Restaurateur (see comments) Phil Romano has agreed to drop his lawsuit against the Dallas Morning News over its review of his local eatery, Il Mulino, in exchange for the paper’s promise to run a second review of the restaurant in coming months. “While [reviewer Dotty] Griffith handed out 4-star ratings for service and ambience, Mr. Romano took offense at her criticism of some of the restaurant’s main dishes, including entrees featuring its Bolognese and vodka sauces.” We covered the case Aug. 24, 2004. (“Restaurateur, News settle review lawsuit”, Dallas Morning News, Dec. 17)(via Romenesko).
The medical blogs are naturally talking about the Poliner litigation, where a doctor who had privileges suspended for allegations of improper care sued everyone involved in the peer review decision and eventually got a jury verdict of $366 million (Aug. 30). Dr. Rangel (Sep. 1) takes an interesting and nuanced view based in part on personal experience with the plaintiff; db’s MedRants blog (Aug. 31) calls for a “barf bag”; Bard-Parker (Aug. 31) suggests that one solution may be more systematic use of outside review, but notes that fear of litigation may not make that reform feasible.
Commenters are focused mostly on the liability decision, but one thing that immediately strikes the eye is the complete divorce from reality of the damages figure of $366 million. Even if one assumes that Poliner’s career was completely ruined notwithstanding a different peer review’s exoneration and throws in a million dollars for psychic injury, the figure is off by at least a factor of ten; if one more realistically limits damages to the few months he was out of practice, at least a factor of 100; if one limits damages to the month between the initial suspension and the privileged decision of the peer review committee, even more. Usually the remedy for excessive damages is “remittitur,” a fancy Latin word for the process where the judge makes up his or her own damages figure and tells the plaintiff to agree to that reduced figure or a motion for a new trial will be granted. But if a jury’s damages determination was the irrational product of passion, why presume (and, often, essentially assume) that the liability decision was reasoned?
“Joe Doe”, the HIV+ plaintiff in a Texas state lawsuit, is a member of the choral group “Positive Voices”–which has produced a CD with his photo and his real name. Nevertheless, when the alternative weekly Dallas Observer also identified “Doe” as HIV+ in passing in a larger December 4 story about a gay congregation titled “Fallen Angel,” “Doe” sued. The suit doesn’t allege that the Observer got its facts wrong, but argues that the story violates a Texas law prohibiting the disclosure of “medical test results,” with a fine of up to $10,000 for each disclosure. Since the Observer has circulation of 110,000, “Doe” figures he’s entitled to over a billion dollars. The story, including “Doe’s” name, remains on the paper’s web site, and the paper has filed a motion for summary judgment on First Amendment grounds as well as arguing that the broadly-drafted statute shouldn’t be construed to encompass journalists. (Miriam Rozen, “Billion-Dollar HIV Suit Raises First Amendment Issues”, Texas Lawyer, Sep. 2; David Webb, “Dallas Observer fights lawsuit claiming wrongful HIV disclosure”, Dallas Voice, undated). More medical privacy madness: Jan. 21 and links therein; more Dallas Observer litigation Aug. 24 and Mar. 23, 2000.
Update: Case thrown out in January 2006.
In three separate cases in 1997, nurses at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas’s cardiac catherterization lab expressed concerns about Dr. Lawrence R. Poliner’s care of patients. When the director of the lab, Dr. John Levin, alleged to the hospital’s chief of cardiology, Dr. John Harper, that Poliner had also recently performed an emergency angioplasty on the wrong artery, the chair of department of internal medicine, Dr. James Knochel, confronted Poliner, and told him to voluntarily stop performing cardiac catheterizations while his privileges were reviewed or face termination. A six-doctor peer review committee met the next month, decided that Dr. Poliner had given substandard care in 29 out of 44 cases, and voted unanimously to suspend Dr. Poliner’s privileges at the lab.
So far, so good, right? After all, we’re told by the plaintiffs’ bar that the medical malpractice crisis would go away magically if the medical profession would just police its own, and that’s exactly what happened here. Can you imagine what a trial lawyer would do with the peer review committee’s conclusions if the hospital did nothing and had been sued for Poliner’s work afterwards?
Dr. Poliner eventually got his privileges reinstated a few months later in a hearing held before a different peer review committee of doctors after a number of prominent cardiologists spoke on his behalf; another appellate committee at the hospital found no wrongdoing by the initial peer review committee, who Poliner accused of seeking to eliminate him as “competition.” Not satisfied with exoneration, Poliner sought retribution. He, with the help of medical malpractice attorney Charla Aldous, sued the hospital, Knochel, Harper, Levin, and the six doctors on the peer review committee for supposed antitrust and “consumer fraud” violations, breach of contract, defamation, interference with contractual relations, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The antitrust and consumer fraud claims were thrown out (BNA, “Antitrust Claims Are Eliminated From Physician Suspension Case”, Antitrust & Trade Reg. Rep., Nov. 7). So were the claims against the six peer review committee doctors, who had immunity under Texas Peer Review Immunity Statutes, which the state trial lawyers’ association had fought hard against in the legislature.
But the case against the other three doctors and the hospital proceeded. A jury found in favor of Dr. Poliner’s conspiracy theory that competitive malice motivated the entire affair. The jury’s proposed payday for six months’ missed work by the 60-year-old? $366 million: “$141 million to be paid by Dr. Knochel, $32 million each from Dr. Harper and Dr. Levin and $161 million from Presbyterian.” The hospital announced that it would appeal: “From time to time, hospitals and members of the medical staff leadership must make decisions relating to patient care and safety, and these decisions sometimes affect an individual doctor’s privileges at that hospital.” (Terry Maxon, “Dallas doctor awarded $366 million in damages”, Dallas Morning News, Aug. 28).
Restaurateur Phil Romano earlier this month “slapped Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Dotty Griffith and the Belo Corp., the newspaper’s parent, with a suit alleging fraud, malice, defamation and an ‘attempt to cripple the business of one of Dallas’ finest new restaurants’ via an April 16 restaurant review. That finest new restaurant is Il Mulino New York, the Romano-shepherded Dallas extension of the much heralded Greenwich Village venue founded in 1981 by Fernando and Gino Masci.” (Mark Stuertz, “Eat My Briefs”, Dallas Observer, Aug. 12; Sean Mehegan, “The Porcini Was Praiseworthy, but a Lawsuit Was Served Next”, New York Times, Aug. 23). Update Jan. 3, 2006: parties settle with paper agreeing to run second review.
Unlike his running mate John Edwards, John Kerry has willingly disclosed the identities of his “bundlers”, the financiers responsible for raising large amounts of money in grouped donations. (He has 266 who’ve come in at the $100,000+ level, compared with more than 525 for George W. Bush.) Names familiar to readers of this site are well represented: “Trial lawyers who represent injured people in suits against business are prominent Kerry fans. Among his $100,000 Vice Chairmen are Florida plaintiff’s lawyer Kirk Wager, who hosted Mr. Kerry’s first presidential fund-raiser at his Coconut Grove home in December 2002, and attorneys Richard Scruggs of Mississippi and John Coale of Washington, both part of the tobacco companies’ $206 billion settlement with 46 states.” However, Mr. Kerry (like Mr. Bush, but unlike Mr. Edwards) also raises large amounts from other types of law firms, including firms known for lobbying and for general business work, including Mintz Levin and Piper Rudnick. (Wayne Slater, “Vested interests in Kerry”, Dallas Morning News, Jul. 25).
“Lawyers, especially trial lawyers, are the engine of the Kerry fundraising operation,” reports the Washington Post. “Lawyers and law firms have given more money to Kerry, $12 million, than any other sector. One out of four of Kerry’s big-dollar fundraisers is a lawyer, and one out of 10 is an attorney for plaintiffs in personal injury, medical malpractice or other lawsuits seeking damages. …
“Among the trial lawyers who raised money for Kerry early in the campaign were Michael V. Ciresi of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP, who represented Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota in its successful $6.5 billion suit against the tobacco industry, and Michael T. Thorsnes, who recently retired from his San Diego law firm after winning $250 million in settlements and verdicts.” After Kerry locked up the race, “One trend was a sharp increase in the number of trial lawyers joining the Kerry fundraising campaign. Among those soon joining as major fundraisers were John P. Coale, one of the nation’s most prominent trial lawyers, whose better-known cases include the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, and at least 16 plane crashes; Robert L. Lieff, founding partner of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, a San Francisco-based firm that lists four class-action settlements in 2004 alone totaling $176.5 million; and San Francisco lawyer Arnold Laub, whose firm Web site lists its participation in the $3.7 billion fen-phen settlement, a $185 million toxic chemical award and $4.5 million for a pedestrian accident case. … John Morgan, an Orlando lawyer whose firm specializes in medical malpractice, said he has helped raise more than $500,000 for Kerry.” (Thomas B. Edsall, James V. Grimaldi and Alice R. Crites, “Redefining Democratic Fundraising”, Washington Post, Jul. 24)(our politics archive).
Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review Online (“Robber Baron?”, Jul. 15) thinks the Department of Justice would be warranted in opening a RICO probe of the Dallas-based firm based on the contents of a detailed statement attached by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to a report of the Senate Judiciary Committee, exploring at length the allegations concerning Baron & Budd’s practices in asbestos litigation (PDF) (see pp. 81-184 and specifically 86-137). For much more, see Jun. 17 and the many links from there.
Stuart Taylor, Jr. takes a hard look at the Kerry/Edwards ticket and weighs the likelihood that it will do much to rein in the litigation biz. Quotes my comment comparing Sen. Edwards to a cleaned-up Michael Moore (“Edwards and the Problem with the Trial-Lawyer Lobby”, National Journal/Atlantic Online, Jul. 13). At Salon, reporter Tim Grieve pens an all-out defense of Edwards which is kind enough to quote me in two places (“The GOP war on trial lawyers”, Jul. 13 (subscription or ad-based “day pass”)). And the Dallas Morning News, in the person of editorial columnist Rod Dreher, includes this site in a short list of recommended weblogs, coincidentally quoting an item of mine on locally based lawyer Fred Baron and his involvement with this year’s Democratic ticket (“Welcome to the blogosphere”, Jun. 23).
Still far from caught up, we’ve posted four more entries from our pipeline of reader letters on our letters page. Our favorite this time comes from a reader who was a class member in a class action suit filed against companies alleged to have sent out unsolicited (“junk”) faxes. How was the settlement notice sent out to the class? Why, via another unsolicited fax. Among topics of other letters: a $4.75 million settlement payable by a Massachusetts utility because its driver tried to be courteous and wave a pedestrian into traffic, where she was hit by another vehicle that failed to stop; the case of the fired Dallas police chief who, fragile of soul, wants $5 million for his emotional anguish at the episode; and finally, a letter from another trial lawyer who appears not to like us very much.
“We are not going to lose the race for lack of funds”, said Dallas trial lawyer Fred Baron, finance co-chairman of the Edwards campaign (and poster boy for legal ethics) as the Wisconsin primary approached. (Rob Christensen and John Wagner, “Edwards sees no reason to surrender”, Raleigh News and Observer, Feb. 12). The challenge for Edwards’s fund-raising was spelled out by the Washington Post last month (Paul Farhi and Thomas B. Edsall, “Filling War Chests Key As Campaigns Progress”, Jan. 21): “The North Carolina senator has received a higher percentage of large donations than any other major candidate — 83 percent were between $1,000 and $2,000, the maximum allowed by law. Many of these donations came from plaintiffs’ attorneys, members of Edwards’s former profession. This means that many of Edwards’s donors have ‘maxed out’ and can give no more money. For Edwards to become fully competitive in the race for cash, he will have to find new contributors beyond his trial-lawyer base.” Why, even many of the paralegals, receptionists, bankrupt support staffers of law firms and their nonvoting husbands have maxed out (see Hill News, May 7, 2003). For more on Edwards’ fund-raising, see Feb. 3; Jan. 27; Jan. 23, 2004; Aug. 5 and Apr. 7-8, 2003; and Jul. 18 and May 1-2, 2002. More: Kerry press secretary Stephanie Cutter imprecisely describes Edwards campaign as “wholly funded by trial lawyers” (Adam Nagourney and David M. Halbfinger, “Kerry and Edwards Square Off as Dean Abandons Campaign”, New York Times, Feb. 19)
Edwards’s self-reinvention as the candidate of trade protectionism has provided another reason for sensible voters to steer clear of him. As Alex Tabarrok notes: “In his stump speech, John Edwards is fond of empathizing with the plight of a 10-year old girl ‘somewhere in America,’ who goes to bed ‘praying that tomorrow will not be as cold as today, because she doesn’t have the coat to keep her warm.’ Yet, as John Tierney points out, ‘clothing has become so cheap and plentiful (partly because of textile imports, which Mr. Edwards has proposed to limit) that there is a glut of second-hand clothing, and consequently most clothing donated to charity is shipped abroad. The second-hand children’s coats that remain in America typically sell for about $5 in thrift shops.’ (emphasis added)”. See “Nader Searches for His Roots”, New York Times, Feb. 15. To be sure, Edwards has some familiarity with the internationalization of markets: when the populist Senator and his wife left their Massachusetts Avenue mansion to trade up to a nicer mansion on P Street, they disposed of the old one “for $3 million to the Hungarian government for use as an embassy”. (Marc Fisher, “Regular Guys Who Live In Mansions”, Washington Post, Feb. 17). See also Byron York, “John Edwards Cares about YOU!”, Roll Call/National Review Online, Feb. 17. (& welcome WSJ “Best of the Web”, Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, and (thanks!) Steve Bainbridge readers)