Another example of how personal injury attorneys and the “Center for Auto Safety” actually care very little about auto safety: In 2001, Louis Stockell, driving his pickup at 70 mph, twice the speed limit, rear-ended a Chrysler minivan. Physics being what they are, the front passenger seat in the van collapsed backwards and the passenger’s head struck and fatally injured 8-month old Joshua Flax. The rest of the family walked away from the horrific accident. Plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Butler argued that Chrysler, which already designed its seats above federal standards, should be punished for not making the seats stronger — never mind that a stronger and stiffer seat would result in more injuries from other kinds of crashes because it wouldn’t absorb any energy from the crash. (Rear-end collisions are responsible for only 3% of auto fatalities.) Apparently car companies are expected to anticipate which type of crash a particular vehicle will encounter, and design accordingly. The $105M verdict includes $98M in punitives, a number that will almost certainly be reduced, but the entire verdict is inappropriate. “It is unfairly punishing DaimlerChrysler for a reasonable engineering decision that resulted in a product that met all federal standards,” DaimlerChrysler spokesman Jason Vines said. (Rob Johnson, “Jury awards $105.5 M in baby’s death”, The Tennesseean, Nov. 24; Matt Gouras, AP, Nov. 24; “DaimlerChrysler Is Told to Pay $98 Mln in Van Crash”, Bloomberg, Nov. 23; Sheila Burke, “Chrysler being sued over baby’s van death”, The Tennesseean, Nov. 4). More coverage: Dec. 21.
Prominent Alabama trial lawyer Lanny Vines, last seen in these columns (Jan. 7-8, 2003) having apparently used a straw purchaser to buy then-Gov. Don Siegelman’s Montgomery home for twice its appraised value, is now having a bit of trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. Vines “temporarily quit his law practice to become a day trader” but ran into trouble when the tech bubble burst. Vines sued his former accountant, J. Wray Pearce, the straw buyer in the Siegelman case, over allegedly bad tax advice on the stock trading, and reached a confidential settlement. An attorney for Vines says the $13.1 million IRS matter is “highly technical” in nature and in no way a reflection on his client: “If you don’t like Lanny Vines, you don’t like ice cream.” (Jerry Moskal, “Vines files petition to overturn tax bill”, Birmingham News, Aug. 18). Update: May 27, 2006.
Well folks, thanks for letting me part of the Overlawyered community for a week. Though come to think of it, I have been part of the Overlawyered community on the reading side for the entire year or so since I discovered blogs, and hope to continue in that role for a long time. If you have suffered through my guest posts, things are looking up for you as the guest guard changes. (Incidentally, a guest blogger at Crescat Sententia has some musings on guest blogging generally; he also has been thinking about blog crushes.) If you ever find yourself nostalgic for vice talk, please visit us at Vice Squad.
I’ll depart with one further observation, one that shouldn’t be surprising given my week o’ posts, or to anyone who follows Vice Squad. Here are some of the happenings during the past week — happenings so common, so mundane, that they almost manage to fly under the radar: 38 arrested in Chicago; 42 arrested in Chatham County, Georgia; 4 arrested in Reno; 10 arrested in Decatur, Alabama; 9 arrested in Willimantic, CT; 16 arrested in Elmore County, Alabama?
And what is the noble purpose served by this frenzied feeding into the maw of the insatiable criminal justice system? To make it a little bit harder for some of our friends and neighbors to consume a substance that they choose to consume.
Thanks again to Walter Olson and Ted Frank, and be sure to check in tomorrow for a new, improved guest blogger.
Lowndes County, Alabama, has a reputation for being a rather plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction. On Tuesday, however, a jury there returned a verdict in favor of Hyundai Motor Co. in a wrongful death suit. In 1999, Christine Graham was killed “when her 2,300-pound Hyundai Excel was struck by a 79,000-pound Freightliner 18-wheeler going more than 60 miles per hour. Attorneys for the Graham family argued that a faulty seat belt and door latch design contributed to her death in the accident. Hyundai attorneys said the seat belt and door latch met all safety standards and the sheer force of the accident caused the woman’s death.” The case had been tried once before, in July 2002, ending in a hung jury that voted 10-2 in Hyundai’s favor. (Michael Tomberlin, “Hyundai prevails in crash lawsuit,” Birmingham News, June 24).
It’s interesting to note that Hyundai is building its first US assembly plant in adjacent Montgomery Country. When opened in 2005, the $1 billion facility will employ 2,000 people. I’ll leave it to others to divine whether this had any effect on the outcome of Hyundai’s case.
Alabama governor Bob Riley this morning appointed Drayton Nabers to serve the two years remaining in the term of Roy Moore. (Moore, you may recall, was removed from the bench by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary for failing to comply with a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.)
Nabers, a graduate of Princeton and the Yale Law School, clerked for Justice Hugo Black (1965-66) and practiced law in Birmingham for a number of years before joining Protective Life Corporation in 1979. He retired as chairman of the firm’s board of directors in 2003 and then joined the Riley administration as the state budget director. Nabers’s stature is such that a former president of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association is quoted in the story linked above as saying, “”I believe he’s such a man of integrity that he will not put his personal background in the way of fairly dealing with each issue before him.”
Nabers has not decided whether he will run for re-election in 2006.
My name is Mike DeBow, and I teach property and corporate law at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama. I am also interested in state law reform and issues surrounding state judicial selection. During 2000-2004 I served part-time as a special assistant to Alabama attorney general Bill Pryor.
Readers who, unaccountably, want more info about me can click here or here. What doesn’t show up on either of those webpages is the fact that I’ve been a guest blogger at Southern Appeal for almost a year.
I am a long-time fan of Walter’s, and a diligent reader of Overlawyered. My thanks to Walter for the invitation to join him this week.
In Alabama’s GOP primary Tuesday, where a slate of religious-right judicial candidates backed by former chief justice Roy Moore was financially supported by the state’s leading plaintiff’s lawyers (see Jun. 1), Moore loyalist Tom Parker succeeded in knocking off business-favored incumbent Jean Brown by a narrow margin; a second “Ten Commandments” candidate lost outright, while a third trailed badly in voting but may have succeeded in forcing a runoff. (William C. Singleton III, “Roy Moore’s clout swings high court race”, Birmingham Post-Herald, Jun. 2). Mike DeBow of Southern Appeal (Jun. 2) has more, and notes that the Democrat who will be facing off against Mooreite Parker in November, Robert Smith of Mobile, is — unusually for a Democratic candidate in that state, it would seem — a defense- rather than a plaintiff’s-side litigator and indeed a member of the International Association of Defense Counsel.
Seven leading plaintiff’s law firms, which ordinarily donate to Democrats, have made themselves the leading backers of a so-called “Ten Commandments slate” of candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court backed by ousted Chief Justice Roy Moore, a hero to some on the religious right. Firms including Beasley, Allen of Montgomery; Cunningham, Bounds of Mobile; and Hare, Wynn, Newell and Newton of Birmingham have (through PACs) contributed 98 percent of the funding of Republican candidates Pam Baschab and Jerry Stokes, and about 44 percent of the support for Tom Parker. All three are running in the GOP primary against business-backed candidates. (Kyle Wingfield, “Parker, Baschab, Stokes get nearly $1 million from trial lawyers”, AP/AlabamaLive, May 28; Stan Bailey, “Brown spends over $1 million on race”, Birmingham News/AlabamaLive, May 28; Shaila K. Dewan, “The Big Name in Alabama’s Primary Isn’t on the Ballot”, New York Times, May 30). Update Jun. 4: one of the Moore-backed candidates wins.
Big numbers dept.: “Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, persuaded an Alabama state court judge to cut a $11.9 billion verdict to $3.6 billion [last month] in a lawsuit over natural gas royalties.” (“Exxon Verdict Cut to $3.6 Bln in Alabama Gas Suit”, Bloomberg, Mar. 29). See Dec. 1, 2003; Dec. 20, 2000. Lawyers in Texas are organizing a similar suit by public entities there — no-fee, no-win, of course: Patrina A. Bostic, “Entities might sue large oil companies”, Longview News-Journal, Apr. 7.
Plaintiff’s lawyers cut a $300 million deal with Monsanto spinoff Solutia to resolve a long-running toxic-tort case in Anniston, Alabama. Under the agreement approved by the court, 27 lawyers are going to split $120 million, with $29 million going to Johnnie Cochran’s firm (Aug. 29 and links from there; much more) and $34 million to Jere Beasley’s Montgomery-based law firm (Dec. 1, 2003; Nov. 16, 1999). “Once the lawyers and other expenses are paid, the awards for each of the Anniston plaintiffs will average $7,725, though some will receive more if their health damages are shown to be greater.” Locals are furious. (“PCB Case Payouts Roil Alabama City”, AP/Washington Post, Mar. 24; Jessica Centers, “PCBs plaintiffs demand answers”, Anniston Star/MSNBC, Mar. 24; Ellen Barry, “Lawyers’ fees eat up much of settlement over toxic chemicals”, Los Angeles Times/Seattle Times, Apr. 14). More: Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health is dubious about the science underlying the Anniston claims (“The case of the mute scientists”, Washington Times, Feb. 27, 2003, reprinted at ACSH site). Update Dec. 6: Forbes covers aftermath; overall settlement reported at $600 million with lawyers taking $234 million.