Posts Tagged ‘French fries’

Class action roundup: tires, Western Union, jam

At the new multi-author blog Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok writes that he’s angry: “The lawyers will get $19 million, the plaintiffs have no damages and I have been involved in an abuse of justice. I received notice yesterday that I was a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Bridgestone/Firestone that is about to be settled. I was never injured by Firestone but that’s ok because injured people have their own lawsuit the one I am involved in is for people who were not injured. The lawsuit reads ‘Plaintiff Does Not Seek To Represent And This Litigation Does Not Involve Any Person Who Alleges That He or She Suffered Any Personal Injury or Property Damage Because Of A Failure Of One Of The Tires’ (capitalization in original.) Bear in mind that Firestone has already replaced all four of my tires with a competitor’s brand for free and similarly for many of the other plaintiffs.” (Sept. 16) Co-blogger Tyler Cowen at the same site isn’t any happier to discover that he is a member of the class in a suit against Western Union over its wire-funds-abroad service charging that, according to the legalese, “…the Defendants [made] misrepresentations about or otherwise failing to disclose to customers the fact that they received a more favorable exchange rate for converting U.S. dollars to foreign currency and foreign currency to U.S. dollars than they provided to their customers.” “Imagine that” — writes Cowen — “a middleman buying and selling at different prices!” (Sept. 17). (More: see KrazyKiwi, Oct. 8).

Meanwhile, a Wisconsin man has filed an intended class action lawsuit against jam maker J.M. Smucker after the Washington-based anti-business group Center for Science in the Public Interest published a report claiming that Smucker’s “Simply 100 Percent Fruit” products were falsely labeled because only a minority of the actual contents of a jar of strawberry or blueberry “Spreadable Fruit” consisted of those berries, the remainder consisting (as Smucker’s labeling makes clear) of syrups, concentrates and extracts derived from other fruits such as apple, grape, lemon and pineapple. (“Smucker’s Spreads Not All Fruit, Lawsuit Says”, AP/FoxNews, Sept. 5 — if you’re looking for a deceptive claim, how about the one conveyed by that headline?). The food-industry-defense Center for Consumer Freedom levels an interesting accusation against CSPI, namely that bounty-hunting lawyers suing under California’s Proposition 65 law seemed to have mysterious psychic powers to divine in advance exactly what was going to be in a CSPI report on supposed killer french fries — either that, or CSPI shared the information with them before it went public with its allegations. See “We, the jury, find the defendant ‘starchy'”, CCF, Jul. 17 (third from last paragraph); “CSPI: 100 Percent Litigious”, CCF, Sept. 8; “Latest Acrylamide Panic Based on Fudged Numbers” (press release), CCF, Jul. 10. For more on the French fry suit, see Dec. 27-29, 2002.

January 2003 archives, part 3


January 31-February 2 — “Cities Pay Big in Faulty Lawsuits”. Fox News picks up on the theme explored by columnist Deroy Murdock a few days ago of how persons hurt while committing crimes or trying to commit suicide now often show up in court demanding compensation for others’ negligence in letting them be injured. This site’s editor went on camera to take a less-than-enthusiastic view of such suits. (Jan. 30) (DURABLE LINK)

January 31-February 2 — FBI probes Philadelphia’s hiring of class-action firm. “An FBI investigation is focusing on why current and former city officials gave potentially lucrative legal work to a top Democratic donor and resisted a judge’s efforts to seek competitive bids for the work.” The administration of Ed Rendell, since elected Pennsylvania governor, hired prominent class-action firm Barrack, Rodos & Bacine to represent the city as lead plaintiff in a large class action in California representing investors in Network Associates, a software firm. Through its senior partner, the law firm says it plans to cooperate with the investigation. (Cynthia Burton, Mark Fazlollah and Joseph Tanfani, “FBI investigates Philadelphia’s Pension Board”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 30). Update and more coverage: Mar. 21-23. (DURABLE LINK)

January 31-February 2 — “Valentine’s Card Burglar Sues Police”. From the U.K.: “A convicted burglar has been given legal aid to sue the police for sending him a Valentine’s card last year. Gary Williams, who has a 12-year criminal record, was one of 10 known burglars and car criminals who received cards from Brighton police. But when he opened the card, his girlfriend thought it must be from another woman. She was so cross that, before he could explain, she hurled an ashtray at him, and it went whistling past his head.” (David Sapsted, Daily Telegraph, Jan. 29) (DURABLE LINK)

January 31-February 2 — Fair housing law vs. free speech. On more than one occasion, when local residents have spoken out against the siting of low-income housing projects or group homes in their neighborhoods, they’ve faced (unsuccessful) lawsuits and attempted fines on the grounds that their speech constituted a civil rights violation. Now the Sixth Circuit has approved a more subtle way of discouraging residents from speaking their minds: impute their prejudiced views to the government that has allowed them to speak at a public hearing. It’s a good way of getting government bodies to stop holding public hearings for fear of liability, according to columnist Robyn Blumner (“Fair Housing Act cannot be used to gag residents’ displeasure”, St. Petersburg Times, Jan. 19). (DURABLE LINK)

January 31-February 2 — Manhattan Institute turns 25. The New York-based policy institute, with which our editor is associated, celebrates its quarter-century anniversary. Read more about it (Tom Wolfe, “Revolutionaries”, New York Post, Jan. 30; “Ideas Matter” (editorial), Jan. 30). Then visit the Institute’s website and sign up for its invaluable mailing list. (DURABLE LINK)

January 30 — “ADA Goes to the Movies”. The AMC chain pioneered stadium-style seating in movie theaters, which much improves sight lines for audiences and quickly became the industry standard. Then civil-rights activists swooped down, saying the new layouts (the earlier versions, at least) were unlawful because they provided too narrow a set of seating choices for patrons in wheelchairs. Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard takes up the story (Jan. 24). (DURABLE LINK)

January 30 — Targeting Wall Street. More than 200 mass tort lawyers recently met at Las Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel to discuss suing investment firms, at an event put on by the Mass Torts Made Perfect organization. Veterans of the breast-implant and fen-phen campaigns “are hoping to profit from the fallout of the $1.4 billion global regulatory settlement over stock-research conflicts, seeking to file claims on behalf of investors.” Law partners James Hooper and Robert Weiss “concede they don’t really know their way around Wall Street” but have already spent more than $1 million in television advertising in search of retired Florida clients who lost money in the market. “The pair is teaming up with Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Echsner & Proctor PA, a large mass-tort firm based in Pensacola, Fla., known for its filings against the tobacco industry, among others.” Messrs. Hooper and Weiss “recently filed 71 cases against Citigroup Inc.’s Salomon Smith Barney on behalf of investors who lost less than $25,000 apiece.” The newcomers have not met with a friendly reception from the existing plaintiff’s securities bar, however, who tend to sniff at their lack of a track record in the area. (Susanne Craig, “Lawyers Target Wall Street Following Regulatory Payoff”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 29) (online subscribers only). (DURABLE LINK)

January 29 — State of the Union. “To improve our health care system, we must address one of the prime causes of higher costs — the constant threat that physicians and hospitals will be unfairly sued. Because of excessive litigation, everybody pays more for health care and many parts of America are losing fine doctors. No one has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit. I urge the Congress to pass medical liability reform.” (President Bush, State of the Union speech Jan. 28, reprinted, Quad City Times). Charles Krauthammer’s take: “Sick, Tired and Not Taking It Anymore”, Time, Jan. 13 (MedRants comments). And see James M. Taylor, “States Take Lead on Medical Malpractice Reform”, Heartland Institute Health Care News, Jan.(DURABLE LINK)

January 27-28 — Latest Rule of Lawyers publicity. Following appearances in New York and Washington, our editor is speaking on the book to a lunchtime audience Tuesday in Chicago; details here. Trips to Texas, California and elsewhere are in the works, as well as many radio programs. Famed InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds gave us a nice lift Friday in his MSNBC column (Jan. 24). Fox News Channel has now put online a partial transcript of our editor’s appearance last Thursday on “The Big Story” (posted Jan. 24). A CNN appearance is still pending. Eric Schippers of the Center for Individual Freedom gave the book a favorable review in the Federalist Society publication Engage, reprinted here. And Reason’s recent cover story/excerpt included a mini-author profile which we neglected to link earlier. (Jan.)

There’s more: Barnes & Noble Online gave the book one of its rotating “We Recommend” designations (Law category); both the Conservative Book Club/National Review Book Service and Laissez-Faire Books have picked the book as a selection and given it good write-ups; and e-versions are available for download from Franklin.com (requires proprietary software) and Palm Digital Media. (DURABLE LINK)

January 27-28 — “No suits by lawbreakers, please”. Syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock says a good place to start with tort reform would be to cut off lawsuits where the complainant’s own crime or suicide attempt was the preponderant cause of his injury. Among eyebrow-raising cases: “Disturbed, Angelo Delgrande shot and wounded his parents and himself in a June 1995 dispute. He then received surgery at a Westchester County, N.Y. hospital. That night, he yanked the tubes and monitoring devices from his body, then leapt off the second story of an adjacent parking garage in a suicide bid. He is now paraplegic. Delgrande sued the hospital for failing to treat his depression and keep him indoors. Last October, he won $9 million.” Also quotes our editor (Scripps Howard News Service/Sacramento Bee, Jan. 23) (& see Jan. 31) (DURABLE LINK)

January 27-28 — “Woman Attacked By Goose Sues County”. “A woman who says she was attacked by a 3-foot-tall goose is suing Palm Beach County, claiming the county should not have allowed the bird to roam in a public park.” Darlene Griffin, 30, says she was attacked on Feb. 5 in Okeeheelee Park. The county contends that it has no duty to protect parkgoers from “obvious” dangers. (Local6/WKMG, Jan. 24; CNN, Jan. 24). (DURABLE LINK)

January 27-28 — Don’t break out the shakes yet. Judge Sweet’s ruling last week in favor of McDonald’s has been widely hailed as a blow for common sense and individual responsibility, but the judge “generously gave the plaintiffs a chance to try their luck again” and “take a second bite from the burger”. Lawyers are likely to refile both the case at issue and new ones, after due study of Sweet’s opinion which may even provide a “jurisprudential roadmap” to liability. “Make no mistake: This case is not about fat kids. It’s about fat paydays. For lawyers.” (“Mickey D’s Hollow Victory” (editorial), New York Post, Jan. 23; see also “Lawyers Run Marathons, Not Sprints”, Center for Consumer Freedom, Jan. 23). More: some well-known plaintiff’s lawyers pooh-pooh the fat suits (James V. Grimaldi, “Legal Kibitzers See Little Merit in Lawsuit Over Fatty Food at McDonald’s”, Washington Post, Jan. 27). On the other hand, a Fortune cover story argues for taking them seriously (Roger Parloff, “Is Fat the Next Tobacco?”, Jan. 21). (DURABLE LINK)

January 24-26 — Malpractice-cost trends. Many mainstream journalists, accepting arguments pressed on them by defenders of the litigation business, have uncritically repeated the notion that the crisis in medical malpractice insurance owes more to insurers’ unwise Wall Street investments than to galloping litigation costs. But in fact, according to an expert on insurer portfolio management, “asset allocation and investment returns have had little, if any, correlation to the development of the current malpractice problem. The crisis is rather the result of a generally unconstrained increase in losses and, over several years, inadequate premium income to cover those losses.” (Raghu Ramachandran, “Did Investments Affect Medical Malpractice Premiums?”, Brown Brothers Harriman Insurance Asset Management Group, Jan. 21; see also post and comments at Megan McArdle’s site and earlier Jan. 1 post and comments). Doctors’ increasing willingness to walk off the job to protest the law’s expropriation — and politicians’ heavy-handed hints that they will face punishment if they do so — recall the producers’ strike in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, according to Edward Hudgins of the Objectivist Center (“Doctors Shrug”, Washington Times, Jan. 12). Ramesh Ponnuru argues that the Bush administration has not come up with an adequate grounding in federalism for a Congressional override of state malpractice law, given that it is a state’s own citizens who are the main losers from irrational verdicts (“Federal Malpractice”, National Review Online, Jan. 24). See also President Bush’s speech in Scranton, Jan. 16; White House “Policy in Focus: Medical Liability“; Michael Arnold Glueck and Robert J. Cihak, “It’s Not Just ‘Sue the Docs’ Anymore”, MedJournal.com blog, Jan. 14; RangelMD, Jan. 18; MedRants, Jan. 20; MedPundit, Jan. 19; Sydney Smith (MedPundit), “Dangerous Lies”, TechCentralStation, Jan. 21. (DURABLE LINK)

January 24-26 — Race-bias cases gone wrong. “The Florida Supreme Court has disbarred a Fort Lauderdale attorney accused of filing a string of racial discrimination lawsuits against employers such as Ocean Spray and BellSouth, which a federal judge labeled as extortion. Norman Ganz was disbarred for allowing his paralegal, a convicted felon, to engage in the unlicensed practice of law, charge an excessive fee and represent clients with adverse interests. … They were accused of filing a string of lawsuits against employers such as Ocean Spray, BellSouth, Broward County, Fla., and the Broward County School Board, then threatening to bring in the NAACP as a plaintiff. In return, the lawyers gave NAACP chapters some of the settlement money. … The cases also led to the ouster of Roosevelt Walters, former head of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP.” (Julie Kay, “Florida Lawyer Who Filed Controversial Racial Bias Suits Disbarred”, Miami Daily Business Review, Dec. 6). (DURABLE LINK)

January 23 — Judge tosses McDonald’s obesity case. “A federal judge in Manhattan today threw out a lawsuit brought against the McDonald’s Corporation by two obese teenagers, declaring as he did so that people are responsible for what they eat and that the teenagers’ complaints could spawn thousands of ‘McLawsuits’ if they were upheld. … Samuel Hirsch, the Manhattan lawyer who represents the plaintiffs … noted that Judge Sweet said the two teenagers were not barred from filing an amended complaint, and Mr. Hirsch promised to do just that, asserting that he still had a ‘credible and viable lawsuit.'” New York Times (reg); opinion in PDF format; GoogNews compilation; Reuters/FoxNews; AP/Court TV; Yahoo Full Coverage). And — rather undercutting the much-bruited notion that the increase in portion sizes at restaurants constitutes some sort of sneaky maneuver by restauranteurs having nothing to do with consumer preferences — “In a new study, researchers looked at such foods as hamburgers, burritos, tacos, french fries, sodas, ice cream, pie, cookies and salty snacks and found that the portions got bigger between the 1970s and the 1990s, regardless of whether people ate in or out.” (Deanna Bellandi, “Study Finds Meal Portion Sizes Growing”, AP/Washington Post, Jan. 21). (DURABLE LINK)

January 23 — Justices nix vicarious personal housing-bias liability. More good news: vacating a Ninth Circuit ruling, the Supreme Court has unanimously decided that under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 the owner of a real estate agency cannot in most cases be made to pay personally for the discriminatory acts of an underling without some further direct showing of fault. The agency’s liability was not in question; the question was instead whether the owner’s personal assets should be at risk if the agency lacked money to pay a judgment. A sobering aspect of the case: the Bush Administration entered it against the agency owner, arguing that he should be held personally liable but on a different legal theory (that the agency was legally an alter ego of his). The high court did not resolve that possible theory of liability. (Linda Greenhouse, “Justices Limit Housing Bias Lawsuits”, New York Times, Jan. 22)(reg) (DURABLE LINK)

January 23 — Our editor on TV. On Tuesday, kicking off a media swing to promote The Rule of Lawyers, our editor was a guest of Court TV’s Catherine Crier, who said some extremely kind things about the book (which rose to #265 on Amazon, helped by the WSJ‘s great review the same day). Today (Thursday) afternoon, watch for him to be interviewed by Judge Andrew Napolitano on Fox News Channel’s The Big Story with John Gibson. And although bookings are always subject to last-minute change, don’t be surprised if he turns up Friday evening on CNN. (DURABLE LINK)

January 21-22 — Not my partner’s keeper. No joint and several liability for us, please: “In a sign of increased caution in the post-Enron world, two of New York’s most prominent law firms have elected to become limited liability partnerships. Sullivan & Cromwell and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison both acquired Limited Liability Partnership status effective Jan. 1, thus ending a combined 250 years of operation as general partnerships.” The effect is to insulate partners from having to pay for each others’ negligence or other wrong, even if greater vigilance by the firm as a whole might have reduced the likelihood of wrongdoing. (Anthony Lin, “Prominent Law Firms Move to Limit Liability”, New York Law Journal, Jan. 10). (DURABLE LINK)

January 21-22 — ATLA’s hidden influence. From the Capital Research Center, which keeps tabs on activist groups: “The movement for tort reform has been stalled by an unholy alliance of trial lawyers and consumer advocates eager to preserve the power to sue. But few Americans understand the ties linking Ralph Nader-inspired groups to the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.” Includes considerable information about ATLA’s generosity to various private groups which lobby against limits on medical malpractice litigation. Also quotes this site (Neil Hrab, “Association of Trial Lawyers of America: How It Works with Ralph Nader Against Tort Reform”, January (summary; “Foundation Watch” report in PDF format)). (DURABLE LINK)

January 21-22 — “Tort turns toxic”. Overview of how litigation is wreaking havoc in diverse sectors of the society, from medicine to terrorism insurance, includes particular attention to the problems it’s creating for affordable housing. Construction of condominiums and apartments in California and other Western states has become much more expensive to insure because of burgeoning litigation over allegedly defective construction, some of the allegations well grounded but others drummed up by eager solicitation of condo associations by lawyers. By the year 2000, insurers in California were paying out nearly $3 for every premium dollar collected from builders, and imposing big premium hikes. Multi-unit housing construction has now plunged, and major builders have shifted efforts from affordable condos to pricier freestanding homes, perceived as a lower litigation risk. (Steven Malanga, “Tort Turns Toxic,” City Journal, Autumn 2002). (DURABLE LINK)

January 21-22 — Welcome Wall Street Journal readers. Highly favorable review of our editor’s new book The Rule of Lawyers: “an entertaining, but disturbing, chronicle of class-action abuses … Mr. Olson’s engaging prose, for all its charm, is propelled by a sense of outrage at the abuses he describes: He slams his opponents onto the mat, lets them rise slightly in a daze and then slams them down again, round after round.” Also mentions this website (David A. Price, “In a Class By Themselves”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 21 (online subscribers only)). (DURABLE LINK)

December 2002 archives


December 20-22 — Advance notice for The Rule of Lawyers. Our author’s new book still won’t reach most stores for a few weeks, but it’s garnering early notice in some prominent places. More than a month back Amity Shlaes of London’s Financial Times gave it a mention in a column profiling hyperactive New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (Amity Shlaes, “Local enforcer who has changed national laws”, Financial Times/Jewish World Review, Oct. 31). Last month it got discussed in the New York Times arts section (Daphne Eviatar, “Is Litigation a Blight, or Built In?”, New York Times, Nov. 23, second page). Wall Street Journal editorialist John Fund, recounting highlights of the career of Sen. Trent Lott for the paper’s online OpinionJournal.com, quotes the book’s discussion of how the lawyers suing the tobacco industry tried to exploit Lott’s family connection to attorney Dickie Scruggs (“A Tale of Two Bubbas”, OpinionJournal.com, Dec. 19).

Deserving special notice is Roger Parloff’s piece in The American Lawyer and other Law.com publications (“Authors Throw the Book at Lawyers”, Dec. 12), which calls the book “a focused, healthy, provocative, enjoyable read. … that rare book that, should it ever burrow its way into the opposing camp’s conversational pipelines, could really gum up the works.” Among other blushworthy excerpts: “Olson’s wry, amusing, libertarian take on the increasingly preposterous role that mass tort lawyers have assumed in our society — and in the funding of the Democratic Party — may not only spur many Democrats to reshuffle their standard talking points on those issues, but may even afford them some guilty, cant-piercing pleasures along the way. Speaking as a Democrat, I’d say the burgeoning scandal of the mass tort bar is our Enron.” (DURABLE LINK)

December 20-22 — Trial lawyers vs. thimerosal. Glenn Reynolds at InstaPundit (Dec. 19, three posts: # 1, 2, 3) has the latest on the flap over new federal curbs on lawsuits that claim damage to children’s health from thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound long used to preserve vaccines. According to the Centers for Disease Control (“Thimerosal & Vaccines“), citing Food and Drug Administration research, “There is no evidence to suggest that thimerosal in vaccines causes any health problems in children and adults beyond local hypersensitivity reactions (like redness and swelling at the injection site.)” This has not kept trial lawyers from urging parents of autistic children to view the compound as responsible for their children’s plight: Derek Lowe checked out law firms’ websites and found lurid examples (Dec. various dates — scroll down for more good posts). “Dr. Manhattan” has much more on the controversy (Dec. 18) and see also MedPundit (Dec. 5). For more on the recent legislative move to ensure that claims against thimerosal are incorporated into the general federal vaccine compensation scheme, see Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Suits Over Mercury-Containing Vaccines May Be Down for the Count”, National Law Journal, Nov. 27; “The Truth About Thimerosal” (editorial), Wall Street Journal, Dec. 5. (DURABLE LINK)

December 20-22 — Putting fraud proceeds to use. John Deokaran, a former insurance manager from Hammond, La., has pleaded guilty to taking more than $530,000 from Allstate Insurance by routing checks for imaginary claims to fictitious plumbing contracting companies that he controlled. Deokaran must make restitution or face prison time. “Among other things, Deokaran spent some of the money to pay for law school,” said Louisiana Attorney General Richard Ieyoub. (“AG Ieyoub: Hammond Man Must Pay Back Fake Claims Money Laundering Sentence Stipulates Full Restitution”, Office of AG Ieyoub, Aug. 20). (DURABLE LINK)

December 18-19 — The right not to be looked at? “The Chicago Cubs are suing the owners of rooftop businesses that overlook Wrigley Field and sell tickets to watch games, saying the establishments are stealing from the team.” (“Cubs sue owners of rooftop businesses near Wrigley”, AP/Indianapolis Star, Dec. 17). Update May 9, 2004: dispute settled with payments from rooftop business owners to team. (DURABLE LINK)

December 18-19 — “Asbestos fraud”. Extremely scathing column on the case of asbestos litigation, in which “the thirst for profits has led a small group of trial lawyers to erode the rights of legitimate victims while driving dozens of companies into bankruptcy and — worst of all — corrupting the court system. If Congress does not fix this problem, shame on it.” (Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post, Nov. 20). (DURABLE LINK)

December 18-19 — British free-speech case. Robin Page, a columnist for the London Daily Telegraph, “has been arrested on suspicion of stirring up racial hatred after making a speech at a pro-hunting rally,” according to that paper. How had he done that? “Mr Page … told his audience that Londoners had the right to run their own events, such as the Brixton carnival and gay pride marches, which celebrated black and gay culture. Why therefore, he asked, should country people not have the right to do what they liked in the countryside[?]” Page, who was released on bail, “denied having made any comment that could be construed as racist during the address. … Gloucestershire police confirmed that they had arrested Mr Page on suspicion of violating Section 18 (1) of the Public Order Act, referring to stirring up racial hatred.” (Daily Telegraph, Nov. 20) (via WSJ Best of the Web) (DURABLE LINK)

December 18-19 — Mass disasters belong in federal court. Most mass litigation resulting from transportation accidents or other single-site disasters which result in the deaths of 75 or more people will henceforth have to be filed in federal court, according to the provisions of a bill quietly enacted by Congress this fall with the support of the Bush administration. The bill is favored by defendants in part because it restricts the ability of plaintiff’s lawyers to shop around for state court venues that are hostile to defendants or that afford “home cooking”. (Julie Kay, “Disaster Plan”, Miami Daily Business Review, Nov. 21). (DURABLE LINK)

December 16-17 — By reader acclaim: “Ex-jurors file $6 billion suit against ’60 Minutes'”. “Two former Jefferson County, Mississippi, jurors have filed a $6 billion lawsuit against CBS’ ’60 Minutes’ and a newspaper owner over comments about the size of jury awards in the county. Anthony Berry and Johnny Anderson said the news program defamed them in a segment that called the county a haven for ‘jackpot justice.’ Berry was among jurors who made a $150 million verdict in an asbestos case, and Anderson sat on a jury that awarded a $150 million judgment in a diet drug case. Wyatt Emmerich, who owns Emmerich Newspapers Inc., is also being sued: “In the program, Emmerich described those on Jefferson County juries as disenfranchised residents who want to stick it to Yankee companies”. Emmerich called his inclusion in the suit an attack on free speech. (AP/CNN, Dec. 10; Jerry Mitchell, “TV show on Miss. justice stirs suit”, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Dec. 10). Update Mar. 6, 2005: federal appeals court affirms dismissal of suit. (DURABLE LINK)

December 16-17 — “Bogus Claims Discovered in Fen-Phen Class Action”. “In a strongly worded opinion that questioned the ethics of two law firms and two doctors, the federal judge who is overseeing the $3.75 billion fen-phen diet drug class action settlement has found that dozens of claims of heart-valve damage were ‘medically unreasonable’ and that the doctors and lawyers responsible for the bogus claims must now be watched more closely. U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III said he was forced to issue an injunction because the settlement funds were set aside for ‘rightful claimants who suffered from fen-phen and not as a pot of gold for lawyers, physicians and non-qualifying claimants.'” Two New York law firms — Napoli Kaiser Bern & Associates and Hariton & D’Angelo — had submitted claims for their clients which included an unusually high rate of claimed serious heart valve abnormalities. Judge Bartle wrote that the practice of an expert employed by the Napoli and Hariton firms “resembled a mass production operation that would have been the envy of Henry Ford”. (Shannon P. Duffy, The Legal Intelligencer, Nov. 19)(see Sept. 27 and links from there). (DURABLE LINK)

December 16-17 — Ninth Circuit panel sniffs collusion in bias settlement fees. “The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upended a multimillion-dollar race discrimination settlement Tuesday, citing suspicions that the attorney fees were the product of collusion. The split three-judge panel described the injunctive relief won in the case against Boeing Co. as ‘relatively weak,’ and said it and the $7 million in damages didn’t appear to justify more than $4 million in fees and a broad release of liability.” The case, purportedly on behalf of 15,000 black Boeing employees, had resulted in the company’s promise to institute changes in employment practices. However, Judge Marsha Berzon called such curative measures an “inexact and easily manipulable value,” and said they should not be viewed as creating a common fund for purposes of fee calculation. “Harrell, Desper, Connell, Hunter & Gautschi, the Seattle-based firm representing the class, had supplied many declarations, including one from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, supporting the terms of the settlement.” (Jason Hoppin, “9th Circuit Scraps Race Bias Settlement, Cites Attorney Fees”, The Recorder, Nov. 27). (DURABLE LINK)

December 13-15 — Back from hiatus. Our editor’s hiatus to handle personal business met with the happiest possible outcome, but as a result he’s facing new family responsibilities that will keep posting slow at best. Better some posting than none at all, at least, right? (DURABLE LINK)

December 13-15 — Using his own name a legal risk. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Bill Wyman shares his name with a somewhat well-known musician who played bass with the Rolling Stones. He was nonetheless unprepared when he received a letter from the musician’s lawyer suggesting that he might be violating the other guy’s rights by … well, by going on using his own name (Bill Wyman, “Will the real Bill Wyman please tune up?”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 14). (DURABLE LINK)

December 13-15 — Florida school shooting: the deep pockets did it. A Palm Beach County, Fla. jury has declared that a school board, an owner from whom a gun was stolen and the gun’s distributor should be liable for the classroom shooting of Lake Worth teacher Barry Grunow by 16-year-old student Nathaniel Brazill. “The jury didn’t find any liability for Brazill, who pulled the trigger. Brazill stole the unloaded gun and bullets from a cookie tin stashed away in a dresser drawer of family friend Elmore McCray.” (“Gun Company Must Pay Teacher’s Widow”, WPLG, Nov. 15). “Attorney Bob Montgomery, known for successfully spearheading the state’s efforts to sue Big Tobacco for $11.3 billion, said he hoped the gun case would achieve the same crippling results against the gun industry.” (“Gun distributor must pay in teacher’s death”, AP/Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight, Nov. 15). Update Feb. 4-5: judge throws out case (DURABLE LINK)

December 13-15 — Law’s attraction for the bully. “[A] lot of hyper-glandular people are attracted to the legal profession because it looks like the perfect job for bullying other people. Plus, it pays well. Of course, the apologists for this sort of bad lawyering (mostly like-minded and acting lawyers) … argue that all that I am carping about is what is known as ‘zealous advocacy’ — which is next to godliness in the pantheon of ethical requirements. Of course, there is no ‘ethical requirement’ that justifies what some lawyers do in terms of name-calling, rules-flouting and frivolous motion-filing. It is simply a conceit that these lawyers rely on to transform their vices into supposed virtues.” (Jim McCormack, “Deconstructing Opposing Counsel”, Texas Lawyer, Oct. 25). (DURABLE LINK)

December 13-15 — Gotham’s trial lawyer-legislators. If it’s unusually hard for New Yorkers to obtain any legislative relief from their state’s lawsuit culture, our editor observes in an op-ed, maybe one reason is that numerous lawmakers are themselves trial lawyers, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan (who previously practiced with controversial tobacco-beneficiary law firm Schneider Kleinick, and recently joined controversial asbestos/product liability law firm Weitz & Luxenberg) along with New York City Council members Michael E. McMahon and Domenic M. Recchia. (Walter Olson, “Legal Payola”, New York Post, Nov. 21, reprinted at Manhattan Institute site). (DURABLE LINK)

December 30, 2002-January 2, 2003 — Happy New Year. We’ll be back Friday.

December 30, 2002-January 2, 2003 — Updates. Among cases that continued to develop while our attention was elsewhere:

* A panel of the Fourth Circuit threw out (PDF) the $2 million punitive damage award against Duke University under federal sex discrimination law to Heather Sue Mercer, “who was allowed a walk-on spot as a kicker on the school’s football team but [was] treated differently than other players.” (see Oct. 13, 2000) (Leslie Brown, “Court voids kicker’s award”, Raleigh News & Observer, undated circa Nov. 16) (The Mat forums)

* The Ohio Supreme Court’s pro-litigation majority, shortly before voters turned it into a minority, dealt Ford Motor Co. a setback by ordering a new trial in a case where the automaker had rebuffed charges of “sudden acceleration” in its Crown Victoria model (see Jun. 6, 2000) (Alan Fisk, “Videotape Revives Lawsuit Against Ford Motor Co.”, National Law Journal, Oct. 21).

* An Alaska federal judge cut the punitive damage award against Exxon Mobil in the Valdez spill case from $5 billion to $4 billion; the litigation could still drag on for years more (see Nov. 15, 2001) (Jason Hoppin, “Exxon Valdez Award Reduced — but Only to $4B”, The Recorder, Dec. 10).

* In the controversy over baseball bats that are allegedly too powerful (see Apr. 19, 2002), a California state appeals court has rejected assumption-of-risk defenses and ruled that a college baseball player can sue the University of Southern California, “the Pacific-10 Conference, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the makers of the Louisville Slugger bat on the ground that the company’s Air Attack 2 bat substantially increases the dangers of America’s pastime by letting the ball be smacked at hair-raising speeds.” (Mike McKee, “Bat Ups Chance of Baseball Injuries, Appeals Court Rules”, The Recorder, Dec. 24). (DURABLE LINK)

December 27-29 — Receivers in bankruptcy. “In the bizarre yet lucrative world of Enron’s bankruptcy, everyone seems to have a complaint these days. The $300-an-hour lawyers complain that the $500-an-hour lawyers are charging exorbitant fees. … Already, lawyers and other professionals have billed Enron close to $300 million in what some critics say is an unparalleled fee bonanza,” some of it going to the same high-priced professionals who advised the company before its fall. (David Barboza, “The Meter Runs in Enron Case, as the Lawyers Retain Lawyers”, New York Times, Dec. 25). Some of the lawyers have submitted expense requests that included liquor purchases; other practices include “marking up the costs of photocopies and faxes, and charging for clerical work at lawyers’ steep hourly rates”. (Otis Bilodeau, “Enron Lawyers Face Fee Cuts”, Legal Times, Dec. 10). (DURABLE LINK)

December 27-29 — California’s hazardous holiday. Chestnuts-roasting menace averted, cont’d: taking a cue from Berkeley and other Bay Area cities, air quality regulators in California’s Central Valley are proposing a ban on traditional wood-burning fireplaces in homes, as well as regulations on how existing ones can be used. “Under proposed rules that would take effect next year, most wood-burning fireplaces and stoves would be banned in new homes. Masonry fireplaces would have to be permanently disabled, converted to natural gas or upgraded to expensive soot-containing models before homes could be sold. Also, on bad air days during the winter, many Central Californians would be prohibited from lighting up their existing wood-burning stoves and fireplaces in a concerted effort to get the smoggy valley to comply with the Clean Air Act.” (Kim Baca, “California air regulators propose fireplace ban”, Sacramento Bee, Dec. 6)(see Dec. 24-27, 2001). Also in California, environmentalist lawyers using a bounty-hunting statute recently sued restaurants serving French fries on the grounds that the fries contain measurable amounts of acrylamide, a potentially hazardous substance generated when starch is subjected to heat. A complicating factor, however, according to the food-industry-defense Center for Consumer Freedom, is that “A nationwide study carried out in Germany has found that gingerbread contains seven times the amount of acrylamide found in French fries.” Better enjoy that holiday baking binge while it’s still legal. (“Just when you thought the holidays were safe”, Center for Consumer Freedom, Dec. 9; “French fry lawsuit-mongers unmasked“, Sept. 9). (DURABLE LINK)

December 24-26 — Merry Christmas. We’ll take a couple of days off to celebrate the holiday, and see you Friday. (DURABLE LINK)

December 24-26 — “Court Waives Deadline as ‘Reasonable Accommodation’ for Disabled Litigator”. We figured this would happen, and now it has: “An upstate New York judge has held for the first time that the courts must reasonably accommodate a visually impaired attorney who breached the time restrictions for submitting a judgment. … Finding that the ‘courtroom and court system constitute the trial lawyer’s workplace,’ and that the workplace ‘logically extends to the preparation of documents associated with litigation,’ [New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert] Julian held that [attorney Norman] Deep is owed an accommodation.” (John Caher, “Court Waives Deadline as ‘Reasonable Accommodation’ for Disabled Litigator”, New York Law Journal, Dec. 2). (DURABLE LINK)

December 24-26 — “Britain sued for millions by Mau Mau terrorists”. “The families of soldiers who fought the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya reacted with fury last night to news that former terrorists are planning to sue the British Government over their treatment after being taken captive.” (Daniel Foggo and Christian Steenberg, Daily Telegraph, Nov. 10). (DURABLE LINK)

December 23 — Lawyers’ advertising, 25 years later. In 1977, by a 5 to 4 majority, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lawyers have a constitutional right to advertise for clients. A retrospective by the National Law Journal‘s Mark Ballard mentions some of the resulting low-water marks of taste, including “the one where 300 pounds of lawyer emerges from the water to the strains of ‘Swan Lake’ bedecked in gold chains and carrying a chest of cash with the message that he’ll bring the treasure home to you,” the one featuring “Robert Vaughn, former ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E.,’ in suspenders, sternly promising that whichever attorney was hired in that particular market was so fearsome that otherwise recalcitrant insurance companies will roll over and pay up big bucks,” and — no specifics given, alas, but deplored by a former Florida bar president — episodes in which lawyers have “drive[n] hearses to shill no-frill wills” and sponsored cars in demolition derbies to promote personal-injury practices. (Mark Ballard, “Coming to Terms With the $20,000 Ad”, National Law Journal, Sept. 25; “The Ad-Made Man and the Old-Line Firm”, National Law Journal, Oct. 3; “The Little Ad That Changed Everything”, National Law Journal, Oct. 10). (DURABLE LINK)

March 2002 archives, part 2


March 20-21 — No more restaurant doggie bags. In Australia, the restaurant doggie bag is in decline because of fears that patrons will store food at improper temperatures, allowing the growth of food-poisoning bacteria. “The Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group, which has 142 hotel restaurants across the country, has banned patrons from taking home leftovers. Victoria has already brought in anti-doggie-bag legislation, with other states tipped to follow before the end of the year, Mr Deakin said. ‘If we are the cooker of the food we are liable,’ he said.” (“Restaurants ban doggie bags”, The Advertiser (Adelaide), Mar. 18). Meanwhile, in the U.K.: “Some restaurants in Britain are forcing customers who like their meat rare to sign a disclaimer form before eating due to fears of the risk of E. coli and salmonella poisoning, the Sunday Times newspaper reported.” (“British Eaters Who Like Rare Meat Sign Disclaimers”, Reuters/Yahoo, Mar. 18).

March 20-21 — “School told to rehire cocaine abuser”. Florida: “Escambia County Schools must rehire a school employee who reported to work with cocaine in his system – 50 times above the cutoff level for a positive drug test. Robert K. Sites III, 37, initially was terminated after arriving at Brentwood Middle School on Aug. 10 in an agitated and nervous state. A ‘reasonable suspicion’ drug test revealed cocaine metabolites in his system. An independent arbitrator ruled this month that a penalty less severe than termination was warranted and wants Sites rehired with full pay and benefits.” (Lisa Osburn, Pensacola News Journal, Mar. 15). Under zero tolerance rules, of course, schools can suspend or even expel a student for possessing aspirin or other ordinary over-the-counter drugs.

March 20-21 — Lawyer: deep-pocket defendants are real culprits in identity theft. Perpetrators of the fast-growing crime of “identity theft” sometimes use fraud, stealth or dumpster-diving to obtain data on potential victims from businesses in the form of credit card or employment data. “Companies that contribute to identity theft by failing to protect their customers’ and employees’ Social Security numbers and other personal information could be held liable, some observers warn. Although relatively few cases of this type have been filed so far, some observers predict that with the incidence of identity theft rising, more frustrated victims will successfully sue companies that fail to protect this information … Sean B. Hoar, Eugene, Ore.-based assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, said he has spoken to groups of plaintiffs attorneys on the topic and the reaction has been ‘My gosh, this is a huge new area for civil litigation because of the likely liability that will be incurred.’ ‘I think that victims of identity theft are becoming much more cognizant of the fact that they have been hurt more by the negligent or careless acts of the companies than they are by the criminals,’ said Mari Frank, a Laguna Niguel, Calif.-based attorney who has specialized in the area of identity theft since she became a victim herself in 1996.” (Judy Greenwald, “ID theft suits in the cards”, Business Insurance, Mar. 4, subscriber-based site).

March 20-21 — McElroy on wrongful life suits. FoxNews.com columnist Wendy McElroy surveys the burgeoning field of “wrongful life” and “wrongful birth” suits following “the birth of a disabled child whom the mother would have aborted had she received adequate medical information.” The concept has been familiar in American courts for years and has cropped up in France and Australia recently as well. “The human cost of this new litigation is terrible. Parents publicly tell a child that they wish he or she had never been born.” (Wendy McElroy, “Parents Sue Doctors for ‘Wrongful Birth’ of Disabled Child”, FoxNews.com, Mar. 19)(see Aug. 22, 2001).

March 19 — Teen beauty pageant lands in court. In suburban Detroit, the outcome of this year’s Miss Teen St. Clair Shores beauty pageant was tainted, according to parent Barbara Scheurman’s legal complaint on behalf of her 15-year-old daughter Jennifer, which is expected to reach a local court next month. The controversy concerns whether the winning contestant should have been allowed to redo her talent presentation; a $200 savings bond and crown was the prize. (Tony Scotta, “Shores pageant judge defends her ruling”, Macomb Daily, Mar. 13).

March 19 — So depressed he stole $300K. Minnesota prosecutors are charging appeals court judge Roland Amundson, 52, who has resigned from the bench, with stealing more than $300,000 from a trust fund that a father had left for his developmentally disabled daughter. The judge’s attorney, Ron Meshbesher, said his client plans to plead guilty and “attributed Amundson’s actions to depression that followed his mother’s death”. According to prosecutors, however, his honor was not too depressed to put part of the money to use “to buy bronze statues, marble flooring, antique chairs and other items for himself.” (Pam Louwagie and Randy Furst, “Judge charged with stealing $300,000 from woman’s trust”, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 27; Elizabeth Stawicki, “Court’s credibility damaged by Amundson, judges say”, Minnesota Public Radio, Mar. 11). Update July 1-2: sentenced to 69 months. (DURABLE LINK)

March 19 — “Bad movie, bad public policy”. Among reasons to skip the Denzel Washington vehicle John Q: “at the end of the movie, we see real footage of Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson advocating for expanded federal health insurance. Last time I checked, though, countries with government-run health plans were less likely to give dying kids organ transplants, or the powerful drugs needed to keep their bodies from rejecting the new organs after the operation.” (Robert Goldberg (Manhattan Institute), “Painful John Q“, National Review Online, Mar. 8).

March 18 — Injured in “human hockey puck” stunt. “An Avon man has sued the Colorado Avalanche hockey team for negligence, claiming he was seriously injured during a ‘human hockey puck’ event Dec. 13, 2000, at the Pepsi Center. Ryan Netzer claims that during one of the intermissions, he was selected to take part in the event, in which he was slung by a bungee cord across the ice rink on a metal sled, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Denver District Court.” Joseph Bloch, Netzer’s lawyer, says the organizers omitted protective padding that was supposed to be on boards into which his client slammed, suffering two leg fractures. “Prior to the event, Netzer signed a waiver.” (Howard Pankratz, “Fan sues Avalanche over stunt injuries”, Denver Post, Mar. 15).

March 18 — Couldn’t order 7-Up in French. “A federal government employee is suing Air Canada for more than $500,000 because he could not order a 7-Up in French.” Michel Thibodeau, 34, has already won a favorable determination from the Commissioner of Official Languages over the incident on an Aug. 14, 2000 flight from Montreal to Ottawa which resulted in an altercation after Mr. Thibodeau, “who is fluently bilingual, was unable to use French to order a 7-Up”. He wants $525,000 and an apology. “‘I am not asking for a right here, I am exercising a right I already have,’ Mr. Thibodeau said shortly after filing his lawsuit.” (Ron Corbett, “Air Canada sued over language dispute”, Ottawa Citizen/National Post, Mar. 2).

March 18 — Columnist-fest. Perennial-favorite scribes come through for readers again:

* Those consumer-battering steel import quotas are just temporary, says President Bush, and if you believe that … (Steve Chapman, “Relief from imports, for as long as it takes”, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 14);

* Airport security checking is a “ridiculous charade” because of officialdom’s continued pretense that “the 80-year-old Irish nun, the Hispanic mother of two, the Japanese-American businessman, the House committee chairman with the titanium hip” are all just as likely hijacker candidates as the young Middle Eastern man (Charles Krauthammer, “The Case for Profiling”, Time, Mar. 18; see also “Profiles in Timidity” (editorial), Wall Street Journal, OpinionJournal.com, Jan. 25);

* Dave Kopel says the abusive municipal gun lawsuits have served to galvanize a firearms industry that has historically shied away from politics: “Pearl Harbor day for the gun industry was the day that [New Orleans mayor] Marc Morial filed his lawsuit”. (“Unintended Consequences”, National Review Online, Mar. 6). See also Jacob Sullum, “Too many guns?”, Reason Online, Jan. 4 (on “oversupply” gun-suit theories).

March 15-17 — Texas docs plan walkout. More than 600 physicians in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas are planning to walk off the job April 8 to protest the state’s malpractice climate (Juan Ozuna, “‘Walkout’ Planned by Physicians”, McAllen Monitor, Feb. 16; Mel Huff, “Doctors discuss fallout from lawsuit abuse”, Brownsville Herald, Feb. 21; “The Doctor is Out”, McAllen Monitor, Feb. 19; “Sick system”(editorial), Brownsville Herald, Feb. 22). In famously litigious Beaumont, only one neurosurgeon is left practicing, which Texas Medical Association vice president Kim Ross calls “a scary thing … What if a patient has a car wreck, needs a neurosurgeon, and there’s none available? It’s an hour to Houston. That ‘golden hour’ [when treatment is most beneficial] is lost.” (Vicki Lankarge, “Soaring malpractice premiums bleed doctors, rob consumers”, reprinted by Heartland Institute, Jan.) “Channel-surf wherever you will; sooner or later (probably sooner) you’ll encounter an attorney urging you to bring your problems to him or her. Some are shameless in their opportunism: Have you suffered from respiratory problems? Throat inflammation? Sinus woes? Come see me; let’s find somebody to sue.” More than half of Texas physicians had claims filed against them in 2000, the Dallas Morning News has found. (“Litigation explosion plagues physicians” (editorial), Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Jan. 24 (via CALA Houston)).

March 15-17 — “Before you cheer … ‘Sign here'”. There are few things that trial lawyers loathe with more passion than the liability waivers that schools have parents and students sign before going out for extracurricular activities such as field trips or cheerleading. They’re carrying on a state-by-state campaign to get courts to strike down such waivers, voluntarily entered or not. (Mark Clayton, Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 12).

March 15-17 — “Politicians’ Syllogism”.

“Step One: We must do something;

“Step Two: This is something;

“Step Three: Therefore we must do it.”

— Jonathan Lynn & Antony Jay in the British television series “Yes, Minister” (via Prog Review; site on show; Hugh Davies, “Celebrities and friends say fond farewell to Sir Nigel”, Daily Telegraph, Jan. 10 (memorial for show star Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who died Dec. 26)).

March 13-14 — “Greedy or Just Green?”. “In the last few days of December, Kamran Ghalchi sent more than 3,000 California businesses an unwelcome holiday greeting — legal notices claiming they were in violation of Proposition 65, a one-of-a-kind California law requiring warnings on products that contain potentially dangerous chemicals. More than half of Ghalchi’s December notices were filed against car dealers and other automotive businesses throughout the state. Warnings at gas stations are a familiar sight to Californians, but car dealers do not warn customers that buying a car could expose them to oil, gasoline and car exhaust. In a letter offering to settle with one dealer, Ghalchi demands $7,500 to settle right away: $750 of it in fines to the attorney general, the rest split evenly between Ghalchi and Citizens for Responsible Business, a new Proposition 65 enforcement group that is the plaintiff in all of Ghalchi’s December filings.”

Recent figures from Sacramento indicate that of “citizen suit” settlements by companies for failing to post Prop 65 warnings, less than eight percent of payouts go to the state, while two-thirds go to plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs, and much of the remainder to freelance enforcement groups that work with the lawyers. Even California attorney general Bill Lockyer, no friend of business, detects “an odor of extortion around many of these notices that concerns me'”. (Bob Van Voris, National Law Journal, Feb. 26).

March 13-14 — U.K. soldiers’ claim: brass didn’t warn of war trauma. In Great Britain, a high court lawsuit accuses the Ministry of Defence of “failing to adequately prepare service personnel for their inevitable exposure to the horrors of war”. Nearly 2,000 potential claimants have registered an interest in the action, which seeks to recover for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Queen’s Counsel Stephen Irwin, arguing on their behalf. “Mr. Irwin said that the case was ‘enormous’, would take a very long time and would cost a ‘great deal of money'”. (“MoD sued over trauma from ‘horrors of war'”, London Times, Mar. 4; Joshua Rozenberg, “2,000 sue MoD over psychiatric injuries of war”, Daily Telegraph, Mar. 5)(see also “Britain’s delicate soldiery”, Dec. 22, 2000).

March 13-14 — Education reforms could serve as basis for new suits. “Robin Hood” lawsuits prevailing on courts to order equalization of spending between rich and poor public school districts have been a dismal failure even on their own terms, undermining local taxpayers’ willingness to shoulder property tax burdens. But undaunted by previous fiascos, activist education lawyers figure the answer is yet more litigation: they’re hoping to latch onto new federal mandates for uniform test scores as the basis for a renewed round of lawsuits arguing that underperforming schools have a constitutional right to more money. (Siobhan Gorman, “Can’t Beat ‘Em? Sue ‘Em!”, Washington Monthly, Dec. 2001).

March 13-14 — I’ve got a legally protected bunch of coconuts. “A Slidell businessman who painted 150 green-and-white coconuts to pass out at the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade got a visit Thursday from a business partner of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which has been tossing gilded and glittery coconuts on Mardi Gras for decades. ‘The guy told me that as soon as I put paint on a coconut, I was infringing on their copyright,’ said Ronnie Dunaway, who owns Dunaway’s Olde Towne Market. ‘I was absolutely dumbfounded that there were laws about what you can and can’t do with a coconut.'” (Paul Rioux, “Zulu partners clamp down on copy-cat coconuts “, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mar. 8).

March 12 — Texas trial lawyers back GOP PAC. Sneaky? In Houston, plaintiff’s lawyers traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party are funding a “Harris County GOP PAC” which has endorsed candidates in today’s Republican primary for Supreme Court, Congress, the state legislature, and county attorney. Though unaffiliated with the official Republican organization, the PAC has sent voters a slickly produced brochure whose “logo even mimics the official logo of the Harris County Republican Party, which features an elephant inside of a star”. (“Harris County GOP PAC funded by plaintiff’s lawyers”, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Houston, undated March; John Williams, “Republicans want distance from PAC”, Houston Chronicle, Mar. 7).

March 12 — Liability concerns fell giant sequoia. “The Sonora Union High School District, owner of the property, had been concerned about liability if the 85-foot-tall tree fell on its own.” (Melanie Turner, “Giant sequoia felled despite legal wrangling”, Modesto Bee, Feb. 23) (via MaxPower blog, Feb. 17).

March 12 — A “Jenny Jones Show” question. Why do ads for injury lawyers so often air on the same TV shows as debt-restructuring ads aimed at viewers desperate for financial relief? — wonders blogger Patrick Ruffini (March 8).

March 11 — Fast-food roundup. The Chicago Tribune is reporting that McDonald’s Corp. is on the verge of settling lawsuits brought on behalf of vegetarians over its use of beef extract as a flavoring agent for French fries; the terms include “$10 million to charities that support vegetarianism and $2.4 million to plaintiffs’ attorneys.” Yum! (Ameet Sachdev, “McDonald’s nears deal on fries suit”, Chicago Tribune, March 7; AP/Fox News, Mar. 9; see May 4, 2001, and Rediff.com coverage: May 4, May 8, July 3, 2001). Public health activists are taking aim at the food industry’s sinister ploy of providing customers with big portions, in a contrast with the inflationary 1970s when activists denounced the same companies’ shock-horror practice of shrinking the size of the candy bar or taco (Randy Dotinga, “Super-Size Portion Causing U.S. Distortion”, HealthScoutNews/ Yahoo, Feb. 19). Whatever happened to the old notion of “leave some on the plate for Miss Manners”, anyway? On EnterStageRight.com, Steven Martinovich analyzes the next-tobacco-izing of snack food, quoting our editor on the subject (“The next moral crusade”, Feb. 25). Also see accounts on ConsumerFreedom.com: Jan. 24, Jan. 30, Feb. 5. And a lefty commentator for a British newspaper has concluded that our battle with the waistline is really all capitalism’s fault: Will Hutton, “Fat is a capitalist issue”, The Observer, Jan. 27.

March 11 — Parole board’s consideration of drug history could violate ADA. In a case filed by inmates at the state prison in Vacaville, Calif., a Ninth Circuit panel has ruled that parole boards may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act if they regard a prisoner’s history of drug addiction as a reason to accord any less favorable disposition to his request to be turned loose early, such history counting as a disability protected under the law. Sara Norman, a lawyer for the inmates, said the ruling “might also apply to those suffering mental disabilities covered by the ADA. … The panel also suggested that the ADA covers a panoply of law enforcement decision making, including arrests.” The case “could lead to a swell of court challenges”. (Jason Hoppin, “ADA Applies to Decisions About Parole, Says 9th Circuit”, The Recorder, Mar. 11).

March 11 — Editorial-fest. Sense is breaking out all over: “The government’s impulsive entrance into the victim-compensation business was born of a one-time mix of compassion and political expediency, but it sets an unaffordable precedent at a time when the nation faces the likelihood of more terrorist acts.” (“Why Is One Terrorism Victim Different from Another?” (editorial) USA Today, Mar. 8). The Washington Post, which has helped lead the case for reform of nationwide class action procedures, is back with another strong editorial on the subject (“Restoring class to class actions”, Mar. 9). And following the lead of its sister Fortune (see Feb. 18-19), Time is out with a piece asking why workers themselves should put up with the widespread abuse of asbestos litigation (“The Asbestos Pit”, Mar. 11).

May 2001 archives


May 10 — “Barbecue group sued over contest”. Jim Woodsmall of Jumpin’ Jim’s BBQ in Johnston, Ia., has sued the Kansas City Barbeque Society, charging that his business has suffered because the society has failed to award his barbecue recipe the stellar ratings he feels it deserved. The enthusiast group fails to follow impartial and uniform rules in its cook-offs, Woodsmall claims, which he thinks amounts to fraud and negligence. (Lindsey A. Henry, Des Moines Register, May 8).

May 10 — Fortune on Lemelson patents. We’ve run a couple of items on the amazing Jerome Lemelson patent operation (see Jan. 19, 2001 and August 28, 1999) and now Fortune weighs in with the best overview we’ve seen. Lemelson, who died in 1997, filed patents for hundreds of ideas and industrial processes which he said he had invented, and which underlay such familiar modern technologies as VCRs, fax machines, bar-code scanners, camcorders and automated warehouses. A mechanical genius? Well, at least a genius in figuring out the angles that could be worked with American patent law: by filing vague patents and then arranging to delay their issuance while amending their claims to adjust to later technological developments, Lemelson steered them into the path of unfolding technology, eventually securing bonanzas for his tireless litigation machine. Foreign-owned companies folded first because they were afraid of American juries, which helped give Lemelson the war chest needed to break the resistance of most of the big U.S.-based industries as well. $1.5 billion in royalties later, his estate continues to sue some 400 companies, with many more likely to be added in years to come. (Nicholas Varchaver, “The Patent King”, May 14).

May 10 — Prospect of $3 gas. One reason refinery disruptions lead to big spikes in the price of gasoline at the pump: environmental rules end up mandating a different blend of gas for each state, hampering efforts to ship supplies to where they’re most needed. (Ron Scherer, “50 reasons gasoline isn’t cheaper”, Christian Science Monitor, May 4; Ben Lieberman (Competitive Enterprise Institute), “Skyrocketing Ga$: What the Feds Can Do”, New York Post, April 23, reprinted at CEI site).

May 10 — Welcome Norwegian readers. We get discussed, and several of our recent news items summarized, on the “humor” section of Norway’s Spray Internet service (Bjørn Tore Øren, “For mange advokater”, May 8). Among other non-U.S. links which have brought us visitors: Australia’s legal-beat webzine, Justinian (“A journal with glamour — yet no friends”; more); Baker & Ballantyne, in the U.K.; the Virtual Law Library pages on media law compiled by Rosemary Pattenden at the University of East Anglia; and Sweden’s libertarian- leaning Contra.nu (“Har advokatkåren i USA för stort inflytande?” they ask of us)(more).

May 9 — Oklahoma forensics scandal. After serving fifteen years in prison on a 1986 rape conviction, Jeffrey Pierce was released Monday after new DNA evidence refuted testimony against him by a forensic specialist whose work is the subject of a growing furor. “From 1980 to 1993, Joyce Gilchrist was involved in roughly 3,000 cases as an Oklahoma City police laboratory scientist, often helping prosecutors win convictions by identifying suspects with hair, blood or carpet fibers taken from crime scenes.” Although peers, courts and professional organizations repeatedly questioned the competence and ethical integrity of her work, prosecutors asked few questions, perhaps because she was getting them a steady stream of positive IDs and jury verdicts in their favor. Now Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating has ordered an investigation of felony cases on which Gilchrist worked after an FBI report “found she had misidentified evidence or given improper courtroom testimony in at least five of eight cases the agency reviewed.” (Jim Yardley, “Flaws in Chemist’s Findings Free Man at Center of Inquiry”, New York Times, May 8; “Inquiry Focuses on Scientist Used by Prosecutors”, May 2)(reg)

May 9 — Not about the money. Foreign policy making on a contingency fee: “When attorneys agreed to champion the causes of American victims of terrorism in the Middle East, it wasn’t supposed to be about the money.” We’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? “But the prospect of multimillion-dollar fees in what once seemed to be long-shot litigation against Iran has left lawyers fighting over fees in federal court in Washington, D.C. High principles of international law and justice aren’t at stake. It’s simply a matter of who gets paid.” (Jonathan Groner, “Anti-Terrorism Verdicts Spur Big Fee Fights”, Legal Times, April 18).

May 9 — Update: cookie lawsuit crumbles. Half-baked all along, and now dunked: a federal court in March dismissed a would-be class action lawsuit against web ad agency DoubleClick over its placing of “cookies” on web users’ hard drives. Other such suits remain pending (see also Feb. 2, 2000); this one was brought by Milberg Weiss’s Melvyn Weiss and by Bernstein, Litowitz (Michael A. Riccardi, “DoubleClick Can Keep Hand in Cookie Jar, Federal Judge Rules”, New York Law Journal, March 30).

May 8 — “Lawyers to Get $4.7 Million in Suit Against Iomega”. “Lawyers in a class action suit alleging defects in portable computer Zip disk drives will get the only cash payout, up to $4.7 million, in a proposed settlement with manufacturer Iomega Corp., according to the company’s Web site.” Rebates of between $5 and $40 will be offered to past customers who buy new Iomega products, while Milberg Weiss and three other law firms expect to split their fees in crisp greenbacks, not coupons, if a Delaware judge approves the settlement in June. (Yahoo/Reuters, April 12) (Rinaldi class action settlement notice, Iomega website).

May 8 — A definition (via Sony’s Morita and IBM’s Opel). “Litigious (li-TIJ-uhs) adjective: 1. Pertaining to litigation; 2. Eager to engage in lawsuits; 3. Inclined to disputes and arguments. [From Middle English, from Latin litigiosus from litigium, dispute.]

“‘My friend John Opel of IBM wrote an article a few years ago titled ‘Our Litigious Society,’ so I knew I was not alone in my view that lawyers and litigation have become severe handicaps to business, and sometimes worse.” — Sony co-founder Akio Morita (Wordsmith.org “A Word a Day” service, scroll to Jan. 26).

May 8 — “Halt cohabiting or no bail, judge tells defendants”. “A federal judge in Charlotte is using a 19th-century N.C. law banning fornication and adultery, telling defendants they won’t be freed on bond until they agree to get married, move out of the house or have their partner leave. U.S. Magistrate Judge Carl Horn won’t release a criminal defendant on bond knowing that he or she will break the law. And that includes North Carolina’s law against unmarried couples cohabiting, placed on the books in 1805.” (Eric Frazier and Gary L. Wright, Charlotte Observer, April 4) (see also May 18, 2000).

May 7 — Says cat attacked his dog; wants $1.5 million. “A San Marcos man has filed a $1.5 million claim against the city because a cat who lives in the Escondido Public Library allegedly attacked his dog.” Richard Espinosa says he was visiting the library on November 16 with his assistance dog Kimba, a 50-pound Labrador mix, when the feline, named L.C. or Library Cat because it’s allowed to live in the building, attacked the dog inflicting scratches and punctures. As for Espinosa, wouldn’t you know, he “was emotionally traumatized and suffers from flashbacks, terror, nightmares and other problems.” Four lawyers declined to take his case and he finally filed it himself. “The cat was apparently uninjured.” (Jonathan Heller, “Escondido gets $1.5 million claim; library cat allegedly assaulted dog”, San Diego Union-Tribune, May 4) (see letter to the editor from Espinosa, June 13).

May 7 — Judge throws out hog farm suit. As was reported a few months ago, a number of environmental groups aim to take a lesson from the tobacco affair by using mass lawsuit campaigns to pursue various goals which they haven’t been able to secure through the legislative and electoral process. To do this they’ve teamed up with tobacco-fee-engorged trial lawyers; the nascent alliance got lots of publicity in December with one of its first projects, suing Smithfield Farms for billions over the nuisance posed by large-scale hog farming, a project apparently masterminded by Florida trial lawyer Mike Papantonio (tobacco, asbestos, fen-phen) and with suits against chicken and livestock operations promised in later phases of the effort (see Dec. 7, 2000). Far less publicity has been accorded to Judge Donald W. Stephens’s ruling in March which threw out the first two lawsuits as having failed to state a legal claim against the large hog packer and raiser. (Appeal is expected.) Power scion Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is still on board with his headline-ready name to front for the lawyers in the press, but he doesn’t seem to have gone out of his way to call attention to the adverse ruling (“North Carolina judge dismisses lawsuits against hog producer”, AP/MSNBC, March 30; Scott Kilman, “Environmental groups target factory-style hog farm facilities”, Wall Street Journal/MSNBC, undated; Smithfield press release, March 29).

MORE: National Public Radio, “Living on Earth” with Steve Curwood and reporter Leda Hartman, week of Feb. 16; Water Keeper Alliance (Kennedy’s group), hog campaign homepage with list of lawyers (J. Michael Papantonio, Steven Echsner and Neil Overholtz, Levin, Papantonio, Pensacola, Fla.; Thomas Sobol, Jan Schlichtmann, Steven Fineman and Erik Shawn of Lieff, Cabraser, New York and Boston; F. Kenneth Bailey, Jr. and Herbert Schwartz of Williams Bailey, Houston; Howard F. Twiggs and Douglas B. Abrams of Twiggs, Abrams, (Raleigh, N.C.), Ken Suggs and Richard H. Middleton, Jr. of Suggs, Kelly & Middleton (Columbia, S.C.), Joe Whatley, Jr., Birmingham, Ala.; Kevin Madonna, Chatham, N.Y.; Stephen Weiss and Chris Seeger, New York; Charles Speer, Overland Park, Kan.; Hiram Eastland, Greenwood, Miss.) Compare “Conoco Could Face $500 Million Lawsuit Over Bayou Water Pollution Problems”, Solid Waste Digest: Southern Edition, March 2001 (page now removed, but GoogleCached) (Papantonio campaign in Pensacola).

May 7 — Website accessibility law hits the U.K. “Scottish companies were warned yesterday that they could face prosecution if their websites are not accessible to the disabled. Poorly-designed websites are often incompatible with Braille software.” (more) (yet more) (Pauline McInnes, “Firms warned on websites access”, The Scotsman, April 19).

May 4-6 — By reader acclaim: “Vegetarian sues McDonald’s over meaty fries”. Seattle attorney Harish Bharti wants hundreds of millions of dollars from the burger chain for its acknowledged policy of adding small amounts of beef flavoring to its french fries, which he says is deceptive toward vegetarian customers (ABCNews.com/ Reuters, May 3). Notable detail that hasn’t made it into American accounts of the case we’ve seen, but does appear in the Times of India: “When he is not practising law in Seattle, Bharti says he teaches at Gerry Spence’s exclusive College for Trial Lawyers in Wyoming”. Does this mean you can be a predator without being a carnivore? (“US Hindus take on McDonald’s over French fries”, Times of India, May 3) (see also Aug. 30, 1999).

May 4-6 — Mississippi’s forum-shopping capital. The little town of Fayette, Miss., reports the National Law Journal, is “ground zero for the largest legal attack on the pharmaceutical industry” in memory. Tens of thousands of plaintiffs are suing in the Fayette courthouse over claimed side effects from such drugs as fen-phen, Rezulin, and Propulsid, not because they’re local residents (most aren’t) but because the state’s unusually lax courtroom rules allow lawyers to bring them in from elsewhere to profit from the town’s unique brand of justice. The townspeople, nearly half of whom are below the poverty level and only half of whom graduated from high school, “have shown that they are willing to render huge compensatory and punitive damages awards”. Among other big-dollar outcomes, Houston plaintiff’s lawyer Mike Gallagher of Gallagher, Lewis, Serfin, Downey & Kim “helped win a $150 million compensatory damages verdict for five fen-phen plaintiffs in Jefferson County on Dec. 21, 1999. The jury deliberated for about two hours…” There’s just one judge in Fayette County to hear civil cases, Judge Lamar Pickard, whose handling of trials is bitterly complained of by out-of-town defendants. As for appeal, that route became less promising for defendants last November when plaintiff’s lawyers solidified their hold on the Mississippi Supreme Court by knocking off moderate incumbent Chief Justice Lenore Prather.

Lots of good details here, including how the Bankston Drug Store, on Main Street in Fayette since 1902, has the bad fortune to get named in nearly every suit because that tactic allows the lawyers to keep the case from being removed to federal court. Plaintiff’s lawyer Gallagher, who also played a prominent role in the breast implant affair, says criticism of the county’s jurors as easily played on by lawyers “‘sounds racist’, since the jury pool is predominantly black”. He also brushes off defendants’ complaints about forum-shopping with all the wit and sensibility at his command: “They want to tell me where I can sue them for the damage they caused? They can kiss my a**.” (Mark Ballard, “Mississippi becomes a mecca for tort suits”, National Law Journal, April 30).

May 4-6 — Agenda item for Ashcroft. Attorney General Ashcroft could make a real difference for beleaguered upstate New York communities by backing off the Justice Department’s Reno-era policy of avid support for revival of centuries-dormant Indian land claims, which went so far as to include the brutalist tactic of naming as defendants individual landowners whose family titles had lain undisturbed since the early days of the Republic (see Oct. 27, 1999, Feb. 1, 2000) (John Woods, “Long-Running Indian Land Claims in New York May Hinge on Ashcroft’s Stance”, New York Law Journal, April 16).

May 3 — “Family of shooting victim sue owners of Jewish day-care center”. If the gunman doesn’t succeed in wiping out your institution, maybe the lawyers will: “The parents of a boy who was shot by a white supremacist at a Jewish day-care center have filed a lawsuit claiming the center’s owners failed to provide the necessary security to prevent hate crime attacks.” Buford O. Furrow fired more than 70 shots at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 1999 (AP/CNN, May 1).

May 3 — Update: mills of legal discipline. They grind slow, that’s for sure, but does that mean they grind exceeding fine? A disciplinary panel has ended its investigation of New Hampshire chief justice David Brock, letting him off with an admonishment, in the protracted controversy over the conduct (see April 5 and Oct. 11, 2000) which also led to his impeachment and acquittal in the state senate; Brock’s lawyer had threatened to sue the disciplinary panel if it continued its probe, and a dissenting committee member called that lawsuit-threat “intended to intimidate” (“Threat of lawsuit ended Brock case”, Nashua Telegraph, April 23; Dan Tuohy, “Finding bolsters call for reform”, Foster’s Daily Democrat, April 26). A hearing committee of the District of Columbia Board on Professional Responsibility has recommended that Mark Hager be suspended for three years over the episode [see Feb. 23, 2000] in which he and attorney John Traficonte “began negotiations with [drugmaker] Warner-Lambert to make refunds to consumers, and to pay himself and Hager $225,000 in exchange for which they would abandon their representation, agree to hold the agreement and fee secret from the public and their clients, and promise not to sue Warner-Lambert in the future. Traficonte and Hager accepted the offer without first obtaining the approval of any class member.” The disciplinary committee “found that Hager’s conduct was shockingly outrageous, and that his status as a law professor was a factor in aggravation.” We’ve seen no indication that anyone in the administration of American University’s law school, where Hager continues to teach, has expressed the smallest misgivings about the example that students are supposed to take from his conduct (Denise Ryan, law.com D.C., Board on Professional Responsibility No. 31-98, In re Hager, issued Nov. 30, 2000). (Update Jul. 19, 2003: Hager resigns AU post in April 2003). And off-the-wall Michigan tort lawyer and politician Geoffrey Fieger faces charges before the state attorney grievance commission following reports that he used his radio show to unleash “an obscenity-laced tirade” against three state appeals judges (“Fieger Under Fire For Alleged Swearing Fit”, MSNBC, April 17).

May 3 — “Valley doctors caught in ‘lawsuit war zone'”. A report from the Texas Board of Medical Examiners finds medical malpractice cases approximately tripled in 1999 in Texas’s McAllen-Brownsville region compared with the previous year. Among short-cuts lawyers are accused of employing: suing doctors without an authorization from the client, and hiring as their medical expert a family doctor who charges $500 an hour and has reviewed 700 cases for lawyers, second-guessing the work of such specialists as cardiovascular surgeons, but has not herself (according to an opposing lawyer) had hospital privileges since 1997. (James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle, March 2 — via Houston CALA). State representative Juan Hinojosa has introduced a bill that would allow doctors and hospitals to countersue lawyers and clients who file suits with reckless disregard as to whether reasonable grounds exist for their action. (“Doctors seek new remedy to fight frivolous lawsuits”, CALA Houston, undated).

May 2 — Suing the coach. “A teenager, who felt she was destined for greatness as a softball player, has filed a $700,000 lawsuit against her former coach, alleging his ‘incorrect’ teaching style ruined her chances for an athletic scholarship. Cheryl Reeves, 19, of Rambler Lane in Levittown, also alleges that her personal pitching coach, Roy Jenderko, of Warminster, not only taught her an illegal style of pitching but also used ‘favorite players’ which resulted in demoralizing the teen. ” (Dave Sommers, “Legal Pitch”, The Trentonian, May 1).

May 2 — Trustbusters sans frontieres. Truly awful idea that surfaced in the press a while back: a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) say they’re trying to pressure the Bush administration to file an antitrust suit against the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, accusing it of restricting the output of oil in order to raise prices to consumers in countries like ours — which is, of course, OPEC’s reason for existence. “Most antitrust and foreign policy experts interviewed say they cannot imagine a scenario in which such legal action would succeed, or that any president would risk his foreign policy goals for such a lawsuit”, reports the National Law Journal. But even the gesture of inviting unelected judges and unpredictable juries to punish sovereign foreign powers would increase the chances of our landing in a series of confrontations and international incidents that would be at best imperfectly manageable by the nation’s executive branch and diplomatic corps (which cannot, for example, necessarily offer to reverse or suspend court decisions as a bargaining chip).

The United States’s relations with OPEC countries, it will be recalled, have on occasion embroiled us in actual shooting wars, which are bad enough when entered after deliberation on the initiative of those to whom such decisions are entrusted in our system of separation of powers, and would be all the less supportable if brought on us by the doings of some rambunctious judge or indignant jury. Wouldn’t it be simpler for Sen. Specter to just introduce a bill providing that the courts of the United States get to run the world from now on? (Matthew Morrissey, “Senators to Press for Suing OPEC Over Pricing”, National Law Journal, March 1).

May 1 — Columnist-fest. Scourings from our bookmark file:

* Mark Steyn on the Indian residential-school lawsuits that may soon bankrupt leading Canadian churches (see Aug. 23, 2000): (“I’ll give you ‘cultural genocide'”, National Post, April 9). Bonus: Steyn on protectionism, globalization and Quebec City (“Don’t fence me in”, April 19).

* Federalists under fire: there’s a press campaign under way to demonize the Federalist Society, the national organization for libertarian and conservative lawyers and law students. The Society has done a whole lot to advance national understanding of litigation abuses and overuse of the courts — could that be one reason it’s made so many powerful enemies? (Thomas Bray, “Life in the Vast Lane”, OpinionJournal.com, April 17; Marci Hamilton, “Opening Up the Law Schools: Why The Federalist Society Is Invaluable To Robust Debate”, FindLaw Writ, April 25; William Murchison, “In Defense of the Federalist Society”, Dallas Morning News, April 25).

* A Bush misstep: the White House has named drug-war advocate and Weekly Standard contributor John P. Walters as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Walters, almost alone among those who have spent serious professional time on drug abuse in America, harbors no misgivings over the fact that we’ve been crowding our prisons almost to the bursting point with nonviolent drug offenders.” (William Raspberry, “A Draco of Drugs”, Washington Post, April 30) (Lindesmith Center).

* “Overreaching IP legal teams kick the firm they supposedly represent”: Seth Shulman of Technology Review on the “patented peanut butter sandwich” case (see Jan. 30). (“Owning the Future: PB&J Patent Punch-up”, May). Also: California judge William W. Bedsworth (“Food Fight!”, The Recorder, March 16).


May 18-20 — “Couple sues for doggie damages”. Claiming that their 4-year-old golden retriever Boomer was hurt by an “invisible fence” electronic collar device, Andrew and Alyce Pacher, of Vandalia, Ohio, want to name the dog itself as a plaintiff in the suit. “It’s my opinion that it’s clear dogs cannot sue under Ohio law,” says the fence company’s lawyer. But the Pachers’ attorney, Paul Leonard, a former lieutenant governor and ex-mayor of Dayton, says that’s exactly what he hopes to change: he’s “hoping to upgrade the legal status of dogs in Ohio.” (“Damages for Injuries Caused by Invisible Fence Sought for Dog”, AP/FoxNews.com, May 11).

May 18-20 — “Fortune Magazine Ranks ATLA 5th Most Powerful Lobby”. The business magazine finds that plaintiff’s lawyers have more clout in Washington than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the AFL-CIO; more than Hollywood or the doctors or the realtors or the teachers or the bankers. (Fortune, May 28; ATLA jubilates over its rise from 6th to 5th, May 15).

May 18-20 — Batch of reader letters. Our biggest sack of correspondence yet includes a note from a reader wondering if some open-minded attorney would like to help draft a loser-pays initiative for the ballot in Washington state; more about carbonless paper allergies, the effects of swallowing 9mm bullets, the Granicy trial in California, and “consumer columns” that promote lawyers’ services; a link between ergonomics and gun control controversies; and a reader’s dissent on the case of the boy ticketed for jaywalking after being hit by a truck.

May 17 — “Crash lawyers like Boeing move”. Attorneys who sue after midair mishaps are pleased that Boeing is planning to relocate its headquarters to Chicago. They say the courts of Cook County, Ill., hand out much higher verdicts than those of Seattle, the aircraft maker’s former hometown. Some lawyers in fact predict that domestic crashes, at least when the plane is Boeing-made, are apt to be sued in Cook County from now on regardless of where the flight originated or went down; under the liberal rules of forum-shopping that prevail in American courts, most big airlines may be susceptible to venue in the Windy City since they do at least some business there. (Blake Morrison, “Crash lawyers like Boeing move”, USA Today, May 16).

May 17 — Like a hole in the head. As if the nine private law schools in the state of Massachusetts weren’t enough, proponents now want to establish a public one by having the state take over the struggling Southern New England School of Law at North Dartmouth, near New Bedford. (Denise Magnell, “Crash Course”, Boston Law Tribune, May 1).

May 17 — Lessons of shrub-case jailing. The months-long contempt-of-court jailing of John Thoburn of Fairfax County, Va. for refusing to erect enough trees and shrubs around his golf driving range is a good example of the excesses of bureaucratic legalism, says Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher (“In Fairfax shrub fight, Both Sides Dig In Stubbornly”, April 26). Some of the county’s elected supervisors voice few misgivings about the widely publicized showdown, saying their constituents want them to be tougher in cracking down on zoning violations. (Peter Whoriskey and Michael D. Shear, “Fairfax Zoning Case Draws World Attention”, Washington Post, April 21) (freejohnthoburn.com).

May 16 — No baloney. “A suspected drug dealer who was served a bullet-and-bologna sandwich wants a side of lettuce — about $5 million worth. ” Louis Olivo says he was given an officially prepared lunch during a break in a Brooklyn Supreme Court hearing last week, and felt something “crunchy” which turned out to be a bullet. Surgery (not syrup of ipecac?) is expected to remove the 9mm bullet from Olivo’s stomach; his lawyer wants $5 million (Christopher Francescani, “$5M Lawsuit Over Bulletin in Bologna”, New York Post, May 15) (& letter to the editor, May 18)

May 16 — “Who’s afraid of principled judges?” More questions should be raised about a retreat held at Farmington, Pa. earlier this month in which 42 Democratic Senators were lectured on the need to apply ideological litmus tests to judicial nominees, writes Denver Post columnist Al Knight. (May 13). “Liberals rightly decried efforts a decade ago to turn membership in the American Civil Liberties Union into a disqualification for high office; current efforts to do the same thing to the Federalist Society are equally wrong. … In fact, they are the only group, liberal or conservative, that regularly sponsors debates throughout the nation’s law schools on important public-policy issues.” (Howard Shelansky, “Who’s Afraid of the Federalist Society?”, Wall Street Journal, May 15).

May 16 — Drawing pictures of weapons. In Oldsmar, Fla., an eleven-year-old “was taken from his elementary school in handcuffs after his classmates turned him in for drawing pictures of weapons.” (Ed Quioco and Julie Church, “Student removed from class because of drawings”, St. Petersburg Times, May 11; “Pinellas fifth grader cuffed, sent home after classmates turn him in for drawing weapons”, AP/Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, May 11). In Sunderland, England, police raided Roland Hopper’s 11th birthday party and arrested him as he cut the cake after he was seen playing with the new pellet gun his mother had bought him (“Armed Police Raid 11th Birthday”, Newcastle Journal, April 10). And the website ztnightmares.com, which developed out of a controversy at Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colo., “publicizes the downside or evils of zero tolerance school discipline policies” and has a noteworthy list of outside links as well as horror stories.

May 15 — “Judges or priests?”. Why have judicial nomination fights taken on the intensity and bitterness once associated with religious disputes? “The only places left in this country that could be described as temples — for that is how we treat them — are the courts. … They are temples because the judges who sit in them now constitute a priesthood, an oracular class … we have abdicated to them our personal responsibility and, in many cases, even what used to be the smallest judgment call a citizen had to make for himself.” (Tunku Varadarajan, WSJ OpinionJournal.com, May 11).

May 15 — Techies fear Calif. anti-confidentiality bill. Trial lawyers have been pushing hard for the enactment of legislation granting them wide leeway to disseminate to anyone they please much of the confidential business information they dig up by compulsory process in lawsuits. (At present, judges are free to issue “protective orders” which restrain such dissemination.) Proponents say lawyers will use this new power to publicize serious safety hazards that now remain unaired; critics predict they will use it to stir up more lawsuits and for general leverage against defendants who have been found guilty of no wrong but who don’t want the inner details of their business to fall into the hands of competitors or others. A lawyer-backed bill had been hurtling toward enactment in California following the Firestone debacle, but now a counterforce has emerged in the person of high-tech execs who say the proposal “could expose confidential company information, stifle innovation and encourage frivolous litigation. … TechNet CEO Rick White called the bills ‘the most significant threat to California’s technology companies since Prop. 211.’ White was referring to the 1996 initiative that would have made company directors and high-ranking executives personally vulnerable to shareholder lawsuits.” (Scott Harris, “Old Foes Squabble Over Secrecy Bills”, Industry Standard/Law.com, May 10).

May 15 — Canadian court: divorce settlements never final. The Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled that courts may revisit and overturn former divorce settlements if a “material change of circumstances” has taken place since the original deal. “Tens of thousands of people who believed they had agreed to a ‘final’ divorce settlement could face more financial demands … Family law lawyers predict a surge of legal attacks on separation agreements and marriage contracts as a result of the ruling.” (Cristin Schmitz, “Divorce deals never final: court”, Southam News/National Post, April 28).

May 14 — Write a very clear will. Or else your estate could wind up being fought over endlessly in court like that of musician Jerry Garcia (Kevin Livingston, “Garcia Estate Fight Keeps On Truckin'”, The Recorder, April 25; Steve Silverman, “Online Fans Sing Blues About Garcia Estate Wrangling”, Wired News, Dec. 16, 1996; Don Knapp, “Garcia vs. Garcia in battle for Grateful wealth”, CNN, Dec. 14, 1996). Or actor James Mason (A Star is Born, North by Northwest) (“He would have been horrified by all this. … he hated litigation”) (Caroline Davies, “James Mason’s ashes finally laid to rest”, Daily Telegraph (London), Nov. 25, 2000). Or timber heir H.J. Lutcher Stark of Orange, Texas, who died in 1965 and whose estate, with that of his wives, has spawned several rounds of litigation which look as far back for their subject matter as 1939 and are still in progress (William P. Barrett, “How Lawyers Get Rich”, Forbes, April 2 (reg)).

May 14 — City gun suits: “extortion parading as law”. To curb the use of officially sponsored litigation as a regulatory bludgeon, as in the gun suits, the Cato Institute’s Robert Levy recommends “a ‘government pays’ rule for legal fees when a governmental unit is the losing plaintiff in a civil case”. (Robert A. Levy, “Pistol Whipped: Baseless Lawsuits, Foolish Laws”, Cato Policy Analysis #400 (executive summary links to full paper — PDF))

May 14 — Update: “Messiah” prisoner’s lawsuit dismissed. In a 22-page opinion, federal district judge David M. Lawson has dismissed the lawsuit filed by a Michigan prisoner claiming recognition as the Messiah (see April 30). The opinion contains much to reward the curious reader, such as the list on page 5 of the inmate’s demands (including “5 million breeding pairs of bison” and “25,000 mature breeding pairs of every creature that exists in the State of Michigan,” and the passage on page 18 citing as precedent for dismissal similar previous cases such as Grier v. Reagan (E.D. Pa. Apr. 1, 1986), “finding that plaintiff’s claim she was God of the Universe fantastic and delusional and dismissing as frivolous complaint which sought items ranging from a size sixteen mink coat and diamond jewelry to a three bedroom home in the suburbs and a catered party at the Spectrum in Philadelphia”). (opinion dated April 26 (PDF), Michigan Bar Association site) (DURABLE LINK)

May 11-13 — Welcome Aardvark Daily readers (NZ). “New Zealand’s leading source of Net-Industry news and commentary since 1995” just referred us a whole bunch of antipodal visitors by featuring this website in its “Lighten Up” section. It says we offer “an aggregation of quirky and oddball legal actions which go to prove that the USA has far too many lawyers for its own good”. (Aardvark.co.nz). For NZ-related items on this site, check out July 26, Sept. 8 and Oct. 31, 2000, as well as “Look for the Kiwi Label”, Reason, July 2000, by our editor.

May 11-13 — New York tobacco fees. “An arbitration panel has awarded $625 million in attorneys’ fees to the six firms that were hired by New York state to sue the tobacco industry, say sources close to the arbitration report.” The well-connected city law firm of Schneider, Kleinick, Weitz, Damashek & Shoot (which last year was reported to be renting office space to New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; see May 1, 2000) will receive $98.4 million. Three firms that took a major national role in the tobacco heist will share $343.8 million from the New York booty, to add to their rich haul from other states; they are Ness Motley, Richard Scruggs’ Mississippi firm, and Seattle’s Hagens & Berman. (Daniel Wise, “Six Firms Split $625 Million in Fees for New York’s Share of Big Tobacco Case,” New York Law Journal, April 24). Update Jun. 21-23, 2002: judge to review ethical questions raised by fee award.

May 11-13 — “Judges behaving badly”. The National Law Journal‘s fourth annual roundup of judicial injudiciousness includes vignettes of jurists pursuing personal vendettas, earning outside income in highly irregular ways, jailing people without findings of guilt, and getting in all sorts of trouble on matters of sex. Then there’s twice-elected Judge Ellis Willard of Sharkey County, Mississippi, who allegedly “fabricated evidence such as docket pages, arrest warrants, faxes [and] officers’ releases.” That was why he got in trouble, not just because he was fond of holding court in his Beaudron Pawn Shop and Tire Center, “a tire warehouse flanked by service bays on one side and a store that holds the judge’s collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia.” (Gail Diane Cox, National Law Journal, April 30).

May 11-13 — Update: Compaq beats glitch suit. In 1999, after Toshiba ponied up more than a billion dollars to settle a class action charging that its laptops had a glitch in their floppy drives, lawyers filed follow-on claims against other laptop makers whose machines they said displayed the same problem. But Compaq refused to settle, and now Beaumont, Tex. federal judge Thad Heartfield has felt constrained to dismiss the suit against it on the grounds that plaintiff’s lawyer Wayne Reaud had failed to show that any user suffered the requisite $5,000 in damages. (Daniel Fisher, “Billion-Dollar Bluff”, Forbes, April 16 (now requires registration)).


May 31 — Fieger’s firecrackers frequently fizzle. Famed lawyer Geoffrey Fieger extracts huge damage awards from Michigan juries in civil cases even more often than he manages to get Dr. Jack Kevorkian off the hook from criminal charges, but he does much less well when the big awards reach higher levels of judicial consideration. “In the last two years, Fieger and his clients have watched as judges, acting on appeal or post-trial motion, erased more than $55 million in jury verdicts,” including $15 million and $13 million verdicts against Detroit-area hospitals and a $30 million verdict, reduced by the judge to $3 million, arising from a Flint highway accident. Opponents say Fieger’s courtroom vilification of opponents and badgering of witnesses often impresses jurors but plays less well in the calmer written medium of an appellate record.

Appeals courts are now considering Fieger cases “totaling an estimated $50 million to $100 million … Among those cases is $25 million awarded in the infamous Jenny Jones talk-show case and $20 million to a woman who was sexually harassed at a Chrysler plant.” (Update Oct. 25-27, 2002: appeals court throws out Jenny Jones verdict. Further update Jul. 24, 2004: state high court throws out Chrysler verdict). Fieger, who was the unsuccessful Democratic challenger to Michigan Gov. John Engler at the last election, charges that the appeals courts are politically biased against him: “It’s a conspiracy to get me”. However, a reporter’s examination of Fieger cases that went up to appeals courts indicates that the partisan or philosophic background of the judges on the panels doesn’t seem to make a marked difference in his likelihood of success (Dawson Bell, “Fieger’s wins lose luster in appeals”, Detroit Free Press, May 29). “Colorful” barely begins to describe Fieger’s past run-ins with the law and with disciplinary authorities; see Dawson Bell, “Fieger’s skeletons won’t stay buried”, Detroit Free Press, August 13, 1998.

May 31 — “Dead teen’s family sues Take our Kids to Work”. Had to happen eventually dept.: in Welland, Ontario, “[t]he family of a teenage girl killed while driving a utility vehicle at a John Deere plant is suing the company, the school board and the organizers of Take Our Kids to Work day.” (Karena Walter, National Post, May 25).

May 31 — Pale Nanny with an ad budget. The Indoor Tanning Association, a salon trade group, is “worried about proposed legislation in Texas that would outlaw indoor tanning for anyone under age 18, require tanning salons to post pictures of different types of skin cancer, and allow dermatologists and anti-tanning activists to make contributions to the Texas Health Department to pay for an anti-tanning advertising campaign.” You didn’t think these sorts of campaigns were going to stop with tobacco, did you? (“Inside Washington — Presenting: This Season’s Latest Tan Lines”, April 14, National Journal, subscribers only).

May 30 — Supreme Court: sure, let judges redefine golf. By a 7-2 vote, the high court rules that the PGA can be forced to change its rules so as to let disabled golfer Casey Martin ride in a cart between holes while other contestants walk. (Yahoo Full Coverage; Christian Science Monitor; PGA Tour v. Martin decision in PDF format — Scalia dissent, which is as usual the good part, begins about two-thirds of the way down). For our take, see Reason, May 1998; disabled-rights sports cases).

May 30 — Microsoft v. Goliath. “The antitrust laws originally aimed to preserve competition as idealized by Adam Smith. Can they now preserve and promote Schumpeter’s [“creative destruction”] competition? The Microsoft case suggests that they cannot. ” (Robert Samuelson, “The Gates of Power”, The New Republic, Apr. 23).

May 30 — Evils of contingent-fee tax collection, cont’d. Another city, this time Meriden, Ct., has gotten in trouble for hiring a private firm to assist in its taxation process on a contingent-fee basis — in this case, the firm conducted property reassessments and got to keep a share of the new tax revenue hauled in by them. A Connecticut judge has now found that this system gave the firm a pointed incentive to inflate supposed property values unjustifiably, that it had done so in the case at hand, and that the incentive scheme, by destroying the impartiality that we expect of public servants, had deprived taxpayers of their rights to due process under both federal and state constitutions. He ordered the city to refund $15.6 million to two utility companies whose holdings had been overassessed in this manner. (Thomas Scheffey, “Connecticut Judge Blasts City’s $15.6 Million Mistake”, Connecticut Law Tribune, May 3). It’s yet another recognition (see Jan. 10, 2001; Dec. 3, 1999) that when governments hire contingent-fee professionals to advise them on whether private parties owe them money and if so how much, due process flies out the window — as has happened routinely in the new tobacco/gun/lead paint class of lawsuits, which operate on precisely this model.

May 29 — Claim: inappropriate object in toothpaste caused heart attack. A Shelton, Ct. man is suing Colgate-Palmolive, claiming he discovered an extremely indelicate object in a six-ounce standup tube of the company’s regular toothpaste and that the resulting stress caused his blood pressure to escalate over a matter of months, leading him to suffer a heart attack a year later. The company said it does not think its production processes would have allowed the offending object to have entered the tube. (“Man sues over condom in toothpaste”, AP/WTNH New Haven, May 25).

May 29 — States lag in curbing junk science. According to one estimate, only about half of state courts presently follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard for excluding unreliable scientific evidence from trials (Daubert v. Merrell Dow, 1993). Where states follow a laxer standard, they run the risk of approving verdicts based on strawberry-jam-causes-cancer “junk science”. A new group called the Daubert Council, headed by Charles D. Weller and David B. Graham of Cleveland’s Baker & Hostetler, aims to fix that situation by persuading the laggard states to step up to the federal standard. (Darryl Van Duch, “Group is Pushing ‘Daubert'”, National Law Journal, May 25).

May 29 — Brace for data-disaster suits. Companies with a substantial information technology presence are likely to become the targets of major liability lawsuits in areas such as hacker attacks, computer virus spread, confidentiality breach, and business losses to co-venturers and customers, according to various experts in the field. (Jaikumar Vijayan, “IT security destined for the courtroom”, ComputerWorld, May 21).

May 28 — Holiday special: dispatches from abroad. Today is Memorial Day in the U.S., which we will observe by skipping American news just for today in favor of the news reports that continue to pour in from elsewhere:

* Swan victim Mary Ryan, 71, has lost her $32,600 negligence claim against authorities over an incident in which one of the birds knocked her to the ground in Phoenix Park in central Dublin, Ireland. She testified that she had just fed the swan and was walking away when she heard a great flapping of wings and was knocked down, suffering a broken wrist. “Ryan said park commissioners should have put up signs warning the public about ‘the mischievous propensity and uncertain temperament'” of the birds, but Judge Kevin Haugh ruled that evidence had not established that the park’s swans were menacing in general, although the one in question had concededly been having “a very bad day.” (Reuters/Excite, May 25).

* In Canada, the New Brunswick Court of Appeal has ruled improper the disbarment of Fredericton attorney Michael A.A. Ryan, whom the Law Society had removed from practice after finding that he had lied to clients and falsified work, reports the National Post. To conceal his neglect of cases which had lapsed due to statutes of limitations, “Mr. Ryan gave his clients reports of hearings, motions and discoveries that never occurred, and when pressed for details of a supposedly favourable judgment, forged a decision from the Court of Appeal. The clients were eventually told they had won $20,000 each in damages,” but in the end Ryan had to confess that he had been making it all up. “The lawyer has admitted to a long-standing addiction to drugs and alcohol, and told the court he was depressed during the period of his misconduct because of the breakup of his marriage.” (Jonathon Gatehouse, “Court gives lawyer who lied to clients second chance,” National Post, May 18).

* Authorities in Northumbria, England, have agreed to pay thousands of pounds to Detective Inspector Brian Baker, who blames his nocturnal snoring on excessive inhalation of cannabis (marijuana) dust in the line of police duty. Baker says that his spending four days in a storeroom with the seized plants resulted in nasal congestion, sniffing, dry throat, and impaired sense of smell as well as a snore that led to “marital disharmony”. (Ian Burrell, “Payout for policeman who blamed his snoring on cannabis”, The Independent (U.K.), April 11; Joanna Hale, “Drugs inquiry made detective a snorer”, The Times (U.K.), April 11). And updating an earlier story (see May 22), a woman in Bolton, Lancashire has prevailed in her suit against a stage hypnotist whose presentation caused her to regress to a childlike state and recall memories of abuse; damages were $9,000 (AP/ABC News, May 25).

May 25-27 — “Judge buys shopaholic defense in embezzling”. “A Chicago woman who stole nearly $250,000 from her employer to finance a shopping addiction was spared from prison in a novel ruling Wednesday by a federal judge who found that she bought expensive clothing and jewelry to ‘self-medicate’ her depression.” Elizabeth Roach faced a possible 18-month prison term for the embezzlement under federal sentencing guidelines, but U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly reduced her sentence, sparing her the big house, in what was evidently “the first time in the country that a federal judge reduced a defendant’s sentence because of an addiction to shopping.” She had bought a $7,000 belt buckle and run credit-card bills up to $500,000. (Matt O’Connor, Chicago Tribune, May 24).

May 25-27 — Columnist-fest. More reasons to go on reading newspapers:

* A New York legislator has introduced a joint custody bill that he thinks would significantly reduce the state’s volume of child custody litigation, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. Leaving aside debates about the other pros and cons of joint custody, one reason it languishes is that it “has been opposed by matrimonial lawyers in the state. ‘They make their living on these divorces,’ said [assemblyman David] Sidikman, a lawyer himself. “… The parents usually start off these cases promising to be adults, but that doesn’t last once the lawyers get involved.” “(John Tierney, “The Big City: A System for Lawyers, Not Children”, New York Times, May 15 (reg)). Bonus: Tierney on the NIMBY-ists who would sue to keep IKEA from building a store in a blighted Brooklyn neighborhood (“Stray Dogs As a Litigant’s Best Friend”, April 13).

* Steve Chapman points out that the recent release of an Oklahoma man long imprisoned for a rape he didn’t commit (see May 9) casts doubt not only on shoddy forensics but also on that convincing-seeming kind of evidence, eyewitness testimony (“Don’t believe what they say they see”, Chicago Tribune, May 13). Bonus: Chapman on the scandal of medical-pot prohibition (“Sickening policy on medical marijuana”, May 17).

* Reparations: “Germans may be paying for the sins of their fathers but asking Americans to stump up for what great-great-great-grandpappy did seems to be rather stretching a point. ” (Graham Stewart, “Why we simply can’t pay compensation for every stain on our history”, The Times (U.K.), March 22).

May 25-27 — “Gone with the Wind” parody case. The legal status of parody as a defense to copyright infringement is still uncertain in many ways, and contrary to a widespread impression there is no legal doctrine allowing extra latitude in copying material from works such as the Margaret Mitchell novel that have become “cultural icons” (Kim Campbell, “Who’s right?”, Christian Science Monitor, May 24; Ken Paulson, “What — me worry? Judge’s suppression of Gone With the Wind parody raises concerns”, Freedom Forum, May 20).

May 24 — “Family awarded $1 billion in lawsuit”. Another great day for trial lawyers under our remarkable system of unlimited punitive damages: a New Orleans jury has voted to make ExxonMobil pay $1 billion to former state district judge Joseph Grefer and his family because an Exxon contractor that leased land from the family for about thirty years left detectable amounts of radioactivity behind from its industrial activities. Exxon “said it offered to clean up the land but the Grefers declined its offers.” The company says the land could be cleaned up for $46,000 and also “claims that less than 1 percent of the land contains radiation levels above naturally occurring levels.” The jury designated $56 million of the fine for cleaning up the land; the total value of the parcel is somewhere between $500,000 (Exxon’s view) and $1.5 million (the owners). (Sandra Barbier, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 23; Brett Martel, “Jury: ExxonMobil Should Pay $1.06B”, AP/Yahoo, May 22; “Exxon Mobil to Appeal $1 Billion Fine”, Reuters/New York Times, May 23).

May 24 — Humiliation by litigators as turning point in Clinton affair. “It strikes me as relevant that the turning point in the Lewinsky saga was the broadcasting of Clinton’s deposition, an image of an actual human being humiliated for hours on end. It was then that we realized we had gone too far — but look how far down the path we had already gone.” (Andrew Sullivan, TRB from Washington, “Himself”, The New Republic, May 7).

May 24 — Tobacco: angles on Engle. With three cigarette companies having agreed to pay $700 million just to guarantee their right to appeal a Miami jury’s confiscatory $145 billion verdict in Engle v. R.J. Reynolds, other lawyers are piling on, the latest being an alliance of hyperactive class action lawyers Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll with O.J. Simpson defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran (“Lawsuit says tobacco industry tried to hook kids”, CNN/AP, May 23; Jay Weaver, “Tobacco firms agree to historic smoker payment”, Miami Herald, May 8; “Tobacco Companies Vow to Fight $145 Billion Verdict”, American Lawyer Media, July 17, 2000; Rick Bragg with Sarah Kershaw, “”Juror Says a ‘Sense of Mission’ Led to Huge Tobacco Damages”, New York Times, July 16, 2000 (reg); “Borrowing power to be considered in tobacco suit”, AP/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 1, 2000 (judge ruled that companies’ ability to borrow money could be used as a predicate for quantum of punitive damages)).

May 23 — “Insect lawyer ad creates buzz”. Torys, a large law firm based in Toronto, has caused a stir by running a recruitment ad aimed at student lawyers with pictures of weasels, rats, vultures, scorpions, cockroaches, snakes and piranhas, all under the headline “Lawyers we didn’t hire.” The ad, devised by Ogilvy and Mather, says the firm benefits from a “uniquely pleasant and collegial atmosphere” because it doesn’t hire “bullies, office politicians or toadies”, who presumably go to work for other law firms instead.

However, some defenders of invertebrates and other low-status fauna say it’s unfair to keep comparing them to members of the legal profession. Vultures, for example, “provide a really essential role in terms of removing dead animals and diseases,” says Ontario zoologist Rob Foster. “It’s slander, frankly,” he says, “adding that one exception might be the burbot, a bottom-feeding fish whose common names include ‘the lawyer.’ … ‘Whenever I see a dung beetle portrayed negatively in a commercial, I see red,’ he said yesterday, recalling that in The Far Side comic strip, cartoonist Gary Larson once drew two vermin hurling insults by calling each other ‘lawyer.'” (Tracey Tyler, Toronto Star, Apr. 19). (DURABLE LINK)

May 23 — “Working” for whom? An outfit called the Environmental Working Group has recently taken a much higher profile through its close association with “Trade Secrets”, a trial-lawyer-sourced (and, say its critics, egregiously one-sided) attack on the chemical industry that aired March 26 as a Bill Moyers special on PBS. Spotted around the same time was the following ad which ran on one of the FindLaw email services on behalf of EWG: “Thought the Cigarette Papers Were Big? 50 years of internal Chemical Industry documents including thousands of industry meeting minutes, memos, and letters. All searchable online. Everything you need to build a case at http://www.ewg.org“. Hmmm … isn’t PBS supposed to avoid letting itself be used to promote commercial endeavors, such as litigation? (more on trial lawyer sway among environmental groups)

MORE: Michael Fumento, “Bill Moyers’ Bad Chemistry”, Washington Times, April 13; PBS “TradeSecrets”; Steven Milloy, “Anti-chemical Activists And Their New Clothes”, FoxNews.com, March 30; www.AboutTradeSecrets.org (chemical industry response); ComeClean.org; Ronald Bailey, “Synthetic Chemicals and Bill Moyers”, Reason Online, March 28. The New York Times‘s Neil Genzlinger wrote a less than fully enthralled review of the Moyers special (“‘Trade Secrets’: Rendering a Guilty Verdict on Corporate America”, television review, March 26) for which indiscretion abuse was soon raining down on his head from various quarters, including the leftist Nation (“The Times v. Moyers” (editorial), April 16). (DURABLE LINK)

May 22 — From dinner party to court. “I’m never going to invite people around for dinner again,” says Annette Martin of Kingsdown, Wiltshire, England, after being served with a notice of claim for personal injury from dinner guest Margaret Stewart, who says she was hurt when she fell through a glass and steel dining chair in Miss Martin’s home. Martin says that “up to then we had been good friends,” and that Miss Stewart “looked perfectly fine when she walked out the door that evening. … I feel very strongly about the television adverts that encourage this sort of nonsense. I think the Government should intervene before we become like the Americans and sue over anything.” (Richard Savill, “Dinner party ends with a sting in the tail”, Daily Telegraph, May 19). In other U.K. news, a woman from Bolton, Lancashire, is suing stage hypnotist Philip Green, claiming that during one of his performances “she was induced to chase what she believed were fairies around the hall, drink a glass of cider believing it was water and believe she was in love with Mr. Green,” all of which left her depressed and even for a time suicidal, calling up memories of childhood abuse. (“Woman sues stage hypnotist over ‘abuse memories'”, Ananova.com, May 21) (more on hypnotist liability: March 13). UpdateMay 28: she wins case and $9,000 damages.

May 22 — Razorfish, Cisco, IPO suits. In a decision scathingly critical of the “lawyer-driven” nature of securities class action suits, New York federal judge Jed Rakoff rejected a motion by five law firms to install a group of investors as the lead plaintiff in shareholder lawsuits against Razorfish Inc., a Web design and consulting company. The investor group had been “cobbled together” for purposes of getting their lawyers into the driver’s seat, he suggested. “Here, as in many other such cases, most of the counsel who filed the original complaints attempted before filing the instant motions to reach a private agreement as to who would be put forth as lead plaintiff and lead counsel and how fees would be divided among all such counsel.” Rakoff instead installed as lead counsel Milberg Weiss and another firm, which jointly represented the largest investor claiming losses in the action. “Judge Rakoff noted drily in a footnote that numerous complaints were filed within days that essentially copied the original Milberg Weiss complaint verbatim,” and wondered whether the lawyers filing those copycat suits had taken into account the requirements of federal Rule 11. (Bruce Balestier, “Judge Rejects Lawyers’ Choice of Lead Plaintiff in Razorfish Class Actions”, New York Law Journal, May 8).

Observers are closely watching the onslaught of class action suits filed against Cisco Systems since its stock price declined. Stanford securities-law professor Joseph Grundfest, who “helped craft the 1995 reform act and has worked on both plaintiffs-side and defense cases … said he sees the Cisco case as part of a buckshot strategy by plaintiffs’ lawyers. They are suing multiple technology companies with hopes of extracting a large settlement from at least one. ‘They only need a small probability to make it worth their while,’ Grundfest said. ‘How much does it cost to write a complaint?'”. (Renee Deger, “Cisco Inferno”, The Recorder, April 27). Shareholder suits in federal court are headed toward record numbers this year in the wake of the dotcom meltdown (Daniel F. DeLong, “Lawyers Find Profit in Dot-Com Disasters”, Yahoo/ NewsFactor.com, May 14; see also Richard Williamson, “Shareholder Suits Slam High-Tech”, Interactive Week/ZDNet, Dec. 19, 2000).

May 22 — Welcome SmarterTimes readers. Ira Stoll’s daily commentary on the New York Times mentioned us on Sunday (May 20 — scroll to first “Late Again”). And Brill’s Content has now put online its “Best of the Web” roundtable in which we were recommended by federal appeals judge Alex Kozinski (May — scroll about halfway down righthand column).

May 21– Six-hour police standoff no grounds for loss of job, says employee. “A formerly suicidal insurance executive who lost his job after a six-hour standoff with police at Park Meadows mall [in Denver] is suing his former employer for discrimination under federal and state laws protecting the mentally disabled. The 43-year-old plaintiff, Richard M. Young, alleges he was wrongfully terminated from Ohio Casualty Insurance Co. after the company interpreted a suicide note he wrote to be his letter of resignation. … The civil complaint says Young was on emergency medical leave for an emotional breakdown May 29, 2000, when he drove to the shopping center’s parking garage and was spotted on mall security cameras with a revolver. … Douglas County sheriff’s deputies finally coaxed him into surrendering”. His suit seeks back pay, front pay and punitive damages. (John Accola, “Man who was suicidal sues ex-employer for discrimination”, Rocky Mountain News, May 18). (DURABLE LINK)

May 21 — “Anonymity takes a D.C. hit”. If Rep. Felix Grucci has his way, you won’t be able to duck into a library while on the road to check your Hotmail; the New York Republican has “introduced legislation requiring schools and libraries receiving federal funds to block access from their computers to anonymous Web browsing or e-mail services. … Grucci says it’s necessary to thwart the usual suspects, terrorists and child molesters.” (Declan McCullagh, Wired News, May 19). And did you know that it would be unlawful to put out this website in Italy without registering with the government and paying a fee? New regulations in that country are extending to web publishers an appalling-enough-already set of rules that require print journalists to register with the government. Says the head of the Italian journalists’ union approvingly: “Thus ends, at least in Italy, the absurd anarchy that permits anyone to publish online without standards and without restrictions, and guarantees to the consumer minimum standards of quality in all information content, for the first time including electronic media.” (Declan McCullagh’s politechbot, “Italy reportedly requires news sites to register, pay fees”, April 11; “More on Italy requiring news sites to register, pay fees”, April 12) (via Virginia Postrel’s “The Scene”, posted there May 6). (DURABLE LINK)

May 21 — “Patients’ rights” roundup. Well, duh: “Doctors supporting patients’ rights bills have suddenly become alarmed that some of the proposals could boomerang and expose them to new lawsuits.” (Robert Pear, “Doctors Fear Consequences of Proposals on Liability”, New York Times, May 6 (reg)). “Consumers do not consider the right to sue health insurers over coverage issues a top healthcare priority, according to new survey data released by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA),” which is of course an interested party in the matter; a right to sue “finished last among 21 major health issues that consumers were asked to rank.” (Karen Pallarito, “Poll: Right to sue HMOs low priority for consumers,” Reuters Health, April 26 (text) (survey data — PDF)). And if liability is to be expanded at all, Congress should consider incorporating into the scheme the “early offers” idea developed by University of Virginia law professor Jeffrey O’Connell, which is aimed at providing incentives for insurers to make, and claimants to accept, reasonable settlements at an early stage in the dispute (John Hoff, “A Better Patients’ Bill of Rights,” National Center for Policy Analysis Brief Analysis No. 355, April 19). (DURABLE LINK)

MORE: Greg Scandlen, “Legislative Malpractice: Misdiagnosing Patients’ Rights”, Cato Briefing Papers, April 7, 2000 (executive summary) (full paper — PDF); Gregg Easterbrook, “Managing Fine”, The New Republic, March 20, 2000.

December 2000 archives, part 2


December 20 — Property taxes triple after wrongful-termination suit. “The Delaware County [Oklahoma] Excise Board voted Monday to impose a tax levy that will triple property taxes for Kenwood’s 128 residents to pay off a court judgment against the school system.

“Board members voted to set the levy after Kenwood school board members agreed Thursday to use $75,000 in federal Impact Aid funds to pay Garland Lane, the former school superintendent, who won a $305,600 judgment against the district in 1998 for wrongful termination.

“The school district still owes Lane $179,000. The federal trial judge ordered that Lane and his Tulsa attorney would be allowed to collect an additional 10 percent interest on the outstanding debt until it was paid.

“A Kenwood taxpayer who normally pays $224 in taxes for the year will now have to pay $763, under the levy approved Monday.” (Jann Clark, “Property tax triples in Kenwood”, Tulsa World, Dec. 12).

December 20 — Obese fliers. A judge has ruled that Southwest Airlines did not unlawfully discriminate against Cynthia Luther, whose weight exceeds 300 pounds, when it required her to buy a second seat on a flight from Reno to Burbank (“Large Passenger Has Suit Dismissed”, Yahoo/AP, Dec. 14) (via Drudge). Days earlier, a confidential report from an official agency in Canada recommended that airlines be forbidden to charge highly obese passengers for a second seat, on the grounds that their condition should count as a disability entitled to accommodation. The opinion from the Canadian Transportation Agency promptly came under fire from both directions, with the Air Transport Association of Canada charging that such a rule would be unacceptably expensive, and Helena Spring, founder of the Canadian Association for Fat Acceptance, saying that obesity should be viewed as a healthy condition rather than a disability (Glen McGregor, “Treat the obese as disabled, airlines told”, Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 10). Update Oct. 25-27, 2002: complaint by obese Canadian passenger fails.

December 20 — New batch of letters. Our letters page catches up on more of its backlog with letters from readers on the Florida recount, Microsoft’s decision to settle its “permatemps” case, and a view from British gangland on how lawyers ought to be paid.

December 20 — Jury orders Exxon to pay Alabama $3.5 billion. No, Alabama hasn’t lived down the reputation for jackpot justice it earned in cases like BMW and Whirlpool: a jury yesterday deliberated just two hours before tagging the oil company with the mega-verdict in a dispute over natural gas royalties owed the state. Consultants for the state had argued that it was due $87 million, Exxon said the figure was much lower or zero, but private attorney Bobo Cunningham of Mobile — whom the state had hired on contingency, promising him 14 percent of any winnings — convinced the jurors that $3 billion would be a much more appropriate sum (Phillip Rawls, “Jury orders Exxon to pay $3.5 billion to state in offshore gas case”, AP/Birmingham News, Dec. 19). Updates Dec. 1, 2003: first verdict thrown out, retrial yields $11.8 billion punitive damage award; Apr. 18, 2004 judge cuts that verdict to $3.6 billion.

December 18-19 — “‘Belligerent’ Worker Is Covered by ADA, Says Federal Court”. “A worker who suffers from major depression that makes her belligerent and hypersensitive to criticism has a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act to a reasonable accommodation from her supervisors, a federal judge has ruled.” After she was fired from her job as a manager with the Unisys Corp., Tina Bennett sued arguing that she had been suffering from major depression which manifested itself in interpersonal difficulties. “U.S. District Judge Franklin S. Van Antwerpen found that when a worker’s depression affects her ability to think and concentrate, she has the right under the ADA to get more feedback and guidance if it would help her perform her job. … Bennett met the test [for impairment of ‘major life activities’], Van Antwerpen said, since the evidence showed she was ‘belligerent and displayed an unprofessional attitude,’ that she had ‘difficulty controlling her emotions’ and that she was ‘incredibly sensitive to criticism.’ Bennett’s supervisor testified that Bennett’s peers felt that they could not approach her and have a meaningful conversation with her, Van Antwerpen noted, and her poor interpersonal skills were listed as a reason she was fired.” Given her “evidence linking her behavior to symptoms of her mental disability,” the judge ruled, a jury must be allowed to consider her claim for damages under the ADA. (Shannon P. Duffy, Legal Intelligencer (Philadelphia), Dec. 13).

December 18-19 — Behind the subway ads. “[T]here isn’t a subway-riding adult in New York who hasn’t seen an ad for 1-800-DIVORCE, with the O formed by a diamond ring and a woman’s hand to the side making a tossing motion.” The law firm that picks up the phone when you call, Wilens & Baker, believes in the economies of scale obtainable from a volume business. It’s also unusual among advertisers in its emphasis on such lines as immigration and bankruptcy law: “There are a thousand lawyers advertising now, and 980 are personal injury lawyers,” says Michael Wilens. (Laura Mansnerus, “From a Captive Audience, Clients”, New York Times, Nov. 15) (reg).

December 18-19 — How to litigate an American quilt. For all their cozy and nonadversarial image, quilts these days “are hot items in copyright litigation” as designers head to court to accuse each other of swiping patterns. In one pending action, Paul Levenson, a New York attorney who makes a specialty in quilt law, is representing Long Island designer Judy Boisson in a suit against the Pottery Barn chain “over an allegedly infringing quilt that, like one of Ms. Boisson’s, contains eight-pointed pastel ‘Missouri Star’ blocks on a white background. One of the burdens that Mr. Levenson has to overcome is the fact that many quilt blocks and borders have been in the public domain for more than 100 years, and that the communal spirit that led pioneer women to make quilts is the polar opposite of the mindset of intellectual property law. … Home quilters are abuzz about Ms. Boisson’s copyright claims, but Mr. Levenson says her targets are commercial entities, not grandmothers making quilts for their own families.” (Victoria Slind-Flor, “Quilts: Traditional and ‘mine'”, National Law Journal, Nov. 13).

December 18-19 — Smoker’s suit nixed in Norway. “A Norwegian court ruled [last month] the tobacco industry could not be held responsible for a smoker’s terminal cancer in the country’s first tobacco compensation lawsuit. The Orkdal District Court said the smoker, Robert Lund, continued to smoke even after the dangers of smoking ‘became broadly known and accepted’ and said tobacco’s addictiveness did not free him from responsibility for continuing to smoke.” (Doug Mellgren, “Norway puts tobacco industry on trial”, AP/Nando Times, Nov. 10).

December 18-19 — Welcome Wall Street Journal readers. The Weekend Journal‘s “Taste” editorial commentary briefly mentioned our item on female Santa litigation (see Dec. 13-14). And today’s (Monday’s) Christian Science Monitor quotes our editor on the subject of workplace litigation over accent discrimination (Kelly Hearn, “What legal experts say”, Dec. 18, sidebar to main story, “Pegged by an accent“).

December 15-17 — Farm bias settlements: line forms on the left. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently agreed to pay more than $2 billion to settle suits claiming it had discriminated against black farmers; a suit by Indian farmers is proceeding as well. And now lawyers have filed suit seeking $3 billion in damages on behalf of female and elderly farmers allegedly treated unfairly in USDA programs. “The farmers are represented by Washington, D.C., attorney Phillip Fraas, who helped win the lawsuit brought by black farmers.” (“Women, Elderly Farmers Sue USDA”, Omaha World Herald, Dec. 11).

December 15-17 — U.K.: skipping, “conkers” taboo in schoolyards. Skipping and other pastimes are being banned in British schoolyards as potentially hazardous or antisocial, as is the age-old game of “conkers”, played by throwing chestnuts at classmates. Teachers “are nervous about legal action from parents if the children are injured, according to a survey by Keele University. … [A] poll found last month that 57 per cent of parents would ask for compensation if their child was injured at school. … Sarah Thomson, the survey’s author, said that one headmaster said he would prefer to ‘ban all playtimes, as they are a nightmare'” The survey of Midlands schools “concluded that playgrounds were now often ‘barren, sterile and unimaginative’ because of over-cautious staff.” (Glen Owen, “Playtime conkers banned as dangerous”, The Times (London), Dec. 8).

In other zero tolerance news, the Washington, D.C. subway system made news last month after its police arrested 12-year-old Ansche Hedgepeth for eating french fries in one of its stations (“Girl Arrested for Eating Fries in Subway”, AP/APBNews, Nov. 16; Petula Dvorak, “Metro Snack Patrol Puts Girl in Cuffs”, Washington Post, Nov. 16). See also Adrienne Mand, “Schools’ Zero-Tolerance Programs Both Praised and Attacked”, FoxNews.com, Oct. 11; “Zero tolerance turns silly” (editorial), Detroit News, Oct. 7.

December 15-17 — O’Quinn a top Gore recount angel. Tied for second among biggest donors to the Gore recount campaign was Houston trial lawyer John O’Quinn, a frequent subject of commentaries in this space (Aug. 4, 1999, etc.). (“Jane Fonda, others pony up for Gore”, AP/MSNBC, Dec. 8). Aside from his role representing the state of Texas in the tobacco litigation (May 22, 2000), O’Quinn is probably best known for having reaped a huge fortune suing on the theory that silicone breast implants cause autoimmune and related illnesses, a theory that O’Quinn and his p.r. firm, Fenton Communications, still strive tenaciously to keep alive — a far more dogged refusal-to-concede than in the Gore case, which lasted mere weeks. See also Doug Bandow, “Ending silicone breast implant saga”, TownHall.com, Dec. 13.

December 13-14 — Supreme Court: forget that recount. Looks like it’s really, really over this time, but every time we allow ourselves to think so, a hand resembling David Boies’s pops out of the ground and starts pulling us down as in the last scene of Carrie. (Charles Babington, “High Court Overrules Gore Recount Plea”, washingtonpost.com, Dec. 12; Supreme Court opinions (PDF)). The courts are going to come out of this one looking more partisan, partial and willful, writes Stuart Taylor, Jr., who predicted the Supreme Court’s 5-4 split; but the real blame should be laid on the Florida Supreme Court for having “betrayed its trust and done grave damage to the rule of law”. (“The Dangers of Judicial Hubris”, Slate, Dec. 11). “It should now be obvious to most people that the Rule of Trial Lawyers isn’t a good substitute for the Rule of Law. … it’s worth noting that three of the four justices who voted for Al Gore’s ‘adventures in recounting’ on Friday had been personal-injury trial lawyers.” (John H. Fund, “Saved from rule of trial lawyers”, MS/NBC, Dec. 9). And Christopher Caldwell, in a column making too many interesting points to recount, asks the question: why did the candidates file most of the Florida lawsuits against their own side, with Gore suing Democratic-run counties and Bush suing those run by the GOP, the opposite of what you might expect if the point of election challenges is to expose and correct partisan irregularities? (“Bench Press”, New York Press, Dec. 12).

December 13-14 — Latest female Santa case. Donna Underwood of Mount Hope, W.V. has sued a company that had hired her to play Santa Claus for children at a mall in Beckley. “She said the company fired her after one of the mall’s managers complained about having a female Santa.” (“Woman Fights for Right to Be Mr. Claus”, FoxNews.com, Dec. 11). In October (see Oct. 12) the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights said it was okay for Wal-Mart not to employ a female Santa.

December 13-14 — “Economy-class syndrome” class action. A Melbourne, Australia law firm is filing a proposed class action on behalf of victims of “economy-class syndrome” against airlines and travel agents. The suit will claim that the complainants were not warned that sitting for prolonged periods in cramped conditions might lead to blood clots in the legs and elsewhere, and were not advised to get up from time to time to walk about the cabin. (Alison Crosweller, “‘Economy-class syndrome’ victims to sue”, The Australian, Dec. 11).

December 13-14 — Internet service disclaimers. Anxious to limit their liability, Internet service providers insert into their service agreements a lot of “defensive legalistic blather designed to keep the company out of court”, which taken literally would place many of their ordinary users in violation for doing things like maintaining multiple chats at once. They also reserve the right to change the rules: “‘They could suddenly demand you wear a bra and panties and dance in the street, and you are contractually bound to it, the way this is written,’ says Andrew Weill, a partner at Benjamin, Weill & Mazer, an intellectual property firm in San Francisco.” In practice users treat the language as a joke (but also are slower to sue). (John Dvorak, “Nihilists at Home”, Forbes, Oct. 2).

December 13-14 — Hamilton’s example. “Few men contributed as much to the ratification of the Constitution as Alexander Hamilton, who wrote the majority of The Federalist Papers. Hamilton worked as a lawyer. Unlike the landed gentry, he had to earn a living. The individual whose economic policies ensured the young Republic’s survival did not amass a huge personal fortune. In Alexander Hamilton, American, Richard Brookhiser explains: ‘His skill and success put him in great demand . . . and if he did not become rich from his practice, it was because of the interruptions of public life and because he charged low fees.’

“Low fees? Those words seldom appear in stories about, for instance, the tobacco lawsuits. Hamilton didn’t eat in a soup kitchen or live in a shelter, but he didn’t make enough to buy the era’s equivalent of a sports team, either. And if all lawyers followed his example, then audiences would not hoot and howl during a certain intense Shakespearean scene.” (“Law school” (editorial), Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nov. 28).

December 11-12 — What was the Florida court thinking? In Slate, University of Utah law professor Mike McConnell clears up why the actions of the Florida Supreme Court in the recount case are properly reviewable by the federal courts: “Article II, Section 1 [of the Constitution] provides that electors [of a state] shall be appointed ‘in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.’ Any significant deviation from state statutory law is therefore a federal issue.” McConnell explains how the Florida high court has now (again) attempted to impose a method for the counting of votes (and thus for the resultant appointment of electors) markedly at odds with the manner laid down before the election by its legislature, making it proper for the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene a second time to vacate its action. And McConnell raises the interesting question: if the Florida high court really thought a statewide hand count advisable, why didn’t it order one earlier, when it had access to the same basic information and there was much more time to conduct one? (“What was the Florida court thinking?”, Dec. 9).

More: Michael Barone on how the Florida fiasco is likely to bring judicial activism into further disrepute (“Red Queen rules”, U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 18). George Will finds lawyer David Boies getting away with some pretty fast moves before the Sunshine State jurists (“Truth Optional”, Washington Post, Dec. 10). The Chicago Tribune says the Florida court’s “reckless leaps of illogic not only have threatened the integrity of the election, but also have risked tossing the nation into real turmoil.” (“A Supreme Blow for the Rule of Law” (editorial), Dec. 10)

December 11-12 — “Stock Options: A Gold Mine For Racial-Discrimination Suits?”. Lucrative tactic for lawyers representing disgruntled minority employees of firms like Microsoft, Gateway, Sun, Cisco and AOL: claim that had it not been for racism your client would have gotten stock options. Given the way these stocks have been behaving lately, they’d better hurry up with this theory while the options are still worth something (Jordan Pine and Linda Bean, DiversityInc.com, Dec. 5 (reg after first page teaser)).

December 11-12 — New Jersey OKs retroactive tort legislation. “Filling in for Gov. Christie Whitman, the New Jersey Senate president, Donald T. DiFrancesco, [last month] signed into law a measure that eliminates a two-year statute of limitations on wrongful death lawsuits involving victims of murder or manslaughter. The law is meant to give distraught families time to deal with the trauma of losing a loved one before turning to the task of seeking compensation from the people, businesses or institutions [emphasis added] they believe are responsible for the death. Yesterday’s measure applies retroactively, and therefore allows … past victims’ families to sue, [according to a spokeswoman for Sen. DiFrancesco]. “Frank Askin, founder of the constitutional litigation clinic at Rutgers University, said that he did not see a problem with the clause being retroactive, so long as the defendants in lawsuits had been convicted, thus establishing beyond reasonable doubt that a murder or manslaughter did occur, and that the evidence was clear and convincing.” Askin’s answer seems curiously beside the point given that the most frequent financial targets of such suits are sure to be not the actual individual killers, but the “businesses or institutions” that will be accused of such sins as “negligent security” (based on, say, allegedly inadequate lighting or patrolling of parking lots). These defendants normally will not have been charged with any criminal offense at all in connection with the incidents, let alone had such guilt established beyond reasonable doubt, yet now are apparently being opened to suit retroactively, despite the expiration of the statute. Sen. DiFrancesco is expected to run for governor of New Jersey in 2001. (“New Law Ends Time Limits On Wrongful Death Lawsuits”, New York Times, Nov. 18) (more on decay of statutes of limitation).

December 11-12 — Florida lawyers’ day jobs, cont’d. The election isn’t the only reason a lot of lawyers hang out in the Sunshine State these days: “If South Florida is the Wild Wild West of the class-action world, then the region’s posse of plaintiff lawyers are the cowboys. Some of the wealthiest, most prominent power brokers in the community, these litigators have turned South Florida into a hotbed for class-action lawsuits.” (Julie Kay, “Along for the Ride”, Miami Daily Business Review, Oct. 24) (quotes our editor). St. Petersburg Times columnist Bob Trigaux found in October that the state of Florida won the not-coveted award for the year’s worst suit (“The most frivolous lawsuit award goes to …”, Oct. 4) (also quotes our editor) (and see Dec. 8-10).

December 11-12 — Trustworthy professionals. Nurses, pharmacists and veterinarians score highest in a survey of which occupations are viewed as most honest and ethical; teachers, clergy, judges and police also do well. Attorneys are “consistently rated among the top five professions for prestige, but near the bottom for ethics and honesty.” (Daniel B. Wood, “Who people trust — by profession”, Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 28).

January 2000 archives


January 15-16 — “Blatant end-runs around the democratic process”. “If I had my way, there’d be laws restricting cigarettes and handguns,” writes former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a prominent liberal, in this widely noted piece in the new American Prospect. But “[f]ed up with trying to move legislation, the White House is launching lawsuits to succeed where legislation failed. The strategy may work, but at the cost of making our frail democracy even weaker.”

The legal grounds for both the tobacco and gun suits “are stretches, to say the least. If any agreement to mislead any segment of the public is a ‘conspiracy’ under RICO, then America’s entire advertising industry is in deep trouble, not to mention HMOs, the legal profession, automobile dealers, and the Pentagon.” The federal gun case prefigures liability for the makers of such products as “alcohol and beer, fatty foods, and sharp cooking utensils.”

“These novel legal theories give the administration extraordinary discretion to decide who’s misleading the public and whose products are defective. You might approve the outcomes in these two cases, but they establish a precedent for other cases you might find wildly unjust….But the biggest problem is that these lawsuits are blatant end-runs around the democratic process…. In short, the answer is to make democracy work better, not give up on it”. (Robert Reich, “Smoking, guns”, The American Prospect, Jan. 17).

January 15-16 — “Public paranoia, and other losses”. George Williams of Cut Off, Louisiana is suing the Fair Grounds Corp. and assorted other defendants over two winning trifecta bets he placed at an off-track betting parlor which paid $80.80 and $36.60 when the television monitor suggested that the actual payout should be $121.20 and $41.80 respectively. The suit charges the race track and various other defendants with wire fraud, mail fraud, theft and breach of contract, and claims damages for “mental anguish and emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of sleep, public paranoia, and other losses.” Williams’ attorney, Corey Orgeron of Cut Off, “said he simply wants to get to the bottom of the discrepancies between what Williams thought he won and what he was actually paid. ‘It very easily could be nothing more than simple negligence,’ Orgeron said. ‘I don’t think there was any criminal intent.'” Then why’d he throw in the charges of fraud, theft, and so on? (Joe Gyan Jr., “Man accuses OTB parlor of fraud”, Baton Rouge Advocate, Jan. 8) (& letter to the editor, Jan. 16, 2001).

January 15-16 — Poetry corner: Benjamin Franklin. Thanks to Tama Starr for suggesting this one:

The Benefit of Going to LAW

Two Beggars travelling along,
One blind, the other lame,
Pick’d up an Oyster on the Way
To which they both laid claim:
The matter rose so high, that they
Resolv’d to go to Law,
As often richer Fools have done,
Who quarrel for a Straw.
A Lawyer took it strait in hand,
Who know his Business was,
To mind nor one nor t’other side,
But make the best o’ th’ Cause;
As always in the Law’s the Case:
So he his Judgment gave,
And Lawyer-like he thus resolv’d
What each of them should have;

Blind Plaintiff, lame Defendant, share
The Friendly Laws’ impartial Care,
A Shell for him, a Shell for thee,
The Middle is the LAWYER’S FEE.

— Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1733 (& see Jan. 26-27 update).

January 15-16 — Welcome HealthScout visitors. In an article on the “Internet addiction” defense (see Jan. 13-14) and other creative legal theories, the online health news service concludes: “If you wonder whether America’s legal system is getting out of control, check out Overlawyered.com (yes, that’s its real name) to read more about the Columbine case and other questionable legal tactics.” (Serena Gordon, “‘The Web Made Me Do It!'”, HealthScout, Jan. 13). Check out our subpage on law and medicine.

January 13-14 — Latest excuse syndromes. A Florida teenager accused of making a threat of violence in an email to Columbine High School was suffering from “Internet intoxication”, his lawyer plans to argue. Michael Ian Campbell was “role-playing” when he sent a message threatening to “finish” what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began in their massacre last April, according to Miami attorney Ellis Rubin. In earlier cases, Rubin offered “television intoxication” as a defense for a teenager eventually convicted of murdering an elderly neighbor, and defended a woman who eventually pleaded guilty to prostitution by saying that the antidepressant Prozac had turned her into a nymphomaniac. Meanwhile, a black Pennsylvania man accused of bank robbery is offering an insanity defense, saying that he had been driven to mental derangement by the racism of the white culture around him. “Police said [Brian] Gamble dressed as a woman when he went into the bank on July 3 and robbed tellers at gunpoint.” (Steve Gutterman, “Internet Defense in Columbine Case”, Washington Post, Jan. 12; “Robbery suspect claims racism made him insane”, AP/CNN, Dec. 23).

January 13-14 — “Litigation Bug Bites Into Democracy”. “Fueled by the success of the class-action war on Big Tobacco, class-action ‘lawfare,’ if you will, is also now being waged against — among others — gun manufacturers, makers of lead paint, Microsoft, the health maintenance organization industry, makers of genetically altered seed, the vitamin industry and the airlines.” Chicago Tribune editorial also points out, regarding charges that American businesses poured too much money into averting even minor Y2K glitches, that of course they were terrified out of any reasonable cost-benefit calculation: “it wasn’t just fear of the millennium bug. It was fear of lawyers waiting to pounce. Didn’t spend enough money to fix your computers, eh? Created a public safety problem, did you? Surely you knew your negligence would disrupt us. We’ll see you in court.” (editorial, Jan. 10).

January 13-14 — Huge jump in biggest jury verdicts. Survey by Lawyers’ Weekly USA finds the ten biggest jury awards to individual plaintiffs approached an aggregate $9 billion in 1999, nearly tripling from the amount in 1998. “Something totally unparalleled in history is going on in our legal system,” says the weekly’s publisher, not without a touch of magniloquence. Besides the Anderson (Chevy Malibu) verdict against GM, set by the jury at $4.9 billion and reduced by a judge to $1.1 billion (see Dec. 16, Aug. 27, July 10 commentaries), the other billion-dollar case was an award of $1.2 billion to the family of 32-year-old Jennifer Cowart, who died of burn injuries after a go-cart accident at a Pensacola, Fla. amusement park. (AP/FindLaw, Jan. 11).

January 13-14 — Watch your speech in Laguna Beach. The use of slurs, catcalls and other “hate speech” on the street is not in itself unlawful, but police in Laguna Beach, Calif. have begun documenting episodes of such verbal nastiness anyway on the theory that perpetrators often “graduate” to physical violence later on — a sort of gateway theory, as they call it in the drug war. Police Chief James Spreine said the database of hate-speech incidents will help his department identify suspects in serious crimes — raising the danger that constitutionally protected speech, although not to be punished itself, will bring with it something akin to official suspect status when unknown parties commit bias crimes later on (Mayrav Saar and Barbara Diamond, “Laguna Beach police will document hateful speech”, Orange County Register, Jan. 12).

January 13-14 — “Americans Turn To Lawyers To Cure Nation’s Social Ills”. Uh, speak for yourself, would you mind, please? Last week’s flattering news-side Wall Street Journal profile of class-action impresario Michael Hausfeld (anti-guns, anti-HMOs, anti-biotech) got the most basic premise wrong about the class action biz when it said that “more and more frequently, they [referring to “people” or “society”] turn to courts when the traditional avenues of politics or activism seem obstructed.” But the “people” don’t hire class action lawyers; more typically those lawyers hire themselves, and if necessary go out and find a representative plaintiff to sue for. Of course these lawyers would love to establish that their activities simply coincide with what the public wants them to do, but why is the Journal‘s news side lending them a hand by assuming what is to be proven? (Paul Barrett, “Americans Turn To Lawyers To Cure Nation’s Social Ills”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4)

January 13-14 — Your fortune awaits in Internet law. Five years ago this Ohioan was toiling away as a computer operator for a sleep clinic, but now he’s moved on to a career in the fast-growing world of Internet law — representing a client who cybersquatted on such domain names as “dolphins.com” and “jets.com” and now wants major bucks from the football folks on the grounds that they interfered with his sale of the names. “Mr. DeGidio sees such issues as fertile ground for dispute.” (George J. Tanber, “Web challenges kindle this attorney’s interest”, Toledo Blade, Jan. 10).

January 13-14 —Overlawyered.com announcement list now hosted at ListBot. It was getting too big to be managed any other way — besides, this way you can volunteer fun demographic information about yourself. To join the list, look for the red Listbot button in the column at left and enter your email address.

January 13-14 —Correction: surname of Pennsylvania AG. Our January 10 report mistook the surname of Attorney General Mike Fisher of Pennsylvania. We’ve fixed it now. Our apologies.

January 12 — Finally! Reform may be in the wind for New York City’s patronage-ridden courts, following a burgeoning scandal in Brooklyn. Two top officials resigned last month from the law committee of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, complaining that despite their “unquestioned loyalty” to the party they’d been cut out of lucrative court assignments. The letter painted a damning picture of the operations of the city’s notoriously buddy-buddy system of fiduciary appointments, by which judges appoint clubhouse lawyers to fee-intensive positions managing the estates of decedents, orphans, failed businesses, foreclosed properties and other entities that can’t tend to their own affairs. Mayor Rudy Giuliani promptly called for reform to purge the system of its continuing machine taint, and now the state’s chief judge, Judith Kaye, has announced that she’s appointing an investigator with subpoena power to uncover improprieties and make the fiduciary appointment process worthy of public confidence. If that works, our friend Augeas has some stables that need cleaning out. Update Dec. 20, 2001: investigation results in report exposing abuses.

SOURCES: Alan Feuer, “2 Brooklyn Lawyers, Ex-Insiders, Outline a Court Patronage System”, New York Times, Jan. 5; Thomas J. Lueck, “Giuliani Urges Chief Judge to End Patronage in Courts”, New York Times, Jan. 6; Winnie Hu, “Political Favoritism by Judges Faces an Investigation”, New York Times, Jan. 11 (all Times links now dead); John Caher, “NYS Courts to Probe Judicial Appointments of Lawyers”, New York Law Journal, Jan. 11; Tracey Tully, “Judge To Probe Patronage”, New York Daily News, Jan. 11; Frederic U. Dicker and Maggie Haberman, “Top Judge Orders Probe of B’klyn Patronage Scandal”, New York Post, not dated.

January 12 — Disabled accommodation in testing. Sunday’s L.A. Times notices the trend: “The number of students who get extra time to complete the SAT because of a claimed learning disability has soared by more than 50% in recent years, with the bulk of the growth coming from exclusive private schools and public schools in mostly wealthy, white suburbs.” (Kenneth R. Weiss, “New Test-Taking Skill: Working the System”, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 9; see our editor’s “Standard Accommodations“, Reason, February 1999.) The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the Law Schools Admissions Council for allegedly following overly rigid rules in responding to physically disabled applicants’ requests for extra time on the Law School Admissions Test. “We are extremely disappointed that the Department of Justice has decided to litigate this matter and even more disappointed that they issued a press release about the lawsuit before serving us with the complaint,” says the Council’s president. (Shannon P. Duffy, “Disabled Students Denied Accommodation to Take LSAT, Suit Says”, The Legal Intelligencer (Philadelphia), Dec. 9). Columnist Robyn Blumner isn’t the only one reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut story, “Harrison Bergeron”. (“The high cost of equality: our freedom”, St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 19).

January 12 — Ontario judge okays hockey-fan lawsuit. Justice Michel Charbonneau ruled that a lawsuit by season-ticket holders against player Alexei Yashin (see Oct. 20 commentary) can proceed even though the law in the area is “relatively undeveloped”. “This is groundbreaking because this is the first time we can examine an athlete’s state of mind regarding fans,” said attorney Arthur Cogan. “Does he ever think about fans’ interests?” Next up: lawsuits by inconvenienced customers against workers who go out on unauthorized strikes? (Kevin Allen, “Yashin to face fans’ discontent”, USA Today, Jan. 6; “Judge: Fans’ lawsuit against Yashin can proceed”, CBS SportsLine, Jan. 5).

January 12 — Warn and be sued. “When Gwinnett County police officer Gordon Garner III told clinical psychologist Anthony V. Stone during a fitness-for-duty interview that he had had a vision of killing his captain, and thoughts about killing eight to 10 others including the chief and a county commissioner, Stone took it seriously.” He “consulted a lawyer for the Georgia Psychological Association, Susan Garrett, who advised him he had a duty to warn the individuals Garner had named”, according to court papers. Two weeks after the initial interview, he did warn them — walking right into a lawsuit from Garner for breach of confidentiality which culminated last month in a jury award of $280,000. Sued if you do, sued if you don’t? “In previous reported cases in Georgia, mental health professionals have been sued for failing to warn third parties that they might be in danger; Stone was sued for issuing that precise warning.” (Trisha Renaud, “Ex-Cop Wins Rare Confidentiality Case”, Fulton County Daily Record, Jan. 5).

January 11 — Health plans rebuffed in bid to sue cigarette makers. Now we find out! Helping close the door on the premise of the state Medicaid suits (after that $246 billion horse has already escaped from the barn), the Supreme Court yesterday let stand lower-court rulings denying union health plans the right to sue tobacco companies to recoup smoking-related health outlays. (“Union health plans lose round with cigarette makers”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 10; Joan Biskupic, “Court Rejects Union Tobacco Suits”, Washington Post, Jan. 11). For a brief run-down of why these third-party payor claims have no law on their side, we recommend Judge Frank Easterbrook’s enjoyably abrasive 7th Circuit opinion, issued in November, dismissing suits filed by union funds and Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans in Illinois.

January 11 — Microsoft temps can sue for stock options. “In another victory for temporary workers at Microsoft, the Supreme Court today let stand a ruling that greatly expanded the number of employees who could sue the software giant to purchase stock options and get other benefits.” If you’re an employer who was counting on the old notion of freedom of contract to hold temps and independent-contractor employees to the benefits they bargained for, be afraid. (James V. Grimaldi, “High court rules 15,000 Microsoft temps can sue”, Seattle Times, Jan. 10; Dan Richman, “Microsoft ‘Permatemps” Win”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 11) (see also Aug. 19 commentary).

January 11 — “Update from the Year 2050”. The protagonist of this 1984-like tale wakes up to tepid home-brewed coffee: “Today, no house could be programmed to prepare scalding fluids. No ice cubes either: People choked on them and died. As Plaintiff in Chief Rodham Bush liked to say, ‘Extremes are unhealthy.'”. It was in the 00’s decade that the lawyers really took over: “By piling lawsuit atop lawsuit, the attorneys could bankrupt any company that tried to fight them….Politicians had discovered that by joining in the lawsuits, the government could take a cut of the settlements.” Now there was just one big company left, McNikeSoft, which efficiently settled hundreds of thousands of suits a day on the Litigation Exchange, and which the lawyers refrained from bankrupting because that would end the game. “Profits flowed efficiently from the real economy directly to the attorneys. Everybody was happy.” Hurry up and read this new satire by Jonathan Rauch before the folks he skewers find some way to sue him for writing it (National Journal, Jan. 7 — see Reason archive)

January 11 — Can they get a patent on that? “Two top executives and two high-level officers at a consulting firm that serves lawyers and insurance companies were indicted by a federal grand jury [in November] on charges of designing a computer program that automatically inflated the bills it sent to clients.” The indictment charges that a computer programmer at the firm, S.T. Hudson International Inc. of Wayne, Pa., “developed a program he called the ‘gooser’… which automatically multiplied every hour worked by a consultant by 1.15 and then added an extra half hour to the total hours,” with resulting overpayments by clients and affiliated companies totaling more than $320,000. (Shannon P. Duffy, “Consulting Firm Indicted for Inflating Bills Sent to Lawyers”, Legal Intelligencer (Philadelphia), Nov. 30).

January 11 — “Dear Abby: Please help…” “…I fell in love with a married man. He claimed he loved me. My husband caught us and now has filed for divorce. My lover called it quits and ran back to his wife.

“Can I sue my lover for breach of promise because he promised to get a divorce and marry me?” — Destroyed in the U.S.A.

“Dear Destroyed: I recommend against initiating such a lawsuit.”

— An entry, reprinted in its entirety, from “Dear Abby“, January 2.

January 11 — Welcome, Yahoo and About.com visitors. Our page on overlawyered schools has recently won listings at Yahoo “Full Coverage: Education Curriculum and Policy” and J. D. Tuccille’s popular Civil Liberties section at About.com.

January 10 — Pokémon litigation roundup. The Burger King Corporation last month recalled about 25 million pull-apart plastic balls containing the cartoon characters, which had been distributed as premiums with childrens’ meals, after a young child apparently suffocated on half of one of them. The company offered a small order of french fries in exchange for each returned ball, which did not save it from class action lawyers in Dallas who dashed at once to court, their named client a local mother whose son was entirely unharmed by the balls but who (or so the premise of the suit went) considered the french fries inadequate compensation for the toys’ return. (“Burger King Hit With Pokémon Lawsuit”, Reuters/FindLaw, Dec. 30; Jenny Burg, “Dallas Mom Sues Burger King Over Poke Balls”, Texas Lawyer, Jan. 5).

In other Pokémon litigation news, showman Uri Geller, whose act is best known for his purported ability to bend spoons by the power of remote mind control, is threatening to sue the makers of the cards over the inclusion of the character Kadabra, which is shown wielding a spoon and which boasts “special mental powers: It plagues bystanders with a mysterious pain in the brain'”, to quote the New York Post. Japanese children are said to have nicknamed the character “Uri Geller”; “There’s no way that they’re allowed to do this,” Geller says his lawyer told him. (Lisa Brownlee, “Pokémon card trick makes magic man mad”, New York Post, Dec. 30). And the American Lawyer has now given a write-up to the recent imbroglio (see Oct. 13 commentary) in which class-actioneers Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach filed a lawsuit charging that the trading cards are a form of unlawful gambling, without realizing that a company it represented owned the licensing rights to the characters — with the result that it sued its own client for treble damages for alleged racketeering. (Sherrie Nachman, “Cartoon Conflicts”, American Lawyer, Dec. 20) (earlier Pokémon coverage: Dec. 16, Oct. 13, Oct. 1-3).

January 10 — Pennsylvania tobacco fees: such a bargain! “One lawyer spent 12 minutes reading the Wall Street Journal and billed $62. Another charged $290 for the hour he took identifying and ordering books.” Lawyers’ bills like that might stand in need of a little revising, you might think — but in the case of the Pennsylvania tobacco fees the revision was upward, from $7.1 million to a negotiated deal of $50 million. On a per-capita basis that still ranks among the lowest tobacco fees in the country, but eyebrows have been raised by the fact that the prominent and generally business-oriented law firms that handled the work for the state, Buchanan Ingersoll of Pittsburgh and Duane, Morris & Heckscher of Philadelphia, were selected in what critics say was not an open or competitive process, and happened to be major campaign contributors of Attorney General Mike Fisher, the one doing the selecting (Fisher also made the key decisions in the eventual negotiated fee settlement). “Obviously,” says one critic, Philadelphia attorney Lawrence Hoyle, Jr., “it was a political kind of deal.”

“The $50 million that Duane, Morris and Buchanan Ingersoll will share over the next five years dwarfs the combined total of the Ridge administration’s bills for outside legal counsel last year: about $35 million to 241 law firms, with none getting more than $2.3 million.” And by the time Pennsylvania sued, other states had developed the legal theories on which the case rested. Tobacco-fee zillionaire Joseph Rice, who represented many states in the affair, agrees that the late-filing Keystone State did not face as much legal risk as states that filed earlier, but says: “I don’t think we should quibble about it.” But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he? (Glen Justice, “In tobacco suit, grumblings over legal fees”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 4)(& see Oct. 24, 2002).

January 10 — Back pay obtained for illegal aliens. Scoring an early win for its new policy of backing lawsuits by undocumented workers over the loss of jobs it was unlawful for them to hold in the first place, the federal government has extracted a $72,000 settlement from a Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites in Minnesota on behalf of nine illegal Mexican immigrants. The National Labor Relations Board and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had charged the hotel with firing the workers because they were leading a union organizing drive, along with other employment and labor law infractions. The workers are still in the country and are resisting a deportation order. (“Hotel Settles Illegal Aliens Case”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 7) (see Oct. 29, Oct. 28 commentary).

January 8-9 — OSHA at-home worker directive. No wonder the AFL-CIO spoke favorably of this abortive (see Jan. 6, Jan. 5) proposal; as recently as the 1980s it was calling for an outright ban on telecommuting. Communications Workers of America president Mort Bahr, for example, warned that allowing stay-home employment was dangerous “particularly if that worker wants to work at home”. (Quoted in James Bovard, “How Fair Are Fair Labor Standards?”, Cato Inst./Regulation mag.) “Traditionally, unions have opposed telecommuting/work-at-home programs because they fear that such programs represent a return to cottage industry piecework. A distributed workforce makes it more difficult for unions to organize, represent members, and police collective bargaining agreements”. (“Telecommuting and Unions”, Telecommute America California Style).

Curiously, the only newspaper we could find that commented favorably on the new OSHA intervention was Silicon Valley’s own San Jose Mercury News (link now dead) (cynics might point out that since at-home tech workers in Bakersfield, Boise and Bangalore directly compete with the face-to-face Valley culture, they’re not exactly the Merc‘s constituency). At other papers it was a more or less uniform hail of dead cats: the Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Hartford Courant (“Bureaucrats Gone Berserk”), Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Detroit News, Cincinnati Post, Denver Post, Washington Times, Arizona Republic, Birmingham News, as well as Sen. Kit Bond, the American Electronics Association (EE Times) and commentators Steve Chapman (quotes our editor), Dick Feagler, Marjie Lundstrom, Bruce Harmon (Bridge News), and Ken Smith (many of these links via Junk Science)(many links now dead).

When the OSHA letter hit the nation’s front pages, reports the Washington Post, “A number of companies immediately put on hold plans to expand telecommuting privileges to employees”. But the letter was hardly a frolic or detour on the part of some low-level Munchkin: the agency spent two years on it, and it was “considered a declaration of existing policy by OSHA officials”. Among the possible real-world effects of the letter, the Post quotes a Labor Department official as saying, is to have been “used by courts to make it easier to hold employers accountable for injuries that occur in home offices” — i.e., in litigation. And “since Labor Department officials had originally regarded the letter [as] a statement of existing policy, it is unclear whether withdrawing the letter had much practical effect.” (Frank Swoboda, “Labor Chief Retreats on Home Offices”, Washington Post, Jan. 6)

January 8-9 — Right to win unlimited carnival prizes. Florida’s Busch Gardens has put a limit of ten a year on the number of prizes — stuffed animals, football jackets and the like — that its patrons can win at its carnival games. One of the park’s frequent patrons, Herman James, is so adept at the games that he says he makes a side business of reselling the many prizes he wins. Now Mr. James is suing the park, saying the ten-prize-a-year limit is unfair to him. The park denies that its limit is directed specifically at Mr. James. (“Man sues Florida’s Busch Gardens for the right to win unlimited prizes”, AP/Court TV, Jan. 5)

January 8-9 — Shenanigans on the bayou. Someone — who was it? — posed as a staff person with the clerk of court’s office and placed calls to potential jurors’ residences, inquiring about their plans, while a multimillion-dollar asbestos case was going through its jury-selection stage this fall in Plaquemine, La. Soon ugly charges were flying back and forth between Exxon Corp. and prominent Dallas plaintiff’s firm Baron & Budd. The case has been referred to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which regulates the state’s lawyers, but it’s expected to be at least a year before the ODC completes its investigation. A year? They sure take their time down there (Angela Ward, “Baron & Budd’s Bayou Blues”, Texas Lawyer, Nov. 11).

January 8-9 — No warning given to cousin-spouses. 22-year-old Leslie Zambrana and her husband Alfredo are seeking millions of dollars in a lawsuit against the University of Miami School of Medicine, Jackson Memorial Hospital and a health clinic for failing to warn them that their daughter might be born with Down’s Syndrome, the genetic disorder whose effects include mental retardation. The suit contends that even though Leslie told the clinic’s physician that she and her husband, the baby’s father, are first cousins to each other, she was not administered a recommended “triple screen” blood test for high-risk mothers that might have detected the syndrome and caused her to seek an abortion. The couple’s grandparents are also first cousins to each other. (Jay Weaver, “Married cousins sue over baby’s disability”, Miami Herald, Jan. 3).

January 7 — Hire that felon, or else. Our editor’s December Reason column, now online, looks at what happened after the state of Wisconsin passed a first-of-its-kind law forbidding employers in most circumstances from discriminating against job applicants on the grounds of those applicants’ criminal records. Among the consequences: the cash settlement won by the notorious “Halloween killer” from a company that declined to hire him on his release from prison, and a case where the Milwaukee school system learned it was not free to deny a job to a man convicted of felony child endangerment. (Walter Olson, “Reasonable Doubts: Felon Protection”, Reason, Dec. 1999) (see also our Sept. 24 commentary).

January 7 — Protests just aren’t what they used to be. We reported in our November 3 installment on how flag-burning protesters in at least one sizable American city (Las Vegas) are now legally required to take out advance environmental permits — smoke emissions into the atmosphere, and all that. Now John Leo, in a U.S. News column on the way many campus newspapers have faced intimidation and thefts of their stock after printing material that offends identity groups, tells what happened after “the Ohio State Lantern [ran] a comic strip poking fun at the women’s studies department….A noisy crowd took their protest to the front porch of cartoonist Bob Hewitt and attempted to burn a bra, but thanks to consumer protection regulations, the flame-retarding brassiere failed to ignite.” (John Leo, “The 1999 Sheldon”, U.S. News, Jan. 3)

January 7 — GQ on Gov. Bush, Karl Rove and litigation reform. The new January issue of GQ profiles Karl Rove, key strategist in the George W. Bush campaign and “easily the team’s most pivotal player after W. himself.” Aside from the intrinsic interest of the following passage, it allows our editor to get away with more shameless self-promotion about how his book The Litigation Explosion (buy it now!) gets read in high places:

“Of the four issues he ran on in ’94 [education, welfare, juvenile justice, tort reform], I can honestly say I played a role in only one of them,” Rove told interviewer Robert Draper. “I’m a huge tort-reform advocate, and I said, ‘See what you’ve talked about here — a thread of responsibility runs through all of these. We have a society where people are being held responsible for their actions not to the degree of their responsibility but to the degree of their monetary worth, and someone’s life’s work can disappear overnight because he happens to have deep pockets and gets hit by junk and frivolous lawsuits.’ And I gave him Wally Olson’s book [The Litigation Explosion] and a couple of others. He had feelings about the topic, but he hadn’t thought about it. And look — that’s the way the best candidates are. They need people around them to execute the mechanics of the campaign, the tactical considerations . And the strategy is born out of their heart, soul and gut.” (Robert Draper, “W’s Brain”, GQ, Jan. 2000 — not online)

January 6 — “Accord tossed: Class members ‘got nothing'”. A panel of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has thrown out a settlement in a class-action suit over the mailing by Equifax Check Services Inc. of allegedly unlawful debt collection letters. Judge Frank Easterbrook, joined by Judges Richard Posner and Ilana Diamond Rovner, said the settlement provided no tangible benefit for the 214,000 class members while funneling fees, later determined to be $78,000, to the lawyer for the class. Equifax agreed to stop using a form letter and to donate $5,500 to a law school consumer clinic; “Crawford and his attorney were paid handsomely to go away; the other class members received nothing (not even any value from the $5,500 ‘donation’) and lost the right to pursue class relief,” Judge Easterbrook wrote. (opinion, Cases Nos. 99-1973 & 99-2122, decided January 3; Patricia Manson, “Accord tossed: Class members ‘got nothing'”, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Jan. 4)

January 6 — Haunted house too scary. “A woman suing Universal Studios contends the theme park operator’s annual Halloween Horror Nights haunted house attraction was too scary and caused her emotional distress.” Cleanthi Brooks, 57, says that when she and her granddaughter were visiting the Florida park in 1998, an employee wielding a (chainless) chainsaw chased them toward an exit, with the result that they slipped on a wet spot and suffered unspecified physical injuries. (Tim Barker, “Universal fall leads to lawsuit”, Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 5; “Woman sues haunted house over injuries, emotional distress”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 5)

January 6 — OSHA backs off on home office regulation. Moving quickly to nip mounting public outrage, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman now explains that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration never intended to bring home working conditions under full-fledged federal regulation — why, the idea never even crossed their minds! The advisory letter to that effect has been withdrawn, but Republicans on the Hill are promising hearings. (“Labor Department does about-face on home office letter”, AP/CNN, Jan. 5; see yesterday’s commentary)

January 6 — Backyard trash burning. Researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Health report that the burning of ordinary trash by households, still a common practice in many rural areas, is an unexpectedly important likely source of release into the atmosphere of polychlorinated compounds such as dioxin, long a subject of regulatory scrutiny because of their potential toxicity. A family of four burning trash in a barrel on their property “can potentially put as much dioxin and furan into the air as a well-controlled municipal waste incinerator serving tens of thousands of households”. (“Backyard Burning Identified As Potential Major Source Of Dioxins”, American Chemical Society/Science Daily, Jan. 4)

January 5 — Beyond parody: “OSHA Covers At-Home Workers”. “Companies that allow employees to work at home are responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site, according to a Labor Department advisory,” reports the Washington Post. The policy covers not only telecommuters but even the parent who briefly takes work home to be with a sick child. “Although the advisory does not provide specifics, in effect it means that employers are responsible for making sure an employee has ergonomically correct furniture, such as chairs and computer tables, as well as proper lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation systems in the home office.” Employers may also be responsible for identifying and repairing such hazards as, for example, rickety stairs that lead down to a basement home office. They “must also provide any needed training to comply with OSHA standards, and may have to ensure that the home work space has emergency medical plans and a first-aid kit.”

The new directive “makes sense”, says AFL-CIO health and safety director Peg Seminario: “Employers have to provide employees a workplace free from hazards.” Pat Cleary, vice president for human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, takes a different view: “This is nuts”. And at Slate “Breakfast Table”, Matt Cooper is almost equally succinct: “This is one of those regulatory rulings that sets liberalism back a generation.” Washington lawyer Eugene Scalia calls the development “part of a string of recent initiatives intended to court union leaders as the presidential primaries approach.”

Sources: Frank Swoboda and Kirstin Downey Grimsley, “OSHA Covers At-Home Workers”, Washington Post, Jan. 4; Slate “Breakfast Table”, Jan. 4 (third item); “Workplace Rules Protect Home Office”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 4; “Workplace Safety Rules Cover Telecommuters — OSHA”, Reuters/Excite, Jan. 4; Eugene Scalia, “Gore, Unions Invite OSHA to Your Home” (op-ed), Wall Street Journal, Jan. 5 (online subscription required).

Sequel: faced with mounting public outrage, the Department of Labor announced within 24 hours that it was withdrawing the new directive and rethinking its policy (see January 6 commentary)

January 5 — Calif. state funds used to compile tobacco “enemies list”. The Daily News of Los Angeles reported last month that the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights Foundation, a Berkeley advocacy group, has received $1.2 million from the state of California over the past four years to track and counter critics of “tobacco control”. Among its activities: “[m]onitoring people who attended and spoke on tobacco issues at city council meetings in cities throughout the state”, “[i]nvestigating a federal judge in North Carolina who issued a ruling in a case involving second-hand smoke,” and “[i]ncorrectly accusing John Nelson, a spokesman for former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, of being on the payroll of the tobacco industry. After Nelson complained, the foundation apologized.”

A state official acknowledges that the private foundation has been asked to monitor groups that have “interfered in tobacco control activities” — such “interference” taking the form, for example, of opposing municipal smoking-ban ordinances. Steve Thompson, vice president for government affairs of the California Medical Association, called the program “a political surveillance operation on people that this group perceived as unsympathetic to the anti-smoking movement.” Among those who learned that his name was on the resulting lists was Los Angeles attorney Bradley Hertz, who led the opposition to an anti-smoking ordinance in Long Beach but says he was erroneously listed in the advocacy group’s reports as a participant in pro-tobacco efforts on a statewide level; Hertz says that in his view public funds should not be used to “spy on citizens”. Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, went further, charging that the dossier-compiling “smack[ed] of Gestapo tactics…. Taxpayers are actually financing an abuse of government power.” However, some on the other side dismissed the criticism and said they found nothing improper about the program. “To protect the public interest, there must be independent monitoring of these front groups — the job cannot be left to newspapers or public officials,” said Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles).

In North Carolina, many attorneys “leapt to the defense” of U.S. District Judge William Osteen, who the Nonsmokers Rights group targeted with an exposé after he handed down a 1998 ruling overturning a federal report on secondhand smoke. “To me it’s just one more example of a focused interest group trying to intimidate judges,” said the recently retired chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, Burley Mitchell. “It’s part of the meanness that’s crept into public life at all levels.”

Sources: Terri Hardy, “Smokers’ Spy Tax; Using Tax Funds for ‘Enemies List’ Not What Public Intended, Critics Say”, Daily News (Los Angeles), Dec. 6; and “Group Assailed for Sloppy Work; Man Says Organization Hurt His Reputation When it Got Facts Wrong”, sidebar to above, same date (fee-based archive, search Daily News file on “Nonsmokers Rights Foundation”); same, reprinted as “Tax-funded group had ‘enemies list'”, Orange County Register, Dec. 6 (fee-based archive, see above); David Rice, “Lawyers back N.C. judge on anti-smoking group’s ‘hit’ list”, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, Dec. 9, link now dead. See also “Tobacco industry influence and income on decline in California”, press release, Oct. 12, for an account of “research” at the Univ. of California, S.F., into constitutionally protected advocacy and campaign contributions from tobacco sources; the work was funded by the tax-supported National Cancer Institute as well as the American Cancer Society.

January 5 — New page on Overlawyered.com: cyberlaw. The legal woes of such class-action defendants as Microsoft and Toshiba, liability for improper linking and non-handicap-compliant web design, domain-name squabbles, state-of-the-art ways for your litigators to sift through your enemies’ and competitors’ internal emails, and other news of the growing inroads being made against America’s most successful business, high-tech, by its second most successful business, litigation.

January 4 — Gun-buying rush. “More than a million Americans asked for background checks so they could buy guns in December, a surge insiders say has something to do with Millennium mania, but more to do with pending litigation,” Reuters reports. “Current and pending litigation…is making many consumers rush to buy arms before any anti-gun verdicts or new laws further restrict their purchase,” in the view of a spokesman for gunmaker Sturm, Ruger & Co. Better exercise those Second Amendment rights before mayors, trial lawyers and Clinton cabinet secretaries take ’em away for good! Yet such a result is far from the outcome of any democratic decision process; indeed, senior analyst H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis) cites the results of a poll conducted by the Tarrance Group finding firearms manufacturer liability a singularly unpopular idea — “only 5 percent [of respondents] feel that manufacturers or retailers should be held responsible for firearm misuse”.

A second Reuters report, from London, suggests the havoc litigation can wreak on its targets’ businesses through its sheer uncertainty, independent of outcome. British-based conglomerate Tomkins PLC would like to sell its U.S. handgun maker Smith & Wesson, according to the Financial Mail on Sunday. But the newspaper “said the prospect of class action lawsuits against gun makers in the United States could block any sale of Smith & Wesson. ‘Tomkins will (sell Smith & Wesson) if it can, but until the lawsuits are settled, it may be difficult to sell,’ [a] source close to Tomkins was quoted as saying.”

Sources: “Century End, Lawsuit Threats Spark Gun Sales Spike”, Reuters/FindLaw, Dec. 28; H. Sterling Burnett, “Latest Gun Lawsuits Leading Us Down a Slippery Slope,” Houston Chronicle, Dec. 11, 1999; Burnett, NCPA op-ed, Dec. 12; “U.S. gun maker sale mulled”, Reuters/CNNfn, Jan. 2.

January 4 — Lawsuits over failing grades. In Bath Township, Ohio, 15-year-old Elizabeth Smith and her mother Betsy Smith have sued the Revere School District and 11 teachers over the girl’s failing grades. The suit, which seeks $6 million, says the school’s grading practices punished the girl for her frequent lateness and absences even though “Elizabeth has chronic tonsillitis that caused her to miss school, and she has had to stay home in the mornings to put her twin siblings on their elementary school bus because her mom, a single parent, had to be at work,” said her lawyer, James Childs. And Kerry Grandahl has sued the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences after her dismissal for poor exam scores, charging that under the Americans with Disabilities Act the school should have accommodated her “exam phobia,” which she says was triggered by depression. Because the exam room was noisy and thronged with other students, Kerry “could hardly concentrate, much less remember what she knew,” according to the suit filed by attorney Nicholas Kelley, which faults the school for not allowing her to take exams in smaller rooms with her own monitors. (Donna J. Robb, “Student fails over failing grades”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 8; Shelley Murphy, “Ex-student sues college for ignoring ‘test phobia'”, Boston Globe, Dec. 21).

January 4 — Expert witnesses and their ghostwriters. Critics have long voiced alarm about the way American lawyers can orchestrate the testimony of expert witnesses they hire. In a recent case in Michigan a federal magistrate judge threw out the testimony of an expert hired by plaintiffs in a “vanishing-premium” case against Jackson National Life Insurance Co. The magistrate found that the report filed by actuary Philip Bieluch avowing his opinion as to the facts of the Jackson case had improperly reused verbiage from a report he had filed for the same lawyers in a separate case in Iowa, and was “substantially similar” to the language of a report filed by an entirely different expert in a Louisiana case. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Scoville concluded that the lawyers themselves had furnished Bieluch with the wordings: “This is one of the most egregious cases of providing witness-for-hire testimony that I’ve ever seen, and at some point the courts have to say that enough is enough,” he said. The plaintiff’s executive committee in the Jackson National litigation included representatives of four firms, including well-known class-action powerhouse Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach. (Emily Heller, “An Insurance Expert Is Bounced”, National Law Journal, Oct. 28).

January 3 — Lawyers for famine and wilderness-busting? “Pitched on its environmental merits, the class-action lawsuit filed [last month] against Monsanto would be thrown out in short order,” argues Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute. “So the lawyers dressed it up as an antitrust case instead.” Class-action high rollers such as Washington’s Michael Hausfeld have lent their assistance to longtime ludfly Jeremy Rifkin in organizing the suit. “They aren’t trying to save free markets from a monopoly, and the last thing they want is more competition in this field. What Mr. Rifkin is after is something even less competitive than a monopoly. He wants nobody in the genetic technology business at all.” If that happens, lawyers will have managed to stop today’s best hope — given the new methods’ success in boosting crop yields — for enabling the Third World to feed itself without pushing its agriculture into yet more wilderness.

“Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of this whole farce,” writes “Moneybox” columnist James Surowiecki at Slate, “is Rifkin’s use of the word ‘populist’ to describe the suit” — which, after all, seeks to shift power away from elected officials and farming populations and into the hands of elite lawyers and activists who effectively appointed themselves. Surowiecki calls the action and its arguments “spurious”, a “publicity stunt” and “a haphazard and scattershot collection of charges that might have been designed to demonstrate the excesses to which the U.S. legal system can be driven.”

Meanwhile, the world’s most prominent environmental group, the million-donor, supposedly respectable Greenpeace, has been openly conducting property-destroying sabotage against biotech installations in the United Kingdom; the “direct action” bug has now crossed the Atlantic, and last year vandals struck more than a dozen crop sites in the United States.

Sources: Philip Brasher, “Antitrust lawsuit to fight biotech farming”, AP/Spokane Spokesman-Review, Sept. 14; “Rifkin sues Frankenfood giant”, Reuters/Wired News, Dec. 14, link now dead; Peter Huber, “Ecological Eugenics”, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 20, now reprinted at Manhattan Institute site; James Surowiecki, “Jeremy Rifkin’s Spurious Suit Against Monsanto”, Slate, Dec. 20; Michael Fumento, “Crop busters”, Reason, January; anti-biotech site Genetech.

January 3 — Overlawyered.com forums on hold for now. Over the holiday weekend we attempted to install an upgrade for this site’s bulletin board software. Bad move: we managed instead to knock out the forums entirely, and haven’t even succeeded in figuring out yet what went wrong. We’d like to keep the forums idea going, but are mulling over a number of options at this point, including the possibility of forums hosted off-site, which might lessen the demand on our already overstretched techie skills. Advice from experienced forum-managers is welcome.

January 3 — This side of parodies. Calls for a ban on lawyer jokes as hate speech? A Million Lawyer March on Washington to protest anti-attorney stereotyping? Well, maybe not yet, but it can be hard to pick out which elements of this whimsical column are based on fact and which parts are invention. (Richard Dooling, “When you prick us…”, National Law Journal, Oct. 11).


January 31 — Scorched-earth divorce tactics? Pay up. Lawyers in Massachusetts are assessing the impact of two recent cases in which, departing from usual practice, courts have penalized family-law litigants for engaging in carpet-bombing tactics by ordering them to pay attorneys’ fees to their victimized opponents. In one case, Basel v. Basel, a husband was ordered to pay $100,000 of his wife’s legal bill after he unsuccessfully accused her of being a drunk, a drug addict, and a child abuser; the judge ruled that he’d engaged in a “calculated campaign of outrageous behavior to destroy (his) wife’s credibility” and called his portrayal of his wife “nefarious” and “fraudulent”. “By the time it was over,” the Boston Globe reports, “the lengthy litigation had cost more than $600,000 in legal fees, half of which was paid by [the husband’s] parents.”

Peter Zupcofska, vice chairman of the Boston Bar Association’s family law section, said the ruling by Worcester probate judge Joseph Lian Jr. could signal a new departure in the state of matrimonial practice: “if the litigation that’s waged is clearly done to harass, harangue, and intimidate the other party, and to create a kind of economic slavery by utilizing vast amounts of marital funds in a really destructive way,” he said, “then the judge is going to do something to redress that imbalance.” In another recent Bay State case, Krock v. Krock, a probate judge awarded $81,000 in fees against a wife found to have engaged in wrongful litigation. “You can no longer assume that having money gives you the right to wage these frivolous, scorched-earth campaigns without risking paying the price for the other side,” said Boston family law practitioner Elaine Epstein. “And if you do, you do so at your own peril.” (Sacha Pfeiffer, “A warning to battling spouses”, Boston Globe, Jan. 23).

January 31 — Coils of forfeiture law. For Joe Bonilla, the good news is his acquittal three months ago on charges of drunken driving. The bad news is that New York City has no plans to give back the $46,000 Ford Expedition he was driving when cops pulled him over. Bonilla, a 34-year-old construction worker, is paying $689 a month on the vehicle, which he’d been driving for only two days when stopped last May on his way home, he says, from a late screening of the movie “Shakespeare in Love”. A Bronx judge declared him not guilty on the charge, but that doesn’t mean he can have his car back, the city says. (Tara George, “He’s Not Guilty of DWI, But Cops Still Have Car”, New York Daily News, Jan. 25) (more on forfeiture: Oct. 7, F.E.A.R., Reason, Fumento).

January 31 — Do as we say…. Serious fire code violations are threatening to snarl plans to open a $1-million public facility in Charleston, W.V. It’s kinda embarrassing since the facility is itself a fire station. “Not only is a firewall improperly installed inside the $1 million station house, but there are no smoke alarms in the sleeping quarters.” (Todd C. Frankel, “Fire station also lacking smoke alarms”, Charleston Daily Mail, Jan. 19).

January 31 — Showdown in Michigan. Battle royal shaping up this November in the Wolverine State, whose Supreme Court, since a series of appointments by Republican Gov. John Engler, has been assuming a national leadership role in rolling back litigation excesses. Trial lawyers, unionists and others are furiously plotting revenge when the judges stand for their retention elections. A Detroit News editorial provides a quick rundown on what promise to be some of this year’s most closely watched judicial races (Jeffrey Hadden, “State Supreme Court in partisan Catch-22”, Detroit News, Jan. 18).

January 29-30 — Update: OSHA in full retreat on home office issue. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced on Wednesday that it will not, after all, seek to regulate hazardous conditions in workers’ home offices, such as rickety stairs, ergonomically inappropriate chairs, or inadequate lighting. Accepting the agency’s spin, the New York Times‘s Steven Greenhouse reports the new stance as a “clarification” meant to dispel “confusion”. Translation: the agency has baldly reversed its earlier policy. When OSHA’s November advisory letter came to public notice earlier this month, the Washington Post summarized its contents this way:Companies that allow employees to work at home are responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site.” (see Jan. 5, Jan. 6, Jan. 8-9 commentaries). Under the new policy, the word “not” will simply be inserted before the word “responsible” in that sentence. (At least as regards home offices: manufacturing activities conducted at home will still come under its jurisdiction, the agency says.)

Why did the earlier OSHA directive cause such an uproar? According to the Times‘ Greenhouse, it “alarmed thousands of corporate executives and angered many lawmakers, particularly Republicans” who began “using it” as a political issue — very naughty of them to do such a thing, we may be sure. But as most other news outlets reported, word of the policy had scared not just bosses but innumerable telecommuters themselves, who not unreasonably expected that the new policy would result in (at a minimum) more red tape for them and quite possibly a chill on their employers’ willingness to permit telecommuting at all. And while opposition from Republicans might come as scant surprise, the newsier angle was the lack of support from the measure from many elected Democrats; even a spokeswoman for Rep. Richard Gephardt said it “seemed excessive”.

OSHA director Charles N. Jeffress announced that the “bottom line” remained what it had “always been”: “OSHA will respect the privacy of the home and expects that employers will as well.” Translation: the agency was stung so badly by the public reaction to its initiative that it’s going to pretend it never proposed it in the first place (Steven Greenhouse, “Home Office Isn’t Liability For Firms, U.S. Decides”, New York Times, Jan. 28; Frank Swoboda, “OSHA Exempts White-Collar Telecommuters”, Washington Post, Jan. 27; “OSHA Exempts Home Offices”, Reuters/FindLaw, Jan. 27).

January 29-30 — Update: judge angered by obstructive SEPTA defense. After last month’s $50 million jury award against the Philadelphia transit authority over the maiming of 4-year-old Shareif Hall on an escalator, Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson expressed anger over SEPTA’s mishandling of physical evidence and failure to provide relevant documents requested by the plaintiffs. The agency settled the case for $7.4 million and pledged to improve both its escalators and its litigation behavior in the future. (Claudia Ginanni, “Judge Fines SEPTA $1 Million; Authority Held in Contempt for Withholding Evidence”, The Legal Intelligencer, Dec. 23; “SEPTA Settles Escalator Suit for $7.4 Million”, Jan. 6; see Dec. 17-19 commentary).

January 28 — Law prof wants to regulate newspaper editorials. Libertarians have long warned that laws curbing private buying of campaign ads constitute a dangerous incursion on free speech and are likely to pave the way for further inroads. In last June’s Texas Law Review, Associate Professor Richard L. Hasen of Loyola University Law School (Los Angeles) proceeds to prove them correct by endorsing government regulation of newspaper editorials. He writes: “If we are truly committed to equalizing the influence of money of elections, how do we treat the press? Principles of political equality could dictate that a Bill Gates should not be permitted to spend unlimited sums in support of a candidate. But different rules [now] apply to Rupert Murdoch just because he has channeled his money through media outlets that he owns… The principle of political equality means that the press too should be regulated when it editorializes for or against candidates.”

Hasen happily looks forward to the day when the Supreme Court can be persuaded to overturn Buckley v. Valeo and the way will be clear for such regulation of the expression of opinion in newspapers: “op-ed pieces or commentaries expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office could no longer be directly paid for by the media corporation’s funds. Instead, they would have to be paid for either by an individual (such as the CEO of the media corporation) or by a PAC set up by the media corporation for this purpose. The media corporation should be required to charge the CEO or the PAC the same rates that other advertising customers pay for space on the op-ed page.” (Quoted by Stuart Taylor, Jr., “The Media Should Beware of What It Embraces”, National Journal, Jan. 1, no longer online; see also Richard Hasen, “Double Standard,” Brill’s Content, Feb. 1999).

January 28 — From our mail sack: unclear on the concept. To judge from the summaries of our search-engine traffic, a nontrivial number of visitors land on this website each day because they’re looking to get in on class-action lawsuits. We fear that we do not always succeed in giving full satisfaction to these visitors. For example, last week the following note arrived in our inbox, signed K.E.: “Please send me the website or address re the Toshiba settlement. I need to file. Why was this not on your site where it could readily be found?”

January 28 — Strippers in court. A group of San Francisco exotic dancers sued their employers last month, saying they’d been improperly categorized as independent contractors with the result that they were denied overtime pay and were unfairly forced to purchase their own “supplies”, in the form of expensive drinks. (National Law Journal, “The Week in Review: The Flux”, Dec. 27-Jan. 3). In Canada, a judge has ruled against Loredana Silion, 24, in her petition for a work permit to perform as an exotic dancer. While Ms. Silion had danced in a nightclub in her native Rumania, the job there involved only topless dancing, which the judge ruled was not a close enough match in skills for the task of dancing at Toronto’s Sunset Strip club, where nothing at all is worn. (Marina Jimenez, “Stripper told she’s not naked enough to work in Canada”, National Post, Jan. 14). And exotic dancer Doddie L. Smith has now sued an Arizona plastic surgeon, saying the doctor’s augmentation surgery left her breasts “too high” with the result that she is “unable to be a ‘featured dancer’ at exotic dance clubs, model as a centerfold in adult magazines, or promote her modeling career”. Estimated wage loss: $100,000. (Gretchen Schuldt, “Exotic dancer claims doctor botched breast surgery”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 12) (Update: more on strippers in court: May 23, July 26-27).

January 26-27 — Florida ADA complaint binge. Invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act, “a half-dozen non-profit corporations and associated individuals [ ] have filed more than 600 federal suits in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach” charging building owners and service providers with failing to make their facilities accessible to the handicapped, according to Miami’s legal publication, the Daily Business Review. Targets of the complaints, large and small, range from Kmart and Carnival Cruises down to local funeral homes and the little Coconut Court Motel in Fort Lauderdale, as well as nonprofits and public entities such as the local Baptist hospital and the city of Pompano Beach. A six-lawyer Miami Beach law firm, Fuller, Mallah & Associates, has spearheaded the assault, helping form three nonprofits that account for most of the filings. Indeed, no less than 323 of the cases name as plaintiff 72-year-old wheelchair user Ernst Rosenkrantz. “When pressed to explain how he hooked up with the law firm, Rosenkrantz said law firm partner John D. Mallah is his nephew.” However, “Mallah didn’t mention that relationship when asked about Rosenkrantz in an earlier interview,” notes reporter Dan Christiansen.

Most cases settle when the charged business agrees to make some modification to its facilities and pay the complainant’s legal fees — $275 an hour plus expenses in Mallah’s case. The ADA allows complainants to file suit without warning the target, and it displays considerable solicitude for the welfare of lawyers filing cases: “the attorney’s fees provisions are such that even if they get [nothing more than] the telephone volume controls changed, they automatically win the case,” says one defense lawyer. First Union, the large bank, says it refuses on principle to settle cases filed by the group: “The fees that are being charged seem to be way out of line to the amount of work that they do,” says one of its lawyers, besides which the bank had been moving forward on its own with an ADA compliance program. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate mass ADA filings in Broward County. (Dan Christiansen, “Besieged by Suits”, Miami Daily Business Review, Dec. 21). (Feb. 15 update: Congressmen introduce legislation) (DURABLE LINK)

January 26-27 — Seattle police: sued if they do… The constabulary of the northwest metropolis now faces a slew of lawsuits over its handling of the World Trade Organization protests in late November and early December. According to the Post-Intelligencer, the claims divide into two broad groups: those accusing the city of cracking down on the protesters too hard, and those accusing it of not cracking down hard enough. (Mike Barber, “Police sued for doing too little, too much”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 25).

January 26-27 — Feelings of nausea? Get in line. In 1997 a barge accident and chemical spill on the Mississippi sent a foul-smelling haze over much of Baton Rouge, La. A steering committee of attorneys formed to sue for compensation for local residents over symptoms such as “nausea, severe headaches and fatigue” experienced after smelling the odors. And did the claims ever start to roll in: by November of last year 13,000 forms had already been submitted, according to one lawyer, and the pace became even more frenetic as the Jan. 14 final deadline approached for filing claims. Long lines stretched around the block outside the old federal building; one woman said she waited six hours to get in the door, while more than 100 others were turned away at the end of the day, to come back the next day if at all; and many grumblings were heard about missing work. (Adrian Angelette, “Long line awaits claimants in chemical leak suit”, Baton Rouge Advocate, Jan. 14).(DURABLE LINK)

January 26-27 — From our mail sack: the lawyer’s oyster. Regarding our Jan. 15-16 “Poetry Corner” reprint of “The Benefit of Going to Law”, from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1733, New York attorney John Brewer writes: “Just a few days after noting the verse by Ben Franklin you had posted on your site, I came across an earlier and more concise exposition of the same image, viz.:

“Two find an Oyster, which they will not part,
Both will have all or none, the Lawyer’s art
Must end the strife; he fits their humour well,
Eats up the fish, and gives them each a shell.

“According to the recently published Oxford Companion to the Year (“An exploration of calendar customs and time-reckoning”), this appeared in the 1665 edition of Poor Robin’s Almanack (note possible Franklin influence of the name), as one of four such bits of doggerel marking the traditional four law terms. The oyster stanza was for Michaelmas Term.

“You might also find salient the verse for Hilary Term:

Anoint thy Lawyer, grease him in the fist,
And he will plead for thee e’en what thou list;
He’ll make thy cause strong though the same were weak,
But if thy purse be dumb, his tongue can’t speak.

“The verses for Easter and Trinity Terms are similarly on the theme of the costliness of going to law and its financial benefit to none but the bar, but have somewhat less punch and clarity of expression.”

January 25 — Feds’ tobacco hypocrisy, cont’d: Indian “smoke shops”. It seems when the Clinton Administration isn’t filing lawsuits to brand tobacco-marketing as “racketeering” (see Sept. 23 commentary), it’s quietly staking taxpayer money to help its constituents get into the business. A Senate Small Business Committee probe has found that since 1997 the Department of Housing and Urban Development has laid out $4.2 million to enable four Indian tribes to build “smoke shops” that sell discounted cigarettes free from state taxes. Why, one wonders, should subsidies be needed to facilitate an intrinsically high-profit activity that might be likened to lawful smuggling? And of course the source of this largesse is the very same HUD whose Secretary Andrew Cuomo has so loudly endorsed lawsuits against gun sellers whose wares are said to inflict spillover damage on other localities’ public health. A crowning hypocrisy is that some of the tribes that derive income from smoke shops are themselves now suing tobacco companies (see July 14 commentary).

The Senate committee uncovered six instances in which tribes obtained HUD subsidies to open smoke shops, five in Oklahoma and one in Nevada, but it is likely that the true number is larger. For example, this site’s editor, in his March Reason column (not yet in subscribers’ mailboxes, but previewing at the Reason site), identified another similar-sounding case: in 1997 HUD furnished the Reno Sparks Indian Colony with $450,000 “to build a smoke shop along Interstate 80 near the California border,” according to the Bend, Oregon, Bulletin. (Wendy Koch, “Tribes get funds to build ‘smoke shops'”, USA Today, Jan. 24; Walter Olson, “The Year in Double Takes”, Reason, March). (DURABLE LINK)

January 25 — Line forms on the right for chance to suffer this tort. A woman has won $5,135 in damages from owners for having been locked overnight in an Irish pub. “Marian Gahan fell asleep on the toilet in Searsons Pub in central Dublin, and did not wake until 2 a.m., by which time the pub was closed”. She argued that the pub managers should have checked the toilets before locking up. The trial had to be adjourned early on when Ms. Gahan’s barrister, Eileen McAuley, burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter while recounting her own client’s case. (“Woman locked in pub wins $5,135 damages”, Reuters/Excite, Jan. 18; “Tears and laughter at trauma in toilet”, Irish Times, Oct. 21).

January 25 — Recommended reading. On the unnerving ease with which charges of abuse and violence can be pulled from a hat to provide legal assistance in a divorce (Dan Lynch, “We’ll see how blind justice is”, Albany Times-Union, Jan. 19); on the war underway in legal academia over many scholars’ acceptance of the idea that the Second Amendment does indeed protect individual gun rights (Chris Mooney, “Showdown”, Lingua Franca, February); on the chill to workplace banter now that harassment law has gotten well established in Britain (Roland White, “Careless talk makes the office world go round”, The Times (London), Jan. 23).

January 25 — Latest lose-on-substance, win-on-retaliation employment claim. It’s pretty common, actually: the suit-prone worker flatly loses on his original claim of discrimination, but his claim for “retaliation” comes through to save the day because after the job relationship had turned adversarial the employer was shown to have treated him less favorably than before. Bad, bad employer! This time a Delaware jury decided that Eunice Lafate had not in fact been passed over for a promotion at Chase Manhattan because of her race, but awarded her $600,000 anyway on her retaliation charges; after filing the complaint, she said, she’d been cut out of management meetings and given less favorable evaluations. (Jim DeSouza, “Jury Wants Chase Manhattan to Pay $600,000 for Retaliating Against Employee”, Delaware Law Weekly, Dec. 9)(see also Sept. 29 commentary).

January 24 — Latest shallow-end pool-dive case. In Massachusetts, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to hear the appeal of Joseph O’Sullivan, who was visiting his girlfriend’s grandparents in Methuen and decided to dive into the shallow end of their pool. An experienced swimmer and 21 years old at the time, O’Sullivan was not paralyzed but did crack two vertebrae and proceeded to sue the grandparents for not stopping him or providing warnings. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson takes a dim view of O’Sullivan’s case, and the lower court did not find it persuasive either (“A shallow case for the SJC”, Jan. 12).

January 24 — “Mormon actress sues over profanity”. Christina Axson-Flynn, 20, is suing the University of Utah, charging that the theater department insisted that she use foul language in character portrayals even though they knew it violated her religious principles to do so. The department disputes the contentions in her suit, which asks for unspecified damages. (Yahoo/AP, Jan. 14; Jim Rayburn, “U. theater department sued over language”, Deseret News (Salt Lake City), Jan. 14). Update Feb. 16, 2004: appeals court lets suit proceed.

January 24 — “Ambulance chaser” label ruled defamatory. The Second Circuit federal court of appeals has ruled that a New York attorney can sue over a printed description of him as an “ambulance chaser” given to taking only “slam dunk cases”. The American Association of University Women and its related AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund had put out a directory in 1997 which listed 275 attorneys practicing in its fields of interest. Appended to the contact information for attorney Leonard Flamm was the following description: “Mr. Flamm handles sex discrimination cases in the area of pay equity, harassment and promotion. Note: At least one plaintiff has described Flamm as an ‘ambulance chaser’ with an interest only in ‘slam dunk cases.'” U.S. District Judge Denny Chin had dismissed Mr. Flamm’s resulting lawsuit against AAUW, ruling that the comments, although “beyond the pale” and “seriously derogatory”, were protected as expressions of opinion under the First Amendment. On appeal, however, a panel led by Judge Thomas Meskill reinstated the action, noting that the objectionable passage might be read as implying specific factual assertions relating to unethical solicitation of business, that it appeared in italics, and that the other entries in the directory were generally of a factual rather than opinion-based nature. (Mark Hamblett, New York Law Journal, Jan. 6).

January 24 — No clash between clauses. Cincinnati attorney Richard Ganulin has filed a notice of appeal after a federal court dismissed his lawsuit claiming that the government’s observing of Christmas as a public holiday violates the Bill of Rights’ Establishment Clause. Last month U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott rejected Ganulin’s action, ruling that Congress was “merely acknowledging the secular cultural aspects of Christmas by declaring Christmas to be a legal public holiday. … A government practice need not be exclusively secular to survive”. She also prefaced her opinion with a bit of free verse: “The court will uphold /Seemingly contradictory causes /Decreeing “The Establishment” and “Santa” /Both worthwhile Claus(es).” (Ben L. Kaufman, “Challenge to Christmas holiday appealed”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 10).

January 21-23 — “Tracking the trial lawyers”: a contributions database. American Tort Reform Foundation today unveils a handy interactive database for keeping track of which lawyers have been donating to which politicians and parties. You can search by lawyer, by law firm, by recipient politician or institution, and more. Hours of alarming fun (“Follow the Money“).

January 21-23 — From our mail sack. Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Vera Institute of Justice writes, regarding our Jan. 18 report on the strange-warning-labels contest:

“I can tell you were never a teenage girl that you think the advice ‘never
iron clothes while they’re being worn’ is wacky. We used to do this in high school all the time. We’d be in a big hurry — having wasted hours trying on & discarding one another’s clothes — and would finally find the right thing to wear only to notice that the sleeve, say, was wrinkled. Why take it off? Just retract your arm & iron. The occasional small burn never deterred us that I can recall.

“I do like your newsletter.”

January 21-23 — Y2K roundup: poor things! Lack of century-end catastrophes is a “calamity” of its own for lawyers who’d been set to file suits galore demanding damages for outages and data loss. “Lawyers were licking their chops,” Madelyn Flanagan of the Independent Insurance Agents of America told the Washington Post‘s David Segal. “I think the whole world is relieved.” (David Segal, “A Y2K Glitch For Lawyers: Few Lawsuits”, Washington Post, Jan. 10.) Ross & Co., a British solicitors’ firm that had been planning a big Y2K practice, still hopes for the best: “It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sues“, claims its website. (“Lawyers still gearing up for millennium bug attack”, FindLaw/Reuters, Jan. 20). Don’t count us out yet either, says Philadelphia attorney Ronald Weikers (softwarelitigation.com), who’s hoping the state of Delaware will sue manufacturers over a glitch that knocked out 800 slot machines for three days, thus preventing the state from slurping up locals’ spare coins over that period. Then there are the remediation-cost suits: thus the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which made the transition “without a murmur”, is considering suing tech firms over the $80 million it says it spent to upgrade systems. (“Puerto Rico Government Considers Suing Over $80 Million In Y2K Work”, DowJones.com, Jan. 4) The reliable Ralph Nader has chimed in with his reasons for blaming everything on the deep pockets (“Y2Pay”, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Dec. 29.) And here come the backlash suits: the Independent of London reports that one company has sued outside consultants for exaggerating the risk from the calendar rollover (Robert Verkaik, “Y2K consultants sued by firm for exaggerating risk”, The Independent, Jan. 11). (DURABLE LINK)

January 21-23 — Cartoon that made us laugh. By Ruben Bolling, for Salon: “….We can’t take those off the market! Dangerous products are a gold mine for the government!” (Jan. 20 — full cartoon)

January 21-23 — Civil disabilities of freethinkers. Imagine letting a murderer go free because you’d excluded the crime’s only witness from testifying on the grounds that as a religious unbeliever he could not take a proper oath. Absurd? Yet such notions survive today in the constitution of the state of Arkansas: “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.” Along with Arkansas, the constitutions of Maryland, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas retain historic provisions that contemplate or mandate the exclusion of unbelievers — and in some cases, minority religionists who reject the idea of a retributive afterlife — from public office, admission as witnesses in court, or both. Thus Article IX, Sec. 2, of the Tennessee constitution: “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” Widely considered unenforceable today, such provisions might at some point resume practical importance given today’s highly visible movement to re-infuse religious sentiment into government; in the meantime, they symbolically relegate to second-class citizenship those who hold one set of opinions. “The Arkansas anti-atheist provision survived a federal court challenge as recently as 1982”. (Tom Flynn, “Outlawing Unbelief”, Free Inquiry, Winter 1999). (DURABLE LINK)

January 20 — The joy of tobacco fees. In his January Reason column, this website’s editor pulls together what we now know about the $246 billion state-Medicaid tobacco settlements, including: the role of the settlement in imposing a cartel structure on the industry and chilling entry by new competitors; the happy situation of some lawyers who are in line to collect hundreds of millions of dollars when they simply “piggybacked” on others’ legal work, with little independent contribution of their own; and the often more-than-casual ties between tobacco lawyers and the state attorneys general who hired them, to say nothing of such influentials as President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (both of whose brothers-in-law were in on the tobacco plaintiffs’ side). Maybe it’s time to retire Credit Mobilier and Teapot Dome as synonyms for low points in American business-government interaction. (Walter Olson, “Puff, the Magic Settlement”, Reason, January).

January 20 — “The case for age discrimination”. You do it, Supreme Court justices do it, we all do it: generalize about people based on their ages. It’s clear that most age-based discrimination isn’t “invidious” in the original sense of race bias, and it’s only rational for an employer to avoid investing in costly retraining for a worker who’s likely to retire soon. So how’d we wind up with a law on the books purporting to ban this universal practice, anyway? (Dan Seligman, “The case for age discrimination”, Forbes, Dec. 13).

January 20 — Watchdogs could use watching. Beginning in 1993 Brian D. Paonessa employed an active solicitation campaign in conjunction with various Florida law firms to sign up hundreds of securities investors to pursue arbitration claims against Prudential Securities Inc. Not prominently featured in Paonessa’s marketing, apparently, was the fact that federal securities regulators were on his own tail on charges that he’d pocketed $149,500 in “ill-gotten gains” at the expense of investor clients. Since then, as the busy rainmaker has become embroiled in legal disputes over alleged fee-splitting arrangements with the law firms, some colorful charges have made it onto the public record. (Stephen Van Drake, “Florida Fee-Sharing Suit May Open Door to Direct-Solicitation Scrutiny”, Miami Daily Business Review, Oct. 11).

January 20 — Gotham’s plea-bargain mills. “Last year each judge sitting in the New York City Criminal Court, on average, handled nearly 5,000 cases. With calendars that huge, the system is reduced to a plea bargain mill, with no true trial capability offering balance to the process. It’s no secret. Everyone — including the repeat offender — knows this.” — New York chief judge Judith Kaye, State of the Judiciary Address, Jan. 10 (New York Law Journal site).

January 19 — “Private job bias lawsuits tripled in 1990s”. “Aided by new federal laws, private lawsuits alleging discrimination in the workplace more than tripled during in the 1990s, the Justice Department said.” According to the Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “job bias lawsuits filed in U.S. District Courts soared from 6,936 in 1990 to 21,540 in 1998….The percentage of winning plaintiffs awarded $10 million or more rose from 1 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 1998.” (AP/FindLaw, Jan. 17; Bureau of Justice Statistics abstract and link to full report, “Civil Rights Complaints in U.S. District Courts, 1990-98”).

January 19 — Santa came late. Faced with outages and high volume, the e-tailing operation of Toys-R-Us failed to deliver many toys by Christmas as promised. Now Seattle attorney Steve Berman has filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status to represent all customers who did not receive their shipments by Dec. 25. According to George magazine’s profile of tobacco lawyers last year (see Aug. 21-22), Berman’s firm is in line to receive roughly $2 billion from representing states in the tobacco settlement — enough to stake a very large number of bets like this one, should he see fit. The named plaintiff is Kimberly Alguard of Lynnwood, Washington. (“ToysRUs.com Sued: Santa Failed”, Reuters/WiredNews, Jan. 12).

January 19 — The costs of disclosure. In 1992 Tacoma, Wash. attorney Doug Schafer fielded what seemed a routine request from businessman-client Bill Hamilton to draw up incorporation papers for a new venture. But the details Hamilton provided convinced Schafer that his client was involved with Tacoma lawyer Grant Anderson in dishonest business dealings arising from Anderson’s milking of an estate. To make things worse — and raising the stakes considerably — Anderson shortly thereafter was elevated to a Superior Court judgeship.

What should a lawyer do in those circumstances? Schafer later decided to go public and seek an investigation of the judge and the transaction, thus beginning a struggle whose eventual results included an order by the Washington Supreme Court throwing Judge Anderson off the bench (for “egregious” misconduct) and a $500,000 recovery by a hospital in a lawsuit against the judge and others over their conduct. But in the state of Washington — as in a majority of other states — a lawyer has no right to breach his obligation of confidentiality to clients even when the result is to bolster public integrity or provide a remedy to defrauded parties. And so next month Doug Schafer will appear before a panel of the Washington State Bar Association to defend himself against disciplinary charges. Moreover, the reputation he’s picked up as a single-minded scourge of the corruption he perceives in the system has helped devastate his legal career, while Judge Anderson, though forced off the bench, has as yet faced no other consequences from bar enforcers, though an investigation is ongoing. (Bob Van Voris, “The High Cost of Disclosure”, National Law Journal, Jan. 4; Mary Lou Cooper, “The Cadillac Judge”, Washington Law & Politics, Sept. 1998; Tacoma News-Tribune coverage, 1998, 1999; Schafer’s website). Update Jul. 26, 2003: Washington Supreme Court suspends Schafer for six months.

January 19 — 175,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Thanks for your support!

January 18 — “Never iron clothes while they’re being worn”. That’s the winning entry in Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch’s third annual Wacky Warning Label Contest. Bonnie Hay of Plano, Texas, found the warning on an iron. Second place was awarded to a Traverse City, Mich. man’s discovery of “Not for highway use” on his 13-inch wheelbarrow tire, and third place went to “This product is not to be used in bathrooms” on a bathroom heater. M-LAW president Robert B. Dorigo Jones said the contest had a serious point, to illustrate manufacturers’ growing fear of lawsuits and the retreat of principles of individual responsibility. Finalists in earlier years’ contests have included sleeping pills labeled “May cause drowsiness”; a cardboard sunshield to keep sun off a car’s dashboard that warned “Do not drive with sunshield in place”; and a cartridge for a laser printer that warned the consumer not to eat the toner. (CNN/AP, Jan. 13; M-LAW; contest results).

January 18 — Courts mull qui tam constitutionality. The Civil War-era False Claims Act provides stringent civil penalties for anyone who submits inflated or false bills to government procurement officials, and the “relator” provisions of that act allow any private citizen to bring suit to enforce the law and obtain damages for the United States. The relator — who may be an employee of the defendant enterprise, or a complete stranger — can then by law collect a share of between 15 and 30 percent in any recovery obtained by the government, with no need to prove an injury to himself. Qui tam actions have soared in number in recent years, actively solicited by lawyers seeking rich contingency payouts (the law was liberalized in 1986 to provide treble damages). For their part, businesses, hospitals and universities complain that the quality of accusations filed against them is often low (see Sept. 9 commentary) and that the law can actually encourage bad behavior by bounty-hunting employees who (for example) may fail to report billing irregularities promptly to higher management finding it more lucrative to let them mount and then file a legal complaint. In Pennsylvania, eyebrows were raised when one entrepreneur pitched his services to a hospital as a consultant for the prevention of false claims, and then, having been turned down for that job, proceeded to sue that hospital and 99 others as relator based on a statistical analysis of their billing patterns.

Recently the qui tam provisions have come under heightened scrutiny. On November 15, writing for a panel of the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Jerry Smith struck down as unconstitutional the portions of the act that authorize actions by uninjured parties in the absence of a go-ahead from Washington, ruling that such suits encroach on the Constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers by impairing the executive branch’s right to control litigation that goes on in the name of government interests. The case will be reheard by the full Circuit. Moreover, the decision may have had immediate repercussions at the U.S. Supreme Court, which had already agreed to consider whether the state of Vermont can be sued by one of its own former staff attorneys, acting as relator, for allegedly exaggerating the proportion of its employees’ time that was allocable to federally reimburseable environmental programs. Apparently responding to the Fifth Circuit decision, the Court ordered the lawyers in the Vermont case to brief the issue of whether the relator provisions are unconstitutional. Even if the Court does not go that far, it might rule that the application of the law to states as defendants violates the Constitution. Justice Stephen Breyer called it “one thing” to allow individuals to sue private federal contractors and “quite another” to “set an army of people loose on the states.” Update: The Court later upheld the constitutionality of the act’s relator provisions, but ruled that state governments cannot be named as defendants (Francis J. Serbaroli, “Supreme Court Clarifies, Broadens Antifraud Laws”, New York Law Journal, July 27, reprinted at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft site) See also April 30, 2001, July 30, 2001.

SOURCES: Peter Aronson, “Whistleblower Breaks New Ground”, National Law Journal, Oct. 27; Susan Borreson, “5th Circuit Slams Qui Tam Suit”, Texas Lawyer, Nov. 22; Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Stevens, Supreme Court case 98-1828; Kenneth Jost, “Qui Tam Comes To the High Court”, The Recorder/CalLaw, Nov. 30; Charles Tiefer, “Don’t Quit on Qui Tam”, Law News Network, Nov. 29. MORE BACKGROUND: Fried, Frank; Steven G. Bradbury, “The Unconstitutionality of Qui Tam Suits”, Federalist Society Federalism and Separation of Powers Working Group Newsletter, v. 1, no. 1; Mark Koehn and Donald J. Kochan, “Stand Down”, Legal Times, Dec. 6, 1999, reprinted at Federalist Society site; Dan L. Burk, “False Claims Act Can Hamper Science With ‘Bounty Hunter’ Suits”, The Scientist, Sept. 4, 1995; Ridgway W. Hall Jr. and Mark Koehn, “Countering False Claims Act Litigation Based on Environmental Noncompliance”, National Legal Center for the Public Interest, Sept. 1999 (PDF format). Pro-qui tam sites, many of which double as client intake sites for law firms, include those of Taxpayers Against Fraud; Phillips & Cohen; Ashcraft & Gerel; Miller, Alfano & Raspanti; QuiTamOnline.com; and Chamberlain & Kaufman.

January 18 — Columnist-fest. Pointed opinions on issues that aren’t going away:

* Major League Baseball, meet Soviet psychiatry? Charles Krauthammer on the John Rocker case, and why it’s dangerous to view racism and general unpleasantness of opinion as suitable candidates for mental-health treatment (“Screwball psychologizing”, Washington Post, Jan. 14)

* John Leo on how courts and legislatures often seize on ambiguous enabling language as a blank check for vast social engineering: vague provisions in state constitutions get turned into an excuse to equalize school funding or strike down tort reform, domestic violence gets federalized on the grounds that it affects interstate commerce, and more. (“By dubious means”, U.S. News & World Report, Jan. 24).

* Clarence Page asks why states fight so hard to keep convicts in prison even after newly emergent DNA evidence clears them of the original rap. Do prosecutors and wardens care more about maintaining high inmate body counts, or about doing justice? (“When Innocence Isn’t Good Enough”, Chicago Tribune, Jan. 3).

January 17 — New York court nixes market-share liability for paint. In a setback for lawyers hoping to make lead paint their next mass-tort breakthrough, a New York appeals court has rejected the plaintiffs’ request that “market-share liability” be applied to the industry. This theory allows claimants to dispense with the need to show whose products they were exposed to, in favor of simply collecting from all defendants who sold the item, in proportions based on their market share. In explaining why such methods of assigning liability would be unjust, the court observed that paint makers did not have exclusive control over risks arising from their products, that makers sold at different times and to different markets, and that the composition of paint differed substantially from one maker to the next. (Jim O’Hara, “Court Sinks Lead Poisoning Case”, Syracuse Online, Jan. 10).

January 17 — Montreal Gazette “Lawsuit of the year”. “Two bagpipers sued Swissair for lost income from tourists at Peggy’s Cove because of the plane crash that killed 229 people in September of 1998. They claim their income declined dramatically while the lighthouse area was closed to the public.” (“Technology”, Dec. 31; Richard Dooley, “Swissair responds to bagpipers’ lawsuit”, Halifax Daily News, June 22, 1999).

January 17 — Dot-coms as perfect defendants. They’re flush with venture-capitalist and IPO cash, they’re run by hormone-crazed kids who bring a party atmosphere to the office, and they haven’t developed big human resources bureaucracies to make sure nothing inappropriate goes on. Why, they’re the perfect sexual harassment defendants! New York contingency-fee attorney David Jaroslawicz, a veteran of securities class actions and now “an aspiring scourge of the Internet“, hopes to spearhead a resulting “Silicon Alley sex-suit wave”. He has filed three suits on behalf of disgruntled female employees, including two against free-access provider Juno.com, one of which has been dismissed, and a third against Internet-TV producer Pseudo.com.

Asked why he happened to ask for the same amount, $10 million, in both lawsuits against Juno, Jaroslawicz says the damage request “is ‘arbitrary, whatever the secretary types in’ — just as long as it has enough zeros”. You ‘put in some high absurd number, because you can always take less,’ Mr. Jaroslawicz explained.” (Renee Kaplan, “The Sexual Harassment Suit Comes to Silicon Alley”, New York Observer, Jan. 17).

January 17 — New improvement to the Overlawyered.com site: better search capability. This weekend we installed the PicoSearch internal search engine, which you’ll find to be a big leap forward from our previous search system: fast results displayed in context, fuzzy logic to catch near-misses, no ads, search boxes available on key pages, and so forth. In addition, the database indexed now includes our editor’s home page (with a wide selection of articles, mostly on legal themes). Give it a test run, either by visiting our search page or just by typing your search into the box in the left column and hitting “return”.