April 10 -- "The
love children of Flight 261". "Families of four
men killed in the crash of Alaska
Airlines Flight 261 en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, claim they are
victims of a cruel scam. Attempting to cash in on multimillion-dollar
wrongful-death lawsuits, claimants in Guatemala said the men had all secretly
fathered children in that country. The families say the lawyers representing
the phony heirs knew, or should have known, their clients' claims were
fraudulent." We covered this story (via the San Francisco Chronicle
and Aero News Network) back on
Nov. 29, but this new piece adds some
telling details: for example, two of the (genuine) survivor families say
they had to spend $200,000 to fend off the supposed Guatemalan heirs, and
they wonder why the American lawyers who represented those claimants shouldn't
be held financially accountable for
the harm their lawyering inflicted, especially since two of these lawyers
-- Robert Parks and Edgar Miller of Coral Gables, Fla., -- just happen
to have represented all four sets of supposed secret Guatemalan children
to file claims in connection with Flight 261 (Bob Van Voris, National
Law Journal, Apr. 9). (& see Aug.
April 10 -- Canada's
secret legal aid. In the United States, the Legal
Services Corporation subsidizes litigation efforts meant to push the law
in a "good" or "progressive" ideological direction, and has accordingly
long met with criticism from those of us who are not convinced that the
proposed changes in the law are always so great and wonder why everyone's
tax dollars should be handed over to one side of these debates to pursue
essentially ideological court struggles. Our neighbor
to the north has hit on a handy way to keep its aid program for "law-reform"
litigation from being as controversial as ours: it simply refuses to disclose
the recipient list (Scott Edmunds, "Recipients of Ottawa's legal aid kept
secret", Canadian Press/National Post, Feb. 26).
April 9 -- By reader
acclaim: "Clowns told to get custard pie insurance".
Clowns in Britain are "terrified to the tips of their red
noses" that unappreciative patrons will sue them over injuries from
thrown pies and water-squirting, or more hazardous acts such as those involving
fire and unicycles. Ian James, who heads the performers' trade union,
says that while none of his colleagues in the United Kingdom have yet been
sued, "we are worried now that British audiences may be becoming like American,
ready to sue anyone for anything." (Alan Hamilton, "Stop clowning
around, clowns told", The Times (UK), April
6; Reuters/Yahoo, Apr. 6).
April 9 -- Plastic
cup blamed for child's autism. A "personal injury
lawyer is threatening a lawsuit alleging a plastic drinking cup caused
a child's autism ... Dallas-based lawyer Brian R. Arnold wrote Playtex
Products, Inc. in January alleging that a toddler became seriously ill
and, eventually, 'began to exhibit autistic behavior,' after drinking from
a plastic spill-proof cup made by Playtex. Arnold claims the spill-proof
cup was designed in a defective manner that allowed bacteria and mold to
build in the cup. Alleging the bacteria caused the child's condition, Arnold
accused Playtex of negligence in
distributing a defective cup and demanded $11 million in damages."
Although the causes of autism remain unknown, "there is a network of 'experts'
who are ready, willing and able to support such a wild claim". (Steven
Milloy, "Quack Attack! The Case of the Dangerous Sippy Cup", Fox
News, Apr. 6).
April 6-8 -- "Court
upholds workers compensation for drunk, injured worker".
"A man who got drunk on a business trip and suffered severe frostbite after
passing out in very low temperatures should be entitled to worker's
compensation, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. The
court in a 4-3 decision upheld the ruling of the Wisconsin Industry Review
Commission, which said William Larsen was in northern Wisconsin expressly
for work, but it also reduced Larsen's compensation by 15 percent, since
he was injured while he was intoxicated."
("Court upholds workers compensation for drunk, injured worker", AP/Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel, Apr.
4; Jessica McBride, "Worker prevails in frostbite case", Apr.
April 6-8 -- Suing
"The Sopranos". "An Italian-American lawyers group
says it will sue the makers of HBO's 'The Sopranos' series today for offending
the 'dignity' of Italian-Americans by implying most of them are mobsters.
... [citing] Section 20 of Illinois' Constitution [which] reads in part:
'Communications that portray criminality,
depravity or lack of virtue in . . . a group of persons by reason of or
by reference to religious, racial, ethnic, national or religious affiliation
are condemned."" (Abdon M. Pallasch, "Stung by 'Sopranos'", Chicago Sun-Times,
April 5; Matt Zoller Seitz, "Advocacy group claims series runs afoul of
the law", Newark Star-Ledger, Apr.
5) (Update Sept. 21-23: judge
dismisses; Jul. 12-14, 2002: case dropped
after appellate court upholds dismissal).
April 6-8 -- Target:
Alka-Seltzer. Until November, phenylpropanolamine
(PPA) "was a ubiquitous ingredient in over-the-counter cold remedies and
diet aids found in practically everyone's medicine
cabinet," including Alka-Seltzer, Contac, Tavist-D, Robitussin, Acutrim
and many more. Now it's been withdrawn following a study suggesting
that its use may correlate with a slightly elevated (though still very
small) risk of stroke. Trial lawyers, who expect thousands of suits
to result, are vigorously advertising
for clients who suffered strokes and had previously used common over-the-counter
remedies containing PPA -- and if it isn't easy to sort out the genuine
propter hocs from a haystack of specious post hocs, well,
that's what we have jury trials for, right? (Bob Van Voris, "Plaintiffs
Rev Up New PPA Drug Lawsuits", National Law Journal, March 19; FDA
page; list of OTC
April 5 -- Selling
out the class? "Angry plaintiffs' lawyers have accused
other members of the plaintiffs' bar of colluding with H&R Block and
Beneficial National Bank to settle litigation allegedly worth more than
$1 billion for just $25 million." The underlying litigation charged
that Block violated federal truth-in-lending laws and state laws by not
adequately disclosing to its customers that it got a referral fee and other
financial benefits when they took out "Refund Anticipation Loans".
Now a group of plaintiffs' lawyers allege that with the litigation reaching
a dangerous stage in other courts, Block negotiated a quick and confidential
settlement of the class claims with
a group of Chicago plaintiffs' lawyers who cut the deal without conducting
discovery or consulting with experts. The Chicago lawyers heatedly
deny that the settlement was collusive; a federal district judge found
in their favor, rejecting the objectors' arguments and approving the settlement,
but the objectors have appealed to the Seventh Circuit. (Elizabeth
Amon, "Class Action 'Collusion' Claimed in H&R Block Appeal", National
Law Journal, Mar. 26) (see also Dec. 3).
April 5 -- "Lungren
now a paid advocate for his former foes". Former
California Attorney General Dan Lungren since leaving office has been "doing
something that has surprised detractors and admirers alike. He's being
paid to help his longtime political adversaries -- a group of plaintiffs'
attorneys. Lungren, a Republican, testified late last month that
he has earned $204,000 in 11 months as an expert witness and consultant
to the Castano group of 60 law firms. The firms are trying to win billions
of dollars in lawyer fees for their role in suing tobacco companies."
At the time, Lungren opposed having the state hire private tort firms to
sue -- "We are simply not selling tickets to a lottery for law firms,"
he said in 1997 -- but now he testifies that the lawyers' efforts were
vital. "It's further proof that the tobacco
fee awards are so astronomical that there's enough money for everybody,
even Lungren," said John Sullivan, president of the Civil
Justice Association of California, which criticizes litigation excesses.
(Bill Ainsworth, San Diego Union-Tribune, March
14 -- search on "Castano").
April 3-4 -- Patenting
the web? A small Chicago firm named TechSearch holds a
patent which it believes entitles
it to exclusive rights over some of the basic image-serving processes underlying
the World Wide Web, which means that it considers all the rest of us as
infringing on its property by publishing sites like, well, like this one.
It manufactures nothing and has no lab; instead, its business plan consists
of demanding money from companies to "license" their web use, and it has
extracted payments in the $30,000-$80,000 range from several big firms
including Walgreen and Sara Lee. It has also sued Intel Corporation
for libel and slander because an Intel spokesman told the Wall Street
Journal that it "exists solely for the purpose of purchasing patents
and extorting funds from another company." (Ian Mount, "Would You Buy a
Patent License From This Man?", eCompanyNow, April).
Critics "fault the PTO [Patent and Trademark Office] for approving 'inventions'
that are obvious, trivial or simply representative of the Internet version
of well-known business practices". (William C. Smith, "Patent this!",
ABA Journal, March). The report that Bill Gates is staking
an intellectual property claim to the numbers "0" and "1" is, however,
a parody (Microsoft Patents Ones, Zeros", The
Onion). Not a parody: the St. Louis Business Journal
purports to sell, for $5 a throw, the right to link to the articles
it has made publicly accessible on the Web (iCopyright clearance
April 3-4 -- Asbestos
claims bankrupt W. R. Grace. Another historic name
in American industry goes the way of Owens Corning, Armstrong World Industries,
GAF and many others. According to the Washington Post, "Grace's
asbestos liabilities largely
stem from commercially purchased asbestos added to some of its fire protection
products. The company said it stopped adding any asbestos to its
products in 1973. Grace to date has received more than 325,000 asbestos
personal injury claims and has paid $1.9 billion to manage and resolve
asbestos litigation. In 2000, asbestos claims against Grace increased 81
percent from 1999 with even higher increases for the first three months
of 2001." According to Grace and other defendants, most new claims
entering the system are filed by persons who have no illness or impairment
but seek financial compensation simply for having been exposed to the mineral.
"We believe that the state court system for dealing with asbestos claims
is broken, and that Grace cannot effectively defend itself against unmeritorious
claims," said company president Paul J. Norris.
As lawyers redirect claims against remaining defendants, each new bankruptcy
increases pressure on those still solvent. Leading wallboard
maker USG, which says it stopped making products containing asbestos 25
years ago, took an $850 million charge in January to cope with spiraling
liability. Three years ago Sealed Air Corporation, maker of bubble
wrap, bought a W.R. Grace subsidiary that made plastic packaging; although
that subsidiary had never been involved with asbestos, lawyers are now
going after Sealed Air on the theory that all of Grace's liabilities should
convey to it along with the business it bought. "To an indeterminate
degree, the threat of lawsuits could be driving the widening of spreads
between corporate and government bonds, says John Puchalla, a Moody’s economist."
The rising capital premium needed to overcome aversion to legal risk in
turn raises the cost of doing business in the United States, the Economist
of London points out, in a recent survey of rising American litigation
costs ("The people v. America Inc.", The Economist, March
SOURCES: Sabrina Jones, "W.R. Grace files for bankruptcy",
Washington Post, April
2; "Asbestos Litigation Costs Burden Grace", March
19; "Lawsuits Cloud Grace's Future", March
7; "Alarm Sounded Over Asbestos in Insulation", Aug.
15, 2000; Tom Shean, "USG Corp. takes $1 billion hit from asbestos
suits", Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Jan. 12. Among the many other
companies facing widening claims are auto parts maker Dana
Corp. and building materials maker Georgia-Pacific.
April 3-4 -- Trademark
litigation hall of fame. "The Detroit-based Love Your
Neighbor Corp. has sued a charity, Love Thy Neighbor Fund Inc. of Fort
Lauderdale, Fla., for trademark
infringement. ... Among the allegations is the complaint that
Love Thy Neighbor caused Love Your Neighbor to suffer 'lost sales and profits
it would have made but for these wrongful acts.' At least 40 U.S. organizations
use 'love thy neighbor' in their names." (National
Law Journal, via Progressive Review, April
2). Update: June 20 (lawyer writes menacing
letter to activist who criticized case)
April 3-4 -- "State
running background checks on new parents". Bound
to happen dept.: "A new state program intended to protect newborn babies
runs background checks on their parents to determine whether they have
a history of child abuse that resulted in termination of their parental
rights." "The whole idea here is prevention," said an official
with the state's Family Independence Agency, which certainly boasts an
Orwellian name. "We want to identify those parents who have been
abusive in the past and try to head off any possible incidents of future
abuse." (AP/Detroit Free Press, March
April 2 -- Lawyers
(and docs) block cleanup of Gotham crash fraud.
New York's wide-open climate of accident fraud (more)
results in some of the highest car insurance rates in the country.
But most ideas for doing something about it, such as stiffening penalties
for fraud ringleaders and requiring timely notice of claims to automobile
insurers so they can better investigate dubious allegations, face likely
defeat in the state Assembly in Albany, where trial lawyers are leading
donors to the Democratic majority. Nor does it help that organized
doctors join with lawyers
in resisting attempts to regulate the running up of hugely inflated bills
for post-accident therapies, which are then foisted on auto insurers.
(Steven Malanga (Manhattan Institute), "Albany's War on Drivers", New York
Post, March 29).
April 2 -- Priest
can sue church over circumstances of suspension.
A Massachusetts appeals court has reinstated several claims in a lawsuit
by a former priest who "charged he was slandered when his diocese made
public an alleged extramarital sexual relationship and subsequent suspension."
The Rev. James Hiles had sued the state's Episcopal diocese after it suspended
him following charges of sexual misconduct; a lower court judge threw out
much of his suit, citing a longstanding doctrine by which courts are supposed
to refrain from interfering in church administration. A state appeals
court, while agreeing that Hiles could not sue over his removal as such,
reinstated his action against church officials for allegedly conspiring
to vilify him, Hiles's attorney having argued that defamation is a "secular
tort" which courts should feel at liberty to address even in a context
of church administration. The case now goes back to the lower court.
(Denise Lavoie, "Court says case not just a church matter", AP/San Francisco
Chronicle (SFGate.com), Mar.
28; Michael Paulson, "A Brockton ex-rector wins part of suit against
diocese", Boston Globe, Mar. 29).