June 10-11 – New Orleans cleanup continues. “It was bad enough that New Orleans personal injury attorney Curtis Coney Jr. was illegally paying ‘runners’ to solicit accident victims, paying them $500 for each ambulance-chasing referral. When his secretary was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, Coney compounded his problems by urging her to lie about the payments, even though she was the one who usually doled them out. … In a plea agreement unveiled in federal court Wednesday, Coney, 58, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of ‘structuring’ referral payments to hide them from the state and federal governments, one count of conspiracy and one count of obstruction of justice for pressuring [the secretary] to lie. As part of the deal, lead prosecutor Irene Gonzalez recommended a 33-month jail sentence for Coney.” The lawyer’s guilty plea is among the fruits of “a 4-year federal investigation of personal injury attorneys, a quietly unfolding case that has resulted in more than 20 convictions”. Targeted along with attorneys and “runners” are “medical providers who exaggerated or falsified injury claims in order to secure lucrative insurance settlements.” (Michael Perlstein, “Lawyer guilty in referral scheme”, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 16). (DURABLE LINK)
June 10-11 – Bounty-hunting in New Jersey. The administration of Gov. Jim McGreevey has retained a flamboyant private plaintiff’s lawyer to pursue claims seeking to hold businesses legally liable for wastes left over from the state’s industrial past. Although Allen Kanner is initially donating his services for free, it is expected that he will take a contingency stake in some or many of the state’s financial recoveries. Also being hired is a politically well-connected law firm named Lynch Martin Kroll, associated with one of the state’s Democratic power brokers. Together, Kanner and the Lynch firm “are scouring state files for possible ‘natural resource damage’ claims. Such claims — little used in the state’s past — require polluters to go far beyond simple cleanups by making them pay the public for things such as lost fishing time, lost tap water, injured wildlife and soiled scenery.” (Alexander Lane, “State retains enviro-lawyer who gets polluters’ attention”, Newark Star-Ledger, May 11). More: PointOfLaw.com, Sept. 5, 2004. (DURABLE LINK)
June 10-11 – The Rule of Lawyers reviewed. In the June Commentary, Washington attorney and Findlaw columnist Barton Aronson contributes a very generous appraisal of our editor’s latest book. (DURABLE LINK)
June 9 – “Silver’s wreck”. Our editor has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Post on the impending demise of auto leasing in New York state, wrecked by the state’s archaic “vicarious liability” law whose chief defenders include the state trial lawyers’ association and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (Walter Olson, New York Post, Jun. 9). Our earlier coverage of the issue is here. More: Sept. 5, 2004. (DURABLE LINK)
June 9 – “Families of teens killed in crash after rave sue U.S. government”. “Family members of five teens who died when their car careened off a cliff after an all-night rave party have filed a suit against the U.S. government for issuing the event’s permit. ‘If you knowingly allow use of your land for a drug party and people get killed, we allege you are partially responsible,’ said Andrew Spielberger, a West Hollywood-based attorney representing the families.” (AP/Sacramento Bee, Jun. 1). (DURABLE LINK)
June 9 – The intimidation tactics of Madison County. Four business groups held a press event in Madison County, Ill., last week to unveil the latest report depicting the county’s courts as a paradise for plaintiff’s lawyers (U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “The Rogue Courts of Madison County” (PDF)). What happened next? Local plaintiff’s attorney Bradley M. Lakin promptly slapped them with a subpoena demanding that their executives testify in a would-be class action case against Ford Motor on alleged paint defects. “Subpoenas are for witnesses who know something about the case,” said Victor E. Schwartz, general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association. “In this situation, ATRA knows nothing. It is clear the subpoena power is being used to squelch ATRA from speaking out about Madison County and its inequities as one of the leading ‘judicial hellholes’ in the United States.” Last year ATRA published a report entitled “Justice for Sale: The Judges of Madison County“. (“ATRA Says Subpoena Power Should Not Be Used To Squelch First Amendment Rights”, ATRA press release, Jun. 6; Illinois Civil Justice League, which was one of the subpoenaed groups along with ATRA and the national and Illinois Chambers of Commerce, has links). Updates Jul. 12: subpoenas dropped and Jul. 26: sanctions motions dropped.
And St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan turns the spotlight on a recent Madison County class action settlement involving Sears tires: “If you have a receipt showing you purchased an AccuBalance from a Sears auto center between 1989 and 1994 and are willing to take the time to request a claims form and fill it out and send it in, you could get $2.50 for each tire, up to a total of $10. Of course, who keeps receipts from 1989? You still might be eligible for $1.25 a tire, up to a total of $5. If Sears does not have a record of your purchase, you will be eligible only for a $3 Sears coupon. Of course, there will be forms to fill out under threat of perjury. Things are a little better for the lawyers who ‘represented’ you. The settlement says that their legal fees cannot exceed $2.45 million.” McClellan is bold to tackle this subject, since when he criticized lawyers from the same class-action firm in 1999 they came after him with a lawsuit, later dropped (see Nov. 4, 1999)(Bill McClellan, “Just like your tires, wheels of justice may be out of balance”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jun. 4). (DURABLE LINK)
June 6-8 – New legal ethics weblog. David Giacalone, formerly of PrairieLaw, has started a new weblog, ethicalEsq?, specializing in “client-centered legal ethics”. He’s already posted on several issues of interest, including Common Good’s early-offers proposal (May 30 and Jun. 3), the case for requiring lawyers to disclose more fully to clients the circumstances of their representation (Jun. 3), and (citing this website) the still-unfolding battle in a New York courtroom over whether Judge Charles Ramos has authority to review and correct outrageous tobacco fees (May 31; on tobacco fees, see Daniel Wise, “Judge’s Power to Review $625M Tobacco Fee Award Challenged”, New York Law Journal, May 28). (DURABLE LINK)
June 6-8 – Claims consciousness in Utah. To promote a contemplated April Fool’s Day festival, Mayor Gerald R. Sherratt of Cedar City, Utah, published in local papers a tall tale about how wandering Vikings had left precious ancient artifacts in a local cave. Most residents seem to have gotten the joke, but various readers in the nearby town of St. George stepped forward to lay claim to the supposed treasure found in the cave, several of them saying “their ancestors had been part of the settlement and had owned some of the artifacts. …When Sherratt explained the whole story was made up to promote the festival, the St. George residents accused him and other officials of a cover-up.” (Paul Rolly and JoAnn Jacobsen-Wells, “Ad Flap Is Stranger Than Fiction”, Salt Lake Tribune, May 26). (DURABLE LINK)
June 6-8 – Hiker cuts off use of his name. Equipped to Survive, a wilderness gear site, recommended a pocket-sized emergency beacon by referring to a recent survival story that received worldwide publicity: “Your survival should not require you to amputate your own arm, as Aron Ralston was recently forced to do in order to escape being trapped by an 800-lb. boulder.” Before long the site’s proprietor received this cease and desist letter (PDF format) dated June 5 from Ralston’s lawyer demanding that the reference be removed as in violation of the hiker’s “right of publicity” under state statutes. There followed this rude reply from the website proprietor, inviting the lawyer to “stick your ridiculous cease and desist demand where the sun don’t shine”. Now cut that out, boys, there’s no reason we can’t be polite. (DURABLE LINK)
June 4-5 – Blaming murder on flat tire. A 19-year-old woman, having stopped to change a flat tire at the side of the road, is taken away and murdered by a local man. According to a lawyer for her family, the Ford Motor Co. and tiremaker Bridgestone/Firestone should be made to pay for the murder. A court dismissed the case against the two companies on grounds that they could not have found harm of this sort foreseeable enough to trigger a legal duty of care, but the family’s lawyer, Richard Rensch, is appealing to the Nebraska Supreme Court. (AP/KETV, Jun. 3; “Murder victim’s parents say flat set off tragic events”, Fremont (Neb.) Tribune, Jun. 3). (DURABLE LINK)
June 4-5 – Fox News “The Big Story”. Our editor was interviewed on screen for a piece that Fox News’s “The Big Story” is preparing on the search for deep pockets in litigation. It’s tentatively scheduled to run Wednesday, but these things are always subject to change. Update: it did run Wednesday, Jun. 4. (DURABLE LINK)
June 4-5 – Malpractice: juggling the stats. In the course of an otherwise standard feature package on the medical malpractice crisis (Daniel Eisenberg and Maggie Sieger, “The Doctor is Out”, Time, Jun. 9, and sidebars) Time gives credence to a newly issued report asserting that doctors’ malpractice premiums are actually rising fastest in states without damage caps (Jyoti Thottam, “A Chastened Insurer”, Jun. 1). Very curiously, the new report (from Weiss Ratings, “an independent insurance-rating agency in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.”) is described as compiling figures for median premiums and payouts (the numbers compared with which half of the data points are higher and half lower) rather than averages, even though this is a field where the outliers (giant awards, unusually litigious specialties) drive the debate and the dollar figures. CalPundit (Jun. 2) spots this anomaly and opines: “this is so obviously the wrong statistic to use in this case that there must be some kind of axe to grind here” (via Jonathan Adler, NR Corner).
A table laying out the (very large) differences between malpractice premiums between Los Angeles (where doctors practice under California’s MICRA damages cap) and three litigious jurisdictions elsewhere in the country (Miami, Long Island, Detroit) indicates that MICRA confers its greatest benefit by far on the most litigation-prone specialties: for example, the average savings from MICRA for a neurosurgeon is $ 145,813 and for an ob/gyn $ 88,593, but it’s only $24,599 for an internist and $15,639 for a dermatologist (“2003 Malpractice Premium Comparison“, California Physician (California Medical Association)) (PDF format)(CMA’s MICRA Resource Center). For a more reliable reading of the crisis and its relation to damage caps and the insurance market, check out the report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this spring (“Addressing the New Health Care Crisis: Reforming the Medical Litigation System to Improve the Quality of Health Care”, Mar. 3; Senate testimony by Deputy Secretary Claude A. Allen, Mar. 13).
How big an impact do the “outlier” cases have, the small number of gigantic verdicts that almost vanish from the calculation when per-case outlays are calculated as a median? Among recent examples are the $78.5-million verdict against an Orlando hospital for failing to figure out that a woman visiting its emergency room was suffering from a bizarre undiagnosed tumor; thought to be the largest medical malpractice award in Florida history, it has “become the symbol of juries run amok” in the view of critics of the system. (William R. Levesque, “Tremors still felt from whopping jury award”, St. Petersburg Times, Jun. 2). And in a result vocally criticized by appeals judges even as they felt obliged to uphold it, a Manhattan jury’s $40 million malpractice award against one of the city’s premier hospitals, New York-Presbyterian, has been blown up to $140 million by a law mandating that annual interest of 4 percent be added to awards “even if the jury has already adjusted the annual amount for inflation. Critics say that means a double adjustment for inflation in some cases, like this one.” (Richard Perez-Pena, “New York Hospitals Fearing Malpractice Crisis”, New York Times, Jun. 3). (DURABLE LINK)
June 4-5 – “Rape defendant asks $20,000; found fly in mashed potatoes”. “If convicted later this year of raping a 16-year-old girl, [Kenneth] Williams could be sentenced to 112 years to life in prison. It would be his third, and last, trip to state prison, authorities say.” What has upset Williams recently, however, is the insect impurity he says he found in his prison dinner. He “is seeking $20,000 to ease the ‘mental stress and anguish’ he said finding the fly inflicted upon him. ‘It’s been almost a month since this occurred,’ Williams wrote last week in the claim, ‘and I still only pick at my food …. I’m losing weight and am unable to eat properly.'” The sum demanded was fair, according to his complaint, since public venting of the allegations “would cost the county ‘a great deal more both financially and in bad publicity.'” (J. Harry Jones, San Diego Union-Tribune, Jun. 3). (DURABLE LINK)
June 3 – An important litigation skill. From Gail Diane Cox’s “Voir Dire” column in the National Law Journal, Nov. 4, 2002 (scroll down to “Jargon Watch”): “Blamestorming: Variant of brainstorming. Sitting around in a group discussing a mistake and how to make someone responsible for it, preferably a deep-pocket defendant. Synonym: Litigation initiation.” Maybe a session of this sort was responsible for the naming of Shell Oil as a defendant in the Rhode Island nightclub fire (see May 30-Jun. 1). (DURABLE LINK)
June 3 – “Resumé spam saddles employers”. It’s common these days for employers to receive hundreds, thousands or even milllions of resumés via email from hopeful job-seekers. Federal regulations on the books since the 1970s, however, require most larger companies to preserve records of all job applications, the most important reason being to furnish evidence in case they are someday investigated for possible discrimination. Under the strictest interpretation of the rules, companies with more than fifteen employees must keep on file any resumé sent to them — even if “the applicant misspells the company’s name, applies for a job not listed or is simply not qualified.” The result: a large and ever-growing paperwork/compliance burden on American business. (Bill Atkinson, “Resume spam saddles employers”, Baltimore Sun, May 22; Michelle Martinez, “Who Really Is An Applicant When Recruiting Online?”, PeopleClick.com, undated). See Shirleen Holt, “Résumé spam is tiring those hiring”, Seattle Times, Jan. 19; Katherine Harding, “The new scourge: Résumé spam”, GlobeTechnology.com (Globe & Mail, Canada), Jan. 8 (“Companies that advertise jobs on-line are finding their e-mail boxes crammed with irrelevant responses”, some from applicants who blast out responses to every job listed on a posting board). (DURABLE LINK)
June 2 – Updates. Further developments in cases we’ve covered:
* Citing its recent jurisprudence bringing constitutional due process limits to bear on punitive damages, the U.S. Supreme Court has instructed lower courts to reduce a $290 million award against Ford Motor in the Romo case; the case arose from a Bronco rollover in central California, and we’ve had quite a bit to say about it over the four years since it went to trial (see Oct. 24, 2002 and links from there) (David Kravets, “High Court Reduces Damages in Car Crash”, AP/Yahoo, May 19; Bob Egelko, “Key ruling on punitive damages”, San Francisco Chronicle, May 19);
* The Los Angeles Zoo has transferred Ruby, its female African elephant, to a Tennessee zoo notwithstanding a pending lawsuit (see May 16-18) complaining that the move would disrupt Ruby’s bond with her elephant “best friend”; an attorney who had gone to court seeking a temporary restraining order against splitting the two elephants complained that zoo authorities had acted “like thieves in the middle of the night”. (Carla Hall, “Despite Protests, L.A. Zoo Sends Elephant to Tennessee”, Los Angeles Times, May 27) (via SoCalLaw, May 27);
* The Supreme Court of Hawaii has reversed a jury’s award of $2 million to an auto service manager fired over what his employer considered credible charges of sexual harassment (see Mar. 10-12, 2000) (Gonsalves v. Nissan Motor Corp. in Hawaii, Ltd., Supreme Court of Hawaii, Nov. 27, 2002; see Jeffrey Harris, “Law Watch: Preventing Harassment Trumps Keeping Promises”, Hawaii Business, Feb. 20);
* In a humiliating defeat for backers of anti-gun litigation, a federal “advisory” jury in Brooklyn has refused to hold manufacturers liable for inner-city gun crime in the much-publicized case brought by the NAACP before judge Jack Weinstein. “The panel of 12 jurors issued a finding of no liability for 45 of the defendants and was unable to reach a verdict for the remaining 23 manufacturers or gun dealers”. (Mark Hamblett, “Federal Advisory Jury Declines to Find Gun Industry Liable”, New York Law Journal, May 15; Katherine Mangu-Ward, “No Smoking Gun”, WeeklyStandard.com, May 8). Update Jul. 20: judge dismisses lawsuit entirely. (DURABLE LINK)