Seattle’s best-known plaintiff’s firm gets a huge black eye and is told to pay $10.8 million : “The jury unanimously found Wednesday that lawyers from Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP violated their duty of loyalty to three small water bottlers that in 2003 were close to settling a claim with Nestle Waters North America, the owner of Poland Spring Water Co.” For more about the case, see Mar. 20 and links from there. “Jurors will return to federal court next week to settle the issue of punitive damages.” (“Jury awards more than $10 million in water bottlers’ lawsuit”, AP/Boston Globe, Mar. 23; Vanesso Ho and Mike Lewis, “Seattle law firm told to pay $10.8 million”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mar.24; Lattman, Mar. 24).
“Mutually assured character destruction”: that’s what Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam says to expect from a trial that started March 7 in Portland, Me. federal court that pits some of the country’s better-known members of the plaintiff’s bar against each other. Among the cast of characters: Jan Schlichtmann, of “A Civil Action” fame, Steve Berman of Seattle-based Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, and Massachusetts tobacco litigator Thomas Sobol of the same firm, and Alabama’s Garve Ivey. At issue is whether lawyers breached legal ethics or sold out the interests of class members in their sharp-elbowed maneuvers to control the process of litigation and reach a lucrative settlement with Poland Spring’s parent company, Nestle. Also testifying is celebrity enviro-pol Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who had signed up a water company he controls as one of the plaintiffs — gee, who knew RFK Jr. was tied in with hotshot plaintiff’s lawyers? (Alex Beam, “An uncivil action in Maine”, Mar. 8; Gregory D. Kesich, “Water bottlers in court to recoup lost settlement”, Portland Press Herald, Mar. 8; “Law firm’s handling of Poland Spring case at issue in trial”, AP/Boston Globe, Mar. 8; Gregory D. Kesich, “Water case puts lawyers’ ethics on trial”, Portland Press Herald, Mar. 10; “Witnesses tell of how Nestle case fell apart”, Mar. 17). The trial is expected to conclude this week. For more on the Poland Spring class actions, see Sept. 10, 2003, Feb. 2, 2004 and Jun. 25, 2004.
Specifically, Seattle attorney Steve Berman (Nov. 24, 2003 and links therein), on behalf of a Louisiana man, accuses Apple of selling a “defective” product because it can cause hearing loss if one turns up music to maximum volume using headphones. The lawsuit, filed in San Jose, seeks class action status, even though each member of the putative class will come to the table with different pre-existing knowledge about audio safety and different usage patterns for their device. (Many iPod users don’t use headphones at all.) Each iPod comes with a warning that “permanent hearing loss may occur if earphones or headphones are used at high volume,” but, of course, the lawsuit alleges that the warning is insufficient. The plaintiff, John Kiel Patterson, doesn’t even claim that his hearing has been damaged, thus making it a typical “Harm-Less Lawsuit.” (Dan Goodin, AP/Yahoo, Feb. 1, h/t W.F.)
Update: a pdf copy of the complaint.
Class-action lawyers including Seattle’s Hagens Berman (Feb. 16, Mar. 6 and Mar. 29, 2004; Nov. 24, 2003; Sept. 9-10, 2002, etc.) sued Apple last week in the name of buyers of the popular iPod, claiming the nano screen on the device tends to scratch easily and become unreadable. They are seeking remedies including a refund of moneys paid “plus a share of the company’s profits on the music player’s sales”. (“Nano Owners Sue Apple”, Red Herring, Oct. 20; Ina Fried, “Suit filed over Nano scratches”, CNet, Oct. 21).
Attorney General Christine Gregoire of Washington, a leading figure in brokering the 1998 tobacco settlement that ensured cartel-based profits for big tobacco companies and gigantic fees for the lawyers who sued them, is now in a close race for governor of the state. Very helpfully, she’s getting political contributions (via the Democratic Governors Association) from plaintiff’s-side lawyers such as Richard Scruggs, Joseph Rice and Steve Berman who were made exceedingly rich by the settlement, and who’ve given more than $1 million to the DGA in the space of a month. And another grateful contributor to the DGA is the lawyer who represented … Philip Morris. Isn’t it great when people can get along? (Ralph Thomas and Andrew Garber, “Out-of-state donors feed Gregoire fund”, Seattle Times, Oct. 28). For more, see Oct. 11, 2004, and Jul. 17 and Sept. 13-14, 2000.
Pressured by University of Wisconsin officials and by a federal campaign against underage and binge drinking, 24 taverns near the university’s Madison campus agreed voluntarily a year and a half ago to stop cheap-drink promotions on weekends. Can you guess the sequel? A Minneapolis law firm has now swooped down with a class-action antitrust suit filed on behalf of three named UW-Madison students. The suit accuses the taverns of unlawful restraint of trade and demands what it says could be tens of millions of dollars in treble damages on behalf of “the victims of price fixing — basically anyone who patronized the downtown taverns on Friday or Saturday nights and paid full price”. It also names the university and the Madison-Dane County Tavern League. Not being sued, apparently, is the federal government, even though the bars’ agreement to limit weekend drink specials came about “as part of the federally funded PACE project. PACE, which stands for Policy, Alternatives, Community and Education, is in the seventh year of a comprehensive campus-community partnership designed to reduce the negative consequences of high-risk drinking.” (Mike Ivey and Aaron Nathans, “Students sue 24 campus bars”, Capital Times (Madison), Mar. 24). In other campus-drinking-related news, the Milwaukee paper reported last month that Seattle’s Hagens Berman and other law firms who are gearing up big courtroom campaigns against brewers and distillers (see Feb. 16, Dec. 1) were likely to try a demonization campaign against Budweiser’s talking frog and similar marketing devices akin to the successful campaign to demonize R.J. Reynolds’s Joe Camel mascot (Tom Daykin, “Beer may suffer the Joe Camel effect”, Feb. 21). Plus: Vice Squad has more (Mar. 29)(& welcome Reason “Hit & Run” readers). Update May 2, 2005: judge dismisses Madison tavern case after defendants spend $250,000.
In other grocery lawsuit news: you may remember back in December that a single Canadian cow was found to have mad cow disease, and as a safety precaution, tens of thousands of pounds of beef were voluntarily recalled in addition to the 10,510 pounds the USDA ordered recalled. Well, it seems that a Seattle-area woman, Jill Crowson, is bringing a class action against supermarket chain QFC. Says the suit, it wasn’t enough for QFC to merely pull the meat from its shelves, post signs, and make public announcements; even though coverage of the lone mad cow dominated headlines for a week, QFC should also have taken the individual step of contacting customers who purchased beef to warn them–and presumably have managed to accomplish this instantaneously on Christmas Eve, since QFC learned about the beef on December 24 and Ms. Crowson ate it on December 25.
Now, it’s exceedingly unlikely that Ms. Crowson or her family has suffered any injury from her Christmas-day tacos. First, it’s unlikely that Ms. Crowson had any meat from the infected cow; second, it’s extremely unlikely (and there is no evidence) that one will contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease from the muscle meat of a cow (the real danger is the relatively unpopular brain and spinal cord); third, even those who do eat infected brain and spinal tissue are unlikely to contract vCJD, which has stricken 150 people out of the millions exposed worldwide. Ms. Crowson probably suffered more risk driving to and from the grocery store or her lawyer’s office. Nevertheless, she wishes damages for the ”stress and fear” of vCJD–though if such longshot risks cause her such anxiety, one would think she would do more due diligence in life. (Lewis Kamb, “QFC says it acted appropriately in beef recall”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mar. 6; “Seattle family sues grocery chain over mad cow claim”, AP, Mar. 6; Kyung M. Song, “Clyde Hill woman sues QFC over suspect meat”, Seattle Times, Mar. 6; complaint; QFC statement).
Piling on in search of a Next Tobacco: “A lawsuit filed in Los Angeles [earlier this month] against the world’s two biggest brewers accuses the beer makers of advertising to minors and seeks $4 billion in disgorgement of profit.” The suit, filed by Seattle’s Hagens Berman, whose doings are oft chronicled in this space (see Sept. 9-10, 2002 and links from there, Nov. 24) targets Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller. It invokes California’s distinctively abuse-prone s. 17200 law (see Dec. 8), as well as a California law which bans alcohol advertising intended to encourage underage drinking. (Ira Teinowitz, “$4 Billion Lawsuit Filed Against Beer Giants”, Advertising Age, Feb. 4) (lawsuit website/complaint in PDF format). Two months ago, lawyers led by David Boies filed a would-be class action against a number of alcohol companies over alleged youth marketing (see Dec. 1)
Trial lawyers are hoping to turn California’s endlessly abused and abusive s. 17200 “unfair competition” law (Oct. 26, etc.) to rich new account by using it to sue pharmaceutical companies over a variety of marketing practices that the U.S. Congress and Food and Drug Administration have not seen fit to ban. The Ralph Nader operation is helping out, while the litigation effort is being handled by Seattle trial lawyer and tobacco-caper veteran Steve Berman of Hagens & Berman (see Sept. 9-10, 2002 and links from there). (Bernadette Tansey, “Citizens use law to pursue drug firms”, San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 23; plaintiff’s site (“Prescription Access Litigation”). Update: see Point of Law, Nov. 8, 2004.