September 8-10 — Netscape “Cool Sitings” of the day. Overlawyered.com was one of the picks on Thursday’s edition of Netscape’s much-surfed “Cool Sitings” feature. Their write-up: “Legal Shenanigans. If the joke: ‘What do you call 1000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A good start’ rings true for you, check out this site” (Sept. 7). And we’re also today’s (Friday’s) web pick of the day at the Memphis Commercial Appeal‘s “C.A. Eye“.
September 8-10 — …Than never to have been born at all. By a 4-3 margin, the Ohio Supreme Court has declined to let a 7-year-old with spina bifida sue her parents’ doctors on a claim of “wrongful life”. The little girl’s argument — at least, the argument put forth on her behalf in court — is that had the doctors told her parents about the availability of a prenatal test that would have disclosed her abnormality, they would have had an abortion, and that she suffered injury because they failed to do so. “Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, writing for the majority, said courts do not have the authority to decide if a person should or should not have been born.” Justices Paul Pfeifer, Andrew Douglas and Alice Robie Resnick dissented. (Spencer Hunt, “Girl has no right to sue”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 7; “Ohio Court Rules Against Parents”, AP/FindLaw, Sept. 7; decision, Hester v. Dwivedi) (see also May 9).
September 8-10 — “NZ kids get ‘license’ to play with toy guns”. “Children as young as four in New Zealand are being required to apply for ‘licenses’ for toy guns.” They must explain why they want one, and playing cops and robbers is not a good enough reason. (Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 6). Also: an Australian radio talk show host, convicted of improperly soliciting information about the deliberations of a jury, was “given a 15-month suspended sentence … because the judge believed he was too wealthy to fine and too famous to jail.” (Stephen Gibbs, “Laws too famous to jail, says judge”, Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 6).
September 8-10 — “A perverse use of antitrust law”. “The Justice Department could hardly have come up with a more harmful set of demands than those it now makes [on Microsoft],” writes Charles Munger, vice chairman of famed investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. “If it wins, our country will end up hobbling its best-performing high-tech businesses. And this will be done in an attempt to get public benefits that no one can rationally predict.” (Charles Munger, Washington Post, Sept. 1). More: “Did Microsoft Harm Consumers? Two Opposing Views”, by David S. Evans, Franklin M. Fisher, Daniel L. Rubinfield, and Richard L. Schmalensee, AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies (abstract, full text (PDF format), order form); David Boaz, “The theft of Microsoft”, Cato Daily, July 27; Jonathan Rauch, “The Microsoft Case: Fair, Necessary, and Totally Random”, National Journal, June 10.
September 8-10 — “State errors unfairly cast some dads as deadbeats”. A federal law has mandated toughening of state child support collection systems. Unfortunately, reports Marilyn Gardner of the Christian Science Monitor, the resulting overhauls have increased the rate of billing errors in some of the systems and led to parents mistakenly being labeled deadbeats (August 9).
September 8-10 — $1.5 million estate bill included 900 hours spent on fees. An Indiana appeals court has rebuked a law firm which billed heirs $1.5 million for handling an inheritance case, including 900 hours it says it spent calculating its fees. The Indianapolis law firm of Henderson, Daily, Withrow & DeVoe had worked on the estate of former Conseco Inc. executive Lawrence W. Inlow, who died without a will at age 46 in a helicopter accident leaving an estate of $185 million. “Requiring a client to pay an additional amount for being told what he owes in the first instance is neither good business nor good law,” wrote Judge Sanford M. Brook for the appeals court. (“Court Rejects Attorneys’ Charge”, AP/FindLaw, Sept. 7) (court opinion, Inlow children v. Estate of Inlow).
September 6-7 — Prosecution fears slow crash probes. Aviation accidents almost never used to result in the filing of criminal charges, but in recent years they’ve been the subject of several highly publicized prosecutions. A House Transportation Committee hearing in late July looked into evidence that fear of incarceration or fines is now discouraging witnesses from cooperating with crash investigators. “For decades, we had relied on individuals to tell us what happened in an accident — and they usually, sometimes reluctantly, do so,” said Daniel Campbell, managing director of the official National Transportation Safety Board. But “what has been reluctance to cooperate may become refusal to cooperate.” Campbell said prosecution fears had also made it hard to investigate a recent nonaviation accident, a fatal pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Wash., last year. As a result, “more than a year later, we still have not been able to talk to most of the key individuals who were operating the pipeline when it ruptured and may not be able to in the foreseeable future.” A federal grand jury subpoena also “resulted in a significant delay in the investigation,” Campbell said. “In our view, too much lawyering went on before we were able to test the physical evidence of that tragedy.”
“The recent trend towards the criminalization of aircraft accidents is extremely alarming in that it has the potential to cripple industry’s ability to learn from incidents and accidents, essentially guaranteeing that we will repeat them,” said Capt. Paul McCarthy of the Air Line Pilots Association. He cited the 1996 ValuJet crash in Florida, the USAir 1989 crash at LaGuardia, and the recent Alaska Air crash off the California coast as examples of cases where safety investigations had been slowed. (House Transportation Committee, Aviation Subcommittee, hearing summary, Campbell, McCarthy statements; thread on Professional Pilots bulletin board)
September 6-7 — Update: second chance for Wal-Mart. The giant retailer has won a rematch in the case of former employee Ricky Bourdouvales, who sued alleging discrimination based on transsexualism (male-to-female). Judge Douglas Hague issued a default judgment of $2.1 million when Wal-Mart failed to show up in his New Jersey court (see July 21), but has now agreed to grant a retrial. (“Judge Tosses Trans Bias Award”, PlanetOut, Aug. 28).
September 6-7 — Australian roundup. A now-retired New South Wales judge has come under criticism from the losing plaintiffs in a large case, who complain in their appeal that more than 200 pages of his 247-page opinion consist of material cut and pasted from the submissions made by the two sides. The judge had called the case, over the Copper-7 contraceptive IUD, the longest and most complex product liability case in Australian history. (“Judge ‘cut and paste’ in making his decision on IUDs”, AAP/The Age (Melbourne), Aug. 29). Five partners of a Sydney law firm that handles a large volume of immigration work are suing Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock for defamation, “claiming he implied they were unethical and overcharged clients.” (“Ruddock sued for defamation by lawyers”, AAP/The Age (Melbourne), Aug. 29). And a 1998 finding by a federal justice that a prominent Brisbane law firm engaged in abuse of legal process ignited a debate about the condition of the law in Australia; a national TV show explored widespread discontent over the gamelike aspects of adversary process, interviewing both leading insiders of bench and bar and two outspoken critics, former defense lawyer and prosecutor Brett Dawson and journalist Evan Whitton (“The justice system goes on trial”, Ross Coulthart, reporter, Sunday/NineMSN, Transcript #252, undated). One passage among many that caught our eye:
REPORTER: Do you think there’s a case to argue that some of the ethical rules that lawyers have actually almost encourage dishonesty among lawyers?
JUSTICE [GEOFFREY] DAVIES: Yes I do. One of the examples is that a lawyer can ethically deny an allegation in the opponent’s pleading knowing it to be true.
REPORTER: You’re kidding – so you can basically lie?
JUSTICE DAVIES: Well, what lawyers would say is that you are putting the other side to proof.
REPORTER: It’s a lie though isn’t it?
JUSTICE DAVIES: It is.
September 6-7 — Bill for pizza delivery: $1.25 million? A Cocoa Beach, Fla. jury voted, but a federal judge almost immediately threw out, an award of one and a quarter million dollars to a black family that ordered home delivery from Pizza Hut and found a racial slur included as part of the computer-generated receipt. Judge Patricia Fawsett ruled that responsibility lay with the unauthorized actions of a rogue employee and could not fairly be charged to the company. (“Judge throws out $1.25M verdict against Pizza Hut”, Orlando Sentinel, Sept. 1).
September 5 — EEOC: offbeat beliefs may be protected against workplace bias. “Belief in radically unconventional scientific notions, such as ‘cold fusion’ or cryptic messages from extraterrestrials, may merit the same workplace protections as freedom of religion, according to a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a job-discrimination case.” The case arose from the April 1999 firing by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office of patent examiner and astronomer Paul A. LaViolette, who claims the action was taken because he holds unconventional beliefs, including a belief in the highly controversial theory of energy generation through “cold fusion”. In the words of the Washington Post, LaViolette’s website, www.etheric.com, “details his ‘proof’ of the existence of alien radio communication, his theory that the zodiac is a ‘time capsule message’ warning of emanations from the galactic center and his views on the Sphinx, the Tarot and Atlantis, along with his considerable accomplishments in mainstream science.” (Curt Suplee, “EEOC Backs ‘Cold Fusion’ Devotee”, Washington Post, Aug. 23).
September 5 — Tax software verdict: pick a number. A Hinds County, Mississippi jury “awarded the state of Mississippi $474.5 million in its suit against a company that failed to deliver on a new tax processing system that was supposed to modernize the state’s collection efforts.” The verdict against Fairfax, Va.-based American Management Systems Inc. included $299.5 million in actual damages and $175 million in punitive damages. A few days later, the company settled the suit by agreeing to pay the state $185 million. The company has contracts with seven other states to operate similar computerized tax systems; no other lawsuits are pending. (“Company loses tax software suit”, AP/USA Today, Aug. 24; “Settlement cuts tax software verdict”, Aug. 29).
September 5 — Juries and cost-benefit analysis. W. Kip Viscusi, professor at Harvard Law, says businesses today get conflicting signals on the use of cost-benefit analysis in safety matters: a large academic literature encourages them to engage in such analysis as part of their responsibility to the public, but juries get furious when they think that sort of “cold-blooded calculation” has gone on. Moreover, there’s evidence to support the paradoxical finding that the higher a valuation of life and limb a company employs in such an analysis, the more stringently it will be punished by subsequent juries. (“The Trouble With Lawsuits”, TechCentralStation, May 29; Manhattan Institute, luncheon transcript).
September 4 — Emulex fraud: gotta find a defendant. “With the manhunt for the perpetrator of the Emulex fraud [false news report torpedoed company’s stock] apparently over, investors burned by the company’s $2 billion post-fraud swing are now hunting for someone, anyone, to sue for legal damages. Two lawsuits have already been filed, one against Internet Wire, which originally distributed the bogus press release, and one against both Internet Wire and Bloomberg, the financial news service that sent out a story based on the press release.” (Craig Bicknell, “Emulex Victims: Who Can We Sue?”, Wired News, Sept. 1).
September 4 — Record-breaking securities class action fee: $262 million. A federal judge in New Jersey last month approved a fee of $262 million for plaintiffs’ lawyers in the securities fraud case stemming from the collapse in the stock price of Cendant Corporation (see June 20). Judge William Walls upheld the record-breaking fee against objections from New York City, a member of the investor class, reasoning that the two lead law firms, New York’s Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossman and Philadelphia’s Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, had taken part in a fairly run auction to determine who would get to represent the investors. (Daniel Wise, “Cendant Lawyers Get Record $262 Million in Securities Fraud Case”, New York Law Journal, Aug. 22).
September 4– “Just put the candy in the bag, lady.” “I’ve been watching the lawsuits over Columbine with interest bordering on disgust. It seems the argument is that someone (preferably a government agent not affiliated with the Postal Service, or failing that, any random person with deep pockets) should have foreseen the future and intervened,” writes Paul Kelly, a former vice chair of the Boulder, Colo. Democratic Party. “…If this new ‘everybody’s negligent all the time’ social philosophy seems silly to you, it’s probably because you’re not a lawyer. To a lawyer this is like Halloween to a 10-year-old. ‘Just put the candy in the bag, lady. And hurry. There are still five families on this block I haven’t sued yet.'” (“Doing nothing may be best option”, Denver Post, Aug. 13).
September 1-3 — Texas tobacco fees: Cornyn’s battle. In December 1998 an arbitration panel awarded a stupendous $3.3 billion in legal fees to five law firms selected by former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales to represent the state in the tobacco-Medicaid litigation, which had ended in a $17 billion settlement. The Big Five firms, all high rollers in Lone Star State personal-injury litigation and all major Democratic Party donors, include Beaumont, Texas’s Provost & Umphrey (Walter Umphrey), Houston’s Williams & Bailey (John Eddie Williams), Harold Nix’s law firm in Daingerfield; Beaumont’s Reaud, Morgan & Quinn (Wayne Reaud); and John O’Quinn’s firm in Houston.
Mr. Morales’s Republican successor as Texas Attorney General, former Texas Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn, ran for office in part on a pledge to investigate the circumstances surrounding the fees, and his probe soon led to some eye-opening revelations (see May 22). A Houston lawyer named Marc Murr, who’d earlier worked at the same law firm with Morales, had stepped forward after the settlement to claim a $520 million (later $260 million) share of the proceeds, a mystifying claim since participants could not remember Murr doing work on the case or being considered part of the state’s team. Murr pointed to a hitherto unsuspected contract with Morales entitling him to a piece of the action, but Cornyn hired forensic experts who concluded that the contract had been doctored and backdated. Rather than be put under oath about the matter, Murr withdrew his claim to the fees; a U.S. attorney’s office has the matter under investigation.
As for the circumstances by which the Big Five came by their fees, Cornyn’s investigation has met with a stone wall of resistance and non-cooperation from Umphrey, Williams, Nix, Reaud and O’Quinn. In particular, he would like to investigate what the Houston Chronicle describes as “longtime allegations that [Morales] solicited large sums of money from lawyers he considered hiring” for the suit. Two years ago famed Houston attorney Joe Jamail, who wasn’t among those picked to represent the state, “said Morales solicited $1 million from each of several lawyers he considered hiring”, in addition to the $2 million that each of the five agreed to front to finance the case. “The money, according to memos prepared by Jamail, purportedly was for a fund to help Morales defend himself against political or public relations attacks from cigarette companies during the litigation.” Last year in sworn testimony Dawn Nelson, ex-wife of Big Five lawyer John Eddie Williams, said “Williams had told her that Morales wanted $1 million from one or more of the lawyers that were hired for the tobacco case,” the Chronicle reported.
In an interview last November cited in the same Chronicle reportage, Morales said that the purpose of the money might have been misunderstood and that he didn’t intend it to be used for his personal or political benefit. In May, the Five filed statements in court saying they had not paid any consideration for the chance to participate in the litigation. But they’ve consistently refused to go under oath to answer Cornyn’s questions, and skillful legal maneuvering on their behalf has kept at bay that alarming prospect — first by their successful removal of his legal action away from state court and into the hands of the same federal judge in Texarkana whom they initially selected to hear the Medicaid-recoupment case (see “Best little forum-shopping in Texas”, Aug. 27, 1999), and now with their obtaining of a ruling by that judge last month that Cornyn has no independent right to question the lawyers except under such terms as he, the judge, may see fit to approve in future (Cornyn plans an appeal of that ruling to the Fifth Circuit). The Five have also sought a gag order to prevent the press or anyone else from getting a look at documents generated by the investigation, notwithstanding the usual publicly proclaimed stand of organized trial lawyers that “protective orders” of that sort are an affront to the public’s right to know and serve only to shroud wrongdoing in secrecy. And, like other lawyers who have represented the states in the tobacco recoupment litigation, they have argued that the fees are not an appropriate subject for review by representatives of the taxpayers because they are formally structured so as to be paid directly by the cigarette companies, rather than be routed through the state as part of its payment as is customary.
The Big Five also claimed $40 million in reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses (as distinct from legal fees) but at the end of May they returned $6.9 million of this money, saying the earlier sum had been overstated. “Their misrepresentation of expenses just raises more questions and strongly reinforces the need to determine what happened in the tobacco case,” Cornyn said. “After 18 months of assuring the people of Texas that their expenses were justified in every way … [they] are now returning millions of dollars with no satisfactory explanation as to why.” Michael Tigar, attorney for the Five, said the earlier sum had been a good-faith estimate and that deviations from such estimates are common. (DURABLE LINK)
SOURCES: Kelley Shannon, “Cornyn, rebuffed in federal court, vows to appeal”, AP state and local wire, Aug. 16, not online, available on NEXIS; “Five attorneys say Morales not paid for contract in anti-tobacco lawsuit”, AP state and local wire, May 12, not online, available on NEXIS; Brenda Sapino Jeffreys, “As Tobacco Lawyers Return Money, Questions Return”, Texas Lawyer, June 9; “Tobacco trial lawyers admit misrepresentation”, Cornyn press release, June 1; Susan Borreson, “Tobacco Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Won’t Enforce Contract With State”, Texas Lawyer, December 2, 1999; Robert Bryce, “Nicotine Fit”, Texas Observer, November 26, 1999; Janet Elliott, “‘Tobacco Five’ Want Confidentiality Order”, Texas Lawyer, Sept. 9, 1999.; Clay Robison, “Cornyn moves in on anti-tobacco lawyers”, Houston Chronicle, April 27. Murr case: Miriam Rozen, “Smoke-filled room”, Dallas Observer, Sept. 17, 1998; “Pay up?”, April 22, 1999; Patrick Williams, “Buzz”, Dec. 17, 1998, May 20, 1999; Jim Brickman, “What Would I Ask Former Attorney General Dan Morales In the Grand Jury Investigation?“, Citizens for Lawsuit Abuse Houston; John R. Butler, Jr., “Dan Morales and Marc Murr Have Some Explaining To Do To All Texans“, CALA Houston.
September 1-3 — “Olympic trials”. At least ten athletes, after falling short in efforts to make the U.S. Olympic team in their sports, have insisted on going to arbitration or in one case to federal court, according to columnist Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal‘s online Opinion Journal (Aug. 31; see also Mark R. Madler, “Judges Wrestle With Epic Case of Olympic Athlete” (wrestlers), American Lawyer Media, Aug. 31.
September 1-3 — “Don’t talk to the humans”. Some years back the federal government issued regulations on universities’ use of human experimental subjects. How strictly are these rules being enforced? So strictly that a scholar can get in big trouble by not asking an official committee’s permission before visiting a retirement home and chatting with one of the elderly residents about his life. (Christopher Shea, Lingua Franca, Sept.) (via Arts & Letters Daily).
September 20 — Victory in Chicago. A judge last week threw out the city of Chicago’s lawsuit against the gun industry. “In granting the industry’s motion to dismiss, Judge Stephen A. Schiller of Cook County Circuit Court suggested that the city had not shown wrongdoing by the individual defendants. He said that the city’s arguments would be better handled in a legislature than in a courtroom.” However, a West Coast judge denied a defense motion to dismiss a group of cases filed by San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles city and county, and other plaintiffs. Pending appeal, judges have now dismissed the suits filed by Chicago, Cincinnati, Bridgeport, and Miami, while declining to dismiss suits filed by Detroit, Atlanta, Boston, New Orleans, Cleveland, and the California cities. (Pam Belluck, “Chicago Gun Suit Fails, but California’s Proceeds”, New York Times, Sept. 16 (reg); “Judge dismisses Chicago suit against gun industry”, Reuters/CNN, Sept. 15; reaction from Illinois State Rifle Association). Plus: John Derbyshire gets radicalized on the tort reform issue when he goes out trying to buy ammunition on Long Island, and discovers that the courtroom assault on the industry is choking the local firearms dealers into oblivion with no legislation needed, simply by causing their liability insurance to dry up. (“First thing we do…”, National Review Online, Sept. 12).
September 20 — Disbarred, with an asterisk. Most clients probably assume that a lawyer thrown out of the profession is gone for good, but the Boston Globe finds that for years bar authorities have been quietly readmitting practitioners, including some whose original offenses were grave. Some of this leniency has been misplaced, since a number of the readmitted lawyers have gone on to commit new offenses against clients. (David Armstrong, “Special Report: Disbarred Mass. lawyers skirt discipline system”, Sept. 17, and sidebars: “Reinstatement process favors lawyers“, “Victims often missing from equation“.
September 20 — “Regulating Privacy: At What Cost?” Free-marketeers finally start organizing to resist the steamroller movement toward online-privacy laws, reports Declan McCullagh. Among new initiatives are a symposium held yesterday on Capitol Hill by George Mason U.’s Mercatus Center, a book entitled The Future of Financial Privacy forthcoming from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a privacy-issues website called Privacilla.org. (Wired.com, Sept. 19). And Reason Express a while back alerted us to a website by Jacob Palme in Sweden which recounts some of the less pleasant consequences of that nation’s pioneering (1973) law preventing the electronic gathering or dissemination of information about individuals without their consent. Palme says the law mostly went unenforced as regards web publishing, which is a good thing since if enforced literally it could have rendered unlawful much of the web in Sweden. The few instances that led to enforcement action, as related by Palme, suggest that unpopular and dissident opinions were among the most likely to draw complaints under the law. One man put up a webpage critical of a large Swedish bank, naming individual directors whom he believed had behaved in ethically irresponsible ways; he was prosecuted and fined for violating their privacy. In another case, an animal rights group was subject to legal action for posting a list of fur producers. In a third, a church volunteer was prosecuted for stating on a web page that one named church member had broken a leg and another was a member of the Social Democratic Party; health status and political affiliations are considered especially sensitive under the law. In a fourth case, dissident dog lovers got in privacy-law trouble for criticizing leading members of a dog society by name. The privacy laws were revised in 1998 and again in 1999, following much criticism, and as of June 2000, when Palme’s page was last revised, the highest Swedish court had not yet given its interpretation of the law (“Freedom of Speech, The EU Data Protection Directive and the Swedish Personal Data Act“; “The Swedish Personal Register Law“; “Swedish Attempts to Regulate the Internet“; official Data Inspection Board). (DURABLE LINK)
September 19 — Hollywood under fire: nose of the Camel? In what may take the prize for worst idea of the month, South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon has proposed filing coordinated state lawsuits to make Hollywood the next tobacco. “Clearly we have here a virtual replay of what the tobacco industry did to our children. Instead of Joe Camel, Hollywood uses Eminem, South Park, Doom and Steven Segal [sic] to seduce children,” Condon wrote in a letter to the National Association of Attorneys General (Condon press release, Sept. 13; David Shuster, “South Carolina AG Threatens Suit Against Entertainment Industry”, Fox News, Sept. 15). It’s time the entertainment business cleaned up its act, writes Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, but that doesn’t mean Sens. McCain and Lieberman are right to “justify [an] end run around the 1st Amendment with a public-health argument like that which justifies the regulation of tobacco or liquor.” (“A World Apart: Eminem and Me”, Sept. 17). Owens Corning and Met Life use cartoon characters (the Pink Panther and Snoopy respectively) as advertising mascots, and you might jump to the conclusion that they were committing that dire sin, “marketing to children”, if you didn’t know that fiberglass insulation and insurance are products bought by adults, observes Illinois law prof Ronald Rotunda (“The FTC Report on Hollywood Entertainment“, Federalist Society, Free Speech and Election Law Working Group; FTC report; “Lieberman: Entertainment must police itself”, AP/Miami Herald, Sept. 13). Filmmaker John Waters doesn’t think much of the crusade: “The future CEOs of America are all sneaking into R-rated movies” (Rick Lyman, “Writers, Directors Fear Censorship, Tell Anger Over Violence Hearings”, New York Times Service/Chicago Tribune, Sept. 18). And plaintiff’s lawyers suing entertainment companies over school shootings, who’ve already gotten plenty of favorable ink in the conservative press (see July 22, 1999), are hoping the new report will invigorate their legal cause (Frank Murray, “FTC adds ammo to lawsuits for deaths”, Washington Times, Sept. 13).
September 19 —WSJ‘s Bartley on decline of American law. The establishment of the rule of law, replacing the whim of powerful rulers, was perhaps the supreme achievement of the West in the millennium just past, but the United States has grown careless about its legal inheritance, with systematic injustices mounting in both criminal and civil courtrooms. Last week’s call-sheet scandal illustrates the way “audacious and powerful interests” who have found ways to use the legal system to make their fortunes “have allied themselves with government and politicians.” (Robert Bartley, “The Law and Civilization’s Future”, Opinion Journal (Wall Street Journal), Sept. 18). “Justice Department investigators and prosecutors want to know if there were, in fact, any quid pro quos for the trial lawyers’ extraordinary generosity,” editorializes the San Diego Union-Tribune about the scandal. “With trial lawyers contributing almost 10 percent of all funds raised by the Gore-Lieberman campaign, that remains an urgent question. Voters have a right to some answers before Nov. 7.” (“Veto for sale?”, Sept. 16).
September 19 — Punitive damages for hatemongering? Washington Post‘s editorial page “is gutsy enough to have qualms about Morris Dees’ strategy of bankrupting hate groups with punitive tort damages,” observes Mickey Kaus at Kausfiles (“The Aryan Nations Verdict” (editorial), Washington Post, Sept. 16). “Many advocacy groups that engage in direct actions potentially expose themselves to tort liability…. That danger is compounded by the abusive system of punitive damages, which gives juries wide discretion to ruin people or companies financially in a fashion untethered to the scope of the harm they have done in the specific case at issue,” the Post comments. “That could not have happened to a more deserving bunch than Mr. [Richard] Butler and the Aryan Nations. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to wonder who’s next.”
September 18 — Scruggs v. Ritalin. Latest target for zillionaire tobacco lawyer and recent Time profilee Richard Scruggs: Novartis Pharmaceutical Corp., makers of the drug Ritalin, and the American Psychiatric Association. Scruggs’s firm accuses the two of conspiring to promote an overly broad diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), with the result that the drug is given to too many youngsters. “Novartis and the APA deny the allegations. In a statement, Novartis says the charges are ‘unfounded and preposterous.'” Some lawyers from the Castano consortium, which pursued tobacco litigation separate from Scruggs’s, are also joining him in the action. (“Lawsuits Accuse Ritalin Makers, APA”, AP/Yahoo, Sept. 15; Excite/Dow Jones; Toni Locy, “Fight over Ritalin is heading to court”, USA Today, Sept. 15) (see also Sept. 22-24 and April 13, 2001).
September 18 — White House pastry chef harassment suit. White House assistant pastry chef Franette McCulloch, 53, is suing her boss Roland Mesnier, claiming he “became hostile and rude when she spurned his advances, ‘screaming’ at her for refusing to have sex, excluding her from designing desserts and once assigning her to peel eight crates of kiwi.” Her suit also alleges that Bill Clinton, as the head of the White House, failed to establish a proper method for employees to bring harassment complaints, and demands $1 million each from Mesnier and Clinton. (AP/CNN, Sept. 13; Ellen Nakashima, “White House Chef Accuses Boss of Sexual Harassment”, Washington Post, Sept. 14). In 1997, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled against a discriminatory-firing claim by an employee of the White House chef’s office, but said he had been improperly retaliated against for filing his complaint. A former executive chef testified in a sworn deposition that year that the Clintons had paid him $37,000 to quit his post “because of my accent and the fact that I’m overweight.” (more).
September 18 — The teetery inkbottle. “Whenever the law and the facts were against him, Mr. Homans was not one to pound on the table. Instead, he would resort to what he called his ‘trial pen’, a big, old-fashioned device that he would pull out at a critical moment in a trial. On the stand would be the state’s star witness testifying that he had seen with his own eyes as Mr. Homans’s client pulled out a gun and pointed it directly at the bank teller’s head. But the jurors’ eyes would be on Mr. Homans, who, with trembling hand, would be filling the pen from a bottle of India ink perched so precariously, half over the edge of the defense table, that the jury would be caught up in the suspense of when it would fall.” — from an obituary, “William Homans, 75, Dies; Boston Civil Rights Lawyer”, by the late Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., New York Times, February 13, 1997 (fee-based archives, search on “William Homans”).
September 18 — That’ll be $2 trillion, please. A former resident has filed three lawsuits against the town of Rocky River, Ohio, “claiming everything from false arrest to injury of reputation,” and demanding $2 trillion. The town isn’t amused and is countersuing her, saying it’s had to expend money to defend itself. (Sarah Treffinger, “Rocky River sues woman who sued for trillions”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sept. 13).
September 15-17 — Day Two of Vetogate. George W. Bush in a California speech says the new call-sheet revelations are evidence that Gore “may have crossed a serious line … The appearance is really disturbing”, Janet Reno refuses to talk about the status of the investigation, the New York Times Washington bureau frets about being (just barely) webscooped by Time.com on the story, and Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane curiously describes the sensational disclosures as “recycled”, though no one in the press remembers seeing them before now (CNN; Drudge special; Yahoo/Reuters; Wash. Times).
September 15-17 — Who caught the tire problem? “Who provided the information that instigated the current recall? Who acted to protect the consumer? None other than ‘greedy’, profit-seeking State Farm Insurance Company. Eager to earn ever higher profits by reducing injury claims and lawsuits, State Farm’s statistical bureau noticed an increase in claims related to Firestone tires and passed the information along to the NHTSA which had been asleep at the switch. [See Devon Spurgeon, “State Farm researcher’s sleuthing helped prompt Firestone recall’, Wall Street Journal , Sept. 1]. The profit seeking of a big, bad, private insurance company may help save hundreds of lives.” (James Ostrowski, “The Tire Fiasco”, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Sept. 8).
In the New York Times Sept. 11, Keith Bradsher reports that by the end of 1998 trial lawyers “had already sued Firestone, and sometimes Ford as well, in cases involving 22 deaths and 69 serious injuries”. However, few of these cases had come to the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; until recently NHTSA had received very few complaints, and none of fatalities. In fact, Bradsher reports, trial lawyers were pursuing a conscious policy of not reporting tire incidents to the agency, apparently because of tactical concerns — if the agency learned about such cases too early and in too small a number, it might do a perfunctory investigation and miss the pattern of defectiveness, and then the lawyers would have more trouble winning their cases. This strikes us as a fairly damning indictment to be leveling against the trial lawyers — they flout the public interest in learning crucial safety information, just in order to angle for monetary advantage? Isn’t that what Firestone is accused of doing? — but Bradsher quotes Ralph Hoar, a well-known plaintiff’s-side consultant in auto-design cases who provided the numerical tabulation cited at the beginning of this paragraph, as cheerily portraying the lawyers as just doin’ their job, saying they have to concern themselves with their clients’ best interests, not anyone else’s.
Meanwhile, Ford Motor had been named in a few suits but “paid little attention, because automakers routinely face thousands of lawsuits after crashes.” In other words, the background level of litigation against a company of that size is so high that it’s hard to notice patterns that do turn out to be meaningful (Keith Bradsher, “Documents Portray Tire Debacle as a Story of Lost Opportunities”, New York Times, Sept. 11 (reg)). (DURABLE LINK)
September 15-17 — Ciresi bested in Senate bid. Michael Ciresi, the trial lawyer who sought to parlay his representation of the state of Minnesota in the tobacco litigation into a seat in the U.S. Senate, has lost the Democratic nomination to department store heir Mark Dayton by a margin of 41 to 23 percent, with other candidates dividing the rest. (Dan Bernard, “Dayton Grabs DFL Nomination”, WCCO/Channel 4000, Sept. 13; St. Paul Pioneer Press; Minneapolis Star-Tribune).
September 15-17 — Cash return sought by murder-for-hire convict. “A criminal defense attorney who paid an undercover agent $11,000 in a failed murder-for-hire plot is asking the government to return the money. Frederick Ford, 48, who is serving an eight-year prison term for planning to kill two former clients he thought could implicate him in a kidnap plot, is seeking the return of the money he admitted he gave to a U.S. Department of Labor agent last year.” (“Convicted attorney seeks return of murder-for-hire retainer”, AP/CNN, Sept. 13; Shelley Murphy, “Hit man hirer wants money back”, Boston Globe, Sept. 13).
September 14 — “I know [you] will give $100K when the president vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now.” The New York Times reports in today’s editions that Justice Department campaign finance investigators have launched a preliminary probe into documents that have surfaced from the Clinton/Gore 1996 fundraising operation, including a “call sheet” prepared for Vice President Gore regarding Beaumont, Texas lawyer Walter Umphrey, a major Democratic benefactor who shared in Texas’s $3.3 billion tobacco contingency fee and is well known to readers of this space. The sheet describes Umphrey as “closely following tort reform” and suggests asking him for $100,000 to finance Democratic Party TV commercials. The White House claims that Gore did not make the call, but two weeks later a staffer for then-Democratic National Committee chairman Donald Fowler prepared a call sheet reading as follows: “Sorry you missed the vice president. I know [sic] will give $100K whn [sic] the president vetos [sic] tort reform, but we really need it now. Please send ASAP if possible.” DNC officials propose that the “missed” might have referred to the two men not connecting at an in-person event; Fowler disclaims any memory of talking with Umphrey about campaign donations and says he would never have used the language on the call sheet. According to the Times, “Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, called the call sheet’s language ‘extraordinarily ill-advised,’ saying prosecutors would probably be investigating whether the solicitation violated either a bribery statute or a law prohibiting ‘illegal gratuities,’ a ‘gift’ given after an elected official takes a public action.”
The Washington Post reports that Umphrey says he doesn’t recall “any of that” and otherwise declines comment, while Payne was talking to the Times only through her lawyer. And attorney Michael Tigar, who represents Umphrey and the rest of the Big Five Texas tobacco lawyers, issued this small gem of legalistically worded denial: “Tying campaign contributions to legislative or executive action has never been illegal in the United States unless there is proof that the public official extorts the money by threatening to give or withhold action based on the contributions,” he said; moreover, his clients, including Mr. Umphrey, “have repeatedly been asked in many forums whether they have ever given money to a candidate or officials as a quid-pro-quo for official action, and they have repeatedly said under oath that they have never done so.” The Times account adds considerable background on the epic pace of Clinton/Gore fundraising among Texas plaintiff’s lawyers of late, including a little-reported fundraiser thrown for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate campaign by Big Five stalwart John Eddie Williams of Houston. (Don Van Natta Jr. with Richard A. Oppel Jr., “Memo Linking Political Donation and Veto Spurs Federal Inquiry”, New York Times, Sept. 14 (reg); Susan Schmidt, “1995 Documents Appear To Link Lawyer’s Contribution To Veto”, Washington Post, Sept. 14; more on Umphrey and the Big Five: Sept. 1, May 22; more on trial lawyers’ political clout). More breaking coverage (via Drudge): Time, Fox News, AP. (DURABLE LINK)
September 13-14 — “Violent media is good for kids”. Good kids, as well as bad ones, are naturally fascinated with violence, catastrophe and retribution, and letting them explore these matters in the relatively safe territory of the printed page and popular entertainment is part of the process by which they learn how to fit themselves into a frightening world, argues cartoonist Gerard Jones, in an excerpt from a book due out next year from Basic with co-author Melanie Moore (“Reality Check”, Mother Jones, June 28; Reason magazine, “The Kids Are All Right“, “Breaking Issues”; Christopher Stern, “Violent Material Marketed To Youth”, Washington Post, Aug. 27; Mike Allen and Ellen Nakashima, “Clinton, Gore Hit Hollywood Marketing”, Washington Post, Sept. 12).
September 13-14 — Gregoire’s home front. Washington state attorney general Christine Gregoire gained a high national profile jetting around the country to take a leading role in the tobacco-Medicaid affair and other big-case AG litigation, and followed up by assuming the presidency of the National Association of Attorneys General (see July 17). Now it may be time to wonder whether she was keeping enough of an eye back home on the unglamorous routine of the AG’s office, which plays a vital role in protecting the state’s legal interests. In March a Pierce County jury awarded the largest verdict ever against the state, $17.8 million, on behalf of three developmentally disabled men whose families said they were abused in a state-supported home. Gregoire’s office announced plans to appeal but, embarrassingly, proceeded to lose the state’s right to do so by missing a filing deadline. With interest, the total bill has now mounted to $18.7 million. (Eric Nalder and Mike Carter, “State won’t give up bid to appeal $17.8 million verdict”, Seattle Times, Sept. 12; Eric Nalder, “No excuse for missed appeal, court says”, Seattle Times, Aug. 22; see also update Nov. 30). The Capital Research Center has issued a new report critical of recent attorney general activism, by Ron Nehring of Americans for Tax Reform (“National Association of Attorneys General: Opening the Door to a New Era of Regulation Through Litigation”, Organization Trends (CRC), Sept.)
September 13-14 — Prescription: 24-7 monitoring. Adding to Evergreen State taxpayers’ legal woes, a Pierce County, Wash. jury Sept. 1 ordered the state government to pay $22 million to survivors of a driver killed in an auto accident by a man who was at the time serving the community-supervision portion of a sentence for third-degree assault. The verdict broke an earlier $17.8 million record for lawsuits against the state, set in March by the same plaintiff’s attorney, Jack Connelly (see above item). Gov. Gary Locke vowed to appeal the verdict, saying if upheld it could make the entire enterprise of community supervision unworkable. “This man was convicted of … third-degree assault connected with a domestic dispute,” he said. “Imposing liability for his involvement in an auto accident extends public liability too far.” A Locke aide questioned whether the state could monitor the 55,000 persons on community supervision adequately to prevent any of them from being a menace on the highway. One of the alternatives to risking failure-to-supervise liability — keeping the 55,000 locked up — would apparently be okay with lawyer Connelly, who said, “If you’re not even going to try to do your job, then don’t put these guys on community supervision. Put them in jail.” (Eli Sanders, “Family awarded $22.4 million in wrongful death lawsuit against state”, Seattle Times, Sept. 2). See also Chris Solomon, “Cities leery of new probation rules”, Seattle Times, July 11 (local governments fear being financially wiped out by Washington Supreme Court ruling allowing negligence lawsuits against municipalities over crimes committed by probationers).
September 13-14 — More bank spying? Despite strongly negative public reaction to withdrawn “Know Your Customer” regulations that would have accelerated banks’ sharing of customer “profiles” with law enforcement, legislators like Rep. James Leach (R-Iowa) are back with proposals that raise similar civil liberties concerns (Scott C. Rayder, “The Counter-Money Laundering Act: An Attack on Privacy and Civil Liberties”, Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum, Aug. 31; our take on the last round).
September 13-14 — Judges’ words, copyrighted. Officials in the California judiciary would like to revamp the instructions that judges give juries before trial deliberations, in hopes of making them clearer and more understandable, but have run into an unexpected problem. The Los Angeles County courts turn out to hold copyright in the most widely used current instructions and collect royalties when other California courts use them, which have generated $2.5 million for the county’s use over the past decade. “‘When we first began this effort three years ago, all of us just assumed that we would take [Los Angeles instructions] and improve on them,’ said Associate Justice James D. Ward of the state Court of Appeal in Riverside, vice chairman of the task force. ‘Then they announced to us that they owned them.'” The L.A. courts have held back from cooperating in the statewide revision efforts, which if successful would result in a set of instructions that courts could use for free. (Caitlin Liu, “Say What, Your Honor?”, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 7).
September 12 — Goodbye to gaming volunteers? Online multiplayer gaming has grown to be a big Internet institution in no small part because large numbers of unpaid enthusiasts join in on a volunteer basis to suggest and beta-test new features, run discussion boards and perform countless other services. “But maybe not for long. On Monday, August 28 … Origin Systems Inc. (OSI) [makers of Ultima Online, one of the leading fantasy role-playing games], announced the termination of free game account privileges for hundreds of community volunteers…. While company representatives have not said so outright, it appears the move to eliminate what amounted to a $10 a month gratuity for volunteers is related to a recent New York class action lawsuit, brought by former volunteers at America Online (AOL)” (see Sept. 7, 1999). The class action lawyers in that case are charging that because AOL benefits from the content devised by its volunteers, and has given them at least nominal compensation in the form of free services and the like, it is therefore obliged to keep track of how much time they put into volunteering and pay them at least the minimum wage. If the lawyers succeed in their efforts, online community providers could find themselves facing large retroactive wage bills. “Origin is just the first game company to move to protect itself legally by removing any perks that could be seen as differentiating its volunteers from all the other players. The major subscription-based role-playing services may soon follow suit. While the short-term effects may be limited (some volunteers may quit, but could be replaced), the long-term future of volunteer work on online releases seems doubtful all of a sudden.” (Bruce Rolston, “The End of the Smurfs?”, Adrenaline Vault, Sept. 1).
September 12 — Curious feature of lawyer’s retainer. Texas trial lawyers are in a flutter over a Waco case in which an appeals court ruled that a client family in an industrial accident case was within its rights to withdraw from a contingent-fee legal contract it had signed. The agreement the lawyer had gotten the family to sign included a curious feature: a provision entitling him to settle the case without their consent. Such a provision, the court ruled, “clearly violates” the Texas professional code for lawyers, making the entire contract voidable. The lawyer, J.W. Stringer, plans motions for rehearing and appeal. (Jenny Burg, “Opinion Has Lawyers Reviewing Contingent-Fee Contracts”, Texas Lawyer, Aug. 21).
September 12 — This little piggy got taken to court. More pig farmers are facing legal action as outlying towns change “from rural, mind-your- own-business farm communities to residential, what’s-that-smell, suburban neighborhoods,” according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer report. Five residents of Medina County, Ohio, including a truck driver and two auto mechanics, have been sent to jail this summer for refusing to clean up pig living arrangements on their properties (Stephen Hudak, “Proud Pig Man’s smelly pork farm lands him in poke”, Sept. 7) (via Romenesko’s Obscure Store) And a Marlin County, Florida pig farmer sued by an adjoining golf course has put up a website which solicits moral support and legal defense contributions, as well as purchases of the squiggle-tailed offenders (Pigfarmer.com) (more on pig litigation: Oct. 4, 1999).
September 11 — “Feeding Frenzy Over Firestone”. “Lawyers all over the country see opportunity in the escalating legal, commercial and public relations disaster for Ford and Firestone.” (Bob Van Voris and Matt Fleischer, National Law Journal, Sept. 5; Yahoo Full Coverage).
September 11 — Harassment law roundup. At an Alcoa plant in North Carolina, one of the black complainants in a race discrimination suit went out to the parking lot, made a list of all the workers’ vehicles with Confederate flag stickers on them, and filed this as evidence of “hostile racial environment” in the case. The company promptly banned employees from having such stickers on their cars, a ban it insists had absolutely nothing to do with the lawsuit (Steve Chapman, “Trouble in Mind: Is the First Amendment Void in the Workplace?” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 24). In an excerpt from his book The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America, New Republic legal correspondent Jeff Rosen urges courts to reconsider the “hostile environment” analysis that has become an accepted part of harassment law: “A jurisprudence originally designed to protect privacy and dignity is inadvertently invading privacy and dignity” (“Fall of Private Man”,New Republic, June 12; more on book). Clarence Thomas, alone among the nine Justices of the Supreme Court, wanted to tackle the “troubling First Amendment issues” raised by a court’s injunction against workers’ use of racial epithets on the job at an Avis Rent-a-Car franchise; a California court had ordered the drawing up of a list of words that employees were to be forbidden to use in conversation with each other, whether anyone present found the words objectionable or not (Tony Mauro, Freedom Forum, May 23). And early this year it was reported that an “affirmative action officer in Falmouth, Massachusetts — whose job it was to enforce the town’s sexual harassment policy — has been fired for sexually harassing a town employee. The official, Jayme Dias, was in charge of promoting and enforcing fairness in hiring and employment practices.” (Monster.com, “Week in Work”, Jan. 31).
September 11 — “Mother sues over lack of ice time for goalie son”. In Rimouski, Quebec, “Hélène Canuel is seeking $1,000 in damages from the Rimouski Minor Hockey Association because her son, David, was denied the right to play in a critical game during a hockey tournament last December.” David is 14 years old. (Arpon Basu, Montreal Gazette/National Post, Aug. 24).
September 29-October 1 — Disabled rights roundup. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the PGA golf tour must bend its rules to allow disabled golfer Casey Martin to ride in a golf cart (“U.S. High Court To Decide Case of Disabled Golfer”, Reuters/FindLaw, Sept. 26; see April 10, our May 1998 take). The government of Great Britain is considering legislation that would compel its armed forces to accept disabled recruits, and pressures are rising to accept handicapped military personnel in front-line as well as auxiliary positions, given the principle of nondiscrimination (Michael Smith, “Disabled want frontline jobs in ‘pc’ Services”, Daily Telegraph (London), Sept. 26; “Forces may have to admit disabled”, Aug. 21; UK Disability Discrimination Act). And a trend that has been well established under U.S. disabled rights law for some time — doctors’ having to hire sign-language translators at their own expense when a deaf patient wishes to call on them for a consultation — is exemplified by a consent decree negotiated by the office of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, requiring an upstate doctors’ group to provide interpreters-on-demand for “all significant medical encounters” (“Spitzer Announces Agreement With Upstate Physician’s Practice To Provide Sign Language Interpreters for Deaf Patients”, press release, June 21; see also May 31).
September 29-October 1 — Annals of zero tolerance: Tweety bird chain. In suburban Atlanta, the Garrett Middle School has suspended 11-year-old Ashley Smith from sixth grade for two weeks on charges of breaking its zero-tolerance weapons policy by bringing a chain to school. It’s a 10-inch novelty chain that dangles from her Tweety bird wallet. “It’s only a little chain, and I don’t think it can really hurt anyone,” said Ashley, a “Tweety fan who publishes her own Web site devoted to the cartoon character.” Earlier, the ACLU successfully represented an Atlanta public school student who was charged with criminal weapons possession after she brought African tribal knives to school for a project (“Girl suspended for Tweety chain”, AP/Salon, Sept. 28; UPI/Virtual New York) (Ashley Smith’s guestbook) (update Oct. 4: school’s explanation).
September 29-October 1 — French crash, German victims, American payout levels? Air France has sued Continental Air Lines to recoup its costs from the July Concorde disaster in Paris that killed 113 people, charging that a strip of metal that fell off a Continental DC-10 caused the incident. The French airline has already offered to compensate survivor families, who are mostly German, but “German lawyers are pushing for a settlement in the United States, where courts order higher payouts.” (“Airline files Concorde suit”, Reuters/CNNfn, Sept. 27).
September 29-October 1 — “Denny’s fights back against false suits”. The restaurant chain, dogged by past charges of racial discrimination, releases more details on how it uses videotapes and other techniques to disprove dubious copycat claims (see Aug. 29-30). In Oakland, Calif., the lawyer son of John S. Harrison Sr. sued Denny’s claiming that a white couple had been served before his father though they had arrived later. “Mr. Harrison conceded he had been a customer for 20 years and ate at that Denny’s counter twice a day for 10 to 12 years with no problems in a store whose clientele was 50 percent black.” He had been happy with the meal and had left a tip. A federal magistrate threw out the suit and gave Denny’s legal fees. (Frank Murray, Washington Times, Sept. 25).
September 29-October 1 — “Supersize small claims”. Prairielaw columnist David A. Giacalone argues for reviving the nearly moribund institution of small claims court by boosting the threshold value of claims handled by such courts to $20,000, a change also endorsed by the HALT legal reform group. Thresholds around $3,000 are now common. Such a shift might relieve some of the docket pressure on regular courts while allowing ordinary citizens to vindicate more claims without lawyers’ assistance, a feature that may help explain why the bar shows little enthusiasm for the idea (undated, but appeared Aug.) (see also Oct. 3).
September 27-28 — Welcome UserFriendly.org readers. We’re picked as the link of the day by the website for the cartoon strip User Friendly, by Illiad.
September 27-28 — “Blind customers want to touch club lapdancers”. In East Sussex, England, the Brighton and Hove municipal council says it will consider a request by the Pussycats Club that its blind patrons be permitted to touch the exotic dancers as a form of handicap accommodation. The club says its vision-impaired customers appreciate the proximity of the lapdancers and their perfume but would get a better idea of what they looked like if they were allowed a hands-on experience, which is currently forbidden by the club’s license. (David Sapsted, Daily Telegraph (London), Sept. 26).
September 27-28 — Welcome Toronto Star readers. “One of my favourite Web sites is overlawyered.com, a collection of the most asinine stories from the admittedly ordinarily twisted universe of American law,” writes columnist Jason Brooks. He interviews our editor about a current proposal for Ontario to enact its own law emulating the Americans with Disabilities Act. No one seems to have any very clear idea what such a law would cost, but the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee says “the idea of a total cost figure misses the point.” Uh-oh…. (Jason Brooks, “Will new act go too far for the disabled?”, Toronto Star, Sept. 25).
September 27-28 — “Controversial drug makes a comeback”. A small Canadian firm, Duchesnay Inc., wants to reintroduce to the U.S. market Bendectin, the pregnancy-nausea drug driven off the market by mass litigation claiming that it caused birth defects. “Bendectin was the archetypical case of junk science scuttling a perfectly safe product,” Dr. Michael Greene, director of maternal-fetal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells New York Times science correspondent Gina Kolata. “It was a sad episode in American jurisprudence.” Although ultimately the manufacturer never paid damages, it spent $100 million in defense costs, says Prof. David Bernstein of George Mason University (Sept. 26)(reg).
September 27-28 — Stuart Taylor, Jr. on Gore and Vetogate. Another scathing, must-read column on trial lawyers and politics by the National Journal columnist, written before Janet Reno’s announcement last week that the Justice Department would not pursue an investigation of the Umphrey call sheet affair. Did you know that lawyers as a group have donated nearly ten times as much to the Democrats during this election cycle as the tobacco industry has given Republicans? (“Gore’s Shameless About Posing As A Populist”, National Journal/Atlantic Unbound, Sept. 26) .
September 27-28 — Microsoft wins one. The U.S. Supreme Court has turned down a Justice Department request that it hear the Microsoft case immediately, instead allowing the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case, which is what the company preferred; past D.C. Circuit rulings suggest that it may be more sympathetic to Microsoft’s position than was the trial judge. (“High Court Defers to Microsoft”, AP/Wired News, Sept. 26; Declan McCullagh, “Microsoft gets what it wants”, Wired News, Sept. 26). And a number of courts have thrown out statewide consumer class actions against Microsoft based on the sale of Windows, although this doesn’t really come as much of a surprise in the case of states that bar indirect (end-user) antitrust claims, since cases filed in those courts were always long shots (Jonathan Groner, “The Cases Microsoft Is Winning”, Legal Times (Washington), Sept. 18).
September 27-28 — Bank error in your favor. Latest coins- found- under- the- sofa- cushions class action settlement: Wilmington, Del.-based credit card giant MBNA Corp. agrees to pay $3.57 each to current and former customers to settle claims that its ads were misleading in the early 1990s when they promoted a low interest rate for balances transferred from another card, but did not warn that the low rate did not apply to newly incurred charges. Lawyers for the plaintiff class, meanwhile, are set to pocket $1.3 million. Major credit card companies are frequent targets of class action litigation; Chase Manhattan and Providian Financial have recently settled such actions, and Citibank and Bank One/First USA face pending claims (Joseph N. DiStefano, “MBNA settles suit over card ads”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 26).
September 27-28 — Final innings for Kennewick Man. Score stands at archaeologists 0, multiculturalists 1, as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announces that the 9,000-year-old skeleton found along the Columbia River four years ago will be given to local Indian tribes, who intend to bury the remains without allowing a complete examination. “If Babbitt’s ruling stands, the loss to science is beyond comprehension,” writes National Review Online‘s John Miller (“Kennewick Man’s last stand”, Sept. 26; see also Oct. 11, 1999).
September 25-26 — New data on state campaign contributions. Triallawyermoney.org, the project of the American Tort Reform Foundation that tracks plaintiff lawyers’ political contributions, has just expanded its coverage to include local elections in seven key states as well as federal elections. The states include Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Texas; there is also a link to similar data collected by the Civil Justice Association of California (launched Sept. 19 — “State Races“).
September 25-26 — “Skier to be tried for manslaughter in Colorado in fatal collision”. Although two county courts ruled that a reasonable person would not have expected skiing too fast to result in another person’s death, prosecutors in Denver have insisted on pressing a manslaughter rap against Chico, Calif. college student Nathan Hall, who in 1997, at the age of 18, headed down Vail Mountain and collided with 33-year-old Denverite Alan Cobb on the slope, killing him almost instantly. (AP/CNN, Sept. 11). Update Nov. 21: Hall convicted of criminally negligent homicide.
September 25-26 — Wal-Mart’s tobacco exposure. Through a little-known subsidiary named McLane Co., the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer is the largest distributor of cigarettes to convenience stores, which makes it the biggest handler of that commodity aside from the tobacco companies themselves. Despite Wal-Mart’s deep pockets, plaintiff’s attorneys seem not to have noticed it yet. (Kelly Barron, “Smoking gun”, Forbes, Aug. 21) (see also July 7).
September 25-26 — A job offer for the judge. Following protests from defendants, Judge Edward Angeletti of Baltimore, Maryland Circuit Court removed himself from a series of asbestos-injury cases over which he was presiding and declared a mistrial after it was revealed that he had received a job offer from plaintiff’s attorney and political kingmaker Peter Angelos (see Oct. 19 and Dec. 9, 1999, March 15, 2000). According to AP/CNN, “Angelos has said that he made a ‘very substantial’ offer for Angeletti to head his office’s pursuit of lawsuits against lead paint manufacturers.” Angelos, who has become immensely wealthy through his handling of asbestos litigation, controls about three of every four asbestos cases in the Baltimore court. (“Job offer from lawyer leads judge to step down from asbestos trial”, AP/CNN, Aug. 1; “Judge removes himself from absbestos [sic] trials”, AP/Prince George’s County [Md.] Journal, Aug. 2)
September 25-26 — Kopel on zero-tolerance policies. Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant, & Joanne D. Eisen of the Independence Institute comment on the school zero-tolerance policies under which possession of an obvious toy gun — or sometimes just making a thumb-and-first-finger “gun” gesture — is considered grounds for punishment. (“Gunning for the Kiddies”, National Review Online, Sept. 22).
September 25-26 — Treaties rule. A federal judge in San Francisco has thrown out a lawsuit against Japanese defendants over World War II atrocities. In 1951 we signed a peace agreement with Japan which prohibited exactly these sorts of claims. Now we have to live up to our end of the treaty — period. (Louis Sahagun, “Suit on WWII Slave Labor in Japan Voided”, L.A. Times, Sept. 22; Reuters/FindLaw; see Sept. 20, 1999).
September 22-24 — “N.Y. Lawyer Charged in Immigrant Smuggling”. In a 44-count indictment, federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged the Manhattan lawyer who runs the country’s largest political asylum practice, Harvard Law-educated Robert Porges, with a wide range of offenses including concocting thousands of fictitious stories of persecution by which detained aliens could avoid deportation, advising smugglers how best to avoid detection by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and “helping smugglers detain illegal immigrants until debts were paid.” According to prosecutors, paralegals wrote out longhand accounts of persecution, claiming of women clients, for example, that they had suffered forced abortions under China’s “one-child” policy, and then coached the immigrants on how to carry off the story convincingly. Porges is said to have “collected as much as $13 million in fees for helping to transport as many as 7,000 illegal immigrants from mainland China to the United States”. (Hanna Rosin and Christine Haughney, Washington Post, Sept. 21). Update Sept. 21, 2003: Porges and wife sentenced in 2002 to about eight years.
September 22-24 — RN’s illusions. Ralph Nader campaigns on the theme that anti-business advocates like himself are somehow kept from circulating their message or swaying policy. Is he really so disconnected from reality as to think that? (Sebastian Mallaby, “Victim of His Success”, Washington Post, Sept. 17). Before you get too enthusiastic about the Greens, suggests James Lileks, take a look at their platform: “They want your money, your job, your freedom and your car.” (“A look at Nader and his merry Greens”, San Francisco Examiner, July 14). And since some Nader groups have proposed the setting aside of a new .sucks domain to express discontent with powerful institutions (ibm.sucks, mcdonalds.sucks, etc.) some Seattle libertarians have turned the tables by founding the rudely named but inevitable Nadersucks.org, which bills itself as the largest collection of critical links about him online, outpacing the “Nader Skeleton Closet” feature at Realchange.org.
Other links of note from a Nader-watcher’s scrapbook: Doug Henwood, “1.75 cheers for Ralph”, Left Business Observer, Oct. 1996; discussion on LBO mailing list re RN finances, Sept. 9, 1998; RN denounces tort reform in campaign press release, VoteNader.org, Aug. 11; Robert Bryce, “Naturally Nader”, Austin Chronicle, April 7; Mike Allen, “Nader: The Little Guy’s Multimillionaire” (worth $3.8 million, heavily invested in tech stocks, still refuses to reveal income tax records), Washington Post, June 18; Paul West, “Corporate gadfly turns out to be rich”, Baltimore Sun, June 17; Michael Lewis, “Campaign Journal: The Normal Person of Tomorrow”, The New Republic, May 20, 1996.
September 22-24 — From our mail sack: hyperactive lawyers. Reader Scott Replogle, M.D., writes from Colorado: “I see (Sept. 18) that trial lawyer Richard Scruggs is suing psychiatrists and the makers of the drug Ritalin, alleging they conspired to ‘create’ a disease, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and then overdiagnose it for monetary gain. Which raises the question: when can we sue the people who not too long ago ‘created’ the previously unknown disorders of ‘silicone disease’ and ‘human adjuvant disease’ during the breast-implant controversy, and conspired to overdiagnose those diseases for monetary gain? And does it matter that many of those people were trial lawyers?” (see also April 13, 2001)
September 21 — Missouri tobacco fees. Lawyers stand to make $100 million or more for representing the state of Missouri in the Medicaid-tobacco litigation and the state’s largest newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says that sum “is out of proportion to the work performed and the risk involved … troubling … grossly overpays the lawyers involved … creates an unholy alliance between the state and tobacco interests” It’s also “a political gravy train” since “the five law firms involved in the case donated a total of more than $500,000 in campaign contributions over the past eight years, mostly to Democrats”; a prominent Republican former judge and Democratic former mayor of St. Louis were also cut in. “An important issue of public policy — the lawyers’ fees — will be determined outside the public forum” given that a secret arbitration proceeding will be employed to set the fees. “…It is private money in the public trough. But that doesn’t make the sight of the lawyers lining up to feed any prettier.” (“All aboard the gravy train” (editorial), St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 17).
Brent Evans, a state senate candidate in Missouri, has posted extensive documentation on the circumstances surrounding state attorney general Jay Nixon’s hiring of outside lawyers to prosecute the suit. According to Evans, the lawyers’ campaign contributions of $561,000 included $139,000 for Nixon himself and $113,000 for Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan (“The Tobacco Papers“; the lawyers; their generosity; the work they might have done to justify the fees; “Attorneys mum about how much they’re seeking” (fee request “confidential”), Jefferson City News-Tribune, April 26, 1999; Jack Cashill, “Warning: Tobacco Settlements May Endanger The Integrity of Your Elected Officials” (also discusses Kansas fees), Cashill.com, undated 1999; “Appeals court sides with Nixon on legal fees in tobacco settlement”, Jefferson City News-Tribune, May 31, 2000; James Baughn, The Cape Rock webzine (Cape Girardeau, Mo.), June).
Last year Missouri Digital News reported that Paul Wilson, lead attorney on the matter with AG Nixon’s office, “urged lawmakers to pass legislation that will protect the major tobacco companies from a market-share loss once the impact of the tobacco settlement sets in. Off-brand cigarette companies, those not participating in the settlement, could otherwise undercut the prices of the major tobacco companies. Missouri will keep getting its billions so long as the market share of the signatories does not dip below 95 percent. If it were to do so and Missouri had no off-brand tobacco law, explained Wilson, the terms of the settlement let the major tobacco companies stop paying.” (Anna Brutzman, “Legislators Bewildered By Settlement”, April 4, 1999). Update Oct. 5, 2003: Missouri Supreme Court refuses to entertain challenge to tobacco fees.
September 21 — Dangerous divorce opponents. It’s tough enough going through a divorce in any case, but you’d really better watch out if your spouse is a successful lawyer, according to the New York Post. Advice: try for a change of venue. (Laura Williams, “Attorneys’ Wives Court Disaster”, Sept. 20).
September 21 — Eastwood trial begins. Jurors will hear an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint against the actor’s Mission Ranch hotel in Carmel. For our coverage of the Eastwood case and related Congressional hearings, see May 18, March 7, Feb. 15 and Jan. 26. (“Eastwood to Jurors: ‘Make My Day'”, AP/Fox News, Sept. 20; Shannon Lafferty, “Eastwood in the Line of Fire,” The Recorder/CalLaw, Sept. 21).