July 31 — Clinton’s date with ATLA. Bill Clinton’s speaking engagement yesterday before trial lawyers at their convention draws this hard-hitting column by New York Post‘s Rod Dreher, who writes: “Though he has signed a few small tort-reform measures, the President has vetoed every major effort to rein in the berserk lawsuit culture, which is turning civil courts into casinos for trial lawyers and greedy plaintiffs.” Dreher’s column also quotes this site’s editor at length about how tobacco lawyers since their lucrative settlement have become “an institutional ATM for the Democratic Party”; on how Gov. George Bush pushed through legal reform in Texas, a state where they said it couldn’t be done; and on what’s likely to happen if voters don’t break the lawyers’ momentum at the polls this fall (Rod Dreher, “Greedy Dems Refuse to Curb Lawsuit Madness”, New York Post, Jul. 30). Best of all, Dreher refers to this site as “the must-bookmark www.overlawyered.com”.
July 31 — No diaries for Cheney. “A small anecdote about a large facet of his [Dick Cheney’s] personality. [At a White House dinner] in the summer of 1992 … President Bush’s sister turned to him and said she hoped he would someday write a book, and hoped he was keeping a diary. He sort of winced, and looked down. No, he said, ‘unfortunately you can’t keep diaries in a position like mine anymore.’ He explained that anything he wrote could be subpoenaed or become evidence in some potential legal action. ‘So you can’t keep and recount your thoughts anymore.’ We talked about what a loss this is for history. It concerned him. It was serious; so is he. Then everyone started talking politics again.” (Peggy Noonan, “The Un-Clinton”, Wall Street Journal, July 26, subscriber site).
July 31 — Nader cartoon of the year. By Henry Payne for the Detroit News, it depicts Ralph as the parrot on a pirate’s shoulder, and you can guess who’s the pirate (at News site — July 25) (via National Journal Convention Daily).
July 31 — Our most ominous export. Trial lawyers in the United States have been steadily internationalizing their activities, bringing the putative benefits of American-style product liability suits to faraway nations. Now it’s happening with litigation against gunmakers: attorney Elisa Barnes, who managed the Hamilton v. Accu-Tek case in Brooklyn, is assisting a Brazilian gun-control group in a suit against local firearms maker Taurus International over sales of its lawful product. (“Brazil’s biggest gun maker under fire from rights group”, AP/Dallas Morning News, July 27).
July 31 — Running City Hall? Stock up on lawyers. “Time was that most small cities in California were represented by one in-house attorney, who likely had a sole practice on the side. Today, laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, requirements such as environmental impact reports and intricate ballot initiatives make running a city too complicated for that kind of legal staffing.” (Matthew Leising, “Meyers Nave spins cities’ legal hassles into gold”, National Law Journal, August 9, 1999, not online).
July 28-30 — Clinton to speak Sunday to ATLA convention. Confirmed on ATLA’s website: President Bill Clinton is scheduled to address the annual convention of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., the first such appearance by a sitting president ever, and another confirmation that this administration is friendlier to the litigation lobby than any before it in American history. More than 3,000 trial lawyers are expected to attend.
July 28-30 — New subpage on Overlawyered.com: Trial lawyers and politics. Former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has called plaintiff’s lawyers “anchor tenants” of the Democratic Party, and they’re rather well connected in many Republican circles as well (as for their longtime role in backing Ralph Nader, currently running as a Green, don’t get us started). Is anyone keeping proper tabs of their activities in the political sphere? We’re not sure, but figure it can’t hurt to start a new subpage on that topic.
July 28-30 — Wall Street Journal “OpinionJournal.com” launches. Today the Wall Street Journal is scheduled to go live with its eagerly awaited OpinionJournal.com, which is expected to embody the crusading spirit of the paper’s editorial page. They tell us Overlawyered.com will be listed among OpinionJournal.com’s “favorite” sites, with a standing link.
July 28-30 — “How the ADA Handicaps Me”. “I graduated from a good law school but finding a job has been difficult, much more difficult, than I expected,” writes Julie Hofius, an Ohio attorney who uses a wheelchair. “Getting interviews has not been a problem. Getting second interviews or job offers has been. … The physical obstacles have been removed, but they have been replaced with a more daunting obstacle: the employer’s fear of lawsuits. … job-hunters with disabilities are viewed by employers as ‘lawsuits on wheels.'” (“Let’s get beyond victimhood of disabilities act”, Houston Chronicle, July 25, and Cato Daily Commentary, July 26). The tenth anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act has occasioned a flood of commentary and reportage, an ample selection of which is found at Yahoo Full Coverage. Check out in particular Carolyn Lochhead, “Collecting on a Promise”, San Francisco Chronicle, July 26, and Aaron Brown, “What’s Changed? Assessing the Disabilities Act, 10 Years Later”, ABCNews.com, July 26 (sidebar, “Too Many Lawsuits?” by Betsy Stark, quotes this site’s editor).
July 28-30 — Smoking and responsibility: columnists weigh in. “I watched my father die from smoking … [he] would not have taken kindly to being portrayed as an innocent victim of the tobacco industry,” writes the New York Press‘s John Strausbaugh. “The popularity of the fairy tale in which Demon Philip Morris pins innocent victims to the ground and forces them to smoke cigarette after cigarette until they die is another example of the way Americans enjoy infantilizing themselves and shirking responsibility for their own lives.” (“Demoned Weed”, Jul. 22). Legendary Pittsburgh shortstop Honus Wagner, of baseball-card fame, “demanded that his card be taken off cigarette packs because smoking was bad, and habit-forming. That, my friends, was in 1910. Even back then we all knew cigarette smoking was bad. … When do we stop blaming other people?” (Steve Dunleavy, “Cig-Makers Paying Price for Smokers’ Free Choice”, New York Post, Jul. 16). $145 billion, the punitive damages figure assessed by a Florida jury earlier this month, amounts to “more than twice the gross domestic product of New Zealand. It is, in short, a ridiculous number, pulled out of thin air …Why not $145 trillion?” (Jacob Sullum, “The $145 Billion Message”, Creators’ Syndicate column, July 19). And even before the state settlement jacked up the price of cigarettes for the financial benefit of state governments and their lawyers, government was reaping a bigger profit through taxes from tobacco than were manufacturers: roughly 74 cents per pack, compared with 28 cents’ profit for Philip Morris, according to Sullum. “Some will protest that there is a moral distinction here. To be sure: While politicians and tobacco companies both take money from smokers, only the tobacco companies give them something in return.” (Jacob Sullum, New York Times, July 20, reprinted at Reason site).
July 28-30 — Lenzner: “I think what we do is practice law”. Profile of Terry Lenzner, much-feared Washington private investigator in the news recently for his firm’s attempts to buy trash from pro-Microsoft advocacy groups on behalf of client Oracle, and whose services are in brisk demand from law firms and Clinton Administration figures wishing to dig dirt on their opponents. Known for his operatives’ irregular methods of evidence-gathering — he recommends posing as journalists to worm information out of unwary prospects — Lenzner recently addressed a seminar at Harvard about his calling. “I think what we do is practice law, although I use a lot of nonlawyers, he told the attendees.” (Brian Blomquist, “Gumshoe’s reputation is all heel and no soul”, New York Post, Jul. 18).
July 26-27 — Losing your legislative battles? Just sue instead. Lawyers for Planned Parenthood in Seattle have filed a lawsuit against the Bartell drugstore chain, claiming it amounts to sex discrimination for the company’s employee health plan not to cover contraception. Many employers’ health plans curb costs by not covering procedures not deemed medically necessary, such as cosmetic surgery, contraception, in vitro fertilization, and elective weight reduction. Planned Parenthood had earlier sought legislation in Olympia, the state capital, to compel employer plans to cover contraception, as has been done in about a dozen states, but strong opposition defeated their efforts; running to court, however, dispenses with the tiresome need to muster legislative majorities. A Planned Parenthood official said Bartell was selected as the target for the test case “because the drugstore chain is generally considered to be a good employer and progressive company” — that’ll teach ’em. (Catherine Tarpley, “Bartell sued over contraceptives coverage”, Seattle Times, July 20; David A. Fahrenthold, “Woman Sues for Contraception Coverage”, Washington Post, July 22; Planned Parenthood of Western Washington advocacy site, covermypills.org).
July 26-27 — Update: Tourette’s bagger case. The Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld the right of the Farmer Jack supermarket chain to refuse to employ Karl Petzold, 22, as a bagger in its checkout lines. Petzold suffers from coprolalia, a symptom of Tourette’s Syndrome that causes him involuntarily to utter obscenities and racial slurs (see June 9). “We find it ridiculous to expect a business … to tolerate this type of language in the presence of its customers, even though we understand that because of plaintiff’s condition, his utterance of obscenities and racial epithets is involuntary,” the court wrote in a 3-0 decision reversing a trial court’s denial of summary judgment. Petzold’s attorney vowed an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. (“Court Rules on Tourette Suit”, AP/FindLaw, Jul. 21) (text of decision, Petzold v. Borman’s Inc.) (via Jim Twu’s FindLaw Legal Grounds).
July 26-27 — “It isn’t about the money”. An Atlanta jury has awarded former stripper Vanessa Steele Inman $2.4 million in her suit against the organizers of the 1997 Miss Nude World International pageant as well as the Pink Pony, the strip club at which the week-long event was held. Ms. Inman said organizers rigged the balloting to favor a rival contestant and “blackballed her from nightclubs around the country owned by the Pink Pony’s owner, Jack Galardi”, to retaliate for her refusal to do lap dances on a tour bus, let herself be “auctioned off” to drunken golfers, or allow her breasts to be employed in conjunction with whipped cream in a manner not really suitable for description on a family website. The jury awarded her $835,000 in compensatory damages, in part to make up for the impairment of her earnings in the exotic dance field, plus $1.6 million in punitive damages. “It isn’t even about the money,” she said. “Now people believe what I had to say.” (Jim Dyer, “Former stripper awarded $2.4 M against pageant organizers”, Atlanta Journal- Constitution, Jul. 25) (more on litigation by strippers: May 23, Jan. 28). Update Apr. 17, 2004: Georgia Court of Appeals overturns verdict.
July 26-27 — “Power company discriminates against unemployed”. In New Zealand, the Human Rights Commission is telling an electricity supplier to amend its “discriminatory” policies regarding prospective customers who might have trouble paying their bills. “A woman complained that her application to become a customer was rejected because she was unemployed, did not have a credit card and did not own her own home.” The company has already agreed to cease asking applicants whether they are employed, but the commissioners say it has been “indirectly discriminating against unemployed people by requiring its customers to have a credit card, own their own home and have an income greater than $10,000 a year.” (“Stuff” (Independent Newspapers Ltd.), Jul. 26).
July 26-27 — Couple ordered to give son Ritalin. A family court judge in Albany County, N.Y. has ordered Michael and Jill Carroll to resume giving their 7-year-old son Ritalin, the controversial psychiatric drug. The couple, who reside in the town of Berne, had taken their son Kyle off the medication, which is used to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder; they feared the drug was harming his appetite and sleep. An official at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District proceeded to inform on them to the county Department of Social Services, which filed child abuse charges against the couple on charges of medical neglect. The charges, which might have led to the son’s removal from the home, were dropped when they agreed before the judge to put Kyle back on the drug; they will, however, be allowed to seek a second opinion on whether the boy should get Ritalin and return to court to argue for the right to discontinue the drug at some future date. (Rick Carlin, “Court Orders Couple To Give Son Drug”, Albany Times-Union, July 19 (fee-based archive — search on “Ritalin” or other key words to find story)) (update — see Aug. 29-30).
July 24-25 — Update: drunken bicyclist out of luck. A Louisiana appeals court has thrown out a trial court’s $95,485 award against city hall to a drunken bicyclist who was injured when he ran a stop sign and collided with a police car responding to a call (see Dec. 1). Plaintiff Jerry Lawrence’s lawyer explained the verdict at the time by saying, “Drunks have some rights, too”. (Angela Rozas, “No cash for drunken bicyclist”, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 20). Police chief Nick Congemi said one reason Lawrence got as far as he did in his suit was that the department hadn’t issued him a ticket at the time for bicycling while intoxicated. “We learned a lesson, too. Because he was injured so badly, we decided not to give him any citations. … we’re going to change our policies on that. Here on out, we’re going to issue citations, even if they’re injured.” More proof of the inspirational things litigation can accomplish! (via “Backstage at News of the Weird”, May 29)
July 24-25 — “Going after corporations through jury box”. Christian Science Monitor takes a look at what comes next in mass torts after the Florida tobacco verdict, which Lawrence Fineran of the National Association of Manufacturers calls “really scary”. Quotes this site’s editor, too (Kris Axtman, July 24).
July 24-25 — Welcome Wall Street Journal readers. In its Friday editorial on the sensational developments in the Coke discrimination case, the Journal suggested people learn more by visiting this site (if you’re here to do that, see July 21-23 and July 19-20; click through from the latter to the big article on the case in the Fulton County Daily Report). Thanks in no small part to the Journal, last week (and Friday in particular) saw this site set new traffic records. (“The Practice”, July 21) (requires online subscription).
July 24-25 — “Poll: majority disapprove of tobacco fine.” Gallup asked 1,063 adults their opinion of a Florida jury’s $145 billion punitive verdict against tobacco companies. 59 percent “disapprove”, 37 percent “approve” and 4 percent had “no opinion.” Asked who was predominantly to blame for smokers’ illnesses, 59 percent said smokers themselves “mostly” or “completely” were and 26 percent said tobacco companies were (20 percent “mostly”, 6 percent “completely”). Another 14 percent blamed the two equally. Disapproval of the award increased among older age groups and with political conservatism; the results are consistent with a 1994 poll on tobacco liability. In December the public was asked whether it agreed with the U.S. government’s view that gun manufacturers could rightly be held financially responsible for the costs of shootings; it said no by a 67 to 28 percent margin. (Carol Rosenberg, Miami Herald, July 19)
July 24-25 — Florida verdict: more editorial reaction. “Given the industry’s history of evasion and equivocation about the health risks of smoking, it is tempting to welcome as a comeuppance a Florida jury’s $144.8 billion judgment against six tobacco companies. The temptation should be resisted. The judgment is a disgrace to the American legal system and an affront to democracy…. These issues should be confronted by the people’s elected representatives. They should not be hijacked by the judicial process under the guise of a tort case.” (“Smoke signal: An anti-tobacco verdict mocks law and democracy”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 21). “Ridiculous … outrageous … A ruling that completely ignores personal responsibility is a joke.” (Cincinnati Enquirer). “The biggest damages here may be to the reputation of the legal system.” (Washington Post). “Monstrous … Now that they have taken an unwise gamble on their health, the Florida plaintiffs portray themselves as victims of Big Tobacco. … outlandish” (San Diego Union-Tribune). “Falls somewhere between confiscation and robbery” (Indianapolis Star). A “fantasy verdict” (Cincinnati Post/Scripps Howard). “The bottom line is that courtrooms are not the proper forums for setting public policy, and personal responsibility should not be dismissed out of hand. ” (Tampa Tribune). “Yuck…. [the] tendency to run from personal accountability is one of the least attractive of modern human characteristics. A lot has also been said about the wrongness — yes, the fundamental wrongness — of a system that makes billionaires of attorneys based on their ability to minimize the responsibility of their clients when a deep-pockets defendant is in the dock.” (Omaha World-Herald). “You don’t have to love tobacco companies to recognize the wrong that’s been going on in Florida for the past six years…. [a lawsuit] ran amok.” (Louisville Courier-Journal). “Ambitious and politically motivated lawyers are usurping decision- and policymaking that in a democracy is appropriately left to the voters and their representatives. Tyranny of the tort may be putting it too strongly — at least for now. But who knows who will be next on the trial lawyers’ hit list?” (Chicago Sun-Times). “Justice is not served … ridiculous.” (Wisconsin State Journal (Madison)). “Absurdly excessive … provides a further reminder that the national “settlement” between Big Tobacco and the states aimed at curbing lawsuits over smoking hasn’t resolved much of anything.” (Memphis Commercial Appeal). “‘This was never about money,’ the plaintiffs’ attorney said immediately after the verdict. Whooooo, boy.” (Des Moines Register). Newspapers that approved of the verdict included the New York Times, USA Today, Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Chronicle, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bergen County (N.J.) Record, Palm Beach Post, Spokane Spokesman-Review, Buffalo News, and Charleston (W.V.) Gazette.
July 21-23 — Principal, school officials sued over Columbine massacre. Three families were already suing the Jefferson County sheriff’s office, the killers’ parents and others, and now they’ve added Principal Frank DeAngelis and other school officials as defendants. After all, the more different people you sue, the more justice will get done, right? (“Columbine principal sued by victims of massacre”, CNN/Reuters, Jul. 19). Update Nov. 30-Dec. 2, 2001: judge dismisses most counts against school and its officials, parents having settled earlier.
July 21-23 — Washington Times on lawyers. Reporter Frank J. Murray’s series examining the legal profession has been running all week with installments on lawyer image, the boom in pay, lack of teeth in the lawyer-discipline process and more (July 17-21).
July 21-23 — Complaint: recreated slave ship not handicap accessible. A group of disabled New Haven, Ct. residents is charging that the publicly funded schooner Amistad, a traveling historical exhibit, is not accessible to wheelchairs as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Amistad was the scene of an important slave revolt in 1839-1842 and its recreated version helps evoke the overcrowding and other inhumane conditions of the slave trade. (“Amistad Raises Concerns About Handicap Access”, AP/Hartford Courant (CtNow.com), July 18).
July 21-23 — Class-action lawyers to Coke clients: you’re fired. As we mentioned yesterday, there have been sensational new developments in the Coca-Cola Co. bias-suit saga, following an episode in which a plaintiff lingered on the line after a conference call and heard what his lawyers told each other when they thought they were among themselves (see July 19-20). One reader writes to say he found it “an interesting commentary on class action litigation. The plaintiff becomes dissatisfied with the way his attorneys are handling his law case. So the client fires the attorney, right? Wrong. The attorney fires the client and continues the case with other plaintiffs. What’s wrong with this picture?”
July 21-23 — When sued, be sure to respond. A “default judgment” is what a plaintiff can obtain when a defendant fails to show up in court and contest a suit, and it’s often very bad news indeed for the defendant, as in a case out of New Brunswick, N.J., where a judge has ordered Wal-Mart “to pay more than $2 million to a former cashier who said he was harassed and fired after a boss learned he was undergoing a male-to-female sex change.” Ricky Bourdouvales, 27, says his troubles began when he confided to a manager that he was in the middle of crossing genders, though when he was fired in January he was told it was because of discrepancies with his cash register count. The giant retailer says it will ask the judge to overturn the award, saying it was aware that a document had been filed in May but did not realize its nature. “We were totally unaware of the lawsuit, and we want to have the opportunity to defend ourselves,” said its spokesman. (“Judge Orders Wal-Mart to Pay Fired Transsexual $2 Million in Bias Case”. AP/FindLaw, July 18) (more on suits against Wal-Mart: July 7-9). Update Sept. 6-7: judge grants retrial.