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)