August 18-20 — Why the bad guys can’t stand John Stossel. The ABC News correspondent is the one TV reporter who again and again has exposed and ridiculed in devastating style the abuses of litigation and misconduct of lawyers, the excesses of scare-environmentalism, and countless instances of over- and mis-government (his hourlong special “The Trouble With Lawyers” a couple of years back is just one of many highlights; Stossel’s website at ABC). You can bet he’s made a long list of enemies in the course of doing this, and now, after a flub by his staff in a report on organic foods (for which he apologized last Friday on camera) there’s a well-organized campaign under way to take his journalistic scalp. That would reduce from one to zero the number of prominent contrarian TV voices on many of these issues, leaving in place, of course, the large amount of vigorous advocacy journalism from the point of view opposite to his. A recent New York Times roundup on the controversy quotes our editor (Jim Rutenberg and Felicity Barringer, “Apology Highlights ABC Reporter’s Contrarian Image”, Aug. 14); if you wonder what sorts of grossly misleading stories the network newsmagazines have run over the years without anyone’s feeling obliged to apologize for them, check out our article “It Didn’t Start With NBC Dateline“.
Now the Competitive Enterprise Institute has launched a website project devoted to documenting and exposing the campaign to get John fired, and to collecting letters, petition signatures, and other signs of support so that ABC will know how big a fan base he has rooting for him. (SaveJohnStossel.org, temporarily hosted at counterprotest.net/stossel).
August 18-20 — “Caffeine added to sodas aims to addict — study”. Because most consumers in a small study could not tell by taste whether a soda had caffeine in it or not, some researchers at Johns Hopkins arrived at the conclusion that the substance appears in sodas for the sole purpose of “addicting” consumers. (Most of the biggest mass-market sodas offer a choice of caffeinated and non-caffeinated versions; typically the latter is considerably less popular with consumers, who are presumably helpless to choose between the products, enslaved as they are by their addiction.) “The study appeared in Archives of Family Medicine, which is published by the American Medical Association”. (“Pop made to hook drinkers”, Reuters/Detroit News, Aug. 15; “Cola makers rip study on caffeine addiction”, AP/Spokane Spokesman-Review, Aug. 15). Advocates who have participated in the demonization of the tobacco industry and other businesses have frequently denied that the food industry is next on the list. It’s certainly on some folks’ list, however. Last year Yale University researcher Kelly Brownell said: “I have called the food environment in the United States toxic … The food companies and their advertisers are, in fact, luring our children into deadly behavioral patterns … Sooner or later, the food companies will be considered in the same way we regard the tobacco industry.” (“Regulation by Litigation: The New Wave of Government-Sponsored Litigation”, sponsored by Manhattan Institute, Chamber of Commerce of the U.S., and Federalist Society, June 22, 1999, conference proceedings)
August 18-20 — Weekend reading: Macaulay’s bicentenary. Your editor being a longtime admirer of the great classical liberal Thomas Babington Macaulay, his latest Reason column is devoted to appreciating the Whig historian’s written legacy on the 200th anniversary of his birth (Walter Olson, “Confessions of a Macaulay Fan”, Reason, August/September). An outfit called Electric Book is generous enough to webpost downloadable versions of many of his essays, free for individual use (zip files of PDF documents).
August 18-20 — Snakes’ rights not always paramount. Notwithstanding endangered species law, New York environmental authorities have decided not to press charges against 72-year-old Phillip Wheaton for killing a protected rattlesnake that had bitten him. Wheaton had just stepped from his car on a rural road in Cameron, N.Y. when the timber rattler bit him on the leg. Wheaton proceeded to hit the snake with his cane, injuring it; it was taken to a veterinary hospital where it later died. “I had a fight with that snake and I won,” Wheaton said later. “I didn’t cause no fight with that rattlesnake but he caused it with me.” (“Slain serpent”, AP/Fox News, Aug. 16). Last year (Oct. 12) we reported on a court’s ruling, also in New York, that a private landowner was obliged to host rattlers on its property; it ordered the tearing down of a “snake-proof” fence that had prevented the venomous creatures from approaching an area where humans were at work.
August 16-17 —Fortune on Lerach. Don’t miss this long but grippingly reported account of the rise, prosperity and current woes of the world’s most widely feared plaintiff’s securities lawyer, Bill Lerach of the west coast office of Milberg, Weiss. Full of remarkable material new to us (Peter Elkind, “The King of Pain Is Hurting”, Fortune, Sept. 4). Earlier this summer the same magazine published a colorfully detailed account of infighting among the troop of plaintiff’s lawyers angling to bring down the HMO industry (John Helyar, “They’re Ba-a-ack!”, Fortune, June 26).
August 16-17 — Okay to make lemonade. In Eustis, Fla., the city government has backed down from an inspector’s attempt to close down the lemonade stand that nine-year-old Rachel Caine runs across the street from her home. (Stephanie Erickson, “Eustis officials back down from order to make girl, 9, close lemonade stand”, Orlando Sentinel/Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Aug. 9). And in Longmont, Colo., 11-year-old “Soda Girl” Caitlin Rezac is back in business with her fizzy-refreshment stand after a run-in with the Boulder County health department, which had busted her for operating without a hand sink and $110 license; a local business donated the sink (search Denver Post archives on “Caitlin Rezac” (excerpts free, fee for full story); letter to the editor from county official Ann Walters, Boulder Daily Camera, Aug. 12 (scroll) (via Liberzine)).
August 16-17 — Olympics website’s accessibility complaint. The United States isn’t the only place where controversy is simmering over websites that “exclude” blind and other disabled users (by not adopting design and syntax that cater to them). At a recent hearing of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in Australia, organizers of the Sydney Olympics defended themselves against charges that they hadn’t made their website usable by the vision-impaired. (Rachel Lebihan, “Olympics web site riddled with blind spots”, ZDNet, Aug. 9). America Online has reached a provisional settlement of the complaint filed against it by the National Federation of the Blind (see Nov. 5); the online service pledges to alter its software to bring it into fuller compatibility with screen reader technology and says it will train its employees to be sensitive to disabled users’ needs, in exchange for which NFB agrees to postpone suing for a year (Oscar S. Cisneros, “AOL Settles Accessibility Suit”, Wired News, July 28). Also: a clip we missed earlier on Congress’s February hearing on this topic: “Do Web Sites Violate the Americans with Disabilities Act?”, TechLawJournal, Feb. 10.
August 16-17 — “City gun suit shot down on appeal”. An appeals court has unanimously upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the city of Cincinnati’s lawsuit against the gun industry, likening that suit “to the ‘absurdity’ of suing the makers of matches because of losses from arson.” Prominent tort attorney Stanley Chesley (see June 1, March 30), representing the city, says he will appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, which, ominously for the gunmakers, is currently controlled by a majority of justices well disposed to trial-lawyer arguments (see May 8, 2000; Aug. 17 and Aug. 18, 1999). (Dan Horn, Cincinnati Enquirer, Aug. 12; “Cincinnati can’t sue gunmakers for damages, court rules”, Reuters/FindLaw; text of decision (Cincinnati v. Beretta; retrievable Word document, not website).
August 16-17 — Web-copyright update: “Dialectizer” back up, “MS-Monopoly” down. The “Dialectizer“, a website that will translate another page of your choice into a variety of stagey dialects including Redneck, Cockney, Elmer Fudd and Pig Latin, is back up and running; we reported May 18 that the site had closed itself down for fear of being sued by businesses that might view such automated translation of their websites’ contents to be an infringement on their copyright. However, the “MS-Monopoly” parody site, which adapted elements from the popular board game Monopoly to comment on the Microsoft case (see Dec. 3) has been pulled down at the behest of lawyers for toymaker Hasbro, which puts out the real game: “MS-Monopoly.com ‘Cease and Desist’ed by Hasbro Lawyers“. In Forbes, Virginia Postrel says big companies are being shortsighted when they sic lawyers on fan sites that happen to use copyrighted material; News Corp.’s Fox properties, for example, have issued rumbling letters to online enthusiasts of cult shows such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (“The Shortsighted Site Busters”, Forbes/Reason Online, July 24).
August 15 — Plastic surgeons must weigh patients’ state of mind, court says. By a 3-2 margin, a New York court has allowed a claim to proceed against a cosmetic surgeon for conducting liposuction and abdominoplasty procedures on a patient while “fail[ing] to take into account that she suffered from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or a preoccupation with a minor or imaginary physical flaw,” which meant that her consent to the procedures might not really count as informed. The patient made at least fifty visits to the doctor’s office. (Michael A. Riccardi, “Doctor Must Weigh Patient’s Mental State”, New York Law Journal, June 29; Renee Kaplan, “What Should Plastic Surgeons Do When Crazy Patients Demand Work?”, New York Observer, July 31). (Update June 11, 2001: she loses in New York’s highest court). The American Life League, an anti-abortion group, plans to take a leaf from its counterparts on the left and launch a systematic litigation campaign based on malpractice, consumer protection and other theories to shut down abortion clinics, while a conservative writer suggests approaching sympathetic state attorneys general and getting them to file a tobacco-style megasuit against abortion providers (Julia Duin, “Pro-life advocates aim to hit clinics in the pocketbook”, Washington Times, Aug. 10; Chuck Morse, “Big Tobacco and the Abortion Industry”, EtherZone, June 12). In Erie, Pennsylvania, a judge has declared a mistrial in a medical malpractice trial after a juror fainted during the trial and the defendant physicians revived him; the judge thought it necessary, lest this act of kindness be thought to have improperly prejudiced the proceedings, to restart the whole ordeal from scratch (“Doctors accused of malpractice aid juror who fainted”, AP/CNN, Aug. 11). And Overlawyered.com‘s page on law and medicine has been selected as a resource by the MedExplorer medical search site.
August 15 — The Veep that got away. It’s been widely reported that the other finalist in the process by which Al Gore picked his running mate was youthful Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who’d have been an equally noteworthy pick from litigation reformers’ perspective but for opposite reasons: after briefly representing record companies Edwards “moved to Raleigh, N.C., in 1981 and became a plaintiffs’ lawyer. That made him a millionaire. His fortune has been estimated at $20 million to $50 million.” Edwards proceeded to sink an estimated $10 million from his own pocket into his first and only political campaign, knocking off incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth by 4 points. The Gore camp saw Edwards as telegenic, a skillful speaker and from an important state, but worried that his past could backfire among voters unhappy with trial lawyers for “doing things like suing doctors and winning big verdicts, which then drive up health care costs — and Edwards has been an incredibly successful one of that breed.'” (Michael Kramer, “Aides: Al Leaning Toward Edwards”, New York Daily News, Aug. 6).
August 15 — “Teams liable for fans’ safety”. A Colorado court of appeals has ruled that “sports teams must protect fans from known dangers — such as flying hockey pucks — unless lawmakers specifically exempt the teams from such liability.” Diane Smith, a lawyer for the now-defunct Denver DareDevils roller hockey team, said fans sit in the more hazardous area near the goal because they want the best view and “if you are going to sit where the action is, there are risks that go along with that”; appeal to the state’s high court is planned (Howard Pankratz, Denver Post, Aug. 4).
August 14 — Bush-Lieberman vs. Gore-Nader? Our editor contributes a guest column today (pinch-hitting for the vacationing Holman Jenkins) for Opinion Journal, the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s new online venture. The column discusses the strong record Sen. Joe Lieberman has compiled on litigation reform, the dilemma this poses for Vice President Gore, the wrath it calls down on his head from fellow Connecticut resident Ralph Nader, and the reasons why America is unusual in treating the pro-litigation position as “progressive” when it isn’t deemed to be such in much of the rest of the world (“Not All Liberals Love Lawsuits”, Aug. 14).
August 14 — “Disney must pay $240 million in sports park lawsuit”. A jury in Orlando “ruled Friday that the Walt Disney Co. stole the idea for a sports theme park from a former baseball umpire and his architect partner and must pay $240 million in damages,” a sum that the judge has discretion to increase because the jury found Disney acted with malice. “The notion that we had to steal the idea from the plaintiffs, an idea as old as ancient Greece, is preposterous,” said Disney general counsel Lou Meisinger, who said “the plaintiffs lawyers had tried to frame the case as ‘little people against big business’ and attempted to ‘inflame their prejudice.’ Plaintiffs’ lawyer Willie Gary”, well known for his work on the Loewen and Coke cases, “called Disney’s reaction ‘sour grapes.’ ‘We beat ’em and quite frankly we’ll beat ’em again if we need to,’ Gary said. ‘They’re crying like little babies.'” Another member of the team of plaintiff’s attorneys was Johnnie Cochran of O.J. Simpson case fame (CNN, Aug. 11; Beth Piskora, “Ump and architect sue Disney for $1.5 B”, New York Post, Aug. 10; “The Mouse Stole Idea”, Aug. 12; Yahoo Full Coverage).
August 14 — “Airbag chemical on trial”. Because of the airbag in her $30,000 Mercedes, Edith Krauss and her husband walked away from a 1997 crash that otherwise might have killed them. But Krauss is suing the luxury automaker anyway: she “contends that she has been plagued by throat ailments since the crash and they stem from her inhaling sodium azide, the chemical that allows for the forceful deployment of airbags.” The company says the concentration of the chemical in an airbag is too low to cause harm. Trial began last week in Elizabeth, N.J. (MaryAnn Spoto, Newark Star-Ledger, Aug. 8).
August 14 — Embarrassing Lawsuit Hall of Fame. Among recent lawsuits with details so embarrassing it’s a wonder anyone would file them: a Barberton, Ohio woman is suing an acquaintance in small claims court, saying he reneged on a promise to let her pay in sexual favors for part of the sale price for a truck (Stephanie Warsmith, “An unusual ‘contract’ is in court”, Akron Beacon Journal, Aug. 10); the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has recommended dismissal of a complaint by an employee of the town of Plymouth, who had charged that a town official inflicted a hostile working environment on her by (among other things) subjecting her to flatulence, the commission reasoning that the passing of gas is not sexual in nature (Aug. 27, 1999; not online, case referred by UCLA law prof Eugene Volokh); and an Ottawa man has sued a city hospital, saying it misdiagnosed a very intimate injury committed to his person after he got on stage at a club and allowed an exotic dancer to sit on his chest (Glen McGregor, “Man sues hospital over testicle removal”, Ottawa Citizen/National Post, Aug. 8; more exotic dancer litigation: July 26, May 23 (also from Canada), Jan. 28).
August 11-13 — Litigation reform: the Texas experience. Citizens for a Sound Economy releases a report evaluating the results of the 1995 package of litigation reforms enacted in Texas under Gov. George W. Bush (more about package, from Governor’s office). Prepared by the Perryman Group of Waco, Tex., the report estimates that the reforms contributed significantly to reducing prices, raising personal incomes and stimulating economic development in the Lone Star State, with resulting benefits to the average Texas household of $1,078 a year. (“The Impact of Judicial Reforms on Economic Activity in Texas”, Aug. 9; executive summary links to PDF document).
Earlier, Texas insurance commissioner Jose Montemayor estimated that insurance buyers in the state would save a cumulative $2.9 billion by 2000 through mandated rate reductions linked to the lawsuit reforms: “Tort reform has been a tremendous success.” (“Commissioner says tort reform saves Texans $2.9 billion”, AP/Abilene Reporter-News, Oct. 2, 1999). Trial-lawyer-allied groups soon attacked the figures (Terrence Stutz, “Tort Reform Savings on Insurance Overstated”, Dallas Morning News, Dec. 21, 1999, reprinted at Kraft Law Firm site), and have gone to considerable lengths to publicize their case since then (see Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Jim Yardley, “Bush Calls Himself Reformer; the Record Shows the Label May Be a Stretch”, New York Times, March 26, 2000, excerpted at Democratic National Committee site; now 404 Not Found, but GoogleCache has preserved a version). For a riposte from the reform side, see Tom Beaty, “Legal reform has brought benefits to business”, Houston Business Journal, Feb. 21, 2000.
And see: Constance Parten, “Texas Holds Its Own in Insurance Rates”, Insurance Journal, June 26, 2000 (reform package wasn’t expected to bring major savings in auto insurance, as opposed to commercial and medical lines, but did so anyway); Lone Star Report, Aug. 27, 1999 (scroll halfway down for item); and Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, Houston, has posted a variety of materials on the controversy at its website, including a summary of reforms; Jon Opelt, “$3 Billion Hardly Chump Change“; and Cora Sue Mach, “Governor Bushwhacked over Lawsuit Savings“. (DURABLE LINK)
August 11-13 — “Ohio cracks down on keggers”. Under a new Ohio law, people who want to give parties for which they’ll buy five or more kegs of beer must register the location of the party in advance, wait five days to take possession of the kegs, and “allow liquor agents and police to enter the property to enforce state liquor laws, a requirement that bothers the American Civil Liberties Union and others.” Several states have or are considering similar laws. “Maryland has required keg registration since 1994 to allow the containers to be traced to the buyer and the seller, both of whom are held accountable if minors are caught drinking the alcohol.” (Liz Sidoti, AP/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 8).
August 11-13 — Stay away, I’ve got a court order. Last year Maryland passed a new law allowing residents to apply for a civil restraining order to keep away people who they say have frightened or harassed them, a type of protection long available in matrimonial cases. Now the law is being used more than proponents expected, and not just by unmarried paramours and other intimates but as a way to settle — or escalate — spats among schoolmates, neighbors, co-workers and virtual strangers. (Donna St. George, “Residents Seeking ‘Peace’ Invade Md. Courts”, Washington Post, Aug. 7).
August 11-13 — “Not even thinking about” fees. With appeals and other legal maneuvering expected to last quite a while after a Miami jury’s $145 billion punitive damage award against tobacco companies, Knight-Ridder asked plaintiff’s attorney Stanley Rosenblatt about fees he might reap from the action. “It’s so far down the road that we’re not even thinking about it,” he claimed. (Uh-huh.) “Generally lawyers’ fees in class-action suits are about 25 to 30 percent of the award or settlement,” the news service reports, though it speculates that trial judge Robert Kaye might approve a smaller fee award than that, perhaps a mere $1 billion. Rounded off in the overall context, that would count as almost nothing, right? (“Smokers’ lawyers could get $1B — or zilch”, Knight Ridder/Norwalk (Ct.) Hour, July 26, not online). Plus: commentary by the Cato Institute’s Robert Levy (“Litigation Lunacy in Florida”, Cato Daily, July 31).