Popular commentator Andrew Bolt “was found guilty Wednesday of breaking Australian discrimination law by implying that fair-skinned Aborigines chose to identify as indigenous for profit and career advancement.” A judge “said he will prohibit reproduction of the offending articles,” and “Bolt and his publisher must meet with the plaintiffs to discuss appropriate court orders that would reflect the judgment.” [AP, earlier, Volokh](& Popehat)
In a defeat for free expression in Australia, the country’s Senate has rejected the Turnbull government’s proposal to soften elements of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which bans so-called hate speech based on race [The Guardian, ABC] Opposition to the change was led by the opposition Labor Party, whose spokesman for multicultural affairs, Tony Burke, said “Any change that results in more permission being given for racial hate speech is bad for Australia.” In 2011, an Australian federal court found commentator Andrew Bolt guilty under the law over remarks in which he is said to have implied that some fair-skinned persons of part-aboriginal descent elect to classify themselves as aboriginal for career advancement.
By coincidence — although not really so, if you see what I mean — a planned lecture tour of Australia by AEI’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a vocal critic of female genital mutilation, sharia law, and jihadism, has been called off following calls to venues and insurers threatening “trouble.” Ali, who was born Muslim but came to disagree with the religious tenets of Islam, already travels with armed guards because of the credible threat of assassination [Kay Hymowitz, City Journal]
- Boss Tweed, in legend, railing against cartoonists: “I don’t care so much what the papers write about — my constituents can’t read — but damn it, they can see pictures.” [David Boaz, Cato] “Jyllands-Posten Not Reprinting Charlie Hebdo Mohammed Cartoons Because ‘Violence Works'” [Ed Krayewski, Reason]
- “Police Scotland will thoroughly investigate any reports of offensive or criminal behaviour online and anyone found to be responsible will be robustly dealt with.” That includes TV personalities’ tweets disparaging to Glasgow [BBC, Alex Massie/Spectator, Elizabeth Nolan Brown] More: Calls mount for repeal of Australia Section 18C speech-crime law, which would ban the French magazine Charlie Hebdo if someone tried to publish it down there [Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, earlier on Andrew Bolt case]
- “Hate speech” concept got rolling when Stalin used it as weapon against democracies [Jacob Mchangama, Hoover, a while back] More on history of speechcrime: antebellum North (not just South) repressed abolitionist opinion, and how the great Macaulay erred on blasphemy law under the Raj [Sam Schulman, Weekly Standard, also a while back]
- “Campaign Finance Laws Don’t Clean Up Politics, But Do Erode Our Freedom” [George Leef, Forbes]
- In case against personal injury lawyer/legal blogger Eric Turkewitz, court rules that critical commentary about medical examiner is protected opinion [Turkewitz, Daniel Fisher/Forbes, Tim Cushing/TechDirt]
- “It is unusual for Swedish courts to hand out prison terms for art works.” [The Guardian on Dan Park case]
- Australian man arrested after loitering around campaigners of incumbent political party wearing “I’m with stupid” T-shirt [Guardian]
- “Money spent trying to spread a political message is speech, whether you like the message or not.” [Michael Kinsley on McCutcheon v. FEC, earlier]
- “Letter: Ken Avidor on Being Silenced By a Defamation Suit” [Romenesko]
- “Canada’s first Twitter harassment trial has taken a strange twist.” [Christie Blatchford, National Post]
- In union leader’s defamation suit, Philadelphia court orders anonymous commenter unmasked [CBS Philly]
- New Jersey ruling letting parents be sued over kids’ Facebook posts will chill speech [Hans Bader/CEI, earlier]
- More dispatches from Michael Mann-Mark Steyn litigation showdown [Steyn, Charles Cooke] Bonus: Steyn on Andrew Bolt case in Australia and on Nevada protests’ “First Amendment Area” (“The ‘First Amendment Area’ is supposed to be something called ‘the United States’.”)
- “True-crime author Ann Rule’s suit against Seattle Weekly tossed” [KING]
- Incoming Australian attorney general: we’ll repeal race-speech laws that were used to prosecute columnist Andrew Bolt [Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Herald-Sun, earlier]
- Texas sues EEOC on its criminal background check policy [Employee Screen]
- After Eric Turkewitz criticizes $85M announced demand in Red Bull suit, comments section turns lively [NYPIAB]
- If only Gotham’s official tourism agency acted like a tourism agency [Coyote on NYC’s official war against AirBnB; Ilya Shapiro, Cato; earlier here and here, etc.]
- “Lawmaker wants Georgia bicyclists to buy license plates” [WSB]
- Religious liberty implications of European moves to ban infant circumcision [Eugene Kontorovich]
- Video on CPSC’s quest for personal liability against agency-mocking Craig Zucker of Buckyballs fame [Reason TV, earlier]
- “People’s Rights Amendment” paves way for government control of media and trampling of many other rights. Is your Rep a sponsor? [Volokh, more, Somin]
- Indian skeptic charged with blasphemy for revealing secret behind “miracle” of weeping cross [Doctorow] “Arab world’s most famous comedian” jailed in Egypt on charges of “insulting Islam” [Volokh]
- “Is the Real Intent of Cyber-Bullying Laws to Eliminate Criticism of Politicians?” [Coyote]
- Timothy Kincaid: why I oppose the California “don’t say ex-gay” therapy-ban bill [BTB]
- More on unreasonable IRS demands of tea party groups seeking nonprofit status [Stoll, Anne Sorock/Bill Jacobson, Houston Chronicle, earlier]
- Denmark Supreme Court, 7-0, strikes down conviction of Lars Hedegaard for criticizing Islam in own home [Mark Steyn] Institute of Public Affairs launches campaign to defend free speech in Australia [Andrew Bolt case earlier] Free speech in Britain looking the worse for wear [Cooke, NRO] Belgian court throws out lawsuit seeking ban on allegedly racist “Tintin” comic book [Volokh] Group files criminal complaint against Swiss magazine over cover story on Roma crime [Spiegel]
- Lack of defect poses problem for plaintiff: Toyota prevails in first acceleration case [NLJ]
- Australia: writer Andrew Bolt on trial for alleged racially disparaging columns [Herald Sun, Crikey, The Age]
- “Attorneys Put Themselves Before Consumers in Class Action over Faulty Computer Chip” [CJAC, Frank/CCAF on NVidia case]
- Ruling by Federal Circuit is thinning out rush of patent marking cases [Qualters, NLJ, earlier]
- Podcast: Lester Brickman and “Lawyer Barons” [PoL, earlier here and here]
- “Are class actions unconstitutional?” [Lahav, Mass Tort Lit, on Martin Redish book]
- “Free speech belongs on campuses too” [Ilya Shapiro, Cato, on Widener case, with kind mention of Schools for Misrule]
- King Canute turns attention to dry land: states mull bills to forbid use of distressed properties as appraisal comps [Funnell]
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)
June 20-22 — Fast food: give me my million. From an interview aired in Australia with the plaintiff in the McDonald’s obesity lawsuit:
CAESAR BARBER: I’m saying that McDonald’s affected my health. Yes, I am saying that.
RICHARD CARLETON: So what do you want in return?
CAESAR BARBER: I want compensation for pain and suffering.
RICHARD CARLETON: But how much money do you want?
CAESAR BARBER: I don’t know … maybe $1 million. That’s not a lot of money now.
(Richard Carleton, “Food fight”, 60 Minutes (Australia), Sept. 25, 2002). Only three years ago the possibility of suits blaming food companies for obesity furnished The Onion with material for humor (Aug. 3, 2000). “The parody has become reality.” (James Glassman, “From parody to reality”, TechCentralStation, May 21; Michael I. Krauss, “Today’s Tort Suits Are Stranger Than Fiction”, Virginia Viewpoint (Virginia Institute), May). A House panel heard testimony yesterday on a bill that would stop such lawsuits in their tracks (Maggie Fox, “Is It Your Fault I’m Fat? Congress Hears Debate”, Reuters, Jun. 19; Bruce Horovitz, “Fast-food restaurants told to warn of addiction”, USA Today, Jun. 17). A CNBC poll, with 2000 votes as of midnight Friday morning, was running 92 to 8 percent against holding fast-food restaurants responsible for expanding waistlines. (DURABLE LINK)
June 20-22 — Investors’ Business Daily interviews our editor. Now at a stable URL, last Friday’s interview mostly concentrated on our editor’s new book The Rule of Lawyers (David Isaac (interviewer), “Frivolous Lawsuits Creating New Power Class — Lawyers”, Jun. 13, reprinted at Manhattan Institute site). (DURABLE LINK)
June 20-22 — Batch of reader letters. Special all-critical edition — nothing but letters taking issue with us. Topics include the MTV “Jack Ass” suit, Ann Arbor substitute teachers, the ADA, high verdicts as an inspiration to young lawyers, and medical malpractice. (DURABLE LINK)
June 18-19 — Keep playing in our conference or we’ll sue you. Five schools in the Big East football conference — Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Rutgers and Connecticut — have filed suit to stop Miami and Boston College from departing for the Atlantic Coast Conference. (Eddie Pells, “Big East accuses Miami, BC and ACC of conspiracy”, AP/Kansas City Star, Jun. 6; Sam Eifling, “Requiem for the Big East”, Slate, Jun. 12; Steve Wieberg, “Conference changes becoming more hostile than ever”, USA Today, Jun. 15). Politicians have gotten into the act in support of the suit, including (inevitably) Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal as well as the state’s Gov. John Rowland (Andy Katz, “ACC lawyer: Lawsuit will not distract from expansion”, ESPN, Jun. 12). Virginia AG Jerry Kilgore, too (“Virginia Tech, the Big East and the ACC”, Roanoke Times, Jun. 17; see S.W.Va. Law Blog, Jun. 17). S.M.Oliva comments (Initium, Jun. 6) (via Dan Lewis). (DURABLE LINK)
June 18-19 — A judge bans a book. “A tax protester may not sell his book that contends paying income tax is voluntary, a federal judge ruled Monday. U.S. District Judge Lloyd D. George wrote in an order banning the book that Irwin Schiff is not protected by the First Amendment because he has encouraged people not to pay taxes. ‘There is no protection … for speech or advocacy that is directed toward producing imminent lawless action,’ George wrote in support of the preliminary injunction on the book, ‘The Federal Mafia: How It Illegally Imposes and Unlawfully Collects Income Taxes.'” (“Federal judge in Las Vegas bans anti-tax book”, Reno Gazette-Journal, Jun. 16). (DURABLE LINK)
June 18-19 — Texas’s giant legal reform. With the support of Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas legislature this month passed what looks to us to be the most serious and comprehensive package of litigation reforms achieved at one stroke anywhere in recent memory. Among other features, it: adopts an offer-of-settlement-driven variant of loser-pays; reforms class action certification and requires that lawyers’ fees be paid in coupon form to the extent that class relief is provided that way; tightens forum non conveniens safeguards against court-shopping; protects defendants from having to pay damages attributable to other responsible parties’ fault; establishes innocent-retailer and regulatory-compliance defenses in product liability law, along with a 15-year statute of repose; curbs artificially high interest on judgments; limits appeals bonds; restrains medical liability in a long list of ways including a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages; and much more. (“Ten-gallon tort reform” (editorial), Wall Street Journal, Jun. 6, reprinted at Texans for Lawsuit Reform site; summary of legislation at same site; John Williams, “Proponents cheer tort reform”, Houston Chronicle, Jun. 11). (DURABLE LINK)
June 18-19 — Around the blogs. Virginia Postrel (Jun. 5) has some comments from civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate criticizing 18 U.S.C. sec. 1001, which the feds are using to go after Martha Stewart. This law makes it unlawful to lie to a federal agent — even if you’re not under oath, and even though the agents may be free to lie to you. See also the comment from reader James Ingram. Mickey Kaus (Jun. 16) echoes speculation by “some media lawyers” quoted in the Washington Post (James V. Grimaldi, “Blair Analogy Reaches Courtroom Far From N.Y.”, Jun. 16) that the New York Times may have forced out top executives Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd in part because if it hadn’t done so, defamation plaintiffs might have been able to use its forbearance “to devastating effect” in future litigation. And MedPundit catches up at some length (Jun. 3) on the controversy over thimerosal, the mercury-containing vaccine preservative which has given rise to bitter litigation and legislative battles. (DURABLE LINK)
June 16-17 — Probate’s misplaced trust. Washington Post investigation into guardianship in the D.C. courts finds that the D.C. Superior Court’s probate division, “mandated to care for more than 2,000 elderly, mentally ill and mentally retarded residents, has repeatedly allowed its charges to be forgotten and victimized …. Chaotic record-keeping, lax oversight and low expectations in this division of the court have created a culture in which guardians are rarely held accountable. They are often handed new work even when they have ignored their charges or let them languish in unsafe conditions.” The Post “found hundreds of cases where court-appointed protectors violated court requirements. Since 1995, one of five guardians has gone years without reporting to the court. Some have not visited their ailing charges. In more than two dozen cases, guardians or conservators have taken or mishandled money. Neglectful caretakers are rarely disciplined, D.C. bar records show. Even when they have been caught stealing or cheating clients, attorneys can go as long as nine years before they are punished.”
Why have the courts gone on giving new work to lawyers charged with misconduct or incompetence in earlier cases? “[Senior Judge Eugene] Hamilton said he would hesitate to ban lawyers from future appointments simply because they’ve been removed from a case. ‘You have to be careful about barring someone from cases, said Hamilton, who oversaw the probate division from 1991 until 1993. ‘It may be the person’s only source of practice.'” (Carol D. Leonnig, Lena H. Sun and Sarah Cohen, “Under Court, Vulnerable Became Victims”, Washington Post, Jun. 15) (via David Bernstein)(& see Ethical Esq.). More: Second part of article: Sarah Cohen, Carol D. Leonnig and April Witt, “Rights and Funds Can Evaporate Quickly”, Jun. 16). (DURABLE LINK)
June 16-17 — He’s gotta have it. A Manhattan judge has granted a temporary injunction sought by filmmaker Spike Lee against the launch of Spike TV, a cable channel aiming to provide television programming of interest to men. (Samuel Maull, “Spike Lee wins temporary injunction”, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, Jun. 12). However, “State Supreme Court Justice Walter Tolub ordered Lee to post a $500,000 bond to cover Viacom’s losses in case the company wins.” (“Spike Lee outmans Spike TV”, Newsday, Jun. 13; Mark Perry, “Spike Lee Gains Upper Hand In Legal Battle With TNN”, Impact Wrestling, Jun. 13). At FindLaw, columnist Julie Hilden (“Spike Lee v. Spike TV”, Jun. 9) is nondismissive about Lee’s case, while conceding it raises questions about whether other well-known persons with the same nickname, such as director Spike Jonze, could also sue. Sentiment in the blog world, on the other hand, seems to be running heavily against Lee (né Shelton). Examples: Catbird.org, Idler Yet, Horrors of an Easily Distracted Mind, Doedermara.net, LedUntitled. (DURABLE LINK)
June 16-17 — A tangled Mississippi web. “A web of connections exists between the judges, lawyers, politicians and investigators involved in a Mississippi judicial-corruption probe, raising questions about the fairness and thoroughness of the investigation and about possible conflicts of interest.” Among prominent figures in the probe are “[plaintiff’s attorney Dickie] Scruggs as a cooperating witness and [state Attorney General Michael] Moore as a co-investigator of some sort. And their friendship has raised eyebrows, most recently after The Sun Herald witnessed Moore giving Scruggs a lift to the courthouse before Scruggs testified before the grand jury. … Scruggs has said he does not have an immunity agreement with prosecutors and that he doesn’t need one.” A federal grand jury is expected to reconvene next month to consider the allegations. (Margaret Baker, Tom Wilemon and Beth Musgrave, “Web of connections”, Biloxi (Miss.) Sun-Herald, Jun. 8)(see May 7 and links from there).
MORE ON INVESTIGATION: Thomas B. Edsall, “Mississippi Trial Lawyers Under Inquiry”, Washington Post, May 18; “FBI agent reassigned after questioning ties in judge-attorney probe”, AP/Grenada (Miss.) Star, May 29; Tom Wilemon, Margaret Baker and Beth Musgrave, “Lott, Moore deny influencing probe”, Biloxi Sun Herald/San Jose Mercury News, May 30; “Moore says he has no role in judges probe”, AP/Jackson Clarion Ledger, May 30; “Paper: Lott, judge probers talked”, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Jun. 3. (DURABLE LINK)
June 16-17 — “The rise of the fourth branch”. Our editor’s book The Rule of Lawyers is reviewed in Enter Stage Right by ESR editor Steven Martinovich (Jun. 9). And on Friday Investor’s Business Daily published correspondent David Isaac’s interview with our editor; when we get a stable URL, we’ll post it. (DURABLE LINK)
June 16-17 — “McDonald’s sues food critic”. “McDonald’s has sued one of Italy’s top food critics for raking its restaurants over the coals, but the critic says he has no intention of going back on saying its burgers taste of rubber and its fries of cardboard.” McDonald’s of Italy called the comments by Edoardo Raspelli, food critic of the newspaper La Stampa, “clearly defamatory and offensive”. (Reuters/CNN, Jun. 2; BBC, May 30; Guardian (UK), Jun. 4; “McDonald’s Turns to the Dark Side”, Center for Individual Freedom, Jun. 12). David Farrer at Freedom and Whisky suggests a better approach the company might take (“Shooting themselves in the foot”, May 31). (DURABLE LINK)
June 12-15 — Docs leaving their hometowns. As liability woes worsen, this genre of article is running in papers across the country. Philadelphia, of course: Michael Hinkelman, “Like older docs, young M.D.s fleeing Pa., too”, Philadelphia Daily News, May 28. An example from Corpus Christi, Tex.: Robert M. (Marty) Reynolds, “Why this doctor is leaving his hometown”, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Apr. 23, reprinted at Texans for Lawsuit Reform site. From Independence, Mo., best known as Harry Truman’s hometown: M. Steele Brown, “Malpractice ‘crisis’ drives docs from Missouri”, Kansas City Business Journal, May 2. And neurosurgery in Seattle faces a crisis as ten local surgeons lose their coverage, forcing hospitals to send patients elsewhere; the ten say they have good records but the chief operating officer of the Doctor’s Company, an insurance provider, “said about half of all neurosurgeons nationwide are sued each year”, which makes it plain enough that plenty of good ones get sued. (Carol M. Ostrom, “A neurosurgeon ‘crisis’: Insurer drops doctors’ group”, Seattle Times, Jun. 7). Meanwhile, the incoming head of the American Bar Association, North Carolinian Alfred P. Carlton Jr., a partner with Kilpatrick Stockton LLP, claims in an interview with The Hill — no fair laughing aloud, now — that “I don’t think there’s any credible evidence that connects anything going on in the justice system to the rise of malpractice insurance rates. My malpractice rates are going up. Everybody’s insurance rates are going up, for all kinds of insurance.” Now there’s a checkable proposition: have insurance rates for life, health, fire, storm, crop and marine risks jumped by 60 or 80 percent on renewal in the past couple of years, the way so many doctors’ liability rates have? (“‘There are abuses at the edges'” (interview), The Hill, Jun. 11). (DURABLE LINK)
June 12-15 — U.K. roundup. “George Blake, the KGB spy who fled to Moscow in 1966, has accused the Government of breaching his human rights by confiscating £90,000 he was expecting to make from his memoirs.” Blake, who escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison after serving five years of a 42-year sentence for highly damaging work as a Soviet double agent, has petitioned the European Court of Human Rights for the right to the money from the autobiography. (Joshua Rozenberg, “Spy Blake tries to sue Britain for his lost £90,000”, Daily Telegraph, May 16). “Meet Britain’s most prolific race discrimination litigant. Omorotu Francis Ayovuare, a Nigerian-born surveyor, may not have held a steady job for five years: he has, however, earned a certain celebrity in the world of industrial relations after launching 72 employment tribunal cases alleging racial discrimination.” (Adam Lusher and David Bamber, “Give me a job – or I’ll sue”, Daily Telegraph, Jun. 8). (Update Dec. 13: at request of attorney general, court restrains him from further filings). “The Scottish Parliament, fresh from outlawing hunting with dogs, is to force fish-lovers to buy pet licences for exotic species in their garden ponds and aquaria. … Anyone who owns exotic fish without a licence will face fines of up to £2,500.” (Rajeev Syal, “Have you got a licence for that exotic minnow?”, Daily Telegraph, Apr. 6). Enthusiasm about lawsuits to recoup costs of global warming has reached Britain, although as one Oxford physicist told the BBC, “Some of it might be down to things you’d have trouble suing — like the Sun”. (“Suing over climate change”, BBC, Apr. 3). (DURABLE LINK)
June 12-15 — To tame Madison County, pass the Class Action Fairness Act. By ensuring that large nationwide class actions are heard in federal court, the bill would curb the influence of “magic jurisdictions” in which “the judiciary is elected with verdict money”, as one big-league trial lawyer has put it. (Jim Copland, “The tort tax”, Wall Street Journal, Jun. 11; Mr. Copland is associated with the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy, as is this site’s editor.). The Madison County, Ill. courthouse “is on pace to have another record year for class-action lawsuits”, reports a local newspaper. (Brian Brueggemann, “Number of lawsuits is 39 and climbing”, Belleville News-Democrat, May 26). Two plaintiff’s law firms, St. Louis-based Carr Korein Tillery and the Wood River, Ill.-based Lakin Law Firm, dominate the filing of class actions in the county (Andrew Harris, “At the head of the class actions”, National Law Journal, Jun. 9). And Madison County personal injury lawyer John Simmons, 35, of Edwardsville, whose law firm in March obtained a $250 million jury verdict for a retired steelworker in an asbestos case against U.S. Steel, “has announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald”. (“Downstate lawyer to enter Democratic primary”, AP/Northwest Indiana Times, May 27). (DURABLE LINK)
June 24 — Next: Mercedes sues Merced, Calif. The Volo Antique Auto Museum and Mall in Volo, Ill. (population 200) exhibits and vintage and historic automobiles and runs a website Volocars.com. Now the Volvo division of Ford Motor has failed in a bid before the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva to take away the museum’s right to the volocars.com domain. (Dan Rozek, “Volo car museum nets a win in Volvo Web fight”, Chicago Sun-Times, Jun. 20; Declan McCullagh’s Politech, Jun. 11 and Jun. 10; TechDirt, Jun. 20). (DURABLE LINK)
June 24 — Engle: a $710-million loose end. Assuming the $145 billion punitive damages verdict in the Florida tobacco class action is not revived by the state’s supreme court, one major loose end remains, but it’s a really big one. Three tobacco companies agreed to fork over $710 million in exchange for class counsel’s agreeing “not to challenge a new state law, passed at the behest of the cigarette makers, capping appeals bonds at $100 million.” The enormous sum was placed in escrow for the class, but now the class does not exist since it’s been decertified. Does the class somehow get reconstituted for purposes of dividing the booty? Does it go back to the defendants? To some worthy cause? And how much of it, if any, are plaintiff’s lawyers Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt going to be allowed to grab for themselves? The agreement between the Rosenblatts and the three companies says nothing about decertification. (Matthew Haggman, “The $710 Million Question”, Miami Daily Business Review, Jun. 19). (DURABLE LINK)
June 23 — Lightning bolt in amusement park’s parking lot. Cincinnati attorney Drake Ebner admits cynics will think he’s suing the Kings Island amusement park — in whose parking lot his client was struck by lightning — just because it’s a deep pocket. “But they should hold the park accountable, for not telling his client and thousands of others about an impending lightning storm, Edner said Monday. ‘They could have told the people not to go to their cars, which are large metal objects that can attract lightning.'” (Kimball Perry, “Family sues Kings Island”, Cincinnati Post, Jun. 17). (DURABLE LINK)
June 23 — Misguided search for a sanitized jury. The “legal defense team for Lee Boyd Malvo, the young suspect in last fall’s Washington-area sniper attacks, is seeking a change of venue from Fairfax County. It contends that all potential jurors in the county were victims of the terror spread by the sniper attacks and that jurors contaminated by news coverage make a fair trial impossible. … But impartiality only means without bias. It does not mean without knowledge. The courts have long recognized that jurors can set aside what they might know about a case, and that it’s preferable to have jurors who are tuned into the world around them than ones who are hermits.” (Charles H. Whitebread, “Jurors Must Be Impartial. They Shouldn’t Be Clueless”, Washington Post, Jun. 22). (DURABLE LINK)
June 23 — Mold — to the highest bidder! “Did you hear the one about the guy with the Park Avenue apartment full of toxic mold? He couldn’t find anyone to buy the place for $15.5 million, so he jacked up the asking price last week to $18 million. … At 515 Park Avenue, real-estate developer Richard Kramer would have you believe that recently, his apartment went up in value by $2.5 million even as he and the condominium’s board of managers continue to fight multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the building’s developers and sponsors, in which they allege that the 43-story tower is plagued with a mold infestation and major construction deficiencies.” (Blair Golson, “Toxic-Mold Gold: Shoddy High Rises Sold With Flaws”, New York Observer, Jun. 23 (temporary URL — after it expires, try search function)) (DURABLE LINK)
June 10 — Advertisement for “friendly” employee deemed discriminatory. In Bolton, England, a government job listing center has refused to accept an advertisement asking for a “friendly” applicant to manage a travel agency’s staff cafe. The travel agency’s manager said “we were told, ‘It’s discriminatory because some people may perceive that they are friendly even if you don’t’.” A spokeswoman for the government bureau that runs the job center service acknowledged that “somebody’s been a little over-zealous,” but also said: “We’ve got to be very careful when we get adverts so we don’t discriminate against anybody.” (“Jobcentre comes under ‘friendly’ fire”, BBC, Jun. 7). (DURABLE LINK)
June 10 — Profiling: a Democrat outflanks Ashcroft. On CNN last week, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein spoke frankly of the need for some measure of ethnic profiling in both air passenger security and intelligence gathering — a position that places her considerably to the right of Attorney General John Ashcroft and his colleagues in the Bush Administration, who continue to deny any such need. (Chris Weinkopf, “Sanity, not bigotry, calls for profiling”, L.A. Daily News, Jun. 9). (DURABLE LINK)
June 10 — Sin-suit city. In Las Vegas, ripples continue from the word that some lawyers and activists are eyeing the hometown industry as their nominee for Next Tobacco (“Organization: Casinos could be sued”, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jun. 6; see May 31, May 20-21). And on the food-suit front, a major British newspaper, the Independent, has claimed that corporate machinations make healthful and low-calorie foods simply unavailable to Middle Americans, an assertion that columnist Jacob Sullum calls “such an audacious misrepresentation that I don’t know whether to refute it or simply stand in awe.” (Andrew Gumbel, “Fast Food Nation: An appetite for litigation”, The Independent, Jun. 4 (profile of anti-tobacco and anti-food industry law prof John Banzhaf)(alternate site); Jacob Sullum, “Big fat lie”, Reason Online, Jun. 7). (DURABLE LINK)
June 7-9 — “Tough tobacco laws may not deter kids”. Now they tell us dept.: “Stopping kids from buying cigarettes has become a centerpiece of anti-smoking campaigns, but a new study finds that cracking down on merchants doesn’t prevent underage smoking.” (Jim Ritter, Chicago Sun-Times, Jun. 3; Caroline M. Fichtenberg and Stanton A. Glantz, “Youth Access Interventions Do Not Affect Youth Smoking”, Pediatrics, Jun.) (via MedPundit, Jun. 5)(see Sept. 16, 1999). (DURABLE LINK)
June 7-9 — “Legal Fight Over Chemical Leak Ends With Whimper”. “Attorneys who won $38.8 million in West Virginia’s first class action toxic tort case have agreed to settle for a fraction of that amount after a federal appeals court ruled their original victory was based on the testimony of a witness who did not know what he was talking about.” FMC Corp. will instead pay only $1.35 million, which “will cover about $500,000 in litigation expenses but nothing for fees”, according to the plaintiff’s counsel, attorney/author and former state chief justice Richard Neely. (Peter Page, National Law Journal, Jun. 4). (DURABLE LINK)
June 7-9 — Helmets for roller skaters. First it was motorcycles, then bicycles, and now the anti-fun brigade, in the form of the California state senate, has voted to extend mandatory helmet-wearing to riders of skateboards, non-motorized scooters and even roller skates. (“Senate OKs helmet law for skateboarders”, AP/Contra Costa Times, May 17). (DURABLE LINK)
June 6 — Airlines sued over alleged profiling. “Washington is in its third week of self-flagellation over why the U.S. government couldn’t prevent the Sept. 11 hijackers from commandeering four planes and slamming them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Meanwhile, with no sense of irony, the ACLU, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and some other groups are launching five separate lawsuits over cases of men being removed from airplanes. The ACLU is party to three of the suits.” (Jonah Goldberg, “Flying While Arab”, National Review Online, Jun. 5). The men were removed from planes or denied boarding in various incidents late last year after airline employees or co-passengers deemed them suspicious in behavior or appearance. “The airlines named in the suits are American, Continental, Northwest and United. Most of the companies responded strongly to the suits yesterday, denying allegations of prejudice.” (“Lawsuits Accuse 4 Airlines of Bias”, Washington Post, Jun. 5; Niala Boodhoo, “Rights Groups Hit Airlines with Post-Sept. 11 Suits”, Reuters/ Yahoo, Jun. 4).
Many opponents of passenger profiling (including, frequently, officials within the Bush administration) act as if it were flatly impermissible to apply even the slightest bit more scrutiny to young male Arab fliers with Muslim first names than to elderly Dutch nuns — a position that at least has the merit of bright-line clarity and consistency, however suicidal it could prove in practice. Curiously, the lawyers filing the latest suits seem to be taking pains to stake out a critique of profiling that is less absolutist and makes more concessions to the threats made manifest last Sept. 11. Thus Reginald Shuford, an ACLU lawyer based in New York, says his clients are resigned to a “higher level of scrutiny when they fly, more security checks” but suggests that further extra scrutiny becomes intolerable once fliers have “cleared all security checks [and are] sitting on the airplane”. (Why? He doesn’t say.) Even Ibish Hussein, of the American- Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee, acknowledges that it’s “a tricky situation” and says of refusals to fly passengers: “It’s understandable, but it’s not acceptable.” (Alexandra Marks, “New lawsuits aim to curb racism aboard airplanes”, Christian Science Monitor, Jun. 5). Despite this concessionary- sounding language, with its seeming recognition of the unavoidability of judgment calls and gray areas, at least three of the suits ask for the airlines to be subjected to punitive damages. See also Eugene Volokh, Volokh Conspiracy weblog, Jun. 4. (DURABLE LINK)
June 6 — Alexa “Editor’s Pick”. The editors of indexing service Alexa have selected various sites in the category of “Legal Reform”, with you-know-who leading the pack (June 5). This site’s front page clocks in at #94,327 in Alexa’s traffic ratings, a little ahead of Virginia Postrel (#103,177) and nipping at the heels of Matt Welch (#90,063) and Mickey Kaus (#78,754) — though we have no idea how reliable all these numbers are. Update: not very reliable at all, says Glenn Reynolds (Jun. 6) (DURABLE LINK)
June 5 — “Remove child before folding”. “Americans are not losing their minds, but they are afraid of using their minds. They are afraid to exercise judgment — afraid of being sued.” Not-to-be-missed George Will column ties together overprotective playgrounds, fear-of-asbestos verdicts, demoralized obstetricians and public employee tenure and tips the hat to author Philip Howard’s new organization Common Good, which intends to call public attention to legal excess on a regular basis (Washington Post, June 2). In April, Common Good released the results of its first study, in association with the AEI-Brookings Joint Center, on defensive medicine: “Concerns about liability are influencing medical decision-making on many levels. From the increased ordering of tests, medications, referrals, and procedures to increased paperwork and reluctance to offer off-duty medical assistance, the impact of the fear of litigation is far-reaching and profound.” (“The Fear of Litigation Study: The Impact on Medicine”, AEI-Brookings Joint Center Related Publication, April (abstract), (full text, PDF format) (DURABLE LINK)
June 3-4 — Australian party calls for banning smoking while driving. The Australian Democrats, a small but non-fringe political grouping, have called for a ban on smoking cigarettes while driving. “If using mobile phones is illegal, so should cigarette smoking in cars because of its capacity to distract drivers,” said party official Sandra Kanck in a statement. “Ms. Kanck called for legislation to also ban smoking cigarettes in vehicles transporting children. ‘Parents and other adults shouldn’t subject young people to the carcinogenic dangers of side-stream smoke in cars, yet it is common to see this happening,’ she said.” (“Democrats call to ban smoking while driving”, AAP/West Australian, May 31; see Oct. 5, 2001, Dec. 29, 1999). And although anti-tobacco campaigners are crowing about a recent court verdict in Australia against British American Tobacco, blogger “Max Power” (May 23) suggests the verdict may reflect one judge’s idiosyncratic view of company document retention obligations. (DURABLE LINK)
June 3-4 — Penthouse sued on behalf of disappointed Kournikova-oglers. Dignity of the law dept.: The skin mag has already paid to settle the legal claim of a woman whose topless images it mistakenly ran as those of Anna Kournikova, and “now Miami, Florida lawyer Reed Stomberg has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of himself and every other male who purchased the June issue. Stomberg explains, ‘The sole reason I paid the $8.99 was for the alleged Anna pictorial. I bought it for a friend of mine, not to say I didn’t take a quick peek at the pictures.'” (IMDB People News, May 30) (& welcome WSJ Best of the Web readers). (DURABLE LINK)
June 3-4 — Sue foodmakers for obesity? Of course! In response to its publication (see May 27) of an article critically examining the push for class actions against purveyors of calorie-laden foodstuffs, Salon draws a big sack of mail from its readers, including a couple of amusingly hysterical attacks on author Megan McArdle (May 31). (DURABLE LINK)
June 3-4 — “Top Ten New Copyright Crimes”. Satire making the rounds on what could soon land you in trouble if ideas of creators’ rights continue to proliferate: “10. Watching PBS without making a donation … 9. Changing radio stations in the car when a commercial comes on. … 7. Getting into a movie after the previews, but just in time for the main feature. … 5. Inviting friends over to watch pay-per-view.” (Ernest Miller, LawMeme, May 2 & May 8). (DURABLE LINK)
June 3-4 — Sick in Mississippi? Keep driving. Malpractice-suit crisis, cont’d: “You are driving through Mississippi and you develop a serious pain in your side. What do you do? If you are smart, you keep on driving until you reach the border.” (Dick Boland, “Sue your way to the morgue”, Washington Times, May 25; see Apr. 5) Evidence that he may not entirely be joking: Ed Cullen, “Natchez doctors eye Vidalia”, Baton Rouge Advocate, May 19 (doctors in Natchez, Miss. consider transferring practices to Vidalia, La., across the river). (DURABLE LINK)
June 19-20 — Supreme Court clarifies ADA. This term the Supreme Court handed down four decisions interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act, in each case rejecting expansive readings of the law. Our editor analyzed the three employment cases in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (Walter Olson, “Supreme Court Rescues ADA From Its Zealots,” Wall Street Journal, Jun. 18 (online subscribers only)). See also David J. Reis and Dipanwita Deb Amar, “U.S. Supreme Court in ‘Echazabal’ Puts Federal, State Disability Laws in Line”, The Recorder, Jun. 17) (even California employment law, nearly always more favorable for employees than its federal counterpart, acknowledges that employees may refuse to employ disabled workers in jobs that endanger their safety). (DURABLE LINK)
June 19-20 — Judicializing politics (cont’d). Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), active in the 1998 battle over impeachment of then-Pres. Clinton, “has filed suit in a Washington federal court against the former president, Clinton loyalist James Carville and politically active pornographer Larry Flynt seeking compensatory damages ‘in excess of $30 million’ for ‘loss of reputation and emotional distress’ and ‘injury in his person and property’ allegedly caused by these three — who Barr claims conspired to ‘hinder [the plaintiff] in the lawful discharge of his duties.'” Barr is being represented by Larry Klayman of the famously litigious organization Judicial Watch (see Apr. 16-17). (Lloyd Grove, “Bob Barr’s Believe It or Not”, Washington Post, Jun. 13). (DURABLE LINK)
June 19-20 — To run a Bowery flophouse, hire a good lawyer. What with New York City’s absurdly anti-landlord rental code and the ongoing predations of publicly funded legal services groups, “it takes a tough lawyer to run a decent flophouse.” (John Tierney, “A Flophouse With a View (on Survival)”, New York Times, Jun. 11). Tierney, whose columns have been a highlight of the Times‘ Metro section, is moving to Washington to cover that city for the paper. (DURABLE LINK)
June 19-20 — “Suits Against Schools Explore New Turf”. Sexual harassment suits are on the rise, suits demanding concessions for special education students are already well-established, and although many states’ laws give schools some protection against personal-injury suits, “attorneys are finding creative new ways to get around the roadblocks”. (Alan Fisk, National Law Journal, Jun. 11). (DURABLE LINK)
June 17-18 — No “flood” of Muslim or Arab discrimination complaints. After the terrorist attacks last fall some major media outlets reported that state and local civil rights agencies were being flooded with complaints of discrimination by Muslims and persons of Arab descent. Notwithstanding a widely publicized recent suit against airlines for alleged misdeeds in passenger security profiling (see Jun. 6), the official numbers on other types of discrimination cases “tell a less alarming story. While there certainly was a hike in such bias claims since September, it’s hard to say that the increase was serious or even statistically significant.” (Jim Edwards, “Post-Sept. 11 ‘Backlash’ Proves Difficult to Quantify”, New Jersey Law Journal, Jun. 12). (DURABLE LINK)
June 17-18 — Spitzer riding high. In the New York Times Magazine, James Traub profiles New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, currently enjoying a wave of favorable publicity after negotiating a settlement in which Merrill Lynch agreed to change its analyst policy and fork over money to the states; Spitzer’s efforts to bludgeon the national gun industry into accepting unlegislated gun controls, however, have been markedly less successful. Quotes this site’s editor (James Traub, “The Attorney General Goes to War”, New York Times Magazine, Jun. 16). On abusive litigation by AGs, see the recently published analysis by Cumberland law prof Michael DeBow, “Restraining State Attorneys General, Curbing Government Lawsuit Abuse” (Cato Policy Analysis No. 437, May 10). On the federalism angle, see Michael S. Greve, “Free Eliot Spitzer!”, American Enterprise Institute Federalist Outlook, May-June. Plus: Boston Globe columnist Charles Stein on the trouble with policymaking by prosecution, also quotes our editor (“Memo to Policy Makers: Make Policy”, Jun. 16). (DURABLE LINK)
June 17-18 — Jury nails “The Hammer”. Rochester, N.Y.: “A state Supreme Court jury nailed personal-injury lawyer James ‘The Hammer’ Shapiro with a $1.9 million judgment Tuesday in a legal-malpractice case. Jurors found that Shapiro, best known for flamboyant television commercials in which he promises to deliver big cash to accident victims, mishandled the case of client Christopher Wagner, who was critically injured in a two-car crash in Livingston County. They also found that Shapiro’s advertising, which led Wagner to him, was false and misleading. … Wagner’s lawyers, Patrick Burke and Robert Williams, said the award should chasten Shapiro, who gleefully refers to himself as ‘the meanest, nastiest S.O.B. in town’ in his commercials.”
After suffering a severe auto crash which left him in a coma for a month, Wagner “hired Shapiro after his brother saw one of Shapiro’s TV commercials. Wagner dealt with a paralegal and never met a lawyer from Shapiro’s firm until after he agreed to a $65,000 settlement.” The jury found that the law firm had negligently failed to press Wagner’s case against the other motorist, instead accepting from that motorist’s insurer a settlement which undervalued the case and was insufficient to pay Wagner’s medical bills. “Shapiro, whose firm of Shapiro and Shapiro is based in Rochester, didn’t attend the trial. He testified by a videotaped deposition in which he admitted that he has never tried a case in court, leaves the legal work to subordinates and lives in Florida.” (Michael Ziegler, “Award claws ‘The Hammer'”, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Jun. 12)(link now dead). Shapiro is also known for his role in websites entitled Million Dollar Lungs (asbestos client recruitment) and CPalsy.com (“Your child’s cerebral palsy may be the result of a mistake. Don’t Get Mad, Get Even”). See also Dec. 5, 2003. Update May 24, 2004: court suspends Shapiro from practice in New York for one year. (DURABLE LINK)
June 17-18 — Not worth the hassle? “Home Depot Inc., the nation’s largest hardware and home-improvement chain, has told its 1,400 stores not to do business with the U.S. government or its representatives.” Most managers in the chain surveyed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said “they had received instructions from Home Depot’s corporate headquarters this month not to take government credit cards, purchase orders or even cash if the items are being used by the federal government. … One Home Depot associate at a store in San Diego said, ‘It feels weird telling some kid in uniform that I can’t sell him 10 gallons of paint because we don’t do business with the government.'” Although the Atlanta-based chain is close-lipped about the reasons for its policy, companies that sell more than nominal quantities of products or services to the federal government risk being designated as federal contractors, a status that brings them under a large body of regulation over their practices in employment and other areas. (Andrew Schneider, “Home Depot stops doing business with federal government”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jun. 16). Update Jul. 1-2: company reverses policy. (DURABLE LINK)
June 17-18 — Alamo’s stand. “Alamo Rent A Car had no ‘duty to warn’ a Dutch couple visiting Miami not to drive into high-crime areas of the city, lawyers for the company told a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal Wednesday in an effort to overturn a $5.2 million jury verdict. Lawyers for Alamo told the judges that there is no way their client could have known that the couple would venture into Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, where Tosca Dieperink was shot to death as she sat in the rental car in 1996.” We last covered this story Jun. 29, 2000, at which time we wondered: how many different kinds of legal trouble would Alamo have gotten into if it had warned its customers to stay out of the toughest urban neighborhoods? (Susan R. Miller, “Car Rental Agency Fights $5.2M Verdict for Slain Tourist”, Miami Daily Business Review, Jun. 14). (DURABLE LINK)
June 14-16 — “Civil Rights Agency Retaliated Against Worker, EEOC Rules”. Do as we say dept.: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the federal agency which claims for itself the role of public watchdog on discrimination matters, unlawfully retaliated against its former staff solicitor, Emma Monroig, after she filed a discrimination complaint against it in 1995. The commission, which has a staff of about 75, has been hit with nine recent EEOC complaints from employees, of which at least three have been settled. (Darryl Fears, Washington Post, Jun. 13). (DURABLE LINK)
June 14-16 — Dealership on the hook. “A Michigan auto dealership that failed to complete the title transfer on a car involved in a fatal accident has been hit with a $12 million jury verdict.” In July 1999 Les Stanford Oldsmobile in suburban Troy allowed Mohammad Bazzi, then 20, to drive away his newly purchased 1996 Camaro convertible although the paperwork to transfer title was not complete. Bazzi was supposed to return to sign the papers, but never made it: two days later, driving intoxicated at an estimated 100 mph on I-75 at 2:30 in the morning, he smashed the car into the rear of a slower moving truck, killing his 18-year-old passenger, Ronny Hashem. Hashem’s survivors sued the dealership citing Michigan’s 70-year-old Owner Liability Statute, “which holds the owner of a car liable whenever the car is being operated consensually”. (Peter Page, “High-Speed Death”, National Law Journal, Jun. 12). (DURABLE LINK)
June 14-16 — Batch of reader letters. Readers take issue with our coverage of a Canadian court’s ruling on welfare reform (we stand accused of citing a conservative columnist) and of the recent suit against a baseball-bat maker by a teenager hit by a line drive; offer a different perspective on the Audubon String Quartet litigation; and track down the drunk driving defense law firm that has trademarked the phrase “Friends don’t let friends plead guilty”. (DURABLE LINK)
June 13 — Breaking news: slaying at Texas law firm. 79-year-old Richard Joseph Gerzine of Vidor, Tex. is in custody following a fatal shooting at the offices of the prominent Beaumont plaintiff’s firm of Reaud, Morgan & Quinn, known for its role in the asbestos and tobacco controversies. The victim was senior partner Cris Quinn. The perpetrator was said to have been angered by the law firm’s refusal to represent him in an asbestos case. (Beaumont Enterprise, Jun. 13; AP/Houston Chronicle, Jun. 13). (DURABLE LINK)
June 13 — “Student gets diploma after threatening lawsuit”. “A threatening letter from her lawyer and an opportunity to retake an exam hours before graduation helped a West Valley high school student get her diploma last month. … On May 22, Stan Massad, a Glendale attorney representing the Peoria family, faxed a letter to [English teacher Elizabeth] Joice asking her to take ‘whatever action is necessary’ for the student to graduate or the family would be forced to sue. ‘Of course, all information regarding your background, your employment records, all of your class records, past and present, dealings with this and other students becomes relevant, should litigation be necessary,’ he wrote to the teacher.” (Monica Alonzo-Dunsmoor, Arizona Republic, Jun. 10; lawyer’s letter; teacher’s response; Joanne Jacobs, Jun. 12).
UPDATE: The case has mushroomed into a cause celebre in Phoenix (Arizona Republic coverage: Maggie Galehouse, “Decision to allow Peoria student to graduate draws outrage”, Jun. 12; “State Bar probes threat against teacher over student’s graduation”, Jun. 13; “Failing your classes? Get a better lawyer”, (editorial), Jun. 11; “Pathetic plight in Peoria” (editorial), Jun. 12; Benson cartoon, Jun. 11; Richard Ruelas, “Lawyer made an offer school couldn’t refuse”, Jun. 12). In the blog world, see Thomas Vincent, Jun. 11 and later posts; Edward Boyd, Jun. 11 and later posts; DesertPundit, Jun. 13. And InstaPundit and “Max Power” discuss issues of whether the lawyer might face bar discipline and why the family members have been allowed to keep their names confidential. More update: Monica Alonzo-Dunsmoor, “Peoria district issues an apology for furor”, Arizona Republic, Jun. 15. (DURABLE LINK)
June 13 — “The NFL Vs. Everyone”. “Why is it that football players/owners/teams are in court all the time? And why would the Broncos sue fans? The NFL is a great case study in litigiousness gone haywire.” (Dan Lewis, dlewis.net, Jun. 12; see “NFL Bootleg: Making the Court Circuit”, Bootleg Sports/FoxSports, Jun. 12). Lewis’s blog also calls our attention (Jun. 11) to this article explaining one remarkable implication of new “medical privacy” laws: “Law May Forbid Leagues to Say if Player Is Hurt” (Buster Olney, New York Times, Jun. 11 (reg)) (DURABLE LINK)
June 13 — He’s at it again. It seems Kevin Phillips has published another of his awful books. Here’s what we said about one of the earlier ones. (DURABLE LINK)
June 11-12 — “French ban sought for Fallaci book on Islam”. The true meaning of hate-speech laws? In France, an “anti-racist” group has filed a legal action demanding a ban on the publication of a new book by outspoken Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci criticizing Islamic fundamentalism and defending the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. (Reuters/MSNBC, Jun. 10)(& welcome InstaPundit readers). (DURABLE LINK)
June 11-12 — Malpractice crisis latest. More problems with the notion of suing our way to quality medical care: Philadelphia’s Jefferson Hospital, citing rising malpractice insurance bills, has laid off 99 workers and eliminated 80 vacant jobs. (Linda Loyd, “Jefferson Hospital cuts 179 positions”, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 21). Brandywine Hospital, which operates the only trauma center in Chester County, Pa., said it would temporarily close its center, with the result that “trauma patients — the most severely injured accident victims — will be diverted to trauma centers at hospitals in surrounding counties.”. It blamed malpractice costs for difficulty in recruiting qualified physicians (Josh Goldstein, “Hospital closing trauma center”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Jun. 5). The closure of a Wilkes-Barre ob/gyn practice typifies the forces driving doctors out of Pennsylvania, according to the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (M. Paul Jackson, “Frustrated doctors look to quit area”, May 1). The supply of neurosurgeons in central Texas is likewise under pressure, resulting in the family of an accident victim’s “being told a city of Austin’s size had no spine surgeon available when they desperately needed one”. (Mary Ann Roser, “Neurosurgeons in short supply”, Austin American-Statesman, May 19). Update: Francis X. Clines, “Insurance-Squeezed Doctors Folding Tents in West Virginia”, New York Times, Jun. 13). (DURABLE LINK)
June 11-12 — Flash: law firm with sense of humor. This one’s been around for a while, but we’ve never paid it due tribute: Denver’s Powers Phillips maintains the only law firm website we’ve seen that’s laugh-out-loud funny (and even manages to tell you a lot about the firm) (& update:Metafilter thread). (DURABLE LINK)
June 11-12 — “San Francisco Verdict Bodes Ill for Oil Industry”. Oil refiners are unhappy about a recent verdict in which a West Coast jury declared that the gasoline additive MTBE, which has a nasty tendency to seep into water tables, is defective and should never have been marketed. The refiners have contended that the federal government itself pushed the industry into adding MTBE to gasoline by way of the Clean Air Act’s 1990 amendments, which mandated the use of reformulated and oxygenated gas to reduce air pollution. At least two earlier courts did accept that defense, but now the industry may stand exposed to potential billions in damages. (June D. Bell, National Law Journal, May 3). Background: Energy Information Administration, “MTBE, Oxygenates, and Motor Gasoline” (Mar. 2000). (DURABLE LINK)
June 11-12 — Welcome “Media Watch” (Australia). On the Australian Broadcasting Corp. program, which monitors the press, Steve Price traces the circulation of the much-forwarded “Stella Awards”, a list of (fictitious, invented) outrageous lawsuits (see Aug. 27, 2001) (June 10). (DURABLE LINK)
June 28-30 — Lawyer’s 44-hour workday. “Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine is investigating charges a lawyer routinely billed the state’s child welfare agency for more than 24 hours’ work a day on uncontested adoptions.
“According to records obtained by Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, Joyce Britton had a busy week in April 2001: On Monday, April 9, she worked 34 hours. On Tuesday, she worked 44 hours. On Wednesday it was 29; 33 on Thursday, 25 on Friday, 42 on Saturday. … Britton billed the agency $862,000 for fiscal years 2000 and 2001. The second-most-active attorney handling uncontested adoptions billed $285,000.” (Abdon M. Pallasch, “Did adoption lawyer really work 44 hours in one day?”, Chicago Sun-Times, Jun. 25). (DURABLE LINK)
June 28-30 — Tobacco settlement funds go to tobacco promotion. An investigation by the Charlotte Observer finds that of the $59 million that the state of North Carolina has spent so far in proceeds from the tobacco settlement, nearly three-quarters — “about $43 million — has gone toward production and marketing of N.C. tobacco”. (Liz Chandler, “N.C. spends settlement on tobacco, not health”, Charlotte Observer, Jun. 23) (via Andrew Sullivan — scroll to third item). (DURABLE LINK)
June 28-30 — Ambulance driver who stopped for donuts loses suit. Sad news for the hero of our Nov. 2-4 item: “A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former ambulance driver who claimed he was wrongfully fired after stopping for doughnuts while transporting a patient to a hospital.” Larry Wesley “stopped for doughnuts in July 2000 while he was taking an injured youth to Ben Taub Hospital” and was fired after the boy’s mother complained. U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal “ruled that Wesley’s claims that other employees received lesser sanctions were not supported by the record, and he also failed to show that he was treated more harshly than other drivers.” (“Judge dismisses lawsuit filed by ambulance worker fired for doughnut stop”, AP/KRTK Houston, Jun. 27). (DURABLE LINK)
June 28-30 — More on gambling as next-tobacco. The Newark Star-Ledger‘s take; quotes our editor (Judy DeHaven and Kate Coscarelli, “Gaming Industry Could Be Next Target of a Big Tobacco-Type Lawsuit”, Newhouse News Service, Jun. 24)(see May 20-21). (DURABLE LINK)
June 27 — Pledge marathon. Even Justice William Brennan seemed to recognize that it tends to damage the good name of religious unbelief to associate it in the public mind with theories of hair-trigger unconstitutionality which encourage running to court over the most minute details of official ceremony. See Eugene Volokh (multiple posts); “One Nation Under Blank” (editorial), Washington Post, Jun. 27; Megan McArdle (and reader comments); Walter Dellinger, “Logically Speaking, the 9th Circuit Doesn’t Exist”, Slate, Jun. 27; David G. Savage, “9th Circuit just following form”, L.A. Times/ Houston Chronicle, Jun. 26. Update: also see columns by Steve Chapman, “Coming to terms with our Constitution”, Chicago Tribune, Jun. 30; Jonathan Foreman, “The real pledge problem”, New York Post, Jul. 1. (DURABLE LINK)
June 26-27 — “Win Big! Lie in Front of a Train”. Per a case summary in a recent New York Law Journal, “A State Supreme Court jury in Manhattan had awarded $14.1 million to a woman who was hit by an E train. The accident occurred on May 3, 2000, in a subway tunnel just north of the 34th Street station on the Eighth Avenue line. … What was she doing in that strange place to begin with? It seems the woman, then 36, had entered the tunnel and lain down on the tracks. The police concluded later that she was trying to kill herself. She denied it, though she also said she could not remember how she had ended up there.” No wonder the Bloomberg administration is pushing municipal tort reform (Clyde Haberman, New York Times, Jun. 25)(see also Oct. 23, 2001, Dec. 17, 2001). (DURABLE LINK)
June 26-27 — Asbestos: saving the Crown jewels? “In a decision that is sure to grab the attention of the asbestos personal injury bar, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge has dismissed Crown Cork & Seal as a defendant in 376 pending asbestos cases. Judge Allan J. Tereshko found that Philadelphia- based consumer packaging company Crown Cork & Seal qualifies for relief under a new Pennsylvania law that limits the successor liability of asbestos defendants whose liability results only from merging or acquiring companies that produced asbestos products. Under the law, the company must be incorporated in Pennsylvania prior to May 2001 and must show that its liabilities in asbestos lawsuits have equaled or exceeded the ‘fair market value’ of the company whose acquisition resulted in the successor liability.” (Shannon P. Duffy, “Pennsylvania Court Upholds Law Limiting Asbestos Liability”, The Legal Intelligencer, Jun. 13)(see Jun. 27, 2001). (DURABLE LINK)
June 26-27 — “Ex-Teach’s Suit: Kids Abused Me”. Sued if you do, sued if you don’t dept.: trial is set to start today in Brooklyn “in a ground-breaking lawsuit filed by a former special education teacher who charges he was harassed by students. … Vincent Peries, who is from Sri Lanka, says students at Francis Lewis High School in Queens mimicked his accent, tossed paper balls at him,” and made fun of his ethnic background. “School officials don’t deny Peries was harassed — but argue that they can’t discipline special ed students for slurring a teacher. ‘This is because students with that classification have already been identified as having behavioral problems, and the verbal misconduct might be considered a manifestation of their disability,’ city lawyer Lisa Grumet wrote in court papers. Special ed students can be suspended only for incidents involving physical violence, drugs or a dangerous weapon, according to Board of Education regulations.” (John Marzulli, New York Daily News, Jun. 25)(& welcome Joanne Jacobs readers) (& update Jul. 24; city settles with him for 50K). (DURABLE LINK)
June 26-27 — “‘Vexatious litigant’ vows he’ll keep coming back”. Portrait of a Texas frequent litigant who’s filed more than twenty lawsuits over the past two years, against a list of defendants that includes more than a dozen judges and assorted other officials. Among factors working in his favor, aside from our general lack of a loser-pays rule: “pauper status” rules providing for the waiver of filing fees, and a lack of cross-checking that might allow the clerk in one county to learn that Mr. O’Dell is under a court order handed down in another county to petition for approval before filing any more suits in the state. (Lisa Sandburg, San Antonio Express-News, Jun. 24). (DURABLE LINK)
June 24-25 — Reparations roundup. Someone should start a weblog devoted to reparations links, it’d be easy to fill:
* In the fall of 2000, ABC’s “20/20” and New York Times reporter Barry Meier distinguished themselves by collaborating on a devastating exposé of “personal injury lawyer Edward D. Fagan, [who] recreated himself four years ago as [a] media-savvy figure behind huge lawsuits on behalf of Nazi victims” as the Times‘s abstract puts it. The investigation (to quote ABC) “found serious questions being raised about this so-called savior, now accused of ignoring and neglecting some of the very clients he had promised to help”. ABC interviewed well-known legal ethicist Stephen Gillers, who spoke in startlingly blunt terms of his opinion of Fagan’s client-handling record (“I think it’s despicable”; “This is client abuse, in my view, and it should not be allowed to continue”.) As for Fagan’s allegedly pivotal role in developing the WWII claims, “‘We essentially worked around him,’ says New York University law professor Burt Neuborne. ‘I mean, he was, he was there, but, but he played, if I tell you zero, I mean zero role in developing the legal theory, in presenting the legal theory, and in participating as a lawyer,’ says Neuborne.” (Brian Ross, “A Case of Self-Promotion?”, ABCNews.com, Sept. 8, 2000; Connie Chung, Sam Donaldson and others, “The Survivors” (transcript), ABCNews “20/20”, Sept. 8, 2000; Barry Meier, “An Avenger’s Path: Lawyer in Holocaust Case Faces Litany of Complaints”, New York Times, Sept. 8, 2000 (abstract leads to fee-based archive); Barry Meier, “Judge Warns Lawyer to Pay Past Penalties”, Sept. 13, 2000 (same)).
But credulity springs eternal — at least in those portions of the press not industrious enough to do a Google search or two to check out the background of a lawyer re-emerging into the headlines. Last week, Fagan was all over the papers announcing that he was going to file reparations suits against Western corporations on behalf of victims of the late apartheid regime in South Africa. Britain’s Observer swallowed his pitch whole, bannering its article “Lawyer who championed those who suffered in the Holocaust fights for South Africa’s oppressed” and calling Fagan the “American lawyer who won compensation for Holocaust victims”. We’re sure that would come as news to Prof. Neuborne. (Terry Bell, “Apartheid victims sue Western banks and firms for billions”, The Observer, Jun. 16).
* On New York’s Niagara Frontier: “Thousands of Grand Islanders were thankful and relieved Friday after a federal judge ruled that the Seneca Indians do not own the land beneath their homes, businesses and public buildings”. U.S. District Judge Richard C. Arcara ruled that not only did the Seneca tribe relinquish any legal claim they might have had to the relevant tracts of New York state way back in 1764, but “there is no archaeological evidence that the Senecas ever actually set foot on the Niagara Islands.” But landowners on the island are nowhere near achieving clear title to the properties they once thought they owned, since the Senecas vow to appeal. (Dan Herbeck and T.J. Pignataro, “Sigh of relief”, Buffalo News, Jun. 22).
Meanwhile, litigation by other tribes continues to wreak havoc across a wide swath of New York State (see Nov. 3-5, 2000 and links from there). Last fall another such case ended with a federal judge’s ruling in favor of the Cayuga tribe, which 200 years ago sold the 64,000-acre tract to the state in violation of the U.S. Trade and Intercourse Act. The verdict was $36.9 million to which the judge added $211 million in interest for a grand total of $247.9 million, considerably below the $2 billion that the tribe’s lawyers had been asking for, a request that had reflected the tendency of a sum starting off long enough ago to grow to the sky through the miracle of compound interest. (Margaret Cronin Fisk, “200-Year-Old Land Dispute Nets $247.9 Million”, National Law Journal, Oct. 17). See also John Caher, “New York State May Be Solely Liable for Indian Land Claims”, New York Law Journal, Apr. 2 (suit by Oneidas “demand ‘ejectment’ of the City of Syracuse”). Update Jun. 29, 2005: Second Circuit panel throws out Cayugas’ suit and damage award as inconsistent with recent Supreme Court decision in City of Sherrill.
* Ah, the healing and emollient qualities of the reparations movement, which holds out the promise of putting racial frictions finally behind us: “A new Mobile Register – University of South Alabama survey shows that while 67 percent of black Alabamians favor the federal government making cash payments to slave descendants, only 5 percent of white Alabamians agree. Among the supporters is J.L. Chestnut, a black Selma lawyer who is part of a national legal team preparing to file reparations litigation. … ‘In five years of polling in Alabama, I have never seen an issue that was so racially polarizing,’ Nicholls [Keith Nicholls, the University of South Alabama political science professor who oversaw the survey] said. He added that the mere mention of reparations and an official U.S. government apology for slavery — another issue addressed in the poll — caused many white respondents to get so angry that they had trouble completing the interview.” (Sam Hodges, “Register-USA poll: slavery payments a divisive question”, Mobile Register, Jun. 23). (DURABLE LINK)
June 21-23 — “Trolling for litigation on eBay”. Via Ernie the Attorney: “Someone bought a packaged cheese stick that supposedly had a human hair. They want to sue, and have posted the following description of the item bid for on Ebay: ‘You are bidding on the opportunity to represent us in a civil proceeding. Naturally, our discovery of this apparently tainted product has traumatized us, and we may never be able to truly enjoy cheese (or other dairy products, or other processed foods, or other food for that matter) ever again. We reserve the right to review winner’s qualifications upon auction end. Winner must be a licensed attorney.” Before you ask, no, we don’t know whether the person who posted the auction is serious or not, though our guess is that they’re not. Update 20:45 EDT Friday: it looks as if the eBay authorities have removed the auction. It was discussed by users on eBay Forums (Jun. 21). (DURABLE LINK)
June 21-23 — Tobacco fees: a judge gets interested. Here’s one to watch closely: a Manhattan judge may finally be getting ready to delve into some of the ethical questions raised by the 1998 tobacco settlement, or at least the $25 billion portion of it that covers New York state. The judge “has asked the New York attorney general’s office and several law firms to justify $625 million in attorney fees awarded” as part of New York’s settlement with the tobacco industry (see May 11, 2001). “Citing unspecified ethical concerns, Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Ramos ordered state lawyers and attorneys from six firms that represented the state to explain why the fees should not be set aside. One ground for vacating the fees, the judge said, could be that the arbitrators who awarded them may have ‘manifestly disregarded well established ethical and public policies.’ Ramos suggested that the court had the power to not only ask a new panel of arbitrators to determine reasonable fees, but to vacate the entire $25 billion settlement, approved by another judge in 1998, if such action was warranted. He also said the issue could be referred to the Departmental Committee on Discipline and require the outside firms to produce time sheets detailing their roles in the litigation.” (Tom Perrotta, “New York Judge Cites Ethics Concern Over Tobacco Case Fees”, New York Law Journal, Jun. 20). (DURABLE LINK)
June 21-23 — 11th Circuit reinstates “Millionaire” lawsuit. “A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit alleging that ABC discriminates against disabled people trying to become contestants on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire.’ The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the lawsuit contained a valid claim that the show’s qualifying system, which uses touch-tone phones, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.” (see Nov. 7, 2000; Brian Bandell, “Lawsuit Reinstated Against ABC Show”, AP/New York Post, Jun. 19; Susan R. Miller, “Disabled Floridians Get Shot at ABC’s ‘Millionaire'”, Miami Daily Business Review, Jun. 21). (DURABLE LINK)
June 21-23 — Welcome Grouse.net.au readers. We’re picked as link of the day on this Australian site for June 21. Also for Jun. 21, we’re Mr. Quick’s “Link of the Day”. Among blogs sending us visitors lately: Tres Producers, Flyover Country, Aaron Haspel’s God of the Machine, Hollywood Investigator, Bob Owen of the Twin Cities, Ross Nordeen, Ravenwolf, Jon Garthwaite’s TownHall C-Log, Junkyard Blog, Now You Listen to Me Little Missy, and many others, as well as the links page of premier Cathblogger Amy Welborn. (DURABLE LINK)
May 10 — “Barbecue group sued over contest”. Jim Woodsmall of Jumpin’ Jim’s BBQ in Johnston, Ia., has sued the Kansas City Barbeque Society, charging that his business has suffered because the society has failed to award his barbecue recipe the stellar ratings he feels it deserved. The enthusiast group fails to follow impartial and uniform rules in its cook-offs, Woodsmall claims, which he thinks amounts to fraud and negligence. (Lindsey A. Henry, Des Moines Register, May 8).
May 10 — Fortune on Lemelson patents. We’ve run a couple of items on the amazing Jerome Lemelson patent operation (see Jan. 19, 2001 and August 28, 1999) and now Fortune weighs in with the best overview we’ve seen. Lemelson, who died in 1997, filed patents for hundreds of ideas and industrial processes which he said he had invented, and which underlay such familiar modern technologies as VCRs, fax machines, bar-code scanners, camcorders and automated warehouses. A mechanical genius? Well, at least a genius in figuring out the angles that could be worked with American patent law: by filing vague patents and then arranging to delay their issuance while amending their claims to adjust to later technological developments, Lemelson steered them into the path of unfolding technology, eventually securing bonanzas for his tireless litigation machine. Foreign-owned companies folded first because they were afraid of American juries, which helped give Lemelson the war chest needed to break the resistance of most of the big U.S.-based industries as well. $1.5 billion in royalties later, his estate continues to sue some 400 companies, with many more likely to be added in years to come. (Nicholas Varchaver, “The Patent King”, May 14).
May 10 — Prospect of $3 gas. One reason refinery disruptions lead to big spikes in the price of gasoline at the pump: environmental rules end up mandating a different blend of gas for each state, hampering efforts to ship supplies to where they’re most needed. (Ron Scherer, “50 reasons gasoline isn’t cheaper”, Christian Science Monitor, May 4; Ben Lieberman (Competitive Enterprise Institute), “Skyrocketing Ga$: What the Feds Can Do”, New York Post, April 23, reprinted at CEI site).
May 10 — Welcome Norwegian readers. We get discussed, and several of our recent news items summarized, on the “humor” section of Norway’s Spray Internet service (Bjørn Tore Øren, “For mange advokater”, May 8). Among other non-U.S. links which have brought us visitors: Australia’s legal-beat webzine, Justinian (“A journal with glamour — yet no friends”; more); Baker & Ballantyne, in the U.K.; the Virtual Law Library pages on media law compiled by Rosemary Pattenden at the University of East Anglia; and Sweden’s libertarian- leaning Contra.nu (“Har advokatkåren i USA för stort inflytande?” they ask of us)(more).
May 9 — Oklahoma forensics scandal. After serving fifteen years in prison on a 1986 rape conviction, Jeffrey Pierce was released Monday after new DNA evidence refuted testimony against him by a forensic specialist whose work is the subject of a growing furor. “From 1980 to 1993, Joyce Gilchrist was involved in roughly 3,000 cases as an Oklahoma City police laboratory scientist, often helping prosecutors win convictions by identifying suspects with hair, blood or carpet fibers taken from crime scenes.” Although peers, courts and professional organizations repeatedly questioned the competence and ethical integrity of her work, prosecutors asked few questions, perhaps because she was getting them a steady stream of positive IDs and jury verdicts in their favor. Now Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating has ordered an investigation of felony cases on which Gilchrist worked after an FBI report “found she had misidentified evidence or given improper courtroom testimony in at least five of eight cases the agency reviewed.” (Jim Yardley, “Flaws in Chemist’s Findings Free Man at Center of Inquiry”, New York Times, May 8; “Inquiry Focuses on Scientist Used by Prosecutors”, May 2)(reg)
May 9 — Not about the money. Foreign policy making on a contingency fee: “When attorneys agreed to champion the causes of American victims of terrorism in the Middle East, it wasn’t supposed to be about the money.” We’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? “But the prospect of multimillion-dollar fees in what once seemed to be long-shot litigation against Iran has left lawyers fighting over fees in federal court in Washington, D.C. High principles of international law and justice aren’t at stake. It’s simply a matter of who gets paid.” (Jonathan Groner, “Anti-Terrorism Verdicts Spur Big Fee Fights”, Legal Times, April 18).
May 9 — Update: cookie lawsuit crumbles. Half-baked all along, and now dunked: a federal court in March dismissed a would-be class action lawsuit against web ad agency DoubleClick over its placing of “cookies” on web users’ hard drives. Other such suits remain pending (see also Feb. 2, 2000); this one was brought by Milberg Weiss’s Melvyn Weiss and by Bernstein, Litowitz (Michael A. Riccardi, “DoubleClick Can Keep Hand in Cookie Jar, Federal Judge Rules”, New York Law Journal, March 30).
May 8 — “Lawyers to Get $4.7 Million in Suit Against Iomega”. “Lawyers in a class action suit alleging defects in portable computer Zip disk drives will get the only cash payout, up to $4.7 million, in a proposed settlement with manufacturer Iomega Corp., according to the company’s Web site.” Rebates of between $5 and $40 will be offered to past customers who buy new Iomega products, while Milberg Weiss and three other law firms expect to split their fees in crisp greenbacks, not coupons, if a Delaware judge approves the settlement in June. (Yahoo/Reuters, April 12) (Rinaldi class action settlement notice, Iomega website).
May 8 — A definition (via Sony’s Morita and IBM’s Opel). “Litigious (li-TIJ-uhs) adjective: 1. Pertaining to litigation; 2. Eager to engage in lawsuits; 3. Inclined to disputes and arguments. [From Middle English, from Latin litigiosus from litigium, dispute.]
“‘My friend John Opel of IBM wrote an article a few years ago titled ‘Our Litigious Society,’ so I knew I was not alone in my view that lawyers and litigation have become severe handicaps to business, and sometimes worse.” — Sony co-founder Akio Morita (Wordsmith.org “A Word a Day” service, scroll to Jan. 26).
May 8 — “Halt cohabiting or no bail, judge tells defendants”. “A federal judge in Charlotte is using a 19th-century N.C. law banning fornication and adultery, telling defendants they won’t be freed on bond until they agree to get married, move out of the house or have their partner leave. U.S. Magistrate Judge Carl Horn won’t release a criminal defendant on bond knowing that he or she will break the law. And that includes North Carolina’s law against unmarried couples cohabiting, placed on the books in 1805.” (Eric Frazier and Gary L. Wright, Charlotte Observer, April 4) (see also May 18, 2000).
May 7 — Says cat attacked his dog; wants $1.5 million. “A San Marcos man has filed a $1.5 million claim against the city because a cat who lives in the Escondido Public Library allegedly attacked his dog.” Richard Espinosa says he was visiting the library on November 16 with his assistance dog Kimba, a 50-pound Labrador mix, when the feline, named L.C. or Library Cat because it’s allowed to live in the building, attacked the dog inflicting scratches and punctures. As for Espinosa, wouldn’t you know, he “was emotionally traumatized and suffers from flashbacks, terror, nightmares and other problems.” Four lawyers declined to take his case and he finally filed it himself. “The cat was apparently uninjured.” (Jonathan Heller, “Escondido gets $1.5 million claim; library cat allegedly assaulted dog”, San Diego Union-Tribune, May 4) (see letter to the editor from Espinosa, June 13).
May 7 — Judge throws out hog farm suit. As was reported a few months ago, a number of environmental groups aim to take a lesson from the tobacco affair by using mass lawsuit campaigns to pursue various goals which they haven’t been able to secure through the legislative and electoral process. To do this they’ve teamed up with tobacco-fee-engorged trial lawyers; the nascent alliance got lots of publicity in December with one of its first projects, suing Smithfield Farms for billions over the nuisance posed by large-scale hog farming, a project apparently masterminded by Florida trial lawyer Mike Papantonio (tobacco, asbestos, fen-phen) and with suits against chicken and livestock operations promised in later phases of the effort (see Dec. 7, 2000). Far less publicity has been accorded to Judge Donald W. Stephens’s ruling in March which threw out the first two lawsuits as having failed to state a legal claim against the large hog packer and raiser. (Appeal is expected.) Power scion Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is still on board with his headline-ready name to front for the lawyers in the press, but he doesn’t seem to have gone out of his way to call attention to the adverse ruling (“North Carolina judge dismisses lawsuits against hog producer”, AP/MSNBC, March 30; Scott Kilman, “Environmental groups target factory-style hog farm facilities”, Wall Street Journal/MSNBC, undated; Smithfield press release, March 29).
MORE: National Public Radio, “Living on Earth” with Steve Curwood and reporter Leda Hartman, week of Feb. 16; Water Keeper Alliance (Kennedy’s group), hog campaign homepage with list of lawyers (J. Michael Papantonio, Steven Echsner and Neil Overholtz, Levin, Papantonio, Pensacola, Fla.; Thomas Sobol, Jan Schlichtmann, Steven Fineman and Erik Shawn of Lieff, Cabraser, New York and Boston; F. Kenneth Bailey, Jr. and Herbert Schwartz of Williams Bailey, Houston; Howard F. Twiggs and Douglas B. Abrams of Twiggs, Abrams, (Raleigh, N.C.), Ken Suggs and Richard H. Middleton, Jr. of Suggs, Kelly & Middleton (Columbia, S.C.), Joe Whatley, Jr., Birmingham, Ala.; Kevin Madonna, Chatham, N.Y.; Stephen Weiss and Chris Seeger, New York; Charles Speer, Overland Park, Kan.; Hiram Eastland, Greenwood, Miss.) Compare “Conoco Could Face $500 Million Lawsuit Over Bayou Water Pollution Problems”, Solid Waste Digest: Southern Edition, March 2001 (page now removed, but GoogleCached) (Papantonio campaign in Pensacola).
May 7 — Website accessibility law hits the U.K. “Scottish companies were warned yesterday that they could face prosecution if their websites are not accessible to the disabled. Poorly-designed websites are often incompatible with Braille software.” (more) (yet more) (Pauline McInnes, “Firms warned on websites access”, The Scotsman, April 19).
May 4-6 — By reader acclaim: “Vegetarian sues McDonald’s over meaty fries”. Seattle attorney Harish Bharti wants hundreds of millions of dollars from the burger chain for its acknowledged policy of adding small amounts of beef flavoring to its french fries, which he says is deceptive toward vegetarian customers (ABCNews.com/ Reuters, May 3). Notable detail that hasn’t made it into American accounts of the case we’ve seen, but does appear in the Times of India: “When he is not practising law in Seattle, Bharti says he teaches at Gerry Spence’s exclusive College for Trial Lawyers in Wyoming”. Does this mean you can be a predator without being a carnivore? (“US Hindus take on McDonald’s over French fries”, Times of India, May 3) (see also Aug. 30, 1999).
May 4-6 — Mississippi’s forum-shopping capital. The little town of Fayette, Miss., reports the National Law Journal, is “ground zero for the largest legal attack on the pharmaceutical industry” in memory. Tens of thousands of plaintiffs are suing in the Fayette courthouse over claimed side effects from such drugs as fen-phen, Rezulin, and Propulsid, not because they’re local residents (most aren’t) but because the state’s unusually lax courtroom rules allow lawyers to bring them in from elsewhere to profit from the town’s unique brand of justice. The townspeople, nearly half of whom are below the poverty level and only half of whom graduated from high school, “have shown that they are willing to render huge compensatory and punitive damages awards”. Among other big-dollar outcomes, Houston plaintiff’s lawyer Mike Gallagher of Gallagher, Lewis, Serfin, Downey & Kim “helped win a $150 million compensatory damages verdict for five fen-phen plaintiffs in Jefferson County on Dec. 21, 1999. The jury deliberated for about two hours…” There’s just one judge in Fayette County to hear civil cases, Judge Lamar Pickard, whose handling of trials is bitterly complained of by out-of-town defendants. As for appeal, that route became less promising for defendants last November when plaintiff’s lawyers solidified their hold on the Mississippi Supreme Court by knocking off moderate incumbent Chief Justice Lenore Prather.
Lots of good details here, including how the Bankston Drug Store, on Main Street in Fayette since 1902, has the bad fortune to get named in nearly every suit because that tactic allows the lawyers to keep the case from being removed to federal court. Plaintiff’s lawyer Gallagher, who also played a prominent role in the breast implant affair, says criticism of the county’s jurors as easily played on by lawyers “‘sounds racist’, since the jury pool is predominantly black”. He also brushes off defendants’ complaints about forum-shopping with all the wit and sensibility at his command: “They want to tell me where I can sue them for the damage they caused? They can kiss my a**.” (Mark Ballard, “Mississippi becomes a mecca for tort suits”, National Law Journal, April 30).
May 4-6 — Agenda item for Ashcroft. Attorney General Ashcroft could make a real difference for beleaguered upstate New York communities by backing off the Justice Department’s Reno-era policy of avid support for revival of centuries-dormant Indian land claims, which went so far as to include the brutalist tactic of naming as defendants individual landowners whose family titles had lain undisturbed since the early days of the Republic (see Oct. 27, 1999, Feb. 1, 2000) (John Woods, “Long-Running Indian Land Claims in New York May Hinge on Ashcroft’s Stance”, New York Law Journal, April 16).
May 3 — “Family of shooting victim sue owners of Jewish day-care center”. If the gunman doesn’t succeed in wiping out your institution, maybe the lawyers will: “The parents of a boy who was shot by a white supremacist at a Jewish day-care center have filed a lawsuit claiming the center’s owners failed to provide the necessary security to prevent hate crime attacks.” Buford O. Furrow fired more than 70 shots at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 1999 (AP/CNN, May 1).
May 3 — Update: mills of legal discipline. They grind slow, that’s for sure, but does that mean they grind exceeding fine? A disciplinary panel has ended its investigation of New Hampshire chief justice David Brock, letting him off with an admonishment, in the protracted controversy over the conduct (see April 5 and Oct. 11, 2000) which also led to his impeachment and acquittal in the state senate; Brock’s lawyer had threatened to sue the disciplinary panel if it continued its probe, and a dissenting committee member called that lawsuit-threat “intended to intimidate” (“Threat of lawsuit ended Brock case”, Nashua Telegraph, April 23; Dan Tuohy, “Finding bolsters call for reform”, Foster’s Daily Democrat, April 26). A hearing committee of the District of Columbia Board on Professional Responsibility has recommended that Mark Hager be suspended for three years over the episode [see Feb. 23, 2000] in which he and attorney John Traficonte “began negotiations with [drugmaker] Warner-Lambert to make refunds to consumers, and to pay himself and Hager $225,000 in exchange for which they would abandon their representation, agree to hold the agreement and fee secret from the public and their clients, and promise not to sue Warner-Lambert in the future. Traficonte and Hager accepted the offer without first obtaining the approval of any class member.” The disciplinary committee “found that Hager’s conduct was shockingly outrageous, and that his status as a law professor was a factor in aggravation.” We’ve seen no indication that anyone in the administration of American University’s law school, where Hager continues to teach, has expressed the smallest misgivings about the example that students are supposed to take from his conduct (Denise Ryan, law.com D.C., Board on Professional Responsibility No. 31-98, In re Hager, issued Nov. 30, 2000). (Update Jul. 19, 2003: Hager resigns AU post in April 2003). And off-the-wall Michigan tort lawyer and politician Geoffrey Fieger faces charges before the state attorney grievance commission following reports that he used his radio show to unleash “an obscenity-laced tirade” against three state appeals judges (“Fieger Under Fire For Alleged Swearing Fit”, MSNBC, April 17).
May 3 — “Valley doctors caught in ‘lawsuit war zone'”. A report from the Texas Board of Medical Examiners finds medical malpractice cases approximately tripled in 1999 in Texas’s McAllen-Brownsville region compared with the previous year. Among short-cuts lawyers are accused of employing: suing doctors without an authorization from the client, and hiring as their medical expert a family doctor who charges $500 an hour and has reviewed 700 cases for lawyers, second-guessing the work of such specialists as cardiovascular surgeons, but has not herself (according to an opposing lawyer) had hospital privileges since 1997. (James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle, March 2 — via Houston CALA). State representative Juan Hinojosa has introduced a bill that would allow doctors and hospitals to countersue lawyers and clients who file suits with reckless disregard as to whether reasonable grounds exist for their action. (“Doctors seek new remedy to fight frivolous lawsuits”, CALA Houston, undated).
May 2 — Suing the coach. “A teenager, who felt she was destined for greatness as a softball player, has filed a $700,000 lawsuit against her former coach, alleging his ‘incorrect’ teaching style ruined her chances for an athletic scholarship. Cheryl Reeves, 19, of Rambler Lane in Levittown, also alleges that her personal pitching coach, Roy Jenderko, of Warminster, not only taught her an illegal style of pitching but also used ‘favorite players’ which resulted in demoralizing the teen. ” (Dave Sommers, “Legal Pitch”, The Trentonian, May 1).
May 2 — Trustbusters sans frontieres. Truly awful idea that surfaced in the press a while back: a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) say they’re trying to pressure the Bush administration to file an antitrust suit against the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, accusing it of restricting the output of oil in order to raise prices to consumers in countries like ours — which is, of course, OPEC’s reason for existence. “Most antitrust and foreign policy experts interviewed say they cannot imagine a scenario in which such legal action would succeed, or that any president would risk his foreign policy goals for such a lawsuit”, reports the National Law Journal. But even the gesture of inviting unelected judges and unpredictable juries to punish sovereign foreign powers would increase the chances of our landing in a series of confrontations and international incidents that would be at best imperfectly manageable by the nation’s executive branch and diplomatic corps (which cannot, for example, necessarily offer to reverse or suspend court decisions as a bargaining chip).
The United States’s relations with OPEC countries, it will be recalled, have on occasion embroiled us in actual shooting wars, which are bad enough when entered after deliberation on the initiative of those to whom such decisions are entrusted in our system of separation of powers, and would be all the less supportable if brought on us by the doings of some rambunctious judge or indignant jury. Wouldn’t it be simpler for Sen. Specter to just introduce a bill providing that the courts of the United States get to run the world from now on? (Matthew Morrissey, “Senators to Press for Suing OPEC Over Pricing”, National Law Journal, March 1).
May 1 — Columnist-fest. Scourings from our bookmark file:
* Mark Steyn on the Indian residential-school lawsuits that may soon bankrupt leading Canadian churches (see Aug. 23, 2000): (“I’ll give you ‘cultural genocide'”, National Post, April 9). Bonus: Steyn on protectionism, globalization and Quebec City (“Don’t fence me in”, April 19).
* Federalists under fire: there’s a press campaign under way to demonize the Federalist Society, the national organization for libertarian and conservative lawyers and law students. The Society has done a whole lot to advance national understanding of litigation abuses and overuse of the courts — could that be one reason it’s made so many powerful enemies? (Thomas Bray, “Life in the Vast Lane”, OpinionJournal.com, April 17; Marci Hamilton, “Opening Up the Law Schools: Why The Federalist Society Is Invaluable To Robust Debate”, FindLaw Writ, April 25; William Murchison, “In Defense of the Federalist Society”, Dallas Morning News, April 25).
* A Bush misstep: the White House has named drug-war advocate and Weekly Standard contributor John P. Walters as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Walters, almost alone among those who have spent serious professional time on drug abuse in America, harbors no misgivings over the fact that we’ve been crowding our prisons almost to the bursting point with nonviolent drug offenders.” (William Raspberry, “A Draco of Drugs”, Washington Post, April 30) (Lindesmith Center).
* “Overreaching IP legal teams kick the firm they supposedly represent”: Seth Shulman of Technology Review on the “patented peanut butter sandwich” case (see Jan. 30). (“Owning the Future: PB&J Patent Punch-up”, May). Also: California judge William W. Bedsworth (“Food Fight!”, The Recorder, March 16).
May 18-20 — “Couple sues for doggie damages”. Claiming that their 4-year-old golden retriever Boomer was hurt by an “invisible fence” electronic collar device, Andrew and Alyce Pacher, of Vandalia, Ohio, want to name the dog itself as a plaintiff in the suit. “It’s my opinion that it’s clear dogs cannot sue under Ohio law,” says the fence company’s lawyer. But the Pachers’ attorney, Paul Leonard, a former lieutenant governor and ex-mayor of Dayton, says that’s exactly what he hopes to change: he’s “hoping to upgrade the legal status of dogs in Ohio.” (“Damages for Injuries Caused by Invisible Fence Sought for Dog”, AP/FoxNews.com, May 11).
May 18-20 — “Fortune Magazine Ranks ATLA 5th Most Powerful Lobby”. The business magazine finds that plaintiff’s lawyers have more clout in Washington than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the AFL-CIO; more than Hollywood or the doctors or the realtors or the teachers or the bankers. (Fortune, May 28; ATLA jubilates over its rise from 6th to 5th, May 15).
May 18-20 — Batch of reader letters. Our biggest sack of correspondence yet includes a note from a reader wondering if some open-minded attorney would like to help draft a loser-pays initiative for the ballot in Washington state; more about carbonless paper allergies, the effects of swallowing 9mm bullets, the Granicy trial in California, and “consumer columns” that promote lawyers’ services; a link between ergonomics and gun control controversies; and a reader’s dissent on the case of the boy ticketed for jaywalking after being hit by a truck.
May 17 — “Crash lawyers like Boeing move”. Attorneys who sue after midair mishaps are pleased that Boeing is planning to relocate its headquarters to Chicago. They say the courts of Cook County, Ill., hand out much higher verdicts than those of Seattle, the aircraft maker’s former hometown. Some lawyers in fact predict that domestic crashes, at least when the plane is Boeing-made, are apt to be sued in Cook County from now on regardless of where the flight originated or went down; under the liberal rules of forum-shopping that prevail in American courts, most big airlines may be susceptible to venue in the Windy City since they do at least some business there. (Blake Morrison, “Crash lawyers like Boeing move”, USA Today, May 16).
May 17 — Like a hole in the head. As if the nine private law schools in the state of Massachusetts weren’t enough, proponents now want to establish a public one by having the state take over the struggling Southern New England School of Law at North Dartmouth, near New Bedford. (Denise Magnell, “Crash Course”, Boston Law Tribune, May 1).
May 17 — Lessons of shrub-case jailing. The months-long contempt-of-court jailing of John Thoburn of Fairfax County, Va. for refusing to erect enough trees and shrubs around his golf driving range is a good example of the excesses of bureaucratic legalism, says Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher (“In Fairfax shrub fight, Both Sides Dig In Stubbornly”, April 26). Some of the county’s elected supervisors voice few misgivings about the widely publicized showdown, saying their constituents want them to be tougher in cracking down on zoning violations. (Peter Whoriskey and Michael D. Shear, “Fairfax Zoning Case Draws World Attention”, Washington Post, April 21) (freejohnthoburn.com).
May 16 — No baloney. “A suspected drug dealer who was served a bullet-and-bologna sandwich wants a side of lettuce — about $5 million worth. ” Louis Olivo says he was given an officially prepared lunch during a break in a Brooklyn Supreme Court hearing last week, and felt something “crunchy” which turned out to be a bullet. Surgery (not syrup of ipecac?) is expected to remove the 9mm bullet from Olivo’s stomach; his lawyer wants $5 million (Christopher Francescani, “$5M Lawsuit Over Bulletin in Bologna”, New York Post, May 15) (& letter to the editor, May 18)
May 16 — “Who’s afraid of principled judges?” More questions should be raised about a retreat held at Farmington, Pa. earlier this month in which 42 Democratic Senators were lectured on the need to apply ideological litmus tests to judicial nominees, writes Denver Post columnist Al Knight. (May 13). “Liberals rightly decried efforts a decade ago to turn membership in the American Civil Liberties Union into a disqualification for high office; current efforts to do the same thing to the Federalist Society are equally wrong. … In fact, they are the only group, liberal or conservative, that regularly sponsors debates throughout the nation’s law schools on important public-policy issues.” (Howard Shelansky, “Who’s Afraid of the Federalist Society?”, Wall Street Journal, May 15).
May 16 — Drawing pictures of weapons. In Oldsmar, Fla., an eleven-year-old “was taken from his elementary school in handcuffs after his classmates turned him in for drawing pictures of weapons.” (Ed Quioco and Julie Church, “Student removed from class because of drawings”, St. Petersburg Times, May 11; “Pinellas fifth grader cuffed, sent home after classmates turn him in for drawing weapons”, AP/Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, May 11). In Sunderland, England, police raided Roland Hopper’s 11th birthday party and arrested him as he cut the cake after he was seen playing with the new pellet gun his mother had bought him (“Armed Police Raid 11th Birthday”, Newcastle Journal, April 10). And the website ztnightmares.com, which developed out of a controversy at Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colo., “publicizes the downside or evils of zero tolerance school discipline policies” and has a noteworthy list of outside links as well as horror stories.
May 15 — “Judges or priests?”. Why have judicial nomination fights taken on the intensity and bitterness once associated with religious disputes? “The only places left in this country that could be described as temples — for that is how we treat them — are the courts. … They are temples because the judges who sit in them now constitute a priesthood, an oracular class … we have abdicated to them our personal responsibility and, in many cases, even what used to be the smallest judgment call a citizen had to make for himself.” (Tunku Varadarajan, WSJ OpinionJournal.com, May 11).
May 15 — Techies fear Calif. anti-confidentiality bill. Trial lawyers have been pushing hard for the enactment of legislation granting them wide leeway to disseminate to anyone they please much of the confidential business information they dig up by compulsory process in lawsuits. (At present, judges are free to issue “protective orders” which restrain such dissemination.) Proponents say lawyers will use this new power to publicize serious safety hazards that now remain unaired; critics predict they will use it to stir up more lawsuits and for general leverage against defendants who have been found guilty of no wrong but who don’t want the inner details of their business to fall into the hands of competitors or others. A lawyer-backed bill had been hurtling toward enactment in California following the Firestone debacle, but now a counterforce has emerged in the person of high-tech execs who say the proposal “could expose confidential company information, stifle innovation and encourage frivolous litigation. … TechNet CEO Rick White called the bills ‘the most significant threat to California’s technology companies since Prop. 211.’ White was referring to the 1996 initiative that would have made company directors and high-ranking executives personally vulnerable to shareholder lawsuits.” (Scott Harris, “Old Foes Squabble Over Secrecy Bills”, Industry Standard/Law.com, May 10).
May 15 — Canadian court: divorce settlements never final. The Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled that courts may revisit and overturn former divorce settlements if a “material change of circumstances” has taken place since the original deal. “Tens of thousands of people who believed they had agreed to a ‘final’ divorce settlement could face more financial demands … Family law lawyers predict a surge of legal attacks on separation agreements and marriage contracts as a result of the ruling.” (Cristin Schmitz, “Divorce deals never final: court”, Southam News/National Post, April 28).
May 14 — Write a very clear will. Or else your estate could wind up being fought over endlessly in court like that of musician Jerry Garcia (Kevin Livingston, “Garcia Estate Fight Keeps On Truckin'”, The Recorder, April 25; Steve Silverman, “Online Fans Sing Blues About Garcia Estate Wrangling”, Wired News, Dec. 16, 1996; Don Knapp, “Garcia vs. Garcia in battle for Grateful wealth”, CNN, Dec. 14, 1996). Or actor James Mason (A Star is Born, North by Northwest) (“He would have been horrified by all this. … he hated litigation”) (Caroline Davies, “James Mason’s ashes finally laid to rest”, Daily Telegraph (London), Nov. 25, 2000). Or timber heir H.J. Lutcher Stark of Orange, Texas, who died in 1965 and whose estate, with that of his wives, has spawned several rounds of litigation which look as far back for their subject matter as 1939 and are still in progress (William P. Barrett, “How Lawyers Get Rich”, Forbes, April 2 (reg)).
May 14 — City gun suits: “extortion parading as law”. To curb the use of officially sponsored litigation as a regulatory bludgeon, as in the gun suits, the Cato Institute’s Robert Levy recommends “a ‘government pays’ rule for legal fees when a governmental unit is the losing plaintiff in a civil case”. (Robert A. Levy, “Pistol Whipped: Baseless Lawsuits, Foolish Laws”, Cato Policy Analysis #400 (executive summary links to full paper — PDF))
May 14 — Update: “Messiah” prisoner’s lawsuit dismissed. In a 22-page opinion, federal district judge David M. Lawson has dismissed the lawsuit filed by a Michigan prisoner claiming recognition as the Messiah (see April 30). The opinion contains much to reward the curious reader, such as the list on page 5 of the inmate’s demands (including “5 million breeding pairs of bison” and “25,000 mature breeding pairs of every creature that exists in the State of Michigan,” and the passage on page 18 citing as precedent for dismissal similar previous cases such as Grier v. Reagan (E.D. Pa. Apr. 1, 1986), “finding that plaintiff’s claim she was God of the Universe fantastic and delusional and dismissing as frivolous complaint which sought items ranging from a size sixteen mink coat and diamond jewelry to a three bedroom home in the suburbs and a catered party at the Spectrum in Philadelphia”). (opinion dated April 26 (PDF), Michigan Bar Association site) (DURABLE LINK)
May 11-13 — Welcome Aardvark Daily readers (NZ). “New Zealand’s leading source of Net-Industry news and commentary since 1995” just referred us a whole bunch of antipodal visitors by featuring this website in its “Lighten Up” section. It says we offer “an aggregation of quirky and oddball legal actions which go to prove that the USA has far too many lawyers for its own good”. (Aardvark.co.nz). For NZ-related items on this site, check out July 26, Sept. 8 and Oct. 31, 2000, as well as “Look for the Kiwi Label”, Reason, July 2000, by our editor.
May 11-13 — New York tobacco fees. “An arbitration panel has awarded $625 million in attorneys’ fees to the six firms that were hired by New York state to sue the tobacco industry, say sources close to the arbitration report.” The well-connected city law firm of Schneider, Kleinick, Weitz, Damashek & Shoot (which last year was reported to be renting office space to New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; see May 1, 2000) will receive $98.4 million. Three firms that took a major national role in the tobacco heist will share $343.8 million from the New York booty, to add to their rich haul from other states; they are Ness Motley, Richard Scruggs’ Mississippi firm, and Seattle’s Hagens & Berman. (Daniel Wise, “Six Firms Split $625 Million in Fees for New York’s Share of Big Tobacco Case,” New York Law Journal, April 24). Update Jun. 21-23, 2002: judge to review ethical questions raised by fee award.
May 11-13 — “Judges behaving badly”. The National Law Journal‘s fourth annual roundup of judicial injudiciousness includes vignettes of jurists pursuing personal vendettas, earning outside income in highly irregular ways, jailing people without findings of guilt, and getting in all sorts of trouble on matters of sex. Then there’s twice-elected Judge Ellis Willard of Sharkey County, Mississippi, who allegedly “fabricated evidence such as docket pages, arrest warrants, faxes [and] officers’ releases.” That was why he got in trouble, not just because he was fond of holding court in his Beaudron Pawn Shop and Tire Center, “a tire warehouse flanked by service bays on one side and a store that holds the judge’s collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia.” (Gail Diane Cox, National Law Journal, April 30).
May 11-13 — Update: Compaq beats glitch suit. In 1999, after Toshiba ponied up more than a billion dollars to settle a class action charging that its laptops had a glitch in their floppy drives, lawyers filed follow-on claims against other laptop makers whose machines they said displayed the same problem. But Compaq refused to settle, and now Beaumont, Tex. federal judge Thad Heartfield has felt constrained to dismiss the suit against it on the grounds that plaintiff’s lawyer Wayne Reaud had failed to show that any user suffered the requisite $5,000 in damages. (Daniel Fisher, “Billion-Dollar Bluff”, Forbes, April 16 (now requires registration)).
May 31 — Fieger’s firecrackers frequently fizzle. Famed lawyer Geoffrey Fieger extracts huge damage awards from Michigan juries in civil cases even more often than he manages to get Dr. Jack Kevorkian off the hook from criminal charges, but he does much less well when the big awards reach higher levels of judicial consideration. “In the last two years, Fieger and his clients have watched as judges, acting on appeal or post-trial motion, erased more than $55 million in jury verdicts,” including $15 million and $13 million verdicts against Detroit-area hospitals and a $30 million verdict, reduced by the judge to $3 million, arising from a Flint highway accident. Opponents say Fieger’s courtroom vilification of opponents and badgering of witnesses often impresses jurors but plays less well in the calmer written medium of an appellate record.
Appeals courts are now considering Fieger cases “totaling an estimated $50 million to $100 million … Among those cases is $25 million awarded in the infamous Jenny Jones talk-show case and $20 million to a woman who was sexually harassed at a Chrysler plant.” (Update Oct. 25-27, 2002: appeals court throws out Jenny Jones verdict. Further update Jul. 24, 2004: state high court throws out Chrysler verdict). Fieger, who was the unsuccessful Democratic challenger to Michigan Gov. John Engler at the last election, charges that the appeals courts are politically biased against him: “It’s a conspiracy to get me”. However, a reporter’s examination of Fieger cases that went up to appeals courts indicates that the partisan or philosophic background of the judges on the panels doesn’t seem to make a marked difference in his likelihood of success (Dawson Bell, “Fieger’s wins lose luster in appeals”, Detroit Free Press, May 29). “Colorful” barely begins to describe Fieger’s past run-ins with the law and with disciplinary authorities; see Dawson Bell, “Fieger’s skeletons won’t stay buried”, Detroit Free Press, August 13, 1998.
May 31 — “Dead teen’s family sues Take our Kids to Work”. Had to happen eventually dept.: in Welland, Ontario, “[t]he family of a teenage girl killed while driving a utility vehicle at a John Deere plant is suing the company, the school board and the organizers of Take Our Kids to Work day.” (Karena Walter, National Post, May 25).
May 31 — Pale Nanny with an ad budget. The Indoor Tanning Association, a salon trade group, is “worried about proposed legislation in Texas that would outlaw indoor tanning for anyone under age 18, require tanning salons to post pictures of different types of skin cancer, and allow dermatologists and anti-tanning activists to make contributions to the Texas Health Department to pay for an anti-tanning advertising campaign.” You didn’t think these sorts of campaigns were going to stop with tobacco, did you? (“Inside Washington — Presenting: This Season’s Latest Tan Lines”, April 14, National Journal, subscribers only).
May 30 — Supreme Court: sure, let judges redefine golf. By a 7-2 vote, the high court rules that the PGA can be forced to change its rules so as to let disabled golfer Casey Martin ride in a cart between holes while other contestants walk. (Yahoo Full Coverage; Christian Science Monitor; PGA Tour v. Martin decision in PDF format — Scalia dissent, which is as usual the good part, begins about two-thirds of the way down). For our take, see Reason, May 1998; disabled-rights sports cases).
May 30 — Microsoft v. Goliath. “The antitrust laws originally aimed to preserve competition as idealized by Adam Smith. Can they now preserve and promote Schumpeter’s [“creative destruction”] competition? The Microsoft case suggests that they cannot. ” (Robert Samuelson, “The Gates of Power”, The New Republic, Apr. 23).
May 30 — Evils of contingent-fee tax collection, cont’d. Another city, this time Meriden, Ct., has gotten in trouble for hiring a private firm to assist in its taxation process on a contingent-fee basis — in this case, the firm conducted property reassessments and got to keep a share of the new tax revenue hauled in by them. A Connecticut judge has now found that this system gave the firm a pointed incentive to inflate supposed property values unjustifiably, that it had done so in the case at hand, and that the incentive scheme, by destroying the impartiality that we expect of public servants, had deprived taxpayers of their rights to due process under both federal and state constitutions. He ordered the city to refund $15.6 million to two utility companies whose holdings had been overassessed in this manner. (Thomas Scheffey, “Connecticut Judge Blasts City’s $15.6 Million Mistake”, Connecticut Law Tribune, May 3). It’s yet another recognition (see Jan. 10, 2001; Dec. 3, 1999) that when governments hire contingent-fee professionals to advise them on whether private parties owe them money and if so how much, due process flies out the window — as has happened routinely in the new tobacco/gun/lead paint class of lawsuits, which operate on precisely this model.
May 29 — Claim: inappropriate object in toothpaste caused heart attack. A Shelton, Ct. man is suing Colgate-Palmolive, claiming he discovered an extremely indelicate object in a six-ounce standup tube of the company’s regular toothpaste and that the resulting stress caused his blood pressure to escalate over a matter of months, leading him to suffer a heart attack a year later. The company said it does not think its production processes would have allowed the offending object to have entered the tube. (“Man sues over condom in toothpaste”, AP/WTNH New Haven, May 25).
May 29 — States lag in curbing junk science. According to one estimate, only about half of state courts presently follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard for excluding unreliable scientific evidence from trials (Daubert v. Merrell Dow, 1993). Where states follow a laxer standard, they run the risk of approving verdicts based on strawberry-jam-causes-cancer “junk science”. A new group called the Daubert Council, headed by Charles D. Weller and David B. Graham of Cleveland’s Baker & Hostetler, aims to fix that situation by persuading the laggard states to step up to the federal standard. (Darryl Van Duch, “Group is Pushing ‘Daubert'”, National Law Journal, May 25).
May 29 — Brace for data-disaster suits. Companies with a substantial information technology presence are likely to become the targets of major liability lawsuits in areas such as hacker attacks, computer virus spread, confidentiality breach, and business losses to co-venturers and customers, according to various experts in the field. (Jaikumar Vijayan, “IT security destined for the courtroom”, ComputerWorld, May 21).
May 28 — Holiday special: dispatches from abroad. Today is Memorial Day in the U.S., which we will observe by skipping American news just for today in favor of the news reports that continue to pour in from elsewhere:
* Swan victim Mary Ryan, 71, has lost her $32,600 negligence claim against authorities over an incident in which one of the birds knocked her to the ground in Phoenix Park in central Dublin, Ireland. She testified that she had just fed the swan and was walking away when she heard a great flapping of wings and was knocked down, suffering a broken wrist. “Ryan said park commissioners should have put up signs warning the public about ‘the mischievous propensity and uncertain temperament'” of the birds, but Judge Kevin Haugh ruled that evidence had not established that the park’s swans were menacing in general, although the one in question had concededly been having “a very bad day.” (Reuters/Excite, May 25).
* In Canada, the New Brunswick Court of Appeal has ruled improper the disbarment of Fredericton attorney Michael A.A. Ryan, whom the Law Society had removed from practice after finding that he had lied to clients and falsified work, reports the National Post. To conceal his neglect of cases which had lapsed due to statutes of limitations, “Mr. Ryan gave his clients reports of hearings, motions and discoveries that never occurred, and when pressed for details of a supposedly favourable judgment, forged a decision from the Court of Appeal. The clients were eventually told they had won $20,000 each in damages,” but in the end Ryan had to confess that he had been making it all up. “The lawyer has admitted to a long-standing addiction to drugs and alcohol, and told the court he was depressed during the period of his misconduct because of the breakup of his marriage.” (Jonathon Gatehouse, “Court gives lawyer who lied to clients second chance,” National Post, May 18).
* Authorities in Northumbria, England, have agreed to pay thousands of pounds to Detective Inspector Brian Baker, who blames his nocturnal snoring on excessive inhalation of cannabis (marijuana) dust in the line of police duty. Baker says that his spending four days in a storeroom with the seized plants resulted in nasal congestion, sniffing, dry throat, and impaired sense of smell as well as a snore that led to “marital disharmony”. (Ian Burrell, “Payout for policeman who blamed his snoring on cannabis”, The Independent (U.K.), April 11; Joanna Hale, “Drugs inquiry made detective a snorer”, The Times (U.K.), April 11). And updating an earlier story (see May 22), a woman in Bolton, Lancashire has prevailed in her suit against a stage hypnotist whose presentation caused her to regress to a childlike state and recall memories of abuse; damages were $9,000 (AP/ABC News, May 25).
May 25-27 — “Judge buys shopaholic defense in embezzling”. “A Chicago woman who stole nearly $250,000 from her employer to finance a shopping addiction was spared from prison in a novel ruling Wednesday by a federal judge who found that she bought expensive clothing and jewelry to ‘self-medicate’ her depression.” Elizabeth Roach faced a possible 18-month prison term for the embezzlement under federal sentencing guidelines, but U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly reduced her sentence, sparing her the big house, in what was evidently “the first time in the country that a federal judge reduced a defendant’s sentence because of an addiction to shopping.” She had bought a $7,000 belt buckle and run credit-card bills up to $500,000. (Matt O’Connor, Chicago Tribune, May 24).
May 25-27 — Columnist-fest. More reasons to go on reading newspapers:
* A New York legislator has introduced a joint custody bill that he thinks would significantly reduce the state’s volume of child custody litigation, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. Leaving aside debates about the other pros and cons of joint custody, one reason it languishes is that it “has been opposed by matrimonial lawyers in the state. ‘They make their living on these divorces,’ said [assemblyman David] Sidikman, a lawyer himself. “… The parents usually start off these cases promising to be adults, but that doesn’t last once the lawyers get involved.” “(John Tierney, “The Big City: A System for Lawyers, Not Children”, New York Times, May 15 (reg)). Bonus: Tierney on the NIMBY-ists who would sue to keep IKEA from building a store in a blighted Brooklyn neighborhood (“Stray Dogs As a Litigant’s Best Friend”, April 13).
* Steve Chapman points out that the recent release of an Oklahoma man long imprisoned for a rape he didn’t commit (see May 9) casts doubt not only on shoddy forensics but also on that convincing-seeming kind of evidence, eyewitness testimony (“Don’t believe what they say they see”, Chicago Tribune, May 13). Bonus: Chapman on the scandal of medical-pot prohibition (“Sickening policy on medical marijuana”, May 17).
* Reparations: “Germans may be paying for the sins of their fathers but asking Americans to stump up for what great-great-great-grandpappy did seems to be rather stretching a point. ” (Graham Stewart, “Why we simply can’t pay compensation for every stain on our history”, The Times (U.K.), March 22).
May 25-27 — “Gone with the Wind” parody case. The legal status of parody as a defense to copyright infringement is still uncertain in many ways, and contrary to a widespread impression there is no legal doctrine allowing extra latitude in copying material from works such as the Margaret Mitchell novel that have become “cultural icons” (Kim Campbell, “Who’s right?”, Christian Science Monitor, May 24; Ken Paulson, “What — me worry? Judge’s suppression of Gone With the Wind parody raises concerns”, Freedom Forum, May 20).
May 24 — “Family awarded $1 billion in lawsuit”. Another great day for trial lawyers under our remarkable system of unlimited punitive damages: a New Orleans jury has voted to make ExxonMobil pay $1 billion to former state district judge Joseph Grefer and his family because an Exxon contractor that leased land from the family for about thirty years left detectable amounts of radioactivity behind from its industrial activities. Exxon “said it offered to clean up the land but the Grefers declined its offers.” The company says the land could be cleaned up for $46,000 and also “claims that less than 1 percent of the land contains radiation levels above naturally occurring levels.” The jury designated $56 million of the fine for cleaning up the land; the total value of the parcel is somewhere between $500,000 (Exxon’s view) and $1.5 million (the owners). (Sandra Barbier, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 23; Brett Martel, “Jury: ExxonMobil Should Pay $1.06B”, AP/Yahoo, May 22; “Exxon Mobil to Appeal $1 Billion Fine”, Reuters/New York Times, May 23).
May 24 — Humiliation by litigators as turning point in Clinton affair. “It strikes me as relevant that the turning point in the Lewinsky saga was the broadcasting of Clinton’s deposition, an image of an actual human being humiliated for hours on end. It was then that we realized we had gone too far — but look how far down the path we had already gone.” (Andrew Sullivan, TRB from Washington, “Himself”, The New Republic, May 7).
May 24 — Tobacco: angles on Engle. With three cigarette companies having agreed to pay $700 million just to guarantee their right to appeal a Miami jury’s confiscatory $145 billion verdict in Engle v. R.J. Reynolds, other lawyers are piling on, the latest being an alliance of hyperactive class action lawyers Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll with O.J. Simpson defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran (“Lawsuit says tobacco industry tried to hook kids”, CNN/AP, May 23; Jay Weaver, “Tobacco firms agree to historic smoker payment”, Miami Herald, May 8; “Tobacco Companies Vow to Fight $145 Billion Verdict”, American Lawyer Media, July 17, 2000; Rick Bragg with Sarah Kershaw, “”Juror Says a ‘Sense of Mission’ Led to Huge Tobacco Damages”, New York Times, July 16, 2000 (reg); “Borrowing power to be considered in tobacco suit”, AP/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 1, 2000 (judge ruled that companies’ ability to borrow money could be used as a predicate for quantum of punitive damages)).
May 23 — “Insect lawyer ad creates buzz”. Torys, a large law firm based in Toronto, has caused a stir by running a recruitment ad aimed at student lawyers with pictures of weasels, rats, vultures, scorpions, cockroaches, snakes and piranhas, all under the headline “Lawyers we didn’t hire.” The ad, devised by Ogilvy and Mather, says the firm benefits from a “uniquely pleasant and collegial atmosphere” because it doesn’t hire “bullies, office politicians or toadies”, who presumably go to work for other law firms instead.
However, some defenders of invertebrates and other low-status fauna say it’s unfair to keep comparing them to members of the legal profession. Vultures, for example, “provide a really essential role in terms of removing dead animals and diseases,” says Ontario zoologist Rob Foster. “It’s slander, frankly,” he says, “adding that one exception might be the burbot, a bottom-feeding fish whose common names include ‘the lawyer.’ … ‘Whenever I see a dung beetle portrayed negatively in a commercial, I see red,’ he said yesterday, recalling that in The Far Side comic strip, cartoonist Gary Larson once drew two vermin hurling insults by calling each other ‘lawyer.'” (Tracey Tyler, Toronto Star, Apr. 19). (DURABLE LINK)
May 23 — “Working” for whom? An outfit called the Environmental Working Group has recently taken a much higher profile through its close association with “Trade Secrets”, a trial-lawyer-sourced (and, say its critics, egregiously one-sided) attack on the chemical industry that aired March 26 as a Bill Moyers special on PBS. Spotted around the same time was the following ad which ran on one of the FindLaw email services on behalf of EWG: “Thought the Cigarette Papers Were Big? 50 years of internal Chemical Industry documents including thousands of industry meeting minutes, memos, and letters. All searchable online. Everything you need to build a case at http://www.ewg.org“. Hmmm … isn’t PBS supposed to avoid letting itself be used to promote commercial endeavors, such as litigation? (more on trial lawyer sway among environmental groups)
MORE: Michael Fumento, “Bill Moyers’ Bad Chemistry”, Washington Times, April 13; PBS “TradeSecrets”; Steven Milloy, “Anti-chemical Activists And Their New Clothes”, FoxNews.com, March 30; www.AboutTradeSecrets.org (chemical industry response); ComeClean.org; Ronald Bailey, “Synthetic Chemicals and Bill Moyers”, Reason Online, March 28. The New York Times‘s Neil Genzlinger wrote a less than fully enthralled review of the Moyers special (“‘Trade Secrets’: Rendering a Guilty Verdict on Corporate America”, television review, March 26) for which indiscretion abuse was soon raining down on his head from various quarters, including the leftist Nation (“The Times v. Moyers” (editorial), April 16). (DURABLE LINK)
May 22 — From dinner party to court. “I’m never going to invite people around for dinner again,” says Annette Martin of Kingsdown, Wiltshire, England, after being served with a notice of claim for personal injury from dinner guest Margaret Stewart, who says she was hurt when she fell through a glass and steel dining chair in Miss Martin’s home. Martin says that “up to then we had been good friends,” and that Miss Stewart “looked perfectly fine when she walked out the door that evening. … I feel very strongly about the television adverts that encourage this sort of nonsense. I think the Government should intervene before we become like the Americans and sue over anything.” (Richard Savill, “Dinner party ends with a sting in the tail”, Daily Telegraph, May 19). In other U.K. news, a woman from Bolton, Lancashire, is suing stage hypnotist Philip Green, claiming that during one of his performances “she was induced to chase what she believed were fairies around the hall, drink a glass of cider believing it was water and believe she was in love with Mr. Green,” all of which left her depressed and even for a time suicidal, calling up memories of childhood abuse. (“Woman sues stage hypnotist over ‘abuse memories'”, Ananova.com, May 21) (more on hypnotist liability: March 13). UpdateMay 28: she wins case and $9,000 damages.
May 22 — Razorfish, Cisco, IPO suits. In a decision scathingly critical of the “lawyer-driven” nature of securities class action suits, New York federal judge Jed Rakoff rejected a motion by five law firms to install a group of investors as the lead plaintiff in shareholder lawsuits against Razorfish Inc., a Web design and consulting company. The investor group had been “cobbled together” for purposes of getting their lawyers into the driver’s seat, he suggested. “Here, as in many other such cases, most of the counsel who filed the original complaints attempted before filing the instant motions to reach a private agreement as to who would be put forth as lead plaintiff and lead counsel and how fees would be divided among all such counsel.” Rakoff instead installed as lead counsel Milberg Weiss and another firm, which jointly represented the largest investor claiming losses in the action. “Judge Rakoff noted drily in a footnote that numerous complaints were filed within days that essentially copied the original Milberg Weiss complaint verbatim,” and wondered whether the lawyers filing those copycat suits had taken into account the requirements of federal Rule 11. (Bruce Balestier, “Judge Rejects Lawyers’ Choice of Lead Plaintiff in Razorfish Class Actions”, New York Law Journal, May 8).
Observers are closely watching the onslaught of class action suits filed against Cisco Systems since its stock price declined. Stanford securities-law professor Joseph Grundfest, who “helped craft the 1995 reform act and has worked on both plaintiffs-side and defense cases … said he sees the Cisco case as part of a buckshot strategy by plaintiffs’ lawyers. They are suing multiple technology companies with hopes of extracting a large settlement from at least one. ‘They only need a small probability to make it worth their while,’ Grundfest said. ‘How much does it cost to write a complaint?'”. (Renee Deger, “Cisco Inferno”, The Recorder, April 27). Shareholder suits in federal court are headed toward record numbers this year in the wake of the dotcom meltdown (Daniel F. DeLong, “Lawyers Find Profit in Dot-Com Disasters”, Yahoo/ NewsFactor.com, May 14; see also Richard Williamson, “Shareholder Suits Slam High-Tech”, Interactive Week/ZDNet, Dec. 19, 2000).
May 22 — Welcome SmarterTimes readers. Ira Stoll’s daily commentary on the New York Times mentioned us on Sunday (May 20 — scroll to first “Late Again”). And Brill’s Content has now put online its “Best of the Web” roundtable in which we were recommended by federal appeals judge Alex Kozinski (May — scroll about halfway down righthand column).
May 21– Six-hour police standoff no grounds for loss of job, says employee. “A formerly suicidal insurance executive who lost his job after a six-hour standoff with police at Park Meadows mall [in Denver] is suing his former employer for discrimination under federal and state laws protecting the mentally disabled. The 43-year-old plaintiff, Richard M. Young, alleges he was wrongfully terminated from Ohio Casualty Insurance Co. after the company interpreted a suicide note he wrote to be his letter of resignation. … The civil complaint says Young was on emergency medical leave for an emotional breakdown May 29, 2000, when he drove to the shopping center’s parking garage and was spotted on mall security cameras with a revolver. … Douglas County sheriff’s deputies finally coaxed him into surrendering”. His suit seeks back pay, front pay and punitive damages. (John Accola, “Man who was suicidal sues ex-employer for discrimination”, Rocky Mountain News, May 18). (DURABLE LINK)
May 21 — “Anonymity takes a D.C. hit”. If Rep. Felix Grucci has his way, you won’t be able to duck into a library while on the road to check your Hotmail; the New York Republican has “introduced legislation requiring schools and libraries receiving federal funds to block access from their computers to anonymous Web browsing or e-mail services. … Grucci says it’s necessary to thwart the usual suspects, terrorists and child molesters.” (Declan McCullagh, Wired News, May 19). And did you know that it would be unlawful to put out this website in Italy without registering with the government and paying a fee? New regulations in that country are extending to web publishers an appalling-enough-already set of rules that require print journalists to register with the government. Says the head of the Italian journalists’ union approvingly: “Thus ends, at least in Italy, the absurd anarchy that permits anyone to publish online without standards and without restrictions, and guarantees to the consumer minimum standards of quality in all information content, for the first time including electronic media.” (Declan McCullagh’s politechbot, “Italy reportedly requires news sites to register, pay fees”, April 11; “More on Italy requiring news sites to register, pay fees”, April 12) (via Virginia Postrel’s “The Scene”, posted there May 6). (DURABLE LINK)
May 21 — “Patients’ rights” roundup. Well, duh: “Doctors supporting patients’ rights bills have suddenly become alarmed that some of the proposals could boomerang and expose them to new lawsuits.” (Robert Pear, “Doctors Fear Consequences of Proposals on Liability”, New York Times, May 6 (reg)). “Consumers do not consider the right to sue health insurers over coverage issues a top healthcare priority, according to new survey data released by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA),” which is of course an interested party in the matter; a right to sue “finished last among 21 major health issues that consumers were asked to rank.” (Karen Pallarito, “Poll: Right to sue HMOs low priority for consumers,” Reuters Health, April 26 (text) (survey data — PDF)). And if liability is to be expanded at all, Congress should consider incorporating into the scheme the “early offers” idea developed by University of Virginia law professor Jeffrey O’Connell, which is aimed at providing incentives for insurers to make, and claimants to accept, reasonable settlements at an early stage in the dispute (John Hoff, “A Better Patients’ Bill of Rights,” National Center for Policy Analysis Brief Analysis No. 355, April 19). (DURABLE LINK)
MORE: Greg Scandlen, “Legislative Malpractice: Misdiagnosing Patients’ Rights”, Cato Briefing Papers, April 7, 2000 (executive summary) (full paper — PDF); Gregg Easterbrook, “Managing Fine”, The New Republic, March 20, 2000.