intelligencer, Jul. 25). (DURABLE LINK)
July 26-28 — Skittish at Kinko’s. The clerk at the copy shop raises objections to a request to photocopy a newspaper column: “Do you have permission to duplicate this copyrighted material?” But it’s my column, the customer protests — I wrote it! “Look — my picture is on the top.” “He told me that didn’t matter, that corporate Kinko’s was overburdened with copyright lawsuits, and consequently he wasn’t about to run my copy job. Sheesh.” (“Inane Laws and Egotistical Copy Men”, Cornell Daily Sun, Mar. 4). (DURABLE LINK)
July 26-28 — Update: cost of clipboard-throwing only $8 million. A San Diego judge has reduced the damage award from $30 million to $8 million in a case against the Ralphs supermarket chain over the conduct of a manager who over the course of a decade is alleged to have verbally harassed female employees and thrown such objects as a telephone and clipboard at them. Superior Court judge Michael Anello called the damages “grossly excessive” and the result of the jury’s “passion and prejudice,” and said “the evidence was insufficient to support the conclusion that defendant [corporation] approved of or ratified [the manager’s] conduct.” The decision is “a slap in the face of women’s rights,” countered the plaintiffs’ co-counsel (see Apr. 19-21) (Alexei Oreskovic, “Judge Slashes Sex Harassment Damages Against Ralphs Grocery”, The Recorder, Jul. 17). (DURABLE LINK)
July 25 — “Ailing Man Sues Fast-Food Firms”. You knew it was coming: “A New York City lawyer has filed suit against the four big fast-food corporations, saying their fatty foods are responsible for his client’s obesity and related health problems. Samuel Hirsch filed his lawsuit Wednesday at a New York state court in the Bronx, alleging that McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC Corporation are irresponsible and deceptive in the posting of their nutritional information, that they need to offer healthier options on their menus, and that they create a de facto addiction in their consumers, particularly the poor and children.” Quotes our editor, who takes the dim view of the suit that you would expect (Michael Y. Park, FoxNews.com, Jul. 24). (DURABLE LINK)
July 25 — “Surgeon halts operation over foreign nurses’ poor English”. Britain: “A surgeon at a leading hospital has said he had to stop halfway through an operation because foreign nurses could not follow his instructions. As a result, he said he has been threatened with disciplinary action for racism. David Nunn, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals, in London, told The Telegraph that he was unable to complete the operation last week without certain instruments. When he asked the nurses, all of whom were foreign, to find them, ‘I was met with a selection of bemused reactions,’ he said. ‘They were produced only when the scrub nurse de-scrubbed and went to find them herself.’ Mr Dunn, 48, said his superiors had accused him of racism and threatened him with being disciplined.” Dunn said the influx of nurses from outside Britain are “without doubt well-trained and dedicated professionals, but if medical staff cannot communicate effectively then patients’ care may be put at risk.” Careful what you say, doc… (Richard Eden, Daily Telegraph, Jul. 22). (DURABLE LINK)
July 25 — “Licensing Deadline Sneaks Up In District”. “Consultants, landlords, music teachers, nannies, massage therapists and other home-based workers in the District face fines of as much as $500 if they do not obtain a new type of city license by Aug. 31, but most are unaware of it. Self-employed individuals and District firms, including nonprofit groups, that collect more than $2,000 in annual revenue will have to obtain a master business license to legally sell their services.” More “than 60,000 businesses and individuals in the District face fines of as much as $500 if they don’t obtain a new type of city license by Aug. 31″ — and have things really reached the point where it’s going to require a license from the government to practice independent journalism from your apartment? (Avram Goldstein, Washington Post, Jul. 21; “How D.C. Creates Chaos” (editorial), Jul. 23; Eugene Volokh, Jul. 23). (DURABLE LINK)
July 24 — Smog fee case: “unreal world of greed”. A California appeals court has thrown out an arbitration panel’s $88.5 million award of attorneys’ fees, amounting to an estimated $8,800/hour, to five law firms which had prosecuted a case against the state of California arguing the unconstitutionality of its former assessment of “smog impact fees” on cars registered from out of state. “The justices called the panel’s $88.5 million fee award ‘an unconstitutional gift of public funds’ that was not authorized by the Legislature. In a scathing concurring opinion, Justice Richard Sims said the award from the arbitration panel was ‘completely in outer space.’ ‘The fact that attorneys even requested a fee award of that magnitude from the taxpayers,’ Sims wrote, ‘is a testament to the unreal world of greed in which some attorneys practice law in this day and age.'” The five law firms included Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, long a major political donor in California, as well as “New York’s Weiss & Yourman; San Diego’s Sullivan, Hill, Lewin, Rez & Engel; La Jolla, Calif.’s Blumenthal & Markham, and Berkeley, Calif., solo practitioner Richard Pearl.” (see Dec. 5, 2000, Jun. 22, 2001)(Robert Salladay, “Court rips $8,800 an hour in attorneys’ fees”, San Francisco Chronicle, Jul. 23; Mike McKee, “California Appeals Court Rips $88M Fee Award in Smog Case”, The Recorder, Jul. 23). (DURABLE LINK)
July 24 — Update: “Harassment by kids gets ex-teacher 50G” Following up on a story from last month: the city of New York has agreed to pay $50,000 to settle a lawsuit by a former Queens teacher who says his students had harassed him by way of derogatory comments about his immigrant status (from Sri Lanka), accent and ethnicity. “Legal experts said the suit was the first of its kind in which a teacher successfully brought a civil rights action alleging that students had created a ‘hostile work environment.'” The other noteworthy feature of the dispute (see Jun. 26) is the defense the city put forth, namely that it was powerless to discipline the students, who had special education (disabled) status, for insulting the teacher “because students with that classification have already been identified as having behavioral problems, and the verbal misconduct might be considered a manifestation of their disability,” as a city lawyer put it (John Marzulli, “Harassment by kids gets teacher 50K”, New York Daily News, Jul. 22). (DURABLE LINK)
July 23 — Welcome O’Reilly Factor viewers. Our editor was a guest on the top-rated TV talk show this evening, interviewed one-on-one by host Bill O’Reilly on the subject of parents threatening to sue teachers over their kids’ bad grades. We mentioned the recent Arizona case and an earlier Ohio case that we understand has been dismissed by the court; and here’s our theme page on overlawyered schools. (DURABLE LINK)
July 22-23 — Politicos’ “stagey” outrage at balance-sheet sins. “John Walker Lindh got 20 years this week for joining a terrorist network at war with his country. Lucky for him he didn’t try something really bad, like capitalizing an expense item. … President Bush, who spent 56 years on this earth without revealing the slightest passion for corporate reform, now says life will be intolerable if he doesn’t have a bill to sign within a couple of weeks. And he has sent signals that he doesn’t give much of a hoot what is in it.” (Michael Kinsley, “Stock Option Cure-All”, Washington Post, Jul. 19). “Even now, the mob waving pitchforks and torches finds the details of accounting, compensation and corporate governance too tedious to take seriously. But ‘reforms’ that ignore the role of incentives and competition will turn out to be monsters themselves.” (Virginia Postrel, “Business ‘Reforms’ Should Not Ignore Incentives and Competition”, New York Times, Jul. 18 (reg)). (DURABLE LINK)
July 22-23 — Nightmare under the palms. You retire to a Florida condo, and imagine that the hassles of life are over — that is, until you discover that a couple of your neighbors have turned asserting their legal rights into an art form. (Joe Kollin, “Sunrise condo residents get socked with bill because neighbors won’t pay”, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Jul. 19). (DURABLE LINK)
July 22-23 — Disabled testing: hence, loathèd asterisk. In a settlement with a disabled-rights litigation group, the College Board has agreed to stop flagging the test scores of students who got extra time or other accommodations in taking its college admissions test. The effect will be to allow applicants to conceal from colleges whether they “took the test under normal conditions, or used a computer, worked in a separate quiet room, and had four and a half hours for the three-hour test. … High school guidance counselors said the elimination of flagging could set off a wave of new applications for accommodations, including some from students without real disabilities. … most of those who are accommodated have attention deficit problems or learning disabilities like dyslexia, a reading disorder.” “It’s very clear who’s been getting extended-time: the highest-income communities have the highest rates of accommodations,” said Bruce Poch, the dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. “I think what’s going to have to happen now is that everyone will, in effect, get more time.” (Tamar Lewin, “Abuse Is Feared as SAT Test Changes Disability Policy”, New York Times, Jul. 15 (reg)). Among commenters: Kimberly Swygert at No. 2 Pencil (Jul. 15 and 17) and Joanne Jacobs (Jul. 15 and Jul. 17). We covered the controversy back in February 1999, May 10, 2000 and Feb. 9-11, 2001. (DURABLE LINK)
July 22-23 — Last-minute friends in Texas politics. “In 1998 [John] Sharp narrowly lost the lieutenant governor’s race to Republican Mr. Perry, who later became governor when George W. Bush became president.” Sharp drew about 15 percent of his financial backing from trial lawyers in that race, which actually probably isn’t all that high a percentage for a Lone Star Democrat. What was interesting was the timing: “A review by The News of finance reports in that matchup indicates that nearly half Mr. Sharp’s trial lawyer support came in the final eight days of the campaign and was not reported until after the race. For example, a few days before the election, Mr. Sharp collected $250,000 from Houston trial lawyer John Eddie Williams and $150,000 apiece from lawyers Walter Umphrey of Beaumont and Harold Nix of Daingerfield. And he got $15,000 from Michael Gallagher of Houston.” Reports of trial lawyer backing can damage a candidate in Texas campaigns, but when the lawyers donate at the last minute the voters may be none the wiser as they troop to the polls (Wayne Slater, “Trial lawyers’ cash at issue”, Dallas Morning News, Jul. 13). (DURABLE LINK)
September 29-October 1 — Disabled rights roundup. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the PGA golf tour must bend its rules to allow disabled golfer Casey Martin to ride in a golf cart (“U.S. High Court To Decide Case of Disabled Golfer”, Reuters/FindLaw, Sept. 26; see April 10, our May 1998 take). The government of Great Britain is considering legislation that would compel its armed forces to accept disabled recruits, and pressures are rising to accept handicapped military personnel in front-line as well as auxiliary positions, given the principle of nondiscrimination (Michael Smith, “Disabled want frontline jobs in ‘pc’ Services”, Daily Telegraph (London), Sept. 26; “Forces may have to admit disabled”, Aug. 21; UK Disability Discrimination Act). And a trend that has been well established under U.S. disabled rights law for some time — doctors’ having to hire sign-language translators at their own expense when a deaf patient wishes to call on them for a consultation — is exemplified by a consent decree negotiated by the office of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, requiring an upstate doctors’ group to provide interpreters-on-demand for “all significant medical encounters” (“Spitzer Announces Agreement With Upstate Physician’s Practice To Provide Sign Language Interpreters for Deaf Patients”, press release, June 21; see also May 31).
September 29-October 1 — Annals of zero tolerance: Tweety bird chain. In suburban Atlanta, the Garrett Middle School has suspended 11-year-old Ashley Smith from sixth grade for two weeks on charges of breaking its zero-tolerance weapons policy by bringing a chain to school. It’s a 10-inch novelty chain that dangles from her Tweety bird wallet. “It’s only a little chain, and I don’t think it can really hurt anyone,” said Ashley, a “Tweety fan who publishes her own Web site devoted to the cartoon character.” Earlier, the ACLU successfully represented an Atlanta public school student who was charged with criminal weapons possession after she brought African tribal knives to school for a project (“Girl suspended for Tweety chain”, AP/Salon, Sept. 28; UPI/Virtual New York) (Ashley Smith’s guestbook) (update Oct. 4: school’s explanation).
September 29-October 1 — French crash, German victims, American payout levels? Air France has sued Continental Air Lines to recoup its costs from the July Concorde disaster in Paris that killed 113 people, charging that a strip of metal that fell off a Continental DC-10 caused the incident. The French airline has already offered to compensate survivor families, who are mostly German, but “German lawyers are pushing for a settlement in the United States, where courts order higher payouts.” (“Airline files Concorde suit”, Reuters/CNNfn, Sept. 27).
September 29-October 1 — “Denny’s fights back against false suits”. The restaurant chain, dogged by past charges of racial discrimination, releases more details on how it uses videotapes and other techniques to disprove dubious copycat claims (see Aug. 29-30). In Oakland, Calif., the lawyer son of John S. Harrison Sr. sued Denny’s claiming that a white couple had been served before his father though they had arrived later. “Mr. Harrison conceded he had been a customer for 20 years and ate at that Denny’s counter twice a day for 10 to 12 years with no problems in a store whose clientele was 50 percent black.” He had been happy with the meal and had left a tip. A federal magistrate threw out the suit and gave Denny’s legal fees. (Frank Murray, Washington Times, Sept. 25).
September 29-October 1 — “Supersize small claims”. Prairielaw columnist David A. Giacalone argues for reviving the nearly moribund institution of small claims court by boosting the threshold value of claims handled by such courts to $20,000, a change also endorsed by the HALT legal reform group. Thresholds around $3,000 are now common. Such a shift might relieve some of the docket pressure on regular courts while allowing ordinary citizens to vindicate more claims without lawyers’ assistance, a feature that may help explain why the bar shows little enthusiasm for the idea (undated, but appeared Aug.) (see also Oct. 3).
September 27-28 — Welcome UserFriendly.org readers. We’re picked as the link of the day by the website for the cartoon strip User Friendly, by Illiad.
September 27-28 — “Blind customers want to touch club lapdancers”. In East Sussex, England, the Brighton and Hove municipal council says it will consider a request by the Pussycats Club that its blind patrons be permitted to touch the exotic dancers as a form of handicap accommodation. The club says its vision-impaired customers appreciate the proximity of the lapdancers and their perfume but would get a better idea of what they looked like if they were allowed a hands-on experience, which is currently forbidden by the club’s license. (David Sapsted, Daily Telegraph (London), Sept. 26).
September 27-28 — Welcome Toronto Star readers. “One of my favourite Web sites is overlawyered.com, a collection of the most asinine stories from the admittedly ordinarily twisted universe of American law,” writes columnist Jason Brooks. He interviews our editor about a current proposal for Ontario to enact its own law emulating the Americans with Disabilities Act. No one seems to have any very clear idea what such a law would cost, but the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee says “the idea of a total cost figure misses the point.” Uh-oh…. (Jason Brooks, “Will new act go too far for the disabled?”, Toronto Star, Sept. 25).
September 27-28 — “Controversial drug makes a comeback”. A small Canadian firm, Duchesnay Inc., wants to reintroduce to the U.S. market Bendectin, the pregnancy-nausea drug driven off the market by mass litigation claiming that it caused birth defects. “Bendectin was the archetypical case of junk science scuttling a perfectly safe product,” Dr. Michael Greene, director of maternal-fetal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells New York Times science correspondent Gina Kolata. “It was a sad episode in American jurisprudence.” Although ultimately the manufacturer never paid damages, it spent $100 million in defense costs, says Prof. David Bernstein of George Mason University (Sept. 26)(reg).
September 27-28 — Stuart Taylor, Jr. on Gore and Vetogate. Another scathing, must-read column on trial lawyers and politics by the National Journal columnist, written before Janet Reno’s announcement last week that the Justice Department would not pursue an investigation of the Umphrey call sheet affair. Did you know that lawyers as a group have donated nearly ten times as much to the Democrats during this election cycle as the tobacco industry has given Republicans? (“Gore’s Shameless About Posing As A Populist”, National Journal/Atlantic Unbound, Sept. 26) .
September 27-28 — Microsoft wins one. The U.S. Supreme Court has turned down a Justice Department request that it hear the Microsoft case immediately, instead allowing the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case, which is what the company preferred; past D.C. Circuit rulings suggest that it may be more sympathetic to Microsoft’s position than was the trial judge. (“High Court Defers to Microsoft”, AP/Wired News, Sept. 26; Declan McCullagh, “Microsoft gets what it wants”, Wired News, Sept. 26). And a number of courts have thrown out statewide consumer class actions against Microsoft based on the sale of Windows, although this doesn’t really come as much of a surprise in the case of states that bar indirect (end-user) antitrust claims, since cases filed in those courts were always long shots (Jonathan Groner, “The Cases Microsoft Is Winning”, Legal Times (Washington), Sept. 18).
September 27-28 — Bank error in your favor. Latest coins- found- under- the- sofa- cushions class action settlement: Wilmington, Del.-based credit card giant MBNA Corp. agrees to pay $3.57 each to current and former customers to settle claims that its ads were misleading in the early 1990s when they promoted a low interest rate for balances transferred from another card, but did not warn that the low rate did not apply to newly incurred charges. Lawyers for the plaintiff class, meanwhile, are set to pocket $1.3 million. Major credit card companies are frequent targets of class action litigation; Chase Manhattan and Providian Financial have recently settled such actions, and Citibank and Bank One/First USA face pending claims (Joseph N. DiStefano, “MBNA settles suit over card ads”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 26).
September 27-28 — Final innings for Kennewick Man. Score stands at archaeologists 0, multiculturalists 1, as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announces that the 9,000-year-old skeleton found along the Columbia River four years ago will be given to local Indian tribes, who intend to bury the remains without allowing a complete examination. “If Babbitt’s ruling stands, the loss to science is beyond comprehension,” writes National Review Online‘s John Miller (“Kennewick Man’s last stand”, Sept. 26; see also Oct. 11, 1999).
September 25-26 — New data on state campaign contributions. Triallawyermoney.org, the project of the American Tort Reform Foundation that tracks plaintiff lawyers’ political contributions, has just expanded its coverage to include local elections in seven key states as well as federal elections. The states include Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Texas; there is also a link to similar data collected by the Civil Justice Association of California (launched Sept. 19 — “State Races“).
September 25-26 — “Skier to be tried for manslaughter in Colorado in fatal collision”. Although two county courts ruled that a reasonable person would not have expected skiing too fast to result in another person’s death, prosecutors in Denver have insisted on pressing a manslaughter rap against Chico, Calif. college student Nathan Hall, who in 1997, at the age of 18, headed down Vail Mountain and collided with 33-year-old Denverite Alan Cobb on the slope, killing him almost instantly. (AP/CNN, Sept. 11). Update Nov. 21: Hall convicted of criminally negligent homicide.
September 25-26 — Wal-Mart’s tobacco exposure. Through a little-known subsidiary named McLane Co., the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer is the largest distributor of cigarettes to convenience stores, which makes it the biggest handler of that commodity aside from the tobacco companies themselves. Despite Wal-Mart’s deep pockets, plaintiff’s attorneys seem not to have noticed it yet. (Kelly Barron, “Smoking gun”, Forbes, Aug. 21) (see also July 7).
September 25-26 — A job offer for the judge. Following protests from defendants, Judge Edward Angeletti of Baltimore, Maryland Circuit Court removed himself from a series of asbestos-injury cases over which he was presiding and declared a mistrial after it was revealed that he had received a job offer from plaintiff’s attorney and political kingmaker Peter Angelos (see Oct. 19 and Dec. 9, 1999, March 15, 2000). According to AP/CNN, “Angelos has said that he made a ‘very substantial’ offer for Angeletti to head his office’s pursuit of lawsuits against lead paint manufacturers.” Angelos, who has become immensely wealthy through his handling of asbestos litigation, controls about three of every four asbestos cases in the Baltimore court. (“Job offer from lawyer leads judge to step down from asbestos trial”, AP/CNN, Aug. 1; “Judge removes himself from absbestos [sic] trials”, AP/Prince George’s County [Md.] Journal, Aug. 2)
September 25-26 — Kopel on zero-tolerance policies. Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant, & Joanne D. Eisen of the Independence Institute comment on the school zero-tolerance policies under which possession of an obvious toy gun — or sometimes just making a thumb-and-first-finger “gun” gesture — is considered grounds for punishment. (“Gunning for the Kiddies”, National Review Online, Sept. 22).
September 25-26 — Treaties rule. A federal judge in San Francisco has thrown out a lawsuit against Japanese defendants over World War II atrocities. In 1951 we signed a peace agreement with Japan which prohibited exactly these sorts of claims. Now we have to live up to our end of the treaty — period. (Louis Sahagun, “Suit on WWII Slave Labor in Japan Voided”, L.A. Times, Sept. 22; Reuters/FindLaw; see Sept. 20, 1999).
September 22-24 — “N.Y. Lawyer Charged in Immigrant Smuggling”. In a 44-count indictment, federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged the Manhattan lawyer who runs the country’s largest political asylum practice, Harvard Law-educated Robert Porges, with a wide range of offenses including concocting thousands of fictitious stories of persecution by which detained aliens could avoid deportation, advising smugglers how best to avoid detection by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and “helping smugglers detain illegal immigrants until debts were paid.” According to prosecutors, paralegals wrote out longhand accounts of persecution, claiming of women clients, for example, that they had suffered forced abortions under China’s “one-child” policy, and then coached the immigrants on how to carry off the story convincingly. Porges is said to have “collected as much as $13 million in fees for helping to transport as many as 7,000 illegal immigrants from mainland China to the United States”. (Hanna Rosin and Christine Haughney, Washington Post, Sept. 21). Update Sept. 21, 2003: Porges and wife sentenced in 2002 to about eight years.
September 22-24 — RN’s illusions. Ralph Nader campaigns on the theme that anti-business advocates like himself are somehow kept from circulating their message or swaying policy. Is he really so disconnected from reality as to think that? (Sebastian Mallaby, “Victim of His Success”, Washington Post, Sept. 17). Before you get too enthusiastic about the Greens, suggests James Lileks, take a look at their platform: “They want your money, your job, your freedom and your car.” (“A look at Nader and his merry Greens”, San Francisco Examiner, July 14). And since some Nader groups have proposed the setting aside of a new .sucks domain to express discontent with powerful institutions (ibm.sucks, mcdonalds.sucks, etc.) some Seattle libertarians have turned the tables by founding the rudely named but inevitable Nadersucks.org, which bills itself as the largest collection of critical links about him online, outpacing the “Nader Skeleton Closet” feature at Realchange.org.
Other links of note from a Nader-watcher’s scrapbook: Doug Henwood, “1.75 cheers for Ralph”, Left Business Observer, Oct. 1996; discussion on LBO mailing list re RN finances, Sept. 9, 1998; RN denounces tort reform in campaign press release, VoteNader.org, Aug. 11; Robert Bryce, “Naturally Nader”, Austin Chronicle, April 7; Mike Allen, “Nader: The Little Guy’s Multimillionaire” (worth $3.8 million, heavily invested in tech stocks, still refuses to reveal income tax records), Washington Post, June 18; Paul West, “Corporate gadfly turns out to be rich”, Baltimore Sun, June 17; Michael Lewis, “Campaign Journal: The Normal Person of Tomorrow”, The New Republic, May 20, 1996.
September 22-24 — From our mail sack: hyperactive lawyers. Reader Scott Replogle, M.D., writes from Colorado: “I see (Sept. 18) that trial lawyer Richard Scruggs is suing psychiatrists and the makers of the drug Ritalin, alleging they conspired to ‘create’ a disease, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and then overdiagnose it for monetary gain. Which raises the question: when can we sue the people who not too long ago ‘created’ the previously unknown disorders of ‘silicone disease’ and ‘human adjuvant disease’ during the breast-implant controversy, and conspired to overdiagnose those diseases for monetary gain? And does it matter that many of those people were trial lawyers?” (see also April 13, 2001)
September 21 — Missouri tobacco fees. Lawyers stand to make $100 million or more for representing the state of Missouri in the Medicaid-tobacco litigation and the state’s largest newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says that sum “is out of proportion to the work performed and the risk involved … troubling … grossly overpays the lawyers involved … creates an unholy alliance between the state and tobacco interests” It’s also “a political gravy train” since “the five law firms involved in the case donated a total of more than $500,000 in campaign contributions over the past eight years, mostly to Democrats”; a prominent Republican former judge and Democratic former mayor of St. Louis were also cut in. “An important issue of public policy — the lawyers’ fees — will be determined outside the public forum” given that a secret arbitration proceeding will be employed to set the fees. “…It is private money in the public trough. But that doesn’t make the sight of the lawyers lining up to feed any prettier.” (“All aboard the gravy train” (editorial), St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 17).
Brent Evans, a state senate candidate in Missouri, has posted extensive documentation on the circumstances surrounding state attorney general Jay Nixon’s hiring of outside lawyers to prosecute the suit. According to Evans, the lawyers’ campaign contributions of $561,000 included $139,000 for Nixon himself and $113,000 for Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan (“The Tobacco Papers“; the lawyers; their generosity; the work they might have done to justify the fees; “Attorneys mum about how much they’re seeking” (fee request “confidential”), Jefferson City News-Tribune, April 26, 1999; Jack Cashill, “Warning: Tobacco Settlements May Endanger The Integrity of Your Elected Officials” (also discusses Kansas fees), Cashill.com, undated 1999; “Appeals court sides with Nixon on legal fees in tobacco settlement”, Jefferson City News-Tribune, May 31, 2000; James Baughn, The Cape Rock webzine (Cape Girardeau, Mo.), June).
Last year Missouri Digital News reported that Paul Wilson, lead attorney on the matter with AG Nixon’s office, “urged lawmakers to pass legislation that will protect the major tobacco companies from a market-share loss once the impact of the tobacco settlement sets in. Off-brand cigarette companies, those not participating in the settlement, could otherwise undercut the prices of the major tobacco companies. Missouri will keep getting its billions so long as the market share of the signatories does not dip below 95 percent. If it were to do so and Missouri had no off-brand tobacco law, explained Wilson, the terms of the settlement let the major tobacco companies stop paying.” (Anna Brutzman, “Legislators Bewildered By Settlement”, April 4, 1999). Update Oct. 5, 2003: Missouri Supreme Court refuses to entertain challenge to tobacco fees.
September 21 — Dangerous divorce opponents. It’s tough enough going through a divorce in any case, but you’d really better watch out if your spouse is a successful lawyer, according to the New York Post. Advice: try for a change of venue. (Laura Williams, “Attorneys’ Wives Court Disaster”, Sept. 20).
September 21 — Eastwood trial begins. Jurors will hear an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint against the actor’s Mission Ranch hotel in Carmel. For our coverage of the Eastwood case and related Congressional hearings, see May 18, March 7, Feb. 15 and Jan. 26. (“Eastwood to Jurors: ‘Make My Day'”, AP/Fox News, Sept. 20; Shannon Lafferty, “Eastwood in the Line of Fire,” The Recorder/CalLaw, Sept. 21).
September 20 — Victory in Chicago. A judge last week threw out the city of Chicago’s lawsuit against the gun industry. “In granting the industry’s motion to dismiss, Judge Stephen A. Schiller of Cook County Circuit Court suggested that the city had not shown wrongdoing by the individual defendants. He said that the city’s arguments would be better handled in a legislature than in a courtroom.” However, a West Coast judge denied a defense motion to dismiss a group of cases filed by San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles city and county, and other plaintiffs. Pending appeal, judges have now dismissed the suits filed by Chicago, Cincinnati, Bridgeport, and Miami, while declining to dismiss suits filed by Detroit, Atlanta, Boston, New Orleans, Cleveland, and the California cities. (Pam Belluck, “Chicago Gun Suit Fails, but California’s Proceeds”, New York Times, Sept. 16 (reg); “Judge dismisses Chicago suit against gun industry”, Reuters/CNN, Sept. 15; reaction from Illinois State Rifle Association). Plus: John Derbyshire gets radicalized on the tort reform issue when he goes out trying to buy ammunition on Long Island, and discovers that the courtroom assault on the industry is choking the local firearms dealers into oblivion with no legislation needed, simply by causing their liability insurance to dry up. (“First thing we do…”, National Review Online, Sept. 12).
September 20 — Disbarred, with an asterisk. Most clients probably assume that a lawyer thrown out of the profession is gone for good, but the Boston Globe finds that for years bar authorities have been quietly readmitting practitioners, including some whose original offenses were grave. Some of this leniency has been misplaced, since a number of the readmitted lawyers have gone on to commit new offenses against clients. (David Armstrong, “Special Report: Disbarred Mass. lawyers skirt discipline system”, Sept. 17, and sidebars: “Reinstatement process favors lawyers“, “Victims often missing from equation“.
September 20 — “Regulating Privacy: At What Cost?” Free-marketeers finally start organizing to resist the steamroller movement toward online-privacy laws, reports Declan McCullagh. Among new initiatives are a symposium held yesterday on Capitol Hill by George Mason U.’s Mercatus Center, a book entitled The Future of Financial Privacy forthcoming from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a privacy-issues website called Privacilla.org. (Wired.com, Sept. 19). And Reason Express a while back alerted us to a website by Jacob Palme in Sweden which recounts some of the less pleasant consequences of that nation’s pioneering (1973) law preventing the electronic gathering or dissemination of information about individuals without their consent. Palme says the law mostly went unenforced as regards web publishing, which is a good thing since if enforced literally it could have rendered unlawful much of the web in Sweden. The few instances that led to enforcement action, as related by Palme, suggest that unpopular and dissident opinions were among the most likely to draw complaints under the law. One man put up a webpage critical of a large Swedish bank, naming individual directors whom he believed had behaved in ethically irresponsible ways; he was prosecuted and fined for violating their privacy. In another case, an animal rights group was subject to legal action for posting a list of fur producers. In a third, a church volunteer was prosecuted for stating on a web page that one named church member had broken a leg and another was a member of the Social Democratic Party; health status and political affiliations are considered especially sensitive under the law. In a fourth case, dissident dog lovers got in privacy-law trouble for criticizing leading members of a dog society by name. The privacy laws were revised in 1998 and again in 1999, following much criticism, and as of June 2000, when Palme’s page was last revised, the highest Swedish court had not yet given its interpretation of the law (“Freedom of Speech, The EU Data Protection Directive and the Swedish Personal Data Act“; “The Swedish Personal Register Law“; “Swedish Attempts to Regulate the Internet“; official Data Inspection Board). (DURABLE LINK)
September 19 — Hollywood under fire: nose of the Camel? In what may take the prize for worst idea of the month, South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon has proposed filing coordinated state lawsuits to make Hollywood the next tobacco. “Clearly we have here a virtual replay of what the tobacco industry did to our children. Instead of Joe Camel, Hollywood uses Eminem, South Park, Doom and Steven Segal [sic] to seduce children,” Condon wrote in a letter to the National Association of Attorneys General (Condon press release, Sept. 13; David Shuster, “South Carolina AG Threatens Suit Against Entertainment Industry”, Fox News, Sept. 15). It’s time the entertainment business cleaned up its act, writes Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, but that doesn’t mean Sens. McCain and Lieberman are right to “justify [an] end run around the 1st Amendment with a public-health argument like that which justifies the regulation of tobacco or liquor.” (“A World Apart: Eminem and Me”, Sept. 17). Owens Corning and Met Life use cartoon characters (the Pink Panther and Snoopy respectively) as advertising mascots, and you might jump to the conclusion that they were committing that dire sin, “marketing to children”, if you didn’t know that fiberglass insulation and insurance are products bought by adults, observes Illinois law prof Ronald Rotunda (“The FTC Report on Hollywood Entertainment“, Federalist Society, Free Speech and Election Law Working Group; FTC report; “Lieberman: Entertainment must police itself”, AP/Miami Herald, Sept. 13). Filmmaker John Waters doesn’t think much of the crusade: “The future CEOs of America are all sneaking into R-rated movies” (Rick Lyman, “Writers, Directors Fear Censorship, Tell Anger Over Violence Hearings”, New York Times Service/Chicago Tribune, Sept. 18). And plaintiff’s lawyers suing entertainment companies over school shootings, who’ve already gotten plenty of favorable ink in the conservative press (see July 22, 1999), are hoping the new report will invigorate their legal cause (Frank Murray, “FTC adds ammo to lawsuits for deaths”, Washington Times, Sept. 13).
September 19 —WSJ‘s Bartley on decline of American law. The establishment of the rule of law, replacing the whim of powerful rulers, was perhaps the supreme achievement of the West in the millennium just past, but the United States has grown careless about its legal inheritance, with systematic injustices mounting in both criminal and civil courtrooms. Last week’s call-sheet scandal illustrates the way “audacious and powerful interests” who have found ways to use the legal system to make their fortunes “have allied themselves with government and politicians.” (Robert Bartley, “The Law and Civilization’s Future”, Opinion Journal (Wall Street Journal), Sept. 18). “Justice Department investigators and prosecutors want to know if there were, in fact, any quid pro quos for the trial lawyers’ extraordinary generosity,” editorializes the San Diego Union-Tribune about the scandal. “With trial lawyers contributing almost 10 percent of all funds raised by the Gore-Lieberman campaign, that remains an urgent question. Voters have a right to some answers before Nov. 7.” (“Veto for sale?”, Sept. 16).
September 19 — Punitive damages for hatemongering? Washington Post‘s editorial page “is gutsy enough to have qualms about Morris Dees’ strategy of bankrupting hate groups with punitive tort damages,” observes Mickey Kaus at Kausfiles (“The Aryan Nations Verdict” (editorial), Washington Post, Sept. 16). “Many advocacy groups that engage in direct actions potentially expose themselves to tort liability…. That danger is compounded by the abusive system of punitive damages, which gives juries wide discretion to ruin people or companies financially in a fashion untethered to the scope of the harm they have done in the specific case at issue,” the Post comments. “That could not have happened to a more deserving bunch than Mr. [Richard] Butler and the Aryan Nations. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to wonder who’s next.”
September 18 — Scruggs v. Ritalin. Latest target for zillionaire tobacco lawyer and recent Time profilee Richard Scruggs: Novartis Pharmaceutical Corp., makers of the drug Ritalin, and the American Psychiatric Association. Scruggs’s firm accuses the two of conspiring to promote an overly broad diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), with the result that the drug is given to too many youngsters. “Novartis and the APA deny the allegations. In a statement, Novartis says the charges are ‘unfounded and preposterous.'” Some lawyers from the Castano consortium, which pursued tobacco litigation separate from Scruggs’s, are also joining him in the action. (“Lawsuits Accuse Ritalin Makers, APA”, AP/Yahoo, Sept. 15; Excite/Dow Jones; Toni Locy, “Fight over Ritalin is heading to court”, USA Today, Sept. 15) (see also Sept. 22-24 and April 13, 2001).
September 18 — White House pastry chef harassment suit. White House assistant pastry chef Franette McCulloch, 53, is suing her boss Roland Mesnier, claiming he “became hostile and rude when she spurned his advances, ‘screaming’ at her for refusing to have sex, excluding her from designing desserts and once assigning her to peel eight crates of kiwi.” Her suit also alleges that Bill Clinton, as the head of the White House, failed to establish a proper method for employees to bring harassment complaints, and demands $1 million each from Mesnier and Clinton. (AP/CNN, Sept. 13; Ellen Nakashima, “White House Chef Accuses Boss of Sexual Harassment”, Washington Post, Sept. 14). In 1997, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled against a discriminatory-firing claim by an employee of the White House chef’s office, but said he had been improperly retaliated against for filing his complaint. A former executive chef testified in a sworn deposition that year that the Clintons had paid him $37,000 to quit his post “because of my accent and the fact that I’m overweight.” (more).
September 18 — The teetery inkbottle. “Whenever the law and the facts were against him, Mr. Homans was not one to pound on the table. Instead, he would resort to what he called his ‘trial pen’, a big, old-fashioned device that he would pull out at a critical moment in a trial. On the stand would be the state’s star witness testifying that he had seen with his own eyes as Mr. Homans’s client pulled out a gun and pointed it directly at the bank teller’s head. But the jurors’ eyes would be on Mr. Homans, who, with trembling hand, would be filling the pen from a bottle of India ink perched so precariously, half over the edge of the defense table, that the jury would be caught up in the suspense of when it would fall.” — from an obituary, “William Homans, 75, Dies; Boston Civil Rights Lawyer”, by the late Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., New York Times, February 13, 1997 (fee-based archives, search on “William Homans”).
September 18 — That’ll be $2 trillion, please. A former resident has filed three lawsuits against the town of Rocky River, Ohio, “claiming everything from false arrest to injury of reputation,” and demanding $2 trillion. The town isn’t amused and is countersuing her, saying it’s had to expend money to defend itself. (Sarah Treffinger, “Rocky River sues woman who sued for trillions”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sept. 13).
September 15-17 — Day Two of Vetogate. George W. Bush in a California speech says the new call-sheet revelations are evidence that Gore “may have crossed a serious line … The appearance is really disturbing”, Janet Reno refuses to talk about the status of the investigation, the New York Times Washington bureau frets about being (just barely) webscooped by Time.com on the story, and Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane curiously describes the sensational disclosures as “recycled”, though no one in the press remembers seeing them before now (CNN; Drudge special; Yahoo/Reuters; Wash. Times).
September 15-17 — Who caught the tire problem? “Who provided the information that instigated the current recall? Who acted to protect the consumer? None other than ‘greedy’, profit-seeking State Farm Insurance Company. Eager to earn ever higher profits by reducing injury claims and lawsuits, State Farm’s statistical bureau noticed an increase in claims related to Firestone tires and passed the information along to the NHTSA which had been asleep at the switch. [See Devon Spurgeon, “State Farm researcher’s sleuthing helped prompt Firestone recall’, Wall Street Journal , Sept. 1]. The profit seeking of a big, bad, private insurance company may help save hundreds of lives.” (James Ostrowski, “The Tire Fiasco”, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Sept. 8).
In the New York Times Sept. 11, Keith Bradsher reports that by the end of 1998 trial lawyers “had already sued Firestone, and sometimes Ford as well, in cases involving 22 deaths and 69 serious injuries”. However, few of these cases had come to the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; until recently NHTSA had received very few complaints, and none of fatalities. In fact, Bradsher reports, trial lawyers were pursuing a conscious policy of not reporting tire incidents to the agency, apparently because of tactical concerns — if the agency learned about such cases too early and in too small a number, it might do a perfunctory investigation and miss the pattern of defectiveness, and then the lawyers would have more trouble winning their cases. This strikes us as a fairly damning indictment to be leveling against the trial lawyers — they flout the public interest in learning crucial safety information, just in order to angle for monetary advantage? Isn’t that what Firestone is accused of doing? — but Bradsher quotes Ralph Hoar, a well-known plaintiff’s-side consultant in auto-design cases who provided the numerical tabulation cited at the beginning of this paragraph, as cheerily portraying the lawyers as just doin’ their job, saying they have to concern themselves with their clients’ best interests, not anyone else’s.
Meanwhile, Ford Motor had been named in a few suits but “paid little attention, because automakers routinely face thousands of lawsuits after crashes.” In other words, the background level of litigation against a company of that size is so high that it’s hard to notice patterns that do turn out to be meaningful (Keith Bradsher, “Documents Portray Tire Debacle as a Story of Lost Opportunities”, New York Times, Sept. 11 (reg)). (DURABLE LINK)
September 15-17 — Ciresi bested in Senate bid. Michael Ciresi, the trial lawyer who sought to parlay his representation of the state of Minnesota in the tobacco litigation into a seat in the U.S. Senate, has lost the Democratic nomination to department store heir Mark Dayton by a margin of 41 to 23 percent, with other candidates dividing the rest. (Dan Bernard, “Dayton Grabs DFL Nomination”, WCCO/Channel 4000, Sept. 13; St. Paul Pioneer Press; Minneapolis Star-Tribune).
September 15-17 — Cash return sought by murder-for-hire convict. “A criminal defense attorney who paid an undercover agent $11,000 in a failed murder-for-hire plot is asking the government to return the money. Frederick Ford, 48, who is serving an eight-year prison term for planning to kill two former clients he thought could implicate him in a kidnap plot, is seeking the return of the money he admitted he gave to a U.S. Department of Labor agent last year.” (“Convicted attorney seeks return of murder-for-hire retainer”, AP/CNN, Sept. 13; Shelley Murphy, “Hit man hirer wants money back”, Boston Globe, Sept. 13).
September 14 — “I know [you] will give $100K when the president vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now.” The New York Times reports in today’s editions that Justice Department campaign finance investigators have launched a preliminary probe into documents that have surfaced from the Clinton/Gore 1996 fundraising operation, including a “call sheet” prepared for Vice President Gore regarding Beaumont, Texas lawyer Walter Umphrey, a major Democratic benefactor who shared in Texas’s $3.3 billion tobacco contingency fee and is well known to readers of this space. The sheet describes Umphrey as “closely following tort reform” and suggests asking him for $100,000 to finance Democratic Party TV commercials. The White House claims that Gore did not make the call, but two weeks later a staffer for then-Democratic National Committee chairman Donald Fowler prepared a call sheet reading as follows: “Sorry you missed the vice president. I know [sic] will give $100K whn [sic] the president vetos [sic] tort reform, but we really need it now. Please send ASAP if possible.” DNC officials propose that the “missed” might have referred to the two men not connecting at an in-person event; Fowler disclaims any memory of talking with Umphrey about campaign donations and says he would never have used the language on the call sheet. According to the Times, “Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, called the call sheet’s language ‘extraordinarily ill-advised,’ saying prosecutors would probably be investigating whether the solicitation violated either a bribery statute or a law prohibiting ‘illegal gratuities,’ a ‘gift’ given after an elected official takes a public action.”
The Washington Post reports that Umphrey says he doesn’t recall “any of that” and otherwise declines comment, while Payne was talking to the Times only through her lawyer. And attorney Michael Tigar, who represents Umphrey and the rest of the Big Five Texas tobacco lawyers, issued this small gem of legalistically worded denial: “Tying campaign contributions to legislative or executive action has never been illegal in the United States unless there is proof that the public official extorts the money by threatening to give or withhold action based on the contributions,” he said; moreover, his clients, including Mr. Umphrey, “have repeatedly been asked in many forums whether they have ever given money to a candidate or officials as a quid-pro-quo for official action, and they have repeatedly said under oath that they have never done so.” The Times account adds considerable background on the epic pace of Clinton/Gore fundraising among Texas plaintiff’s lawyers of late, including a little-reported fundraiser thrown for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate campaign by Big Five stalwart John Eddie Williams of Houston. (Don Van Natta Jr. with Richard A. Oppel Jr., “Memo Linking Political Donation and Veto Spurs Federal Inquiry”, New York Times, Sept. 14 (reg); Susan Schmidt, “1995 Documents Appear To Link Lawyer’s Contribution To Veto”, Washington Post, Sept. 14; more on Umphrey and the Big Five: Sept. 1, May 22; more on trial lawyers’ political clout). More breaking coverage (via Drudge): Time, Fox News, AP. (DURABLE LINK)
September 13-14 — “Violent media is good for kids”. Good kids, as well as bad ones, are naturally fascinated with violence, catastrophe and retribution, and letting them explore these matters in the relatively safe territory of the printed page and popular entertainment is part of the process by which they learn how to fit themselves into a frightening world, argues cartoonist Gerard Jones, in an excerpt from a book due out next year from Basic with co-author Melanie Moore (“Reality Check”, Mother Jones, June 28; Reason magazine, “The Kids Are All Right“, “Breaking Issues”; Christopher Stern, “Violent Material Marketed To Youth”, Washington Post, Aug. 27; Mike Allen and Ellen Nakashima, “Clinton, Gore Hit Hollywood Marketing”, Washington Post, Sept. 12).
September 13-14 — Gregoire’s home front. Washington state attorney general Christine Gregoire gained a high national profile jetting around the country to take a leading role in the tobacco-Medicaid affair and other big-case AG litigation, and followed up by assuming the presidency of the National Association of Attorneys General (see July 17). Now it may be time to wonder whether she was keeping enough of an eye back home on the unglamorous routine of the AG’s office, which plays a vital role in protecting the state’s legal interests. In March a Pierce County jury awarded the largest verdict ever against the state, $17.8 million, on behalf of three developmentally disabled men whose families said they were abused in a state-supported home. Gregoire’s office announced plans to appeal but, embarrassingly, proceeded to lose the state’s right to do so by missing a filing deadline. With interest, the total bill has now mounted to $18.7 million. (Eric Nalder and Mike Carter, “State won’t give up bid to appeal $17.8 million verdict”, Seattle Times, Sept. 12; Eric Nalder, “No excuse for missed appeal, court says”, Seattle Times, Aug. 22; see also update Nov. 30). The Capital Research Center has issued a new report critical of recent attorney general activism, by Ron Nehring of Americans for Tax Reform (“National Association of Attorneys General: Opening the Door to a New Era of Regulation Through Litigation”, Organization Trends (CRC), Sept.)
September 13-14 — Prescription: 24-7 monitoring. Adding to Evergreen State taxpayers’ legal woes, a Pierce County, Wash. jury Sept. 1 ordered the state government to pay $22 million to survivors of a driver killed in an auto accident by a man who was at the time serving the community-supervision portion of a sentence for third-degree assault. The verdict broke an earlier $17.8 million record for lawsuits against the state, set in March by the same plaintiff’s attorney, Jack Connelly (see above item). Gov. Gary Locke vowed to appeal the verdict, saying if upheld it could make the entire enterprise of community supervision unworkable. “This man was convicted of … third-degree assault connected with a domestic dispute,” he said. “Imposing liability for his involvement in an auto accident extends public liability too far.” A Locke aide questioned whether the state could monitor the 55,000 persons on community supervision adequately to prevent any of them from being a menace on the highway. One of the alternatives to risking failure-to-supervise liability — keeping the 55,000 locked up — would apparently be okay with lawyer Connelly, who said, “If you’re not even going to try to do your job, then don’t put these guys on community supervision. Put them in jail.” (Eli Sanders, “Family awarded $22.4 million in wrongful death lawsuit against state”, Seattle Times, Sept. 2). See also Chris Solomon, “Cities leery of new probation rules”, Seattle Times, July 11 (local governments fear being financially wiped out by Washington Supreme Court ruling allowing negligence lawsuits against municipalities over crimes committed by probationers).
September 13-14 — More bank spying? Despite strongly negative public reaction to withdrawn “Know Your Customer” regulations that would have accelerated banks’ sharing of customer “profiles” with law enforcement, legislators like Rep. James Leach (R-Iowa) are back with proposals that raise similar civil liberties concerns (Scott C. Rayder, “The Counter-Money Laundering Act: An Attack on Privacy and Civil Liberties”, Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum, Aug. 31; our take on the last round).
September 13-14 — Judges’ words, copyrighted. Officials in the California judiciary would like to revamp the instructions that judges give juries before trial deliberations, in hopes of making them clearer and more understandable, but have run into an unexpected problem. The Los Angeles County courts turn out to hold copyright in the most widely used current instructions and collect royalties when other California courts use them, which have generated $2.5 million for the county’s use over the past decade. “‘When we first began this effort three years ago, all of us just assumed that we would take [Los Angeles instructions] and improve on them,’ said Associate Justice James D. Ward of the state Court of Appeal in Riverside, vice chairman of the task force. ‘Then they announced to us that they owned them.'” The L.A. courts have held back from cooperating in the statewide revision efforts, which if successful would result in a set of instructions that courts could use for free. (Caitlin Liu, “Say What, Your Honor?”, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 7).
September 12 — Goodbye to gaming volunteers? Online multiplayer gaming has grown to be a big Internet institution in no small part because large numbers of unpaid enthusiasts join in on a volunteer basis to suggest and beta-test new features, run discussion boards and perform countless other services. “But maybe not for long. On Monday, August 28 … Origin Systems Inc. (OSI) [makers of Ultima Online, one of the leading fantasy role-playing games], announced the termination of free game account privileges for hundreds of community volunteers…. While company representatives have not said so outright, it appears the move to eliminate what amounted to a $10 a month gratuity for volunteers is related to a recent New York class action lawsuit, brought by former volunteers at America Online (AOL)” (see Sept. 7, 1999). The class action lawyers in that case are charging that because AOL benefits from the content devised by its volunteers, and has given them at least nominal compensation in the form of free services and the like, it is therefore obliged to keep track of how much time they put into volunteering and pay them at least the minimum wage. If the lawyers succeed in their efforts, online community providers could find themselves facing large retroactive wage bills. “Origin is just the first game company to move to protect itself legally by removing any perks that could be seen as differentiating its volunteers from all the other players. The major subscription-based role-playing services may soon follow suit. While the short-term effects may be limited (some volunteers may quit, but could be replaced), the long-term future of volunteer work on online releases seems doubtful all of a sudden.” (Bruce Rolston, “The End of the Smurfs?”, Adrenaline Vault, Sept. 1).
September 12 — Curious feature of lawyer’s retainer. Texas trial lawyers are in a flutter over a Waco case in which an appeals court ruled that a client family in an industrial accident case was within its rights to withdraw from a contingent-fee legal contract it had signed. The agreement the lawyer had gotten the family to sign included a curious feature: a provision entitling him to settle the case without their consent. Such a provision, the court ruled, “clearly violates” the Texas professional code for lawyers, making the entire contract voidable. The lawyer, J.W. Stringer, plans motions for rehearing and appeal. (Jenny Burg, “Opinion Has Lawyers Reviewing Contingent-Fee Contracts”, Texas Lawyer, Aug. 21).
September 12 — This little piggy got taken to court. More pig farmers are facing legal action as outlying towns change “from rural, mind-your- own-business farm communities to residential, what’s-that-smell, suburban neighborhoods,” according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer report. Five residents of Medina County, Ohio, including a truck driver and two auto mechanics, have been sent to jail this summer for refusing to clean up pig living arrangements on their properties (Stephen Hudak, “Proud Pig Man’s smelly pork farm lands him in poke”, Sept. 7) (via Romenesko’s Obscure Store) And a Marlin County, Florida pig farmer sued by an adjoining golf course has put up a website which solicits moral support and legal defense contributions, as well as purchases of the squiggle-tailed offenders (Pigfarmer.com) (more on pig litigation: Oct. 4, 1999).
September 11 — “Feeding Frenzy Over Firestone”. “Lawyers all over the country see opportunity in the escalating legal, commercial and public relations disaster for Ford and Firestone.” (Bob Van Voris and Matt Fleischer, National Law Journal, Sept. 5; Yahoo Full Coverage).
September 11 — Harassment law roundup. At an Alcoa plant in North Carolina, one of the black complainants in a race discrimination suit went out to the parking lot, made a list of all the workers’ vehicles with Confederate flag stickers on them, and filed this as evidence of “hostile racial environment” in the case. The company promptly banned employees from having such stickers on their cars, a ban it insists had absolutely nothing to do with the lawsuit (Steve Chapman, “Trouble in Mind: Is the First Amendment Void in the Workplace?” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 24). In an excerpt from his book The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America, New Republic legal correspondent Jeff Rosen urges courts to reconsider the “hostile environment” analysis that has become an accepted part of harassment law: “A jurisprudence originally designed to protect privacy and dignity is inadvertently invading privacy and dignity” (“Fall of Private Man”,New Republic, June 12; more on book). Clarence Thomas, alone among the nine Justices of the Supreme Court, wanted to tackle the “troubling First Amendment issues” raised by a court’s injunction against workers’ use of racial epithets on the job at an Avis Rent-a-Car franchise; a California court had ordered the drawing up of a list of words that employees were to be forbidden to use in conversation with each other, whether anyone present found the words objectionable or not (Tony Mauro, Freedom Forum, May 23). And early this year it was reported that an “affirmative action officer in Falmouth, Massachusetts — whose job it was to enforce the town’s sexual harassment policy — has been fired for sexually harassing a town employee. The official, Jayme Dias, was in charge of promoting and enforcing fairness in hiring and employment practices.” (Monster.com, “Week in Work”, Jan. 31).
September 11 — “Mother sues over lack of ice time for goalie son”. In Rimouski, Quebec, “Hélène Canuel is seeking $1,000 in damages from the Rimouski Minor Hockey Association because her son, David, was denied the right to play in a critical game during a hockey tournament last December.” David is 14 years old. (Arpon Basu, Montreal Gazette/National Post, Aug. 24).