April 20-22 — Quite an ankle sprain. Michele Nations, 26, who sprained her ankle five years ago when she tripped into a hole at a municipal park in Tucson, has now been awarded $450,000 by a local jury. Nations’ attorney “says the case hinged on the city’s responsibility to post adequate warning about burrowing animals [such as squirrels and gophers] and to provide a safe alternative to dodging holes and caved-in tunnels.” An attorney for the city differs, and calls the outcome astonishing: “You would think in a park — in a natural space — people should have to watch where they’re going.” (April 19: Maureen O’Connell, “Gopher hole may cost city $450K”, Arizona Daily Star; “Jury awards Tucson woman who stepped into hole at a park”, AP/Arizona Republic). (DURABLE LINK)
April 20-22 — Thank you, Your Honor. The May Brill’s Content has a cover story (teaser only online) entitled “Human Portals: How people with an obsession — and a website — are upstaging big media”. It tells how weblogs, link-rich sites regularly updated and often zeroing in on a specialized theme, are the new Big Thing in online media; typically “curated by one person”, according to editor in chief David Kuhn, they “could teach big media portals a lot about engaging their audience”. Happy to read all this, we were particularly pleased to turn to the sidebar feature in which the magazine surveys a group of public luminaries about their favorite websites, which range from eBay (Nora Ephron) to 10KWizard.com (Gretchen Morgenson). And here’s Alex Kozinski, distinguished federal judge on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, on his favorite: “Overlawyered (overlawyered.com) provides pointers to legal-system horror stories: the accused rapist who pockets disability checks for his ‘sexual compulsion’; the drunk who climbs a voltage tower and sues the utility company when he gets injured; the guy who murders his mom and sues his shrinks for not stopping him. The site is run by Walter Olson, who likes nothing better than reporting on legal overkill, and he’s compiled serious research tools for anyone interested in trends and abuses within the civil litigation system.” Thank you, Your Honor! (DURABLE LINK)
April 20-22 — Comparable worth in Maine. Despite widespread criticism of the idea from economists and others, Maine has enacted new rules opening private employers to a serious threat of legal action if they pay less to a worker of one gender than to a worker of the opposite gender “for comparable work on jobs with comparable requirements related to skill, effort and responsibility”. Some other states have had “comparable worth” or “pay equity” laws on the books, but Maine is the first to enact regulations giving such laws serious teeth. “We won”, said an official with the state AFL-CIO. “The business community has not awakened to the fact that this is going to cost them.” Disagreements are all but inevitable as to whether (say) secretaries’ work should be regarded as just as valuable as that of (say) truck drivers, and the Maine law will allow lawyers to march into such controversies with class action suits for unlimited damages — won’t that be fun? The state chamber of commerce did not oppose the enactment. (“Equal pay advocates tout new state rules”, AP/Bangor Daily News, April 4; “Maine Becomes First State Requiring Pay Equity”, Women’s ENews, April 3 (via Freedom News Daily); Maine Equal Justice Partners, 2000 Docket Report (scroll down to “Pay Equity”)).
SEE ALSO May 17, 2000; Diana Furchtgott-Roth, “Suicide Mission: The Union Push for Comporable Worth”, Capital Research Center Labor Watch, Dec. 1999; Lawrence W. Reed, “Comparable Worth or Incomparably Worthless?”, Mackinac Center, Sept. 6, 1994. The late Clarence Pendleton Jr., chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, called comparable worth “the looniest idea since Looney Tunes came on the screen” (Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations #519). (DURABLE LINK)
April 20-22 — “Lie-tery winners”. All sorts of basically decent people, from cops to grandmothers, would never think of shoplifting or forging checks but do seem to think it’s okay to lie in lawsuits. “Just ask anyone who has taken more than a handful of depositions or cross-examined witnesses at trial — especially witnesses in tort cases. … the oath has become virtually meaningless,” writes Kirkland & Ellis partner Michael Jones (“Lie-tery Winners”, National Law Journal, March 22).
April 18-19 — Mistletoe dangerous even when absent. LeRoy Crawford says his female boss at the New York Stock Exchange behaved seductively and made remarks such as “if there were mistletoe, I would give you a kiss,” when giving him a Christmas bottle of cologne. Things went from bad to worse, and he now wants $1 million in compensatory damages and $1 million for “special damages as a result of physical and mental injury”. (Peter Noel, “Sex on the floor”, Village Voice, April 11-17).
April 18-19 — Randomness of case assignments questioned. San Francisco assigns cases for pre-trial motions to one of two judges, and it seemed that the plaintiff’s firm of Wartnick, Chaber, Harowitz & Tigerman kept getting lucky by drawing the more favorable judge to hear its asbestos cases. Lucky, indeed: over the past two years, 94 percent of the firm’s cases were assigned even numbers, instead of the odd numbers that would have sent the cases to the other judge. (Dennis J. Opatrny, “Playing the Numbers”, The Recorder, April 9).
April 18-19 — “Guests sue inn for overbooking”. When five Massachusetts couples arrived at Vermont’s romantic Woodstock Inn for an investment club weekend last April, they found the inn had inadvertently overbooked its rooms, and three of the couples had to stay at a local B&B. The inn proprietors were terribly apologetic and treated all five couples to the weekend’s lodging for free, as well as giving them a free dinner. Nonetheless, four of the couples are suing for a sum “substantially in excess of $25,000” in a Boston court. (AP/Boston Globe, April 17).
April 18-19 — Tempest in an arsenic-laced teacup? President Bush deserves credit for standing up to demagogues by pulling back this bad regulation: Steve Chapman, “Who’s really poisoning our drinking water?”, Chicago Tribune, April 12; George Will, “The costs of moral exhibitionism”, Washington Post, April 15; Jason K. Burnett and Robert W. Hahn, Brookings/AEI Joint Center study, “EPA’s Arsenic Rule: The Benefits of the Standard Do Not Justify the Costs”, abstract, Jan. 2001; Mercatus Center (George Mason U.) Public Interest Comment series, Sept. 19, 2000; Michael Kinsley, “Bush is right on arsenic. Darn!”, Washington Post, April 13; Michael Y. Park, “Study: Arsenic Rule Would Have Increased Deaths”, FoxNews.com, April 17; Nick Schulz, “Poisoner-in-Chief Is Saving Lives”, American Spectator Online, April 17; Diane Rehm show transcript (National Public Radio), March 28.
April 17 — Reparations: take a number. National Journal columnist Stuart Taylor Jr. traces the link between demands for compensation for century-old evils such as slavery and colonization and legal battles over liability for decades-ago sales of products like lead paint and asbestos (“Paying Reparations for Ancient Wrongs Is Not Right”, The Atlantic/National Journal, April 11; our take, Reason, Nov. 2000). The group of lawyers mapping out slavery-reparations suits are scheduled to huddle on strategy today in Washington, and say they plan to name businesses as well as the U.S. government as defendants (Jamal E. Watson, “Lawyers plan suit for slavery reparations”, Boston Globe, April 13). The conservative magazine Insight has given uncritically positive coverage to demands for compensation over Japan’s World War II mistreatment of American servicemen, despite the clear laying to rest of such claims by postwar treaty. You’d think victims of the crimes of communism over its long reign would be even better placed to score positive ink in the conservative press, but we seem to hear little about them — not that we would want to load up the reparations bandwagon even further, you understand (Stephen Goode, “New book documents Japanese exploitation”, Insight, undated).
April 17 — A Pulitzer for Dorothy Rabinowitz. The Wall Street Journal editorialist, whose searing commentaries on dubious child-abuse prosecutions have helped expose some of the most glaring injustices to flow from sentimentalism and credulity in our legal system, snags one of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes for her commentaries on American society and culture (Yahoo Full Coverage — Pulitzers). OpinionJournal.com keeps an archive of her media criticism; her articles on abusive prosecution, when online at all, are found at far-flung corners of the web (“A Darkness in Massachusetts” -I-, -II-, -III- (RickRoss.com); more columns on Amirault case; “Through the Darkness” (the Grant Snowden case, forever linked with the name of Janet Reno) (DennisPrager.net); Wenatchee case -I-, -II-).
April 16 — “Woman settles hot pickle lawsuit with McDonald’s”. Or at least its local franchisee: “A woman who claimed she was permanently scarred by a hot McDonald’s hamburger pickle has settled her lawsuit against the restaurant chain. MAR Inc., which does business as McDonald’s in Knoxville, admitted no wrongdoing in the agreement signed by a judge Thursday. Other details of the settlement are to remain confidential. ” (see Oct. 10, 2000) (AP/CNN, April 13).
April 16 — New batch of reader letters. Our correspondents tell why the law makes it perilous to hire a home renovation contractor in New York, ask about buying T-shirts from us, wonder whether Indian-derived place names such as Wichita and Massachusetts are next up for abolition, lament American law’s resistance to the obvious fairness of the loser-pays principle, and hail a Supreme Court decision upholding employment arbitration.
April 16 — Big numbers. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if the injuries resulting from a transportation accident are sufficiently severe, a wealthy business must have been at fault. Teledyne Continental Motors of Mobile, Ala. has agreed to pay $27 million to settle a suit on behalf of survivors of five skydivers killed in the crash of a Cessna, though its attorney said the company’s oil tube design does not cause engine failure as the plaintiffs alleged (Joe Lambe, “$27 Million Settlement in Skydiving Plane Crash”, DropZone.com, March 16; “Poor Preflight Probably Killed Skydivers: NTSB”, Aero-News.Net, June 29, 2000). An Indiana appellate court has upheld a $55 million jury verdict against the Kroger Co. over a truck accident at a company terminal, rejecting the company’s contention that the award was excessive and in conflict with workers’ compensation laws (the injured man, a truck driver, worked for a wholly owned subsidiary of the large grocery chain). (Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Finding No Direct Employment Relationship, Indiana Appellate Court Upholds PI Award”, National Law Journal, March 28). A Los Angeles jury has just voted $55 million against General Tire, a unit of Germany’s Continental Gummi-Werke, over a “tread separation” accident (if you thought those were unique to Firestone, think again). (Myron Levin, Los Angeles Times, April 14; “Jury orders tire maker to pay $55 million”, AP/CNN, April 14). Among the plaintiff’s lawyers in the case was Brian Panish, famed for his 1999 feat in getting another L. A. jury to award $4.9 billion against GM, later reduced to $1.2 billion. And another well-known maker of replacement tires, Cooper Tire, got hammered the same week for $10 million in El Paso (“Jury OKs $10M Award Vs. Cooper Tire”, AP/FindLaw, April 13). Also see Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Two Tire Companies Punctured by Juries”, National Law Journal, April 24, with more details about both tire cases.
April 13-15 — It was the bar’s fault. “A 20-year-old Jamison man, who was shot last summer, says a Warminster bar is partially to blame for the incident. Had he not become drunk from alcohol consumption that night, Martin Joyce’s judgment would not have been impaired, he would not have approached an unknown man for change and he would not have been shot, alleges a suit filed in Montgomery County Court.” (John Corcoran, “Intoxication caused judgment error, suit claims”, Doylestown, Pa. Intelligencer-Record, April 11).
April 13-15 — Anti-Ritalin lawyers still acting out. Despite some early setbacks, tobacco-veteran lawyers including Richard Scruggs, John Coale and Marc Saperstein continue to seek megabucks damages against drugmaker Novartis (formerly Ciba-Geigy) over the widespread prescribing in schools of Ritalin, the drug meant to combat attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and related conditions. There’s a strong case to be made against the thoughtless overuse of this drug, but how characteristic of our litigation system that it proposes to take decisions about its use out of the hands of both medical professionals and parents, instead inviting the lawyers to shop around until they find a few sympathetic courts and a jury or two willing (effectively) to ban the drug through punitive damages. PBS “Frontline” covered the issue recently (“Medicating Kids“) and its website includes a section on the litigation (“ADHD Lawsuits“) which points out a noteworthy recent development: on March 8 of this year federal judge Rudi Brewster threw out a suit seeking class-action status on behalf of everyone in California who had used or bought Ritalin, and also “ruled that activities by defendants intended to advance the medical understanding, diagnosis and treatment of ADHD were free speech protected under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute.” This latter is significant because efforts by businesses to engage in medical promotion or policy defense of products, trade association activity etc. are now routinely sued over by trial lawyers in themselves (conspiracy! public brainwashing! tobacco all over again!) and anti-SLAPP statutes might prove useful in rebuffing such causes of action.
MORE: Sept. 18 & Sept. 22, 2000; Nancy Shute, “Pushing Pills on Kids?”, U.S. News, Oct. 2, 2000; Shankar Vedantam, “A symptom of the times? ADD, Ritalin focus of suits”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 11, 2000; Bob Seay, “Ten Questions for the Lawyers”, About.com ADD site, Sept. 16, 2000.
April 13-15 — “2000’s Ten Wackiest Employment Lawsuits”. Gerald Skoning of Chicago’s Seyfarth Shaw compiles an annual roundup of the most bizarre cases in employment law. Among this year’s highlights: a Minneapolis woman took a job in a sex-toy store and then filed a hostile-environment harassment lawsuit because of all the dirty talk she had to listen to; an Ohio court allowed a worker at a mental health facility to proceed with his reverse disability-discrimination claim that he had been singled out for mistreatment as the only employee at the facility without a mental disability; and a Boeing employee claimed that the company’s objection to his working in the nude was a failure to accommodate his religion, shamanism (“2000’s 10 Wackiest Employment Lawsuits”, National Law Journal, March 29).
April 12 — Zero-tolerance spiral. The WSJ‘s OpinionJournal.com “Best of the Web” feature has lately made it a special project to collect reports of zero tolerance excesses, which are fast mounting beyond our ability to record them. F’rinstance, there are the school officials in West Annapolis, Md., who have banned kids from playing tag during recess, citing the school’s “no-touching” policy (Kimberly Marselas, “City school bans students from playing tag”, Annapolis Capital, March 26); and the honor student given an in-school suspension in West Monroe, La., for drawing a GI Joe-style commando with canteen, knife and grenades (Emeri O’Brien, “3rd-grader suspended for drawing”, Monroe, La. News-Star, March 24; “Soldier drawing gets wide attention”, March 27). A 16-year-old student at Legacy High School in Broomfield, Colo. “may be charged with a felony after school officials found an unloaded BB gun in his car.” (Christine Reid, “Student may face felony charge over unloaded BB gun”, Scripps-Howard, April 8). And in the continuing search for ways to build character in the leaders of tomorrow, some favor snitchlines: “Cedar Rapids police are believed to be the first in Iowa to create a student hot line to take tips on illegal activity. Teens who call about classmates they believe to have alcohol, drugs or weapons on school property get $50 if the police recover anything.” (Kate Kompas, “Teen crime hot line offers cash”, Des Moines Register, April 5).
April 12 — “The Last Tycoon”. This Baltimore City Paper profile from last August, which we missed at the time, says contingency fees to Peter Angelos’s law firm topped $100 million for asbestos work on behalf of Bethlehem Steel workers alone, with more riches expected to flow in from fen-phen, lead paint and those supposedly deadly cellular phones. “When it comes to Baltimore’s politics and finances, it seems, almost nothing happens without Peter Angelos. … in 1999, 10 lawyers and lobbyists were registered with the State Ethics Commission on his behalf.” The minority leader of the state house describes the Orioles owner’s power in Annapolis as “absolutely magical” and “amazing … It’s all based on huge amounts of money flowing [from] Peter Angelos’ pocket and into the coffers of the Democratic Party.'” (Molly Rath, Baltimore City Paper, Aug. 16, 2000)(more).
April 11 — Lost his live client, had to substitute dead one instead. In St. Louis, where lots of dead people are registered to vote, “a dead man was listed as the chief plaintiff in a lawsuit filed on Election Day in November,” according to the L.A. Times. “He was having trouble voting, the suit said, due to long lines at his polling station. So he petitioned a judge — successfully — to keep city ballot boxes open late. … The lawyer who filed the suit explained the mix-up by saying he had intended the plaintiff to be Robert ‘Mark’ Odom, an aide to a Democratic candidate for Congress.” However, “Odom had voted, without a wait, by the time the suit was filed,” and the papers had been prepared with his name on them. But as California judge William W. Bedsworth suggests, this supposed explanation if anything makes the case more egregious: the lawyer “‘explained’ how he filed a suit on behalf of a dead person by saying that the plaintiff turned out not to have had his rights violated, and the only available person with the same name happened to be dead. And this caused not the batting of an eyelash in St. Louis. No immediate suspension, no call for disbarment, no investigation into how he got a judge to sign this thing”. (“Meet Me in St. Louis”, The Recorder, April 9).
April 11 — Update: “metric martyr” convicted. In the first such prosecution in Britain, greengrocer Steven Thoburn of Sunderland has been convicted of violating a 1985 compulsory metric system laws by selling bananas in pounds and ounces (see Jan. 22) (“‘Metric martyr’ convicted”, The Guardian, April 9; “Bananas” (editorial), Daily Telegraph (editorial), April 10; footrule.org, of which the late Jennifer Paterson (TV’s “Two Fat Ladies”) was an honorary member).