ARCHIVE -- JANUARY 2003
January 10-12 --
Tobacco fees, cont'd: "Not a pretty picture". What with
our hiatus, we've been remiss in updating readers about it, but the neglected
story of how lawyers carted off billions from the 1998 tobacco heist has
been breaking into the news in increasingly noisy fashion. In November,
former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, who'd previously stonewalled
efforts to investigate the private lawyers who worked under contract with
his office, surprised observers by approaching his successor's office with
word that he has information about how at least one of those lawyers (unnamed
thus far) may have breached his fiduciary duty to the state and may be
subject to a potential forfeiture of fees. (Brenda Sapino Jeffreys,
"Former Texas AG Offers Info on Tobacco Lawyers' Conduct", Texas Lawyer,
18). The Dallas Morning News calls for the private lawyers
to stop dodging the state's efforts to put them under oath about the fee
affair, as they have been doing for years now ("Clearing the air: Abbott
should examine new tobacco claims" (editorial), Dallas Morning News,
Last month, American Lawyer published what seems to be the first
major journalistic account of one of the most secretive aspects of the
whole scandal: the unaccountable arbitration panel that has repeatedly
awarded unheard-of sums to the trial lawyers. We've covered the doings
of this panel many times
on this site, and our editor discusses its rulings at some length in his
new book The Rule of Lawyers,
but we're delighted to see a professional news organization finally devote
its resources to scrutinizing the arbitration panel's role in the fee scandal.
Reporter Susan Beck digs up a large trove of material previously unknown
to us in what the magazine terms "a behind-the-scenes account of the controversial
awards. Warning: It's not a pretty picture."
"The proceedings were private, and only the awards were made public.
According to transcripts and interviews with more than 20 participants,
the hearings were loosely run events. A labor mediator, Wells had never
conducted an arbitration. Testimony was not taken under oath. Celebrity
witnesses -- some paid, others with personal ties to the parties -- offered
testimonials in person and on professionally produced videotapes. The hearings
were punctuated with folksy aphorisms and down-home appeals to [arbitrator
John Calhoun] Wells, whose swing vote determined the outcome every time."
The whole article (and its sidebars) deserve close study. (Susan
Beck, "Trophy Fees", The American Lawyer, Dec.
2; "As Murky as a Clay Hole", Dec.
2; "And the Winners Are...", Dec.
2). And this month, the same reporter details the internecine
strife that has gone far to tear apart the firm that made off with the
greatest share of the ill-gotten gains from tobacco, Charleston, S.C.'s
Ness Motley Loadholt Richardson & Poole, as the formerly cordial partners
spar about ... well, it basically seems to come down to money. "So
maybe a couple billion dollars can't buy happiness after all." (Susan
Beck, "Jet Blues", The American Lawyer, Jan.
9). (DURABLE LINK)
January 10-12 --
China: lawyer sues over 4-minute cinema delay. Emulating
the American way of doing things, with a vengeance? "A disgruntled
cinema-goer who went to watch the hit Chinese film Hero is suing the picture
house and a movie production company because the movie started four minutes
late. Zhang Yang, a lawyer, took action after being forced to watch four
minutes of advertisements, which delayed the start of the film until 9.34pm
when his ticket said it was due to commence at 9.30pm, according to the
weekly Beijing Today." However, Zhang does not appear to have adopted
American lawyers' ideas of suitable compensation: he appears to be asking
for a mere $17, "a refund of his 40 yuan ($8.50) ticket and 40 yuan ($8.50)
in compensation." ("Chinese man sues after adverts delay movie by
four minutes", Sydney Morning Herald, Jan.
6)(& see Feb. 20). (DURABLE
January 9 -- "Drunk
Driving Victim Sues Designated Driver". New frontiers
of liability dept.: in Boulder, Colo., a lawyer for car-crash victim Doris
Gray is suing not just the drunken driver whose vehicle hit her car but
also "the driver's friend, who reportedly failed to keep her promise to
be a designated driver". Although none of the participants could
think of any earlier cases in which persons have been held liable for shirking
a designated-driver role, a former head of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association
claims the new theory is "pretty solid". (TheDenverChannel.com, Jan.
January 9 -- Playing
chicken on malpractice reform. New Jersey's Democratic
pols propose dealing with their state's medical
liability crisis by enacting a cap on insurance rates while doing nothing
to reduce the spiraling cost of judgments, settlements and defense costs.
Columnist Paul Mulshine of the Newark
Star-Ledger isn't impressed.
("MDs will fly the coop rather than play chicken", Jan.
January 9 -- "The
Lawyers Are Lurking Over S.U.V.'s". "The beginning of
a new year is a good time for predictions, so here's mine: S.U.V.'s
are next on the agenda for the plaintiff's bar. ... [Suits of this kind]
have less to do with the law or the facts than with the social climate...
Don't be surprised if some ambitious state attorneys general get into the
act, too." (Daniel Akst, New York Times, Jan.
January 7-8 --
Disabled-access suit could stop Super Bowl. "Super Bowl
XXXVII may have to move from Qualcomm Stadium unless the city expands access
for the disabled at the stadium.
Attorney Amy Vandeveld filed an application for an injunction Friday in
U.S. District Court in an attempt to get the city to comply with the terms
of a 2001 a settlement aimed at expanding access for disabled people at
the stadium." ("Super Bowl XXXVII may be blocked in San Diego", The Sports
3). In the March 2001 settlement, San Diego officials agreed
to spend more than $6.5 million in taxpayer funds to improve access to
the stadium; attorney Vandeveld "received $1.3 million in attorney fees
and other payments". Linda Woodbury, the city's disability services
coordinator, estimated that the city's overall "to-do" list of accessibility
projects would cost at least $175 million. (Caitlin Rother, "Disabled
activists threaten suit on Padres' new ballpark", SignOnSanDiego, Feb.
11, 2002). And ABC correspondent John Stossel recently devoted
a segment to lawyers' use of the ADA to extract settlements from retailers
and other defendants ("Equal Access to the 'Wild Side'", 20/20, Nov.
January 7-8 --
Trial lawyer's purchase of Alabama governor's house said to be "arm's-length".
"Wray Pearce, the Birmingham accountant who bought Gov. Don Siegelman's
Montgomery home for twice its appraised value, was acting as an intermediary
for trial lawyer Lanny Vines, who subsequently bought the house from Pearce,
according to court records filed last month in a lawsuit involving the
two men. ... The governor and his representatives have described the house
sale as an arm's-length transaction, with the governor and his wife placing
the property on the market, and a buyer coming along and paying the asking
price. ... None of the records in the court file specifically state why
Vines used his longtime accountant as an apparent straw buyer for the home.
Nor do they explain why Vines was willing to pay a sum that a county appraisal
and a Register review showed was about twice the home's value." Vines
is considered one of the most politically
influential plaintiff's lawyers in Alabama. (Eddie
Curran, "Papers show trial lawyer paid accountant for Siegelman house",
11). Also catch the editor's note at the end of the article:
"The governor's office has a stated policy of refusing to comment to Register
Reporter Eddie Curran." (DURABLE LINK)
January 7-8 --
"The Politics of Family Destruction". Scorching indictment
of the divorce industry by Howard
University professor and fathers' rights advocate Stephen Baskerville (Crisis,
And civil liberties advocates are uneasy about a developing trend in which
courts in Ohio and Wisconsin have ordered men behind in their child support
payments not to father any more children. (Dee McAree, "Deadbeat
Dads Told to Stop Having Kids", National Law Journal, Sept.
26; see Nov. 28, 2001). (DURABLE
January 3-6 --
"Courting stupidity: why smart lawyers pick dumb jurors".
If you'd like an advance peek at our editor's forthcoming bookThe
Rule of Lawyers, this is your chance: the chapter on jury excesses
is excerpted in
January's Reason. (DURABLE
January 3-6 --
"Doctors strike over malpractice costs". "More than two
dozen orthopedic, general and heart surgeons in West Virginia’s Northern
Panhandle began 30-day leaves of absence Wednesday or planned to begin
leaves in the next few days." Doctors
in Pennsylvania are also on the brink of a job action to protest the legal
system, despite a letter from a state official menacing them with having
their licenses revoked for patient "abandonment". (MSNBC, Jan.
2; Josh Goldstein, "Pa. warns doctors not to quit", Philadelphia Inquirer,
news; see Jan. 21, 2002) (DURABLE
January 3-6 --
U.K.: "Killer claims over loss of interest". "A murderer
is demanding thousands of dollars in lost interest because his prison savings
were not invested wisely." John Duggan, 53, jailed for life in 1984 after
he admitted battering his girlfriend to death, says officials of the British
Prison Service wrongfully left his money "in a zero-interest prison account
designed for spending in jail on phonecards and toiletries" and says they
had a duty to invest his earnings in an interest-bearing account.
(Melbourne Herald Sun, Dec.
January 3-6 --
"Jack Ass blasts 'Jackass'". "A Montana man who legally
changed his name to Jack Ass in 1997 (to raise awareness of the perils
of drunk driving) says Jackass, the controversial MTV stunt-fest and subsequent
film, has besmirched his sterling reputation, and ... has filed a $10 million
lawsuit against Viacom." (Julie Keller, E! Online, Jan.
2; Michael Rosenwald, "The Appellative Court: The Real Jack Ass", The
New Yorker, Jan.
6). (& letter
to the editor). (DURABLE
January 3-6 --
Milberg copyrights its complaints. The leading class-action
law firm has sent cease-and-desist letters to about ten other law firms,
informing them that they are in violation of its rights when they swipe
large amounts of language from Milberg
Weiss suits -- sometimes pretty much the entire complaint -- for purposes
of filing their own copycat lawsuits against the same defendants.
Annoyed by the free riders, star litigator Bill Lerach "started putting
copyright notices on some of his complaints, and registering those notices
with the U.S. Copyright Office last September." (Janet L. Conley,
"Milberg Weiss Tries to Nail Class Action Imitators", Fulton County
Daily Report, Nov.