If it seems like a far-out idea — suing legitimate makers of cold and allergy medications containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine because underground labs use them to make meth — be aware that it’s actually been tried, by public officials in the Midwest, often working closely with ambitious private contingency-fee lawyers. The Eighth Circuit has just rejected one such case in Ashley County v. Pfizer; Eugene Volokh and commenters discuss.
Tim Sandefur asks this only half-facetiously as he reviews mass torts. Of course, as a must-read comment letter to FASB (via the indispensable Beck/Herrmann) submitted by six pharmaceutical companies notes, “A mass tort occurs when the plaintiffs’ bar decides to invest in it.”
The Texas Review of Law & Politics has published my review of Thomas Geoghegan’s book. I differ from the favorable reviews of Adam Liptak and others:
Many books and writers have documented the problems caused by the tremendous expansion of liability in the last half century. In response, several writers on the political left have written defenses of unfettered liability or indictments of the tort reform movement, sometimes even rationalizing such infamous outliers as the McDonald’s coffee case as legitimate uses of the tort system.
The latest arrival in this genre comes from much-celebrated labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan: See You in Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation. Unlike many on his political side of the aisle, Geoghegan acknowledges that the litigation explosion has harmed America, but blames it on right-wing policies. Deregulation, deunionization, and the right’s putative dismantling of the legal system and Rule of Law, Geoghegan argues, have driven Americans to the courts by cutting off alternative routes to social justice. Geoghegan effectively demonstrates that the left should view skeptically the claims of the litigation lobby, a skepticism sadly disappearing from the political discourse as the Democratic Party more and more reflexively adopts the positions of trial-lawyer benefactors at the expense of its other constituents. But Geoghegan’s attempt to blame conservatives for the increased role of litigation in society suffers from non sequiturs, self-contradictory arguments, and a general failure to engage his opponents’ arguments fairly.
Thanks to those at Overlawyered who commented on an earlier draft and helped make the paper better by reminding me that political contributions were a revealed preference.
Blogger Rogier van Bakel is furious (via Balko (h/t Slim)) at his local SPCA because they would rather put a dog to sleep than place it with his family with small children. See, they’re worried about getting sued if the dog bites one of the children. van Bakel can’t believe it: he’s even willing to sign a waiver!
His anger is misdirected. The SPCA didn’t kill his dog; trial lawyers did. Courts’ failure to recognize the right of parties to contract out of excessive liability means that the SPCA has to protect itself against attorneys, and can only do so if they avoid situations where they might be sued. With 20/20 hindsight, the would-be John Edwards will say to a jury: “The SPCA has placed other dogs that bit small children and has been sued for it, yet they continue to place dogs with small children!”, and demand punitive damages. Between judges who won’t recognize the right of contract when it interferes with a lawyer’s paycheck, and legislative efforts to prevent parties from agreeing to contract out of the high costs of the liability system, von Bakel cannot distinguish himself from the families who would blame the SPCA if a dog-attack occurs. The offer of a waiver does not help: the SPCA can’t afford to take the risk that an adoptive family will renege on its agreement not to sue if the dog attacks a child.
Now, perhaps we as a society do not want shelters to place animals in homes with small children. Or perhaps we do. But shouldn’t that be a decision that rests with a legislature, rather than random chance and a jury? But when a jury has the power to exact uncapped damages, an SPCA has to anticipate the regulation through litigation.
van Bakel and Balko direct readers to other organizations that have not yet been saddled with a lawsuit demanding such practices, but they will surely follow in the SPCA’s footsteps when the lawyers get a hold of them. The long-term solution is to insist on elected officials who will appoint judges who respect freedom of contract, and who will pass tort reform measures that put common-sense limits on the power of courts to interfere with every-day activity. Even now in Congress is debating S. 1782, which would put further limits on the power of consumers to opt out of expensive litigation, and receive the benefits of lower costs and increased choice; while President Bush will veto such legislation, an Obama administration with a Democratic Congress would surely vote it into law.
For more on the Congressional and trial-lawyer campaign to reduce consumer choice, see the Overlawyered arbitration section.
Apologies to Mr. van Bakel for the misspelling of his name in the original version of the post.
Stan Liebowitz writes in the New York Post:
Perhaps the greatest scandal of the mortgage crisis is that it is a direct result of an intentional loosening of underwriting standards – done in the name of ending discrimination, despite warnings that it could lead to wide-scale defaults. …
In an earlier newspaper story extolling the virtues of relaxed underwriting standards, Countrywide’s chief executive bragged that, to approve minority applications that would otherwise be rejected “lenders have had to stretch the rules a bit.” He’s not bragging now.
I’m not sure I entirely agree, but it’s an element we should be considering as we look at the new complaints of “racial discrimination” through excessive sub-prime loans.
I’ll be speaking in Washington, D.C. this Wednesday and again on Friday. On Wednesday, I’ll be at the Cato Institute at noon (there’s even an audio feed) commenting on Robert Levy’s new book Shakedown. On Friday, I’ll be part of a panel discussion that starts at 1:30 at the Mayflower as part of the Federalist Society’s annual National Lawyers Convention, discussing regulation through litigation with a panel that includes Michigan Supreme Court Justice Robert Young Jr. and Northeastern Law’s Richard Daynard, among others.
Next week I’ve giving talks on Tuesday (Nov. 16) at two law schools in New York City, in both case sponsored by Federalist Society chapters. I’ll speak at Fordham in Manhattan at 12:30 and then at Brooklyn Law School at 4 p.m.