November 15 — Class-action coupon-clippers. Hard-hitting page-one Washington Post dissection of class-action abuse, specifically the “coupon settlements” by which lawyers claim large but notional face-value benefits for the represented class, which can serve as a predicate for high fees even if few consumers ever take advantage of the benefits. “The record in one case, against ITT Financial Corp., showed that consumers redeemed only two of 96,754 coupons issued, a redemption rate of 0.002 percent.” Settlement-confidentiality rules often make it impossible to learn how many coupons were redeemed. Groups like Public Citizen and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, normally closely aligned with plaintiffs’-side interests, are crusading against the coupon abuses, fearing they’ll erode public support for the class action device and “sour the public” on the whole system.
The piece includes a profile of Chicago lawyer Daniel Edelman, who’s won millions in fees in about thirty consumer lawsuits, and is variously called by consumerist critics “the Darth Vader of class action settlements” and “the poster child for how to rip off consumers under the guise of helping them”: “I can think of no plague worse than to have a court impose the likes of Daniel Edelman…on absent and unsuspecting members of a class,” said one judge in a lawsuit against Citibank. Edelman was among the plaintiff’s lawyers in the famed BancBoston Mortgage case, whose outcome was described by federal judge Milton Shadur (who was not involved in it) as “appalling” and “astonishing”: “The principal real-money beneficiaries of the settlement,” Judge Shadur wrote, “turned out to be the class counsel themselves.” The consumer who originally objected to that settlement, Dexter Kamilewicz of Maine, “chose not to comment for this article, noting that Edelman’s firm had countersued him for $25 million. That case is settled, but he said he feared landing in court yet again.” (For more on lawsuits filed by class action lawyers against their critics, see Nov. 4 commentary). (Joe Stephens, “Coupons Create Cash for Lawyers”, Washington Post, Nov. 14, link now dead)
November 15 — Link your way to liability? Daniel Curzon-Brown, a professor of English, has sued TeacherReview.com, a student-run “course critique” site that provides a forum for anonymous praise and criticism of faculty at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) and San Francisco State University. “Free speech is great, but this is not about free speech,” said Brown’s lawyer, Geoffrey Kors, saying his client had been falsely labeled racist and mentally ill, among other damaging charges. (“Other teachers were called ‘womanizers,’ ‘reportedly homicidal’ and ‘drugged out.'”) In one of the suit’s more ambitious angles, the lawyers have joined CCSF as a defendant on the grounds that it “allow[ed] one of its student clubs to provide a link to the review site on a college-hosted Web page” which “helped to create the appearance of official backing for the site”. (“Teacher sues over ‘racist’ Web review”, Reuters/ZDNet, Oct. 21 — full story). Update Oct. 10, 2000: Curzon-Brown agrees to drop suit.
November 15 — Are they kidding, or not-kidding? We’ve read over both these opinion pieces carefully, and here are our tentative conclusions. We think Nancy Giuriati, writing in the Chicago Tribune‘s “Voice of the People”, probably is kidding when she suggests overeating be addressed as a public health problem through lawsuits against food companies along the lines of the anti-smoking crusade. (“Treat Eaters Like Smokers”, Nov. 9). On the other hand, we think Ted Allen, writing in the Legal Times of Washington, probably isn’t kidding when he suggests fans file class-action suits against hard-luck sports teams like the Boston Red Sox and New Orleans Saints. (“Sue da Bums?”, Nov. 1). It could be, however, that we’ve got things upside down — that Mr. Allen is kidding, while Ms. Giuriati isn’t. If you think you can help us out, or wish to call our attention to other who-knows-whether-they’re-joking proposals for the further extension of litigation (entries from law reviews especially welcome!), send your emails to AreTheyKidding -at -overlawyered – dot – com. Update Apr. 11, 2002: Ms. Giuriati writes in to say she wasn’t kidding.
November 15 — Gimme an “S”, “U”, “E”. Latest lawsuit over not making the high school cheerleading squad filed by Merissa D. Brindisi and her father, Richard, who claim it was arbitrary and unfair for Solon, Ohio, school officials to have used teacher evaluations as one factor in deciding who got on the squad. Another suit by an unsuccessful cheerleader contender was filed last month in nearby Lorain County, but was dismissed. (Mark Gillispie, “Solon ex-cheerleader, father file suit”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 10 — full story.)
November 13-14 — Fins circle in water. Hoping to piggyback on Judge Jackson’s Microsoft findings of fact and attracted by the treble damages provided by antitrust law, “veterans from the cigarette wars are plotting to sue the company in a wave of private litigation. If the onslaught unfolds as expected, teams of lawyers will turn Microsoft into the next Philip Morris, tangling the company in courts across the country.” David Segal, “New Legal Guns Train on Microsoft”, Washington Post, Nov. 12 — link now dead). Same day, same paper, same byline: another profile of emerging trial lawyer strategy of mounting assault on their targets’ stock price in order to force them to the negotiating table (see “Deal with us or we’ll tank your stock“, Oct. 21). The announcement of a major trial lawyer offensive against HMOs destroyed $12 billion of value in a single day as the market reacted. “Most of the companies have yet to recover.” (David Segal, “Lawyers pool resources, leverage settlements”, Washington Post, Nov. 12, link now dead).
On Friday the stock of big New Orleans-based engineering and construction company, McDermott International Inc., important in the offshore oil business, fell by 35.5 percent following a 26.7 percent drop the previous day to hit a 10-year low. The company disclosed lower earnings and “said in its earnings statement that the settlement of asbestos claims was using up a growing amount of the cash flow of its Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) subsidiary”, one of the nation’s best known makers of power plants. “This unquantifiable asbestos liability puts a whole new spin on things. [McDermott] becomes an asbestos liability valuation play rather than an earnings recovery play,” said analyst Arvind Sanger of brokerage firm Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, who added that he thought the market had overreacted to the uncertainty. (“Asbestos Claim Worries Hurt McDermott”, FindLaw/Reuters, Nov. 12, link now dead)
November 13-14 — Update: ADA youth soccer case. Bang! Ouch! As reported here a week ago, parents insisted that 9-year-old Ryan Taylor, who suffers from cerebral palsy, be allowed onto soccer team despite administrators’ fears of injuries from his metal walker. Now they’ve filed suit under federal Americans with Disabilities Act (see “After Casey Martin, the deluge“, Nov. 5-7). (“Parents Sue Over Son’s Soccer Ban”, AP/FindLaw, Nov. 12, link now dead).
November 13-14 — Risks of harm. “One woman manager whom I spoke to, an architect who has worked in construction for a number of years, put it this way: ‘When a woman comes to me with a complaint, I want first of all to make sure that no harm comes to the woman. But I want to make sure that no harm comes to the man, too. Because if a charge of sexual harassment goes into his folder, he may never get another promotion in his entire life.’ [emphasis in original] — from the forthcoming book What to Do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops: Or a Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment, by Joan Kennedy Taylor (see yesterday’s entry).
November 12 — Turning the tables. Automaker DaimlerChrysler has sued plaintiff’s attorneys and a individual named client who it says cost it millions of dollars and harmed its reputation by naming it in what is says was a meritless suit. In June, the locally based law firm of Greitzer & Locks and Maryland attorney William Askinazi filed a class-action suit in Philadelphia against DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors and GM’s subsidiary Saturn alleging that the companies’ seat design was defective and unsafe. Similar suits were filed in other states, and lawyers were quoted in one story as claiming the aggregate value of their claims could amount to $5 billion. But DaimlerChrysler and Ford say they were dropped from the Philadelphia case after the named plaintiff, Brian Lipscomb, was shown never to have owned cars manufactured by either automaker.
The German-U.S. company has been on something of a mission recently to fight what it sees as abusive litigation. It recently secured dismissal of an Illinois class action over allegedly excessive engine noise and in 1996 unsuccessfully sought fees after securing dismissal of a Seattle class action that turned out to have been filed without client permission. It succeeded last year in winning an $850,000 judgment against two lawyers in St. Louis who it alleged had taken confidential documents while working for one of its outside law firms and then used that information to file class-action suits against the automaker. “Class-action lawsuits should be used to resolve legitimate claims and not serve as a rigged lottery for trial lawyers,” said Lew Goldfarb, DaimlerChrysler vice president and associate general counsel, in a statement this week. “For too long, trial lawyers have been exploiting class actions, turning these lawsuits into a form of legalized blackmail. They launch frivolous cases because they believe that just the threat of massive class actions filed in many states can coerce a company into settlement. It’s time they started paying for some of the costs of abusing our legal system.” “DaimlerChrysler sues lawyers over lawsuit”, Reuters/Findlaw, Nov. 10, link now dead; “Automakers sued for allegedly defective seats”, Detroit News, Jun. 26)
November 12 — Suppression of conversation vs. improvement of conversation. “Another difficulty in dealing with sexual harassment as a legal problem is that almost all people accused of harassment, from the one whose joke is misunderstood to the hard-core opportunistic harasser…don’t believe they are hurting anyone. [emphasis in original] And we know from our experiences with alcohol and drug prohibition that people whose behavior is regulated and who don’t believe they are hurting anyone else overwhelmingly evade and resent the regulations….If you tell people that the way in which they relate to each other naturally is against the law, their immediate reaction is to think the law intrusive. If, by contrast, you tell people that they may have misunderstood each other but that they can learn to communicate more clearly, you are offering them a new skill without blaming half of them in advance.” — from What to Do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops: Or a Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment, by Joan Kennedy Taylor, a book to be published this month by New York University Press and the Cato Institute.
November 11 — We didn’t mean those preferences! At Boalt Hall, the law school of U.C. Berkeley, it’s de rigueur to consider race, gender and various other official preferences as entirely constitutional as a way of balancing out past collective hardship. However, there’s one form of official preference you’d better not speak well of lest you risk ostracism: veterans’ preference. “If you, despite your well-intentioned, fine-toothed combing of the Constitution, just can’t find a legal rule that says that veterans’ preferences are impermissible gender discrimination, then that is sexism. If you think that these veterans’ preferences are acceptable as a matter of policy — for the liberals who are willing to concede that there is a difference between constitutional permissibility and policy advisability — then that is extreme sexism.” — contributor Heather McCormick in The Diversity Hoax: Law Students Report from Berkeley, edited by David Wienir and Marc Berley (Foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition, 1999).
November 11 — Microsoft roundup. Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute, author of Law and Disorder in Cyberspace, argues in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that a breakup of the company would in fact be less destructive of value than seemingly more modest remedies that might require the company to prenegotiate its future business relationships or even its software revisions with competitors’ lawyers: “Complex remedial decrees invariably kick off endless rounds of follow-up bickering. Costs mount quickly. Private lawsuits follow. And antitrust law awards triple damages.” (“Breaking Up Isn’t hard to Do”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10 — requires online subscription). “Two branches of the federal government, which is a case study in institutional sclerosis, are lecturing Microsoft on the virtues and modalities of innovation,” notes George Will (“Risks of Restraining”, Washington Post, Nov. 9, link now dead). “The dynamism of technology long ago rendered the entire case moot,” argues a Detroit News editorial. “…It is doubtful, for example, that America Online would have paid $10 billion for Netscape if Microsoft’s Bill Gates had indeed rendered the Navigator [browser] worthless.” (“Microsoft: Punishing Success”, Nov. 9). Declan McCullagh at Wired News finds it surprising that the judge was so dismissive of the prospects of Linux, the open-source competitor to Windows (“Judge Jackson: Linux Won’t Last”, Nov. 8).
November 11 — Accommodating theft. In New Jersey, the Office of Attorney Ethics is seeking the disbarment of Tenafly lawyer Charles Meaden, who was arrested in 1996 for trying to buy $5,600 worth of golf clubs with a stolen credit card number. Mr. Meaden’s attorney, Linda Wong, argues that her client suffered from bipolar illness and was in a manic state at the time of the theft due to a change in his medication. “The panel has to send a signal to the public that disabilities can be accommodated.” The ethics body counters that Mr. Meaden’s use of the stolen number showed considerable planning, and added that he’d applied for guns four times in the two years before the arrest, each time denying that he’d been treated for psychiatric conditions. His lawyer’s response? Mr. Meaden, she said, was relying on his doctor’s assurance that depression was “not a psychiatric condition”, besides which “it was understandable that Meaden did not disclose his psychiatric history because the mentally ill face discrimination.” (Wendy Davis, “The Case of the Stolen Credit Card: Mental Illness or Well-Planned Heist?”, New Jersey Law Journal, Oct. 21 — full story)
November 10 — $625,000 an hour asked for time on stopped elevator. Nicholas White, 34, a production manager at Business Week, has filed suit asking $25 million from the owners of Rockefeller Center over an incident last month in which he got stuck on an elevator late one Friday and remained there, pushing buttons and banging on the door, for 40 hours before any building employees noticed. He had only a pack of Life Savers and three cigarettes to see him through the ordeal. “When he had to go to the bathroom, he would pry open the doors a little,” a friend of his told the New York Post. White’s lawyer, Kenneth P. Nolan, said last week that his client was “still in a state of shock” and “has not gone back to work”. (“Floor, please”, Fox News/Reuters, Oct. 21 (link now dead); “Man Trapped in Elevator Wants $25M”, AP/Washington Post, Nov. 3, link now dead; “Man, trapped in New York elevator 40 hours, sues”, Reuters/San Jose Mercury News, Nov. 4, (link now dead; Philip Delves Broughton, “Editor sues for $25-million after 40-hour elevator terror”, National Post (Canada) (originally Daily Telegraph, London), Nov. 6, link now dead)
November 10 — Annals of zero tolerance: more nail clippers cases. The Marshall Elementary School in Granite City, Ill. has suspended second-grader Derek Moss for three days after a custodian found him with a nail clipper. Earlier this fall in Cahokia, Ill., 7-year-old second-grader Lamont Agnew drew a 10-day suspension for possession of the same contraband. (Robert Kelly, “Another nail clippers incident reported”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 2 (link now dead)) Earlier this year Pensacola, Fla. administrators recommended the expulsion of 15-year-old sophomore Tawana Dawson for possession of a clipper with a two-inch attached blade; she’d lent it to a classmate to trim her nails. (“School calls nail clipper a weapon”, AP/APB News, June 7). In recent California cases, a 12-year-old Corona boy was expelled over a nail clipper, a decision later reversed; a Mission Viejo 10-year-old was suspended over a three-inch cap-gun toy on her key chain, and a Buena Park 5-year-old was transferred to another school after he brought into school a disposable shaver he’d found at a bus stop. (Oblivion.net)
November 10 — Welcome Progressive Review and Cal-NRA visitors. Haunted-house story is here; gun lawsuits vs. national security story, here.
November 10 — “The Dutch Boy isn’t Joe Camel.” The companies recently sued by Rhode Island “voluntarily stopped marketing lead-based paint for interior use in the 1950s — a generation before the federal government decided to ban interior lead paint in 1978,” writes Judy Pendell of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy (with which our editor is affiliated). You’d think withdrawing your product before you were obliged to would count as socially responsible, but no good deed escapes punishment. Nor, it seems, does any incorporated bystander with deep pockets: “Many of the defendants acquired their companies long after they had stopped making lead paint…If you can sue an industry that essentially shut itself down almost a half century ago, who’s next?” (“Trial lawyers’ next target: the paint industry”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 18 — now online at the Manhattan Institute site, which boasts a growing collection of online reports on legal issues (link now dead)).
November 10 — Correction: the difference one letter makes. On Sept. 2 we ran an item about the role of charitable and social-service groups in efforts to take down the gun industry, and included the YMCA on the list of such groups. That was off base: it’s the YWCA that’s a participant in the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, not its male counterpart. The mistake is one the anti-gun coalition itself unleashed on the world when it erroneously listed the YMCA on its list of supporting organizations. The Capital Research Center took the claim at face value in its report on anti-gun philanthropy, whence it made its way to our summary. Patrick Reilly of the Capital Research Center tells us he’s spoken with the coalition, which acknowledges its mistake and says it’s replaced the “M” version with the correct “W”. In the mean time, the poor YMCA has gotten calls from outraged supporters of the Second Amendment. Send those outraged calls to the YWCA instead.
November 9 — Gun jihad menaces national security. Colt Manufacturing is an important current, as well as historic, defense resource to this country: “We are one of the two suppliers of the M16 rifle and the sole supplier of the M4 carbine to the United States military, as well as many of our allies.” Yet the courtroom assault masterminded by American trial lawyers and carried out by their friends at city hall is quickly running the enterprise into the ground: legal defense costs are “astronomical”, financing and insurance are drying up, and managers have scant time to do anything but respond to legal demands.
“In connection with these lawsuits, Colt has been served with extraordinarily expansive and burdensome discovery requests seeking virtually every document in Colt’s possession related to the design, manufacture and marketing of firearms — military and otherwise. In our defense, waves of lawyers have descended on Colt and other legitimate gun manufacturers, scouring every corner and aspect of our business in an effort to respond to these unreasonable requests.”
If the municipal firearms litigation “forces us out of business, it also will leave the military without an experienced base to turn to during a time of crisis. In the opinion of the Department of Defense, it would take two to five years and significant government investment to return any of today’s weapon systems to their current level of operational reliability should we lose this present capability.”
“We are uneasy and troubled by the fact that we and other companies in the future may be driven out of business by a wave of lawsuits, even if the courts eventually find out that the plaintiff’s cases have no merit.” — Lt. Gen. William M. Keys U.S.M.C. (ret.), chief executive officer of the New Colt’s Holding Company, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Nov. 2. (full testimony) (overall hearings page).
November 9 — Hold your e-tongue. Though employees may still fondly imagine their screen banter to be somehow entitled to privacy, “e-mails not only are subject to discovery, but also can kill you in a courtroom,” explain two lawyers with Miami’s Becker & Poliakoff. The problem for companies that get sued is that “people who are normally careful of what they say in writing seem to feel that e-mail doesn’t count, and…say things in e-mails they would never say in person or by telephone.” All of which leads up to the following rather startling advice: “Businesses should have an e-mail policy. Consider such rules as ‘No e-mail may contain derogatory information about individuals or the competition.'” (Mark Grossman and Luis Konski, “Digital Discovery: Decoding Your Adversary”, Legal Times (Wash., D.C.), Oct. 20 — full column).
November 9 — “Banks’ good deeds won’t go unpunished”. Good Steve Chapman column on ill-advised laws adopted in San Francisco and Santa Monica, and under consideration for U.S. military bases, that forbid banks from charging a fee for non-customers’ ATM withdrawals; currently banks put automatic machines “in all sorts of relatively low-traffic, out-of-the-way places”, a trend likely to halt abruptly if the business becomes a legislated money-loser. (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 7 — full column).
November 8 — Microsoft ruling: guest editorials. Venture capitalist Jay Freidrichs of Cypress Growth Fund: “My gut is, this is not positive for the industry. The less government involvement, the better.” Peter Ausnit of San Francisco brokerage Volpe Brown Whelan & Co. is alarmed that the ruling could “open up Microsoft to thousands of lawsuits from every belly-up software firm in the world….Are they going to be set upon like the cigarette industry?” George Zachary, a partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures: “a scary reminder that if you make it to the top, someone will try to pull you down.” Venture capitalist Tim Draper: “Silicon Valley should be furious with the way our government is treating successful companies…Any would-be entrepreneur is getting a message from Washington that says: ‘Become successful but not too successful, or we’ll ruin your life.'” (David Streitfeld, “Glee, Gloom in Silicon Valley”, Washington Post, Nov. 6 (link now dead); Duncan Martell, “Silicon Valley Cheers Microsoft Ruling”, Yahoo/Reuters, Nov. 6 (link now dead)). Plus: Virginia Postrel, “What Really Scares Microsoft”, New York Times, Nov. 8; George Priest, “Judge Jackson’s Findings of Fact: A Feeble Case”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8 (requires online subscription).
November 8 — Ohio tobacco-settlement booty. A private firm with close links to prominent Columbus lobbyists has been angling for the contract to handle Ohio’s anti-tobacco ad campaign, financed from its share of the state’s settlement loot. It just so happens the next CEO of this firm is State Rep. E.J. Thomas, a key player in the divvying up of the tobacco spoils as chair of the House Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Does Mr. Thomas really believe nobody would have questioned his neutrality while voting to award tobacco contracts when he has been holding hands with one of the parties playing to win the jackpot?” editorializes the Toledo Blade. (“The smoking cigarette”, Oct. 24 — link now dead).
November 8 — Who loves trust-and-estates lawyers? Well, auction houses, for one, since these attorneys control so much asset-disposition business. And so a lot of buttering-up goes on: “At one of the largest annual gatherings of trust and estate lawyers in the U.S., held each year in Miami, Christie’s brings down hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewels so that the lawyers, or their spouses, can try them on. ‘I am not that easily swayed,’ says Carol Harrington, an estate lawyer from the Chicago law firm McDermott Will & Emery, who deals regularly with the auction houses. ‘But what woman doesn’t like having $40,000 in jewels around her neck?'” (Daniel Costello, “An Art Collection to Die For”, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 24).
November 8 — “Police storm raucous party to find members of anti-noise squad”. Moral of this report from southwest England: if you’re hoping to keep your job on the town noise-abatement committee, don’t hire three bands and throw a bash late into the night at city hall; after annoyed neighbors called in to report loud whoops and shrieks, police descended on the venue only to find the mayor and local dignitaries in attendance. (AP/CNN, Oct. 26, link now dead).
November 5-7 — “Scared out of business”. Boston Globe reports on decline of a Halloween tradition, the community haunted house, under pressure from building and safety codes (No emergency sprinklers! Combustible material! And children present, no less!) “In the future, the only option will be to drive to a big, slick venue and pay your $23.50 for a corporatized event that has nothing to do with community,” said Douglas Smith, an illustrator who used to help design the haunted house at Hyde Community Center in Newton Highlands, which has lately been discontinued along with two other haunted houses in Newton. “Only they have the resources. Only they can build to these codes.” “I’m very disappointed,” said 10-year-old David Olesky, who had been looking foward to the outing. “They can make rules, but they can’t drain all the fun out of everything. It’s unfair.” Now “the skull’s mouth, the body parts, and dozens of eyeballs remain packed in boxes” at the community center. “Within a few years, I imagine all amateur haunted houses will get shut down,” Smith told the Globe‘s Marcella Bombardieri. “Society is getting so concerned about liability that there’s no way to have fun.” (Oct. 29 — link now dead).
November 5-7 — Public by 2-1 margin disapproves of tobacco suits. New ABC News poll of 1,010 adults finds that by a 60-to-34 percent margin public doesn’t believe tobacco companies should have to pay damages for smoking-related illnesses. But not one of the fifty state attorneys general held back from filing such a suit — an indication these AGs are taking their policy cues from something other than their states’ electorates. As for trial lawyers, they know the luck of the draw will eventually assure them a certain number or juries and judges around the country willing to go along with the 34 percent view. That’s enough to cash in no matter what the majority may think. (ABC News.com, “Cigarette Makers Absolved: Six in 10 Reject Liability for Tobacco Companies”, Nov. 3).
November 5-7 — AOL sued for failure to accommodate blind users. Yes, AOL is big, but the legal theories being advanced under the Americans with Disabilities Act have the potential to redefine all sorts of websites, including publishing and opinion sites, as “public accommodations”. If you’re looking for a way to slow down the growth of the Web, try menacing page designers with liability unless they set aside their to-do list of other site improvements in favor of trooping off to seminars on how to fix nonaccommodative coding choices. (“Blind Group Sues AOL Over Internet Access”, Excite/Reuters, Nov. 5; case settled August 2000)..
November 5-7 — More details on Toshiba. Last Saturday’s L.A. Times, not in our hands before, adds a number of salient details to the story covered in this space November 3. Number of laptops involved: 5.5 million. The company agreed to settle “even though no consumer ever complained of losing data as a result of the glitch”. Company officials “said they had been unable to re-create the problem in the lab, except when trying to save something to a disk while simultaneously doing one or two other intensive tasks, such as playing a game or watching a video.” However, Toshiba was tipped toward settling when it heard that NEC Corp. considered the glitch a genuine one and learned moreover that there’d been an earlier advisory from NEC, thus opening up scenarios in which lawyers could argue that warnings had been callously ignored etc. The coupons will be much more valuable than the usual style of settlement coupons because owners “will be able to sell their coupons or use multiple coupons toward a single purchase.” But the public goodwill fund that will bulk out the rest of the $1 billion settlement if claims fall short may consist of donations of older hardware to charitable groups, a notoriously soft accounting category (Joseph Menn, “Toshiba OKs Settlement of $1 Billion Over Laptops”, Oct. 30, link now dead). Jodi Kantor, Slate “Today’s Papers”, also Oct. 30, reports: “The company’s credit rating was immediately downgraded, and its share price slipped 9%.” (Toshiba site)
November 5-7 — After Casey Martin, the deluge. Latest handicap-accommodation demand from the playing field: family of 9-year-old Ryan Taylor, who’s afflicted with cerebral palsy, asks for his right to play soccer in a metal walker. David Dalton, volunteer president of the Lawton [Okla.] Optimist Soccer Association league, says the walker is hazardous and a violation of the game rules. In addition, the league could get sued if another player smashed into it while trying to contest Taylor’s control of the ball, if any were so unsporting as to try that. However, “in 1996 a federal court in California ruled that a youth baseball league violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by excluding an 11-year-old with cerebral palsy who used crutches” and Houston disability-rights lawyer Wendy Wilkinson is rattling the saber, saying the ruling “definitely applies to this situation”. (Danny M. Boyd, “Disabled boy is barred from playing soccer with a walker”, AP/Fox News, Nov. 3, link now dead).
November 5-7 — “Land of the free…or the lawyers?” Nice editorial in Investors Business Daily on the deepening litigation crisis: “No industry or company is safe.” It even quotes our editor (Oct. 21, link now dead).
November 5-7 — Toffee maker sued for tooth irritation. Spreading across the Atlantic?, cont’d: Former Miss Scotland Eileen Catterson, a runway fashion model for ten years, has sued the makers of Irn-Bru toffee bars saying the sticky confection has left her with discolored teeth and sore gums. She is demanding £5,000 damages in Paisley Sheriff Court, which itself sounds like a fashion establishment. (Gillian Harris, “Model sues sweets firm over teeth”, The Times (London), Oct. 28).
November 4 — Criticizing lawyers proves hazardous. In July Publishers Clearing House, the magazines-by-mail company whose sweepstakes is promoted by Ed McMahon, agreed to settle a class action charging it with deceptive practices. The settlement provided for a maximum of $10 million in outlays by the company, to be divided roughly as follows: $1.5 million to send a notice of settlement to an estimated 48 million households in the class; $5.5 million or less to be refunded to dissatisfied magazine buyers that could muster the required paperwork, the exact sum to depend on how many did so; and $3 million in legal fees for the lawyers who filed the suit, sister-and-brother attorneys Judy Cates and Steven Katz of Swansea, Ill. and a third colleague.
The announcement did not sit well with St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan, who wrote August 27 that Cates and Katz “represent the modern version of the James Gang….They recently gained renown by galloping into the little town of Publishers Clearing House. They robbed the bank there, and rode away.” He added that “the way these class-action lawsuits usually work” is that “members of the class get very little. Usually nothing. Our lawyers get a lot. Always….It will be considered a cost of doing business, and like all such costs, it will be passed on to the consumers, who are, of course, the very same people who are allegedly benefiting from the lawsuit.”
And with that, almost before the popular columnist could tell what hit him, he was staring down the barrel of a writ. On August 30 Cates and Katz filed suit against McClellan in federal court in East St. Louis, Ill., seeking $1 million in damages for the libel of having been compared to bank robbers.
Unrepentant, McClellan followed up with a second and equally jocular effort, explaining that the lawyers had misunderstood: although upstanding Illinois might object to bank robbery, “Here in Missouri, we like the James Gang,” as folk heroes from the state’s Great Plains heritage. “So it is with the gallant class-action lawsuit lawyers. Close your eyes and see them the way I see them. They ride into town, file their lawsuits, reach their settlements and then, their saddlebags stuffed with money, they gallop into the night, but as they go, they throw coins to the cheering populace.
“And coins is the operative word, too,” McClellan added, pointing out that on average each of the represented households stood to gain something on the order of 12 cents, compared with $3 million for their lawyers. It is not recorded that Cates and Katz have dropped their suit or been in any other way mollified by this response. Bill McClellan, “Only Ones Who Gain From Class-Action Suits Are The Lawyers”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 27; “Missourians love James Gang and today’s robbers, too”, Sept. 1). Update: Nov. 30 (he criticizes them again, though case is still pending); Feb. 29, 2000 (they agree to drop suit).
November 4 — Bring a long book. It takes New York, on average, seven years to fully adjudicate discrimination cases filed with its Division of Human Rights. One woman in Orleans County spent 14 years in the system before obtaining a $20,000 award, while a complainant against Columbia University was still waiting for a hearing after 11 years. A federal judge has sided with the National Organization for Women in a suit demanding that the agency hire more employees on top of its current 190 to handle the case load; NOW wants that number tripled. (Yancey Roy, “State faulted on rights cases”, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Nov. 2 — link now dead).
November 3 — Toshiba flops over. Last Friday’s announcement by Toshiba Corp. that it had agreed to pay a class-action settlement nominally valued at $2 billion over alleged defects in the floppy-drive operation of its laptop computers appears to represent a genuine breakthrough for plaintiff’s lawyers who’ve for years been gearing up a push to extract cash from high-tech companies over crashes, glitches and other subpar aspects of the computing experience. Many still unanswered questions about the new developments:
* Has the glitch led to any problems at all in real-world use? Conspicuously absent from the coverage of recent days has been any word from victims of the glitch saying that on such and such a date they lost important data because of it. Yet if the plaintiffs’ side had such witnesses available, it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t have pushed them forward to public notice by now. Apparently the lawyers, through their expert, have found a way to configure Toshiba laptops so as to replicate data loss under carefully controlled demonstration conditions, but news coverage has not yet probed into the question of how artificial these conditions are or how likely they are to occur to real users who aren’t trying on purpose to get their computers to lose data. The plaintiffs’ theory, which seems rather convenient, is that the data loss is so subtle that people don’t know it’s happening or can’t trace it to the glitch afterward.
* Given the above, who if anyone has suffered damages? Next week Toshiba “will post on its Web site a free and downloadable software patch that eliminates the problem.” And a large percentage of laptop owners never or almost never use their floppy drive, preferring modem transmission of files. Yet all will be entitled to prizes.
* How valuable are those prizes? There’s some talk of refunds for recent purchasers, but presumably most would rather download a software patch than return a computer they like. (Toshibas are popular.) Others will get coupons mostly valued at $100-$225 “for the purchase of Toshiba computer products sold through Toshiba’s U.S. subsidiary”. Usually the face value of a coupon settlement is a highly unreliable guide to what the settlement is actually costing; otherwise a Sunday paper with $30 in grocery coupons in it would sell for $30. Yet Toshiba is taking a $1 billion accounting charge, and pledges to donate unclaimed amounts from the settlement fund to “a newly created charitable organization”. And it’s also agreed to pay a very non-imaginary $147.5 million to a not-so-charitable organization, the lawyers that brought the suit.
* Can the lawyers take their act industry-wide? “On Sunday night, four new suits were filed in U.S. District Court in Beaumont, Texas [where the Toshiba case had been filed only six months ago], against PC makers Hewlett-Packard Co. Compaq, NEC Packard-Bell and e-Machines Inc.” Compaq says there are specific diferences between its machines and Toshiba’s which render the case against it meritless. Pattie Adams, a spokeswoman for eMachines, said her company still hadn’t seen the suit but expressed the view that it. “doesn’t really apply to us…It appears to be about laptops, which we do not have, and the technology is from before we were even established.” As if that would save them in our current legal system! Another news report suggests the lawyers are busily trying to rope in governments as plaintiffs, à la guns-tobacco-lead paint: “federal investigators have attended laboratory demonstrations sponsored by plaintiffs’ lawyers intended to show the occurrence of the alleged defect, these people said. State and local agencies can opt to assert damage claims on their own.”
The law firm involved, Reaud, Morgan & Quinn, of Beaumont, Texas, may not be a familiar name to tech-beat reporters, but it’s quite familiar to those who follow high-stakes litigation. After growing rich on asbestos claims it moved into the tobacco-Medicaid suit on behalf of Texas (Forbes, July 7, 1997; Sept. 21, 1998 and sidebar). It also made the Houston Chronicle‘s list of top ten political donors in Texas (five of whom, all consistent Democratic donors, happen to have represented the state in tobacco litigation for $3.3 billion in fees). Beaumont, which also is home to another of the Big Five Texas tobacco firms, is sometimes considered the most plaintiff-dominated town in the United States. (DISCUSS)
Sources: Toshiba press release, Oct. 29; Terho Uimonen, “Toshiba Settles Floppy Disk Lawsuit”, IDG /PC World News, Oct. 29; Andy Pasztor and Peter Landers, “Toshiba to pay $2B settlement on laptops”, Wall Street Journal Interactive/ZDNet, Nov. 1; Michael Fitzgerald and Michael R. Zimmerman, “PC makers hit with ‘copycat’ suits”, PC Week/ZDNet News, Nov. 1; “More PC lawsuits filed”, AP/CNNfn, Nov. 2 (link now dead); “Laptop Illogic”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 3.
November 3 — Flag-burning protest requires environmental permits. You’re so angry you want to burn a flag in public? You’ll have to fill out these two environmental permissions first, please, one for the smoke aspect and one for the fire aspect. We don’t think this is a parody. (Vin Suprynowicz, “Levying a Free-Speech Fee”, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Oct. 28 — full column)
November 3 — Welcome RiskVue and Latex Allergy Links readers. Coverage of EEOC protection of illegal aliens is here, and of possible Rhode Island-led suits against glove makers, here.
November 2 — School shootings: descent of the blame counselors. It may seem incredible to Americans, but after the 1996 massacre at Dunblane, Scotland, in which 16 kindergarteners and their teacher were killed, “not a single lawsuit was filed”. How different in Littleton, Colo., West Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark., where busy litigators — call them blame counselors? — seem to outnumber grief counselors, aiming suits in all directions: at school districts, entertainment companies, gunmakers, and most controversially the parents of the killers. Many victim families still decline to sue, taking the older view of litigation as an obstacle to forgiveness and community reconciliation; others throw themselves vigorously into their suits as a cause, believing they’re helping expose deep-seated evils of today’s America or at least the negligence of certain bad parents; and then there’s the middle ground represented by one Columbine High School mother who says she’s forgiven the shooters’ parents, but, frankly, now needs the money. (Lisa Belkin, “Parents Suing Parents”, New York Times Magazine, Oct. 31) (see also July 22, 1999 and April 13, 2000 commentaries).
November 2 — “Responsibility, RIP”. Columnist Mona Charen comments on two auto safety suits, one of them the child-left-in-hot-van case discussed in this space Oct. 20. In the other case, $2 million went to the survivors of a Texas man who’d left a truck running on a hill and walked behind it. “You don’t need an owner’s manual to tell you that it’s dangerous to walk behind a running, driverless vehicle on a steep hill. This used to be known as common sense. But so long as juries return such verdicts, the concept of individual responsibility gets hammered ever lower…the trial lawyers’ wallets grow corpulent, and the populace is increasingly infantilized.” (Jewish World Review, Oct. 25 — full column)
November 2 — How the tobacco settlement works. “‘There’ll be adjustments each year based on inflation,’ said Brett DeLange, head of the Idaho attorney general’s consumer protection unit. Plus, ‘If cigarette volume goes down, our payments will go down. If volume goes up, our payments will go up even more.'” Why, it’s like Christmas come early! Of course DeLange denies that this arrangement will in any way dampen the state’s enthusiasm for reducing tobacco use. (Betsy Z. Russell, “Tobacco money gets closer to Idaho”, Spokane Spokesman-Review, Oct. 24 — full story) (see also July 29 commentary)
November 2 — Lockyer vs. keys. “October 12, 1999 (Sacramento) — Attorney General Bill Lockyer today sued 13 key manufacturers and distributors for allegedly failing to warn that their products expose consumers to the toxic chemical lead in violation of Proposition 65.” — thus a press release from the office of the California AG. From time immemorial, it seems, house keys have been made of brass, and brass contains lead. Whatever you do, don’t tell him about the knocker on your front door, or those robe hooks in the bathroom. (press release link now dead)
November 2 — Perkiness a prerequisite? Lawsuit charges local outlet of Just for Feet shoe chain with bias against black workers. Among evidence alleged: store “policy dictating employees should look like Doris Day or ‘the boy next door.’ Company representatives deny the existence of such a policy.” (“Shoe store accused of discrimination”, AP, Las Vegas Sun, Oct. 26 — full story)
November 2 — 80,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. With help from our Canadian visitors, we hit a new daily traffic record last Thursday. New weekly and monthly records, too. Thanks for your support!
November 1 — New topical page on Overlawyered.com : family law resources. Divorce, custody, visitation, child support, adoptions gone wrong, and other occasions for overlawyering of the worst kind.
November 1 — Not-so-Kool omen for NAACP suit. Apparently unconcerned about retaining the good will of Second Amendment advocates, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is suing gunmakers for having catered to strong demand for their product in inner cities (see Aug. 19 commentary). Its potential case, however, is widely regarded as weak — so desperately weak that back on July 19 the National Law Journal reported the civil-rights group as angling to get the suit heard by Brooklyn’s very liberal senior-status federal judge Jack Weinstein because the underlying theories “might not succeed in any other courtroom in America”.
Now there’s another omen that the much-publicized lawsuit is unlikely to prevail: in Philadelphia, federal judge John Padova has dismissed a proposed class action which charged cigarette makers with selling in unusually high volume to black customers and targeting them with menthol brands and billboard ads. To bring a civil rights claim, the judge wrote, “[p]laintiffs would have to contend that the tobacco products defendants offer for sale to African Americans were defective in a way that the products they offer for sale to whites were not.” If a racial angle can’t be grafted onto the legal jihad against cigarette makers, is the same tactic likely to be any more successful when directed at gun makers?
Sources: Sabrina Rubin, “Holy Smokes!”, Philadelphia Magazine, February 1999; Shannon P. Duffy, “Court Urged to Dismiss Menthol Cigarette Class Action”, The Legal Intelligencer, April 8; Joseph A. Slobodzian, “A novel civil-rights lawsuit vs. tobacco industry is dismissed”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 24, link now dead; Shannon P. Duffy, “Judge Dismisses Smoking Suit”, The Legal Intelligencer, Sept. 24.
November 1 — Mounties vs. your dish. About a million Canadians are said to defy their country’s ban on the use of satellite dishes to receive international programming, though the Mounties’ website warns that violators “can face fines of up to $5,000 and/or up to 12 months in prison”. The ban applies not only to “pirate” watching (where viewers buy stolen code that lets them unscramble signals without compensating the satellite provider) but even to straightforward paid subscriptions to foreign satellite services. The only lawful option is to go through one of a duopoly of Ottawa-approved suppliers (Bell Express Vu and Star Choice). Good news on another front, though: Internet radio is letting listeners bypass the absurd and oppressive laws requiring Canadian content in that medium. Bring Internet TV soon, please! (Ian Harvey, “RCMP threatens a clean-up of illegal dishes”, Toronto Sun, Oct. 13 — full column)
November 1 — “Shoot the middle-aged”. That’s the title of a Detroit News editorial responding to the Michigan House’s unanimous approval of a bill allowing for doubling of criminal penalties when offenses are committed against the young or elderly. (Oct. 23 — full editorial).
November 1 — World according to Ron Motley. Even before tobacco fees, the Charleston-based plaintiff’s lawyer was “worth tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars. But he’s about to get much richer. A billion or two or three richer….Sketching plans that would alarm many corporate executives, the 53-year-old lawyer will reinvest most of his newfound money to finance lawsuits against the makers of lead paint, operators of nursing homes, health maintenance organizations and prescription drug makers.” He calls the businesses he sues “crooks”. “Mr. Motley’s windfall [from tobacco] is likely to exceed $3 billion…’If I don’t bring the entire lead paint industry to its knees within three years, I will give them my [120-foot] boat,’ he says”.
In its flattering profile of the 53-year-old South Carolinian, yesterday’s Dallas Morning News quotes a pair of law profs who hint that the public should really be glad Motley is now personally reaping billions for representing government clients, because next time he sues some huge business it’ll be more of an even match. By that logic, we’d be better off if we let every lawyer who argues a case against, say, Microsoft, amass as much wealth as Bill Gates. Maybe the trial lawyers will figure out a way to make that happen too before long (Mark Curriden, “Tobacco fees give plaintiffs’ lawyers new muscle”, Oct. 31 — full story)
November 30 — Class-action fee control: it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. A panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that judges have a positive duty to scrutinize and, where appropriate, reduce attorneys’ fees in class actions, independently of whether anyone with appropriate standing raises an objection. The case arose after a Los Angeles federal district judge approved nearly $3 million in legal fees to the plaintiff’s firm of Weiss & Yourman in a shareholder class action against Occidental Petroleum, which had cut its dividend in alleged breach of an earlier promise not to do that. The case was settled by Occidental’s agreement to maintain more lucrative dividend payouts in the future and pay legal fees to the plaintiff’s firm; no cash recovery was had by shareholders.
Noted class-action objector Lawrence Schonbrun then appeared on behalf of a class member to challenge the fee payout as excessive; his arguments proved sufficiently persuasive that the judge eventually cut Weiss & Yourman’s fee by more than half, to $1.15 million. The law firm appealed, arguing that because its fee was the result of a separate side-deal with Occidental, rather than being deducted from a payout to the class, an individual class member (such as Schonbrun’s client) had no standing to object. This line of argument has been routinely offered in defense of “separately negotiated fee” class-action settlements, and it has a remarkable implication, namely that once the two sides’ lawyers have cut their deal behind closed doors, no one in the client class has any right to raise an objection to the fees obtained for representing them. Fees for representing a class, yet with no worry that anyone in the class will be able to bring a challenge to those fees — why, it’s like magic!
A little too magical for the Ninth Circuit: a “client whose attorney accepts payment, without his consent, from the defendants he is suing, may have a remedy,” wrote Judge Andrew Kleinfeld last month on behalf of a unanimous panel that also included Judge Alex Kozinski and Oregon district judge Owen Panner, sitting by designation. “The absence of individual clients controlling the litigation for their own benefit creates opportunities for collusive arrangements in which defendants can pay the attorneys for the plaintiff classes enough money to induce them to settle the class action for too little benefit to the class”. That’s where “the supervisory power of the district court” should come in, as “a mechanism for assuring loyal performance of the attorneys’ fiduciary duty to the class.” (Paul Elias, “$2 Million Fee Reduction Stands in Securities Case”, The Recorder/Cal Law, Oct. 20 — full story).
November 30 — Leave that mildew alone. It’s illegal to market “mildew-proof” paint for bathrooms and damp basements unless you go through the (extremely expensive) process of registering the paint as a pesticide, claims the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is seeking $82,500 in penalties from William Zinsser & Co., Inc., a Somerset, N.J.-based paint manufacturer. (EPA Region 2 press release, Nov. 10).
November 30 — Update: sued columnist still disrespecting local attorneys. As reported earlier in this space, Swansea, Ill. lawyers Judy Cates and Steven Katz have filed a lawsuit demanding $1 million from St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan after a column in which he criticized their handling of a class-action suit against Publisher’s Clearing House and jocularly compared them to the James Gang of bank robbers (see Nov. 4 commentary). You’d think McClellan would have learned his lesson by now, especially with the case still pending, but no, he’s had the temerity to write another column criticizing the same lawyers, this time pointing out that numerous state attorneys general have intervened to fault their proposed settlement of the magazine-subscription suit. (“Regardless of suit result, my lawyers will have work”, Nov. 21 — full column)
November 29 — New subpage: Our overlawyered schools. Compiling news clips and commentaries on the legal headaches that beset teachers, students, principals, faculty and university administrators. Highlights include our ever-popular Annals of Zero Tolerance, special ed and the ADA, Title IX (From Outer Space), the role of litigiousness in undermining supervised recreation, the paralytic contribution of tenure laws, and other trends that tend toward the merger of schoolhouse, courthouse and madhouse.
November 29 — “Some lawyers try to make nice”. “Soon after EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, the personal-injury lawyers at R. Jack Clapp and Associates marshaled their resources and mobilized their forces. Faster than you can say class-action lawsuit, the Washington, D.C., firm, which specializes in aviation disasters, launched EgyptAir990.com — a Web site that at first blush appears primarily concerned with helping the bereaved deal with loss, but on closer examination is all about financial gain.” New York Times writer David Wallis devotes a “Week in Review” roundup to the legal profession’s efforts to repair its “sorry” image, lately impaired “by tacky late-night commercials for ambulance chasers; the legal lobby’s opposition to tort reform; and the one-two punch of the O.J. Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.”
The Ohio Bar, meanwhile, has sponsored a TV spot in which two children explain at school what their parent does for a living: one says his father “protects people”, like a police officer, and another says her mom “helps sick and hurt people”, like a doctor. It turns out that they’re . . . lawyers. So what is it that the opposing side’s lawyers do for a living? (David Wallis, “Some Lawyers Try To Make Nice”, New York Times, Nov. 28 — full story)(free, but registration required).
November 29 — “Wretched excesses of liability lawsuits”. Op-ed by the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s David Boldt looks at “the ever-expanding litigation explosion” by way of some recent automotive cases, including the class action against DaimlerChrysler that recently resulted in a countersuit by the company (see November 12 commentary). On this summer’s Chevy Malibu verdict in Los Angeles, in which a jury voted $4.8 billion against General Motors, later reduced by a judge to $1.1 billion, Boldt offers a point of comparison we hadn’t previously seen: “The impact [of the Chevy’s 70 mph rear-ending by a drunk driver] was the equivalent of dropping the car from the top of a 16-story building.”
Many accept the idea that the litigation boom offers compensating benefits — for example, “that our lives are made safer by the system because it makes companies more careful. Interestingly, there is no known evidence for this.” Boldt cites the Brookings Institution’s study “The Liability Maze” of eight years ago. “The editors — Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute and Robert Litan of Brookings — wrote that none of the authors had found a demonstrable improvement in safety for Americans compared with nations that have less stringent liability-law systems. Nor did the authors find that the increase in liability suits had accelerated a decline in U.S. accident rates. I can find no subsequent study that has contradicted these conclusions.” (David Boldt, “We all end up paying for a litigious society”, reprinted in Baltimore Sun, Nov. 24).
November 26-28 — Oh, well, better luck next time. Illinois courts reviewing capital sentences “have repeatedly expressed dismay at the representation received by Death Row inmates at trial,” and this Chicago Tribune investigation brings to light a sad array of ways lawyers can drop the ball at a time when clients need their help most: missing deadlines, failing to develop exculpatory evidence, alienating judges, neglecting to disclose conflicts of interest, and much more. “Since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977 . . . 33 defendants sentenced to death were represented at trial by an attorney who had been, or was later, disbarred or suspended — disciplinary sanctions reserved for conduct so incompetent, unethical or even criminal that the state believes an attorney’s license should be taken away.” If lawyers can perform this sloppily even when a client’s life is at stake, what must they be getting away with in lesser cases? (Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills, “Inept Defenses Cloud Verdicts”, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 15).
November 26-28 — Beware of market crashes. “Online brokerages are ‘probably’ financially responsible for computer outages that leave their customers unable to trade,” Securities and Exchange Commission Arthur Levitt said this week. Executives at online trading firms, reports the New York Post‘s Jesse Angelo, “are terrified of lawsuits from customers claiming they lost money due to computer glitches. E*Trade has already been slapped with such a suit by an Ohio woman who attributes $40,000 in losses to computer problems at the online trading site. The suit seeks class-action status”. (Jesse Angelo, “Levitt: Web Brokers May Be on the Hook for Computer Crash”, New York Post, Nov. 23).
November 26-28 — Update: cannon shot OK. Administrators at Nevis High School in Minnesota have relented and agreed to permit a yearbook photo of Army enlistee Samantha Jones perched on a cannon draped with a U.S. flag, despite a policy of “zero tolerance” of depictions of weapons (see Oct. 30-31 commentary). “More than 100 students walked out of class Nov. 3 to protest the ban on the photo, leading to 50 suspensions,” AP reports. (“Fight over yearbook photo ends”, AP/Washington Post, Nov. 25 (link now dead)).
November 26-28 — Weekend reading: evergreens. Pixels to take to the mall or to peruse while resting off the big meal:
* Out-of-state defendants sued for more than $75,000 in a state court should be able to choose removal of the suit to a U.S. district court with its greater objectivity between local and nonlocal litigants, argues Phelps Dunbar partner Michael Wallace in one of the more promising proposals for liability reform we’ve heard in a while (Michael Wallace, “A Modest Proposal for Tort Reform“, from vol. 1, issue 3 of Federalist Society Litigation Working Group newsletter; at Federalist Society website).
* How to tell you’ve been the victim of a staged car accident: tips from a local CBS-TV affiliate’s story on “Los Angeles’ most unlucky driver” (you’re driving alone in a newer car, someone in one vehicle distracts your attention, a second older car with several passengers gets in front of you and suddenly slams brakes, none of the alleged victims carry photo IDs) and from investigator Jack Murray’s book on the subject (the incident occurred midblock, not in rush hour and with no eyewitnesses, struck vehicle “has had tire pressure in the rear tires lowered (causes more taillight damage and stops more quickly)”. (“Special Assignment: Staged Accidents“, Channel2000.com, March 28, 1998; Jack Murray, “Red flags: a 14 point checklist“, not dated, National Association of Investigative Specialists website).
* “Procedures And Rules Regarding Suits Against Public Entities” — well, okay, it’s a dry title for an undeniably dry outline of the steps involved in extracting money from City Hall, but you’ve got to admit it bears an interesting byline: Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., whose success in litigating personal-injury cases both preceded and followed his better-known role in assisting O.J. Simpson to walk free of murder charges (website of California law firm Kiesel, Boucher and Larson LLP — full paper, undated).
November 24-25 — Don’t redeem that coupon! Under the heading, “Free money for doing nothing”, financial commentator Andrew Tobias writes, “If you’ve ever owned a Toshiba laptop — I’ve owned two — apparently you’re in line for $200-$400 because Toshiba has to pay us $2 billion because . . . well, because . . . I’m actually not going to claim my prize, because it doesn’t feel right. But, as noted over on overlawyered.com, it makes an interesting story.” (AndrewTobias.com, Nov. 24). Our coverage of the Toshiba laptop settlement ran Nov. 3, Nov. 5, Nov. 17 and Nov. 23.
November 24-25 — From our mail sack: memoir of a morsel. We’ve generally refrained from publishing on this site the many letters people send us describing their horrible personal experiences in court. Just this once, we’re going to break that rule and run this one from Paul Boyce of Tustin, Calif.:
“I am a small businessman, owner of a 3-employee business helping companies with their carpool programs (one of those employees is my wife). We were sued by an employee for wrongful termination 5 years ago, at a time when we had six employees. She had been working for me for only 6 months when I let her go. We went into binding arbitration, supposedly a low cost alternative to a jury trial. I lost. With penalties and interest, the judgment came to over $240,000. In 1998, I filed for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy — there was no way I could pay that much! In fact, business revenues were down to 1/5 of what they were when she sued me. Last year I earned $60,000. My lawyer’s fees came to $55,000.
“In the bankruptcy, the only asset we had was our small-business retirement plan savings, amounting to about $350,000. What was astonishing was that the judge said that because my wife and I are in our mid 40s, we didn’t need the $350,000 — we could easily make it up! He based this on tables showing how long we could be expected to live versus how much we could be expected to make at hypothetical government jobs. So he ordered our retirement plan be handed over to the contingency fee lawyers to be split up. We’ve asked around and the best we can tell, the employee who sued us 5 years ago will get maybe $35,000 for her efforts. We counted a total of 4 contingency fee lawyers on her side.
“The result of all this is that I’ve decided to close the office and lay off my only employee. It’s just a lot easier and less risky to run the business out of our home.
“The legal system, with its strong preference for feeding the lawyers at the expense of morsels like me, shows me how far astray from the constitution our great country has strayed. It’s a parody of what the founding fathers had in mind when they clearly expressed their historic vision. Today, it’s all about the lawyers and how clever they are at shifting even more wealth their way.”
Paul and Sandy Boyce can be reached at Commuter Services Group, Tustin, CA.
November 24-25 — CNN “Moneyline”. Watch for our editor as a likely guest on this evening’s (Wed., Nov. 24) CNN Moneyline, discussing the continuing lawsuit boom.
November 23 — Class actions vs. high tech. “It had to happen: America’s most successful industry, high technology, is under sustained assault from America’s second-most successful industry, litigation.” The editor of this website has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, tackling the Microsoft and Toshiba class actions. (Walter Olson, “A Microsoft Suit with a Sure Winner”, New York Times, Nov. 23).
November 23 — Soros as bully. Add another prominent name to the list of philanthropists (see September 2 commentary) bankrolling the lawsuits that are fast driving family-owned gunmakers into bankruptcy: wealthy financier George Soros, who according to a Wall Street Journal report last month has donated $300,000 to keep the Hamilton v. Accu-Tek litigation going and also provided financing for the NAACP’s suit against gunmakers. (Paul M. Barrett, “Evolution of a Cause: Why the Gun Debate Has Finally Taken Off”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21)
November 23 — Update: too obnoxious to practice law. The Nebraska Supreme Court has now heard the case of Paul Converse, who wants to become a lawyer though the state bar commission says he’s behaved in an “abusive, disruptive, hostile, intemperate, intimidating, irresponsible, threatening or turbulent” manner in the past (see Oct. 13 commentary). Last week the court agreed that Converse “seeks to resolve disputes not in a peaceful manner, but by personally attacking those who oppose him in any way and then resorting to arenas outside the field of law to publicly humiliate and intimidate those opponents.” Notwithstanding these high qualifications to practice in certain fields of American law, it turned down his application. They sure do things differently out in Cornhusker land (Leslie Reed, “Court: Law Grad Unfit for Nebraska Bar”, Omaha World-Herald, Nov. 20, link now dead)
November 23 — Get off my jury. “To win a decent verdict, Mr. Rogers [Chicago attorney Larry R. Rogers, Sr., who won $10.4 million for a client after a serious traffic accident] had to select the right jury…He never wants people from the banking industry, accountants and people in investment professions on his juries: ‘These people tend to think about the power of money, that if you give someone $100,000 and they invest it, it will earn something. They won’t give you full compensation for the injury.’ He was also sensitive to keeping off jurors who are anti-lawsuit: ‘I ask them is there anything they’ve heard in the media, in newspapers, about tort reform.’ …’They liked [his client], and juries tend to award damages to people they like.” (“Proving worth isn’t age-related” (profile of Larry R. Rogers Sr.), National Law Journal, Oct. 4.)
November 22 — From the planet Litigation. Courtroom jousting continues between a group that calls itself Citizens Against UFO Secrecy and the U.S. Department of Defense over CAUS’s charges that DoD has covered up incidents of possible intrusion by extraterrestrial spacecraft. CAUS has sued the government a half-dozen times over its alleged unresponsiveness to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding UFO sightings; on September 1 it added a complaint that the government has fallen short of its responsibilities under Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution to defend the nation’s territory against foreign invasion. CAUS executive director Peter Gersten filed the action in his home state of Arizona, which “is definitely a targeted area for the clandestine intruders,” and is contemplating follow-on suits in New York and California. “I can prove in a court of law, and beyond a reasonable doubt, that we are in contact with another form of intelligence,” he says. CAUS’s site reprints affidavits, motions and other documents from the case, including illustrations of UFO sightings in Corpus Christi, Tex., Pahrump, Nev. (link now dead), and Seattle. (Robert Scott Martin, “CAUS Sues U.S. Over Secrecy”, Space.com, Sept. 1, link now dead; CAUS Sept. 1 press release.)
In a separate action, UFO researcher Larry Bryant of Alexandria, Va., who’s served as CAUS’s Washington, D.C. coordinator, has prepared a petition charging Virginia authorities with shirking their constitutional obligation to safeguard citizens from invasion by foreign powers. Bryant says Virginia governor James Gilmore III “knows that it’s against the law to abduct, torture, falsely imprison, wantonly impregnate and unconsensually surgically alter (via implants) a person. He also knows that he has the power to repel these invasive activities of apparently alien-originated UFO encounters.” Described by Space.com as a retired writer and editor of military publications, Bryant “takes pride in having ‘filed more UFO-related lawsuits in federal court than has anyone else in the entire universe.'” (Robert Scott Martin, “UFO Invasion Outcry Spreads to Virginia”, Space.com, Sept. 10, link now dead.)
CAUS’s Gersten has also described as “gratuitously demeaning”, probably “defamatory” and “actionable” an ad for Winston cigarettes this summer which made fun of alien-abduction believers, but declined to pursue legal action against the cigarettes’ maker, R.J. Reynolds. (“Cigarette Ad Sparks UFO Controversy”, Space.com, Sept. 28; “UFO Lawyer Unlikely To Sue Tobacco Company over Ad”, Oct. 1, links now dead).
November 22 —Vice President gets an earful. “One employee summed up the anguish over the case, saying, ‘when I read what the government says about Microsoft, I don’t recognize the company I work for.’ Another bitterly complained that the many subpoenas of Microsoft e-mail had invaded employees’ privacy more than any government wiretap, ‘so that sharp lawyers can cut and snip bits of e-mail to construct whatever story they want’ in court. ‘We bugged ourselves’.” John R. Wilke, “Gore, Addressing Microsoft Staff, Defends Nation’s Antitrust Laws”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16).
The New York Times is reporting that class-action lawyers on the West Coast will sue Microsoft as early as today on behalf of a class of California end-users of Windows 95 and 98. The suit, which will ask treble damages for alleged overcharges, will be filed on behalf of a statewide rather than nationwide class because the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 Illinois Brick decision disallows federal antitrust actions on behalf of indirect purchasers of goods (most Windows users buy it preloaded on their machines, rather than direct from Microsoft). However, 18 states including California and New York have enacted statewide laws allowing such suits. (Steve Lohr, “Microsoft Faces a Class Action on ‘Monopoly'”, New York Times, Nov. 22 — free, but registration required).
November 22 — Great moments in zoning law. Officials in Millstone, N.J. have issued a summons to Lorraine Zdeb, a professional pet-sitter who took in nearly 100 animals from neighbors, clients and strangers to save them from the flooding of Tropical Storm Floyd, charging her with operating a temporary animal shelter in a residential neighborhood. (“Somerset County woman charged for taking in animals during storm”, AP/CNN, Nov. 20, link now dead).
November 22 — Repetitive motion injury Hall of Fame. Delicacy prevents us from describing exactly how this Fort Lauderdale, Fla. woman acquired carpal tunnel syndrome in the course of providing paid telephone companionship for lonely gentlemen, but it did not prevent her from applying for workers’ compensation benefits for which she obtained a “minimal settlement” this month. (Reuters/ABC News, Nov. 19, link now dead).
November 20-21 — Annals of zero tolerance: the fateful thumb. MeShelle Locke’s problems at North Thurston High School near Tacoma, Washington began Nov. 5 when she pointed her finger and thumb at a classmate in the shape of a gun and said “bang”. Asked if that was a threat, she saucily quoted a line from the 1992 movie “The Buttercream Gang”: “No, it’s a promise.” Before long, she was hauled up on charges of having threatened violence, drawing a four-day suspension and a disciplinary record that may affect her chances of getting into a competitive college.
A budding writer whose work appeared in the high-selling anthology Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul, and who says she’d never been in trouble with the school before, MeShelle might seem an unlikely source of menace, but school officials told her father that his daughter “fit the profile” of a potentially dangerous student: “For example, she often eats lunch alone or in a small group.” (Karen Hucks, “Gunlike gesture results in suspension”, Tacoma News-Tribune, Nov. 13; “School is no place for ‘bang-bang’ jokes”, Nov. 16, links now dead)
November 20-21 — From the evergreen file: L.A. probate horror. Wealthy art collector Fred Weisman was lucky he didn’t live to see the proceedings in a Santa Monica courthouse after his death “as his will and his estate are picked apart like a slab of pork thrown to buzzards.” (Jill Stewart, “Shredded Fred”, New Times L.A., Nov. 19, 1998, link now dead).
November 20-21 — No, honey, nothing special happened today. In early 1997 Denise Rossi startled her husband by announcing that she wanted a divorce. In the ensuing legal proceedings she forgot to mention — it just slipped her mind! — that eleven days before filing she’d happened to win the California lottery for $1.3 million. Two years later, her husband learned the truth when a misdirected Dear-Lottery-Winner letter arrived offering to turn his ex-wife’s winnings into ready cash. And this Monday a judge ruled that she’d have to hand it all over to her ex-husband, as a penalty for committing a fraud on him and on the court. She has since filed for bankruptcy proteciton. (Ann O’Neill, L.A. Times, reprinted in San Jose Mercury News, link now dead).
November 20-21 — Judge to lawyers in Miami gun suit: you’re trying to ban ’em, right? “If you were to get exactly what you wanted, they’d be taken off the market entirely,” Circuit Court Judge Amy Dean told lawyers representing Dade County in its recoupment lawsuit against major gunmakers, by way of clarifying their position. (Jane Sutton, “Miami Gun Suit Could Take Firearms Off Market”, Reuters (link now dead), Nov. 16). Last month attorney John Coale, a spokesman for the municipal suits, “dismissed claims that the lawsuits could ever shut down the entire 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,’ Coale said.” (Hans H. Chen, “Colt’s Handgun Plan Heats Up Debate”, APBNews.com, Oct. 11) (see Oct. 12 commentary).
Dade County-Miami Mayor Alex Penelas, quoted in the new Reuters report, seemed to view the anti-democratic nature of the county’s lawsuit almost as a point in its favor: he “said he was using the courts in an attempt to crack down on the gun industry because the Florida legislature refused to do so. ‘Every year that I’ve gone to the legislature we have basically been told to take our case elsewhere,’ he said.” Much the same sentiment was expressed last month by Elisa Barnes, the chief lawyer behind the Hamilton v. Accu-Tek lawsuit in Brooklyn, N.Y. against gunmakers: “‘You don’t need a legislative majority to file a lawsuit,’ says Ms. Barnes.”” (“Evolution of a Cause: Why the Gun Debate Has Finally Taken Off”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21 (requires online subscription))
November 20-21 — National Anxiety Center “Favorite Web Sites of the Week”. “I recommend a visit to www.overlawyered.com where you can get tons of data regarding how trial lawyers are destroying this nation out of nothing more than greed, greed, and greed. This excellent site will help you understand what’s happening to Microsoft, to the tobacco industry, the gun manufacturers, and much more.” — “Warning Signs”, the weekly commentary of Alan Caruba’s National Anxiety Center, for Nov. 19. Unabashedly conservative, Mr. Caruba’s popular site specializes in refuting environmental scares in outspoken style.
November 20-21 — 100,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. We’d have hit this milestone earlier but our counter went on the fritz for a few days…thanks for your support!
November 18-19 — Worse than Y2K? “If the EPA succeeds in forcing a shutdown of the 17 coal-fired power generating plants it claims are illegally polluting,” editorializes the Indianapolis Star regarding the Clinton Administration’s recently filed lawsuit, “chances are very good the Midwest will experience major brownouts and rolling power outages on the next hot summer day.” Moreover, the “lawsuits were filed without warning [Nov. 3] by the Justice Department on behalf of the EPA. It was, quite simply, an unprecedented sneak attack on the electrical power industry” — yet one to which private environmental groups may have been tipped off in advance, given how ready they were to fire off a flurry of supportive press releases. EPA administrator Carol Browner and Janet Reno’s Justice Department now contend that utilities disguised expansions and upgrades of the grandfathered plants as routine maintenance, but a Chicago Tribune editorial says the modernizations were carried out with “the knowledge of federal environmental inspectors” whose superiors are now seeking to change the game’s rules after many innings have been played. If a looming Y2K glitch threatened to shut down a large share of the electric capacity of the Midwest and South, there’d be widespread alarm; when aggressive lawyering threatens to do so, few seem to care. (“EPA sneak attack”, editorial, Indianapolis Star, Nov. 5, link now dead; “A costly U-turn by the federal EPA”, editorial, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 13).
November 18-19 — Golf ball class action. Golf Digest is “disgusted” over a class-action suit that lawyers filed against the Acushnet Company because, after running out of a promotional glove sent free to customers of Pinnacle golf balls, it sent the remaining customers a free sleeve of golf balls instead. Fraud! Deception! Shock-horror! “In the end, the plaintiffs’ attorneys were awarded as much as $100,000 in fees for their heroic efforts, [Allen] Riebman and [Lawrence] Bober (as the two named plaintiffs) themselves received payments of $2,500 apiece, and everyone else received what the lawsuit claimed was unacceptable in the first place: another free sleeve of Pinnacles. That’s justice at work.” (“The Bunker”, Golf Digest, October 1 — link now dead)
November 18-19 — Skittish Colt. According to Colt Manufacturing, the historic American gunmaker battered by the trial lawyers’ onslaught, Newsweek got some things wrong in its report last month, which was summarized in this space Oct. 12 (see also Nov. 9 commentary). Colt denies that its dropping of various handgun lines constitutes an exit from the consumer market, and says “it will continue its most popular models, such as the single-action revolver called the Cowboy and the O Model .45-caliber automatics.” It gave a number for layoffs of 120-200 rather than 300, and suggested that the lines would have been dropped at some point even without the litigation pressure. (Robin Stansbury, “Arms Reduction at Colt’s”, Hartford Courant, Oct. 13, reprinted at Colt site). A statement by the company did not, however, dispute a quote attributed to an executive in the original reports: “It’s extremely painful when you have to withdraw from a business for irrational reasons.”
According to Paul M. Barrett in the Oct. 21 Wall Street Journal, Colt’s legal bills for defending the suits “are expected to reach a total of about $3 million in 1999 alone. Insurance will cover two-thirds of that, says [New Colt Holdings chairman Donald] Zilkha, but the remaining $1 million is a significant hit for a still-struggling company that expects to have net income of only about $2 million this year.” (“Evolution of a Cause: Why the Gun Debate Has Finally Taken Off”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21). Update: for a closer look at Colt, see Matt Bai, “Unmaking a Gunmaker”, Newsweek, April 17, 2000.
November 18-19 — Law-firm bill padding? Say it isn’t so! Law professor Lisa Lerman of Catholic University in D.C. thinks lots and lots of overbilling goes on, even at big-name firms. “There’s a complete disconnect between the occurrence of misconduct and the rate of discipline,” she says. (Michael D. Goldhaber, “Overbilling Is a Big-Firm Problem Too”, National Law Journal, Oct. 4). One of Lerman’s case histories, if accurate, indicates systematic malfeasance in the methods by which an unnamed Eastern law firm generated time sheets to submit to its insurance-company clients. (Michael D. Goldhaber, “Welcome to Moral Wasteland LLC”, National Law Journal, Oct. 11).
November 18-19 — A lovable liability risk. Zoe, a golden retriever who for the past two years has accompanied Principal Jill Spanheimer at her office at West Broad Elementary School, and has made friends with practically all the kids over that time, has been banished by an administrative order of the Columbus, Ohio public schools. The school system’s letter to Ms. Spanheimer “cited ‘possible allergic reactions,’ ‘liability issues’ and ‘an uncomfortableness of some students and staff’ as reasons Zoe was expelled.” See if your heart doesn’t melt at the picture (Julie R. Bailey, “Principal’s dog expelled from elementary school”, Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 11). On Tuesday the board agreed to review the policy (Bill Bush, “Policy on animals in schools becomes pet project for board”, Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 17).
November 18-19 — Aetna chairman disrespects Scruggs. No love lost, clearly, between Richard Huber, chairman of Aetna, and Mississippi tobacco-fee tycoon Richard Scruggs, prominent in the much-hyped legal assault on managed care. Scroll down about halfway through this interview to find the bracketed “Editor’s Note” where the interviewer asks the chairman of the nation’s largest health insurer whether it was “by intention or mistake” that he’d consistently misreferred to Mr. Scruggs’ surname as “Slugs”. Knock it off, kids (MCO Executives Online, Oct. 27 — full interview).
November 18-19 — Welcome WTIC News Talk visitors (“Ray and Robin’s picks“). We’ve even got a few Hartford-related items for you: see the Colt and Aetna bits above, and this report summarizing an article from the Courant about how lawsuits are making it hard for towns around Connecticut to run playgrounds.
November 17 — “How I Hit The Class Action Jackpot”. “As the lucky co-owner of a Toshiba laptop computer, I should be tickled pink: I apparently qualify for a cash rebate of $309.90….And the beauty of it is that my Toshiba works just fine!….[S]o remote is the possibility that our laptop will ever seriously malfunction that I may not get around to downloading the free software ‘patch’ that Toshiba has provided as part of the settlement.” Don’t miss this scathing Stuart Taylor column on the mounting scandal of the $147.5-million (legal fees) laptop settlement. (National Journal, Nov. 15 — link now dead).
November 17 — Who needs communication? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission steps up its campaign of complaint-filing over employer rules requiring employees to use English on the job. Synchro-Start Products Inc. of suburban Chicago has agreed to pay $55,000 to settle one such agency complaint; native speakers of Polish and Spanish make up much of its 200-strong workforce, and the company said it adopted such a policy after the use of languages not understood by co-workers had led to miscommunication and morale problems. The EEOC, however, pursues what the National Law Journal terms a “presumed-guilty” approach toward employer rules of this sort, permitting narrowly drafted exceptions only when managers can muster “compelling business necessity”, as on health or safety grounds. Earlier this year, a California nursing home agreed to pay $52,500 in another such case. In some early cases, employers adopted English-only policies after fielding complaints from customers who felt they were being bantered about in their presence or that non-English-speaking customers were getting preferential service — a problem which, like that of co-worker morale, may not necessarily rise in Washington’s view to the level of “business necessity”. (“EEOC Settles ‘English Only’ Workplace Suit For $55,000”, DowJones.com newswire, Nov. 12; Darryl Van Duch, “English-Only Rules Land In Court”, National Law Journal, Oct. 26.)
November 17 — Microsoft roundup. A critic of the giant company explains, not without glee, why the findings of fact mean so much as a template for private lawsuits: “Before last Friday, telling a jury that Microsoft is an evil, predatory organization that drove you out of business was a long, protracted procedure of walking a jury, step by step, through a crash course of how a technology company works; the importance of core technologies and leveraging them into a larger space, the nature of operating systems and related licensing and agreements, how Microsoft was able to exploit its position in the marketplace; and why this means that the plaintiff’s company was hoodwinked and not simply outmaneuvered. Today, you just have to call the jury’s attention to the document which your, their, and Bill Gates’ tax dollars helped to prepare.” (Andy Ihnatko, “The Wicked Witch Is Seeking Positive Spin”, MacCentral Online, Nov. 9).
Also: why bungling by IBM (especially) and Apple helped clear the way for Redmond’s dominance (Jerry Pournelle, “Jerry’s take on the Microsoft decision: Wrong!”, Byte, Nov. 8). And a Gallup Poll shows the public viewing Bill Gates favorably by more than three to one, siding with Microsoft on the trial by a 12-point margin, and opposing breakup of the company by a solid majority — as if any of that will matter to the folks in Washington (Ted Bridis, “Despite court loss, Microsoft moving ahead in public opinion”, AP/SFGate Tech, Nov. 10).
November 16 — What a mess! New Overlawyered.com subpage on environmental law. Our latest topical page assembles commentaries and links on the slowest and most expensive method yet invented to clean up fouled industrial sites, pay due respect to irreplaceable natural wonders, and bring science to bear on distinguishing serious from trivial toxic risks — namely, turning everything over to lawyers at $325 an hour. Also included are commentaries on animal rights, including our ever-popular drunken-parrot, crushed-insect, rattlesnake-habitat and eagle-feather reports — though at some point the menagerie of legally protected critters will probably get its own page.
November 16 — Baleful blurbs. Under well-established First Amendment precedent, it’s still nearly impossible to prevail in lawsuits against book publishers alleging that their wares are false and misleading — that, e.g., the diet book didn’t really make the pounds melt away, the relationship book resulted in heartbreak rather than nuptials, the religion book led the reader into spiritual error, and the celebrity autobiography bore only a passing relationship to strict historical truth. Were it otherwise, whole categories of book might never appear on bookstore shelves in the first place for fear of liability, including not a few works of public policy interest, such as, for example, the writings of certain early enviro-alarmists who predicted famine and exhaustion of world nonrenewable resources by 1985.
However, a recent decision in a California court may represent a breakthrough for plaintiff’s lawyers who’ve long hoped to expand publisher liability for printed untruths. The “Beardstown Ladies” were a mid-1990s publishing phenomenon in the well-worn genre of commonsense investment advice: a group of grandmothers in a small Midwestern town whose investment club was widely reported to have achieved stellar annual returns. Eventually a reporter for Chicago magazine investigated and found the Ladies had inadvertently inflated their returns, which turned out to be not especially stellar. Disney, their publisher, sent correction slips to booksellers, and the Beardstown craze was soon but a memory. The San Francisco law firm of Bayer, August & Belote, however, went to court on behalf of a customer to say that Disney had behaved falsely and deceptively by not yanking the book or at least its cover, which repeated the discredited claims.
Last month, reversing a lower court’s ruling, the state’s First District Court of Appeal ruled that although First Amendment law concededly protected the contents of the book, its cover blurbs were entitled to no such protection — even though the blurbs were in fact quoted verbatim from the book’s text. “Because the state has a legitimate interest in regulating false commercial speech, we conclude that the statements, as alleged, are not entitled to First Amendment protection,” wrote Justice Herbert “Wes” Walker. The Association of American Publishers had filed an amicus brief warning that such a ruling would “impose an affirmative obligation on publishers to investigate independently and guarantee the accuracy of the contents of the books if those contents are repeated on book covers and promotional materials.” (Rinat Fried, “Panel: You Can Judge Book by Cover”, The Recorder/Cal Law, Oct. 29). (DISCUSS)
November 16 — ‘Bama bucks. Per financial disclosure reports, six plaintiff’s law firms “donated about $4 million last year to six candidates through the state Democratic Party and political action committees”, according to the pro-tort reform Alabama Citizens for a Sound Economy. Tops was the firm of Jere Beasley of Montgomery, which gave “more than $1 million — $633,000 to the Democratic Party and $389,000 to two political action committees, Pro-Pac and Trial-Pac”. Other distributors of largesse included Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder & Brown of Mobile ($955,000), Hare, Wynn, Newell & Newton of Birmingham ($636,000); Pittman, Hooks, Dutton & Hollis of Birmingham ($526,000); Morris, Haynes, Ingram & Hornsby of Alexander City ($476,000); and King, Warren & Ivey of Jasper ($250,000). The money went to four judicial candidates, of whom two won, and to losing candidates for attorney general and lieutenant goveror. (Stan Bailey, “Group: 6 law firms gave $4 million to Demos’ run”, Birmingham News, Nov. 10) (earlier coverage of Alabama tort politics: Aug. 26, Sept. 1).