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ARCHIVE -- APR. 2001 (I)

April 10 -- "The love children of Flight 261".   "Families of four men killed in the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, claim they are victims of a cruel scam.  Attempting to cash in on multimillion-dollar wrongful-death lawsuits, claimants in Guatemala said the men had all secretly fathered children in that country.  The families say the lawyers representing the phony heirs knew, or should have known, their clients' claims were fraudulent."  We covered this story (via the San Francisco Chronicle and Aero News Network) back on Nov. 29, but this new piece adds some telling details: for example, two of the (genuine) survivor families say they had to spend $200,000 to fend off the supposed Guatemalan heirs, and they wonder why the American lawyers who represented those claimants shouldn't be held financially accountable for the harm their lawyering inflicted, especially since two of these lawyers -- Robert Parks and Edgar Miller of Coral Gables, Fla., -- just happen to have represented all four sets of supposed secret Guatemalan children to file claims in connection with Flight 261 (Bob Van Voris, National Law Journal, Apr. 9).  (& see Aug. 3). 

April 10 -- Canada's secret legal aid.   In the United States, the Legal Services Corporation subsidizes litigation efforts meant to push the law in a "good" or "progressive" ideological direction, and has accordingly long met with criticism from those of us who are not convinced that the proposed changes in the law are always so great and wonder why everyone's tax dollars should be handed over to one side of these debates to pursue essentially ideological court struggles.  Our neighbor to the north has hit on a handy way to keep its aid program for "law-reform" litigation from being as controversial as ours: it simply refuses to disclose the recipient list (Scott Edmunds, "Recipients of Ottawa's legal aid kept secret", Canadian Press/National Post, Feb. 26). 

April 9 -- By reader acclaim: "Clowns told to get custard pie insurance".   Clowns in Britain are "terrified to the tips of their red noses" that unappreciative patrons will sue them over injuries from thrown pies and water-squirting, or more hazardous acts such as those involving fire and unicycles.  Ian James, who heads the performers' trade union, says that while none of his colleagues in the United Kingdom have yet been sued, "we are worried now that British audiences may be becoming like American, ready to sue anyone for anything." (Alan Hamilton,  "Stop clowning around, clowns told", The Times (UK), April 6; Reuters/Yahoo, Apr. 6). 

April 9 -- Plastic cup blamed for child's autism.   A "personal injury lawyer is threatening a lawsuit alleging a plastic drinking cup caused a child's autism ... Dallas-based lawyer Brian R. Arnold wrote Playtex Products, Inc. in January alleging that a toddler became seriously ill and, eventually, 'began to exhibit autistic behavior,' after drinking from a plastic spill-proof cup made by Playtex.  Arnold claims the spill-proof cup was designed in a defective manner that allowed bacteria and mold to build in the cup. Alleging the bacteria caused the child's condition, Arnold accused Playtex of negligence in distributing a defective cup and demanded $11 million in damages."  Although the causes of autism remain unknown, "there is a network of 'experts' who are ready, willing and able to support such a wild claim".  (Steven Milloy, "Quack Attack!  The Case of the Dangerous Sippy Cup", Fox News, Apr. 6). 

April 6-8 -- "Court upholds workers compensation for drunk, injured worker".   "A man who got drunk on a business trip and suffered severe frostbite after passing out in very low temperatures should be entitled to worker's compensation, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.  The court in a 4-3 decision upheld the ruling of the Wisconsin Industry Review Commission, which said William Larsen was in northern Wisconsin expressly for work, but it also reduced Larsen's compensation by 15 percent, since he was injured while he was intoxicated." ("Court upholds workers compensation for drunk, injured worker", AP/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Apr. 4; Jessica McBride, "Worker prevails in frostbite case", Apr. 4). 

April 6-8 -- Suing "The Sopranos".   "An Italian-American lawyers group says it will sue the makers of HBO's 'The Sopranos' series today for offending the 'dignity' of Italian-Americans by implying most of them are mobsters. ... [citing] Section 20 of Illinois' Constitution [which] reads in part: 'Communications that portray criminality, depravity or lack of virtue in . . . a group of persons by reason of or by reference to religious, racial, ethnic, national or religious affiliation are condemned."" (Abdon M. Pallasch, "Stung by 'Sopranos'", Chicago Sun-Times, April 5; Matt Zoller Seitz, "Advocacy group claims series runs afoul of the law", Newark Star-Ledger, Apr. 5) (Update Sept. 21-23: judge dismisses; Jul. 12-14, 2002: case dropped after appellate court upholds dismissal). 

April 6-8 -- Target: Alka-Seltzer.   Until November, phenylpropanolamine (PPA) "was a ubiquitous ingredient in over-the-counter cold remedies and diet aids found in practically everyone's medicine cabinet," including Alka-Seltzer, Contac, Tavist-D, Robitussin, Acutrim and many more.  Now it's been withdrawn following a study suggesting that its use may correlate with a slightly elevated (though still very small) risk of stroke.  Trial lawyers, who expect thousands of suits to result, are vigorously advertising for clients who suffered strokes and had previously used common over-the-counter remedies containing PPA -- and if it isn't easy to sort out the genuine propter hocs from a haystack of specious post hocs, well, that's what we have jury trials for, right? (Bob Van Voris, "Plaintiffs Rev Up New PPA Drug Lawsuits", National Law Journal, March 19; FDA information page; list of OTC products (Aphanet)). 

April 5 -- Selling out the class?  "Angry plaintiffs' lawyers have accused other members of the plaintiffs' bar of colluding with H&R Block and Beneficial National Bank to settle litigation allegedly worth more than $1 billion for just $25 million."  The underlying litigation charged that Block violated federal truth-in-lending laws and state laws by not adequately disclosing to its customers that it got a referral fee and other financial benefits when they took out "Refund Anticipation Loans".  Now a group of plaintiffs' lawyers allege that with the litigation reaching a dangerous stage in other courts, Block negotiated a quick and confidential settlement of the class claims with a group of Chicago plaintiffs' lawyers who cut the deal without conducting discovery or consulting with experts.  The Chicago lawyers heatedly deny that the settlement was collusive; a federal district judge found in their favor, rejecting the objectors' arguments and approving the settlement, but the objectors have appealed to the Seventh Circuit.  (Elizabeth Amon, "Class Action 'Collusion' Claimed in H&R Block Appeal", National Law Journal, Mar. 26) (see also Dec. 3). 

April 5 -- "Lungren now a paid advocate for his former foes".   Former California Attorney General Dan Lungren since leaving office has been "doing something that has surprised detractors and admirers alike. He's being paid to help his longtime political adversaries -- a group of plaintiffs' attorneys.  Lungren, a Republican, testified late last month that he has earned $204,000 in 11 months as an expert witness and consultant to the Castano group of 60 law firms. The firms are trying to win billions of dollars in lawyer fees for their role in suing tobacco companies."  At the time, Lungren opposed having the state hire private tort firms to sue  -- "We are simply not selling tickets to a lottery for law firms," he said in 1997 -- but now he testifies that the lawyers' efforts were vital.   "It's further proof that the tobacco fee awards are so astronomical that there's enough money for everybody, even Lungren," said John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Association of California, which criticizes litigation excesses.  (Bill Ainsworth, San Diego Union-Tribune, March 14 -- search on "Castano"). 

April 3-4 -- Patenting the web?  A small Chicago firm named TechSearch holds a patent which it believes entitles it to exclusive rights over some of the basic image-serving processes underlying the World Wide Web, which means that it considers all the rest of us as infringing on its property by publishing sites like, well, like this one.  It manufactures nothing and has no lab; instead, its business plan consists of demanding money from companies to "license" their web use, and it has extracted payments in the $30,000-$80,000 range from several big firms including Walgreen and Sara Lee.  It has also sued Intel Corporation for libel and slander because an Intel spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that it "exists solely for the purpose of purchasing patents and extorting funds from another company." (Ian Mount, "Would You Buy a Patent License From This Man?", eCompanyNow, April).   Critics "fault the PTO [Patent and Trademark Office] for approving 'inventions' that are obvious, trivial or simply representative of the Internet version of well-known business practices".  (William C. Smith, "Patent this!", ABA Journal, March).  The report that Bill Gates is staking an intellectual property claim to the numbers "0" and "1" is, however, a parody (Microsoft Patents Ones, Zeros", The Onion).  Not a parody: the St. Louis Business Journal purports to sell, for $5 a throw, the right to link to the articles it has made publicly accessible on the Web (iCopyright clearance form). 

April 3-4 -- Asbestos claims bankrupt W. R. Grace.   Another historic name in American industry goes the way of Owens Corning, Armstrong World Industries, GAF and many others.  According to the Washington Post, "Grace's asbestos liabilities largely stem from commercially purchased asbestos added to some of its fire protection products.  The company said it stopped adding any asbestos to its products in 1973.  Grace to date has received more than 325,000 asbestos personal injury claims and has paid $1.9 billion to manage and resolve asbestos litigation. In 2000, asbestos claims against Grace increased 81 percent from 1999 with even higher increases for the first three months of 2001."  According to Grace and other defendants, most new claims entering the system are filed by persons who have no illness or impairment but seek financial compensation simply for having been exposed to the mineral.  "We believe that the state court system for dealing with asbestos claims is broken, and that Grace cannot effectively defend itself against unmeritorious claims," said company president Paul J. Norris. 

As lawyers redirect claims against remaining defendants, each new bankruptcy increases pressure on those still solvent.   Leading wallboard maker USG, which says it stopped making products containing asbestos 25 years ago, took an $850 million charge in January to cope with spiraling liability.  Three years ago Sealed Air Corporation, maker of bubble wrap, bought a W.R. Grace subsidiary that made plastic packaging; although that subsidiary had never been involved with asbestos, lawyers are now going after Sealed Air on the theory that all of Grace's liabilities should convey to it along with the business it bought.  "To an indeterminate degree, the threat of lawsuits could be driving the widening of spreads between corporate and government bonds, says John Puchalla, a Moody’s economist."  The rising capital premium needed to overcome aversion to legal risk in turn raises the cost of doing business in the United States, the Economist of London points out, in a recent survey of rising American litigation costs ("The people v. America Inc.", The Economist, March 22). 

SOURCES: Sabrina Jones, "W.R. Grace files for bankruptcy", Washington Post, April 2; "Asbestos Litigation Costs Burden Grace", March 19; "Lawsuits Cloud Grace's Future", March 7; "Alarm Sounded Over Asbestos in Insulation", Aug. 15, 2000; Tom Shean, "USG Corp. takes $1 billion hit from asbestos suits", Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Jan. 12.  Among the many other companies facing widening claims are auto parts maker Dana Corp. and building materials maker Georgia-Pacific.

April 3-4 -- Trademark litigation hall of fame.  "The Detroit-based Love Your Neighbor Corp. has sued a charity, Love Thy Neighbor Fund Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for trademark infringement. ...  Among the allegations is the complaint that Love Thy Neighbor caused Love Your Neighbor to suffer 'lost sales and profits it would have made but for these wrongful acts.' At least 40 U.S. organizations use 'love thy neighbor' in their names." (National Law Journal, via Progressive Review, April 2). Update: June 20 (lawyer writes menacing letter to activist who criticized case) 

April 3-4 -- "State running background checks on new parents".   Bound to happen dept.: "A new state program intended to protect newborn babies runs background checks on their parents to determine whether they have a history of child abuse that resulted in termination of their parental rights."  "The whole idea here is prevention," said an official with the state's Family Independence Agency, which certainly boasts an Orwellian name.  "We want to identify those parents who have been abusive in the past and try to head off any possible incidents of future abuse." (AP/Detroit Free Press, March 23). 

April 2 -- Lawyers (and docs) block cleanup of Gotham crash fraud.   New York's wide-open climate of accident fraud (more) results in some of the highest car insurance rates in the country.  But most ideas for doing something about it, such as stiffening penalties for fraud ringleaders and requiring timely notice of claims to automobile insurers so they can better investigate dubious allegations, face likely defeat in the state Assembly in Albany, where trial lawyers are leading donors to the Democratic majority.  Nor does it help that organized doctors join with lawyers in resisting attempts to regulate the running up of hugely inflated bills for post-accident therapies, which are then foisted on auto insurers.  (Steven Malanga (Manhattan Institute), "Albany's War on Drivers", New York Post, March 29). 

April 2 -- Priest can sue church over circumstances of suspension.   A Massachusetts appeals court has reinstated several claims in a lawsuit by a former priest who "charged he was slandered when his diocese made public an alleged extramarital sexual relationship and subsequent suspension."  The Rev. James Hiles had sued the state's Episcopal diocese after it suspended him following charges of sexual misconduct; a lower court judge threw out much of his suit, citing a longstanding doctrine by which courts are supposed to refrain from interfering in church administration.  A state appeals court, while agreeing that Hiles could not sue over his removal as such, reinstated his action against church officials for allegedly conspiring to vilify him, Hiles's attorney having argued that defamation is a "secular tort" which courts should feel at liberty to address even in a context of church administration.  The case now goes back to the lower court.  (Denise Lavoie, "Court says case not just a church matter", AP/San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate.com), Mar. 28; Michael Paulson, "A Brockton ex-rector wins part of suit against diocese", Boston Globe, Mar. 29). 

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