- Tennie Pierce takes his dog-food settlement to the LA City Council (Nov. 22). I repeat my offer to LA politicians: I’ll eat dog food for a lot less than $2.7 million plus severance pay. [LA Times]
- Bogus $20 million asbestos verdict in NY; Chrysler had previously won 14 consecutive asbestos trials in a row; jury found Chrysler 10% liable, which made it responsible for 80% of the damages under New York law. Studies show no relationship between automotive products and asbestos illnesses. [Point of Law; Bloomberg; AP]
- “Madison County Gets $17.6 Million Windfall Despite Philip Morris’ Escape From $10 Billion Judgment.” Earlier: Jun. 20 and links therein. [Alton Telegraph via Products Liability Prof Blog]
- How tenant-friendly courts hurt tenants. [Point of Law]
- Murnane on Justice Bob Thomas libel verdict. [Illinois Justice Blog]
- One year ago on Overlawyered: $60.9 million cerebral palsy verdict. Arbitrary bench verdict arbitrarily reduced to $40.5 million; case on appeal to Eleventh Circuit. [West’s Medical Malpractice Law Report]
- One year ago on Point of Law: Ray Harron, asbestos doctor and Connecticut decision against freedom of contract.
- The unpersuasive case for judicial activism. [Whelan @ Weekly Standard]
- Federalist Society Convention podcasts beginning to be posted. [Federalist Society]
- Are African-Americans “lagging” at major law firms, and if so, why? [Point of Law; New York Times; Lat; Sander]
- Nice PETA expose video. [Penn & Teller @ Google Video]
Note for future reference: never, never get a vanity license plate reading “NV” (as Californian Nick Vautier did, innocently picking his own initials). Or plates reading XXX, MISSING or NOPLATE. “NV was meter maid code for ‘not visible.’ … Los Angeles, for example, accused him of illegally parking a blue Ford, a silver Hyundai, a blue Chrysler and a blue Chevy truck, all with the same license plate.” (“California: Innocent Man Stuck With 100 Parking Tickets”, TheNewspaper.com, Sept. 17 (via Nobody’s Business); Steve Harvey, “Vanity Plates Backfire on Mr. ‘Not Visible'”, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 17).
Way back in 2000, a Texas trial judge dismissed a $2 billion products liability suit against DaimlerChrysler and imposed sanctions of $865,000 on San Antonio attorney Robert Kugle and two associates at his firm, Andrew Toscano and Robert “Trey” Wilson III, also referring the matter to the State Bar of Texas for possible disciplinary action. As we summarized the episode in our post of Jul. 20, 2003, the judge found “that the steering decoupler of the sued-over Dodge Neon had been altered to simulate mechanical failure and that Mexican policemen had been asked to change their accounts of the accident giving rise to the suit. An appeals court called the firm’s conduct ‘an egregious example of the worst kind of abuse of the judicial system.'” Now, six years later, the leisurely process of state bar discipline still hasn’t run its course in Toscano’s case, Wilson drew a two-year probated suspension, and both men are practicing law in San Antonio. The American Tort Reform Association doesn’t think that’s a suitable outcome. (Mary Alice Robbins, “‘Texas Justice Massacre’ Billboard Targets Attorney’s Alleged Misconduct”, Texas Lawyer, Jul. 5; David Shepardson, “Chrysler takes fight to lawyers”, Detroit News, Mar. 21).
Evan Schaeffer was very excited by the fact that ATLA made its Trial magazine attack on reform freely available on line, so I clicked over to see what the fuss was. The first story I looked at was Justinian Lane’s “Corporate wolves in victims’ clothing,” which featured, among various baseless assertions and screeds about high executive salaries, the following strawman:
And the next time someone brings up Stella Liebeck and the McDonald’s coffee case, ask why a $2 million lawsuit over third-degree burns to a woman’s genitals is frivolous, but a $5 billion lawsuit over Donald Trump’s ego isn’t.
Fascinating. What fictional reformer supports Donald Trump’s lawsuit? Certainly not the main author of this site, who has repeatedly scoffed at it. Where’s the hypocrisy? (More on Stella Liebeck and the McDonald’s coffee case, which was frivolous, but is hardly the only reason for supporting reform.) Needless to say, I’m not impressed. Lane’s claim that proposed reforms wouldn’t affect Trump’s case is absolutely false; reforms such as anti-SLAPP laws, loser-pays, procedural streamlining, and limiting forum-shopping would all cabin the ability of a Trump to attempt to use litigation to intimidate critics.
Lane asks why reformers argue that “the king’s-ransom salaries ‘earned’ by corporate executives aren’t passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, but that the costs of the tort system are.” There’s a difference, of course: a consumer can object to high CEO salaries by refusing to invest in a corporation’s stock or to purchase its products or services. But a consumer who buys a car can’t opt out of the huge expenses trial attorneys have added to every motor vehicle in America—$500 for every vehicle sold in America. Tom LaSorda, the CEO of Chrysler, doesn’t make $500 for every vehicle, even if one finds his salary objectionable for some reason. But as long as Lane is criticizing the “hypocrisy” of reformers, one wonders if he’ll turn the same searching eye complaining about high salaries to the multi-millionaire trial attorneys he lauds who, unlike the executives, make their money by destroying wealth and jobs rather than creating wealth and jobs.
Roberto Martinez was washing Lori Hamby’s used 1991 Dodge Caravan while Hamby’s two-year-old daughter, Mary Madison Hamby Garcia, was playing inside of the vehicle by herself. The van was parked on top of a long driveway and the emergency brakes off. The key in the ignition in the “on” position so he could play the radio; the doors were open so he could vacuum the vehicle. Martinez was retrieving Windex fifteen feet away when Hamby apparently dislodged the automatic transmission from park. With the ignition key-lock the disabled, the vehicle hurtled down the driveway, killing Hamby when it struck a tree, jarring her from the vehicle, and pinning her beneath the tire, where she died of asphyxiation compression.
This is, an Atlanta jury held, 51% Chrysler’s fault. The theory on which the jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff is on the theory that Chrysler failed to adequately warn of the risk of leaving children unattended in vehicles with the key in the ignition—even though Hamby’s mother, Lori Hamby, only “glanced” through the owner’s manual, which did warn against it. Madison Hamby, who was dead on the scene, was awarded $2.25 million for pain and suffering on top of the $2.25 million for wrongful death. The jury ruled for Chrysler on the funeral expenses, however. Chrysler is appealing. (Greg Land, “DaimlerChrysler to Appeal $3.4M Awarded in Minivan Accident”, Fulton County Daily Report, Mar. 6 (via Prince); DeeAnn Durbin, “DaimlerChrysler ordered to pay family in minivan lawsuit”, AP/Detroit News, Mar. 3; Hamby v. DaimlerChrysler, No. 1:03CV:0937-CAP (N.D. Ga.)).
(Earlier coverage: Jul. 10, 2003 and links therein.) Two of the three lawyers behind a fraud where plaintiffs’ lawyers falsified evidence and tried to bribe police officers to hide the fact that their client fell asleep at the wheel are still practicing law. The attorneys still haven’t paid the sanction against them. In a radio interview for DaimlerChrysler, Steve Hantler calls for more Texas legislature oversight over the bar. (David Shepardson, “Chrysler takes fight to lawyers”, Detroit News, Mar. 21).
“The cost of lawsuits adds at least $500 to the price of every vehicle, according to Chrysler Group President Tom LaSorda, who said Thursday that Chrysler is stepping up its fight for tort reform.” (Dee-Ann Durbin, “LaSorda calls for lawsuit reform”, AP/Saginaw News, Feb. 9). More on suits against automakers at our automotive page.
If you like this site, you’ll love our sister site, Point of Law, which explores similar issues, often in greater detail than we have room for here. Recently, at Point of Law:
- Bill Sage and Jim Copland debate medical malpractice issues
- A profile of Steve Hantler, the DaimlerChrysler attorney often quoted here
- More on the Katrina litigation
- Why the success story for anesthesiologists may not be the panacea for medical malpractice it’s often sold as
- The Illinois Supreme Court strikes down an absurd $10.1 billion judgment
- And the latest on the Vioxx litigation and the Alito nomination.
The San Francisco Chronicle publishes an experiment (via Romenesko) recommending that people drive 55 mph on 70 mph-limit highways to save gas. What does this recommendation have to do with product liability? Well, it provides an interesting cost-benefit study. Read on.
1) We’ll leave aside the fact that one can’t do a legitimate comparison of gas savings by driving one way on the first leg of a round trip and the other way on the return leg. I get much better mileage driving into Washington, DC than on my return trip because the first leg is downhill and the second leg is uphill. Let’s just assume that it’s a level trip each way.
2) The author saved 2.1 gallons on a 200-mile drive. At $3/gallon, that’s $6.30 in savings—except it took him an extra 49 minutes to make the drive. Do you really value your time at less than an after-tax $8/hour? (Halve that if you’re driving with a passenger who’s also losing 49 minutes.) The article doesn’t mention the opportunity cost. The financial benefit actually ranges from tiny to negative.
3) The article does mention the safety issue. Getting passed 830 times (several times a minute) versus 94 times has to substantially increase the risk of a collision, especially given the article’s tales of being subjected to tailgating.
4) There’s a social cost externality from driving slow—you’re slowing down the drivers around you (wasting their time), and increasing their risk of a collision.
5) One might protest that there’s a social cost to gasoline usage that’s not reflected in the price of gasoline. But that’s an argument for raising the gas tax (and to stop complaining about alleged “gouging” at the gas pump), rather than for measures that crowd the roads and make driving more inconvenient.
In sum, the Chronicle and the 55 Conservation Project are making a recommendation that doesn’t really save that much (if anything) in the way of money, can substantially inconvenience others, and, most of all, make the roads more dangerous.
What’s the liability reform tie-in? Well, note that automobile companies have been hit with millions of dollars of product liability verdicts for design decisions less risky and more cost-saving than what the Chronicle and 55 Conservation Project are proposing here. (E.g., Mar. 21, Mar. 7, Dec. 21). And (as should be the case) no one thinks that these two institutions, or the drivers that unilaterally adopt their recommendation to needlessly drive slower than the prevailing traffic, should be held liable for the foreseeable consequences of the recommendation or its adoption.
We covered this case in detail Nov. 24 and Dec. 21. The court reduced punitive damages from $98 million to $20 million, which means that the total injustice is $23.75 million instead of $101.75 million. The AP version of the story doesn’t even acknowledge the auto company’s defense. (Randy McClain, “Judge slashes damages against carmaker”, The Tennessean, Jun. 21; AP, Jun. 21).
Lawyers Weekly USA has more details about the trial, including the fact that the jury wasn’t allowed to hear that, with 7.1 million vehicles on the road, there were only three deaths from collapsing seatbacks. Moreover, the judge permitted plaintiffs to argue liability based on a post-sale duty to warn of (allegedly) improved technology, unprecedented in Tennessee and most other states: thus, according to plaintiffs, when Chrysler merged with Mercedes, Chrysler had a legal duty to inform every single one of its car owners of any safety features on Mercedes vehicles that weren’t on Chrysler vehicles (and, one would imagine, vice versa). How this would have prevented a pick-up truck from slamming into the rear of a minivan at twice the speed limit, one wonders, but too many judges have stopped requiring causation to be an element of a tort. (Reni Gertner, “Parents Of Baby Killed In Seatback Collapse Win $105.5M”, Lawyers Weekly USA, Jan. 2005).