The blue-tinged xenon headlights of the Nissan Maxima have become a popular target for thieves who rip them from a car and sell them on the black market, including 277 incidents in Newark alone. The State of New Jersey, noting the epidemic of thefts in its state, has decided to take action — by suing Nissan. Nissan should have anticipated that its customers would be victimized, says the State, and warned them before they bought the car. (Ronald Smothers, “Nissan Sued Over Theft-Prone Headlights”, NY Times, Mar. 9; Crissa Shoemaker, “Lawsuit: Nissan withheld headlight theft risk”, Courier-News, Mar. 9; Mitch Lipka, “Headlight theft wave spurs state to sue Nissan”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 9). According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, Nissan was a leader in taking steps to prevent headlight thefts, so if this suit has legs, look for copycat lawsuits against other auto manufacturers–and this ludicrous theory of liability could end up being extended to other car parts or even carjackings. (Peter DeMarco, “Left in the dark”, Boston Globe, Feb. 26; Rod Gibson, “Most-stolen cars? It’s debatable”, bankrate.com, Sep. 23, 2003).
After South Florida, California and Philadelphia, Chicago’s time was bound to come: a lawyer/complainant team has tagged some 175 businesses, mostly in the Lincoln Park area, with charges of lack of disabled accessibility. Previously, complaints in the city had been running at about 30 annually. “They’re settling for cash,” said David Hanson, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities: $100 for Stuart L. Smith and $485 for Alan J. Morgan, his lawyer, plus minor upgrades to store entrances and the like. Steve Starr, owner of a jewelry and antique shop, says he has spent thousands in legal fees fighting one of the complaints. (John Schmeltzer, “Disability lawsuits rile North Side businesses”, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 7).
Cover story in Forbes examines fissiparous but still pre-eminent class-action firm Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, with details about the investigations of the firm under way for the past two years before federal grand juries in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Among topics explored in the article: the firm’s relationships with repeat plaintiffs, with unions and with short sellers. Name partner Melvyn Weiss gets the cover photo; meanwhile, his West Coast counterpart William Lerach, “after initially responding to some questions from FORBES, refused to be interviewed and instructed in a terse e-mail: ‘Please don’t call, write or stop by ever again.'” (Robert Lenzner and Emily Lambert, “Mr. Class Action”, Forbes, Feb. 16)
Unable to obtain malpractice-suit reform in the face of the strength of the trial lawyer lobby in Harrisburg, organized Pennsylvania doctors agreed to a deal in which $440 million of state taxpayers’ money over two years would be used to subsidize their skyrocketing insurance bills (see Jul. 23). But there turns out to be a great big string attached: to get the subsidy, the doctors have to sign a pledge requiring them to go on practicing in the state of Pennsylvania. Some are calling it “indentured servitude”. (Michael Hinkelman, “Malpractice relief comes with conditions”, Philadelphia Daily News, Jan. 7).
Lack of malpractice insurance is threatening to close the only obstetrics practice in Virginia’s rural and economically depressed Northern Neck region. The closure of Rappahannock General Hospital’s OB unit, which delivers about 250 babies a year, would be “absolutely devastating” to community health, says Albert C. Pollard Jr., who represents the region in the Virginia House of Delegates: “we’d lose a lot of babies if somebody has to drive to Richmond or Newport News.” (Frank Delano, “Crisis presses OB docs”, Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star, Dec. 21). “While the governor and Legislature dither over fixing the state’s medical malpractice system, the [Philadelphia] region’s doctors have been voting with their feet,” reports the Philadelphia Daily News. “And they are choosing states that cap damages in malpractice lawsuits — or have other strong reforms to keep malpractice insurance premiums low.” (Michael Hinkelman, “Pa. docs are moving to ‘cap’ states”, Philadelphia Daily News, Dec. 8). Hard numbers on malpractice payouts are often in short supply, but the Missouri state department of insurance has some: it says insurance companies operating in the state “reported paying $135 million to cover 524 claims closed last year”. Self-insured entities, mostly hospitals, “reported paying $6.6 million to close 42 claims, but the actual number of claims and the amount paid may be understated in the data, department spokesman Randy McConnell said. … The average malpractice claim takes more than four years to reach resolution, so the 2002 claims data capture injuries sustained over a period of years. Only 15 of the 566 claims went to a court verdict.” Most of the paid cases involved claims that medical misadventure led to permanent injury or death. (Judith Vandewater, “566 medical malpractice claims were settled in Missouri in 2002”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 4). The American Medical Association rates Missouri a “crisis” state. (M. Steele Brown, “Malpractice ‘crisis’ drives docs from Missouri”, Kansas City Business Journal, May 5).
New Jersey doctors bet big and lost (see Nov. 4, Nov. 5) hoping that a $2 million investment in this fall’s campaign would lead voters to throw out the trial-lawyer-allied Democrats. And now their intended targets “are doing what winners do here: Gloating, and plotting revenge. … Now, chest-thumping Democrats plan to inflict some pain and suffering payback on the medical profession.” “It’s one of the basic rules of politics: If you’re going to engage in an all-out assault, you’d better make sure you’re going to win,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joe Roberts. “Deep down, [Marlton pediatrician Michael Falk] never believed the legislature would pass caps anyway. Why? Because many lawmakers are lawyers whose campaigns rely heavily on donations from fellow lawyers. But what really raises the doctor’s blood pressure is the suggestion that the MDs should have stayed silent. Since when, he asks, are democratically elected officials in the business of punishing their constituents for exercising their rights?” (Monica Yant Kinney, “Doctors paying price for exercising a right”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 16; Caitlin Gurney, “Campaigning costs state’s doctors”, Nov. 14)(& welcome readers of DynamoBuzz, a weblog about New Jersey politics and other subjects, which says some awfully kind things about us, calling us “one of the hidden gems of the Internet … chock full of information about our legal system run amok”)
I’m finally on web duty again following my trip to give a talk before the American Tort Reform Association gathering in Las Vegas. ATRA has two current projects that especially merit readers’ attention. One is its recent update of its “Judicial Hellholes” reports on local jurisdictions famed for unfairness to outsider defendants, such as Madison County, Ill., Jefferson County, Miss., St. Louis, Philadelphia, Miami and Los Angeles. Recent news coverage can be found here.
The other project is ATRA’s recent launch of what it calls the Legal Reform Champions List. The list is intended to address a widespread (and sometimes infuriating) phenomenon: many lawyers who make a career specialty of litigation defense quietly undermine their clients’ interests by working covertly or openly to block reforms that would curb the volume or cost of litigation, often mindful of their own self-interest in ensuring there are plenty of future lawsuits requiring their services to defend. ATRA’s new list takes a relatively positive approach to this problem: rather than denounce by name defense lawyers who operate as effective allies of the litigation lobby, it singles out for praise those who (often at a real cost to their strict monetary interest) work in the public policy process to combat excessive litigation. We wrote about this problem in The Rule of Lawyers (in a passage not online through conventional means, but available with registration through Amazon’s book-peek feature).
I am happy to report something I wasn’t expecting when I set off for the trip: at my Monday appearance ATRA was kind enough to give me its “Civil Justice Achievement Award” 2003. This seems to be the year for me to receive handsomely engraved awards (see Sept. 24). Thanks! (& welcome Ernie the Attorney readers)
Tort reformers did well in Mississippi elections, with GOP challenger Haley Barbour toppling incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) and Republican Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck handily fending off a challenge from trial-lawyer-legislator Barbara Blackmon (Julie Goodman and Patrice Sawyer, “Republican challenger unseats Musgrove”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Nov. 5; Andy Kanengiser, “GOP’s Tuck breezes to victory over Blackmon”,
Nov. 5). The Democrats did hold onto the state’s attorney generalship, however. Meanwhile, doctors campaigning for malpractice reform (see Nov. 4) suffered stinging defeats in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Max Baer beat Republican Joan Melvin for a seat on the state supreme court, and New Jersey, where Democratic followers of Gov. Jim McGreevey solidified their hold on the state legislature, in part by outspending their rivals four to one. (“Democrat Baer defeats Melvin for top Pa. court”, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 5; Tom Turcol, “N.J. Democrats secure control of legislature”, Nov. 5).
“In New Jersey, where state-level candidates usually campaign over issues such as property taxes and school funding, the No. 1 issue is now medical malpractice — if political fund-raising totals are any indication.” Doctors are throwing themselves into state politics and are so passionate about the issue that they’re actually outspending trial lawyers by a wide margin. (“Malpractice Issue Draws Most Funding in N.J. State Races”, BestWire/HIMSS (Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society), Oct. 28). Pennsylvania physicians are up in arms as well, hoping to make their voices heard in a key state supreme court contest between Republican Joan Orie Melvin and Democrat Max Baer (Carrie Budoff, “This time, physicians are players in election”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 3; Marian Uhlman, “As doctor workforce ages, a fear of shortage”, Oct. 12). In Massachusetts, nearly 1,000 doctors descended on the statehouse last spring attired in white coats, demanding malpractice reform (David Kibbe, “Liability insurance hikes scaring off some doctors”, Ottaway/New Bedford Standard-Times, Oct. 6). See also “Tort-reform law could cure ills of malpractice” (editorial), Rockingham News, Oct. 31 (New Hampshire)(suggesting that recent Texas reforms serve as model).