Mark Gottlieb, executive director of the Boston-based Public Health Advocacy Institute, said a handful of groups are looking at the potential for a broad product liability lawsuit over the addictive nature of the machines. …
“There are some similarities [with tobacco],” Gottlieb says. “We are talking about a product that is engineered to make people do something that is basically destructive and causes an economic injury.”
Portland attorney Greg Kafoury says he is part of “a team of national lawyers” looking at a potential class-action suit. He wouldn’t go into detail but called it “a major, long-term project.”
Around the country, courts have thrown out suit after suit by private hospitals, health insurers and benefit funds seeking to tag tobacco companies with the cost of smokers’ illnesses. A suit on behalf of various Missouri hospitals still hasn’t flickered out and is being litigated expensively, with Richard Daynard’s Northeastern University-based Tobacco Product Liability Project doing its customary cheerleading. (Heather Ratcliffe, “Hospitals’ suit against tobacco industry is large in every dimension”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 15).
With the criminal case itself not furnishing many new developments over the past day or two, attention is turning to the question of what the “buried bodies” might be of which Tim Balducci claimed knowledge (and which prosecutors might wish him to sing about), and also to the possibly overlapping topic of Scruggs’s earlier run-ins with lawyers and other professionals over the splitting of fees. (Balducci represented Scruggs in some fee disputes, as did the Jones firm that later sued him over fees.) Also drawing much attention is the question of whether an intensified ethical searchlight will make life hot for the Mississippi political figures who’ve participated most extensively in Scruggs’s litigation campaigns over the years, namely former Attorney General Mike Moore and present AG Jim Hood.
The U.S. Chamber-backed stable of publications that includes Legal NewsLine has been digging into these topics. At the SE Texas Record, Steve Korris relates details of Scruggs’s lengthy and bitter dispute over asbestos fees with attorneys William Roberts Wilson Jr. and Alwyn Luckey, in which Scruggs was represented by John Griffin Jones. Jones’s associate Steve Funderburg in March of this year confronted Scruggs in dramatic fashion in an email over his sense of having been done out of Katrina fees:
“I have looked in the mirror all weekend and tried to figure out how I could be so stupid,” he wrote. “John and I DEFENDED you in fee dispute litigation for God’s sake.”
He wrote, “We DEFENDED you when people said you were greedy, or were a back stabber, or a liar, or anything else.”
He wrote, “You have developed a good routine. It worked. But go to your grave knowing that you have shaken my belief in everything I hold dear.”
He wrote, “I did not believe that people like you really existed. I am ashamed and will always be ashamed of having defended you and protected you.”
See also Y’All Politics for discussion.
The New York Times finally weighs in on the impending case against Big Soda (see Dec. 5). Maybe it took them longer than expected to get the spin in favor of the suit just right. Prof. Daynard’s role gets somewhat downplayed this time around, the Center for Science in the Public Interest looms larger, and the most priceless bit comes at the end:
One detail yet to be decided is whether the group will seek financial damages. Under Massachusetts’s consumer protection law, successful plaintiffs are entitled to $25 per violation, which could mean $25 for every time a student has purchased a soda in a public high school in Massachusetts over the past four years.
Mr. Gardner said he and the other lawyers realize that damages could run into the billions. “We haven’t decided about this yet,” he said. “We don’t want this to come off looking like a greedy-lawyer lawsuit.”
“Richard Daynard, a Massachusetts law professor who made his name working as a consultant on class actions against tobacco companies, is part of a broad effort by both private attorneys and nonprofit groups to sue Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and other soft drink companies for selling high-calorie drinks in schools.” (Caroline Wilbert, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 29; Caroline E. Mayer, “Lawyer coalition targets soft drink manufacturers”, Washington Post/Detroit News, Dec. 4; Todd Zywicki and vast comment section; Colossus of Rhodey). In the Boston Globe magazine, contributor Michael Blanding writes supportively of “a national legal movement to make soft drinks the next tobacco” (Oct. 30).
For more on the search for ways to blame business for our collective struggle with the waistline, see many entries in our Eat, Drink and Be Merry section. More on caffeine “addiction” theories: Aug. 18-20, 2000, Jun. 1, 2004. More on vending machine suits: Jul. 3, 2003. And as regular readers know, we’ve been covering Prof. Daynard’s activities for a long time; see Apr. 21-23, 2000 and many others.
Once again the inevitable worldwide triumph of tobacco litigation turns out to be not so inevitable after all: “In the first case of its kind in Britain, a judge rejected Margaret McTear’s attempt to sue Imperial Tobacco over the death of her husband Alf 12 years ago. … Lord Nimmo Smith, at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, said the test case failed on every count. He ruled that Mr McTear knew what he was doing and there was no proof that his cancer was caused by a particular cigarette brand.” (Auslan Cramb, “Widow fails to pin blame on tobacco company”, Daily Telegraph, Jun. 1). Ever the gracious loser, Northeastern University lawprof-advocate and interest-nondiscloser Richard Daynard called the ruling “an extraordinarily ignorant opinion”: “The UK suffers from a conservative, narrow-minded judiciary who don’t know or don’t want to know the relevant medical and social facts,” he said. (Stephen Davis, “Smokescreen”, New Statesman, Jun. 27)($).
“Where are the promised obesity lawsuits?” Evan Schaeffer asks, citing an April 18 Reuters story by Gail Appleman. (He miscredits Overlawyered with the prediction of particular timing, however; we simply quoted a Lawyers Weekly USA headline that in turn relied upon the public statements of plaintiffs’ attorneys.)
Schaeffer goes on to suggest that the several states that have enacted laws protecting the fast-food industry have wasted their time. But of course the states that bar obesity lawsuits aren’t seeing obesity lawsuits. The plaintiffs’ bar bragged about how they used the media to change the playing field for tobacco litigation, and the fast-food industry stepped forward to prevent an instant replay, and won the public debate–thus discouraging many lawyers from spearheading these actions so far ahead of public opinion, especially when state law prevented recovery. But Richard Daynard, speaking at an AEI conference on the subject last month, certainly didn’t sound like he was going to give up: “I think these cases in the long term may have viability.” And John Banzhaf complained just yesterday that a 93% downward revision by the CDC of the estimated effects of obesity was a corporate conspiracy that wouldn’t affect lawyers’ plans for future lifestyle litigation. (Joyce Howard Price, “CDC says obesity deaths overestimated”, Washington Times, Apr. 20). It’s to the credit of the plaintiffs’ bar that many recognize that the lifestyle litigators may have bitten off more than they can chew; one suspects that the true concern is that such litigation could create a backlash against the compensation culture that funds Trial Lawyers Inc.
There’s a strange disconnect in Schaeffer’s argument. He suggests that reformers are deliberately exaggerating the risk of lifestyle litigation to get legislation passed — but what would be the motivation for achieving that goal if the risk is exaggerated? If the plaintiffs’ bar is really opposed to lifestyle litigation, as Schaeffer suggests, why not score some cheap political points by supporting the legislation instead of fighting it so hard? A cynic might suggest that they’re trying to keep the door open for copycat litigation in case the pioneers find a jurisdiction that will let the claims proceed. As it is, the Pelman decision (Jan. 27) will likely cost McDonald’s shareholders millions of dollars in litigation costs.
A webcast of today’s American Enterprise Institute panel on obesity and lifestyle litigation is now on-line. I spoke at the second panel, moderated by AEI’s Michael Greve, along with activists Richard Daynard and Alison Rein, and Thomas Haynes of the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Association. Todd Zywicki moderated an earlier panel on empirical research on the causes of obesity.
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.
By a vote of 276 to 139 with most Democrats opposed, the House gave its approval to a bill that would bar lawsuits against the food industry over obesity. (Christopher Lee, “House bill bans suits blaming eateries for obesity”, Washington Post/San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 11). The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate; similar legislation is pending in many state legislatures and has passed in Louisiana. Jacob Sullum at Reason “Hit & Run” has two good commentaries on the bill. It’s “disconcerting to see Congress instructing state courts to dismiss patently absurd lawsuits. I worry that it’s not really necessary. I worry more that it is,” Sullum writes. (Mar. 9). Sullum also catches GW law prof John Banzhaf talking out of both sides of his mouth about whether obesity lawsuits have been successful (Mar. 10).
One activist quoted in the new coverage is Ben Kelley, who in cooperation with Prof. Richard Daynard has taken a prominent role in organizing conferences advising lawyers on how to sue the food industry (see Elizabeth Lee, Andrew Mollison, “Food fans weigh in”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mar. 10). It turns out that this is none other than the same Ben Kelley we covered ten years ago when we examined how litigation consultants working with trial lawyers have successfully promoted bogus media coverage of alleged auto hazards, including NBC’s famous use of hidden incendiary devices to portray GM trucks as prone to explode (Walter Olson, “It Didn’t Start With Dateline NBC”, National Review, Jun. 21, 1993.) The pro-foodmaker Center for Consumer Freedom has more on Kelley’s recent activities: see Dan Mindus, “McLawsuit Lies”, National Review, Oct. 29; “Trial Lawyers Up Demands On Food Companies”, Oct. 30; “Update: Obesity War Loses Discredited General”, Nov. 4.
MedPundit Sydney Smith thinks (Mar. 10) that the much-headlined new study purporting to find that obesity claims more lives than smoking “is, all things considered, a very weak study. Certainly too weak to be the foundation of sweeping public policy.” For more of our coverage of obesity litigation, see Aug. 11, Jun. 20, Sept. 4, Aug. 6, Jul. 21, Jul. 3, Jul. 3 again, Jul. 1, Jun. 24, and a great deal more here. More: Radley Balko dissents from the bill on federalist grounds (Mar. 11)(& letter to the editor, Mar. 18).