- “The real cost of patent trolls” [Brad Feld, PoL on BU study] Survey finds patent litigation booming [Corporate Counsel, Reynolds Holding/Reuters] Company claiming patent on wi-fi-in-stores unlikely to sue retail customers “at this stage” [Patent Examiner] Retrospective on crustless-sandwich case [Peter Smith/Good, earlier]
- Louisiana federal court holds severe obesity to be disability under ADA [Sam Bagenstos, related]
- Florida: many cops remain on job despite evidence linking them to crimes [Balko on Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigation]
- “FDA Regulation Could Doom Cigar Shops” [Jacob Sullum]
- Ted Frank vs. Brian Fitzpatrick on class action fees [PoL, David Lat on Federalist Society panel]
- Orange County keeps mum about partnerships it’s entered with plaintiff’s attorneys Robinson, Calcagnie and Thomas Girardi [Kim Stone, Fox & Hounds] Maybe like “private attorney generals”? Fannie/Freddie genre of government-sponsored enterprises called “monstrous moral hybrids” [Mark Calabria, Cato]
Obesity-as-disability in Canada: “Marise Myrand said her condo association discriminated against her by denying her a parking spot closer to her building entrance.” She’s now won a favorable ruling from the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal and a $10,000 settlement. [The Globe and Mail, h/t reader Vicky G.]
Declining to hear an appeal by airlines: “Obese people have the right to two seats for the price of one on flights within Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Thursday.” (Reuters, Nov. 20; CBC). We’ve covered the issue for years, including, e.g., here, here, here (U.S.), here, and here. More thoughts: Scott Greenfield, Ann Althouse.
- Fear of “retribution” and “legal action” among reasons docs don’t report hazardous colleagues and conditions [WaPo on new Annals of Internal Medicine study]
- Judge rips Milberg for high Chiron fee proposal, questions Skadden’s conflict [The Recorder]
- Felony murder rule is an American exception with results that can be hard to defend [Liptak, NYT]
- UK: “Man broke girlfriend’s leg in damages fraud” [Times Online]
- Often driven by defensive medicine, CAT scans may pose their own risks to patients who undergo them [Newsday on NEJM study]
- Commentator is glad post offices are lawyering up their Operation Santa gift programs [McDonough, CalLaw LegalPad; earlier; possibly related]
- Quebec judge nixes suit by Concordia University mass murderer against former colleagues [Canadian Press]
- Update on Kennewick man and Indian-remains legislation [WashTimes; earlier]
- Magic of compound interest? Uncollected 1977 award for victim of Evel Knievel attack said to have mounted by now to $100 million [AP/Yahoo]
- School discipline now a heavily lawyer-driven affair [Charleston Post & Courier courtesy Common Good]
- Complaint: Cleveland housing authority should have done more renovations to accommodate extremely obese tenant [four years ago on Overlawyered]
“Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson called Wednesday for obese Americans to be brought under the protection of the Americans for Disabilities Act. ‘This is an issue of basic civil rights,’ said Richardson. ‘There are no federal laws that protect obese Americans from discrimination in the workplace, school, or anywhere else. This must change.'” (ABCNews.com “Political Radar”, Sept. 19). We’ve covered obesity-discrimination claims in such contexts as housing accommodation, the hiring of aerobics instructors, amusement park ride seating, airline seat widths (here, here, and here), and the rights of out-of-shape loading-dock workers. P.S. Forgot to add skinny fashion models.
The UC Irvine-Erwin Chemerinsky debacle has been covered extensively in the blogosphere — Walter has a roundup of links over at Point of Law. One thing is for certain, though: regardless of the wisdom of UC Irvine’s actions, it clearly has the right to choose its dean based on any (non-discriminatory) criteria it wants. If the university isn’t happy with Chemerinsky’s ideological viewpoint, it obviously has the right to choose someone more compatible, right?
Well, maybe not, as Eugene Volokh explains. Under the wonders of California employment law, the mere fact that someone has abhorrent views doesn’t give you the right to fire him, and it doesn’t give you the right to decide not to hire him:
In fact, if the statute is read according to its text, coupled with the way the California Supreme Court has interpreted it, then all California employers must retain employees despite their controversial off-the-job statements, even when those statements are incendiary and alienate the employer’s customers, donors, employees, or others.
So it seems that an employer’s policy (written or not) that it won’t hire or won’t retain employees who make public statements that alienate members of the public — or more specific policies applying to, say, racist statements, religiously bigoted statements, sexist statements, and the like — would be illegal.
Employers would thus not only be barred from firing employees because they are Democrats or Republicans. They would also be barred from refusing to hire Klansmen or people who have made racist, anti-Semitic, or anti-Catholic statements, even when the candidate is being hired for a high-profile public contact or leadership position, and when many of the employer’s customers would be deeply alienated by the person’s statements (past or future).
That one may well fall under a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation; hiring an outspoken Klansmen will expose employers to potential liability for creating a racially hostile work environment.
And as a special employment-law related bonus: the AP explains that companies that might want to try to save money on health insurance by financially incentivizing employees to stay healthy have to worry about HIPAA (if they provide too much in the way of incentives), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (if employees can convince a court that their obesity is a disability).
This Sunday’s Boston Globe magazine had a long feature piece which addressed the burning question, “Do We Really Need A Law To Protect Fat Workers?” The “law” in question would be a law which forbid “discrimination against overweight and unusually short people.” While I resemble that remark, you won’t be surprised to find me answering the question, “No,” in contrast to the politicians and activists who think it’s a great idea. The problem they face? Too many people inconveniently think that being overweight is a choice; they need to convince these skeptics that weight and race are really the same thing.
Although some people worry that the law would lead to a flood of lawsuits, the supporters of the bill pooh-pooh that notion, based on implausible statistics about disability discrimination lawsuits. Besides, their goal (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) isn’t really lawsuits at all:
Like the race laws, then, the weight-discrimination bill has a goal that extends beyond the legal system: to change the way we think. The idea is not to clog up the courts. Instead, it’s to create a society where hundreds of lawsuits aren’t needed, because there’s not as much to sue over – a society of people who have the legal right to say hurtful things and the compassion to know better than to act on them.
But if it does clog up the courts — the ADA only applies to those so obese that they can call themselves disabled, while the proposed Massachusetts law would apply to anybody who is overweight, which seems to be most of the population — it won’t be the author of the bill who suffers, but employees and business owners.
Of course, even if Massachusetts does pass this law, it wouldn’t be the worst; California already has far wackier anti-discrimination laws with its full-employment-for-lawyers Unruh Act. Unruh, despite listing the usual categories found in anti-discrimination laws (sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, and sexual orientation) actually has been interpreted by state courts to prohibit all “arbitrary” discrimination. As Cal Biz Lit explains:
In earlier cases, the courts have held the act to prohibit business discrimination based on :
• A customer’s association with a male with long hair and “unconventional” dress;
• Having children; and
• Status as a police officer (when the ACLU tried to kick a cop out of a meeting).
If a creative lawyer hasn’t shoehorned obesity in there already, he will soon enough.
Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Ric Keller have introduced legislation to bar obesity-related lawsuits against food manufacturers and sellers. (See “US Senator in bid to fry fast-food lawsuits,” ABC News Online, July 18). “Many Americans need to take greater care in what–and how much–they eat. But it is also time to curb the voracious appetite of the personal injury lawyers and put an end to this ridiculous and costly litigation before it gets out of hand,” said McConnell, who managed to work in references to The Onion and diet guru Richard Simmons during his remarks on the Senate floor. For the text of the bills, see S. 1428 and H.R. 339. Apparently undaunted, humorist and Cheez-Its addict Dave Barry says he has decided to “summon up my willpower and accept personal responsibility for filing a huge lawsuit against Big Food.” (“Fatal Attraction,” Washington Post, Aug. 3). See our archives for earlier commentary on fast-food suits – real and satirical.
In other obesity lawsuit-related news, The New York Times has a round-up of employment-discrimination lawsuits brought by obese workers. The newspaper reports that plaintiffs take two different approaches under the Americans With Disabilities Act: “Some claim that their employers should not discriminate against them because they are disabled. Others, using an argument that has had more success in the courts, insist that they are not disabled, and that employers unfairly assumed they could not do the job.” Washington defense lawyer Peter Petesch said: “There’s no magical mathematical formula to say this obese person has a disability and this other person doesn’t. … It’s an individualized assessment. Generally, to be fat or dumpy-looking or not as good-looking as the other applicant isn’t enough to prevail under the Americans With Disabilities Act.” (Steven Greenhouse, “Obese People Are Taking Their Bias Claims to Court,” N.Y. Times, Aug. 4).
Tipple your way to court, 2003: “Shouldn’t have let him get so drunk” (Australia), May 12. 2002: “‘Woman freezes; sues city, cabbie’“, Sept. 18-19; “Wasn’t his fault for lying drunk under truck“, Aug. 16-18; “Hey, no fair talking about the pot” (highway rollover), Apr. 12-14; “European workplace notes” (employer responsible for vodka overdose), Feb. 25-26; “‘Drunken Driver’s Widow Wins Court’s OK To Sue Carmaker’“, Feb. 25-26. 2001: “‘Teen hit by train while asleep on tracks sues railroad’“, Dec. 12; “‘Man suing after drunken driving crash’“, Aug. 20-21; “Don’t rock the Coke machine“, Jul. 20-22; “Court says tipsy topless dancer can sue club“, Jul. 3-4; “Jury: drunk driver hardly responsible at all for fatal crash“, Jun. 15-17; “It was the bar’s fault“, Apr. 13-15; “‘Court upholds workers compensation for drunk, injured worker’“, Apr. 6-8; “‘Woman who drove drunk gets $300,000’” (Ontario), Feb. 7-8 (& see Sept. 24, second case: $18 million); “‘All you can drink’ winner sues over fall“, Jan. 31-Feb. 1. 2000: “Zapped pylon-climber sues liquor-servers, utility“, March 6. 1999: “Personal responsibility wins a round” (judge rejects case from Pa. man who got drunk and climbed high voltage catenary), Sept. 17-19.
Maybe crime does pay, 2003: “‘Robber sues clerk who shot him during holdup’“, May 6; “Not an April Fool’s joke“, Apr. 1; “‘Burglars to be banned from suing victims’” (U.K.), Mar. 10-11; “‘Family of electrocuted thief gets $75,000’“, Feb. 26; “Tried to outrun Coast Guard in chase“, Feb. 14-16; “‘No suits by lawbreakers, please’“, Jan. 27-28 (& Jan. 31-Feb. 2). 2002: “‘Mom who drugged kids’ ice cream sues’“, Nov. 1-3; “‘Patient sues hospital for letting him out on night he killed’” (Australia, psychiatric case), Oct. 16-17; “‘Crime pays for teenage lout’” (Australia), Sept. 3-4; “‘After stabbing son, mom sues doctors’“, May 31-Jun. 2; “‘Barbed wire might hurt burglars, pensioner warned’“, May 28-29; “Hospital rapist sues hospital“, May 22-23 (& Mar. 5-7, 2003: court dismisses case); “Lawyers say taxpayers owe $41 million to smuggled illegals’ survivors“, May 10-12; “L.A. police sued, and sued” (by family of gunman killed in shootout), Apr. 12-14; “Should have arrested him faster” (frostbite in the open), Mar. 1-3; “Vandal’s dad sues store over blaze“, Feb. 6-7; “Paroled prisoner: pay for not supervising me“, Jan. 4-6. 2001: “Firefighter’s demand: back pay for time facing criminal rap“, Aug. 29-30; “‘Man suing after drunken driving crash’“, Aug. 20-21; “‘Criminals could sue their victims’” (U.K.), July 26; “‘Woman who drove drunk gets $300,000’” (Ontario), Feb. 7-8; “Crime does pay” (Denver burglar shot by police gets $1.2 million), Feb. 2. 2000: “‘Burglar sues for compensation’” (Australia), Nov. 21 (& see Apr. 1-2, 2002); “‘Fla. DUI Teen Sues Police’” (should have arrested him, he argues), Nov. 14; “Killed his mother, now suing his psychiatrists“, Oct. 2; “Not my fault, I” (woman who murdered daughter sues psychiatrists), May 17; “$65 million Texas verdict: driver at twice the legal blood limit” (drunk driver’s estate sues automaker), March 28; “From the labor arbitration front” (disallowed firing of employee who pleaded no contest to larceny), March 28; “Crime does pay, cont’d” (North Hollywood, Calif. bank robber killed in police shootout), Feb. 23 (& update March 23: mistrial declared after jury deadlock in suit by robber’s family); “County to pay ‘mountain man’ burglar $412,500“, Feb. 15. 1999: “‘Two men shot in suspected drug deal win $1.7 million’“, Dec. 15 (& update June 6, 2001: appeals court overturns); “California’s worst?” (bank robber sues after hidden tear-gas device goes off in loot), Dec. 14; “Drunks have rights, too“, Dec. 1 (& update Jul. 24-25, 2000: appeals court throws out award). See also our editor’s article on New York’s “mugger millionaire” case.
Pools & swimming, 2003: “‘Lawyers spoil fun’” (Ga. water park), May 19; “‘Florida jury awards $100M for pool accident’“, Feb. 13. 2002: “Australia’s litigation debate“, May 24-26. 2001: “Australian roundup” (bodysurfer), Nov. 23-25; “Needed: assumption of risk“, Jul. 27-29. 2000: “‘How’s the pool?’” (Las Vegas Strip’s Frontier Hotel recommended for its pre-big-lawsuits deep end), Feb. 23; “Latest shallow-end pool dive case“, Jan. 24. 1999: “Razor wire on the pool fence” (homeowner finds it too big a legal risk to let local kids swim), Jul. 27.
“Should have watched his step answering call of nature“, Mar. 8-9, 2003.
Couldn’t help eating it, 2003: “Give me my million“, Jun. 20-22; “Judge tosses McDonald’s obesity case“, Jan. 23 (& Jan. 27-28); “Anti-diet activist hopes to sue Weight Watchers“, Jan. 13-14. 2002: Letter to the editor, Oct. 23; “Claim: docs should have done more to help woman quit smoking and lose weight“, Sept. 18-19; “Personal responsibility roundup“, Sept. 12; “Fat suits, cont’d“, Jul. 26-28; “‘Ailing man sues fast-food firms’“, Jul. 25; “Sin-suit city“, Jun. 10; “McArdle on food as next-tobacco“, May 27; “‘Targeting “big food”‘“, Apr. 29-30; “Life imitates parody: ‘Whose Fault Is Fat?‘”, Jan. 23-24. 2001: “‘Diabetic German judge sues Coca-Cola for his health condition’“, Nov. 18. 2000: “‘Caffeine added to sodas aims to addict — study’“, Aug. 18-20. 1999: “Toffee maker sued for tooth irritation“, Nov. 5-7; “Not just our imagination” (calls for class-action suits against fast-food, meat purveyors), Sept. 25-26.
Warning labels and disclaimers, 2003: “‘Wacky Warning Label’ winners“, Jan. 13-14. 2002: “Satirical-disclaimer Hall of Fame” (Australian humor magazine), Oct. 28-29; “‘Warning …’” (Dave Barry humor column), Aug. 16-18; “Read the label, then ignore it if you like” (flammable carpet adhesive), Jul. 12-14; “Pitcher, hit by line drive, sues maker of baseball bat“, Apr. 19-21; “Injured in ‘human hockey puck’ stunt“, Mar. 18; “‘Before you cheer … “Sign here”‘“, Mar. 15-17; “Didn’t know cinema seats retracted“, Feb. 13-14; “Warning on fireplace log: ‘risk of fire’“, Jan. 25-27. 2001: “Et tu, UT?” (Utah will not enforce parent-signed release forms for children), Nov. 16-18; “Disclaimer rage?“, Oct. 15; “Needed: assumption of risk“, Jul. 27-29; “Quite an ankle sprain” (failure to warn of gopher holes in parks), Apr. 20-22; “‘Wacky Warning Label’ winners“, Jan. 19-21. 2000: “Columnist-fest” (Girl Scout horseback riding disclaimer), Apr. 6; “Rise of the high school sleepover disclaimer“, Mar. 22; “From our mail sack: skin art disclaimers” (tattoo consent form), Mar. 1; “Weekend reading: columnist-fest” (Laura Pulfer on warning labels), Feb. 5-6; “Never iron clothes while they’re being worn” (Wacky Warning Label contest winners), Jan. 18 (& letter to editor, Jan. 21-23). 1999: “Christmas lawyer humor” (Yuletide greetings consisting entirely of disclaimers), Dec. 23-26; “Weekend reading” (disclaimers “creeping into nearly every aspect of American life”), Jul. 31-Aug. 1.
Blamed for suicides, 2003: “‘No suits by lawbreakers, please’“, Jan. 27-28 (& Jan. 31-Feb. 2). 2002: “The blame for suicide“, Sept. 25-26; “‘Addictive’ computer game blamed for suicide“, Apr. 3-4. 2001: “Utah: rescue searchers sued“, Nov. 26, 2001; “‘Shooting range sued over suicide’“, Sept. 27; “$3 million verdict for selling gun used in suicide“, Sept. 17; “‘Suicide- Attempt Survivor Sues’” (department that issued cop his gun), Jan. 24-25.
Excuse syndromes, 2002: “Blue-ribbon excuses” (sex on train), Oct. 7-8; “So depressed he stole $300K“, Mar. 19; “Rough divorce predisposed him to hire hitman“, Feb. 13-14. 2001: “Stories that got away” (multiple-personality defense), Jul. 23; “‘Pseudologica fantastica’ won’t fly” (judge’s fibs on resume), Jun. 7 (& Aug. 20-21); “Judge buys shopaholic defense in embezzling“, May 25-27; “The malaria drug made him do it“, Mar. 28. 2000: “Blue-ribbon excuses” (baked goods mutilator, lawyer pleading incompetent self-representation), Oct. 6-9; “Predestination made him do it” (Pope’s assassin and Fatima prophecy), June 6; “Victim of the century?” (misbehaving school principal collects disability benefits for sexual compulsion), Jun. 2-4; “Prozac made him rob banks“, Mar. 1; “Blue-ribbon excuse syndromes“, Feb. 12-13; “Latest excuse syndromes“, Jan. 13-14. 1999: “Doctor sues insurer, claims sex addiction“, Oct. 13.
“Lightning bolt in amusement park’s parking lot“, Jun. 23, 2003; “‘Woman attacked by goose sues county’“, Jan. 27-28, 2003; “Quite an ankle sprain” (watch where you’re going in parks), Apr. 20-22, 2001.
“MIT sued over student’s nitrous-oxide death“, Feb. 25, 2003; “By reader acclaim: ‘Parents file suit over student’s drug death’” (abuse of Oxycontin), Jul. 25, 2001.
“Take care of myself? That’s the doc’s job“, Feb. 14-16, 2003; “Claim: docs should have done more to help woman quit smoking and lose weight” (Pa.), Sept. 18-19, 2002.
“Satirical-disclaimer Hall of Fame” (Australian humor magazine), Oct. 28-29, 2002; “Tobacco: Boeken record” (The Onion parody), June 19, 2001; “Jury orders ‘Big Chocolate’ to pay $135 billion to obese consumers” (parody), Aug. 3, 2000; “This side of parodies” (fictional account of self-inflicted icepick injury), Oct. 5-6, 1999.
Sports risks: “Sis-Boom-Sue” (cheerleading), Jan. 15-16, 2003; “Skating first, instructions later“, Sept. 25-26, 2002; “Pitcher hit by line drive sues maker of baseball bat“, Apr. 19-21, 2002; “Australian roundup” (Perth bodysurfer), Nov. 23-25, 2001; “Needed: assumption of risk” (baseball thrown into stands, skydiving), July 27-29; “‘Lawsuits could tame ski slopes’“, Feb. 6, 2001; “Promising areas for suits” (foul-ball cases and other stadium injuries), Dec. 7, 2000; “Teams liable for fans’ safety” (Colorado: hockey puck hit into stands), Aug. 15; “‘Skydivers don’t sue’“, May 26-29; “Trips on shoelace, demands $10 million from Nike“, April 7-9, 2000.
Gambling: Letter to the editor, Oct. 23; “Personal responsibility roundup“, Sept. 12, 2002; “Sin-suit city“, Jun. 10; “‘Next tobacco’ watch: gambling“, May 20-21, 2002 (& May 31); “‘Gambling addiction’ class action” (Quebec), June 20, 2001.
Hot beverages: “Litigation good for the country?” (Carl T. Bogus), Aug. 19, 2002; “British judge rejects hot-drink suits“, Mar. 29-31, 2002 (& Aug. 10, 2000); “By reader acclaim” (Illinois case; complainant sues mother), Jan. 11, 2001; “‘Court says warning about hot coffee unnecessary’” (Nevada Supreme Court), Jul. 18, 2000; “Now it’s hot chocolate“, Apr. 4, 2000.
“‘Family of boy injured by leopard may sue’“, Jul. 18, 2002; “Skinny-dipping with killer whale: ‘incredibly bad judgment’“, Sept. 21, 1999 (Oct. 7 update: case dropped).
“Wasn’t his fault for lying drunk under truck“, Aug. 16-18, 2002; “‘Win Big! Lie in Front of a Train!’“, Jun. 26-27, 2002 (& Jul. 12-14); “Australian roundup” (graffiti artist on train), Nov. 23-25, 2001; “Hit after laying on RR tracks; sues railroad“, Oct. 23, 2001.
“‘Man awarded $60,000 for falling over barrier’“, Mar. 5, 2002.
“Utah: rescue searchers sued“, Nov. 26, 2001.
“Suit blames drugmaker for Columbine“, Oct. 24-25, 2001.
“Mosh pit mayhem“, Sept. 7-9, 2001.
“Urban legend alert: six ‘irresponsibility’ lawsuits“, Aug. 27-28, 2001.
“Don’t rock the Coke machine“, Jul. 20-22, 2001.
“Tobacco: Boeken record“, June 19, 2001.
Scary!: “From dinner party to court” (U.K. hypnotist), May 22, 2001; “Hypnotist sued by entranced spectator“, March 3-14, 2001; “Girl puts head under guillotine; sues when hurt“, March 8, 2000; “Haunted house too scary“, Jan. 6, 2000; “‘Scared out of business’” (decline of community Halloween haunted houses), Nov. 5-7, 1999.
Stop having fun (children’s recreation): see schools page.
“Tendency of elastic items to recoil well known“, Mar. 6, 2001.
“By reader acclaim” (sues alleged crack dealers over own addiction), Jan. 11, 2001.
“Highway responsibility” (Derrick Thomas suit), Nov. 28, 2000.
“Fat tax proposed in New Zealand“, Oct. 31, 2000.
“More things you can’t have: raw-milk cheeses“, Oct. 3, 2000; “More things you can’t have” (unpasteurized cider, New England square dances), Sept. 27, 1999; “More things you can’t have” (rare hamburgers, food sent to summer camp), August 9, 1999.
“Smoking and responsibility: columnists weigh in” (after Florida verdict), Jul. 28-30, 2000.
“‘”Whiplash!” America’s most frivolous lawsuits’” (book collects cases), Jul. 14-16, 2000.
“Inmate: you didn’t supervise me” (horseplay alone in cell), Jul. 7, 2000.
“Can’t sue over affair with doctor” (court rules it was consensual), Jun. 13, 2000.
“Risky? Who’da thunk it?” (currency speculator sues over losses), Jun. 9-11, 2000.
“‘Jury awards apparent record $220,000 for broken finger’” (hurt while dancing), May 22, 2000.
“Videogame maker agrees to furnish safety gloves“, Mar. 13, 2000.
“Letourneau scandal: now where’s my million?” (boy sues), Apr. 20, 2000.
“All dressed up“, Apr. 19, 2000.
“Down repressed-memory lane I: costly fender-bender” (eggshell-psyche plaintiff), Dec. 29-30, 1999.
“Down repressed-memory lane II: distracted when she signed” (separation agreement), Dec. 29-30, 1999.
“Responsibility, RIP” (columnist Mona Charen), Nov. 2, 1999.
“The art of blame” (death of child left in hot van), Oct. 20, 1999.
“Nominated by reader acclamation” (killer’s parents sue school district, lawmen for failing to prevent Columbine massacre), Oct. 18, 1999.
“Block PATH to lawsuits” (fall out of tree in yard, sue your employer), Sept. 1, 1999.
“To restore individual responsibility, bring back contract principles” (Cato Institute paper by Prof. Michael Krauss), Aug. 16, 1999.
“Somebody might trip” (NYC condemns prints-of-the- Hollywood-stars sidewalk as slip hazard), Aug. 13, 1999.
“All have lost, and all must have damages” (huge award to salesman who hawked bad insurance policies since he’s a victim too), Aug. 3, 1999.
Through much of American history, courts discouraged lawsuits arising from risks that individuals were deemed to have assumed in the course of going about familiar activities, such as the risk of being thrown while horseback riding, of slipping on toys underfoot while visiting a house with children, or of being hit with a foul ball while attending a ball game. (Stored search on “assumption of risk”: Google, Alta Vista). Under the doctrine of “contributory negligence”, they often dismissed, as a matter of law, cases where a complainant’s own negligence had helped cause an accident. They were even less likely to entertain cases in which someone’s knowing or deliberate dereliction had placed him in physical peril, such as cases in which people sue over injuries sustained in the course of committing crimes or attempting suicide. And finally, they gave broad respect to express contractual disclaimers or waivers of liability: if a party was on notice that the other side in a transaction wasn’t willing to assume a responsibility, it wouldn’t be easy to tag them later with that responsibility in court.
By the 1950s all these old barriers to liability had come under sustained attack in the law schools, where they were viewed as insulating defendants’ misconduct from legal scrutiny and impeding the forward march of liability law as a (high-overhead) variety of social insurance. Most states moved from contributory negligence to comparative negligence, which allows a plaintiff whose negligence helped cause an accident to sue over it anyway, though for a reduced recovery. Waivers and disclaimers began to be struck down as unconscionable, against public policy, not spelled out with sufficient clarity, etc. And assumption of risk was whittled down by way of a dozen techniques: the most influential torts scholar of the postwar period, William Prosser, took the view that “that implied reasonable assumption of risk should not be allowed to reduce a plaintiff’s damage in any way” (Chase Van Gorder, “Assumption of Risk Under Washington Law“).
The result is today’s American legal environment in which plaintiffs routinely try their luck at suits after being injured climbing high-voltage utility structures while drunk, skinny-dipping in icy pools with captive killer whales, trying “wheelies” and other stunts on industrial forklifts, and smoking for decades. Some of these suits succeed at obtaining settlements while others fail, and it’s important to bear in mind that assumption of risk and related doctrines have not disappeared entirely. Their general decay, however, has been important in bringing us today’s hypertrophy of such areas of law as premises liability, product liability and recreational liability.
The website of attorney D. Pamela Gaines has useful resources on assumption of risk as it applies to such areas as premises liability, recreation and amusement parks. At the International Mountain Bicycling Association site, Tina Burckhardt explains “recreational use statutes” which grant some protection from liability lawsuits to landowners who allow free recreational use of their property.
March 31 — Gun-suit thoughts. Our editor has contributed an op-ed to the New York Sun outlining his view that the NAACP’s lawsuit against gunmakers (which went to trial last week amid a flurry of favorable press notices; see Mar. 24) is plenty lame and derives its only real vitality from having been filed before a favorable judge (Walter Olson, “Gun Lawsuit Meets Activist Judge”, New York Sun, Mar. 26). On an unrelated note, the House Judiciary Committee has asked our editor to discuss federal pre-emption of anti-gunmaker litigation at a hearing this Wednesday before the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law (Rayburn HOB 2141, 10 a.m.) (DURABLE LINK)
March 31 — Teachers afraid. “Educators in Baltimore County and beyond say the threat of lawsuits prevents administrators from backing their punishment of disorderly or dishonest students.” One of the more thorough explorations of this topic we’ve seen recently (Jonathan D. Rockoff, “Teachers say the law adds to disorder in classroom”, Baltimore Sun, Mar. 23) (via Joanne Jacobs). (DURABLE LINK)
March 31 — Some reader letters. We’ve fallen lamentably behind in publishing readers’ letters. Here’s a batch of four, on terrorism suits against foreign entities, Sen. Edwards and cerebral palsy, one New Jersey judge’s dismissal of a playground lawsuit, and an unwelcome (to us) advertising intrusion into our newsletter. Quite a few other letters remain in our pipeline — we’ll try to get to them soon. (DURABLE LINK)
March 25-30 — Fast food opinion roundup. “The word “addiction” is perilously close to losing any meaning. If lawyers can turn fast food into an addiction and pin liability on restaurants, it won’t be long before adulterers sue Sports Illustrated, claiming its swimsuit issue led them astray.” (Sally Satel, “Fast food ‘addiction’ feeds only lawyers”, USA Today, Mar. 12, reprinted at AEI site). One 270-lb., 5-foot-6 plaintiff “said her regular diet included an Egg McMuffin for breakfast and a Big Mac meal for dinner”, but Chris Rangel at RangelMD concludes that the calorie count doesn’t add up — the only way you could get up to 270 pounds would be by consuming a whole lot more food than that. (RangelMD, Feb. 23). “Big Food stands charged with making the plaintiffs fat, notes Howard Fienberg in a review of a fairly dreadful-sounding book on the much-ballyhooed obesity epidemic. Yet “Grocery stores are easily accessible for most Americans. …. Healthy choices are everywhere.” (“Supersize Nation?”, AmericasFuture.org, Winter). As expected, attorney Samuel Hirsch has re-filed his suit against McDonald’s (John Lehmann, “McFatties Bite Back”, New York Post, Feb. 20). “And now, Hirsch tells Newsweek, he’s targeting companies selling weight-loss products such as herbal supplements. Within weeks, he says, his law firm will begin placing ads in magazines to invite clients who bought the products but failed to lose weight to join a class-action lawsuit.” (Daniel McGinn, Newsweek, Feb. 10). See also “Tobacco-war lawyers taking aim at fast food”, Sacramento Bee, Feb. 24; Duane Freese, “Frankensuits”, Tech Central Station, Feb. 27.
March 25-30 — “How a lawyer blew the whistle on a judge”. “It was the most distasteful thing I ever had to do in my life” said Joel Persky of his decision to turn in Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph A. Jaffe, who offered favorable rulings in Persky’s asbestos cases in exchange for a cash quid pro quo (see Sept. 3, 2002). Had Persky merely ignored the judge’s overtures, according to one “seasoned” lawyer, he might have been laying himself open to legal malpractice charges. “Jaffe, 52, pleaded guilty last month to extorting money from Persky and will be sentenced May 16. Jaffe has qualified for a temporary, $60,000 a year disability from the State Employees’ Retirement System because he is depressed. The system’s board of trustees will vote on whether to award the money in March.” (Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mar. 2). (DURABLE LINK)
March 25-30 — Gone for a few days. The site will lie fallow while our editor gives several speeches to promote his new book. See you Monday. (DURABLE LINK)
March 24 — Mad County pays out again. “A judge in Madison County, Ill., ordered Philip Morris USA Inc. to pay $10.1 billion in a class-action lawsuit that claimed the tobacco giant misled smokers about the dangers of light cigarettes.” Circuit Judge Nicholas G. Byron “gave the plaintiffs’ lawyers a quarter of the compensatory damages, or nearly $1.8 billion.” (“Philip Morris Hit With $10.1B Verdict in Illinois Case, Dow Jones/Quicken, Mar. 21; Trisha Howard and Paul Hampel, “Tobacco firm lawyer derides court’s reputation”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mar. 22; related stories; Sherri Day, “Philip Morris Faces Big Penalty”, New York Times, Mar. 22). Madison County, Ill. is located east of St. Louis (map); its main cities include Alton, Edwardsville and Granite City. For more on its fame as a “plaintiff’s paradise” and “judicial hellhole” for defendants, see notes below, including work sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, with which our editor is associated. (Update Apr. 2-3: Philip Morris says it is unable to post appeals bond; more updates.)
MORE ON MADISON COUNTY: “Study finds Madison County has most class action suits per capita”, AP, Sept. 11, 2001; Jim Getz, “Class-Action Suits Soar In Madison County, Study Says; Think Tank Argues For Moving Cases To Federal Court”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 11, 2001; John H. Beisner and Jessica Davidson Miller, “They’re Making a Federal Case Out of It … In State Court”, Manhattan Institute Civil Justice Report #3, Sept. 2001; Noam Neusner with Brian Brueggemann, “The judges of Madison County”, U.S. News, Dec. 17, 2001 (fee); Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Statement on Class Action Fairness Act, Congressional Record, Nov. 15, 2001; Lester Brickman, “Anatomy of a Madison County (Illinois) Class Action: A Study of Pathology”, Manhattan Institute Civil Justice Report #6, press release, Aug. 12, 2002. (DURABLE LINK)
March 24 — Stalking horse for anti-gun litigators. If the NAACP really does have legal standing to sue firearms manufacturers and demand that a court impose gun-control measures on them, one might reasonably conclude that in the future anyone will henceforth have standing to sue anyone over anything. Still, this notional standing has been the excuse for longtime anti-gun litigators to make yet another pilgrimage to the Brooklyn courtroom of federal judge Jack Weinstein, who’s considered far more sympathetic to their cause than most of his colleagues (Tom Hayes, “Ex-Lobbyist to Testify for Gun Foes in Federal Trial”, AP/Law.com, Mar. 21). Jacob Sullum comments on the resulting trial set to begin today (“Jack B. Trick”, syndicated/Reason Online, Mar. 21), as does Eugene Volokh, who points out that the arguments for holding gun manufacturers liable would, if taken seriously, also lead to findings of liability against liquor manufacturers for “foreseeable misuse” of their wares — not that some ambitious lawyers wouldn’t like to do that too (Volokh Conspiracy blog, archive link not working, scroll to Mar. 23). The NAACP case seeks injunctive relief; per the AP, above, Judge Weinstein “has decided the jury will play only an ‘advisory role,’ leaving himself to make the final determination on liability and remedy.” For our earlier coverage of the suit, click here. See also “Off Target: Anti-gunners again take aim at manufacturers”, (editorial), McAllen (Tex.) Monitor, Mar. 21; and Hunting and Shooting Sports Heritage Fund site (& welcome Kausfiles readers). Updated to include correct HSSHF link (DURABLE LINK)
March 21-23 — “Lawyers find gold mine in Phila. pension cases”. Philadelphia Inquirer exposes how the city’s municipal pension funds enlisted as the complaisant clients of two prominent class action law firms, Berger & Montague and Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, which between 1996 and 2002 scooped up $19 million in fees representing the city in securities litigation. Then-Mayor Ed Rendell green-lighted the suits, and also happens to have received $460,000 in contributions from the lawyers since 1990. “‘The truth is, there was just a bounty hunter prowling the security industry, picking things and putting our names on it,’ said Joseph Herkness, the pension fund’s former director. ‘We were told, basically, to sign these things.'” “It was an opportunity to make money for the city without any risk,” claims Rendell, who is now Pennsylvania’s governor. But perhaps not quite so much money as if the city had driven a harder bargain: “Funds in Florida, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and New York City have trimmed millions off legal fees by seeking bids and setting fees in advance,” but not Philadelphia, the paper reported. As reported earlier (see Jan. 31) the FBI is investigating the actions of city officials in hiring the firms and resisting a judge’s efforts to encourage competitive bidding. (Joseph Tanfani and Craig R. McCoy, Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 16; “Lawyer’s responses scrutinized”, Feb. 14). Name partner Leonard Barrack of Barrack, Rodos, a big-league political donor, served as finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee under President Clinton (Washington Post, Jan. 12, 1999); he has said his firm is cooperating with the FBI probe. (DURABLE LINK)
March 21-23 — More notices for The Rule of Lawyers. Free-Market.net, one of the major libertarian sites, names our author’s new book “Freedom Book of the Month”, with reviewer Sunni Maravillosa calling it “clear, compelling” and “very important” and saying its “revelations will likely astonish most people who aren’t intimately acquainted with the American legal system” (March). In a review for the Indianapolis Star, reviewer Peter J. Pitts applauds the book as “insightful and frightening” (“Lawyers get rich; we get a warped idea of blame”, Mar. 15). And in American Hunter and its sister publications (American Rifleman, etc.), National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre uses his monthly column to call NRA members’ attention to the continuing outrage of the municipal gun suits and to The Rule of Lawyers in particular (April, not online). If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, what are you waiting for? (DURABLE LINK)