How reliable are projections from the Department of Labor about the cost of the President’s ambitious new extension of overtime entitlements to salaried workers earning $23,660-$50,440? The “administration refuses to allow others to check its math. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the state agency that I lead, in August requested the specific data and methodology the Labor Department used to calculate its estimates. Our request was denied.” So the department went ahead with its own analysis. “The rule will supposedly cost $2 billion the first year. Our math shows $1.7 billion for Florida alone.” [Jesse Panuccio, WSJ, earlier here, here, here, here, and here]
Writing checks for overtime (or sending managers home before they reach the point of being entitled to it) is only the more visible cost to business of the Obama administration’s scheme to reclassify layers of junior management as hourly employees. Small businesses told the Wall Street Journal this spring (summarized) of the forbidding morale cost of discouraging ambitious employees from upwardly mobile, which usually means salary-oriented, thinking:
Emo Pentermann, owner of Bell ATM Service Inc., a distribution and repair shop for ATMs and other money machines in Centennial, Colo. …worries that making more people eligible for overtime pay could remove the inherent incentive for lower-level managers to hustle to earn a promotion.
“You work hard, develop the maturity for a salaried position, and then move up,” he says. “It takes away that whole level of maturity and freedom of choosing to get the job done in the time allotted. So for all practical purposes, they just might as well be on a time card.”
Jeffrey Harris has 70 salaried employees at his Chicago-based Inte Q, a marketing firm that specializes in customer-loyalty programs for brands such as Reebok and Office Depot. … He has tried to create a workplace environment that de-emphasizes keeping up with a time clock. For instance, employees can take time off work to attend a child’s performance in school….
…when he heard about the proposal, he said he immediately thought it would affect the type of work culture that has yielded results for him in both profits and employee retention. Only 2% of workers have voluntarily chosen to leave the company in the past three years, he says.
P.S. Proposed regulations anticipated by November 2014, final regulations “unlikely to arrive until Spring 2015” [Wage and Hour Insights]
In March and April, the U.S. Department of Labor issued notices of proposed rulemaking on two of the most hotly contested issues of its predecessor Obama department, overtime for junior managers and the joint-employer rule. Tammy McCutchen:
The DOL proposes to increase the minimum salary for exemption from $455 per week ($23,660 annualized) to $679 per week ($35,308 annualized)…. If adopted, the proposed rule would replace the final rule issued by the DOL on May 19, 2016, but enjoined by the Eastern District of Texas just weeks before its December 1, 2016 effective date. The 2016 final rule would have increased the minimum salary for exemption to $913 per week ($47,476 annualized)
Earlier here and here. In addition, DoL is proposing to clarify what times of compensation and benefits employers must include in the overtime calculations.
Separately, DoL’s proposed rule on joint employment
would replace the January 2016 Administrator’s Interpretation on joint employment, which did not go through the notice-and-comment rulemaking process and was withdrawn in June 2017.
Under the FLSA, companies found to be joint employers are jointly liable for all minimum wage and overtime violations. The statute does not include a definition of joint employment and has left this determination to the courts.
The joint employment issue has become increasingly important since the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dramatically expanded the definition during the Obama administration in the Browning Ferris decision, recently partially affirmed but remanded to the NLRB by the D.C. Circuit. The Trump NLRB has undertaken a rulemaking of its own, proposing to narrow the joint employer definition under the National Labor Relations Act, so as to restore the law, essentially, as it stood prior to Browning Ferris. The NLRB is currently poring over thousands of comments filed for and against its proposed rule. A final joint employer rule is expected from that agency by year end.
The joint employment concept is important because, among other matters, it determines when one employer (typically larger) can be held liable for the actions of another, such as a contractor or franchisee. The proposal would adopt a definition of joint employer originating in a 1983 Ninth Circuit decision in Bonnette v. California Health and Welfare Agency, which does not sweep as broadly as the later definition adopted by the NLRB in Browning-Ferris and by the Obama administration. More: McCutchen podcast on all three issues.
The damage from one of President Obama’s worst unilateral edicts, overtime for junior managers and other workers with middling salaries, is going to radiate through every sector of the productive economy. That includes academia: “The University of California school system, for instance, faces a $39 million-a-year tab for raises to avoid paying overtime to thousands of postdoctoral scholars, librarians and specialists. The University of Iowa says it would limit work hours of staff. And a state university in Missouri could cut some employee benefits.” [WSJ]
- Decision time coming up for administration on whether to reverse one of Obama’s worst initiatives, overtime for junior managers [Veronique de Rugy; Robin Shea]
- California observes different rule on overtime for offshore oil workers than does federal government, exposing employers to huge retroactive back pay liability [Washington Legal Foundation, Supreme Court granted certiorari last month in Newton v. Parker Drilling]
- Today in bad ideas: Philadelphia becomes latest jurisdiction to regulate shifts and scheduling in retail, hospitality [Juliana Feliciano Reyes, Philadelphia Inquirer/WHYY, Drinker Biddle/National Law Review, Max Marin/BillyPenn]
- “I’m a restaurant employee in a city with a $15 minimum wage; here’s how it’s hurt me” [Simone Barron, Washington Examiner] Virginia could wind up with a $15 minimum law before long, tough luck for rural parts of state [Hans Bader]
- “Nurses allege Corona, Calif. underpaid them, rounding down their time to the nearest quarter hour. Ninth Circuit: This can proceed as a class action. Five judges, dissenting from denial of en banc review: The only evidence in support of the nurses’ claim is a declaration from plaintiffs’ lawyers’ paralegal, which is plainly not admissible. ‘This doesn’t pass the straight-face test.'” [Short Circuit on Sali v. Corona Regional Medical Center, Ninth Circuit panel, denial of en banc rehearing]
- “The Impact of The New German Minimum Wage” [Ryan Bourne]
- Danny Meyer decision to move NYC restaurants to no-tip policy “was driven by state and federal laws and regulations” [Ira Stoll, Future of Capitalism]
- U.S. Department of Labor will seek comment on whether employers should be liable for overtime when non-exempt employees use company-issued mobile devices after hours [Daniel Schwartz]
- Yes, the Gig Economy is piecework, no, there isn’t anything particularly horrible about that [Megan McArdle, Bloomberg View]
- House panel blasts DoL regs prescribing overtime for junior managers [Littler, House Small Business]
- The madness of King Andrew: Cuomo’s $15 minimum wage would amount to 90% of the median wage in Buffalo metro area, 86 percent in Rochester [Alex Armlovich, New York Daily News]
- “Asian Nail Salon Staff Demand Apology From The New York Times for Poverty-Porn Series That’s Costing Them Jobs” [Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason, earlier] And more: Jim Epstein re-reports the Times nail salon story in the first of a four-part series. Devastating, read it;
- Class action lawyer sues 2 more “Uber for…” startups on wage/hour classification theory [ArsTechnica, earlier]
- In California, you can be threatened with fined for using water during drought and also fined for not watering your lawn;
- Bad Obama administration ideas, part ninety-zillion: “The steep cost of junior-manager overtime“
- Money sought after attempt to break world record for “Fastest Time to Jump Through 10 Panes of Tempered Glass” does not end well;
- Mom charged in Connecticut for letting her 11-year-old daughter wait in car;
- Bending to its will: “Feds indict FedEx for not snooping into packages“;
- Florida jury awards $23 billion to woman in smoking case, jet-owning lawyer says it’s (all together now) not about the money;
- What if an AirBnB renter just refuses to leave?
March 15 — Annals of zero tolerance: scissors, teacher’s beer. A twelve-year-old at Morton Middle School in Omaha has been expelled after she brought a pair of blunt-edged safety scissors to school earlier this month. (Tanya Eiserer, “7th-Grader With Scissors Violates Policy”, Omaha World-Herald, March 9, link now dead). And ordering and drinking a beer with dinner in the presence of her swim team has apparently brought an end to the teaching and coaching career of Lori Gallagher in Greenwood, Ind. Gallagher had taken her team to Noble Roman’s restaurant after a February swim meet. “Clearly, a situation in which alcohol is in the presence of minors is inappropriate,” said Dan Clark, deputy executive director of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which backed Gallagher’s removal. (Dana Knight, “Greenwood coach suspended for drinking”, Indianapolis Star, March 9, link now dead; Jeff Taylor, Reason Express, March 13 (second item)).
March 15 — Game over four decades ago: let’s change the rules. The latest “Angelos bill” moving through the Maryland legislature would retroactively change state law to make it easier for governments and individuals to sue makers of interior lead paint, which was pulled off the market in the 1950s. The bill would remove the requirement that plaintiffs actually identify which firm manufactured paint to which they were exposed, instead allowing suits against all manufacturers alike under the theory of “market-share liability”. The powerful attorney, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, was earlier instrumental in steering legislation through Annapolis retroactively tagging tobacco companies with liability for selling their wares, a caper that resulted in a $1 billion fee claim for his firm (see Dec. 9, Oct. 19 commentaries). Paint and pigment manufacturers brought in former U.S. attorney general Benjamin Civiletti, former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger and others to argue against the measure. (Michael Dresser, “Lead Paint Bill is Debated”, Baltimore Sun, March 10; Timothy B. Wheeler and William F. Zorzi Jr., “Lawmakers back bill on lead paint”, Baltimore Sun, January 28; industry press release) (via Junk Science).
March 15 — What ADA was written for. Jose Francisco Almada took off for Mexico on a Sunday in 1997 on learning that a niece there had died after a long illness. When he returned on Wednesday he was told that his employer, USA Waste Inc., had terminated him for skipping work without notifying a supervisor. Almada hired a lawyer who proceeded to sue the company under — can you guess which statute? Not the Family and Medical Leave Act, but the Americans with Disabilities Act, on the grounds that the company’s action was a mere pretext to discriminate against him on the grounds of a back injury which prevented him from doing heavy lifting in his sanitation rounds. The company denied the charge and said Almada had displayed “poor work attitude” aside from the absenteeism incident but the Colorado Civil Rights Division sided with him and so did a jury, which voted him more than $250,000. Almada’s lawyer, James E. Gigax, said: “It is this kind of case the ADA is written for.” (Howard Pankratz, “Driver wins lawsuit under disabilities act”, Denver Post, Feb. 22).
March 15 — A dream of black goats. “To dream of white goats is a sign of wealth and plenty,” declares a fortune-telling “Oraculum” regularly consulted by Napoleon Bonaparte; “but black signify sickness and uncertain lawsuits.” (Napoleon’s Book of Fate and Oraculum (Kessinger)) (via The New Yorker, “Book Currents”, Dec. 27-Jan. 3, not online) (send black-goat greeting card).
March 14 — Clinton legal legacy. American Lawyer asked this site’s editor to contribute to a cover-story symposium on President Clinton’s legal legacy. “Bill and Hillary Clinton emerged from a Yale Law School milieu that admired litigation as the remedy for practically every social ill and assumed that the more people could be persuaded to assert their rights in court, the better off society would be — what some of us call the invisible-fist theory. … [By the end] the Clintons themselves [came] to experience the intense miseries of destructive litigation — an ordeal through which they set a very poor example of how to behave, and from which they appear to have learned precisely nothing.” Along the way, the piece sounds off on everything from the federal tobacco suit to sexual harassment law. (Walter Olson, “Selective Liability”, American Lawyer, March 3).
March 14 — Swissair crash aftermath. Since its Flight 111 went down off Nova Scotia in September 1998, Swissair has been widely praised for going farther than any previous airline to help victims’ families: it offered them advance payments of about $154,000 without awaiting the results of litigation, reimbursed extensive travel and funeral expenses, and performed many other services for the bereaved. The efforts have generated much good will among the families, but “is all this likely to reduce Swissair’s liability or the number of lawsuits filed against it? Probably not,” reports Margaret Jacobs of the Wall Street Journal‘s news side. Faced with the reality that the American litigation system behaves in just as harsh a fashion toward defendants who try to be good guys as toward those who resist trench by trench, airlines in the future may find themselves financially tempted to emulate the much harder line taken by such as Korean Air Lines, which is still litigating against survivor families 17 years after a crash.
A sidelight on the affair: recognizing that “courts outside the U.S. typically award a third or less of what U.S. courts do in wrongful-death actions”, Swissair initially offered much lower amounts to European than to American families, which raised a ruckus over there: “Swiss papers asked whether the airline believed an American life had more value than a European one.” Inevitably, the airline wound up offering the higher sums to everyone. Talk about genuine (for once) American imperialism: our legal system is so successful at exporting its premises that European legal systems can hardly give effect to their considered view as to the suitable level of damages even in many disputes among European citizens. (Margaret A. Jacobs, “Swissair Crash Tests Relations With Insurers”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15, fee-based archive).
March 14 — How bad can a capital trial get? What happens when a candidate for the Bad Prosecutors Hall of Fame faces off against a contender for the Clueless Defense Attorneys Championship? You get something like the 1983 Texas trial that sent Calvin Jerold Burdine to Death Row, which a federal judge threw out last September in favor of a new trial. “It is true that there is no bright line that distinguishes consciousness from sleep,” wrote U.S. District Judge David Hittner, with reference to allegations that Burdine’s court-appointed defense lawyer had repeatedly snoozed off during the proceedings. “However, the record and the evidence here is clear: [the defense lawyer] was actually unconscious.” According to the Washington Post‘s Paul Duggan, such cases are frequent enough that Texas appellate lawyers simply call ’em “sleeping-lawyer cases”. Because Judge Hittner found the inadequacy of defense sufficient grounds to overturn the conviction, he did not need to address further allegations that prosecutors had tainted the atmosphere against Burdine, who is gay, by calling him a “fairy” and a “queer” during his trial on charges of fatally stabbing a man during a burglary. According to the Post, “the prosecutor, in seeking a death sentence, argued to the jury that imposing a life term on a gay man would be an inadequate penalty, considering the prevalence of homosexual activity in prison. ‘Sending a homosexual to the penitentiary certainly isn’t a very bad punishment for a homosexual, and that’s what he is asking you to do,’ the prosecutor told the jury, according to a transcript.” (“Inadmissible: Zzzzz”, Texas Lawyer, October 4; text of judge’s order, Southern District of Texas; Paul Duggan, “Verdict Overturned Last Fall, Man Still on Death Row”, Washington Post, March 2).
March 13 — Videogame maker agrees to furnish safety gloves. How our state attorneys general keep busy: Nintendo of America has agreed to offer padded, fingerless protective gloves, up to four per household, to owners of a video game that’s been blamed for cuts, blisters and other hand injuries. “The ‘Mario Party’ game on the Nintendo 64 home game system can cause hand injury because players are encouraged to rapidly rotate a joy stick with a grooved tip, [New York] Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said Wednesday.” Spitzer’s office said the company had set aside up to $80 million to provide gloves — actual outlays can be predicted to be far below that — “and agreed to also provide $75,000 for the cost of the attorney general’s investigation,” reports AP. (Spitzer press release, March 8; “Nintendo To Give Safety Gloves”, AP/AltaVista, March 8; David Becker, “Nintendo offers glove to prevent joystick injuries”, CNet News.com, March 9). Reader Kenton Hoover, one of our informants on this story, is reminded of the old dialogue: Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” Doctor: “So don’t do that.”
March 13 — Majesty of the law. “Attorney Marvin Barish could be hit with harsh sanctions by a federal judge for threatening to kill an Amtrak defense lawyer and calling him a ‘fat pig’ during a trial recess,” Shannon Duffy reports in Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer. U.S. District Judge Herbert J. Hutton declared a mistrial upon learning that Barish had allegedly told defense attorney Paul F.X. Gallagher, fist cocked, “I will kill you with my bare hands.” “You threatened his life in the presence of witnesses, sir,” said the indignant judge, after hearing an account of the incident from his courtroom deputy. “Not in the presence of the jury,” Barish replied; then, perhaps as it dawned that this was not an entirely satisfactory response, he added a more general denial: “I didn’t threaten his life or anybody.” At a later sanctions hearing, Barish said that he was “not condoning my conduct. It was really bad” but that “I didn’t mean that I would kill him” and that Gallagher “wasn’t in obvious fear of his life”. Barish’s attorney, James E. Beasley, said that his client was the real victim in the situation, having been provoked by unfair legal tactics on the part of Amtrak: “I think that having Mr. Barish go through this has been a sufficient sanction in and of itself.” (Shannon Duffy, “An Angry Lawyer?”, The Legal Intelligencer, March 10).
The colorful Barish last figured in these columns December 14, when we reported on the controversy over his having set up a plaintiff client in an apartment and paid his rent, gas, electric, cable television and phone bills. Updating that case, a federal judge refused to disqualify the veteran Philadelphia attorney as counsel in the case, finding such a sanction too harsh even if he committed an ethical violation. (Shannon Duffy, “Sugar Lawyer”, The Legal Intelligencer, Nov. 22).
March 13 — Take the settlement, sue anyway. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is considering a regulation under which terminated workers who’ve accepted a severance packet in exchange for a waiver agreeing not to sue could keep the packet and sue anyway. The worker would be allowed to attack the waiver of rights as not knowing and voluntary without having to “tender back” the sums received. “This is take the money and run,” says Mark DiBernardo of the management-oriented law firm Littler Mendelson. Steven Allen Bennett, commenting on behalf of the American Corporate Counsel Association, isn’t happy about the proposed rule either, saying it encourages “disgruntled employees with spurious claims to fight on endlessly”. (Kevin Livingston, “Gilding the Golden Handshake”, The Recorder/ CalLaw.com, Jan. 24).
March 13 — Welcome WhatTheHeck.com, Center for Equal Opportunity, RTL-4 Dutch television visitors:
* WhatTheHeck.com says its mission is “exposing the funny underside of society and, of course, stupid government tricks”. Check out its list of joke Ebay auctions, entitled “Ain’t Capitalism Grand?”, and its link to Frederic Bastiat’s Petition of the Candle-Makers of Paris, the funniest-ever satire on trade protection, on an Australian server. We get listed under the heading “Smart Sites”;
* “If you haven’t visited <www.overlawyered.com>, you should,” advises the Legal & Regulatory News newsletter (January) of the Center for Equal Opportunity, “the only think tank devoted exclusively to the promotion of colorblind equal opportunity and racial harmony”, headed by Linda Chavez;
* And Max Westerman’s recent report for RTL-4 Dutch television on lawsuits in New York City draws on this site’s resources.
March 10-12 — Accused of harassment; wins $2 million from employer. A Circuit Court jury in Hawaii has voted a $2.1 million award to Leland Gonsalves, who was fired from an auto service manager job at Infiniti-Nissan after a female service clerk filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. “It felt like I was being dragged through the mud and no matter how hard you rinsed off, it was going to follow you for the rest of your life,” Gonsalves said. “The jury found that Infiniti-Nissan unlawfully discriminated against Gonsalves, breached a promise to him that his job would not be affected by the investigation, and violated its own personnel policies and procedures involving his termination.” In court documents, the company had contended that “it conducted a preliminary investigation into the clerk’s allegations and found that Gonsalves appeared to have sexually harassed her based on his admissions”.
Eric Miyasaki, president of Nissan Motor Corp. in Hawaii Ltd., said the company had scrupulously followed EEOC guidelines for investigating harassment claims but that the court had found those guidelines to be non-binding. Miyasaki “said the verdict has ‘dangerous’ implications for every employer in the state. ‘If this decision is allowed to stand, Hawaii employers receiving complaints of harassment will have to choose whether they want to risk liability for ignoring the complaint or risk liability for doing what the sexual harassment law says they must do.'” Gonsalves, according to his lawyer, “has admitted to some of the woman’s allegations, apologized to her for any actions that she may have considered offensive and denied some allegations. But [he] has maintained that his conduct did not reach a level where it created a hostile work environment”. (Debra Barayuga, “$2.1 million award in reverse prejudice jury verdict”, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Jan. 26). [Update Jun. 2, 2003: Supreme Court of Hawaii in Nov. 2002 reversed verdict. Also corrected plaintiff’s first name.]
March 10-12 — Do as we say, cont’d. A big employer that delayed sending out overdue paychecks for weeks or even months would get in trouble with the law, right? But in this case the poky payers are the D.C. Superior Court and D.C. Court of Appeals in Washington, which have had a reputation for years for neglecting their bills. Eventually they got sued (in federal court) by three lawyers and one private investigator who hadn’t been paid for court-appointed criminal defense work. Then things got worse: “Because its attorneys did not reply within 20 days of Dec. 16 — the date the suit was filed — a clerk entered a default against the D.C. courts,” reports Legal Times. The failure to respond “certainly sets an interesting precedent in the courts’ effort to instill public confidence in its operations,” observes attorney Gary Sidell. (Carrie Johnson, “D.C. Courts Default in Suit by Lawyers”, Legal Times, Jan. 14).
March 10-12 — Rise, fall and rise of class actions. “The frequency of class actions has ebbed and flowed in the past 30 years. In 1988, The New York Times reported a sharp drop-off in these cases since the 1970s. A legal expert told the newspaper that class actions ‘sort of had their day in the sun and kind of petered out.’
“The sun is shining again. Though no government agency keeps accurate statistics on the numbers of class actions, no one — trial lawyers or corporate America — disputes that the frequency of these cases has multiplied exponentially [well, at least geometrically — ed.] since the early 1990s.
“A survey of large corporations by the Federalist Society, a conservative research group in Washington, D.C., estimated that from 1988 to 1998, class actions filings increased by 338 percent in federal courts and by more than 1,000 percent in state courts. Corporations that were defending only a handful of these cases 10 years ago now report dealing with 50 or 80 at a time.” (Eddie Curran, “On behalf of all others: legal growth industry has made plaintiffs of us all”, Mobile Register, Dec. 26) (see Feb. 7).
March 9 — Record employment verdict thrown out. A unanimous California Supreme Court, reversing an appeals court, has upheld a trial judge’s overturning of a record-breaking $89.5 million discrimination verdict against Hughes Aircraft Co. The trial judge had “found that (1) passion and prejudice had motivated the jury, (2) the damages did not bear a reasonable relationship to Hughes’s actions or plaintiffs’ injuries, and (3) they were grossly disproportionate to the amount of actual damages.” Justice Janice Brown wrote the high court’s opinion and also added a concurring opinion, also signed by Justice Ming W. Chin, calling unlimited punitive damages a violation of fairness and due process (“fundamental notions of justice require some correlation between punishment and harm” — with cite to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) and saying such damages should seldom exceed triple the amount of actual damages. A counter-concurrence by Justice Stanley Mosk dismissed the awarding of excessive punitive damages as a non-crisis and the 3x-damages yardstick as itself arbitrary.
Since Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Malcolm H. Mackey threw out the verdict, attorneys for the plaintiffs have waged a personal campaign against him in the press: Judge Mackey appears to think “that only white people can be trusted to sit dispassionately on matters of race,” charges Santa Monica lawyer Ian Herzog, who represents former Hughes employees Jeffrey Lane and David Villalpando. “They were trying to send a message to the judiciary that any judge who overturns a civil rights verdict … is going to be accused of being racist,” said Hughes attorney Paul Grossman, of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. “The tactics were outrageous.” (Maura Dolan, “Justices Order New Trial in Race Bias Suit”, Los Angeles Times, March 7, link now dead; Lane v. Hughes Aircraft text of decision, filed March 6 (PDF format)).
March 9 — Costly state of higher awareness. “Deepak Chopra, the high lama of litigation, may be a pussycat on TV, but cross him in the courtroom and you’ll have a tiger on your tail,” reports Stephen Lemons at Salon. The New Age guru has “garnered notoriety through his frequent visits to the courtroom”, of which the most famous was his $35 million defamation suit against the Weekly Standard, settled on terms that included an abject retraction plus what Chopra says was a $1.6 million settlement. The La Jolla-based author and alternative medicine advocate has described that suit as “an act of love” meant to lift the magazine to “a higher state of awareness.” (Stephen Lemons, “The art of the spiritiual smackdown”, Salon, March 7).
March 9 — Everyone should weblog. Via Eatonweb yesterday, we discovered more ‘blogs to keep an eye on: Law School Dropout, by Chris O’Connor out of Oregon, led us to several previously unfamiliar resources, including a site on famous American trials by Prof. Doug Linder of the U. of Mo.-K.C. School of Law, Prof. Peter Tiersma’s list of links on law and language, and a compilation of “Weird and Funny Cases” with appended case citations, a welcome service. News/discussion log Edgecaseis worth a look as well. Weblogging (of which this site is one example) “appears to be undergoing a huge surge in popularity,” reports Wired News (Leander Kahney, “The Web the Way It Was”, Feb. 23). And Editor & Publisher Online columnist Steve Outing says it’s time mainstream news organizations “started doing Weblogs of their own”. (“Weblogs: from Underground to Mainstream”, March 8).
March 8 — Barrel pointing backward, cont’d. Another item, overlooked earlier, to add to the file on how litigation is slowing development of “smart guns” (see Feb. 17 commentary): a company that’s pioneered attempts to develop such guns is now seeking to pull out of the firearms business. Switzerland’s SIG Industrial Co. Holding Ltd. said it was seeking to sell its firearms businesses in Europe and the U.S., the latter of which claims an 11 percent share of the U.S. commercial pistol market. “The SIG announcement … is notable because the company attracted attention [in December], when it said that it would be the first manufacturer to market ‘personalized’ handguns. These weapons include an electronic locking system designed to allow only authorized users to fire,” reports Paul Barrett of the Wall Street Journal‘s news side. Such locking systems, of course, are among the innovations demanded by the cities suing gunmakers. “SIG said it will go ahead with ‘limited shipments’ of its personalized pistols later this year.”
From the same report: “In a separate development, gun manufacturer H&R 1871 Inc. said it would cease to produce handguns because of the litigation-driven increases in the cost of liability insurance and shipping. H&R, Gardner, Mass., had made a relatively small number of handguns and is primarily known for shotguns and rifles.” And the Zilkha group, which owns Colt’s, is trying to complete an acquisition of German-owned Heckler & Koch, after which it would “reduce or phase out Heckler & Koch’s sales of civilian pistols in the U.S.” (Paul Barrett, “Swiss Gun Maker SIG Plans to Sell U.S. Unit”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19, fee-based online service).
March 8 — Californians reject law boosting insurance litigation. By about a two-to-one margin, Golden State voters turned thumbs down on Proposition 30 (see March 6 commentary), thus disappointing the state’s trial lawyers and a coalition whose efforts they had backed. With 59 percent of precincts reporting, the measure was trailing 33 to 67 percent. (L.A. Times, proposition results).
March 8 — “Girl puts head under guillotine; sues when hurt”. The mock guillotine, installed as part of a school gymnasium haunted-house, had a wooden blade and was considered safe but allegedly injured her when its rope snapped. (Paul Waldie, “Girl sues after having ‘guillotine’ hit her neck”, National Post, March 6, link now dead; via Obscure Store). It’s our second item within a week from a Nova Scotia junior high school (see “Hug protest in Halifax”, March 2).
March 8 — Audio clip: our editor on NPR “Morning Edition”. Lawyers filed suit this week against the company that owns the K-B Toys chain, seeking class action status on behalf of African-American customers. The suit charges that stores in the chain located in white neighborhoods around the Washington, D.C. area have a more liberal check acceptance policy than stores with a predominantly minority clientele, a disparity that they say violates the Civil Rights Act. NPR’s Kathleen Schalch interviews this site’s editor who points out that courts have been reluctant to find store-to-store disparities unlawful when owners can cite a cost basis for them, such as a higher risk of returned checks in some locations. (March 6, summary (sixth item); audio clip (6:09 — requires Real Audio)).
March 7 — Mass ADA complaints. The problem of ADA filing mills — law offices that work closely with nonprofits or individual complainants to file large volumes of complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which are then settled for legal fees and a promise of alterations — has begun breaking out into the general press (see our Jan. 26-27, Feb. 15 commentaries). John Stossel last Friday devoted his ABC 20/20 “Give Me a Break!” to the topic, relating the tale of shop owners Dave and Donna Batelaan in Lake Worth, Fla., whose Action Mobility Products got tagged with an ADA complaint for not having a sign designating handicap parking, an amenity that seemed unnecessary since the store sells products aimed at disabled buyers and nearly all of its customers are disabled. The Batelaans, who are disabled themselves, wound up paying $1,000 to settle the lawsuit, which was filed without warning. (Frank Mastropolo and James Wang (writers), “Taking Advantage“, ABC 20/20, “Give Me a Break!” with John Stossel, March 3, transcript).
Also last Friday, USA Today drew attention to the problem and, for balance, ran a guest op-ed by Florida attorney Robert Anthony Bogdan, who files such complaints (“…the motivation of myself and Lance Wogalter, as attorneys for our clients, is not to rake in huge fees, as critics claim. We have undertaken this representation because our client’s position is the right position. Of course, we cannot work for free.”) And Forbes‘ Michael Freedman contributes further details about Bogdan’s representation of the disabled daughter mentioned in our Feb. 15 report: she’s only 12 years old, which makes it especially incongruous that she’s filed complaints against a liquor store and pawn shop for alleged lack of accessibility. (“Loophole lets lawyers sue over dubious problems”, and Robert Anthony Bogdan, “Suits force ADA compliance”, USA Today, both March 3, no longer online; Michael Freedman, “How lawyers keep busy”, Forbes, March 20).
March 7 — Medical mistakes, continued. Further weaknesses of that much-publicized “epidemic of malpractice” study, per an article by New York Times health writer Lawrence K. Altman, M.D.: the “medication errors”, prominent among the total, aren’t necessarily the clear-cut kind where a different compound or dosage is taken than the doctor intended; many instead shade imperceptibly into judgment calls as to whether the physician was right to balance hoped-for benefits against known risks of side effects in particular cases. And: “Classifying falls as errors, as the report did, is also a murky area because they happen commonly in homes and on the street.” Though caregiver negligence concededly contributes to some falls, others are unavoidable in a largely elderly patient population amid unfamiliar surroundings and disoriented by illness and by powerful medications. (“The Doctor’s World: Getting to the Core of Mistakes in Medicine”, New York Times, Feb. 29) (earlier coverage of the study on this site: Feb. 22, Feb. 28).
March 7 — The scarlet %+#?*^)&!. More firms are severing relations with customers who are heard to make profane, raunchy or racially insensitive remarks, a step that helps insulate them from possible liability for tolerating a “hostile environment” for their own workers. “Plante & Moran, a Southfield, Mich., accounting and consulting firm, has terminated two or three clients in the past five years for abusive or profane language, sexist jokes or other offenses, says managing partner Bill Matthews.” (Sue Shellenbarger, “More Firms, Siding With Employees, Bid Bad Clients Farewell”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 16 (requires online subscription)). And Forbes reports that some employers are hiring $1,000-an-hour consultant James O’Connor to mount seminars for employees on how to avoid using foul language; O’Connor’s consultancy is called the Cuss Control Academy. (Michael Freedman, “The Curse of Consultants”, Forbes, Jan. 24).
March 6 — Zapped pylon-climber sues liquor servers, utility. Nominated by reader acclaim: Ed O’Rourke has sued Tampa Electric, along with six bars and stores that sold him alcoholic beverages, over a 1996 incident in which he was blasted by 13,000 volts of electricity after breaking into a fenced, gated and locked utility substation and climbing up a transformer in a “drunken stupor”. The suit further alleges that local bars and stores negligently served O’Rourke liquor even though he was “unable to control his urge to drink alcoholic beverages”. The owner of the Waterhole Sports Bar, one of those sued, said he “remembers the transformer incident but denied that O’Rourke drank at his bar the night it happened. ‘Because he was previously thrown out of here because he was writing on the bathroom walls.'” (“‘Shocked’ Man Sues Bars That Served Him”, Reuters/Yahoo, March 3, link now dead) (another pylon-climber case: see Sept. 17).
March 6 — Press releases, or “strike suit” ads? Tampa Tribune looks in some detail at the puffish “news releases” by which securities class-action lawyers announce new suit-filings: are they informing the press, or soliciting more clients? “‘These announcements are intended to say, “I’m here. I’d like to be lead counsel,”‘ said Charles Elson, a law professor at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.” Bar association officials say that because these releases “don’t technically qualify as advertising, they aren’t subject to scrutiny by these professional groups.” (Eric Miller, “The paper chase”, Tampa Tribune, March 5, link now dead).
March 6 — “Whirlpool settles $581 million verdict out of court.” The original Alabama jury verdict last May involved a $1,200 dispute over a satellite dish. Terms of the new settlement, with lawyers for Barbara Carlisle and her parents, George and Velma Merriweather, weren’t disclosed. (AP/Fox News, March 1).
March 6 — Pro-litigation measures on Calif. ballot. Propositions 30 and 31, if defeated by voters, would repeal two laws favored by trial lawyers that make it easier to sue insurance companies for delaying the payment of claims, including third-party liability claims against their policyholders. The measures appear to be trailing in voter support. (Michael Kahn, “Calif. battle over insurance lawsuits cost millions”, Excite/Reuters, March 2, link now dead; Benjamin Zycher, “Do We Really Need Even More Lawsuits?”, Los Angeles Times, March 3, link now dead; Andrew Tobias, “California Props”, online column, March 6) (measures defeated; see March 8 update).
March 3-5 — It’s Howdy Doody litigation time. Although the freckle-faced marionette of fifties TV was awarded a bronze star last month at Rockefeller Center, the actual cowboy-puppet used on the show has been locked in a trunk in a bank vault in New London, Ct. for the past year, the subject of a prolonged ownership dispute between the late puppeteer Rufus Rose’s family and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The last cast member to play the part of Clarabell the clown, Lew Anderson, 77, has even been put through a deposition, but apparently did not jump up and squirt the lawyers with seltzer as he might have in days of yore. (Corey Kilgannon, New York Times/Deseret News, Feb. 27; NBC website on the show)
March 3-5 — Welcome Reader’s Digest visitors. Randy Fitzgerald’s newly posted article on the outrageous results of asset-forfeiture laws, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent“, gives this website a link.
March 3-5 — Junk fax litigation, continued. Latest case of this sort to attract notice is in Georgia, a class action seeking $12 million from Hooters restaurants over alleged uninvited faxing of lunch coupons. “Value-Fax, owned by Bambi K. Clark, was hired by Hooters and other businesses to distribute advertisements to Augusta-area fax machines” in the mid-1990s, according to Trisha Renaud in the Fulton County Daily Report (Jan. 26). See our Oct. 22 commentary for an account of the epic legal struggle over unsolicited faxing in Houston.
March 3-5 — “Tenure Gridlock: When Professors Choose Not To Retire”. The New York Times quotes Muhlenberg College president Arthur Taylor on the “tenure gridlock” that’s resulted from age bias law‘s having deprived colleges of discretion over how long faculty stay at their posts: “We have no way of asking someone to retire. They literally can go on forever — and some do.” (Edward Wyatt, Feb. 16).
March 3-5 — “ADA’s Good Intentions Have Unintended Consequences”. Insight‘s John Elvin explores headaches caused by the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the workplace, including safety worries, the law’s protection of workers who suffer mental illness, and the “sued if you do, sued if you don’t” clash between various legal rules. Quotes this site’s editor at length (Jan. 28).
March 3-5 — Medical monitoring conference. Lawsuits over “medical monitoring” contend that although a plaintiff may not have sustained any detectable health injury from an event, the defendant should nonetheless pay for periodic doctors’ checkups to keep tabs on whether such injury emerges later. In December the Federalist Society brought critics and supporters of the idea together for a conference whose transcript is now online; product liability critic Victor Schwartz of Crowell and Moring, with three co-authors, has also published a paper critical of the notion on the Social Science Research Network. (“Medical Monitoring – Should Tort Law Say Yes?“, posted Feb. 22).
March 2 — Hug protest in Halifax. “Students at a Nova Scotia junior high school went on strike yesterday, walking out of class to protest a strict behavioral code they say forbids everything from hugs and high-fives to piggybacks.” Like a growing number of other schools across Canada, Vanier Junior High “takes a zero tolerance stance on all physical contact, fearful that horseplay could spiral into something more serious.” The results have included prohibitions on tag, touch football and other contact games; mandatory suspensions for playful antics such as pushing schoolmates in the snow; and, in recent controversies at two Manitoba schools, bans on “mass hugging” and kissing in hallways. “We want to be able to go to school and be able to hug your friend good morning,” says eighth grader Rosemary Buote of the new Halifax protests, in which about 200 students chanted slogans and “carried homemade signs that read: ‘We want hugs not punches’ and ‘We want a school not a prison'”. (Peter McLaughlin, “Halifax students walk out over hands-off policy”, Halifax Daily News/National Post, Feb. 29; Jennifer Prittie, “Schools are ruining childhood, critics charge”, National Post, Feb. 28, links now dead).
March 2 — Because they still had money. Class-action lawyers sued cigarette companies last month on grounds of alleged price-fixing, but antitrust experts interviewed by the Washington Post said the case for liability was far from clear on the evidence laid out thus far. Michael Hausfeld, of D.C.’s high-profile Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, is leading the charge, as he also is in private actions against Microsoft. The Wall Street Journal‘s news side reports that Hausfeld “says he was eager to sue the industry, at least in part, because his firm missed out on the fee bonanza that resulted from the state tobacco settlements.” When the earlier litigation binge was being organized some of Cohen, Milstein’s partners were skeptical about the states’ likelihood of prevailing, with the result that the firm “turned down invitations to help represent various states.” (James V. Grimaldi, “Doubts Raised on Tobacco Lawsuit”, Washington Post, Feb. 9, link now dead; Paul Barrett, “New Legal Attack Aims at Tobacco Firms”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 8) (requires online subscription).
March 2 — Update: unmitigated madness, on lawyers’ orders. Andrew Goldstein “has twice punched a court social worker since he stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication, court officials and lawyers disclosed”. Goldstein’s lawyers advised him to stop taking his medication in preparation for his murder trial so the extent of his schizophrenia could properly impress the jury (see February 26-27). Xavier Amador, a professor at Columbia’s medical school, conceded the defendant might benefit legally from the tactic, but said it was deplorable from a medical standpoint and might cause him permanent damage. In his previous trial, which ended with a jury deadlock, defense lawyers argued “that the subway attack [on Kendra Webdale] had been one in a series of psychotic episodes over 10 years in which Mr. Goldstein abruptly punched, kicked or shoved people.” (David Rohde, “Court is Told Subway Killer, Off Medication, Hit a Social Worker”, New York Times, Feb. 29 (fee-based archive)).
March 1 — From our mail sack: skin art disclaimers. Pat Fish of Tattoo Santa Barbara wrote us over the holidays:
“All tattoo parlors use a waiver form now, hoping to intimidate the clients from suing should they fail to take good care in healing their tattoo. Part of the form goes on at length about understanding that this is a permanent change to the appearance, that the client has no mental impairment or physical disease. So I got a perverse impulse the other day and added to mine the phrase ‘I am not a lawyer, nor do I work for one.’ Hey, I can wear gloves to protect myself from someone who has a communicable disease, but I figure it is LAWYERS I’m really scared of!
“So last week I got my first lawyer, and he did not initial the paragraph in which that phrase appeared and explained that, in fact, he was a lawyer. So I made him circle the phrase, and write in the margin next to it ‘But I am ashamed of it.’ Then we proceeded to do the armband tattoo.
“I have a feeling that I am on my way to becoming an urban legend in the law circles of Los Angeles, since I am sure that whenever he shows off his new tattoo to colleagues he will tell this story.” (Tattoo Santa Barbara consent form) (more on disclaimers).
March 1 — Class-actioneers’ woes. Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach L.L.P. is still the best-known plaintiff’s class action firm in the land, but it’s suffered more than its share of reverses of late. The National Law Journal reports that three of the firm’s partners have resigned so as to avoid paying a multimillion-dollar share of its $50 million settlement with Lexecon Inc. over charges of malicious litigation; the payout was not covered by insurance. In January, allegations emerged that one of the firm’s “lead plaintiff” investors in a class-action suit against Oxford Health Plans Inc. had misrepresented his education, criminal record, history as a defendant in a civil case and his trading in Oxford securities. All this on top of the embarrassment last fall (see Oct. 13) in which Milberg Weiss inadvertently sued one of its own clients for treble damages for alleged racketeering in the course of a legal offensive against makers of children’s Pokémon trading cards. (Karen Donovan, “Three Milberg Partners Resign”, National Law Journal, Jan. 11; “Another Fine Mess for Milberg”, Jan. 25).
March 1 — Prozac made him rob banks. Connecticut Superior Court Judge Richard Arnold last week found Christopher DeAngelo of Wallingford not guilty of robbing banks and a department store because the drug Prozac made him do it. “This is not a case of somebody pulling a fast one or being too clever,” said the twenty-eight-year-old’s attorney, John Williams. “The hard indisputable fact of this case is that this young man was driven to commit crimes by a prescription drug.” Courts in Kentucky, New York and Minnesota have rejected legal claims based on Prozac use over the last decade. (“Conn. judge: Man not guilty of robbing banks because Prozac made him do it”, AP/CourtTV, Feb. 25).
March 31-April 2 — Punished for resistance. Gun-suit organizers were hoping Smith & Wesson’s capitulation would bring about a race among other firearms makers to settle; instead, manufacturers, dealers and buyers are racing to dissociate themselves from the hapless company, formerly the market leader. Now — in a move that counts as heavy-handed even by the standards of activist attorneys general — Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal and New York’s Eliot Spitzer are readying antitrust action against companies in the gun industry for the offense of shunning S&W. Connecticut reportedly issued subpoenas yesterday; among possible grievances bruited in the New York Times‘ account are that some organizers of shooting matches have told S&W that it is no longer welcome, that dealers are dropping its wares, and that other gun companies are unwilling to go on coordinating their legal defense efforts with S&W, which means it will have to find a new law firm. Blumenthal’s and Spitzer’s message to those in the gun business could hardly be clearer: better go quietly, because we’ll crush you if you resist in any organized way. (Fox Butterfield and Raymond Hernandez, “Gun Maker’s Accord on Curbs Brings Industry Pressure”, New York Times, March 30; Peter Slevin and Sharon Walsh, “Conn. Subpoenas Firms in Gun Antitrust Probe”, Washington Post, March 31).
March 31-April 2 — Terminix vs. consumer critic’s website. Pest control company Terminix retreats from courtroom efforts to swat dissatisfied consumer Carla Virga, who put up a website to publicize her unhappiness with its services. After its defamation suit was dismissed, the company tried again on the theory that Ms. Virga was infringing its rights by using the word Terminix itself in “metatags” directed at search engine listings. This succeeded in infuriating many in the Web community, and now the company has backed off that second action as well. Other companies that have gone to court against angry-consumer websites include Bally Total Fitness, Circuit City, and U-Haul. (Craig Bicknell, “Site No Longer Bugs Terminix”, Wired News, Mar. 11; Robyn Blumner, “Welcome to the world of free-speech exterminators”, St. Petersburg Times, Mar. 19).
March 31-April 2 — Employer-based health coverage in retreat? Report in the news-side Wall Street Journal last month suggests more big employers are beginning to “look for an exit strategy from the health-benefits business”, especially since “it’s possible that Congress or a court ruling will expose employers to legal liability in malpractice cases“. Under “defined contribution” models pioneered at Xerox Corp. and elsewhere, employees are given lump-sum health vouchers and told to find the plan that’s best for them. Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Kenneth Abramowitz sees the benefits of giving workers choice, but points out the danger that employees will be cut loose with a “Yellow Pages” outcome: “Here’s $5,000 and the Yellow Pages. You figure it out.” “Adding new liability for companies could prompt some to scuttle their health-benefits programs and send employees into the market to fend for themselves. Says Margaret O’Kane, head of a managed-care accrediting organization called the National Committee for Quality Assurance: ‘If employers find themselves in the path of the trial lawyers, I think you can expect a massive bailout'”. (Ron Winslow and Carol Gentry, “Health-Benefits Trend: Give Workers Money, Let Them Buy a Plan”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 8, fee-based library).
March 31-April 2 — Welcome Milwaukee Journal Sentinel readers. Overlawyered.com was a featured website earlier this month in Bob Schwabach’s “On Computers” column, which runs in Wisconsin’s leading paper and many others nationwide (March 9).
March 30 — Hollywood special: “Erin Brockovich”. The words “babelicious” and “toxic tort” had probably never been used in the same sentence before, but Julia Roberts’ new flick is finally showing that with the right costume design a litigation movie can ace the box office. Now the Hudson Institute’s Mike Fumento, in an op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal expanded considerably into a piece in yesterday’s National Post (Canada), challenges the premise, taken for granted among most reviewers of the film, that Pacific Gas & Electric was guilty as charged of poisoning the populace of a small California desert town with chromium-6 in the water. Fumento says the levels of contamination found were orders of magnitude lower than those needed to induce health effects in experimental animals; that the lawyers sought to blame on the water a wide assortment of ailments among local residents that science has not linked to chromium exposure; and that health studies found that the plant’s own workers, who were likely exposed to at least as much pollution as neighbors, had a life expectancy comfortably exceeding the California average. (Michael Fumento, “The dark side of Erin Brockovich”, National Post, March 29; Michael Fumento, “‘Erin Brockovich’, exposed”, Wall Street Journal, March 28; official film site; Mr. Showbiz review; Christine Hanley, “Brockovich’s Work Is Just Beginning”, AP/ABC News, March 27).
March 30 — Hollywood special: “The Insider”. Though nominated for numerous Oscars, last season’s portentous litigation epic The Insider got shut out in the actual naming of awards. Were Academy voters bothered by the film’s unacknowledged fictionalizations, or did they just share the views of Adam Heimlich of the New York Press, who last week called the film “preposterously overheated … The title character’s big revelation in this interminable movie — which treats the looting of tobacco companies by trial lawyers with enough gravitas to make Judgment at Nuremberg feel like Oklahoma! by comparison — is that ‘cigarettes are nothing but a delivery system for nicotine.’ … God forbid someone in Hollywood or on the Upper West Side speaks out against the selective demonization, for purposes of state and oligarchic power, of the drugs they don’t happen to use. Philip Morris should fight back with a drama exposing that Starbucks lattes are nothing but a delivery system for caffeine and martinis are nothing but a delivery system for alcohol. If Insider wins Best Picture … it’ll prove that Hollywood is nothing but a delivery system for the propagandistic justification of top-down class warfare.” But it didn’t win. (Adam Heimlich, “Heimytown”, New York Press, Mar. 22).
March 30 — Al Gore among friendly crowd. Last Thursday Vice President Gore attended a $500,000 luncheon fund-raiser at the Cincinnati home of Stanley Chesley, sometimes nicknamed the “Master of Disaster”, one of the country’s most prominent plaintiff’s trial lawyers. The Cincinnati Post says that Chesley, known for air-crash, tobacco and Microsoft suits, “has been a dependable fund-raiser for the vice president and President Clinton.” (Bill Straub, “Gore next to visit Cincinnati to raise funds”, Cincinnati Post, March 22; Sharon Moloney, “Gore bashes Bush tax plan”, Cincinnati Post, March 24); Christopher Palmeri and James Samuelson, “The Golden Leaf”, Forbes, July 7, 1997). For recent fund-raising by Bill Clinton among trial lawyers, see our Feb. 14 commentary.
Forbes Online columnist James Freeman recently took a hard look at Gore’s in-depth support from trial lawyers (“Who’s funding Gore?”, Feb. 28). Gore’s financial backers over the years have included most of the biggest names in the litigation business, including Wayne Reaud (asbestos, Toshiba laptops), John O’Quinn (breast implants, many others), Joe Rice (asbestos, tobacco), Bill Lerach (shareholder lawsuits), etc. Gore hosted Lerach at the White House for coffee in February 1995, Freeman writes, and Chesley was there for coffee that same day.
March 29 — Litigator’s bliss: finding opponent’s disgruntled former employee. “Assume the legal lotus position and imagine a happy place. What greater nirvana could there be than [finding] the disgruntled former employee of an opposing party? Gruntled or not, a high priority of any good discovery plan should be to identify and interview former employees as quickly as possible, before the other side can neutralize or co-opt them.” (Jerold S. Solovy and Robert L. Byman, “Discovery: Ex parte, Brutus?” (practitioners’ advice column), National Law Journal, March 27, not online).
March 29 — Why rush that software project, anyway? California adds to its reputation as a high-hassle state for tech employers with a law taking effect this year, backed by unions and plaintiff’s employment lawyers, requiring that many computer consultants be paid overtime rates if they put in more than eight hours in a day. Many such consultants bill at rates that exceed $50, $100 or even $200 an hour, before the overtime premium is added in. One Bay Area staffing exec says most of his employer clients are unwilling to trigger the overtime entitlement and are instead sending home specialists after eight hours who would previously have worked longer (Margaret Steen, “New overtime law spurs change in tech firms”, San Jose Mercury News, March 22, link now dead; “Hi, OT Law; Bye, Tech Boom?”, Reuters/Wired News, March 2; Margaret Steen, “New law means overtime pay for computer consultants”, San Jose Mercury News, Feb. 29; Kirby C. Wilcox, Leslie L. Abbott and Caroline A. Zuk, “The 8-Hour Day Returns”, CalLaw, Jan. 24).
March 29 — The bold cosmetologists of law enforcement. The New York Times took note this Sunday of efforts in Nevada and Connecticut to enlist beauty-parlor personnel in the task of identifying possible victims of domestic violence for referral to battered women’s shelters and other social service agencies (see our March 16 commentary). Its report adds a remarkable new detail regarding the sorts of indicators that Nevada cosmetologists are being officially encouraged to watch for as signs of household violence (being licensed by the state, they have reason to listen with care to what’s expected of them). “Torn-out hair or a bruised eye may signal abuse, but more subtle warning signs may come out in conversation. One Nevada hairdresser, [state official Veronica] Boyd-Frenkel said, told of a client who said: ‘My husband doesn’t want me to see my friend anymore. He says she is putting bad ideas in my head.’
“‘Emotional abuse, intimidation, control, jealousy, overpossessiveness and constant monitoring,’ she said, can be as sure signs of domestic violence as physical injuries.” Does Ms. Boyd-Frenkel, who holds the title of “domestic violence ombudsman” for the attorney general of Nevada, really deem it “emotional abuse” and potential domestic violence when a husband seeks to warn a wife (or vice versa) away from a friend who’s considered a bad influence? Is such spousal behavior really to trigger the notice of the official social-service apparatus, and its new deputies in the hair and nail salons of Nevada? (Jeff Stryker, “Those Who Stand and Coif Might Also Protect”, New York Times, March 26).
March 29 — Update: advice to drop medication unavailing. As reported earlier, subway-push defendant Andrew Goldstein went off his antipsychotic medication before his recent murder trial on advice of his lawyers, in order to demonstrate to the jury how deranged he was (see Feb. 26-27 and March 2 commentaries). Whatever the ethical status of this tactic, it was apparently unavailing in practice: a New York City jury convicted Goldstein of murder last week. He will probably serve his sentence in a state prison outfitted to give him psychiatric care. (Samuel Maull, “Man Convicted in Subway Shove Case”, AP/Excite, Mar. 22).
March 28 — $65 million Texas verdict: driver at twice the legal blood limit. “A Galveston, Texas, jury has awarded $65 million to the parents and estate of a woman who drowned after her car plunged off a boat ramp and she couldn’t disengage her seat belt.
“The jury found defendants Honda of America Manufacturing Co. Inc. and Honda R & D Co. Ltd. 75 percent responsible for the death of Karen Norman — even though after her death, Norman’s blood-alcohol level measured at nearly twice the Texas legal limit. …
“After the accident, [Honda attorney Brad] Safon noted, Norman’s blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.17. The Texas drunk driving limit at the time of the accident was 0.10; it is now 0.08.” Plaintiff’s lawyers said the salt water in which Norman drowned might have thrown off the blood level reading. (Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Fatal Grip of Seat Belt Results in $65M Verdict”, National Law Journal, Mar. 27)(& update Oct. 13, 2003: appeals court throws out award, which trial judge has previously reduced to $43 million).
March 28 — Call me a fraud, will you? Why, I’ll…I’ll hire you! Last year Big Five accountants Ernst & Young paid $185 million to settle a bankruptcy trustee’s charges that it had mishandled the affairs of the now-defunct Merry-Go-Round apparel chain. Now Ernst has sued its former law firm, D.C.-based Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman, which it says should share the blame. And to prosecute the new suit Ernst has hired none other than the law firm that sued it in the first round, Snyder, Weiner, Weltchek & Vogelstein of Pikesville, Md. “Swidler noted that Snyder Weiner in the earlier suit had accused Ernst of fraud, and now Snyder Weiner in ‘this complaint asserts “E&Y’s innocence of the fraud”‘”. An Ernst executive shrugs off criticism: “Who knows about the case more than the firm that argued the other side?” (Elizabeth MacDonald, “Ernst & Young Sues Law Firm Over Settlement”, Wall Street Journal, March 14 (online subscribers only); James V. Grimaldi, “Accounting Firm Sues Lawyers”, Washington Post, March 14).
March 28 — Annals of zero tolerance: don’t play James Bond. A fifth-grade “model student” at Sutton Elementary School in Tecumseh, Michigan faces expulsion for up to a half year for bringing a plastic toy gun to school because he wanted to “play James Bond”. “You could see it was plastic,” said school superintendent Rich Fauble. “If you looked at it, you could tell it wasn’t a gun.” “I just wanted to play with it at recess,” said the boy, in Fauble’s account. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I play with it at home.” Sutton principal Debra Langmeyer said the board’s recommendation of expulsion “might seem extreme” but is intended to “send a message” about guns. (“Toy gun may cause student’s expulsion”, Toledo Blade, Mar. 16).
March 28 — From the labor arbitration front. The Connecticut Supreme Court, over dissents from two of its members, has upheld an arbitrator’s order that David Warren be reinstated to his municipal job in the town of Groton, from which he was dismissed in 1997 after pleading no contest to charges of larceny. Warren was accused of stealing money from the town by selling dumping permits and pocketing the proceeds himself, but the court saw no reason to disturb an arbitrator’s reasoning that his no contest plea might have reflected a wish to avoid the cost and inconvenience of trial, rather than actual guilt. (“‘No-contest’ not guilty, Supreme Court says”, New Haven Register, March 21). And the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review an arbitrator’s order that a West Virginia mining company rehire a heavy machinery operator fired after he twice tested positive for marijuana use. The Fourth Circuit upheld the reinstatement, noting that courts “overwhelmingly” defer to the results of arbitration in the unionized workplace. (AP/FindLaw, “Supreme Court to clarify when lower courts can overrule arbitrators”, Mar. 20; Eastern Associated Coal Corp. vs. United Mine Workers, 99-1038).
March 28 — Another visitor record set. Last week was the busiest yet for visitors since Overlawyered.com was launched nine months ago … thanks for your support!
March 27 — Welcome Arts & Letters Daily readers. The best weblog in the world for coverage of essays and history, biography and belles-lettres, is put out for a worldwide audience by philosophy professor Denis Dutton of the University of Christchurch in New Zealand. We get a featured link today (see right-hand column after link to Sullivan piece, for which itself see below).
March 27 — Another S&W thing. “We want to do a Smith & Wesson-like thing with DoubleClick,” Michigan attorney general Jennifer Granholm said Thursday, referring to restrictions on Web data collection that she and attorneys general from New York, Connecticut, and Vermont have been negotiating with the biggest online ad-placement company. We suppose this means that she and her colleagues want to invent far-fetched legal theories to attack business practices that have long been regarded as lawful; file a great flurry of suits in multiple courts so as to overwhelm the designated opponent; use the threat of bankrupting legal expense to muscle it into submission with no need to reach a decision on the merits; and instill fear into other businesses that the same thing could happen to them unless they cooperate with the dictates of ambitious AGs. After all, that’s what was done to S&W. (“AGs Eye Privacy”, Reuters/Wired News, March 23; “DoubleClick in settlement discussions”, Bloomberg News/CNet, March 23).
March 27 — Philadelphia: feminist groups to be consulted on whether to classify incidents as rape. As several high-profile cases in recent years demonstrate, authorities sometimes charge men with rape or sexual abuse in cases where there’s conflicting or ambiguous evidence as to whether there was nonconsensual sexual contact (see, for example, the case of Columbia University grad student Oliver Jovanovic, whose conviction was overturned by a New York appeals court in December). Now Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney has announced that “he will let women’s organizations help police decide when to believe sexual-assault complaints and how to classify them.” Barbara DiTullio, who heads the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization for Women, called the plan “wonderful” and said it could become a model for police departments across the country. “We’re putting together a committee of women . . . and [will] actually, quite literally, let this women’s group be the final say on our classification [of cases]” said Timoney in an interview, though the women’s groups themselves expressed doubt as to whether their say would be final. (Mark Fazlollah, Craig McCoy, and Robert Moran, “Timoney to allow sex-case oversight”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 21) (via Freedom News).
March 27 — Microsoft Windows downgrade. Be prepared for the Justice Department’s anticipated “remedies” in Reno v. Gates by visiting this parody site (Bob Rivers, KISW, Seattle).
March 27 — Social engineering by lawsuit. Yale law professor Peter Schuck “doubts [that Smith & Wesson] would have lost a court case,” according to this New York Times “Week in Review” piece, which also quotes the editor of this website concerning the evils of litigation as an end run around democratic process (Barry Meier, “Bringing Lawsuits to Do What Congress Won’t”, New York Times, March 26). Cato Institute fellow Doug Bandow wonders why undemocratic lawmaking-by-lawsuit hasn’t become a bigger election issue: “Politics is a bad way to make policy. Litigation is worse.” (“Litigative vs. Legislative Democracy”, Cato Daily Commentary, March 20). And Andrew Sullivan warns Britons that unless they watch out, their country’s trend toward “empowerment of lawyers” will lead them to the state of “hyper-litigation” typified by the U.S. (“A brief warning: soon lawyers will have Britain by the throat”, Sunday Times (London), March 26).
Also: we’ve now put online our editor’s op-ed from last Tuesday on the Smith & Wesson settlement, which expanded on the arguments made earlier in this space (Walter Olson, “Plaintiff’s lawyers take aim at democracy”, Wall Street Journal, March 21).
March 27 — Kessler rebuked. Last week the Supreme Court ruled that former Food and Drug Administration chief David Kessler had made an improper power grab when he claimed for his agency “broad powers that had somehow gone unnoticed for more than half a century” to regulate tobacco, writes Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman: “This was a startling revelation indeed. In 1964, the FDA said it had no authority to regulate tobacco. In 1965, it said it had no authority to regulate tobacco. In 1972, it said it had no authority to regulate tobacco. Ditto in 1977, 1980, 1988, and so on — until four years ago, when Kessler checked the attic and was pleasantly surprised to find this prerogative stashed in a box crammed with eight-track tapes and copies of Look.” (“On Target: A Setback for the Anti-Tobacco Jihad”, March 23; Tony Mauro, “For ‘Better or Worse’ FDA Can’t Regulate Tobacco”, American Lawyer Media, March 22).
March 24-26 — “Trial Lawyers Pour Money Into Democrats’ Chests”. The article everyone’s talking about: yesterday’s New York Times shines some overdue light on the trial lawyers’ frantic shoveling of vast sums into this year’s federal election races. “‘It would be very, very horrifying to trial lawyers if Bush were elected,’ said John P. Coale, a Washington lawyer involved in the tobacco litigation, who has given over $70,000 to the Democrats. ‘To combat that, we want to make sure we have a Democratic president, House and Senate. There is some serious tobacco money being spread around.'” “What’s different this time around,” said Michael Hotra, vice president of the American Tort Reform Foundation, “is that everyone recognizes that the stakes are higher. We have a candidate who is making legal reform a core issue and we certainly applaud Bush for that.” Also discusses the website ATRF has set up to monitor trial lawyer campaign spending (Leslie Wayne, “Trial Lawyers Pour Money Into Democrats’ Chests”, New York Times, March 23).
March 24-26 — Who wants to sue for a million? A group of disabled Miami residents has filed a federal lawsuit against Disney and ABC under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that the screening process for the hit TV show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” requires the use of a touch-tone telephone and does not make alternative provision for deaf applicants. “The group is seeking class-action status for themselves and others who are deaf, blind or paralyzed and have problems using the phone or hearing the instructions.” (Jay Weaver, “Disabled 4 sue to try for TV million”, Miami Herald, March 17). Update Nov. 7: federal judge dismisses case.
March 24-26 — Next: gender-blind stage casting? A federal jury in Nashville has returned a sex discrimination verdict against a pair of historical theme restaurants that hired only male food servers as a part of attempting to convey the atmosphere of 1800s-era riverboats. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Cock of the Walk restaurants in 1996 after a woman named Susan Mathis carried a secret tape recorder in her purse while applying for a server’s job (more on the curious lack of outrage over this practice). “The servers had to represent the legendary fighters who brawled for the privilege of steering the riverboats, which netted them the best-of-the-best title: ‘Cock of the Walk’,” a group that historically did not include women.
In 1997 the EEOC came under criticism for its crusade against the “Hooters” sexy-waitress chain, which paid $3.75 million in a settlement in hopes of not having to hire “Hooters Boys”. However, the agency’s contention that entertainment value is an improper basis for sex-casting in the hiring of food servers “has never been applied [by a court] to a more mainstream restaurant such as this, which does not have sexual titillation as part of its theme,” said a lawyer for the restaurants. (Stacey Hartmann, “Restaurants’ male-server policy loses in court”, The Tennessean (Nashville), March 16).
March 24-26 — Slip, fall, head for court. Roundup of recent Chicago gravity mishaps, as reported in the Sun-Times and relayed in Jim Romenesko’s irresistible Obscure Store: “Debbie Jacques was forced to wear paper booties when she tumbled. Monica Beeks walked in deep, loose grass, and fell. John Incisi tripped on a Kleenex box left on the stairs. They’re all hanging out in civil court, hoping to get some cash.” (Tim Novak, “Health worker blames paper booties for slip”, Chicago Sun-Times, Mar. 21).
March 24-26 — Welcome visitors. A sampling of the websites that have linked to Overlawyered.com recently: the distinguished literary and arts monthly, the New Criterion; ABC News correspondent John Stossel‘s site; the Capital Research Center, which keeps an eye on politicized philanthopy; Pat Fish’s Luckyfish.com; the Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom; Pickaway County (Ohio) Sportsmen, known for their shooting competitions; and Turkey’s Association for Liberal Thinking (Liberal Düsünce Toplulugu).
March 23 — Baron’s judge grudge. Dallas asbestos-suit czar Fred Baron may or may not have added another notch to his belt with the GOP primary defeat this month of Texas 14th District Court judge John Marshall. In 1998 Judge Marshall was presiding over asbestos litigation filed by Baron & Budd when evidence surfaced that the firm had engaged in extensive witness-coaching (see “Thanks for the Memories“); Judge Marshall referred the matter to a grand jury for possible prosecution, but the charges were eventually quietly buried without indictments. Baron, who now claims vindication, “made no secret of the fact he wants Marshall’s head,” according to alt-weekly Dallas Observer in a report just before the primary. “As early as last spring, Baron was casting about, looking for a candidate to back. ‘I talked to half a dozen people. We were looking for any candidate we could get who would be qualified to run against John Marshall'”. It had to be in the Republican primary, though, which is nowadays tantamount to election in Dallas County. First-time candidate Mary Murphy of Jenkins & Gilchrest, the one who eventually stepped forward to challenge Marshall, “insists she’ll be a fine Republican judge even though she wrote a $1,000 check to the Democratic party four years ago” among other past Democratic ties. “I had nothing to do with getting Mary Murphy to run. That’s a lie, a complete and absolute lie,” Baron told the Observer. Murphy says Baron did try to talk her into running but that it was others who convinced her. Promptly assembling an ample campaign chest, she went on to defeat the incumbent Marshall, obtaining 52 percent of the vote. (Thomas Korosec, “Bench Press”, Dallas Observer, March 9; Todd J. Gillman, “Republican judge questions challenger’s party loyalty”, Dallas Morning News, Feb. 19; Holly Becka, “Voters sent message by ousting three judges, experts say”, Dallas Morning News, March 16 (links now dead)).
Baron, whom we believe holds the title of president-elect of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (we apparently jumped the gun recently in awarding him the title of president), has in the past been touchy about criticism. In 1998, when the Dallas Observer ran a cover-story exposé on his firm, columnist Julie Lyons said Baron had “bullie[d] the Observer’s every effort to investigate his firm’s practices, even taking the newspaper to court to discover sources, in a pattern of intimidation and paranoia such as the Observer has never experienced before.” (Patrick Williams, Christine Biederman, Thomas Korosec, Julie Lyons, “Toxic Justice”, August 18, 1998; Julie Lyons, “The Control Freak”, August 12, 1998. See also earlier Baron coverage on this website: Feb. 14, Jan. 8).
March 23 — Update: mistrial in bank robber’s suit, more litigation expected. By a vote of 9 to 3, jurors in their deliberations were of the view “that the civil rights of Emil Matasareanu, armed criminal, shooter of cops, were not violated on Feb. 27, 1998, by officers who didn’t get an ambulance to poor Emil quickly enough” after his bloody shootout with police following a North Hollywood bank robbery (see Feb. 23 commentary). A federal judge declared a mistrial, and an L.A. Times columnist writes that “the attorney for Matasareanu’s survivors is expected to bring the case against the city and two retired LAPD officers to court again. By survivors, I mean the dead man’s family, not the people he didn’t kill.” (Mike Downey, “A World With No Bad Guys, Just Topsy-Turvy Juries”, Los Angeles Times, March 17, link now dead).
March 23 — Let them sue us! In the recent media boomlet over “medical mistakes”, it’s been easy to forget that hospitals currently must anticipate years of expensive litigation if they move aggressively to withdraw practice privileges from perceived “problem doctors”. Consider the now-celebrated “Dr. Zorro” case, in which Dr. Allan Zarkin is alleged to have carved his initials into a patient’s body at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital. The hospital’s chairman, Morton P. Hyman, “vowed he would make it harder for doctors to maintain their privileges at Beth Israel and would see that hospital procedures were tightened further. … Doctors disciplined by the state will be automatically dismissed from the hospital, he announced, even if their firings leave the hospital liable. ‘Let them sue us,’ he said, pounding the table.” (Jennifer Steinhauer, “At Beth Israel, Lapses in Care Mar Gains in Technology”, New York Times, Feb. 15, not online).
March 22 — Next on the class-action agenda: liquor? Public Citizen, whose campaigns against American business often closely parallel those of the organized plaintiff’s bar, has for a while been grouping alcohol and gambling companies with tobacco and gun makers as “killer industries” in its distinctively shrill propaganda. (“Killer Industries Fund Congressional Champions of “Family Values'”, press release, Dec. 28, 1998, “Family Values, Killer Industries”, undated; both on Public Citizen website). And the pro-hospitality-business Guest Choice Network thinks it has evidence that the previously long-shot idea of mass litigation against alcoholic beverage makers may be getting to be less of a long shot:
“* The Minnesota DWI Task Force called upon their state’s criminal justice system to initiate class action litigation against makers of adult beverages.
“* MADD’s [Mothers Against Drunk Driving‘s] year-end press conference closed with a comment from president Karolyn Nunnallee that initiating litigation against alcohol and hospitality companies ‘will be an issue of discussion’ at an upcoming meeting. Although MADD did not have plans to sue ‘at this time,’ she added, ‘but never say never!'” (“They’re Bellying Up to the Bar!”, Guest Choice Network, undated). Martin Morse Wooster examines the evolution of MADD’s views in a new paper for Capital Research Center (“Mothers Against Drunk Driving: Has Its Vision Become Blurred?”, Feb. 2000).
March 22 — Rise of the high school sleepover disclaimer. Before having some of his daughter’s tenth-grade classmates out for the weekend to the family home in East Hampton, a parent at Manhattan’s tony Brearley School had his attorney draft a 765-word “liability waiver and indemnification agreement” for the other parents to sign and return. It describes the students’ impending visit to the “house and surrounding property at the above address (the ‘premises’) without charge on or about Saturday, November 20, 1999 and Sunday, November 21, 1999 during their weekend trip to East Hampton, NY (such use of the premises, the ‘visit’).” Several dense sentences later, it gets to the point: “Student and parent hereby waive any and all present and future claims related to or arising out of or in connection with the visit or any losses they, any other family member or any third party may suffer in connection therewith…” Apparently enough parents signed and the trip came off with no problem. (“Gotham: In Loco Parentis”, New York, Dec. 6; portions of disclaimer appear in printed magazine but not online).
March 22 — Newest disabled right: audio TV captioning. Decision expected this summer on Federal Communications Commission proposal that TV networks be compelled to provide at least four hours of programming a week with “secondary audio” descriptions of filmed action (“…Rhett takes Melanie in his arms and carries her to safety as Atlanta burns around them”) in hopes of giving blind viewers an “equivalent experience” to what sighted viewers are getting. Hollywood types “say descriptions will stifle creativity and jack up programming costs by about $4,000 for an hour of airtime”; audio captioning is considerably more expensive than closed-captioning for the deaf, mandated since 1998, because descriptions of filmed action call for a modicum of editorial judgment as opposed to mere transcription. And the National Federation of the Blind reports that many of its constituents have mixed feelings about the technique, finding it “irritating, overdone, and full of irrelevant information” and switching it off after a trial. (FCC captioning page; Nat’l Fed. Blind comments; Jonathan Aiken, “FCC proposes descriptive audio to help blind enjoy TV”, CNN, Feb. 24). See also our Feb. 19-21 commentary, on the ADA suit filed by deaf moviegoers in Oregon seeking to compel theaters to install closed captioning for films.
March 21 — Smith & Wesson’s “voluntary” capitulation. Today’s Wall Street Journal carries our editor’s op-ed on the Smith & Wesson settlement, adapted and expanded from yesterday’s commentary on this site. The piece asks: why aren’t Republican members of Congress and business people expressing more outrage? “It would surely make a symbolic difference if a few CEOs of companies outside the gun industry chipped in personal checks to start a legal defense fund for small gun makers being bulldozed by the cost of litigation, to give them at least a hope of surviving to fight the suits on the merits. Or if they let it be known that mayors who’ve signed on to the gun-suit jihad should stop passing themselves off as ‘pro-business.’ Not long ago the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., Joseph Ganim, a gun-suit mastermind who’s considered ambitious for statewide office, was feted by a Chamber of Commerce in his local Fairfield County. Hey — it’s someone else’s industry he’s working to destroy, right?” (Walter Olson, “Plaintiffs Lawyers Take Aim at Democracy”, Wall Street Journal, March 21 (requires online subscription)).
March 21 — Ability to remain conscious not obligatory for train dispatcher, EEOC argues. “In the case of a former Consolidated Rail Corp. employee with a heart condition that can cause him to lose consciousness, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission told a federal appeals court in Philadelphia that ‘while consciousness is obviously necessary to perform’ train-dispatcher tasks, ‘it is not itself a job function.'” The worker had sued Conrail under the Americans with Disabilities Act and lost in federal court; on appeal, the EEOC argued that the railroad could have accommodated his condition and that he was not a ‘direct threat’ to others, which is the standard employers must meet under the ADA if they wish to exclude disabled employees from jobs on safety grounds. “The employee was denied a dispatcher’s job that involves directing trains and taking emergency action to prevent crashes.” (“Employment Briefs: Worker denied promotion sues”, Detroit News, March 18).
March 21 — Furor just one click away. Outcry over Amazon.com’s patent of “one-click” shopping method rumbles on. Founder/CEO Jeff Bezos says the company did it in self-defense; he’s now proposed an across-the-board reduction in the length of patent protection for software and business-method patents. Some veteran intellectual-property lawyers take issue with that scheme and are also upset at a New York Times Magazine article by science writer James Gleick questioning some of the patent system’s fundamental assumptions. Until recently it was widely assumed that business methods — the discovery of a superior method for laying out the aisles of a supermarket, for example — couldn’t be patented at all. What would stores be like today if the idea of a “checkout counter” had been locked up for twenty years by the first company to file for it?
SOURCES: Victoria Slind-Flor, “The Biz-Method Patent Rush”, National Law Journal, Feb. 28; Chris Oakes, “Another Amazon Patent Furor”, Wired News, March 2; Boycott Amazon site (Free Software Foundation); Chris Oakes, “Bezos: Patents Were Self-Defense”, Wired News, Mar. 3; Chris Oakes, “Patently Absurd”, Wired News, Mar. 3; Bezos open letter, Amazon site; Dugie Standeford, “Book Publisher Launches Cybercampaign Against Amazon.com”, E-Commerce Law Weekly, March 8; James Gleick, “Patently Absurd,” New York Times Magazine, March 12; “The Harm of Patents”, O’Reilly Network, March 13; Omar Perez, “Amazon.com Patents Cast Giant Shadow Over Affiliates”, March 20; Miami Daily Business Review, March Victoria Slind-Flor, “Bar Reacts To Bezos Patent Reform Plan”, National Law Journal, March 20.
March 21 — Whether they meant to hurt anyone or not. How harsh can the legal environment become for drunk drivers? North Carolina seems to have pushed things to the ultimate extreme: its prosecutors seek to execute them when they cause fatal accidents. (Paula Christian, “Supreme Court to decide if drunk drivers get death penalty”, Greensboro News & Record, Mar. 12).
March 21 — New subpage on Overlawyered.com: Canadian corner. Finally! A page for our many readers north of the border who’ve noticed the nuggets of Canadian content we periodically slip in and would like them gathered in one spot for convenience. As befits the differences between the two legal systems, there isn’t so much “overlawyering” apparent in most of the stories we relay from Canada; but with regard to most other types and varieties of human folly, the two nations seem to be are in a neck-and-neck race.
March 20 — Liberty no longer insured by Smith & Wesson. In an ominous triumph for brute litigation force — and a setback for both democratic governance and Second Amendment liberties — the Clinton Administration and lawyers representing city governments on Friday bullied the nation’s largest gun maker into agreeing to a variety of controls on the distribution of its products, controls that the Administration had not been able to obtain through the normal legislative process. The company said its capitulation would preserve the “viability of Smith & Wesson as an ongoing business entity in the face of the crippling cost of litigation.” As the New York Times reports, the deal has “opened a new avenue for regulating the firearms industry without action from Congress, where partisan gridlock has stalled even modest gun-control legislation in recent months” — “partisan gridlock” being here employed by the Times as a pejorative synonym for the normal democratic process, which when working properly does not result in the speedy enactment of measures passionately opposed by a large constituency within the majority legislative party.
At this point it would make sense for the Republican Congressional leadership to rise up in unmistakable disapproval of the Clintonites’ invasion of their legislative prerogatives, and announce that –whatever one’s personal position on the details of gun control proposals — the use of litigation as an undemocratic end run around the legislative process is categorically wrong and must be fought with appropriate means at Congress’s disposal, such as funding cutoffs. And yet the first round of wire service stories quotes only one GOP Congressional leader, J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, as reacting to the news, and his quoted words, incredibly, are favorable: “we hail Smith & Wesson for taking a pro-active approach to the problem of violence”.
Advocates of gun-control-through-litigation — not to mention trial lawyers looking for an eventual payday from gun suits — view Smith & Wesson’s surrender as a harbinger of more victories ahead. “The legal fees alone are enough to bankrupt the industry,” boasts John Coale, one of the lawyers masterminding the city suits. “The pressure is going to be on”. Why are so few elected officials standing up to say that what’s going on is wrong?
SOURCES: Agreement text at HUD website; Smith & Wesson statement; Clinton Administration press release; “U.S. Drops Legal Threat Against Smith & Wesson”, Reuters/Excite, Mar. 17; Knut Engelmann, “U.S. Drops Legal Action Against Gun Maker”, Reuters/Excite, Mar. 17; David Ho, “Officials Praise Smith & Wesson”, AP/Excite, Mar. 17; Amy Paulson, “Smith & Wesson agrees to landmark gun safety settlement”, CNN, Mar. 17; Brigitte Greenberg, “Smith & Wesson Gets Preference”, AP/Excite, Mar. 18; Edward Walsh and David A. Vise, “U.S., Gunmaker Strike a Deal”, Washington Post, March 18; James Dao, “Gun Maker Agrees to Curbs in Exchange for Ending Suits”, New York Times, March 18 (requires free registration).
March 20 — “Study Shows Breast Implants Pose Little Risk”. “An analysis appearing in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine suggests silicone breast implants are safe, despite widespread perception that the controversial devices cause health problems” — not to mention a trial-lawyer-led campaign that drove the devices off the market and reaped a settlement totaling billions of dollars from manufacturers. Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, performed a combined analysis of 20 earlier studies and concluded that “‘the elimination of implants would not be likely to reduce the incidence of connective-tissue diseases’ such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or other illnesses caused by the misfiring of the immune system”. (Reuters/ FindLaw, Mar. 15).
March 20 — Do as we say, cont’d. Disabled-rights laws are feared by many private business owners who face the prospect of heavy fines and lawsuit settlements for noncompliance. As for the judicial branch, charged with enforcing these selfsame laws? Well, they’re often a wee bit less mindful of ’em. Howard County, Maryland Circuit Judge James B. Dudley, who isn’t disabled, concedes that his desire to stick close to the courthouse so he could answer jurors’ questions during a trial was “probably not a justification” for his having chosen to park in a clearly marked handicapped space, a practice also engaged in by local sheriff’s deputies. (Del Quentin Wilber, “Judge parks in hot water”, Baltimore Sun, Mar. 11). And in Massachusetts, following on the revelation that Boston’s opulent new courthouse lacks wheelchair access to its jury boxes and witness stands (see July 17-18, 1999 commentary), the Cape Organization for Rights of the Disabled sued over the disabled-unfriendly state of the Plymouth County courthouse; Barry Sumner couldn’t get over the threshold to divorce his wife and had to ask her to help lift his chair. (Paul Sullivan, “Suit seeks access for disabled at Plymouth court”, Boston Herald, Sept. 10, 1999). Aren’t these courts lucky they’re not private businesses?
March 20 — Costs of veggie-libel laws. Talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey keeps winning in round after round of litigation filed by cattlemen after a February 1998 show she did on mad-cow disease. “Ironically, the more she wins, the more she loses,” observes First Amendment specialist Paul McMasters. Aside from our lack of a loser-pays rule, the culprit is “agricultural-disparagement” laws enacted in 13 states, which menace media producers if they knowingly broadcast false and disparaging statements that harm the salability of perishable farm products. (“Shut up and eat everything on your plate”, Freedom Forum Online, Feb. 21; Ronald K.L. Collins and Paul McMasters, “Veggie Libel Laws Still Out to Muzzle Free Speech”, Texas Lawyer, March 30, 1998). Last year the Texas legislature turned back an attempt to repeal that state’s ag-disparagement law, though the Abilene Reporter-News pointed out that the law is hard to square with the state’s successful efforts under Governor Bush to curb excessive litigation. (“‘Veggie libel’ law Texas can live without” (editorial), April 13, 1999; “House lets ‘veggie libel’ law stand; Bill seeking repeal voted down 80-57”, AP/Dallas Morning News, May 8, 1999).
March 20 — 250,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Thanks for your support!
March 17-19 — Holiday literary selection: Irish squire’s litigious ways.“Then there was a bleach yard near us, and the tenant dare refuse my lady nothing, for fear of a law-suit Sir Murtagh kept hanging over him about the water course. With these ways of managing, ’tis surprising how cheap my lady got things done, and how proud she was of it. … [The tenants] knew her way, and what with fear of driving for rent and Sir Murtagh’s law-suits, they were kept in such good order, they never thought of coming near Castle Stopgap without a present of something or other nothing too much or too little for my lady eggs honey butter meal fish game, grouse, and herrings, fresh or salt all went for something. … [H]e made a good living of trespassing cattle there was always some tenant’s pig, or horse, or cow, or calf, or goose, trespassing, which was so great a gain to Sir Murtagh, that he did not like to hear me talk of repairing fences….
“As for law, I believe no man, dead or alive, ever loved it so well as Sir Murtagh. He had once sixteen suits pending at a time, and I never saw him so much himself roads lanes bogs wells ponds eel-wires orchards trees tythes vagrants gravel-pits sandpits dung-hills and nuisances every thing upon the face of the earth furnished him good matter for a suit. He used to boast that he had a law-suit for every letter in the alphabet. How I used to wonder to see Sir Murtagh in the midst of the papers in his office why he could hardly turn about for them. I made bold to shrug my shoulders once in his presence, and thanked my stars I was not born a gentleman to so much toil and trouble but Sir Murtagh took me up short with his old proverb, ‘learning is better than house or land.’ Out of forty-nine suits which he had, he never lost one but seventeen; the rest he gained with costs, double costs, treble costs sometimes but even that did not pay. He was a very learned man in the law, and had the character of it; but how it was I can’t tell, these suits that he carried cost him a power of money in the end he sold some hundreds a year of the family estate but he was a very learned man in the law, and I know nothing of the matter except having a great regard for the family. I could not help grieving when he sent me to post up notices of the sale of the fee simple of the lands and appurtenances of Timoleague. ‘I know, honest Thady,’ says he to comfort me, ‘what I’m about better than you do; I’m only selling to get the ready money wanting, to carry on my suit with spirit with the Nugents of Carrickashaughlin.'” — from Chapter 1, Castle Rackrent, subtitled An Hibernian Tale Taken from Facts, and from the Manners of the Irish Squires, Before the Year 1782, by Maria Edgeworth (1800) (biographies: Edgeworth family site, E-Search Ireland, WritePage, Morley’s) (e-text at Carnegie-Mellon; alternate e-text location, Creighton U.) (passage is from fourth long paragraph of text).
March 17-19 — Letterman sign suit. Anna Soares, 79, who lives near the Manhattan studio where David Letterman tapes his show, filed a lawsuit last month demanding $12 million from CBS because the network has declined to remove a giant illuminated sign of Letterman’s likeness which shines into her apartment’s window. Network officials say they believe they have the proper permits for the sign. Reader Gregory Kohs of American Cynic comments: “what I find preposterous is the $12 million sum the lady decided would be fair.” If the sign does not violate code, how about asking for the costs of relocating to a less-commercial neighborhood? “I think a wee bit less than $12 million would be sufficient to get her belongings into a moving truck.” (“People in the news: Woman files lawsuit over Letterman sign”, Boulder Daily Camera, Feb. 19) (second item).
March 17-19 — Go ahead and comment — if it’ll do much good. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s proposals on ergonomics “may be the single most costly employment policy regulation in U.S. history,” according to the Employment Policy Foundation. Now OSHA has thrown open a period for public comment on the rules, but the Clinton Administration has already signaled that the option favored by most organized employers — not proceeding with the rules at all — is unlikely to be considered, no matter what volume of critical comments may come in. (Alice Ann Love, “Public dialog opens on new workplace safety rules”, AP/Fox News, March 14; Michael D. Towle, “OSHA pushing for new regulations aimed at preventing repetitive motion injuries”, CNN, March 9).
SOURCES: OSHA proposed standard; Yahoo Full Coverage; Ron Bird and Jill Jenkins, “Ergonomics Regulation: Vague, Broad and Costly”, EPF Backgrounder, Jan. 12; National Coalition on Ergonomics (employer alliance); Matt Labash, “Hooked on Ergonomics”, Weekly Standard, Feb. 28; “OSHA Unveils Ergonomics Standard To Ire of Congress, Employer Groups”, Employment Law Weekly, Nov. 29; comments of Mercatus Center, George Mason U., National Association of Manufacturers; (via Junk Science🙂 Robert Hahn, “Bad Economics, Not Good Ergonomics,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 24; David Saito-Chung, “What Price Workplace Safety? New Rules Spark Debate Over Science, Business Costs”, Investor’s Business Daily, Nov. 30; “New OSHA regs need rethinking” (editorial), Boston Herald, Nov. 26; “OSHAme on them!” (editorial), New York Post Nov. 24; “Repetitive Bureaucracy Syndrome” (editorial), Chicago Tribune, Nov. 24.
March 16 — Dave Barry on tobacco suits, round II. The humorist, who wrote a priceless column on the federal tobacco suit last fall (see Oct. 26) now offers an update reflecting on the news that “so far the states are spending more than 90 percent of the tobacco-settlement money on programs unrelated to smoking, such as building highways. … This is good, because we need quality highways to handle the sharp increase in the number of Mercedes automobiles purchased by lawyers enriched by the tobacco settlement.” Then there’s the new round of class-action suits contending that smokers themselves deserve money from the states, which if successful will establish the following cycle:
“1. SMOKERS would give money to THE TOBACCO COMPANIES in exchange for cigarettes.
“2. THE TOBACCO COMPANIES would then give the money to THE STATES (and their lawyers).
“3. THE STATES would then give the money to SMOKERS (and their lawyers).
“4. THE SMOKERS would then presumably give the money to THE TOBACCO COMPANIES in exchange for more cigarettes.”
But isn’t this inefficient, you may ask? Wouldn’t it be easier to order the tobacco companies to give smokers free cigarettes directly? “The trouble with that idea is that it would defeat the two main purposes of the War on Smoking, which are (1) to provide the states with money; and (2) to provide lawyers with, well, money.” Don’t miss this one (“War on Smoking always has room for another lawyer”, Miami Herald, Feb. 18).
March 16 — Judges can’t charge cost of corruption defense to insurer. “Three former San Diego Superior Court judges convicted of corruption charges can’t parlay judicial liability insurance into coverage for their criminal defense, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.” In one of the biggest judicial scandals in California history (see our editor’s 1996 piece on the case), Michael Greer, James Malkus and G. Dennis Adams were found to have accepted gifts from prominent trial lawyer Patrick Frega in exchange for favorable rulings in cases. (Jason Hoppin, “No Coverage for Judges Convicted of Corruption”, The Recorder/ CalLaw, March 2).
March 16 — Your hairdresser — and informant? Hairdressers “are often confidantes for many people,” says Veronica Boyd-Frenkel, who holds the post of “domestic violence ombudsman” in the state of Nevada. All this is by way of explaining why her office, working with the state attorney general’s office, has launched a program to train cosmetologists to recognize signs of domestic abuse, the better to steer suspected victims to approved anti-domestic-violence groups. “They may hear things even someone’s best friend may not hear,” says Ms. Boyd-Frenkel, of the hair stylists. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, in an editorial, thinks it all rather smacks of the enlistment of ever wider circles of the citizenry as official informants (Angie Wagner, “State asks hairdressers to help domestic abuse victims”, AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Feb. 28; “Down the wrong path” (editorial), Feb. 29; Vin Suprynowicz, “The Libertarian: Watch what you tell your hairdresser” (expanded version of editorial), March 1; “Training would not make informants of cosmetologists” (letter to the editor from Ms. Boyd-Frenkel), March 5).
March 16 — Prof sues for right to flunk students. The University of Michigan describes as “utterly without merit” a lawsuit filed by Dental School associate professor Keith Yohn challenging the university’s refusal to fail two sophomore dental students. Yohn charges that the school bent its academic rules to allow the two to remain, and that an assistant dean sent him a belligerent email informing him that poor grades he and three other professors had given the students would be disregarded. Acting as his own attorney, Yohn went to federal court to charge the university with “deprivation of ‘freedom of speech'” and disregard of the ‘health care interest’ of the public and their children”; he also asks $125,000 for emotional distress. (David Shepardson, “U-M sued over dental grades”, Detroit News, Dec. 30; Hanna Lopatin, “Dental Prof. Sues U. Michigan for Refusing to Fail Students”, Michigan Daily/ StudentAdvantage.com, Jan. 5).
October 15 — Reform stirrings on public contingency fees. U.S. Chamber of Commerce readies a push to curb governments’ growing habit of teaming up with private lawyers to sue businesses (tobacco, guns, lead paint) and share out the booty. “We think this is one of the biggest threats facing American industry today,” says Jim Wootton, executive director of the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform. Its proposed reform package targets such abuses as political corruption (states would be barred from hiring an outside lawyer who “contributed more than $250 to the campaign of a public official”) and retroactivity (states couldn’t enact legislation affecting their chances of winning pending or contemplated suits).
Our editor’s take on this issue appeared in his 1991 book The Litigation Explosion, excerpted at the time in Policy Review (parts one, two). Briefly: contingency fees for representing governments are a corrupting analogue to the widely deplored practices of “tax farming” (letting tax collectors keep a share of the revenue they take in) and of hinging traffic cops’ bonuses on the volume of tickets they write. There’s no historical reason to permit such devices at all: lawyer’s contingency fees developed in this country as an exception arising from our lack of a loser-pays rule (most other countries flatly ban them as unethical) and until not long ago were carefully limited here to the cases where they were considered a necessary evil, in particular cases where an impoverished client could not afford hourly fees. That ruled out contingency representation of governments. In addition, several court decisions suggest that it violates due process to delegate public law enforcement functions to persons financially interested in their outcomes, which is why we don’t allow D.A.s year-end bonuses based on their success in nailing defendants.
Interesting gossip tidbit from today’s front-page New York Times coverage of the reform push: Prof. Jack Coffee of Columbia says he “would not be surprised if” public entities like cities signed up with the trial lawyers’ campaign to sue HMOs. (Barry Meier and Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “States’ Big Suits Against Industry Bring Battle on Contingency Fees”, New York Times, Oct. 15 — full story)
October 15 — Dog searches of junior high lockers. Yes, they’re doing random canine sniffs of twelve-year-olds’ possessions in York, S.C., not on any focused suspicion but just on principle, maybe to remind kids not to expect privacy: “It’s just a further measure to enhance safety at the schools,” beams principal Ray Langdale (Tracy Smith, “K-9 debuts in locker search at junior high”, Rock Hill, S.C. Herald, Oct. 12).
October 15 — A mile wide and an inch deep. “The Environmental Protection Agency has placed a portion of the Platte River in central Nebraska on the ‘Impaired Waters’ list. Their reason: It gets too hot. The source of the heat: the sun….” (“The Miller Pages” by Jeff Miller, webzine, Sept. 30 — full column)
October 14 — Covers the earth with litigation. Trial lawyers’ long-prepared campaign against lead paint and pigment makers gets its liftoff with the state of Rhode Island agreeing to serve as the first designated statewide plaintiff, and doubtless not the last. Picked by attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse to represent the state on a contingency fee basis are Providence’s Decof & Grimm and Charleston, S.C.’s Ness, Motley, Loadholt, Richardson & Poole, the latter of which is reaping somewhere between hundreds of millions and billions of dollars (estimates vary) from its role in earlier rounds of asbestos and tobacco litigation. Named as defendants are the Lead Industries Association, an industry trade group, along with eight manufacturers: American Cyanamid, Atlantic Richfield, duPont, The O’Brien Corporation, Imperial Chemical Industries’ Glidden Co., NL Industries, SCM Chemicals, and Sherwin-Williams. Lawyers are also planning to enlist cities as plaintiffs in the manner of the gun litigation, perhaps starting with Milwaukee, where a favorable state law may help their cause. Baltimore asbestos/tobacco tycoon Peter Angelos, who owns the baseball Orioles, has filed suit in Maryland; and a suit against paint makers by New York City has also been chugging along in the Gotham courts for years with little publicity or apparent success.
Sources (most links now dead): Gillian Flynn, AP/Washington Post, Oct. 13; David Rising, “R. I. Sues Lead Paint Makers”, Washington Post, Oct. 13; Yahoo/Reuters, “R.I. files suit against 8 lead paint makers”, Oct. 13; Whitehouse’s Oct. 13 press release; companies’ Oct. 13 press release; Baltimore: “Lawyer Goes After Lead Paint Makers,” AP/Washington Post, Sept. 21; Felicia Thomas-Lynn, “Pittsburgh lawyers pick Milwaukee for building lead-paint suit,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, June 2; Greg Borowski, “City Moves Toward Suing Paint Industry”, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Oct. 6; and coverage on the industry site Paints and Coatings.com.
October 14 — Injunctive injustice. Restraining orders in family and divorce law can protect potential targets of domestic abuse, but they can also wind up becoming the instrument of legalized violence themselves. “Men have been jailed for sending their kids a Christmas card or returning a child’s phone call,” comments Detroit News columnist Cathy Young, author of the recent Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality. “Harry Stewart, a lay minister who has never faced criminal charges of assault, is serving a six-month jail term for violating a restraining order. His crime? When bringing his 5-year-old son back to the mother after visitation, he walked the boy to the apartment building and opened the front door. The restraining order forbade him to exit his car near his ex-wife’s residence.”
Procedural protections for targets are few, and judges can often issue temporary restraining orders ex parte without either the presence of the defendant or any allegation of actual violent behavior. “In 1993, Elaine Epstein, then president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, warned that ‘[in] many [divorce] cases, allegations of abuse are now used for tactical advantage'” and that courts were handing down restraining orders too readily. Some fathers’-rights activists in the Bay State have recently launched a wide-ranging legal challenge to the state’s family-court practices. “Charges of domestic violence, by women or men, must be taken seriously,” writes Young. “But sensitivity to victims should never turn into a presumption of guilt.” (“Do ‘protection orders’ actually violate civil rights?”, Detroit News, reprinted Jewish World Review Sept. 30 — full column)
October 14 — 60,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Traffic zips right along, both on the fast news days and the slow … thanks for your support!
October 13 — “Doctor sues insurer, claims sex addiction.” “A former Paducah gynecologist who claims he is a sex addict is suing his insurance company to collect disability benefits because he can’t practice his specialty,” reports the Louisville Courier-Journal. Dr. Harold Crall voluntarily gave up his practice after instances of inappropriate contact with patients came to light; he now treats male patients at the Kentucky department of corrections and is under orders from a state licensing board never to see female patients without a chaperone. His lawsuit in federal court says the Provident Life & Accident Insurance Co. should pay him disability benefits because his sexual addiction prevents him from pursuing his chosen profession. (Mark Schaver, Louisville Courier-Journal, Oct. 8)
October 13 — “This wretched lawsuit”. The Clinton Administration’s new tobacco suit “is, without a doubt, the most impressive legal document of our day,” writes Jonathan Rauch in National Journal. “Examining this lawsuit is like watching a drunken driver who, before crashing into a church during high Mass, also manages to shred an ornamental garden, knock down two traffic lights, uproot a fire hydrant, and clip a police station.” To begin with, given its revenues from cigarette taxes and its savings on pension benefits, “[t]he government suffered no net damages. There is nothing to recover. Just the opposite.” Moreover, the government undertook the expenses of Medicare at a time when it was well aware that smoking was a cause of disease. If it followed the rules, the Clinton Justice Department would have no legal case at all; so it’s trying to pull what the Florida legislature pulled and rewrite the rules retroactively to turn a losing case into a winner.
All of which leads up to the suit’s “brassy” finale: its attempt to redefine an unpopular interest group’s issue advocacy as itself unlawful, as in the 25 racketeering counts that are based simply on the tobacco industry’s issuance of press releases. The columnist generously quotes the “entertaining and often startling Web site www.overlawyered.com” (blush) as having observed that “there can scarcely be a better way to silence one side than to concoct a theory that exposes it to charges of ‘racketeering’ for disseminating views its opponents consider erroneous.” (see our Sept. 23 commentary). In short, Rauch writes, by turning the anti-tobacco crusade into an assault on freedom of political expression, the administration “has given all Americans — … not excluding tobacco-bashers — a vital stake in the defeat of this wretched lawsuit.” (“Bob Dole, Tobacco Racketeer”, Oct. 1 — link now gone). For the columnist’s 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors, which Kirkus called a “compelling defense of free speech against its new enemies”, click here.
October 13 — Pokémon cards update. Adorable Japanese monster craze for the younger set, or illegal gambling racket ripe for class-action lawsuits? An alert reader points out regarding our Oct. 1-3 commentary that while the Nintendo company owns licensing rights to Pokémon characters, it’s smaller companies that actually make the collectible card packs that lawyers are suing over (the lawsuits’ theory is that since some cards are deemed more valuable than others, buying a pack of the cards constitutes “gambling”). Each pack, this reader tells us, contains “precisely one ‘rare’ card.” For those who want to see what the full cast of characters looks like, we found a copiously illustrated guide at the Topeka Capital-Journal‘s site (link now dead).
“If Americans were this obsessed with suing everybody in the 1950s, then the parents of millions of baby boomers would have taken Topps (TOPP) and other baseball-card makers to court because kids spent countless dollars trying to track down an elusive Mickey Mantle rookie card,” writes Paul La Monica at Smart Money. Meanwhile the aggressive San Diego class-action firm of Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes and Lerach, which has indeed been filing lawsuits against Topps, the National Football League, Major League Baseball and other defendants on theories that the sale of trading cards to kids amounts to a gambling enterprise, ran into an embarrassment Sept. 23 when it discovered that it had announced its intention to sue one of its own clients, a company named 4Kids that is among the clients in Milberg Weiss’s little-known practice representing (as opposed to suing) businesses. “If you think this makes me happy, it doesn’t,” said Melvyn I. Weiss, New York-based co-managing partner of the firm; the firm was obliged to withdraw from the action. (San Diego Union-Tribune coverage: Bruce V. Bigelow, “Suit alleges Pokemon is illegal game”, Sept. 21; Don Bauder, “Law firm discovers it sued own client in Pokemon case”, Sept. 24.) (our Oct. 1-3 commentary)
October 13 — Bright future in some areas of practice. Even his own lawyer describes Paul Converse as a “pain in the neck.” But should he be awarded a license to practice law anyway? The Nebraska State Bar Commission says no, citing his consistently “abusive, disruptive, hostile, intemperate, intimidating, irresponsible, threatening or turbulent” behavior in school. Converse’s lawyer says his client’s civil rights are being violated and has appealed to the state’s high court (Kevin O’Hanlon, “Temperament Bars Man From Law Test”, AP/Washington Post, Sept. 29; Aileen O’Connell, “Setting the Bar High”, Newsweek, Sept. 30).
October 12 — Proud history to end? Sam Colt invented the revolver, but his namesake Colt’s Manufacturing Company is retreating from much of its business of selling handguns to consumers. “It’s extremely painful when you have to withdraw from a business for irrational reasons,” said an executive with the company. The only municipal lawsuit to reach the merits, Cincinnati’s, was soundly rejected by the judge last week (see Oct. 8 commentary, below), but given America’s lack of a loser-pays rule the process itself becomes the punishment: the May 17 New Yorker cites estimates that defense costs to the industry as a whole in the suits could soon run a million dollars a day.
Quoted in APB News, spokeslawyer John Coale denied that the suits would shut down the handgun industry. “It can’t be done, and it’s not a motive, because as long as lawful citizens want to buy handguns, and as long as the market’s there, there’s going to be someone filling it,” he said. But surely Coale is aware of the thorough suppression by our litigation system of other products that remain lawful. It’s completely lawful to sell the morning sickness drug Bendectin, for example, and many consumers would be glad to buy it, but no company is willing to produce it for U.S. sale because trial lawyers have been too successful in organizing lawsuits against it.
Upwards of a hundred workers are expected to be laid off at Colt’s Hartford-area facilities. The company will continue to sell to the police and military, perhaps foreshadowing future arrangements in which only government agencies will be lawfully allowed to obtain small arms. (“Colt exiting consumer handgun business — Newsweek”, CNN/Reuters, Oct. 10; Hans H. Chen, “Colt’s Handgun Plan Heats Up Debate”, APB News, Oct. 11). (Note: the Colt company took issue with some aspects of the Newsweek report. It said its dropping of various handgun lines did not constitute an exit from the consumer market, gave a number for layoffs of 120-200 rather than 300, as first reported, and suggested that the lines would have been dropped at some point even without the litigation pressure. See our Nov. 18-19 commentary, as well as Nov. 9)
October 12 — Property owners obliged to host rattlesnakes. “A New York court recently ruled that New York’s endangered species law requires private landowners to host threatened rattlesnakes on their property.” Family-owned Sour Mountain Realty had erected a “snake-proof” fence with the rattlers on one side of it and its mine on the other, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation pointed to a provision of New York law that prohibits “disturbing, harrying, or worrying” an endangered species and said that the owners were violating that provision by prevent the creatures from traversing the land freely. A court agreed and ordered Sour Mountain to tear down the fence, thus giving the rattlers a sporting chance to “disturb, harry or worry” the humans who’d been on the other side of it. An appeal is pending (Pacific Legal Foundation, Key Cases, Environmental Law Practice Group)
October 12 — After the HMO barbecue. Our favorite syndicated columnist explains why last week’s House passage of a bill promoting lawsuits over denial of coverage was a really bad idea. “Managed care arose because we can’t have it all, much as we would like to.” Now, thanks to the shortsightedness of America’s organized medical profession, we’re back on track toward an eventual federal takeover of the area. (Steve Chapman, “The Unadvertised Wrongs of ‘Patients’ Rights'”, Chicago Tribune, Oct. 10)
October 12 — Down the censorship-by-lawsuit road. First Amendment specialist Paul McMasters decries the current courtroom push to assign liability to entertainment companies for acts of violence committed by their viewers or readers. “The idea that we can blame books, movies and other media for crime turns the courtroom search for justice into a search for blame and deep pockets….Down that road lies cultural homogeneity, social and intellectual stagnation, and the possibility that we will be not only living with the tyranny of the majority but the tyranny of the aggrieved.” (“Will we trade our freedom for civility?”, Freedom Forum, Sept. 27)
October 12 — Free-Market.Net “Freedom Page of the Week”. We’re proud to be named this week’s honoree in Free-Market.Net‘s “Freedom Page of the Week” series. Editor Eric Johnson calls Overlawyered.com “thorough, well-organized, and, if you are capable of enjoying an occasional laugh at the ridiculousness of some lawsuits, very entertaining….truly invaluable to anyone interested in the absurdities of our legal system”. In turn, we highly recommend Free-Market.Net, a browser’s delight of libertarian resources on almost every conceivable policy topic as well as a one-stop jumping-off point to reach just about any liberty-oriented website you might be looking for. (full award text)
October 11 — My dear old tobacco-fee friends. Among the first dozen state attorney generals to jump on the tobacco-Medicaid suit bandwagon — and the very first Republican — was Kansas’s Carla Stovall. To represent the state, Stovall hired three law firms, two from out-of-state and one from within. The two out-of-state firms were Ness, Motley of Charleston, S.C. and Scruggs, Millette of Pascagoula, Miss., both major players in the suit representing a large number of other states. And the lucky Kansas firm selected as in-state counsel, entitled to share with the others in a contingency fee amounting to 25 percent of the state’s (eventual estimated $1.5 billion-plus) haul? Why, that firm just happened to be Entz & Chanay of Topeka, Attorney General Stovall’s own former law firm. Stovall has insisted that her old firm was the only one willing to take the case on the terms offered. It’s still unclear what total fees the three firms will reap from the Kansas work, but the sum very likely will exceed the $20 million that the state legislature vainly (after the ink was dry on the contingency contract) attempted to decree as a fee cap for the lawyers. This spring, Stovall stared down Rep. Tony Powell (R-Wichita), chairman of an appropriations panel in the Kansas House, who’d sought to impose competitive-bidding rules as well as a requirement of lawmaker approval on the state’s future letting of outside law-firm contracts. (Topeka Capital-Journal coverage: Roger Myers, “Fees likely to exceed cap”, Jan. 22; “State will be rewarded for early entry to suit”, March 12; Jim McLean, “Battle between Stovall, critic a draw”, March 13) (see also commentaries on New Jersey, Wisconsin tobacco fees)
October 11 — Free Kennewick Man! The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is “a 1990 law intending to protect Indian burial sites and help tribes reclaim the remains of ancestors stored in museums”. But the law has emerged as a serious threat to the pursuit of pre-Columbian archeological knowledge (as well as an infringement of property owners’ rights). Symbolic is the fate of 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, discovered in 1996 but soon seized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of Indian claimants — even though, astonishingly, the skeleton appeared to be of Caucasian descent. “If [the battle over similar relics] continues much longer,” writes John J. Miller, “irreplaceable evidence on the prehistoric settlement of the Americas will go missing, destroyed by misguided public policy and the refusal to confront a troubling alliance between multiculturalism and religious fundamentalism.” (Intellectual Capital, Sept. 23)
October 11 — Are you sure you want to delete “Microsoft”? “Welcome to the postmodern world of high-tech antitrust where big is once again bad, lofty profit margins are a wakeup call to government regulators, executives are brought to heel for aggressively worded e-mails, pricing too high is monopolistic, pricing too low is predatory, propping up politically wired competitors is the surreptitious aim, bundling products that consumers want is illegal, and successful companies are rewarded by dismemberment.” The Cato Institute’s Robert Levy blasts the Microsoft suit (“Microsoft Redux: Anatomy of a Baseless Lawsuit”, Cato Policy Analysis, Sept. 30 — full paper).
October 11 — State supreme courts vs. tort reform. J.V. Schwan, for the Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation, decries the quiet evisceration of no fewer than 90 tort reform statutes by state supreme courts, most recently Ohio’s, which refuse to acknowledge their legislatures’ role as makers of the civil law. Whatever happened to the separation of powers? (“Rapid-Fire Assault on the Separation of Powers,” Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation Capitol Comment #251, Sept. 9)
October 9-10 — The Yellow Pages indicator. “For a number of years I have been using a simple test to gauge the health of local culture and economy, as well as that of the country in general. I grab the yellow pages and tally up the number of pages advertising attorneys and compare them with the number and types of ads for doctors, engineers and insurance companies. I recently counted 62 pages of attorneys in my Tampa area, with 20 of the pages being full page, multi-color ads that are exorbitantly expensive to run….When there are nearly twice as many lawyers and legal firms than doctors and engineers combined, this is not a good sign.” (“Please Don’t Feed the Lawyers,” Angry White Male, Sept. 1999)
October 9-10 — Piggyback suit not entitled to piggybank contents. Last month the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed an award of $1 million in legal fees to class action lawyers who had sued Texaco in a “piggyback” shareholder action over its involvement in charges of racial discrimination. Writing for a unanimous panel, Senior Judge Roger Miner said the proposed settlement involved “therapeutic ‘benefits’ that can only be characterized as illusory” and that plaintiff’s counsel, which included the firm of Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach and several other law firms, had “in an effort to justify an award of fees” emphasized the extreme long-shot nature of the contentions they had made on behalf of shareholders, but had succeeded only in raising the question of whether those contentions “had no chance of success and, accordingly, were made for the improper purpose of early settlement and the allowance of substantial counsel fees.” (Mark Hamblett, “$1 Million Fee Award Reversed”, New York Law Journal, Sept. 15)
October 9-10 — Grounds for suspicion. Reasons the Drug Enforcement Administration has given in court for targeting individuals, according to one published list:
Arrived in the afternoon
Was one of the first to deplane
Was one of the last to deplane
Deplaned in the middle
Purchased ticket at airport
Made reservation on short notice
Bought coach ticket
Bought first class ticket
Used one-way ticket
Used round-trip ticket
Carried no luggage
Carried brand-new luggage
Carried a small bag
Carried a medium-sized bag
Carried two bulky garment bags
Carried two heavy suitcases
Carried four pieces of luggage
Dissociated self from luggage
Traveled with a companion
Acted too nervous
Acted too calm
Walked quickly through the airport
Walked slowly through the airport
Walked aimlessly through the airport
Suspect was Hispanic
Suspect was black female.
— Sam Smith’s Progressive Review, July 30, quoting David Cole in Insight. We’ve been unable to track down Cole’s article or any earlier appearances of the list; further clues on the list’s provenance and authenticity are welcome.
October 8 — Victory in Cincinnati. The first of the municipal gun lawsuits to reach a decision on the merits results in a sweeping victory for gun manufacturers and a stinging rebuke to the city of Cincinnati, which had sued the makers along with three trade associations and a distributor. “The Court finds as a matter of law that the risks associated with the use of a firearm are open and obvious and matters of common knowledge,” writes Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman in a five-page opinion dismissing the city’s claims in their entirety. “[They] cannot be a basis for fraud or negligent misrepresentation” or for failure to warn. Nor does the theory of nuisance apply since gun makers and distributors “have no ability to control the misconduct of [the responsible] third parties”. Moreover, the city’s complaint had attempted to “aggregate anonymous claims with no specificity whatsoever,” and was an attempt to pursue essentially political goals without the need to consult voter majorities: “In view of this Court, the City’s complaint is an improper attempt to have this Court substitute its judgment for that of the Legislature, something which this Court is neither inclined nor empowered to do.” Judge Ruehlman dismissed the lawsuit “with prejudice,” which means that if the city loses an expected appeal it will be barred from filing a new or amended suit. (Kimball Perry, “Judge tosses out city’s gun suit”, Cincinnati Post, Oct. 7; Dan Horn and Phillip Pina, “Judge dismisses city’s gun lawsuit”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct. 8; John Nolan, “Ohio judge dismisses Cincinnati’s lawsuit against gun industry”, AP/Akron Beacon Journal, Oct. 7).
October 8 — Demolition derby for consumer budgets. Higher car insurance premiums are on the way, warns Consumer Federation of America automotive expert Jack Gillis, because of an Illinois jury’s decision on Monday that it was improper for State Farm, the nation’s largest auto insurer, to purchase generic rather than original-brand replacement parts when reimbursing crash repairs. While the insurer plans to appeal the decision, it has in the mean time changed its policy and agreed to buy original-maker parts, which are already more expensive than generics and are likely to become more so now that GM, Toyota and other original-brand makers can contemplate the prospect of a legally captive market obliged to pay virtually any price they care to charge for replacement hoods and other items. The jury voted $456 million in supposed damages, a number built up from various accounting fictions; additional damages based on purported fraud are yet to be decided. Because State Farm is a mutual enterprise that periodically returns surpluses to customers in the form of dividends, eventual success on appeal for the class action would mostly shift money around among policyholders’ pockets (minus big fees for lawyers), for the sake of driving up the cost structure of providing coverage.
Various consumer groups often at odds with the auto insurance industry took State Farm’s side in the case, to no avail. The use of generic parts has been standard practice among auto insurers; Ann Spragens of the Alliance of American Insurers found it “particularly objectionable” that the jury was allowed to second-guess a practice that “state insurance regulators have examined time and again and have permitted to be followed”. Though filed in state court, the class action presumed to set policy nationwide, and tort reformers said the case illustrated the need to move nationwide class actions into federal court, as a pending bill in Congress would do. (“No replacement parts for State Farm”, AP/Washington Post, Oct. 8; Keith Bradsher, “Insurer Halts Disputed Plan for Coverage of Auto Repairs”, New York Times, Oct. 8; Michael Pearson, “State Farm Verdict Angers Industry”, AP/Washington Post, Oct. 5.) Update Aug. 19, 2005: Ill. high court unanimously decertifies class and nullifies $1.2 billion award.
October 8 — White-knuckle lotto. Yesterday a federal jury awarded 13 American Airlines passengers a total of $2.25 million for psychological trauma suffered when a 1995 flight from New York to Los Angeles ran into a thunderstorm over Minnesota, experienced 28 seconds of severe turbulence and had to make an emergency landing in Chicago. The award appears to be the biggest yet for emotional distress in airliner incidents; none of the passengers sued for serious personal injuries. Those onboard included movie director Steven Spielberg’s sister Nancy, who with her two small children was awarded a collective $540,000; Louis Weiss, the retired chairman of the William Morris Agency, who with his wife was voted a collective $300,000; and Garry Bonner of Hackensack, N.J., who co-wrote the song “Happy Together” for the Turtles. (Gail Appleson, “Spielberg’s sister gets damages from airline”, Reuters/Excite, Oct. 7, link now dead; Benjamin Weiser, “Airline Ruled Liable for Distress on Turbulent Flight”, New York Times, Oct. 8, link now dead).
October 8 — Star hunt. Clever way for Southern California attorneys to fulfill their pro bono publico charitable obligation: donate free assistance to screenwriters or musicians looking for their first sale or deal. That way, once the clients are established, the lawyers come into a lucrative future vein of paid work. Should this sort of thing really be called pro bono at all? (Di Mari Ricker, “When Pro Bono Is More Like an Investment”, California Law Week, Sept. 27)
October 7 — Yes, it is personal. “I’M AN ENGINEER. If you believe in stereotypes, I’m a mild-mannered egghead with a pocket protector. But if you believe the lawyers, I’m a killer.” Despite the fiction that liability suits are only aimed at faceless companies and enable society to spread risk, etc., a real-life community of individual design professionals does in fact feel a keen sense of personal accusation — and of injustice — when juries are fed dubious charges of auto safety defects (Quent Augsperger, “Lawyers declare war on automotive engineers”, Knight-Ridder/ Tribune/ Detroit Free Press, Oct. 5 — full column).
October 7 — Kansas cops seize $18 grand; no crime charged. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that county sheriffs outside Emporia found and seized $18,400 after searching and having a dog sniff a four-door Ford Tempo that was traveling on Interstate 35. No arrests were made, and the two occupants of the car, who hail from St. Louis and El Paso, Tex., have not been charged with any offense. Forfeiture law allows law enforcers to seize money on suspicion that it’s linked to crime, and the owners must then sue to get it back. The officer who made the stop found the money in a hidden compartment in the vehicle, a circumstance he seemed to think constituted a crime in itself, but an attorney for the county says he isn’t aware of any law against hidden compartments. (“Lyon County Sheriff’s Department seizes more than $18,400 on I-35”, CJ Online, Aug. 21; Jon E. Dougherty, “Is possession of cash a crime?”, WorldNetDaily, Sept. 14).
October 7 — Family drops Sea World suit. The family of Daniel Dukes has voluntarily dropped its lawsuit against Sea World over Dukes’ death from hypothermia and drowning while apparently taking an unauthorized dip with the largest killer whale in captivity (see Sept. 21 commentary). No explanation was forthcoming, but a park spokesman said a settlement had not been paid. (“Killer Whale Lawsuit Is Dropped”, Excite/Reuters, Oct. 5)
October 7 — Israeli court rejects cigarette reimbursement suit. “Tel Aviv District Court Judge Adi Azar ridiculed the suit, saying that accepting the claim would make it impossible to sell anything but lettuce and tomatoes in Israel, the local army radio reported.” Could we bring that judge over here, please? (“Health Fund Loses Case Against Cigarette Manufacturer”, AP/Dow Jones, Sept. 15 — full story)
October 7 — Copyright and conscience. Goodbye to the Dysfunctional Family Circus, a four-year-old parody site which posted artwork panels of the familiar “Family Circus” cartoon and invited readers to submit their own new (often rude and tasteless) captions for them. Lawyers for King Features, which owns rights to the cartoon, lowered the boom last month, leading to coverage in the Arizona Republic, AP/CBS (links now dead), Wired News, Phoenix New Times, Editor & Publisher, and, among webzines, the ineffably named HPOO: Healing Power of Obnoxiousness. Most recent development: though advised by some that copyright law’s liberal parody exemption might afford him some opening for a defense, webmaster Greg Galcik decided to fold after he spoke on the phone for an hour and a half with Bil Keane, cartoonist of the real-life “Family Circus”, heard firsthand that the parody had made Keane feel really bad about the use to which his characters had been put, and decided he hadn’t the heart to continue.
October 7 — Knock it off with that smile. “There’s nothing funny about this injury,” said attorney Mark Daane, who’s representing University of Michigan social work professor Susan McDonough in her lawsuit against Celebrity Cruises. The suit contends that if the cruise line had taken better care, a passenger on an upper deck would not have dropped a cumbersome Coco Loco specialty drink over the railing, thence to descend on Ms. McDonough’s head. The drink is served in a hollowed-out coconut and comes with a little parasol. In August a federal judge declined to dismiss the lawsuit, which seeks over $2 million for brain trauma. We told you to cut it out with the smile already (Frances A. McMorris, “A Loaded Coconut Falls Off Deck, Landing One Cruise Line in Court”, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 13 — requires online subscription).
October 5-6 — “Big guns”. October column in Reason by Overlawyered.com‘s editor explores the origins of the municipal firearms litigation (the first point to get clear: it wasn’t the mayors who dreamed it up.) Valuable accounts that appeared in the New Yorker and The American Lawyer over the summer establish the close links in personnel and technique between the anti-gun jihad and the earlier tobacco heist, including key methods of manipulating press coverage and enlisting the help of friendly figures in government (full column). Also in the same excellent magazine, the online “Breaking Issues” series has come out with a new installment covering the federal tobacco suit (Sept. 23).
October 5-6 — State of legal ethics. Less than three months to go before entries close, and the law firm of Schwartzapfel, Novick, Truhowsky & Marcus P.C. of Manhattan and Huntington, L.I. holds the lead in the race for most reprehensible law-firm ad of 1999. Its prominent full-page ad near the front of the Sept. 20, 1999 issue of New York magazine beckons unwary readers into the heartbreaking, destructive meltdown that is will-contest litigation. Printed against a background picture of a serene blue sky (or are those storm clouds?) the copy reads: “Bring back to life a lost inheritance. If you believe that a will is invalid, that your rights in an estate or trust have been impaired or need advice to explain your rights, please call us today at [number].” Won’t enough warfare go on among former loved ones without giving it artificial encouragement? Shame on New York for printing this one.
October 5-6 — Chief cloud-on-title. Speaking of destructive forms of litigation, redundant though that phrase may be, are there many kinds that are worse than the revived assertion of old Indian land claims in long-settled communities? In upstate New York, Indian and non-Indian communities that have lived together peaceably for generations are now a-boil with rage, in what some locals (no doubt hyperbolically) call a mini-Balkans or Northern Ireland in the making. Repose and adverse possession count for surprisingly little in the eyes of a legal system that seems to welcome each new proposal for the dispossession of generations’ worth of innocent Euro-descendant inheritors. Old friendships have broken up, petty vandalism and threats are escalating, and — for all our legal establishment’s fine language about how litigation provides an alternative to conflict in the streets — the lawsuits are clearly exacerbating social conflict, not sublimating it. (Hart Seely and Michelle Breidenbach, “CNY communities split over land claims”, Syracuse Online, Sept. 26) (see also Oct. 27, Feb. 1 commentaries)
October 5-6 — FCC as Don Corleone. “They are engaged in shakedowns, extortions, and things that fall outside the formal regulatory process” That’s strong language to use about the Federal Communications Commission, the often-considered-dull regulatory agency in charge of broadcast, telephone, cable, and the Internet. It’s even stronger language considering that it comes from one of the FCC’s own commissioners, Harold Furchtgott-Roth, the only economist among the panel’s five members. Speaking at a Wyoming conference, Mr. Furchtgott-Roth explained that the commission exploits its discretion to withhold permission for mergers and other actions in order to levy unrelated demands that service be extended to politically favored communities. (Declan McCullagh, “The Seedy Side of the FCC”, Wired News, Sept. 28)
October 5-6 — This side of parodies. It’s always a challenge to come up with extreme fictional accounts of litigation that outrun the extreme real-life accounts. The online Hittman Chronicle visualizes the results of a legal action filed by a protagonist who was “in the middle of a three day drinking binge when he tried to clean out his ear with an ice pick”. Editor Dave Hitt says it was inspired by a story on this page… (“Pick Your Brain”, August — full parody)
October 4 — Brooklyn gunman shoots three, is awarded $41 m. A jury last week awarded $41.2 million to Jason Rodriguez in his excessive-force suit against New York City. Rodriguez was shot and paralyzed by off-duty police officer David Dugan in an incident in which Rodriguez had been “armed with a gun and firing at a number of individuals,” said Police Department spokeswoman Marilyn Mode. Rodriguez’s lawyer acknowledged that his client had just shot three persons at the time of his apprehension but said the three had assaulted him and that he had tried to surrender. Rodriguez later pleaded guilty to charges of reckless endangerment over the shootout. A New York Post editorial calls it “appalling” that he “should end up profiting from the aftermath of an incident in which he shot three people”. (Bill Hutchinson, “City Loses $41 M Suit to Shooter”, New York Daily News, Oct. 1; “The Growing Need for Tort Reform”, editorial, New York Post, Oct. 2). Compare New York’s “mugger millionaire” case, in which Bernard McCummings was awarded $4.8 million after he committed a mugging on the subway and was shot by police trying to flee.
October 4 — Not so high off the hog. Will big livestock operations join the list of targets of mass tort actions? Amid publicity about the baneful environmental effects of large-scale hog farming, 108 Missouri neighbors of a big Continental Grain swine operation joined in a suit charging that it had inflicted on them “horrendous odor, infestations of flies, water contamination and medical problems” up to and including strokes and a heart attack. Their lawyers saw fit to file the action 200 miles away in downtown St. Louis, a distinctly non-agricultural (but pro-plaintiff) jurisdiction. After a three-and-a-half-month trial, the jury there returned an award of $5.2 million — a substantial sum, but far less than the neighbors said was due them.
Writing in Feedstuffs magazine, attorney Richard Cornfeld of Thompson Coburn, who handled Continental’s defense, outlines some of the reasons the case did not prove as strong as it might have sounded. While residents said they were fearful the farms had tainted their water supply, most hadn’t bothered to order simple $15 tests from the state, and when they had the tests had come back negative. And though Continental admitted there was sometimes an odor problem, neighbors who did not sue testified that they rarely smelled it and that it wasn’t severe. Neighbors came to hunt and fish amid the hog farms, and some of the plaintiffs continued to buy more land near the farms, build decks onto their homes and host large social events despite the allegedly unbearable odor. “One woman opened a restaurant with outdoor dining near some of the plaintiffs’ homes.” Continental requested that the court allow the jury to take an actual trip to the farms, and jurors themselves asked to do so during deliberations, but the plaintiff’s lawyers opposed the idea and the judge said no. Frustratingly for Continental, it was not allowed to inform the jury that it had favored a visit and its opponents had not. (Richard S. Cornfeld, “Case serves as good example of shifting legal landscape,” Feedstuffs, Aug. 9)
October 4 — “Judge who slept on job faces new allegations.” This one may belong in the disability- accommodation category, since family-law judge Gary P. Ryan of Orange County, Calif. Superior Court had “blamed his courtroom slumber on a breathing disorder that disrupted his sleep at night”. However, matters took a turn for the worse last month when the judge was accused of dozing off in court again despite his insistence that his medical problem had been taken care of, and also was arrested by Newport Beach police on suspicion of drunken driving. (Stuart Pfeifer, Orange County Register, Sept. 26)
October 1-3 — Pokémon-card class actions — For those who haven’t been paying attention to the worlds of either nine-year-olds or class action lawyers, here’s the situation. Pokémon (“pocket monsters”) are lovable characters developed in Japan that have become a craze among kids. Nintendo sells packs of trading cards that feature the characters, but some of the cards are much rarer than others. Kids who want to collect the whole set wheedle their parents for money so they can buy lots of packs in search of the rare ones, which are sometimes resold for sums well in excess of their original cost.
Enter the class-action lawyers, who’ve now filed numerous suits against Nintendo and other trading-card makers. “You pay to play … there is the element of chance, and you’ve got a prize,” said attorney Neil Moritt of Garden City, N.Y. “It’s gambling.” Moritt represents the parents of two Long Island nine-year-olds who, per the New York Post, “say they were forced to empty their piggy banks” to collect the cards (the use of the word “forced” here might seem Pickwickian, but maybe the boys’ mothers are just bringing them up to talk like good litigants.) On ABC’s Good Morning America, another plaintiff’s lawyer said he sued on behalf of his son after noticing that the lad’s collecting had reached the point where “it was no longer fun”. Interviewer Charles Gibson raises the CrackerJack analogy (aren’t these really like the prizes found in CrackerJack boxes?). And an editor with Parents magazine says it would be “great” if the law could force Nintendo to sell complete sets at a modest price. Hmmm — would she favor having the law force her to keep back issues of her magazine in print, for those who want to assemble full sets? (Kieran Crowley, “Lawsuit Slams Pokémon as bad bet for addicted kids”, New York Post; Good Morning America transcript, “Poké-Mania lawsuit”, Sept. 27) (Oct. 13 sequel)
October 1-3 — Don’t call us professionals! The Fair Labor Standards Act exempts many sorts of creative, professional or executive jobs from its overtime provisions. But suits demanding retroactive overtime, claiming jobs were misclassified (though their occupants may have made no objection at the time) have increasingly become part of the routine arsenal of employment litigation. That means disgruntled workers are put in the peculiar position of having to bad-mouth the level of creativity they’ve exercised in their positions, as with these two Atlanta TV news reporters who now say, for purposes of litigation at least, that their work on screen amounted to little more than assembly-line hackery (Ben Schmitt, “TV News — Factory Work or a Profession?”, Fulton County Daily Report, June 4)
October 1-3 — “Boardwalk bonanza”. Hard-hitting exposé by Tim O’Brien in New Jersey Law Journal of the tobacco-fee situation in the Garden State, where the lawyers representing the state in the Medicaid settlement are in for $350 million in fees. “Remarkably,” writes O’Brien, “five of [six] had little or no tobacco litigation or mass tort experience. The one who did was bounced off the case on a conflict for much of the time. Moreover, most of the substantive legal work, including court arguments, was done by a South Carolina lawyer who brought up her own team….Finally, none of the local lawyers had anything to do with the national settlement talks that ultimately awarded New Jersey $7.6 billion over 25 years.”
The consortium set up to handle the suits included five former presidents of ATLA-NJ, the state trial lawyers’ association, and was hatched in a “brainstorm sitting around the convention center having a couple of drinks”. At first it heralded the role of a nonprofit foundation ostensibly set up for charitable and public-interest purposes, “[b]ut the foundation’s role was later quietly eliminated, if it ever existed.” Meanwhile, nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions were flowing in a six-month period from ATLA-NJ’s PAC to Republican legislators, including $4,350 in checks written the day after the lawyers got the contract.
“Sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time,” says one rival. “Now they’re sitting in Fat City.” Don’t miss this one — and ask your newspaper whether its reporting on tobacco fees has been as diligent. (Tim O’Brien, “A $350M Boardwalk Bonanza”, New Jersey Law Journal, Sept. 27)
October 30-31 — Bad tee times figure in $2 million award. A Boston jury of seven men and seven women has awarded nearly $2 million to nine female golfers who said the Haverhill Country Club had discriminated against them by depriving them of desirable tee times and other club benefits. They also contended that the club had allowed only a few women to move up to a more exclusive, and expensive, premium membership. (“Women awarded almost $2 million in Boston club discrimination case”, AP/Court TV, Oct. 28) (& update June 7, 2000)
October 30-31 — Sue as a hobby. Sad portrait from Chicopee, Mass. of that familiar figure in many American courtrooms, the perennial pro se litigant. This one’s been at it for 21 years, suing over union and town issues, utility bills and medical insurance, devoting about 20 hours a week to the truculent pastime. Some snicker, but “the tortured souls on the other end of Brown’s lawsuits take him very, very seriously — or risk a legal thumping.” One neighbor, a former mayor, stops to chat: “I think we got a good relationship, considering he’s sued me numerous times.” (Jeff Donn, “An American Portrait: Amateur lawyer hooked on suing habit”, AP/Fox News, Oct. 25)
October 30-31 — Annals of zero tolerance: cannon shots banned. Officials at Nevis High School in west-central Minnesota, citing a zero-tolerance policy, have refused to permit the school yearbook to publish a picture showing senior Samantha Jones perched on a cannon. The school’s policy bans not only weapons themselves from school grounds — including squirt guns — but even depictions of weapons, in the interpretation of school board members. “We don’t recognize weapons to be of any importance to the functions of the district,” said superintendent Dick Magaard. “Whether it’s in military, recreational or sporting form, anything shaped like a gun or knife is banned.” Ms. Jones is planning to enter the army on graduation, and the photo shows her sitting on a howitzer outside a nearby Veterans of Foreign Wars post. (“Senior upset that school won’t allow her yearbook photograph”, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Oct. 29, link now dead) (update Nov. 26-28: school relents on policy, provided cannon is draped by U.S. flag)
October 30-31 — Those naughty Cook County judges. Another one is in trouble, this time over allegations of “handling cases involving a friend and a relative, forging a former law associate’s name on his tax returns and violating disclosure laws.” (Charles Nicodemus, “Judge faces misconduct charges”, Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 27 — link now dead).
October 30-31 — Abuses of restraining orders. Interesting discussion has developed on Overlawyered.com‘s discussion forums since author Cathy Young joined to discuss her new Salon article on how restraining orders in domestic relations cases can become a tactical weapon.
October 29 — 52 green-card pickup. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has just announced that it will start pursuing discrimination claims for back pay on behalf of illegal alien workers who had no lawful right to take or hold the jobs in the first place (see yesterday’s commentary) That turns out to be only one of the legal headaches for employers considering noncitizen job applicants. As the newsletter of the National Legal Center for the Public Interest points out, managers also are in big trouble if they insist on particular methods of documenting job eligibility. “A Boston restaurant paid a $5,000 penalty for insisting that a job applicant provide a green card when it should have accepted his passport, which had an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) stamp, as proof of eligibility. A meatpacking company paid $8,500 for insisting that an applicant get INS documentation that his alien registration card was legitimate. It is illegal to insist on any particular form of documentation or to reject documents that appear to be genuine, says DOJ [the U.S. Department of Justice].” (NLCPI July 1999 newsletter, about 4/5 of way down page)
And more recently: “The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) of the Civil Rights Division of DOJ continues its offensive against ‘immigration discrimination,’ assessing a Maryland food processor $380,000.” It seems the company had been asking noncitizens to show INS documents when it “should have been content with any acceptable documents. The company’s view: Since most applicants already had their INS ID in hand (to fill out the mandatory INS I-9 form), hirers might say, ‘Let me see your Green Card,’ but would readily accept other documents if no Green Card were available. OSC calls this ‘document abuse,’ and fined the company for ‘discriminating’ against people that it actually hired.” (NLCPI Sept. 1999 newsletter, about 2/3 of way down page). Moral: be careful you don’t hire illegals, but don’t be too careful.
October 29 — Urge to mangle. Sometimes you’re better off disregarding the “care labels” on garments you buy that prescribe pricey dry cleaning or tedious hand washing, according to Cheryl Mendelson’s newly published encyclopedia of housekeeping, Home Comforts. For example, observes a reviewer, “a blouse labeled ‘dry clean’ might be equally tolerant of the washing machine”, while lingerie may survive perfectly well even if you don’t set aside an evening to “handwash separately, dry flat, do not wring or squeeze.” Why are labels so overcautious? They’re put on by “manufacturers whose primary goal is to avoid lawsuits”. (Cynthia Crossen, “The Dirt on Domesticity”, Weekend section book review, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 15, requires online subscription.)
October 29 — Founders’ view of encryption. To hear some officials tell it, only drug lords and terrorists should object to the government’s efforts to control encryption. Yet historians say James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe all wrote letters to each other “in code – that is, they encrypted their letters — in order to preserve the privacy of their political discussion….What would Thomas Jefferson have said about [the current encryption controversy]? I suspect he would have said it in code.” (Wendy McElroy, “Thomas Jefferson: Crypto Rebel?”, The American Partisan, Oct. 23).
October 28 — EEOC okays discrimination claims for illegal aliens. Back pay! Punitive damages! And — if amnesty and a green card can be obtained in the mean time — even reinstatement! In a “major policy turnaround”, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission throws its full backing behind damage claims for lost pay by workers who knew quite well they had no legal right to take a job in the first place. The agency promises that it “will not inform other government agencies if an immigrant is here illegally” — thus turning its role from that of a law enforcement agency to one committed to foiling law enforcement when that helps generate a caseload. Remarkably, a public statement by Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Don Mueller says the agency is “going to support” the new policy of keeping it in the dark about violations of the laws it’s supposed to enforce. Why? Because its role as scourge of employers is more important. “Our public enemy are the smugglers and employers who exploit these people.”
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration, called the new policy “absurd”: “These rules would, for example, require employers to hire back individuals who had been fired when it is illegal to have hired them in the first place.” “To me it should be a nonstarter because an illegal alien by definition is in the country unlawfully,” said attorney John Findley of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation. “That individual has no right to the job in question. To force an employer to rehire an individual with back pay and subject the employers to sanctions seems to me ridiculous.” An editorial in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune says that if the agency “was looking for a way to make itself seem ridiculous — even pernicious — it could hardly have found a better one….[EEOC chairwoman Ida Castro] has all but invited Congress to step up and clip the wings of an arrogant, overreaching government agency”.
Rep. Smith and some others predicted that the new rules would encourage illegal immigration, but the more accurate view would seem to be that of the AFL-CIO, which lobbied tirelessly for the new rules based on the expectation that giving this group more lawsuit-filing rights will discourage, not promote, its hiring. (A prominent element in the labor group’s tender concern for undocumented workers has been the desire to make sure they don’t get hired in the first place.) Backers of expansive employment law have often been reluctant to admit that giving a group of workers wider rights to sue — disabled or older workers, for example — can discourage employers from hiring that group. Update Apr. 3-4, 2002: Supreme Court rules that back pay for illegal is in violation of immigration law.
Sources: Stephen Franklin, “EEOC Seeks To Protect Undocumented”, Chicago Tribune, Oct. 26; Andrew Buchanan, “EEOC Helps Undocumented Workers”, AP/Washington Post, Oct. 27; “This EEOC Policy Goes Out of Bounds”, editorial, Chicago Tribune, Oct. 27; Steven Greenhouse, “U.S. to Expand Labor Rights to Cover Illegal Immigrants”, New York Times, Oct. 28.
October 28 — We’re outta here. The weekend was fast approaching, and after a long Friday of deliberations some of the jurors really wanted to finish the case, a negligence suit against a hospital, so as not to have to come back Monday. How badly did they want that? Badly enough to switch their votes to the defense side, according to the plaintiff’s lawyer who wound up losing, and one of the jurors backs up his complaint. (Jeff Blumenthal, “Did Civic Duty Go Awry?”, The Legal Intelligencer (Philadelphia), Sept. 15)
October 28 — Lost in translation. Lawsuit by entertainment guide WhatsHappenin.com against Hispanic portal QuePasa.com, on grounds that latter’s name roughly coincides with Spanish translation of the former, greeted disrespectfully by Suck.com (“Frivolous lawsuits don’t come much more frivolous…we think there is a possibility, however remote, that que pasa might just be a familiar and usable phrase in the Spanish language.” (“Hit and Run”, Oct. 14 — also see Wired News, Oct. 18).
October 28 — Virtual discussion continues. On Overlawyered.com‘s discussion forums, conversation continues with author Cathy Young about her Salon article on abuses of restraining orders in domestic relations cases (see yesterday’s announcement).
October 28 — Welcome National Post (Canada) readers and About.com Legal News readers. For our reports on Pokémon-card class actions, click here (Oct. 13) and here (Oct. 1-3). For our report on Houston litigation over “blast-faxing”, click here (Oct. 22)
October 27 — “Virtual interview guest” at Overlawyered.com discussion forums: author Cathy Young. As we mentioned yesterday, the Detroit News columnist and author of Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality has a provocative article in the new Salon about the ways restraining orders in domestic disputes can sometimes trample the rights of their targets. Several participants in our recently launched discussion forums expressed interest in the issue, and the author herself has now agreed to drop by the forums, beginning this afternoon, to field comments, reactions and questions and generally get a conversation going. Remember that it’s not live chat, so comments may not get an immediate response. The main discussion will be in the Divorce Law forum, but there may be spillover to other topics such as Harassment Law. Everyone can read what gets posted, but if you want to join in with your own reactions you’ll need to register, an easy step to take. [forums now closed]
October 27 — “This is all about power”. The Albany Times-Union furnishes more details about the little-publicized legal action (see Oct. 5-6 commentary) in which Indian tribes have sued to dispossess tens of thousands of private landowners in upstate New York; it seems that generations ago the state purchased reservation lands without obtaining federal approval as required by law, and the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that proper title therefore never passed. The value of the innocent owners’ homes and farms has of course plunged drastically, and tribal spokesmen want the state government to step in with an offer on their behalf. “You have to get the state to get serious about negotiation”, explains Oneida leader Ray Halbritter. “The pain of not settling has to be greater than the pain of settling….This is all about power.” Very wealthy from its tax-free casino operations, the Oneida tribe donates abundantly to politicians, many of whom tread gingerly around its interests. To the fury of the local landowners, the U.S. Department of Justice has joined the Indians and is assisting their legal claim. (James M. Odato, “Tribe plays high-stakes game with landowners”, Oct. 25; plus sidebars on Mr. Halbritter and orchard owner/protest leader Tony Burnett; via Empire Page.) (see also Feb. 1 commentary).
October 27 — Why doesn’t Windows cost more? During the trial “the government’s economic expert got up on the stand and said that if Microsoft was charging all the market would bear, it would be charging about three or four times what it does today for an operating system. That’s kind of curious.” Why would Bill Gates leave that much money on the table? ‘Cause he’s a charitable kind of guy? No, the fact “probably suggests that Microsoft is facing a form of competition that keeps its prices low. And, in fact…what the evidence proved is that that competition comes in the form of platform competition — the desire to be the next generation of technology in an area where technology turns over in a matter of months, not a matter of years. And that competition … keeps prices down, keeps Microsoft on its toes, keeps innovation going.” — former Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Charles Rule, now of Covington & Burling, speaking at “What Are We Learning from the Microsoft Case?”, a Federalist Society conference held in Washington Sept. 30 (full transcript)
October 27 — Zone of blame. Two years ago a former mental patient slew New Jersey state trooper Scott Gonzalez, first ramming his cruiser head-on, then killing him with two shotgun blasts through the car’s windshield. So who’s his widow suing? The killer’s parents; the makers of her husband’s police gun, because it briefly jammed after he’d fired seven shots from it; and the Ford Motor Co., because the deployment of its airbags on collision allegedly delayed his exit from the car. (Eric D. Lawrence, “Widow’s suit blames auto, gun makers for cop’s death”, Easton, Pa. Express-Times/Lehigh Valley Live, Oct. 26 — full story). Update Jan. 3, 2004: jury finds for Ford.
October 27 — Welcome Progressive Review readers. Looking for the cow items mentioned there? Click here (foam-rubber cow recall) and here (Canadian brouhaha over insensitive cow-naming).
October 26 — Rhode Island A.G.: let’s do latex gloves next. Rhode Island Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse just made headlines by enlisting his state as the first to sue lead paint and pigment makers in partnership with trial lawyers. But that’s not all he’s been up to, according to a report in Business Insurance: “In an August letter to another attorney general, Rhode Island’s Whitehouse proposed ‘going after’ the latex rubber industry over health problems possibly caused by latex allergies, a copy of the letter shows. The states could seek ‘a couple of billion dollars’ to fund latex allergy education and research programs, Mr. Whitehouse suggested.” (more about latex allergies)
With tobacco fees beginning to flow, the article also reports renewed interest in an old trial lawyer project that now may attract co-sponsorship from state or city officials: getting courts to hold automakers liable for not installing “speed governors” on passenger cars that would cut off added acceleration if the driver tried to take the vehicle above a certain set miles-per-hour. If courts accept such a theory, Detroit could potentially be on the financial hook for most or all high-speed crashes that take place in cars now on the road. (Douglas McLeod, “Suits by public entities expected to increase,” Business Insurance, Oct. 18)
October 26 — Dave Barry on federal tobacco suit. “As a result of [companies’] clever deception, the Justice Department contends, smokers did not realize that cigarettes were hazardous. This is undoubtedly true of a certain type of smoker; namely, the type of smoker whose brain has been removed with a melon scoop. Everybody else has known for decades that cigarettes are unhealthy….
“Cigarette companies are already selling cigarettes like crazy to pay for the $206 billion anti-tobacco settlement won by the states, which are distributing the money as follows: (1) legal fees; (2) money for attorneys; (3) a whole bunch of new programs that have absolutely nothing to do with helping smokers stop smoking; and (4) payments to law firms. Of course, not all the anti-tobacco settlement is being spent this way. A lot of it also goes to lawyers…” (Dave Barry, “Few — Hack! — Thought Their Habit Safe,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, Oct. 24. Plus: novelist Tom Clancy’s critical take on the feds’ tobacco suit (“Curing the Smoking Habit”, Baltimore Sun, Oct. 17, reprinted from Los Angeles Times).
October 26 — “Hitting below the belt”. Readers of this website were alerted twelve days ago to Cathy Young’s powerful Detroit News critique of abuses of restraining orders in divorce and custody cases. Now the author of Ceasefire appears in the October 25 Salon with a much-expanded version, including more on the Harry Stewart case (he’s serving a six-month sentence for violating a restraining order by seeing his son to the front door instead of waiting in the car), new detail on traps (conduct violative of an order “includes contact that is clearly accidental, or even initiated by the purported victim: Even if you came over to the house at your ex-spouse’s invitation, you don’t have a legal excuse”) and on tactics (“There are stories of attorneys explicitly offering to have restraining orders dropped in exchange for financial concessions”).
One startling quote comes from a New Jersey judge addressing his peers at a 1995 conference: “Your job is not to become concerned about the constitutional rights of the man that you’re violating as you grant a restraining order,” said the Hon. Richard Russell. “Throw him out on the street, give him the clothes on his back and tell him, see ya around …The woman needs this protection because the statute granted her that protection … They have declared domestic violence to be an evil in our society. So we don’t have to worry about the rights.” But a growing number in the field are worried about the rights, and don’t think protecting the rights of potential abuse victims should have to mean sacrificing those of the accused. “I don’t think there’s a lawyer in domestic relations in this state who doesn’t feel there has been abuse of restraining orders,” says Needham, Mass. attorney Sheara Friend. “It’s not politically correct — lawyers don’t want to be pegged as being anti-abused women, but privately they agree.” (full story)
October 26 — “The Reign of the Tort Kings”. Trial lawyers now wield political clout “unthinkable” four years ago, and have nearly doubled their contributions to federal candidates over that period, report Marianne Lavalle and Angie Cannon in a big spread on the emergent Fourth Branch in the new U.S. News & World Report (Nov. 1)
October 25 — Gun litigation: a helpful in-law. Time magazine, in its issue out today, reports that Hugh Rodham, brother of Hillary Rodham Clinton and brother-in-law of President Clinton, has now popped up to assist lawyers suing the gun industry in brokering a settlement. Earlier, lawyers suing the tobacco industry cut in Rodham — despite his glaring lack of experience in mass-tort litigation — as a participant in their activities; he proceeded to use the occasion of a Thanksgiving dinner at the White House to approach his sister’s husband directly, which helped lead to the settlement that’s shaken loose billions in fees for those lawyers. Rodham told Time, “It was totally unforeseen, when we joined…that there would be any connection with politics.” (full story)
October 25 — From the Spin-to-English Guide, a service of Chris Chichester’s Empire Page. Phrase: “It’s important to preserve and enhance access to justice.” Translation: “We’ve come up with a great way to allow the trial lawyers to file more lawsuits, win more big settlements, and give us more campaign contributions.” Among others in the series — Phrase: “The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day. Translation: We’re a bunch of losers headed for a trouncing on Election Day.” And — Phrase: “We’re not going to dignify that with a comment. Translation: We really got slammed and can’t think of a response.” (page now removed) The Empire Page, started last year by former legislative and gubernatorial staffer Christopher Chichester, has quickly become the one-stop Web jumping-off point for news of New York politics and government; it’s alerted us to several items used on this page (item no longer online).
October 25 — Better than reading a lunchtime novel. Sylvia Johnson was fired from her job with the IRS after it was discovered she’d improperly accessed taxpayers’ personal returns some 476 times. Now she’s suing the U.S. Treasury to get her job back and for punitive as well as compensatory damages. A Merit Systems Protection Board administrative judge previously rejected her discrimination and due process claims, saying that while other employees caught peeking in files had been given a second chance, the agency regarded her misuse of the system as far more extensive. (Gretchen Schuldt, “Ex-IRS employee sues to regain job”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 14 — full story)
October 25 — Guest column in Forbes by Overlawyered.com‘s editor. The column blasts the Clinton Justice Department’s recent suit against tobacco companies (see Sept. 23 commentary), in particular the suit’s premise that it was legally wrongful for the companies to send out press releases and commission research in an effort to defend their position. “If partisan science is racketeering, whole echelons of the Environmental Protection Agency should be behind bars. But the novel legal doctrines being advanced in the suit can’t — and won’t — be applied evenhandedly.” (“Reno’s Racket”, Forbes, Nov. 1 — full column).
Plus: op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Rauch, adapted from his earlier National Journal column, assesses the suit’s threat to free speech by business and quotes this site’s editor (requires online subscription).
October 23-24 — Inmates’ suit cites old videos. A federal judge considers a suit by inmates complaining of inhumane conditions in Philadelphia’s antiquated House of Corrections. The report makes it sound difficult for the inmates’ lawyer to elevate their gripes to the level of a Constitutional violation, however: “Very few toilets have seats, and the video movies they get are outdated, the inmates told the judge.” (Jim Smith, “Inmates: Prison chow’s bad, videos are old”, Philadelphia Daily News, Oct. 8)
October 23-24 — Zero tolerance strikes again. “Student suspended after cutting cake with pocket knife”, reads the headline over this AP story datelined Monroe, N.C., where a 14-year-old boy in the Union County schools was given a five-day suspension. “When a student is in possession of a knife, it’s a clear-cut violation,” said assistant principal David Clarke. “We can’t have weapons in our schools”. The incident occurred at the end of a school day when a teacher shared a leftover cake with students and needed something to cut it with. (Raleigh News & Observer, Oct. 22; “Cake-Cutting Ends in Suspension”, Excite/Reuters, Oct. 22)
October 23-24 — Weekend reading: evergreens. Pixels to catch up with on the raft or schooner, if you missed them the first time around:
* Prescient (3 1/2 years ago) op-ed by Bruce Kobayashi, of George Mason University Law School, argues that holding gunmakers liable for shootings “would create new injustices…ensnare the morally innocent and erode the crucial distinction between responsible and irresponsible behavior.” Besides, why “place the financial burden on law-abiding firearms owners who have not misused firearms? If the litigation explosion has taught us anything, it is that using the tort system to provide social insurance entails large (and largely hidden) premiums — usually in the form of less output and less justice.” (Orange County Register, April 21, 1996, reprinted by Independent Institute — full column)
* Melrose Place (1997, 5th season) plot lines revolving around staged-accident fraud — you may have to know the characters for the synopses to make sense (Ken Hart: 3/10/97, 3/17, 3/31, 4/7, 4/14, 4/21, 4/28, 5/5/97; EPGuides/Pam Mitchelmore: 3/17/97, 3/31, 4/7, 4/14, 4/28, 5/5/97; Peter Goldmacher: 3/10/97, 3/17, 4/7, 4/14, 4/21/97)
* Denver probate-court nightmare: tangle of guardianship proceedings leaves 83-year-old Letty Milstein “virtually a prisoner in her own home” as she struggles against efforts to have her declared incompetent. By the time an appeals court steps in, court-appointed lawyers, health-care personnel and others have consumed most of her $650,000 estate. One lawyer, Michael Dice, later pleaded guilty to stealing money from numerous clients. Alternative weekly Westword covered the story tenaciously (Steve Jackson, “Mommy Dearest”, May 22, 1997; Steve Jackson, “Letty Wins”, Feb. 12, 1998; other coverage, all links now dead).
October 22 — In Houston, expensive menus. “Junk” (unsolicited) faxes are a widely loathed medium of advertising, tying up a target’s machine and using his own paper to do it. In 1995 some Houston lawyers filed suit against more than seventy local defendants which they said had patronized blast-fax ad services despite a 1991 federal ban. Though filing in state court, they sought to invoke a penalty specified in federal law of $500 for each unwanted fax sent, and triple that if the offense was willful. They also asked for certification as a class action, entitled (they said) to recover the $500 or $1500 figure for every fax sent on behalf of any defendant during the period in question — a sum estimated at $7 billion.
The list of named defendants is heavy on restaurants (many of them presumably sending menus or coupons) but also includes car dealers and some national businesses like GTE Mobile and Pearle Vision Centers. Defendants’ lawyers variously argue that no laws were broken, that their clients should not be held liable for the sins of ad agencies, that ad sponsors had been assured that all recipients had opted in to a tell-me-about-discount-offers arrangement, and that there is no evidence that the named plaintiffs received faxes from their clients or complained at the time; plaintiffs, however, point to records from the agencies as providing a paper trail of how many were sent on whose behalf. Thus a local Mexican restaurant which advertised in more than 50,000 faxes is potentially on the hook for $25 million dollars and change — three times that if deliberate defiance of the law can be shown.
One larger defendant, Houston Cellular, paid a reported $400,000 this spring to be let out of the case; plaintiff’s attorneys requested one-third of that amount as their fee. Last month another eight defendants reportedly chipped in a collective $125,000 to get out. Steven Zager, an attorney at Brobeck, Pfleger and Harrison who’s representing some defendants, said the federal statute provided the $500/$1,500 fines so as to allow individual grievants an economic means to vindicate their interests in a small-claims format and never contemplated aggregation into one grand class action: “This statute was not meant to be Powerball for the clever.” (Ron Nissimov, “Company settles over ‘junk faxes’; Houston Cellular to pay $400,000; others to fight”, Houston Chronicle, April 29; Mark Ballard, “Junk fax ban taken seriously”, National Law Journal, May 17; Ron Nissimov, “Some firms settle in ‘junk faxes’ case”, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 4; “That Blasted $7 Billion Fax“, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse — Houston) (update April 3, 2000: judge dismisses case).
October 22 — Foam-rubber cow recall. Computer maker Gateway used to distribute cute foam-rubber squeezable “Stress Cows” as a corporate promo, but now…well, you just can’t be too careful in today’s climate. “A few conscientious parents have alerted us that small children can tear or bite off parts of the stress cow, creating a potential choking hazard. In response to that concern, and in cooperation with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Gateway has voluntarily stopped distributing this product and is recalling all Stress Cows previously given to clients.” (“Important Safety Notice“, Gateway Corp. website; the picture alone is worth the click).
October 22 — Canadian cow-naming update. See below entry (Oct. 21) for further developments in the brouhaha about whether Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm may assign its bovine wards human names like “Bessie” and “Elsie”.
October 21 — Deal with us or we’ll tank your stock. With trial lawyers now launching a high-profile attack on managed care, HMO stocks have fallen by one-half or more from this year’s highs. Lawyers are seizing on this development in itself to “prod” the industry into “a swift settlement” of the actions, reports Owen Ullmann in yesterday’s USA Today. Trial lawyer potentate Richard Scruggs, tobacco-fee billionaire and brother-in-law of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), “said Tuesday that economic pressure from investors” could force the companies to the table. “Trial lawyers have been telling Wall Street analysts that if the lawsuits are upheld, ‘they would put them (companies) out of business'” — and making such a pitch to those analysts, of course, helps along the process of getting the stocks to drop. Karen Ignagni, president of the American Association of Health Plans, said the situation “borders on extortion”, while Washington lawyer and veteran tort reformer Victor Schwartz said companies could wind up settling based not on the legal merits but on concern for stock price. (Owen Ullmann, “Wall Street may play part in HMO suits”, USA Today, Oct. 20 — fee-based archive).
Meanwhile, yesterday’s Boston Globe quotes experts who say the continuing onslaught of new trial lawyer initiatives, fueled by tobacco fees, could have a major depressing effect on the market more generally. “Many analysts think the lawyers will have trouble making the [HMO] suits stick. Still, no one can say for sure what will happen, and on Wall Street, uncertainty is trouble. ‘Until we get some clarity, I think the attitude of some investors will be, ‘I don’t need to own these stocks,'” says Linda Miller, manager of John Hancock’s Global Health Sciences Fund.” Shares in several paint and chemical companies also dropped sharply after trial lawyers launched a new wave of lead-paint litigation with Rhode Island as their first state-government client. (Steven Syre and Charles Stein, “Market’s new worry: lawsuits; Analysts believe wave of litigation just beginning”, Boston Globe, Oct. 20)
October 21 — Minnesota to auction seized cigarettes. State officials seized several thousand dollars’ worth of cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco items from the Smoke Shoppe and Book Nook in Brainerd, Minn. for nonpayment of taxes. On Saturday they’re scheduled to auction off that inventory for the state’s benefit, though Minnesota took the lead in suing cigarette makers and in hand-wringing generally over the continued legal sale of such products. Lynn Willenbring of the state Department of Revenue said the sale was required by state law but admitted the matter was “kind of a sticky wicket”. (Conrad DeFiebre, “State to sell smokes at delinquent-taxes auction”, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Oct. 16).
October 21 — New Jersey court system faces employment complaint. The various branches of government that have taken on the mission of riding legal herd on private employers have themselves long faced an above-average rate of complaint from their own employees. Latest instance: the New Jersey courts, which along with California’s have won renown as the nation’s most inventive in finding new ways to let employees sue their bosses, face a complaint from their own clerks’ union alleging misclassification of workers, retaliation for collective bargaining activity and other sins. (Padraic Cassidy, “Judiciary Workers’ Union Files Unfair Labor Practices Charges”, New Jersey Law Journal, Sept. 20)
October 21 — Sensitivity in cow-naming. In a temporary advance for Canadian feminism, higher-ups last year ordered the Central Experimental Farm, an agricultural museum and research center in Ottawa, to stop giving cows human-female names like Elsie and Bessie because such names “might give offense to women,” the Boston Globe reports. “Some people are … sensitive to finding their name on an animal. I am, for example,” said Genevieve Ste.-Marie, who issued the order as director of the National Museum of Science and Technology. “Let’s say you came in and found your name on a cow, and you thought the cow was old and ugly.” Names like Clover, Rhubarb and Buttercup were still deemed okay, with borderline cases such as Daisy being decided on a “cow-by-cow basis”. Also cited as acceptable was “Bossy”. (Oct. 16 Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, reprinting Colin Nickerson, “Canadian bureaucrats get bossy over Bessie”, Boston Globe, Oct. 13).
Sequel: on Oct. 15 the museum announced it would reverse its policy and go back to letting cows have human names, after having received a torrent of public comment, with “not one letter” favoring its sensitivity policy. (Kate Jaimet, “She’s no lady; Stephani’s a cow”, Montreal Gazette, Oct. 16).
October 20 — For this we gave up three months of our lives? No wonder the jurors’ eyes looked glazed — the patent infringement dispute between Honeywell and Litton Industries required them to master the numbing intricacies of ring laser gyro mirror coatings, “an optical film used to reflect laser beams in aircraft and missile guidance systems”. After a three-month trial they voted a mammoth verdict of $1.2 billion against Honeywell, a record for a patent infringement case, but that award later got thrown out. The U.S. is the only country that uses juries to decide complex patent cases; in 1980 the Third Circuit expressed the opinion that “the Seventh Amendment does not guarantee the right to jury trial when the lawsuit is so complex that jury will not be able to perform its task of rational decision making with a reasonable understanding of the evidence and the relevant legal rules.” (Kevin Livingston, “Junking the Jury?”, The Recorder/Cal Law, Oct. 19).
October 20 — The art of blame. A three-year-old is left unattended and forgotten in a van in 95-degree heat, and the van’s interior grows hotter and hotter until at last he dies of hyperthermia. Who deserves the blame? You may be a suitable candidate for practicing law if you guess the Ford Motor Co., for not designing and installing systems that would cool the air in parked cars. (Ben Schmitt, “Suit Demands Ford Add Safety Device to Cool Cars”, Fulton County Daily Report, Oct. 4).
October 20 — Spreading to Canada? A disgruntled fan has sued Ottawa Senators hockey captain Alexei Yashin and Yashin’s agent, Mark Gandler, over the Russian-born player’s refusal to show up at training camp to play with the team. Retired commercial real estate magnate Leonard Potechin is demanding a combined $27.5 million dollars (Canadian) of the two for having spoiled the season, to which Potechin held season tickets. (Ken Warren, “Fan files $27.5M suit against Yashin, agent”, Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 5) (update, Jan. 12: judge allows case to proceed).
October 19 — Maryland’s kingmaker. According to Peter Angelos, the state of Maryland owes him a cool billion dollars for representing it in the tobacco settlement, and it seems a distinct possibility that he’ll get it. The state legislature has gestured toward cutting in half his contracted 25 percent contingency fee, but that move is uncertain to stand up in court. In the mean time, Angelos’s refusal to recede from his fee means that tobacco booty which otherwise would flow into state coffers will sit in an escrow account over which he’ll exert partial control until the state resolves his claim.
In a March 28 profile, Washington Post reporters Daniel LeDuc and Michael E. Ruane write that Angelos is “viewed by many political insiders as the most powerful private citizen in Maryland.” Immensely wealthy from asbestos plaintiffs’ work — a 1997 National Law Journal list of influential lawyers (link now dead) describes him as “a perennial candidate for any list of the best-paid attorneys in the nation” — he branched out to buy the beloved hometown Baltimore Orioles and to become one of the most munificent donors to Democrats nationally as well as in Maryland. He now sports his own private lobbyist; glove-close relations with the governor and labor leaders; and a host of statehouse connections, such as with the state senate president pro tem, who happens to be a lawyer at Angelos’s firm.
Among the marks of his success has been the ability to steer “Angelos bills” through each year’s legislature whose effect is to enable him to extract more money from the defendants he sues. When a state appellate court ruled to limit damages on some of his asbestos cases earlier this year, for example, the Post reports, Angelos personally drafted a bill overturning the opinion and had two of his allies in Annapolis introduce it. (Those allies happened to be the Senate finance committee chairman and the House majority leader.) The bill reinstated higher damages for asbestos cases and for those cases only — most of which happen to be under Angelos’s control in the state. “Every time, it’s a bill that lines Peter Angelos’s pocket,” grumbles House Minority Whip Robert Flanagan (R-Howard). In the most remarkable episode, Maryland lawmakers (like Florida’s) agreed to change the rules retroactively to extinguish tobacco company legal defenses. We’ll all be living with that precedent for a long time: once legislators get a taste of the power to declare their opponents’ actions unlawful after the fact, it’s unlikely tobacco companies will be the last target. For his part, Angelos presents his statehouse efforts as essentially conservative and restorative: “The legislation I introduce is meant to reinstitute the litigation rights our citizens once had,” he told the Post of this year’s asbestos bill.
Angelos’s legislator-allies say the bills should be seen not as special interest legislation benefiting one person, but as a boon to an entire sector of the Maryland economy, which is what the lawyer’s far-flung operations have come to be. “Peter Angelos in and of himself is a major economic interest in the state,” explains one enthusiastic ally, House Majority Leader John Hurson (D-Montgomery). “His empire has grown so large, his benevolence so vast, they say, that to help Angelos is to help the whole state.” Daniel LeDuc and Michael E. Ruane, “Orioles Owner Masters Political Clout”, Washington Post, March 28; Daniel LeDuc, “Angelos, Md. Feud Over Tobacco Fee”, Washington Post, Oct. 15.
October 19 — Change your county’s name or I’ll sue. In 1820, an Ohio county was named after Revolutionary War hero Isaac Van Wart, but there’d been a spelling slip-up along the way, and the county’s name was rendered “Van Wert”. A few years ago a descendant of the original Van Wart family discovered the link and began writing letters to Ohio officials high and low asking that the error in the place name be corrected and the a replaced with an e. County officials demurred, saying the cost of changing title deeds and other documents would be far too high (aside from which, one presumes, after 170-odd years people had grown attached to the new name). Now Jeff Van Wart has begun approaching legal assistance groups in hopes they will help him launch a court action to force a name change: “I’m not going to let it drop.” (William Claiborne, “A War of Van Warts”, Washington Post, Oct. 12).
October 18 — Nominated by reader acclamation. Six months after their son barged into the Columbine High School cafeteria with guns and bombs and began killing people, Thomas and Susan Klebold have filed a lawsuit arguing that their neighbors should pay them. They say the school district and Jefferson County sheriff’s department mishandled warning signs about the behavior of their son Dylan and his pal Eric Harris before the massacre. Widely greeted as a memorable contribution to the annals of chutzpah, the Klebolds’ action could alternatively be construed as an effort to save themselves from ruin, since they’re being sued themselves by victim families; their statements imply that their suit is aimed at shifting those bills to public authorities, as opposed to actually making money from the slaughter. Either way they’ve helped establish a new record for this website, since never before have so many readers written in to suggest we take note of a case. Incidentally, the family of Cassie Bernall, best-known of the Columbine victims and a heroine to many Christians, has declined to press lawsuits: “We just made a family decision,” said father Brad Bernall. (Kevin Vaughan, “Klebold family plans to sue Jeffco“, Rocky Mountain News, Oct. 16; Tracy Connor, “Columbine HS Killer’s Parents Stun School with Lawsuit”, New York Post; Steve Dunleavy, “I Mean, Talk About Chutzpah!”, New York Post).
October 18 — Couple ordered to pay $57,000 for campaign ads criticizing judge. Robert and Olga Osterberg of El Paso, Texas, were dissatisfied with how litigation of theirs had been handled by state judge Peter Peca, so they bought TV ads advocating his defeat in a Democratic primary. But Texas law allows candidates to file private lawsuits against ordinary citizens charging them with campaign-law violations, and Judge Peca (who won the primary despite the ads) proceeded to sue the Osterbergs, charging them with having missed a disclosure deadline. On July 29 the Texas Supreme Court by a 7-2 margin ruled in the judge’s favor, and ordered the Osterbergs to pay him $57,390 — twice what they’d spent on the commercials. Dissenting justice Craig Enoch said the decision left the couple unfairly open to penalties for expenditures they may not have realized were illegal. Another justice expressed concern that the disclosure requirements of Texas election law “may be so cumbersome for ordinary citizens that they unduly burden free speech”, but voted to uphold the award anyway. (“Texas judge gets revenge, couple ordered to pay $50,390 [sic] in damages for missing report deadline”, Political Finance and Lobby Reporter, Aug. 25 — link now dead (PDF document, Adobe Acrobat needed to view; scroll down to p. 7)).
October 18 — Format changes at this site. We installed a number of format improvements to Overlawyered.com over the weekend, mostly inconspicuous ones relating to how the site’s archives work. Items will now be archived the same day they appear, which eases life for anyone wishing to cite or link to a recent commentary (we recommend pointing to the archives address rather than this front page). The front page will now maintain only a few days’ worth of items, down from eight, which will mean faster loading for readers with slow connections. Table widths have been tinkered with to provide better display for readers with small usable screen sizes. You’ll also notice a new tell-a-friend-about-this-site service, which appears on more pages than before.
October 18 — Times’s so-called objectivity. Sent this morning: “Letters to the Editor, The New York Times, To the Editor: A quick computer survey of the last three years’ worth of the Times‘s national coverage indicates that your editors have generally taken care to restrict the pejorative formula ‘so-called…reform’ to the editorial portions of the paper, and that it has been employed there almost exclusively by letter-writers and columnists frankly hostile to the measures under discussion (‘so-called campaign finance reform’, ‘so-called welfare reform’, etc.). But there’s one glaring exception: twice now in recent months your reporters (‘How a Company Lets Its Cash Talk’, Stephen Labaton, October 17, and ‘State Courts Sweeping Away Laws Curbing Suits For Injuries’, William Glaberson, July 16) have employed the phrase ‘so-called tort reform’ in prominent news stories. No other national domestic issue has been accorded this slighting treatment. What is it about the movement to rein in trial-lawyer excesses that causes the Times to forget its usual journalistic standards? Very truly yours, etc.” — our editor. [Never ran.]
October 18 — Trop d’avocats.com. Belated thanks to the English-language Montreal Gazette, which recommended this site September 18 in its “Quick Clicks” column: “Students of the excesses of the litigious United States should check out this site, recently launched by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Walter Olson. He said he wanted to document ‘the need for reform of the American civil justice system.’ The page is updated regularly with legal horror stories and links.”
October 16-17 — Illinois tobacco fees. Chicago’s Freeborn & Peters and Seattle’s Hagens & Berman complain bitterly at an arbitration panel’s decision to give them a mere $121 million for representing the state of Illinois in its tobacco-Medicaid suit when they felt they deserved closer to $400 million. The arbitrators pointed out that the firms hadn’t submitted any time records of hours spent on the state’s case and had done “relatively little” to advance the Illinois claims toward trial, not even having taken any depositions. The state’s attorney general, Jim Ryan, had signed the pact with the two firms and later was the one who agreed to settle the state’s case, thus triggering their fee entitlement; his “close ties to Freeborn & Peters had come under earlier scrutiny”, reports the Chicago Sun-Times’s Dave McKinney (“Law firms decry cut in tobacco fees”, Oct. 12 — link now dead; John McCarron, “Fee Frenzy”, Chicago Tribune, July 26) (see also tobacco-fee coverage for Kansas (Oct. 11, below), New Jersey, Wisconsin).
October 16-17 — Hey, what is this place, anyway? The term “weblog” refers to a running diary of interesting stuff found around the Web, usually with some degree of annotation. Overlawyered.com, for all its fancy policy pretensions, basically follows this format. There are now hundreds if not thousands of weblogs being published and a site called jjg.net has pulled together most of the ones you’ll want to know about. We immediately spotted a bunch of our favorites like the elegant Arts & Letters Daily, the Junk Science Page, Jim Romanesko’s Media Gossip and Obscure Store, Bifurcated Rivets and leftish Robot Wisdom before going on to check out fun unfamiliars like postsecondary.net (higher education) and Deduct Box (Louisiana politics).
jjg.net is put out by a Southern Californian named Jesse James Garnett who inevitably has his own weblog Infosift, a good one. We quote in its entirety an entry for October 11, hyperlinks and all: “According to the Pez people, my use of the word Pez in this sentence is a violation of Pez trademarks and makes me subject to prosecution by Pez Candy in defense of the Pez name. Pez Pez Pez. Pez.”
October 16-17 — Wide world of federal law enforcement. The National Journal news service is reporting (not online) that the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday gave its approval to H.R. 1887, which would impose federal prison sentences of up to five years and fines on anyone who distributes depictions of animal cruelty unlawful under state law. The bill is aimed at “purveyors of so-called ‘crush videos’ who cater to foot fetishists by selling videos of women crushing small animals with high-heeled shoes.” Insect-crushing is also featured in some videos. The bill would, however, apparently ban a much wider array of films and printed matter, raising the possibility that it might become illegal to broadcast news programs on bullfighting in Spain or elephant poaching in Africa, so lawmakers hastily added an amendment exempting depictions with “journalistic, religious, political, educational, historic or artistic value”. (Not mentioned in reporting was whether home videos of pet snakes being given their daily feeding of live mice would remain legal.) A succession of legal authorities from Chief Justice Rehnquist on down have warned that too many crimes are being federalized, but after testimony that included a plea from Hollywood animal lover Loretta Swit, legislators decided the crush-video crisis demanded national action (“Ban Sought on Animal ‘Crush Videos'”, AP/APB News, Aug. 24; “Bill Cracks Down on Animal-Torture Videos”, AP/APB News, Oct. 1).
October 16-17 — “Health care horror stories are compelling but one-sided”. They call us anecdotal, but when it comes time to press for new rights to sue you can bet boosters of litigation don’t linger for long over dry statistics about how the health care system is performing as a whole; instead we get wrenching stories of how when Mrs. Jones got cancer she couldn’t get her HMO to cover experimental treatment, or how the Children’s Hospital of San Diego sent little Steve home when they should have known he was very sick. Fair enough, you figure, both sides can play. But Tuesday’s New York Times reports a problem in checking many of the HMO horror stories: “The health plans and providers cannot discuss individual cases because of patient confidentiality laws. And although patients can waive such restrictions, they generally do not.” So only the one side makes it onto the public record. A Ralph Nader group has been vigorously circulating the little Steve story for four years but concedes it can’t insure its veracity.
It’s not always that the Times does this good a job of shedding light on a major litigation issue. So why’d they bury this piece without a byline on page A29 — especially when a few months back they devoted a big front-page spread to reporter Bill Glaberson’s charges that the case for tort reform was merely anecdotal? (“Health Care Horror Stories Are Compelling But One-Sided”, unbylined, New York Times, Oct. 12)