Newsweek, as is typical for a newsweekly, published only a terse editorial response (see previous post) to the litigation lobby’s concerted attack on its reporting. However, Stuart Taylor, Jr., the distinguished veteran journalist who (with Evan Thomas) was principal author of the feature, has kindly consented to let us reprint his more detailed point-by-point rebuttal to ATLA’s official gripe catalogue, published under the title “Spin or Facts? A Look Behind Newsweek’s Series ‘Lawsuit Hell’“. Because of the length of Taylor’s response, we’ve split it into two posts, the first responding to the first six points of ATLA’s critique and the second responding to the rest. Check out in particular, under heading #6, ATLA’s false (and remarkably brazen) assertion that the Tillinghast study’s $233 billion estimate of the cost of the liability insurance sector includes “the cost of the entire property/casualty insurance industry” and in particular the cost of hurricanes and similar damage. (It doesn’t.)
Newsweek policy states that the “My Turn” reader-submitted essays should not be “framed as a response to a Newsweek story”, but the December 22 issue features precisely such a piece from Linda McDougal. The article includes almost verbatim the half-facts from ATLA’s press packet that we refuted earlier (see Dec. 12).
A final irony: McDougal concludes her essay with “I also know that if all those who want to restrict the legal rights of ordinary citizens have their way, I wouldn’t have waited seven months for an apology from the doctors, which I got only after my story became public. I would have waited forever.” I’ll leave aside the fact that many ordinary citizens are victims of societally harmful tort lawsuits (see, e.g., Feb. 7, 2000). Has McDougal considered that perhaps the reason that the doctors waited to apologize for a mistaken mastectomy until after she went public was because they were afraid that the apology would be used against them in a lawsuit? (Linda McDougal, “My Turn: I Trust Juries?and Americans Like You”, Newsweek, Dec. 22).
The “Civil Wars” author, Stuart Taylor, was confronted with a series of questions pulled from the same ATLA press release McDougal used, and responded to them in an on-line chat. (Stuart S. Taylor, MSNBC on-line chat, Dec. 11).
Sidenote: we covered a lawsuit of a Pennsylvania parents who sued their school board because their 13-year-old daughter was suspended for a consensual sex act on a school bus (see Sep. 19). Newsweek, in its story, mentioned a superficially similar Kentucky case that involved an alleged sexual assault of a 14-year-old on a school bus, resulting in criticism from McDougal and ATLA, but also going to show that Newsweek only scratched the surface of the problem by dint of its space-limited selections for the story.
The American Trial Lawyers Association is engaging in a campaign to discredit the recent Newsweek cover story (see Dec. 8) on litigation abuses. Their “fact sheet” is riddled with half-truths, however.
For example, ATLA’s response to Newsweek’s anecdote about the Reverend Singleton is “no cause of action for clergy malpractice (ie: negligent counseling) exists in South Carolina.” The response is disingenuous: first, plaintiffs’ attorneys regularly bring lawsuits to try to create a cause of action for clergy malpractice (see, e.g., this ATLA member law firm that advertises that it has “recover[ed] large verdicts and substantial settlements” in clergy malpractice cases; perhaps your Yellow Pages has a similar ad?); while courts have generally rejected “clergy malpractice”, they frequently let identical causes of action go forward under a “breach of fiduciary trust” theory. (Gerald J. Russello, “New Jersey Supreme Court Recognizes Tort Action Against Clergy”, Federalist Society, Spring 1998). Second, Rev. Singleton spoke of the fear of being sued for inappropriate contact, not clergy malpractice.
ATLA also repeatedly pooh-poohs other pieces of the Newsweek story with variations of the following statement: “Under the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997, volunteers for non-profit organizations or government programs around the country — even those dealing with children – cannot be held responsible for their negligence.” Notice the precise language “cannot be held responsible for their negligence.” What ATLA doesn’t say is that, to get around the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997, all a trial lawyer needs to do is add a single word to the complaint: the Act provides no immunity for allegations of “gross negligence.” While the legal standard is technically different for “gross negligence” than for “negligence”, few defendants are willing to bear the risk of a jury making that distinction, especially given the potentially bankrupting effect of punitive damages. This site has identified numerous lawsuits (e.g., Nov. 16 and Sep. 15) where volunteers or sponsors of non-profit activities continue to be sued.
ATLA also defends itself by noting “The McDonald’s obesity cases were dismissed.” Will ATLA take a public stance against future fast food obesity suits? Not likely: a September 16, 2002 column by ATLA President David S. Casey asked the public to withhold judgment on the McDonald’s lawsuit until we “have all the facts”; the later (but undated) official statement of ATLA President Mary E. Alexander was similarly neutral.
Newsweek has a new cover story (“Civil Wars”, Dec. 15) on “Lawsuit Hell”, with sidebars on what litigation is doing to schools, medicine, and municipal governance (Chicago), with balance from Sen. John Edwards. The good news to report is that it’s a superior package, no surprise since one of the lead writers is Stuart Taylor Jr. (writing with Evan Thomas). The less good news is that although many of the colorful cases cited will seem, um, familiar to our readers (see Nov. 26), this website wound up not getting mentioned in the final draft. (Maybe someone will recommend us in a letter to the editor). NBC/MSNBC is doing related broadcast features all week, and the authors will be taking part in a live Web discussion on Thursday 12/11 at 11 a.m. EST.
And it’s a busy week on the newsstands, since our friend Bill Tucker has a cover story in the new (Dec. 15) Weekly Standard entitled “In Defense (sort of) of Trial Lawyers”. We disagree with quite a bit of it, as you can imagine, but it does give us a couple of nice mentions, which counts for a lot, no?
March 10-11 — “Burglars to be banned from suing victims”. United Kingdom: “Burglars who are injured while committing a crime are to banned from suing their victims for compensation. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has bowed to public pressure after the outcry over the case of Brendon Fearon, the burglar who is trying to sue Tony Martin for £15,000 after being shot while breaking into his home.” (David Bamber, Daily Telegraph, Mar. 9). (DURABLE LINK)
March 10-11 — Clear Channel = Deep Pocket. “With damage claims in the Rhode Island fire expected to run up to $1 billion, two lawyers representing victims have set their sights on a potential defendant with very deep pockets: Clear Channel Communications. The broadcasting giant owns WHJY-FM, a Providence radio station that ran ads for the Great White concert at The Station that ended moments into the first song when pyrotechnics set off by the band ignited the nation’s fourth-deadliest fire. A popular disc jockey at WHJY, Michael Gonsalves, introduced Great White and was among the 99 who died in the fire or from injuries suffered in the blaze. The two Providence lawyers, who between them represent about a dozen victims, said yesterday their expected lawsuits will almost certainly name Clear Channel as a defendant. The company, the largest operator of radio stations in the country, has assets that far outstrip those of the 14 defendants who were named in the only lawsuit filed so far.” (Jonathan Saltzman, “R.I. fire victims’ lawyers eye firm”, Boston Globe, Mar. 8). (DURABLE LINK)
March 10-11 — New Medicare drug benefit? Link it to product liability reform. “Even drugs like aspirin, which cause hundreds of deaths each year, could not meet the safety standards patients expect today,” argues Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute. ” … But putting [older] patients on the pills they need means we need to prepare to tolerate more side effects or tolerate more lawsuits. Litigation should not be a cost of commerce when government puts itself in the business of pushing pills. … Without product liability reform, prescription drug coverage will transform into a full employment act for the lawyers, limiting development of new drugs and driving up prices for everybody.” (Scott Gottlieb, “More Drug Use Will Mean More Lawsuits,” AEI On the Issues, Mar.). (DURABLE LINK)
March 10-11 — Lawsuits vs. free speech, cont’d: jailhouse rock. Last year VH1 aired a special entitled Music Behind Bars, featuring the music of prisoners. Now the family of a West Virginia man murdered in 1994 by one of the inmate-performers is suing the network. The family’s lawyers are arguing that whether or not the network compensated the convicted killer for his performance — it says it did not — its broadcast occasioned the family emotional distress for which it should have to pay compensatory and punitive damages. (Maria Lehner, “Murder Victim’s Family Sues VH1”, Fox News, Mar. 6). (DURABLE LINK)
March 8-9 — Tobacco fees: feds indict former Texas AG. One of the biggest developments yet in the tobacco-fee saga: a federal grand jury is charging former Texas attorney general Dan Morales and his friend Marc Murr with conspiracy and mail fraud over Morales’s attempt to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in fees for Murr from the state’s tobacco settlement. More recently, Morales has suggested that he might be able to furnish information that would throw in question the fee entitlements of five politically influential trial lawyers who managed the state’s case (R. G. Ratcliffe and Clay Robison, “Former Attorney General Dan Morales indicted”, Houston Chronicle, Mar. 6; April Castro, “Ex-Attorney General Morales Indicted”, AP/Washington Post, Mar. 6; “Former Texas Attorney General Surrenders”, AP/ABC News, Mar. 7). For earlier coverage, see Jul. 15, 2002 and links from there; Jan. 10-12, 2003. (DURABLE LINK)
March 8-9 — Should have watched his step answering call of nature. Update: an appeals court in the Australian state of New South Wales has overturned the $60,000 judgment (see Mar. 5, 2002) awarded to Paul Jackson, who after a night drinking with friends walked home along a highway and “stepped over a low guard rail in order to urinate, not realising there was a drop of several metres.” The “plaintiff was not taking reasonable care for his own safety as he was obliged to do,” the justices said. (“That’s a long drop”, Sydney Morning Herald, Mar. 5; “Wee change in fortune for Wollongong man”, Aust. Broadcasting Corp., Mar. 5). (DURABLE LINK)
March 5-7 — Update: hospital rapist’s suit dismissed. Sandusky, Ohio: “A judge has dismissed the $2 million lawsuit filed by a convicted rapist who claimed the hospital where he sexually assaulted a woman was negligent because it didn’t prevent the crime, according to court records.” ((Richard Payerchin, “Ruling: Convict responsible for his own crime”, Lorain Morning Journal, Feb. 20)(see May 22-23, 2002). (DURABLE LINK)
March 5-7 — Stuart Taylor, Jr., on lead paint litigation. At his most scathing: “[O]ne group deserves a special niche in the annals of those who have perverted the legal system for personal and political gain at the expense of everyone else: the politically connected trial lawyers who have signed up Rhode Island, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, and dozens of other governments, school districts, and housing authorities to sue over health hazards associated with sales of lead pigment and paint for indoor use. The last of those sales took place more than 45 years ago.” With details on the unusual “retainer agreement” with which former Rhode Island AG Sheldon Whitehouse signed over the state’s sovereign authority to two influential private law firms: “It not only guaranteed the lawyers a contingent fee of 16.67 percent of any money recovered, plus all litigation expenses; it also gave them considerable control over whom to sue, what to claim, whether to settle, and on what terms.” (Stuart Taylor Jr., “Perverting the Legal System: The Lead-Paint Rip-Off”, National Journal/The Atlantic, Feb. 19) (DURABLE LINK)
March 5-7 — Incoming link of the day. From the website of a Fort Worth, Texas cardiology practice: “We do not provide ANY email advice regarding medical issues. DO NOT contact us by email with clinical questions. The email addresses above are for business correspondence only. For some insight as to why, click here.” (DURABLE LINK)
March 5-7 — $6 million fee request knocked down to $25,000. Ouch! An appeals court in El Paso has upheld a trial judge’s decision to “award a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers $25,000 in attorney fees instead of the nearly $6 million they sought under a contingent-fee contract.” However, the attorneys, led by brothers Stephen F. Malouf and E. Wayne Malouf, are unlikely to go hungry; they’ve apparently obtained upwards of $2 million in fees from other aspects of the case, a complex litigation over oil rights. (Brenda Sapino Jeffreys, “Appeals Court Says Trial Judge Had Discretion to Reduce Fees”, Texas Lawyer, Feb. 26). (DURABLE LINK)
March 4 — “The Tort Tax”. “According to a new study by Tillinghast-Towers Perrin, the total cost of the U.S. tort system reached $205.4 billion in 2001, an increase of 14.3% over the previous year — far faster than the rate of economic growth. This is like a tax of 2% on everything in the American economy that takes $721 per year out of the pockets of every citizen.” Also cites a certain “excellent website that, unfortunately, I find too depressing to read regularly”. (Bruce Bartlett, syndicated/National Review Online, Mar. 3). (DURABLE LINK)
March 4 — Thrill of the chase. NYC: “A half-dozen personal-injury lawyers were charged [last week] in a scam that allowed a network of corrupt hospital employees to do the ambulance-chasing for them, authorities said. In at least three hospitals — Elmhurst, New York Presbyterian and Lincoln — emergency-room workers sold the attorneys confidential medical records of car-accident victims, evaluating the sales potential of the information as doctors were evaluating the patients for treatments, authorities said. Officials were clued in on the scheme — which ran for seven years — by a hospital employee after patients began complaining about calls at home from strangers who knew a lot about their medical conditions, according to Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.” (Tom Perrotta, “Personal Injury Lawyers Indicted for Soliciting Scam”, New York Law Journal, Feb. 27; Laura Italiano, “Lawyers Charged in Hosp. E.R. Scam”, New York Post, Feb. 27). (DURABLE LINK)
March 4 — “Edwards doesn’t tell whole story”. In stump speeches since the outset of his political career, Sen. John Edwards has invoked the case of little Ethan Bedrick, a cerebral palsy victim, as emblematic of “the kids and families I’ve fought for.” One reporter was curious to learn more about Bedrick’s case, but Edwards’s campaign press secretary “told me if I wanted to know any details, I should ‘look it up.”’ So she did. It turns out Edwards’ firm obtained a settlement, often described as being for $5 million, of a lawsuit charging that asphyxiation during delivery caused Ethan’s disability. Edwards’s speech picks up the story only later, when Ethan’s family battled a health insurer to obtain needed therapy (Lynn Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 27) (& see letter to the editor, Mar. 31). (DURABLE LINK)
March 3 — By reader acclaim: “Man who threw dog into traffic sues dog’s former owner”. “A man who threw a dog to its death in a fit of road rage is suing the dog’s former owner and a newspaper, alleging mental anguish and seeking more than $1 million in damages. … [Andrew] Burnett was sentenced in July 2001 to three years in jail in the death of Leo, a bichon frise whose owner tapped Burnett’s bumper in rainy-day traffic in February 2000 near the San Jose Airport. Burnett threw the little dog into traffic before driving off.” (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 28; Dan Reed, “Leo the dog’s killer claims mental anguish in suit”, San Jose Mercury News, Feb. 28). (DURABLE LINK)
March 3 — Update: Lockyer sues complaint mill. Following a continuing furor in California (see Jan. 15-16) about entrepreneurial lawyers’ practice of filing assembly-line complaints against thousands of small businesses, which then are informed that they must pay thousands of dollars to get the charges dropped, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer has announced that he is suing the most-publicized such law firm, Trevor Law Group, under the same unfair-business-practices law that it employs in its complaints. “Trevor Law Group operates a shakedown operation designed to extract attorneys’ fees from law-abiding small businesses,” Lockyer said. “They’ve abused one of the state’s most important consumer protection statutes and dishonored attorneys who practice law in the public interest. There’s some delicious irony in turning the weapon around and using it on them.” (Monte Morin, “State Accuses Law Firm of Extortion”, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 27; Dan Walters, “In ironic twist, law firm finds itself on other end of suit”, Sacramento Bee, Mar. 3). See also Jessica V. Brice, “Wave of lawsuits threatens 70-year-old consumer law”, AP/Sacramento Bee, Jan. 21). (DURABLE LINK)
March 20 — Kids’ art on walls ruled a fire hazard. In what might be a bit of an overreaction to the recent deadly nightclub blaze in West Warwick, R.I., the Fire Department and building inspector of Attleboro, Mass. “sent word this month to the public schools: From now on, zero tolerance for breaking fire codes. Those bright-colored handprints and cheery stick figures have got to come down from the walls.” School board member Richard Correia “wonders, in this cautionary age, what might be next to go. ‘What do we do about our children who hang their coats in those little closets?’ Correia said. ‘Are they fire retardant?'” (Joanna Weiss, “Does future of art ed hang on safety”, Boston Globe, Mar. 12). (DURABLE LINK)
March 20 — Florida: “New clout of trial lawyers unnerves legislators”. Trial lawyers have built a position of powerful influence in the Florida legislature, in particular by “[s]upporting Republicans who have shown an appreciation for the civil justice system”, as a trial lawyer official puts it. In what Gov. Jeb Bush called “kind of a breath-taking example of their power”, the president of the state senate couldn’t even get a hearing in his own chamber for one of his major priorities, a bill to limit pain-and-suffering damages in fast-growing litigation against nursing homes (see Mar. 19). Limits on medical malpractice suits may be doomed in the state as well (Alisa Ulferts and Michael Sandler, St. Petersburg Times, Mar. 17). (DURABLE LINK)
March 19 — Jury clears Bayer in cholesterol-drug case. In perhaps the most widely watched product liability trial of the year so far, the New York Times may have bought the plaintiff’s lawyers’ case, but a Corpus Christi jury didn’t, and awarded $0.00 instead of the requested $560 million. Just another 8,400 plaintiffs to go, of whom the “vast majority”, according to Bayer’s lawyer, are not in fact injured (“Jury Clears Bayer of Liability in Baycol Suit”, AP/Quicken, Mar. 18; “Bayer lawyer: Most Baycol plaintiffs not injured”, Reuters/Forbes, Mar. 18) (DURABLE LINK)
March 19 — $12,000 a bed. “Nursing homes [in some states] now pay close to $12,000 per bed annually on liability insurance, according to [a new] report [by AON Risk Consultants].” Nationally, liability costs per bed grew from an average of $300 annually a decade ago to $1,120 in 1997 and $2,880 in 2002, according to the study. Defenders of rising litigation say it provides long-overdue recourse against bad care, but the former administrator of the recently closed Gadsden Nursing Home in Quincy. Florida, doesn’t buy the idea that only poorly run homes can expect to be sued. “‘We were ranked 51st out of 668 homes in the state the day we closed. If you’re ranked in the top 7.5%, you’re not a bad home,’ he said.” (Reuters Health, “Legal liability costs surge for US nursing homes”, Mar. 14). (DURABLE LINK)
March 18 — Would you go into medicine again? “Then there is the issue of so-called malpractice — a rapidly growing income-transfer system from doctors to lawyers that, quite apart from its toll on doctors, gives injured parties ever-diminishing shares of the proceeds. … [T]here must be a system for removing from practice those physicians who are guilty of multiple errors. (As I know from my service on the D.C. Medical Society’s disciplinary committee, this is now, ironically, made exceedingly difficult by the threat of suit from those under scrutiny.)” (Devra Marcus, “I’m a Doctor, Not an Adversarial Unit of the Health Care Industry”, Washington Post, Mar. 16). (DURABLE LINK)
March 18 — “Runaway asbestos litigation — why it’s a medical problem”. One doctor’s view of the morass (Lawrence Martin, M.D., MtSinai.org, Nov. 18, 2002. The site relates to Cleveland’s former Mt. Sinai hospital, not the one in New York). (DURABLE LINK)
March 17 — Australian roundup. Sued if you do, sued if you don’t dept.: “A netball star banned from playing because she was pregnant was awarded $6750 yesterday for hurt, humiliation and loss of match payments. … Netball Australia excluded any pregnant women from playing because of fears of legal action over injuries to mothers or unborn babies.” (Ellen Connolly, “Banned pregnant netballer wins damages for discrimination”, AAP/Sydney Morning Herald, Mar. 14). “A woman whose little finger was cut while working on a processing line at a doughnut factory has been awarded damages of [A]$467,000”. (Leonie Lamont, “Cut little finger reaps $467,000 damages”, Sydney Morning Herald, Mar. 12). “Non-lawyers are constantly baffled by legal decisions that seem to have little to do with reality, let alone justice,” opines commentator Evan Whitton, offering some examples from the Down Under legal scene (“The law of diminishing reality”, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 12). (DURABLE LINK)
March 17 — Steering the evidence: an update. Forbes follows up on the episode described in our May 23 and June 26, 2000 posts: “In June 2000 a judge found that three Texas lawyers (or someone they hired) had tampered with evidence in a $2 billion suit blaming Chrysler for a deadly car crash. The judge slapped the San Antonio lawyers with nearly $1 million in sanctions — one of the largest such penalties in memory. Last August an appellate court called the lawyers’ conduct ‘an egregious example of the worst kind of abuse of the legal system.’ And now the FBI is investigating the trio’s actions.
“What’s happened to the lawyers? Not much. Two are still practicing in Texas and the third moved out of the country. Only $289,000 of the penalty has been paid to Chrysler.” (Joann Muller, “Crass Actions”, Forbes, Mar. 31).(& update Jun. 10). (DURABLE LINK)
March 15-16 — “Public deceit protects lawsuit abuse”. The Pennsylvania Medical Society excoriates Nader’s Public Citizen for putting out a report on the Keystone state malpractice situation that the physicians say was marred by such basic errors as double and triple counting (legislative testimony, society president Edward H. Dench, Jr., MD, Mar. 5; press release, U.S. Newswire/ Boston.com, Mar. 5). We regret to inform the good docs that it seems to be a hopeless task — you can expose Public Citizen’s output as shoddy as frequently as you like, but much of the media will go right on treating it as gospel. And Radley Balko looks at the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups — which cooperate with the rest of the Nader empire in fighting litigation reform — reminding us of just how disreputably the PIRGs get their money (“Public Shakedown Artist”, TechCentralStation.com, Mar. 3). Mickey Kaus also comments (scroll to Mar. 13). Update: more flak for the PIRGs’ New York affiliate, NYPIRG (David E. Seidemann, “Scrutinizing the Nader Legacy”, Health Facts & Fears (American Council on Science and Health), Mar. 2, 2004) (via Megan McArdle). (DURABLE LINK)
March 15-16 — Class action lawyer takes $20 million from defendant’s side. Eyebrows arch as mass-tort lawyer Joe Rice, best known for the tobacco caper, cuts a deal in which Swiss-owned asbestos defendant ABB agrees to pay him $20 million personally for settling his clients’ pending claims against ABB subsidiary Combustion Engineering; Rice will also, of course, receive a contingency share of what the clients get (Alex Berenson, “Class-Action Lawyer’s Fee Under Scrutiny”, New York Times, Mar. 12). (DURABLE LINK)
March 12-14 — “Automakers may stop leasing vehicles in N.Y.” Major automakers and lenders are pulling out of the auto-lease business in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, where laws allow leasing companies to be sued (in their role as titular owners) after a driver of one of their cars gets into an accident. (Kenn Peters, Syracuse Post-Standard, Mar. 11). “General Motors Acceptance Corp. notified dealers [in January] that it will quit buying leases in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island later this year unless those states change their ‘vicarious liability’ laws, which is unlikely.” (Jim Henry, “GMAC may end leases in three states”, Automotive News, Jan. 15). New York’s state senate has passed a bill repealing the doctrine, but it is given little chance of success in the trial-lawyer-dominated Assembly. Already many lease providers have hiked consumer fees by $600 or so in the high-liability states, a change that affects a large number of consumers, since around a third of cars sold are leased. Trial lawyers are the main power defending the vicarious laws. See also “Repeal sought of 18th-century doctrine affecting car leasing”, AP/Stanford Advocate, Mar. 10; Amy Forliti, “Lender’s pullout hurts R.I. leasing business”, AP/Boston Globe, Feb. 25. For our earlier coverage, see Aug. 26, 2002. (& see update May 21: Honda, GM, Ford, Chase all announce pullouts)
In another ambitious application of vicarious liability, the city of Detroit has argued — and a Michigan appeals court has agreed — that it can go after Ford Credit in court to collect unpaid parking tickets of drivers who lease through Ford; the ruling does however require case-by-case hearings on who was in control of the vehicles at the time of the infractions (“Appeals Court OKs Hearings Over $1M Unpaid Parking Tickets From Ford Credit Leased Vehicles”, Detroit News/Automotive Digest, Jan. 7; Robert Lane, “Ford Can Be Held Vicariously Responsible For Parking Fines”, Blue Oval News, Feb. 4) (via WSJ Best of the Web, Feb. 4). (DURABLE LINK)
March 12-14 — Sports mascots litigation. ESPN does a roundup, noting that the giant stuffed animals and other mascots “spend an inordinate amount of time in the courtroom” (Patrick Hruby, “Page Two: The seedier side of fur and fun” — see “Mascot Court Report” sidebar, Feb. 12). (DURABLE LINK)
March 31 — Gun-suit thoughts. Our editor has contributed an op-ed to the New York Sun outlining his view that the NAACP’s lawsuit against gunmakers (which went to trial last week amid a flurry of favorable press notices; see Mar. 24) is plenty lame and derives its only real vitality from having been filed before a favorable judge (Walter Olson, “Gun Lawsuit Meets Activist Judge”, New York Sun, Mar. 26). On an unrelated note, the House Judiciary Committee has asked our editor to discuss federal pre-emption of anti-gunmaker litigation at a hearing this Wednesday before the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law (Rayburn HOB 2141, 10 a.m.) (DURABLE LINK)
March 31 — Teachers afraid. “Educators in Baltimore County and beyond say the threat of lawsuits prevents administrators from backing their punishment of disorderly or dishonest students.” One of the more thorough explorations of this topic we’ve seen recently (Jonathan D. Rockoff, “Teachers say the law adds to disorder in classroom”, Baltimore Sun, Mar. 23) (via Joanne Jacobs). (DURABLE LINK)
March 31 — Some reader letters. We’ve fallen lamentably behind in publishing readers’ letters. Here’s a batch of four, on terrorism suits against foreign entities, Sen. Edwards and cerebral palsy, one New Jersey judge’s dismissal of a playground lawsuit, and an unwelcome (to us) advertising intrusion into our newsletter. Quite a few other letters remain in our pipeline — we’ll try to get to them soon. (DURABLE LINK)
March 25-30 — Fast food opinion roundup. “The word “addiction” is perilously close to losing any meaning. If lawyers can turn fast food into an addiction and pin liability on restaurants, it won’t be long before adulterers sue Sports Illustrated, claiming its swimsuit issue led them astray.” (Sally Satel, “Fast food ‘addiction’ feeds only lawyers”, USA Today, Mar. 12, reprinted at AEI site). One 270-lb., 5-foot-6 plaintiff “said her regular diet included an Egg McMuffin for breakfast and a Big Mac meal for dinner”, but Chris Rangel at RangelMD concludes that the calorie count doesn’t add up — the only way you could get up to 270 pounds would be by consuming a whole lot more food than that. (RangelMD, Feb. 23). “Big Food stands charged with making the plaintiffs fat, notes Howard Fienberg in a review of a fairly dreadful-sounding book on the much-ballyhooed obesity epidemic. Yet “Grocery stores are easily accessible for most Americans. …. Healthy choices are everywhere.” (“Supersize Nation?”, AmericasFuture.org, Winter). As expected, attorney Samuel Hirsch has re-filed his suit against McDonald’s (John Lehmann, “McFatties Bite Back”, New York Post, Feb. 20). “And now, Hirsch tells Newsweek, he’s targeting companies selling weight-loss products such as herbal supplements. Within weeks, he says, his law firm will begin placing ads in magazines to invite clients who bought the products but failed to lose weight to join a class-action lawsuit.” (Daniel McGinn, Newsweek, Feb. 10). See also “Tobacco-war lawyers taking aim at fast food”, Sacramento Bee, Feb. 24; Duane Freese, “Frankensuits”, Tech Central Station, Feb. 27.
March 25-30 — “How a lawyer blew the whistle on a judge”. “It was the most distasteful thing I ever had to do in my life” said Joel Persky of his decision to turn in Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph A. Jaffe, who offered favorable rulings in Persky’s asbestos cases in exchange for a cash quid pro quo (see Sept. 3, 2002). Had Persky merely ignored the judge’s overtures, according to one “seasoned” lawyer, he might have been laying himself open to legal malpractice charges. “Jaffe, 52, pleaded guilty last month to extorting money from Persky and will be sentenced May 16. Jaffe has qualified for a temporary, $60,000 a year disability from the State Employees’ Retirement System because he is depressed. The system’s board of trustees will vote on whether to award the money in March.” (Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mar. 2). (DURABLE LINK)
March 25-30 — Gone for a few days. The site will lie fallow while our editor gives several speeches to promote his new book. See you Monday. (DURABLE LINK)
March 24 — Mad County pays out again. “A judge in Madison County, Ill., ordered Philip Morris USA Inc. to pay $10.1 billion in a class-action lawsuit that claimed the tobacco giant misled smokers about the dangers of light cigarettes.” Circuit Judge Nicholas G. Byron “gave the plaintiffs’ lawyers a quarter of the compensatory damages, or nearly $1.8 billion.” (“Philip Morris Hit With $10.1B Verdict in Illinois Case, Dow Jones/Quicken, Mar. 21; Trisha Howard and Paul Hampel, “Tobacco firm lawyer derides court’s reputation”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mar. 22; related stories; Sherri Day, “Philip Morris Faces Big Penalty”, New York Times, Mar. 22). Madison County, Ill. is located east of St. Louis (map); its main cities include Alton, Edwardsville and Granite City. For more on its fame as a “plaintiff’s paradise” and “judicial hellhole” for defendants, see notes below, including work sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, with which our editor is associated. (Update Apr. 2-3: Philip Morris says it is unable to post appeals bond; more updates.)
MORE ON MADISON COUNTY: “Study finds Madison County has most class action suits per capita”, AP, Sept. 11, 2001; Jim Getz, “Class-Action Suits Soar In Madison County, Study Says; Think Tank Argues For Moving Cases To Federal Court”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 11, 2001; John H. Beisner and Jessica Davidson Miller, “They’re Making a Federal Case Out of It … In State Court”, Manhattan Institute Civil Justice Report #3, Sept. 2001; Noam Neusner with Brian Brueggemann, “The judges of Madison County”, U.S. News, Dec. 17, 2001 (fee); Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Statement on Class Action Fairness Act, Congressional Record, Nov. 15, 2001; Lester Brickman, “Anatomy of a Madison County (Illinois) Class Action: A Study of Pathology”, Manhattan Institute Civil Justice Report #6, press release, Aug. 12, 2002. (DURABLE LINK)
March 24 — Stalking horse for anti-gun litigators. If the NAACP really does have legal standing to sue firearms manufacturers and demand that a court impose gun-control measures on them, one might reasonably conclude that in the future anyone will henceforth have standing to sue anyone over anything. Still, this notional standing has been the excuse for longtime anti-gun litigators to make yet another pilgrimage to the Brooklyn courtroom of federal judge Jack Weinstein, who’s considered far more sympathetic to their cause than most of his colleagues (Tom Hayes, “Ex-Lobbyist to Testify for Gun Foes in Federal Trial”, AP/Law.com, Mar. 21). Jacob Sullum comments on the resulting trial set to begin today (“Jack B. Trick”, syndicated/Reason Online, Mar. 21), as does Eugene Volokh, who points out that the arguments for holding gun manufacturers liable would, if taken seriously, also lead to findings of liability against liquor manufacturers for “foreseeable misuse” of their wares — not that some ambitious lawyers wouldn’t like to do that too (Volokh Conspiracy blog, archive link not working, scroll to Mar. 23). The NAACP case seeks injunctive relief; per the AP, above, Judge Weinstein “has decided the jury will play only an ‘advisory role,’ leaving himself to make the final determination on liability and remedy.” For our earlier coverage of the suit, click here. See also “Off Target: Anti-gunners again take aim at manufacturers”, (editorial), McAllen (Tex.) Monitor, Mar. 21; and Hunting and Shooting Sports Heritage Fund site (& welcome Kausfiles readers). Updated to include correct HSSHF link (DURABLE LINK)
March 21-23 — “Lawyers find gold mine in Phila. pension cases”. Philadelphia Inquirer exposes how the city’s municipal pension funds enlisted as the complaisant clients of two prominent class action law firms, Berger & Montague and Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, which between 1996 and 2002 scooped up $19 million in fees representing the city in securities litigation. Then-Mayor Ed Rendell green-lighted the suits, and also happens to have received $460,000 in contributions from the lawyers since 1990. “‘The truth is, there was just a bounty hunter prowling the security industry, picking things and putting our names on it,’ said Joseph Herkness, the pension fund’s former director. ‘We were told, basically, to sign these things.'” “It was an opportunity to make money for the city without any risk,” claims Rendell, who is now Pennsylvania’s governor. But perhaps not quite so much money as if the city had driven a harder bargain: “Funds in Florida, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and New York City have trimmed millions off legal fees by seeking bids and setting fees in advance,” but not Philadelphia, the paper reported. As reported earlier (see Jan. 31) the FBI is investigating the actions of city officials in hiring the firms and resisting a judge’s efforts to encourage competitive bidding. (Joseph Tanfani and Craig R. McCoy, Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 16; “Lawyer’s responses scrutinized”, Feb. 14). Name partner Leonard Barrack of Barrack, Rodos, a big-league political donor, served as finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee under President Clinton (Washington Post, Jan. 12, 1999); he has said his firm is cooperating with the FBI probe. (DURABLE LINK)
March 21-23 — More notices for The Rule of Lawyers. Free-Market.net, one of the major libertarian sites, names our author’s new book “Freedom Book of the Month”, with reviewer Sunni Maravillosa calling it “clear, compelling” and “very important” and saying its “revelations will likely astonish most people who aren’t intimately acquainted with the American legal system” (March). In a review for the Indianapolis Star, reviewer Peter J. Pitts applauds the book as “insightful and frightening” (“Lawyers get rich; we get a warped idea of blame”, Mar. 15). And in American Hunter and its sister publications (American Rifleman, etc.), National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre uses his monthly column to call NRA members’ attention to the continuing outrage of the municipal gun suits and to The Rule of Lawyers in particular (April, not online). If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, what are you waiting for? (DURABLE LINK)
October 10-11 — “U.S. to Fully Compensate Victims’ Kin”. In a step virtually unprecedented in a government-run program, the new Sept. 11 fund will assign a dollar value to, and compensate at taxpayer expense, the emotional pain and suffering experienced by survivors (David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 5). Wealthier victims’ families could be the ones who mostly opt out of the federal plan and into private litigation, because of the proviso by which payments from the federal fund will be reduced to reflect amounts families can recover from insurance and other contractual sources, which will often amount to a large offset in the case of high-paid execs (Harriet Ryan, “Victims’ families face choices in collecting compensation”, CourtTV.com, Sept. 28). With damages for airlines limited to their insurance, “the hunt is on for additional defendants with deep pockets. Lawyers say these could include wealthy supporters of terrorism; private baggage-screening firms hired by airlines; contractors that may have improperly screened service personnel allowed on planes; and the operators of the airports where the hijackers boarded.” (Martin Kasindorf, “Families seeking compensation face a choice”, USA Today, Oct. 2) And see if you can spot the implicit assumption in this headline: Seth Stern, “Who pays the damages for Sept. 11?”, Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 27.
October 10-11 — “Never far from school halls: the lawsuit”. “Schools have always been fertile ground for lawsuits over religious observance and free speech. But educators say the volume of suits is on the rise, forcing them to siphon time and money away from learning.” (Seth Stern, Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 9).
October 10-11 — “Man Thought He Was Dead, Sues Airline”. Scott Bender of Philadelphia was snoozing when the U.S. Airways flight from North Carolina landed at the Birmingham, Alabama airport and the crew left him there in the little plane until he woke up. It was really dark, says his lawyer, and Bender “didn’t know if he was alive or dead” — it turned out the former. Now he wants money for the fright and other harms. (Chanda Temple, Birmingham News, Oct. 4).
October 9 — Employee’s right to jubilate over Sept. 11 attack. Kenneth Bredemeier, “On the Job” columnist for the Washington Post, yesterday ran the following remarkable communication from one of his readers, which we take the liberty of quoting at length since it deserves to be read word for word:
“On the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters, a Muslim woman at work jumped for joy in the cafeteria saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ upon hearing the news.“Apparently nothing was said to her at the time of her ‘celebration.’ Her supervisor consulted the HR manager for advice. He suggested a group meeting to explain that this is a very sensitive time for everyone and that it is probably best to not discuss the disasters at all. He also said to not single out anyone or specifically mention her actions.
“When I heard about it, I wanted to know why she is still at work. I was told to not say anything. Is that right? I have no intention of starting a riot, but I feel this incident should not be ignored. What, if anything, can I do?”
Don’t say anything to her; hold a group meeting; tell other workers to stop talking about the attacks. Could this be just one supremely craven HR manager, at one sensitivity-addled company? No, it gets worse. Bredemeier then consults an expert named Laurie Anderson, a “Chicago clinical psychologist and organizational consultant”. Her advice? As “uncalled for [!] as the impromptu celebration might have been, corporations ‘can’t fire someone for violating something that was never spelled out.’ She said the employee who was upset by her co-worker’s joy at the attacks ought to go to management and say that she wants ‘to be a part of the ongoing conversation about our policies.'” And Anderson adds: “It’s horrifying, but there’s no law against being insensitive.”
But of course Anderson gets it exactly, 180-degrees wrong on that last point. There is a federal law against being insensitive in ways that make co-workers feel disliked or disparaged because of their ethnic or national affiliation — it’s called the “hostile environment” branch of harassment law, and lawyers have deployed it repeatedly to win big bucks for workers who have testified that they were upset by hearing slighting comments aimed at their ethnic or national group. If an employer in this country learns that one of its workers has burst into applause in the cafeteria at learning of, say, a massacre or assassination aimed at a protected ethnic minority, then its failure to discipline that worker would create something approximating a dream case if and when a member of that minority chooses to sue the company charging hostile environment. (Nor will it get the company off the hook, in explaining its failure to discipline, to plead that it had not previously warned its workers specifically not to jubilate in such circumstances.)
The difference between the two fact patterns? So far as we can tell, it’s mostly that “American” doesn’t operationally count as a protected ethnicity under federal law. And so we arrive at a supposed right to jubilate, among Americans, over the deaths of Americans without having to worry about the risk of dismissal or even harsh words or shunning. Could anything be crazier? (Kenneth Bredemeier, “At Some Companies, An All-Too-Rapid Response to Attacks”, Washington Post, Oct. 8).
Addendum: no more than urban legend? Reader John Kingston of Carle Place, N.Y., in a letter to Washington Post columnist Bredemeier which he cc’s to us, writes:
Your column on workplace reaction to September 11 may have come closest to actually identifying the jubilant Muslims, a story sweeping the country that has all the earmarks of an urban myth. It appears the person who wrote you the note at least claims to have actually seen the jubilant worker. Every other reference to the jubilant workers has several key omissions: the name of the workplace where it happened (as in your case); the name of the jubilant person (OK, understandable); or an actual first-person account (which you sort of have, but do not actually identify the first-person). Yet these stories of the celebrating Muslims have come from all over the country, and none of them have been proven.Please do your readers a service in a future column. Put the name of this correspondent in print. And if the correspondent does not want to be put in print, please call him up and grill him on the facts of the case. Because quite frankly, this story sounds like a pile of baloney, and I was shocked to see it repeated and given credence, without what I would consider significant attribution, in a fine paper like yours.
Adds reader Kingston: “And to make it worse, Overlawyered.com repeats it as well. OK, its point was regarding what a workplace could do if it actually had a publicly jubilant Muslim. But my guess is that nobody actually did. This story, Mr. Olson, sounds like a close cousin of junk science.” (DURABLE LINK) [And see Letters, Oct. 22]
October 9 — “Plaintiff’s lawyers going on defense”. In at least two major areas of mass tort litigation now under way, plaintiff’s lawyers well known from asbestos and tobacco work have crossed the aisle to work for defendant businesses: Sulzer Orthopedics Inc. has hired Mississippi’s Richard Scruggs to represent it in hip joint cases, and Bridgestone Firestone has hired Texas’s Wayne Reaud to settle tire cases. “Already this year, Reaud has negotiated 117 settlements for Firestone in Texas, including 22 cases involving deaths.” (Mark Curriden, Dallas Morning News/Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 4, Googlecached) On Reaud and Firestone, see also Michael Freedman, “The Informer: It Takes One to Know One”, Forbes, Sept. 17. (DURABLE LINK)
October 8 — Why we fight, #2. Reason #1 is of course what happened on Sept. 11; but how strangely constricted would be our war aims if they did not also by this point include the final overthrow of the Taliban. (Sam Handlin, “Justice takes on a different meaning in Afghanistan”, CourtTV.com, Sept. 28; Jan Goodwin, “The first victims: the Taliban have been terrorizing women for years”, New York Daily News, Oct. 4; Vincent Laforet, “At Kabul’s door, an army of addicts”, New York Times, Oct. 7 (reg) (arms chopped off by the Taliban for smoking opium in an Afghan school, Mooruddin Aki now begs on a street in Quetta, Pakistan, where passersby stuff bills into his mouth)).
Among pieces we’ve liked recently: Peter Ferrara, “What is an American?” (National Review Online, Sept. 25). And what’s the opposite of Osama bin Laden? Here’s one answer: “The men and women of the space program, and their legions of scientific antecedents, spent countless hours acquiring the knowledge and developing the moral values that led to the moon landing. Not many years later, Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists also spent many hours of planning, sitting not in laboratories and libraries, but in tents and caves, with one goal: not to create, but to annihilate human creations. The scientists measured their success by how much they could produce. The terrorists measure their success by how much they can destroy.” (Michael Berliner, “Terrorists vs. America”, Ayn Rand Institute, Oct. 5) (via InstaPundit).
October 8 — “Hama to sue bridge owners over her daughter’s fall”. When Kaya, a 17-month-old with Down’s syndrome, fell from her mother’s arms and off the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, she miraculously escaped with only scratches, tree boughs breaking her fall. But her mother, Nadia Hama, is suing the bridge operator anyway; her lawyer says she was traumatized by the aftermath of the incident which included a police investigation and press coverage that “was largely very negative”. (Andy Ivens, “Hama to sue bridge owners over her daughter’s fall”, The Province (Vancouver), Sept. 25).
October 5-7 — Feds’ Lanning v. SEPTA turnabout. The U.S. Justice Department has unexpectedly dropped its support of a long-running lawsuit which sought, in the name of female applicants, to weaken the physical fitness standards used in hiring by the Philadelphia transit police. The Department did not cite the Sept. 11 attacks in explaining its abrupt shift, but its spokesman Don Nelson explained the new stand as follows: “Our position is that we believe it is critical to public safety for police and firefighters to have the ability to run and climb up and down stairs under the most extraordinary circumstances”. In earlier rounds of litigation the feds had sided with plaintiffs lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, whose chief counsel calls the new turnabout “a slap in the face of women” and a breach of what he said was a promise made by Attorney General John Ashcroft not to retreat on any civil rights issue. (Joseph A. Slobodzian, “U.S. backs away from suit against SEPTA test”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 2) (see Sept. 15, 1999). Maybe someone at the Department has been listening to our commentaries of Sept. 13 and other dates. Update Oct. 25-27, 2002: Third Circuit panel rules for SEPTA.
October 5-7 — Civil liberties roundup. What Alexander Hamilton (who used to hang out a lot in New York’s financial district) would want us to remember (Andrew Ferguson, “Strange Bedfellows in This War”, Bloomberg.com, Oct. 2). The left-right civil liberties coalition that has urged scrutiny of the counter-terrorism bill doesn’t agree within itself on much more than platitudes, argues James DeLong of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (“Liberty and Order”, National Review Online, Oct. 2). And London’s invaluable Spectator points out some of the very real costs of national identity cards, whose use would probably not have done much to hinder last month’s suicide attacks, the ringleaders of which were mostly traveling under their own names with valid ID (“Fighting for Freedom” (editorial), Sept. 29).
October 5-7 — “Attorney Ordered to Pay Fees for ‘Rambo’ Tactics”. “Clifford Van Syoc, a solo practitioner in Cherry Hill, N.J., is known for his zealotry in pursuing plaintiffs’ employment-discrimination claims. But now a federal judge, comparing Van Syoc to Rambo, says he’s gone over the line. The judge excoriated him for unreasonably pushing a meritless reverse-bias claim and assessed Van Syoc personally for $59,216 in fees and expenses.” (Tim O’Brien, New Jersey Law Journal, Sept. 6).
October 5-7 — Utah lawmakers: don’t smoke in your car. Legislators in that state have “approved in concept” the idea of legally banning parents from smoking in cars in the presence of their kids, but some among them are reluctant to put their names on such a measure as sponsors given its appearance of extreme meddlesomeness in what was once considered private life (James Thalman, “Lawmakers may up ante for smoking around kids”, Deseret News, Sept. 15).
October 3-4 — Anti-bias law not a suicide pact. “Earlier this summer, U.S. officials told airlines that conducting extra checks on passengers of Arab origin was a violation of the passengers’ civil rights. Also, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta ordered a federal investigation into complaints by Arab-Americans that they were being unfairly targeted by security screenings.” (Catherine Donaldson Evans, “Terror Probe Changes Face of Racial Profiling Debate”, FoxNews.com, Oct. 1; Stuart Taylor Jr., “The Case for Using Racial Profiling at Airports”, National Journal/The Atlantic, Sept. 25). But of Arab Americans in metropolitan Detroit, “61 percent said such extra questioning or inspections are justified, according to a poll conducted last week by the Detroit Free Press and EPIC/MRA. Twenty-eight percent disagreed; 11 percent were undecided.” (Dennis Niemiec and Shawn Windsor, “Arab Americans expect scrutiny, feel sting of bias”, Detroit Free Press, Oct. 1). “Federal regulations give commercial captains the right to remove anyone from a flight without reason.” (Jonathan Osborne, “Passenger ejections seen as profiling”, Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 29).
In reaction to the horrors of World War II, the federal constitution of Germany curbs what might be termed religious profiling in law enforcement, and authorities in Hamburg, where preparations for last month’s attack were apparently made, acknowledge that their monitoring of extremist Islamic activity has been sharply limited as a result: “police are severely restricted in probing groups defined by faith”. (Carol J. Williams, “German Hunt for Terrorists Haunted by Past”, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1). Detailed passenger profiling is essential to the much-admired security record of the Israeli airline El Al (Vivienne Walt, “Unfriendly skies are no match for El Al”, USA Today, Oct. 2). Updates: see Nov. 2-4, Nov. 9-11.
October 3-4 — “Follow the money … but don’t hold your breath”. Shutting down sham ‘charities’ and terrorist-owned businesses can’t hurt the war effort,” and it’s also worth investigating the possibility that persons with foreknowledge of the attack might have engaged in options speculation before and since Sept. 11, which would leave a relatively robust paper trail. Don’t expect much, however, from more generalized efforts to prevent terrorist supporters from moving less-than-enormous sums around the globe; there are too many ways around such rules, which are also highly onerous to the non-terrorist economy (James Higgins, Weekly Standard, Oct. 8; Michael Lynch, “Following the Money”, Reason.com, Oct. 4).
October 3-4 — Fear of losing welfare benefits deemed coercive. “A Nova Scotia woman who confessed to cheating the welfare system out of more than $70,000, can’t have her admission used against her in court because she gave it only out of fear that her benefits would be cut off.” Judge Peter Ross of Nova Scotia Provincial Court conceded that Brenda Young’s case was a “particularly glaring instance of welfare fraud”, but “said her fear of impoverishment meant her confession was effectively coerced by the state, an action which violated her constitutional right not to incriminate herself.” Young is no longer on the welfare rolls, however. (Richard Foot, “Judge: confession by welfare cheat cannot be used”, National Post, Sept. 29).
October 3-4 — Victory (again) in Connecticut. “A unanimous state Supreme Court Monday threw out Bridgeport’s lawsuit against dozens of gun manufacturers and retailers, saying the city’s claims of injury to its citizenry, budget and reputation are too specious and indirect to litigate.” (Lynne Tuohy, “Court Disarms Gun Lawsuit, Hartford Courant, Oct. 2) (see Dec. 11-12, 1999)
October 3-4 — “Proposed Law Would Consider Alcohol As Date-Rape Drug”. Liquor may be something that prospective sexual assault victims consume voluntarily and knowingly, while substances such as Rohypnol get sprung on them unawares; but backers of the bill introduced into the Wisconsin legislature by Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) say that shouldn’t make a difference in regarding both substances alike as date-rape drugs. (WISC-TV/Channel 3000/Yahoo, Sept. 27).
October 1-2 — “Litigation threatens to snarl recovery”. “[S]ome lawyers are already gearing up for what could be the most complicated web of litigation in American history. Lawyers across the country are looking for ways around the victims’ fund established as part of a $15 billion government bailout of the airline industry in the wake of the attacks.” During the (still-continuing) litigation over the previous bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, plaintiff’s lawyers suing the Port Authority insisted that it turn over as part of “discovery” its internal reports on terrorist threats and security, even though “Port Authority lawyers at the time argued that providing the reports would leave security information open to terrorists for another attack.” (Kate Shatzkin, Baltimore Sun, Sept. 30).
MORE: Signe Wilkinson cartoon, “Unleashing Our Most Feared Weapon Against Afghanistan” (guess who), Philadelphia Daily News/Slate (“Get Image” for Sept. 27); Alan Fisk, “Calculation of Losses, Liability to Be Major Insurance Issues in Wake of Terrorism”, National Law Journal, Sept. 28; Michael Freedman and Robert Lenzner, “Lawyers Won’t Sue, But For How Long?” Forbes.com, Sept. 19.
October 1-2 — Ralph Nader is heard from. Addressing students at the University of Minnesota, the prominent litigation advocate — always willing to impute the most evil of motives to his adversaries at home — “asked audience members to consider why U.S. foreign policy is creating enemies. ‘We have to begin putting ourselves in the shoes of the innocent, brutalized people in the Third World and ask ourselves, why do they dislike our foreign policy?'” Maybe if we referred to the Trade Center murderers as “Terrorism Inc.” he’d mistake them for a legitimate business and start turning up the rhetorical heat (Jessica Thompson, “Nader calls for ‘permanent patriotism’ in Northrop speech”, Minnesota Daily, Sept. 26). (DURABLE LINK)
October 1-2 — Chemical-plant vulnerabilities: read all about them. A “provision of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act requir[ed] that thousands of industrial facilities develop risk management plans (RMPs) and submit them to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).” One part of the required analysis “documents the potential impacts of a catastrophic accidental chemical release assuming the ‘worst case scenario.” The [analysis] includes the number of potential fatalities that an accidental release could cause to the surrounding community. The law then demands that EPA make this information available to the public.” When an initial plan was floated to publish such reports on the Internet, “security experts — the FBI, CIA, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and various other groups — raised alarm.” The plan was soon shelved, but “public interest groups” vowed to make the information broadly anyway in defiance of the warnings, and a current public availability scheme involving drop-in “reading rooms” appears highly vulnerable to exploitation by advance scouts for terrorist operations, who need only present an identification card, something the Sept. 11 terrorists had little trouble obtaining (Angela Logomasini, “Innocent no more”, Competitive Enterprise Institute/Washington Times, Sept. 27). (DURABLE LINK)
October 1-2 — “Polls say blacks tend to favor checks”. “African-Americans, whose treatment by the criminal justice system gave rise to the phrase ‘racial profiling,’ are more likely than other racial groups to favor profiling and stringent airport security checks for Arabs and Arab-Americans in the wake of this month’s terrorist attacks, two separate polls indicate.
“The findings by the Gallup Organization and Zogby International were met with varying degrees of disappointment and disbelief by black activists and intellectuals, who struggled with explanations.” (Ann Scales, Boston Globe, Sept. 30) (see Sept. 19-20).
October 1-2 — Propulsid verdict: “Robbery on Highway 61”. A jury in Claiborne County, Mississippi deliberated just over two hours before voting $100 million in compensatory damages to 10 plaintiffs in the first suit to reach trial against a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary over alleged side effects of the anti-heartburn medication Propulsid. “Defense attorney Robert Johnson III of Natchez said in closing arguments Friday that no evidence was presented in the four-week trial that showed Propulsid caused any of the plaintiffs’ health problems. He said the plaintiffs’ own doctors said there was no evidence the drug was to blame. … Stop Lawsuit Abuse in Mississippi executive director Chip Reno called the decision ‘unbelievable.’ ‘This was highway robbery on Highway 61,” Reno said. ‘Our system is broke.'” (Jimmie E. Gates, “$100M verdict: Propulsid at fault”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Sept. 29). Judge Lamar Pickard later ruled out punitive damages. (Deborah Bulkeley, “Judge Bars Drug Trial Punitive Damages”, AP/Yahoo, Sept. 29). Update May 15, 2004: Miss. Supreme Court vacates verdict and orders individual trials, after earlier reduction of award by trial judge.
October 19-21 — Lawyer-vetted war? According to Sy Hersh, American gunners had Taliban chief Mullah Omar in their sights, but declined to finish him off per the advice of an army lawyer that there was too much risk of collateral damage to civilians: “‘My JAG’ — Judge Advocate General, a legal officer –‘doesn’t like this, so we’re not going to fire,'” said the commandant. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is said to have been “kicking a lot of glass and breaking doors” in fury over the decision, and the editorialists at the New York Post aren’t happy about it either (Seymour Hersh, The New Yorker, Oct. 22; “Lawyers for Bin Laden” (editorial), New York Post, Oct. 17). But Inigo Thomas of Slate thinks the system of civilian control of the military probably worked as intended: “Spinning Seymour Hersh”, Oct. 17; also see Clarence Page, “The U.S. frowns on assassinations, except …”, Chicago Tribune, Oct. 17. [See letter to the editor, Oct. 22]
October 19-21 — U.K. may ban anti-religious speech. A bill proposed by the Home Secretary would outlaw “incitement to religious hatred”. Comedian Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) warns that literary and satirical writing is likely to be chilled as a result — watch out, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, criticized as anti-Christian. Also in potential danger: a sketch on Not The Nine O’Clock News depicting Muslim worshippers simultaneously bowing to the ground with the voiceover: “And the search goes on for the Ayatollah Khomeini’s contact lens.” (The Times, Oct. 17) (& see Bjoern Staerk, Oct. 17). Update Dec. 21-23: provision dropped before passage of bill.
October 19-21 — It’s the clients’ money. A panel of the Fifth Circuit strikes down one of those schemes so popular among organized lawyerdom which grabs the interest earned on clients’ trust accounts to subsidize poverty law. (Janet Elliott, “Panel strikes down legal services fund “, Houston Chronicle, Oct. 17; “U.S. Court Voids Texas Approach to Legal Aid”, AP/New York Times, Oct. 18 (reg)).
October 19-21 — Our own terrorist-funding problem. P.J. O’Rourke, in an interview with Clive James excerpted in the Daily Telegraph:
“There is a person in America who is known as a three-drink Republican — I don’t mean my Republican party: the Irish Republican Army — and the Noraid can comes along and in goes a fiver and ‘that’s for the boys back in wherever’. Yes, America has a lot to answer for.
“We turned a blind eye to the funding coming out of the USA. We did it because the Boston Catholics were a very important part of the Democratic coalition and they were also a very important part of the Reagan Republicans and neither wished to offend them. They had a lot of clout in Congress and we let them go and it was shameful, absolutely shameful.” (“‘I believe the terrorists wanted a nuclear attack on Baghdad'”, Oct. 7).
MORE: Jonathan Duffy, “Rich friends in New York”, BBC, Sept. 26; “America pressed over UK terrorism”, BBC, Oct. 10; “‘Sinn Fein support wanes in US'”, BBC, Aug. 17; “How the Real IRA was born”, Guardian, March 5; “Omagh relatives consider picket”, BBC, Aug. 8, 2000; “‘Split’ on thwarting Real IRA”, BBC, Oct. 20, 2000 (Americans helped fund 1998 Omagh bombing which killed 29); Sean Boyne, “The Real IRA: after Omagh, what now?”, Jane’s, Aug. 24, 1998).
October 17-18 — NYC trial lawyers’ post-9/11 complaints. It seems Gotham’s personal injury practitioners have all sorts of gripes concerning their conditions of practice these days. To begin with, juries don’t sympathize as much with their clients’ woes with the image of much vaster hardships still fresh in their minds. Courts are handing out lots of delays and adjournments to defendants, especially to those whose legal offices were destroyed (like the Port Authority’s) or evacuated (like the city’s). Some weaker insurance companies may be going broke. “Another plaintiffs’ lawyer suggested that given the current ‘high public esteem’ for police officers and firefighters, ‘cases against them are going to be particularly difficult.” Attorney Martin Edelman of Edelman & Edelman exhorts his colleagues, however, to “be brave”. (Daniel Wise and Tom Perrotta, “Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Feel Post-Attack Pinch”, New York Law Journal, Oct. 16).
Edelman is especially dismissive of opponents’ excuses for delay: “Defense lawyers are milking this to a fare-thee-well — one attorney said that his staff could not work because the air smells bad.” As it happens, this week’s New York Observer quotes well-known downtown plaintiff’s attorney Harvey Weitz as describing conditions in his Woolworth Building office as “intolerable”, explaining that the place “just plain stinks”, even with the windows closed. (Petra Bartosiewicz and James Verini, with Blair Golson, “Reeling and Dealing”, New York Observer, Oct. 15). The New York Law Journal authors, who quote Weitz on a different point, perhaps should introduce him to Edelman so they can compare notes on whether the acrid smells that waft from the attack site do or do not render nearby offices intolerable. (DURABLE LINK)
MORE: Also quoted in the NYLJ piece is extremely successful NYC plaintiff’s lawyer Robert Conason of Gair, Gair, Conason, Steigman & Mackauf. Could anyone clear up for us once and for all whether he’s related to left-wing columnist Joe Conason?
October 17-18 — “Hate speech” law invoked against anti-American diatribe. Hey, it wasn’t supposed to work this way! Section 319(1) of Canada’s Criminal Code makes it unlawful to incite public hatred of an “identifiable group”, such as a nationality, in a way that “is likely to lead to a breach of the peace.” Now University of British Columbia prof Sunera Thobani is facing possible investigation under the law over a vicious tirade she delivered against the United States at a conference which (ironically or not) was subsidized by the Canadian government and presided over by Hedy Fry, a well-known Ottawa official. Columnist Wendy McElroy of FoxNews.com sorts it all out (“Free Speech Protects All Speech”, Oct. 16).
October 17-18 — Court’s chutzpah-award nominee. Not only did San Francisco attorney Sherman Kassof not succeed in defending the $215,000 in fees he thought he had coming from the settlement of a class action against Wells Fargo, but a California appeals court, in a 32-page opinion, said his fee request might deserve a “chutzpah award.” “‘To award an attorney a premium for duplicative work that was neither difficult nor particularly productive, involved little or no risk, may well have delayed settlement, and seems to have been primarily designed to line counsel’s pockets would reward behavior which it is in the public interest (and as well the special interest of the legal profession) to strongly discourage,’ Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline wrote.” (Mike McKee, “Fee Appeal Backfires on Class Lawyer”, The Recorder, Oct. 5).
October 16 — Counterterrorism bill footnote. During consideration of the bill, reports Declan McCullagh at Wired News, civil libertarians raised concerns about possible leeway for forum selection by prosecutors seeking wiretap orders. “Since the Patriot Act gives courts the power to order wiretapping anywhere in the U.S., Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) said she was worried that ‘it would encourage the government to engage in forum searching. If the court that issues the warrant is far from the defendant, it becomes difficult for the person to contest it.'” Plausible enough, right? And by the same logic, civil defendants deserve protection against the filing of, say, class actions in forums selected by lawyers for their inconvenience to the defense — right again? That thud you hear is Rep. Waters keeling over rather than admit any such thing. Just as Trix are for kids, everyone knows due process protections are for criminal, not civil defendants (“Patriot Bill Moves Along”, Oct. 4).
October 16 — Status of judicial nominations. The Office of Legal Policy of the U.S. Department of Justice has put up an informative page on the status of judicial nominations. As Glenn Reynolds points out at his fledgling but already indispensable InstaPundit weblog, “The ready availability of this information on the Web represents a net loss of power for the Senate.”
October 16 — Latest lose-on-substance, win-on-retaliation case. A federal court in San Antonio threw out Raymond Morantes’s original claim of discrimination against his employer, the Federal Aviation Administration, but a jury decided that agency managers had wrongly passed over Morantes for promotion because they were annoyed at his having sued them, so he’s getting half a mil. (“Man Gets $500,000 for Retaliation by FAA”, AP/FoxNews.com, Oct. 6).
October 15 — “Company Tried to Capitalize on Sept. 11”. A Cincinnati company named Providence Inc. has been sending out portfolios to Sept. 11 victim families with “$50 to $200 in cash, prepaid calling cards and the names of four law firms with ‘extensive experience in major airline and other similar mass disasters.'” The company advances money to plaintiffs in anticipation of lawsuit settlements; because it employs no lawyers, it can skirt a 1996 federal law “that forbids lawyers from approaching the families of air crash victims for 45 days after an accident.” The outfit, which routinely drops mail to victims after other disasters as well, “says none of the law firms named on its list knew that their names were being distributed … three law firms threatened to sue to block Providence from using their names”. (Jonathan D. Glater and Diana B. Henriques, New York Times, Oct. 13 (reg)). And despite the go-slow approach to litigation proposed by the leadership of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, some plaintiff’s lawyers are raring to go with Sept. 11 suits, among them New York City’s Aaron Broder, who has bought the fine-print ad space at the bottom of the New York Times‘s front page to solicit clients. “‘They’re all going to be socked real hard,'” [Broder] said yesterday of the airlines and other American businesses and government agencies, adding that he disapproved of other lawyers discouraging suits. ‘Right now, everybody’s so patriotic they’ve forgotten about the fact that there are defendants and wrongdoers here,'” he said.” None of that excessive patriotism for him! (William Glaberson, “Legal Community Is Divided by the Prospect of Lawsuits for Attack Victims”, New York Times, Oct. 10 (reg)).
October 15 — “Mother of all copyright battles”. Now they’re really in trouble: Osama bin Laden’s Mideast followers have gotten American intellectual property lawyers steamed at them following their unwitting use of an image of “Bert” from PBS’s Sesame Street: “you don’t get much more ‘interconnected’ with Western culture than getting your a– sued off.” (Mark Steyn, “Culture Shock”, Daily Telegraph, Oct. 13; Don Kaplan, “Osama’s ‘Muppet’ State”, New York Post, Oct. 11). On the other hand, maybe Binny could beat a criminal rap before a court here given the sort of American legal talent his ample fortune could buy (James S. Robbins, “Bring on the Dream Team!”, National Review Online, Oct. 9).
October 15 — Disclaimer rage? “Lawyers are destroying the usability of American products. … Work comes to a standstill while we look for the button to vanish the tiny box with the even tinier type.” It was bad enough in PC software, but now automotive and aeronautic GPS (global positioning satellite) map programs require operators of moving vehicles to click past screens of fine print before they can read maps, adding crucial seconds of distraction: “in their fanatic pursuit of zero liability, they’ve set up the ideal conditions to actually kill people.” However, not all disclaimers have to be a drag, as one maker of household products has shown: “The Good Grips people obviously put a lot of work, not only into constructing a fun-to-read page, but in talking conservative corporate attorneys into allowing such a page.” (Nielsen Norman Group, “Good Lawyers, Bad Products”, Asktog, August).
October 12-14 — “Suits Still Pending from 1993 Trade Center Blast”. So sad: eight years after the incident, “[t]he legal fallout from the 1993 truck bomb that rocked the World Trade Center hasn’t even gone to trial. Plaintiffs’ lawyers claim that the Port Authority knew the towers were an attractive terrorist target and that a truck bomb was the most likely weapon.” Included in the claims against the Port Authority: a business-interruption claim from Cantor Fitzgerald over having to shut down its WTC offices back then. (Bob Van Voris, National Law Journal, Oct. 3).
October 12-14 — “Philadelphia judicial elections still linked to cash”. “Despite a scathing state grand jury report this spring on Philadelphia’s system of electing judges, little has changed, a review of campaign reports for the 2001 primary suggests.
“Candidates for the legal system’s most sensitive offices still shelled out millions of dollars in ‘street money’ to ward leaders, consultants, and freelance vote-producers for primary-day help in hopes of landing a seat on the bench.
“About $500,000 was spent in ways that required no accounting to the public.” (Clea Benson, Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 7).
October 31 — Quote of the day. Or maybe the year: “If we sue each other, the terrorists win. We need to be united.” — Personal injury and class action lawyer Elizabeth Cabraser, regarding potential Sept. 11 lawsuits. (Quoted in Gail Diane Cox, “Voir Dire”, National Law Journal, Oct. 8, not online)
October 31 — The deportation sieve. “For starters, there is the case of Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer and Lafi Khalil, the two Palestinians who were arrested in July 1997 in a Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment right before they planned to blow up a subway station. Because both men were in this country illegally, the inspector general at the Justice Department issued a report relating solely to their immigration status. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but it contains such sentences as: ‘After Mezer’s third detention in January 1997, the INS had begun formal deportation proceedings against him, but Mezer had been freed on bond, while the deportation proceedings were pending…’ Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is how deportation works: If you are due for a hearing that may kick you out of this country, you very often are on your honor to show up for the hearing that makes it official. Shockingly, many do not. (And they sometimes just out and out lie: Mezer got out of his hearing by phoning his attorney and telling her that he was in Canada.” (Tish Durkin, “Let’s Not Bypass the Obvious in Our Quest for the Profound”, National Journal, Sept. 29). The magazine National Journal, a treasure trove of policy journalism and the home base of such columnists as Stuart Taylor, Jr. and Jonathan Rauch, is normally available to online subscribers only, but has temporarily lifted password procedures during the partial Capitol Hill shutdown to offer full web access to the public.
October 31 — Santa Claus sexist? “Shops are stocking ‘Mother Christmas’ outfits to avoid being taken to court over sex discrimination. Woolworths says it’s stocking the outfits in 800 stores to avoid problems with European gender legislation.” A spokeswoman for the European Union, however, describes as “total bunkum” the idea that selling “Father Christmas” (St. Nicholas) costumes alone might subject retailers to complaint under regulations against products reinforcing gender stereotypes. (“Shops stock Mother Christmas outfits to avoid accusations of sexism”, Ananova, Oct. 26).
October 30 — Bioterrorism preparedness. A bioterrorist incident could flood hospitals in one locality with thousands of persons in need of medical care, but an official with the American Hospital Association says that the group’s member hospitals “could be hindered in their response by federal laws, says Tom Nickels, the association’s senior vice president for federal relations. Antidumping statutes, which prohibit hospitals from transferring patients to other facilities unless the patients have been evaluated and stabilized, could undermine plans to direct patients with specific exposures to specified treatment centers. Patient-privacy regulations that will go into effect soon could complicate surveillance programs to detect an outbreak early and to notify relatives of the status of victims of an attack, he says.” (Ron Winslow, “U.S. Hospitals May Need $10 Billion to Be Prepared for Bioterror Attack,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 29) (online subscribers only) (via NCPA Policy Digest).
October 30 — University official vs. web anonymity. “A lawyer for the authors of an anonymous Web site criticizing the University of Louisiana-Monroe is seeking to block a federal magistrate’s order to reveal his clients’ identities. … Richard Baxter, the university’s vice president for external affairs, wants the names of those behind the site Truth at ULM so he can file a defamation lawsuit. U.S. Magistrate James Kirk also ordered Homestead Technologies Inc. to provide computer logs of all people who have posted, published or provided any content to the site. The Internet site has called the university administration incompetent and accused top officials of lying.” (“Lawyer fights order to reveal identities of university critics”, AP/Freedom Forum, Oct. 24).
October 30 — “Crying wolf”. “In the approximately four and a half years since [Ontario] made record-keeping of violent crime mandatory,” writes the National Post‘s Christie Blatchford, 2,233 of 39,223 complaints of sexual assault have been shown to have been knowingly false. That amounts to more than one false accusation per day in Canada’s largest province; British Columbia reports similar rates as a share of population. The number is a “bare minimum”, since authorities have “adopted strict definitions of what comprises a false allegation.” “Unfounded complaints, where police determine there was no crime but also that the victim did not intend to mislead investigators, are not tracked at all.”
Why would someone lodge a false allegation? Reasons vary from the wish to avoid admitting to consensual sex to a craving for attention to post-breakup revenge to mental illness. Some charges begin on impulse, then spiral out of control since authorities are obliged to set an investigative process in motion. One serial “allegator” filed charges against numerous men, including a dark-skinned stranger who luckily was able to prove he was out of the country at the time; another of her targets, a veteran Ontario police officer, though eventually winning vindication, “was left in ruins, with legal bills, his long and respected career in tatters, and deserted by even life-long colleagues. … ‘There are two principles at work in the system right now,’ [his lawyer, Bill] Bain told the Post. ‘That children don’t lie, and that women are victims.'” Following pressure on the legal system by feminist and rape-crisis activists, Bain says, “police became afraid of not laying charges even in dubious cases, demurring that ‘the courts will decide,’ while Crown attorneys [prosecutors] grew ‘loathe to exercise their discretion and to live in fear of screwing up a sexual assault trial.'” And, importantly, complainants seldom face criminal penalties themselves even for knowingly filing false charges. (Christie Blatchford, “Crying wolf”, National Post, Sept. 8).
October 29 — U.S. Muslims told: don’t talk to law enforcement. Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Al-Midhar and Hani Hanjoor, lived in San Diego and had many contacts among persons active in a mosque in suburban La Mesa; others mingled with Muslim communities in Arizona and elsewhere in the U.S. However, if one American attorney has his way, law enforcement may not get the kind of free and spontaneous cooperation they might like from U.S. Muslims who may have information relating to the three’s activities in this country. Attorney Randall Hamud has left slips of paper for La Mesa mosque-goers which “instruct the reader, in both English and Arabic, that ‘in case of law enforcement questioning you,’ respond as follows: ‘I exercise my right to remain silent according to the 5th Amendment. I exercise my right to have my attorney, Randy Hamud, present.” (Maureen Tkacik and Rick Wartzman, “Muslim Lawyer Terms FBI Probe Discriminatory”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 15 (online subscribers only); Ben Fox, “Three held in California as material witnesses to terror attack”, AP/Nando, Sept. 25; Kelly Thornton, “3 local men to be kept in jail indefinitely”, San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 26). Press coverage has depicted some other Muslim activists as discouraging their co-believers from cooperating with inquiries from the FBI and other agencies.
Persons charged with crimes in this country, of course, are entitled to have a lawyer and to not be convicted on the basis of self-incrimination, but it is a rather big jump from there to the premise that free and spontaneous cooperation by the residents of this country with police inquiries is in itself something to be discouraged. And it would seem odd to tell innocent people to invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, since they wouldn’t seem to come under that privilege — or are we missing something?
MORE: Four terror suspects apprehended under highly suspicious circumstances after the attacks have stonewalled police inquiries since then, to the deep frustration of investigators (Walter Pincus, “Silence of 4 Terror Probe Suspects Poses Dilemma”, Washington Post, Oct. 21; John Leo, “Muslims must shoulder responsibilities as citizens”, TownHall/syndicated, Sept. 25). (DURABLE LINK)
October 29 — A belt too far. The survivors of Lori Mason-Larez, who plunged more than 100 feet to her death from a ride at Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, Calif., are suing the amusement park and the ride’s manufacturer, Intamin Ltd., but Sandor Kernacs, president of Intamin, said the 292-pound woman was “too large to be belted in properly around her waist”. “If the company did try to limit riders according to weight or waist size, Kernacs said, advocates for the obese would be quick to challenge the restrictions. ‘Basically we cannot discriminate against anybody,’ he said.” (Michelle Dearmond, “Manufacturer says woman was too big for Knott’s ride safety restraint”, San Diego Union-Tribune, Oct. 23) (see also Aug. 31, 1999). (DURABLE LINK)
October 29 — Australian roundup. On Australian TV this summer, viewers heard about the “dentist and bartender” theories of how lawyers behave, which will be familiar to longtime followers of this site (“Law Matters with Susanna Lobez”, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)-TV, July 30; Walter Olson, “Lawyers, Gums, and Rummies”, Reason, July 1999). And we never got around to thanking Richard Ackland of the Sydney Morning Herald for this very kind reference a while back: “You only have to read of developments abroad in this area, which are religiously tracked by the marvellous online journal overlawyered.com, to see all the interesting new twists and plays that are possible in a properly evolved legal system.” (“Lawyers now free to sue the pants off everyone”, Feb. 16).
MORE: Justice Thomas of the high court of Queensland recently wrote: “The generous application of [negligence] rules is producing a litigious society and has already spawned an aggressive legal industry. I am concerned that the common law is being developed to a stage that already inflicts too great a cost upon the community both economic and social. In a compensation-conscious community citizens look for others to blame. The incentive to recover from injury is reduced. Self-reliance becomes a scarce commodity. These are destructive social forces. Also much community energy is wasted in divisive and non-productive work. A further consequence is the raising of costs of compulsory third party, employer’s liability, public risk and professional indemnity insurance premiums. These costs are foisted upon sectors of the public and in the end upon the public at large. I would prefer that these problems be rectified by the development of a more affordable common law system, but in recent times its development has been all in one direction - more liability and more damages.” (Thomas, J., in Lisle v Brice & Anor, QCA 271 Queensland Court of Appeal, July 20 — opinion in PDF format). (DURABLE LINK)
October 26-28 — “Lawyers see trouble over victims’ fund”. After last month’s attacks, Congress rushed to enact the Victim Compensation Fund. But many trial lawyers are now advising victim families to avoid the fund and prepare for all-out litigation of the sort the legislation was supposed to forestall. Meanwhile, some expect claims to roll in from such potentially large and open-ended categories of victim as “people who say they suffered respiratory distress from the dust cloud kicked up by the collapse of the World Trade Center” and “workers in nearby buildings so emotionally debilitated that they can no longer work in a high-rise”. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America “helped shape the law” and its president Leo Boyle now says that aggregate cost to the taxpayers is not a legitimate factor to take into account in deciding how much the fund should pay claimants (”That is not a relevant consideration”); individual families may ask for tens of millions because they lost high-earning executives. (Ralph Ranalli, Boston Globe, Oct. 22). If cases proceed to litigation, many lawyers concede that it will be difficult to prove the “foreseeability” of the outrages, as needed to prove negligence (Tom McGhee, “Lawyers: Federal plan may not stem WTC suits”, Denver Post, Oct. 16). Some observers also believe it will be difficult to prove that it was negligent not to order the immediate evacuation of the second tower after the first was attacked, not only because of a lack of foreseeability of the second attack, but because authorities could reasonably believe that a mass exodus from building two would interfere with the obviously critical evacuation of building one and expose evacuees to danger from falling debris if they emerged on the street. (Phil Hirschkorn, “Lawsuits likely after WTC attacks”, CNN, Oct. 10).
October 26-28 — Abusive workplace language: banned, or federally protected? A question we’ve raised before: why is it that the National Labor Relations Board extends the formal protection of federal law to “abusive language, vulgar expletives, and racial epithets”, requiring employers to refrain from treating them as grounds for discipline, on the claim that they are “part and parcel of the vigorous exchange that often accompanies labor relations'”, while at the same time federal harassment law exposes employers to stiff financial penalties for allowing those same things? An NLRB decision last year in a case called Adtranz raises the question anew. Writing for a federal appeals court, Judge David Sentelle called the discrepancy “preposterous”. (Michael Barone, “The Evolution of Labor Law”, Oct. 11).
October 26-28 — Cartoonist’s suit over practical joke. We have never derived much pleasure or instruction from the work of the cartoonist Ted Rall, and now we also know that we never, ever, want to play a stupid practical joke on him like the one that has enmeshed a man named Danny Hellman in a long-running suit at his hands. “I don’t know if any of you have ever been on the receiving end of a lawsuit; those of you who have understand what an emotionally devastating situation it is,” writes Mr. Hellman. “We have gone through months of anxiety riding this out-of-control roller coaster; only the vengeful individual at the controls knows when it will end.” DannyHellman.com (via InstaPundit: Oct. 21, Oct. 20, Oct. 15) (see letter to the editor, Nov. 29).
October 24-25 — Suit blames drugmaker for Columbine. “Families of five Columbine High School shooting victims are suing the maker of an anti-depressant that one of the student gunmen was taking when he opened fire. A therapeutic amount of the drug Luvox was found in Eric Harris’ system after he died, the Jefferson County coroner’s office has said. Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc. makes the drug to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.” (“Columbine victims’ families sue maker of anti-depressant”, AP/CNN, Oct. 21; Allison Sherry, “Drug firm sued over Columbine”, Denver Post, Oct. 21).
October 24-25 — Don’t try rating our judges, or else. Even by Philadelphia standards, it’s an unusually bare-knuckled tactic: three Democratic politicos, U.S. Reps. Robert Brady and Chaka Fattah and Pennsylvania State Sen. Christine Tartaglione, have sued a business-oriented advocacy group named Pennsylvania Law Watch, whom the plaintiffs claim are unlawfully trying to influence next month’s statewide judicial elections by distributing ratings of judges as pro- or anti-business. “Imagine,” writes one of our readers. “Someone other than lawyers rating judges. This must be stopped immediately!” Brady et al want a freeze on Law Watch’s assets, the right to go through its books, an injunction against its activities, and more. (Jeff Blumenthal, “Philly Politicians File Suit to Stop Pa. Law Watch From ‘Influencing Election'”, Legal Intelligencer, Oct. 22).
According to the Philadelphia Daily News, “State Sen. Vincent Fumo prompted some controversy last month when he told the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce that anyone who helped [Republican judge/candidate Michael] Eakin by donating to Pennsylvania Law Watch ‘should expect to be arrested,’ according to a witness at the chamber meeting, who also said Fumo mentioned Richard Sprague as a member of a team of attorneys ready for action.” (Chris Brennan, “Dems sue non-profit group, calling it a PAC”, Philadelphia Daily News, Oct. 23). For more on what is considered perfectly acceptable campaigning when done on behalf of the city’s Democratic machine, see our Oct. 12 entry (millions of dollars in “street money” handed out to elect judges, including at least $500,000 not subject to any public accounting). Update: case already settled, with Law Watch agreeing with Pennsylvania Democrats that it would not “it would not attempt to influence the statewide judicial elections through advertising, ‘push polling’ or any other kind of communication with the public” (Jeff Blumenthal, “TV Ads Against Ford Elliott Barred”, Legal Intelligencer, Oct. 23 — with discussion of related case against a second group).
October 24-25 — Guarding the spires. “I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.” — said of the Manhattan skyline by a character in Ayn Rand’s novel of New York architecture, The Fountainhead, 1943 (via David Kelley, “The Assault on Civilization”, Objectivist Center, Sept. 13).
October 23 — Guest commentary #1. Jay Nordlinger, National Review Online, on the idea of “trying” Al Qaeda: “The American love of the courts — bordering on religious worship — is pretty much comical in this instance, which is an instance of obvious and necessary war. Clarence Darrow, Atticus Finch, and Perry Mason simply have nothing to do with it, fellas. The attacks on our embassies, the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole, the attacks of 9/11? War, war, war, and to be treated as such, properly. That’s why the phrase ‘bring them to justice’ is an alarming one. No, bring them to defeat.” (“Impromptus”, Oct. 19). A contrary view: Molly Ivins, “There has to be a better way”, syndicated/Sacramento Bee, Oct. 11 (bring World Court case against bin Laden).
October 23 — Guest commentary #2. Andrew Sullivan, Sunday Times (London): “So far, this hasn’t happened in America. But the country is on a knife-edge. Americans aren’t like Brits. They have a long history of requiring almost risk-free living, which is why this is the land of the trial lawyer and the damages suit. A country that came up with a tort for the accidental spilling of hot coffee will no doubt have some difficulty acclimatizing to a world where the deliberate spilling of anthrax spores is a real and present danger.” (“Fear in the air as concern rises over biochemical attacks”, Oct. 14). Actually, we wouldn’t say it was “Americans” generally who demand that life be almost risk-free, so much as one sector of our opinion — but point taken.
October 23 — Hit after laying on RR tracks; sues railroad. “A homeless woman is suing Santa Fe Southern Railway over a 1998 accident in which a train in Santa Fe severed her feet as she was lying on the tracks at a crossing.” Dionne Fresch says the railway and its conductor and brakeman should have seen her and slowed or stopped in time; a police report found that the train was going at about 8 mph and that the engineer had honked before the crossing, as required. Railway general manager Bob Sarr called the lawsuit “disgusting” and said the “accident was not the railroad’s fault. He said Fresch was lying under a brown blanket and was indistinguishable from debris when the train hit her.” (“In brief: Woman sues over railroad accident”, Santa Fe New Mexican, Oct. 18) (& see Jun. 26-27, 2002). (DURABLE LINK)
October 22 — Lawsuit fears slow bioterror vaccines. “[T]he biotechnology industry plans to tell Congress that financial incentives and liability protection for companies would go a long way toward meeting increased demands for vaccines and medicines to treat bioterrorism agents” such as smallpox and anthrax. Many companies are eager to participate in emergency production plans, says Stephan Lawson of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, but are awaiting legislative assurances that it will not be self-defeating as a business decision to do so. “The issue of liability is particularly big since vaccine makers have a long history of being sued by patients.” (Marilyn Chase and Jill Carroll, “Trial Planned to Stretch Smallpox-Vaccine Supply”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 15 (online subscribers only); Julie Appleby, “U.S. requesting 300M smallpox vaccines”, USA Today, Oct. 18). See also Scott Gottlieb, “Ammo for the War on Germs”, WSJ/ OpinionJournal.com, Oct. 19 (FDA obstacles); Michelle Malkin, “Who hates the drug industry now?”, syndicated/Jewish World Review, Oct. 17).
October 22 — Channeling Chomsky. Ralph Nader, the world’s most prominent litigation advocate, has long kept many of his views about foreign policy under discreet wraps but now hops from campus to campus to denounce U.S. policy ascribing our current woes to our government’s not siding with the “workers and peasants” around the globe. Matt Welch, who puts out a fine “warblog” (recent coinage: war + weblog), covered Nader’s campaign and even voted for him for president but now writes of his disillusionment: “I have discovered, in reading way too much Noam Chomsky lately, that whole phrases of Nader’s admittedly limited foreign policy utterings on the stump were cut and pasted directly from Chomsky”. (MattWelch.com, Oct. 7; Oct. 11; Sept. 20). More: Ronald Radosh, “Nader and the New ‘Peace’ Movement”, FrontPage, Oct. 18.
October 22 — Batch of reader letters. Latest batch (we still haven’t fully caught up with our backlog) deals with how employers react to workers who jubilate at terrorist acts, legal vetting of anti-Taliban strikes, disabled rights and the bar exam, a proposal for a class action over law firms’ incremental billing, and whether doctors should avoid taking on attorneys as patients.
September 28-30 — Draconian hacker penalties? The counter-terrorism act (whose contents, as we have mentioned before, keep changing) was drafted to include what critics say are extraordinarily severe penalties for low-level forms of computer trespassing that bear no relation to terrorism. (Matthew Broersma, “EFF: Bill treats hackers as terrorists”, ZDNet (UK), Sept. 27; Kevin Poulsen, “Hackers face life imprisonment under ‘Anti-Terrorism’ Act”, SecurityFocus.com, Sept. 23). More on the bill’s progress: Declan McCullagh, “Congress Weighs Anti-Terror Bill”, Wired News, Sept. 25; “Wiretap Bill Gets Third Degree”, Sept. 26; Jonathan Ringel, “Surveillance Major Sticking Point in Anti-Terrorism Legislation”, American Lawyer Media, Sept. 26.
September 28-30 — Terrorists, American business execs compared. Was it a passing lapse of taste, sense and perspective in the early shock of the disaster that led New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to compare the struggle against terrorism to the campaign against … cigarette companies? In his first column after the attacks, Friedman wrote that we need to encourage defections from within the world of Muslim extremism, just as “Americans were really only able to defeat Big Tobacco when whistleblowers within the tobacco industry went public and took on their own industry, and their own bosses, as peddlers of cancer.” A very fair analogy, that! (“Smoking or Non-Smoking?”, Sept. 14). And the way-out-there-leftist website TomPaine.com, from which we don’t really expect better, gave us this gem in January of last year: “The hype [about a terrorist threat] is unfounded, largely because there is no evidence of a world wide terrorist conspiracy against the U.S., and the few alleged terrorists that have actively targeted U.S. citizens have done so infrequently.” From stupidity the article proceeded to viciousness: “The actions of business executives — from tobacco sellers to weapons manufacturers — claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year — 38,505 gun-related deaths in 1994, 6,112 workplace fatalities and 500,000 deaths from smoking in 1996 — many times more than the handful of terrorist incidents. These are the people we should be afraid of, and seek to restrain, rather than fictional characters that have more to do with Hollywood hype than political reality.” (Roni Krouzman, “The Terrorism Scare”, TomPaine.com, Jan. 19, 2000) (via WSJ OpinionJournal.com “Best of the Web”, Sept. 17). What is it to bomb the World Trade Center, after all, compared to the more menacing status of being the sort of business exec who would work in it? See also MichaelMoore.com, “Mike’s Message”, Sept. 19 (attributing character of Osama Bin Laden to his family’s being in the building contractor trade). (DURABLE LINK)
September 28-30 — Privacy claim by Bourbon Street celebrant. Just because she cavorted topless in New Orleans’ French Quarter during Mardi Gras doesn’t mean it was okay to videotape her and use the resulting footage in a compilation release entitled “Girls Gone Wild!”. “They’re really exploiting her, victimizing her,” says one of her lawyers; the idea that there might be cameras around doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind at the time. (James L. Rosica, “Poster girl sues makers of videos”, Tallahassee Democrat, Sept. 18)(& see update Mar. 6, 2002).
September 27 — Rush to reconcile. Different things seem important now, cont’d: “Dismissals in divorce cases have skyrocketed in the Harris County Family Law courts since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Family-law attorneys have found that clients contemplating divorce, as well as those in the middle of one, now say they will try to patch things up.” (see Sept. 18) (Mary Flood, “Couples want peace at home”, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 25).
September 27 — “Shooting range sued over suicide”. “The family of a woman who shot herself in the head sues a business for renting her the gun.” She came in to the shooting range with her husband; the lawyer says the attendant should have seen that she’d been drinking (St. Petersburg Times, Sept. 25).
September 27 —Force majeure fights. Do the events of September 11 constitute a material change in circumstances, thus entitling businesses to get out of merger deals and other contractual obligations? Squabbling over that issue “should keep attorneys busy for years. ‘Unfortunately, there will be litigation, whether it’s meritorious or not,’ says James Salzman, a law professor at American University.” (“Collateral Damage”, Michael Freedman and Daniel Kruger, Forbes, Oct. 15).
September 27 — Where towers stood.
Who knows how empty the sky is
In the place of a fallen tower.
Who knows how quiet it is in the home
Where a son has not returned.
— Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) (via Alex Beam, Boston Globe, Sept. 18, who says it’s from a cycle of poems, “Youth”)
September 25-26 — Vast new surveillance powers for state AGs? Mickey Kaus, on Kausfiles.com, expresses rightful unease about a most unpleasant little surprise in the counterterrorism package: he doesn’t “see why state attorneys general, the biggest showboaters in American politics, need to be given the power to employ the FBI’s ‘Carnivore’ email-tapping program without a court order.” He suggests they’ll “probably use it to ferret out tobacco users and sue them”. (“Hit Parade”, Sept. 22; see also Jacob Weisberg, “Microsuits: Why state attorneys general are suddenly suing everybody”, Slate, May 22, 1998). (But note that the contents of the legislative package keep changing rapidly; we couldn’t locate such a provision in the draft versions we consulted on the Electronic Frontier Foundation site.)
September 25-26 — Legal botches encouraged terrorists. “The international jihad arrived in America on the rainy night of Nov. 5, 1990, when [El Sayyid] Nosair walked into a crowded ballroom at the New York Marriott on 49th Street and shot and killed [extremist political figure] Rabbi Meir Kahane… With a room full of witnesses and a smoking gun, the case against Nosair should have been a lay-down. But the New York police bungled the evidence, and Nosair got off with a gun rap. At that moment, Nosair and [sidekick Mahmud] Abouhalima may have had an epiphany: back home in Egypt, suspected terrorists are dragged in and tortured. In America, they can hire a good lawyer and beat the system.” (Evan Thomas, Newsweek/MSNBC, Oct. 1).
September 25-26 — Third Circuit cuts class action fees. In a long-awaited ruling, the 3rd Circuit federal court of appeals last month ordered that a $262 million award of lawyers’ fees be slashed to a yet undetermined level in a $3.2 billion settlement of class action securities litigation against Cendant Corp. and its auditors, Ernst & Young. Objectors had argued that the case had been relatively easy to prove and that the award would pay lawyers at least 45 times their usual rates. The court “also criticized the use of ‘auctions’ to appoint lead plaintiffs’ counsel in securities class action cases”. (Shannon P. Duffy, “Cendant $3.2 Billion Settlement Upheld, but Attorneys’ Fee Award Must Be Reduced”, The Legal Intelligencer, Aug. 29) (see June 20 and Sept. 4, 2000).
The fee squabble had cast a spotlight on the tendency of many big class action firms to contribute heavily at campaign time to elected officials who by controlling state pension funds can put these lawyers in line for big fees by designating them to represent the state in such actions. “Milberg Weiss gave $127,125 to New York state candidates since 1999, including $16,000 to state auditor Carl McCall’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor,” and Barrack Rodos and Bernstein Litowitz have pumped big contributions into such states as Pennsylvania, California and Louisiana. The lawyers hired Harvard law prof Arthur Miller to defend their $262 million fee. (Tim O’Brien, “3rd Circuit Reviews Fees, Counsel Choice in Cendant Class Action Settlement, New Jersey Law Journal, June 4).
In a separate decision, involving a suit against CBS, the same appeals court ruled that “lawyers who represent shareholders in derivative actions [i.e., vicariously on behalf of the corporation] are not entitled to any fees unless the suit benefited the corporation.” It overturned a deal which would have given attorneys more than $580,000 in fees; the attorneys had claimed that the settlement of their derivative suit benefited shareholders by clearing the way for a $67 million settlement of a class action suit, but the judge said the test of benefit was whether shareholders were better off for its having been filed in the first place, not for its having been settled. (Shannon P. Duffy, “3rd Circuit Takes Back $580K in Lawyers’ Fees”, The Legal Intelligencer, Sept. 21).
September 25-26 — “Asbestos column raised awareness”. Steven Milloy of JunkScience.com fields reader reaction to his column raising the question whether asbestos insulation might have enabled the WTC towers to hold out longer before their collapse (FoxNews.com, Sept. 21) (see Sept. 17, 18).
September 24 — From mourning to resolution.
There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand;
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.
— Herman Melville, “The Martyr”, on Lincoln’s assassination (via AndrewSullivan.com and John Ellis, FastCompany)
September 24 — “Despite Protection, Airlines Face Lawsuits for Millions in Damages”. The newly passed bill puts the federal government and its taxpayers on the hook for costs of further terrorist strikes in the near term, and assists the airlines in their quest for insurance, but does less than one might imagine to shield them (and a long list of other defendants) from lawsuits over the Sept. 11 attack. (Charles Piller, L.A. Times, Sept. 22). It does not restrict filing of mass suits on creative theories based on damage on the ground, but instead gives victims a choice of whether to apply for government compensation through a “special master” in lieu of suing. Trial lawyers have already begun volunteering to help claimants with the special master process, which could put them in a position to steer those claimants back toward court-based options, especially if the taxpayer-funded compensation packages prove less than generous. And the airline bailout, which includes billions in cash subventions, may come at a high cost of future Washington entanglement for the industry: “A last-minute addition to [the bill] will let the federal government take equity stakes in the cash-strapped carriers and may even open the door to a government role on their corporate boards, lawmakers said on Friday.” (Adam Entous, “Airline Bailout Allows US to Take Stake”, Reuters/Yahoo, Sept. 21) (Yahoo Full Coverage).
September 24 — Blame video games, again. Expect renewed scrutiny of both videogames and flight simulator software, either of which might assist bad guys as well as good guys in honing skills relevant to lawlessness in the air. (David Coursey, “How video games influenced the attack on America”, ZDNet, Sept. 21; Marc Prensky, “Video games and the attack on America”, TwitchSpeed.com, undated). On earlier rounds of agitation against game makers and entertainment companies, see Gwendolyn Mariano, “Columbine victim families sue over violent games”, ZDNet, April 24, and collected commentaries on this site.
September 24 — Miami jury to Ford: pay $15 million after beltless crash. It wasn’t one of the much-publicized Explorer/Firestone cases, but instead arose from the rollover accident of an Econoline van none of whose twelve occupants was wearing seatbelts. A Ford spokeswoman criticized the verdict: “‘No proof of a manufacturing defect was shown,’ she said. ‘This was simply a tragic accident compounded by passengers not being belted.”’ (“Ford to Pay $15 Million in Rollover Case”, Reuters/FoxNews.com, Sept. 21). And the Association of Trial Lawyers of America is showcasing on its website an $18 million jury verdict against GM in favor of an 18-year-old driver who fell asleep at the wheel at 70 mph in his Chevrolet S-10 Blazer SUV. The automaker “tried to introduce evidence that plaintiff had a blood alcohol level between .04 and .07 at the time of the accident, which was illegal given his age. [Plaintiff’s attorney Michael] Piuze successfully moved to exclude this fact on the ground that plaintiff had admitted his responsibility for the accident.” (ATLA Law Reporter, May — Lambert v. General Motors).
September 21-23 — “The high cost of cultural passivity”. “FAA’s silly rules did exactly nothing to stop the hijackers” (Mark Steyn, National Post, Sept. 17; “Making it safe to fly” (letters to the editor), Washington Post, Sept. 21). What did help was the revolt of the heroic passengers on United Flight 93 (Rick Reilly, “Four of a Kind”, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 19; Dan LeBatard, “Final heroic act not forgotten by the many saved”, Miami Herald, Sept. 20; some particularly good commentaries from Virginia Postrel on Sept. 20 and earlier days; proposal for a monument to them). Writes Lisa Snell: “I would rather be on a hijacked airplane with someone inoculated by Power Rangers than someone who believes the inherent message of every school institution: that weapons are bad and that the authorities and the government will solve all problems and protect you” (quoted by Joanne Jacobs, Sept. 14).
September 21-23 — Judge to “Sopranos” suit: Fuhgetaboutit. Free speech prevails: “A judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by an Italian-American organization that accused the makers of the HBO television series ‘The Sopranos’ of offending Italian-Americans by depicting them as mobsters. ….The American Italian Defense Association sued Time Warner Entertainment Co. under the ‘individual dignity’ clause of the Illinois Constitution.” (AP, link now dead; “Judge dismisses ‘Sopranos’ lawsuit”, MSNBC/Reuters, Sept. 19) (see April 6-8).
September 21-23 — “Don’t sacrifice freedom”. We can win this one without giving up what makes us Americans (Glenn Reynolds, FoxNews.com, Sept. 14; Dave Kopel, “Don’t Press the Panic Button”, National Review Online, Sept. 21; Stuart Taylor Jr., “Thinking the Unthinkable: Next Time Could Be Much Worse”, National Journal/The Atlantic, Sept. 19; E. J. Dionne, “To Go On Being Americans”, Washington Post, Sept. 14).
September 21-23 — “Lawsuits From Attacks Likely to Be in the Billions”. Trial lawyers speculate about various targets for the vast amount of litigation they intend to file; on the list are airlines, New York’s much-sued Port Authority and a great many others. (Robert Gearan, New York Daily News, Sept. 19; “In aftermath of terror attacks, lawyers holding off on lawsuits, but they’re coming”, ABCNews.com, Sept. 20; “Attorneys hold off on flurry of lawsuits”, USA Today, Sept. 21; “S&P: Airlines Need Relief From Lawsuits”, Reuters/Yahoo, Sept. 20).
April 20-22 — Quite an ankle sprain. Michele Nations, 26, who sprained her ankle five years ago when she tripped into a hole at a municipal park in Tucson, has now been awarded $450,000 by a local jury. Nations’ attorney “says the case hinged on the city’s responsibility to post adequate warning about burrowing animals [such as squirrels and gophers] and to provide a safe alternative to dodging holes and caved-in tunnels.” An attorney for the city differs, and calls the outcome astonishing: “You would think in a park — in a natural space — people should have to watch where they’re going.” (April 19: Maureen O’Connell, “Gopher hole may cost city $450K”, Arizona Daily Star; “Jury awards Tucson woman who stepped into hole at a park”, AP/Arizona Republic). (DURABLE LINK)
April 20-22 — Thank you, Your Honor. The May Brill’s Content has a cover story (teaser only online) entitled “Human Portals: How people with an obsession — and a website — are upstaging big media”. It tells how weblogs, link-rich sites regularly updated and often zeroing in on a specialized theme, are the new Big Thing in online media; typically “curated by one person”, according to editor in chief David Kuhn, they “could teach big media portals a lot about engaging their audience”. Happy to read all this, we were particularly pleased to turn to the sidebar feature in which the magazine surveys a group of public luminaries about their favorite websites, which range from eBay (Nora Ephron) to 10KWizard.com (Gretchen Morgenson). And here’s Alex Kozinski, distinguished federal judge on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, on his favorite: “Overlawyered (overlawyered.com) provides pointers to legal-system horror stories: the accused rapist who pockets disability checks for his ‘sexual compulsion’; the drunk who climbs a voltage tower and sues the utility company when he gets injured; the guy who murders his mom and sues his shrinks for not stopping him. The site is run by Walter Olson, who likes nothing better than reporting on legal overkill, and he’s compiled serious research tools for anyone interested in trends and abuses within the civil litigation system.” Thank you, Your Honor! (DURABLE LINK)
April 20-22 — Comparable worth in Maine. Despite widespread criticism of the idea from economists and others, Maine has enacted new rules opening private employers to a serious threat of legal action if they pay less to a worker of one gender than to a worker of the opposite gender “for comparable work on jobs with comparable requirements related to skill, effort and responsibility”. Some other states have had “comparable worth” or “pay equity” laws on the books, but Maine is the first to enact regulations giving such laws serious teeth. “We won”, said an official with the state AFL-CIO. “The business community has not awakened to the fact that this is going to cost them.” Disagreements are all but inevitable as to whether (say) secretaries’ work should be regarded as just as valuable as that of (say) truck drivers, and the Maine law will allow lawyers to march into such controversies with class action suits for unlimited damages — won’t that be fun? The state chamber of commerce did not oppose the enactment. (“Equal pay advocates tout new state rules”, AP/Bangor Daily News, April 4; “Maine Becomes First State Requiring Pay Equity”, Women’s ENews, April 3 (via Freedom News Daily); Maine Equal Justice Partners, 2000 Docket Report (scroll down to “Pay Equity”)).
SEE ALSO May 17, 2000; Diana Furchtgott-Roth, “Suicide Mission: The Union Push for Comporable Worth”, Capital Research Center Labor Watch, Dec. 1999; Lawrence W. Reed, “Comparable Worth or Incomparably Worthless?”, Mackinac Center, Sept. 6, 1994. The late Clarence Pendleton Jr., chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, called comparable worth “the looniest idea since Looney Tunes came on the screen” (Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations #519). (DURABLE LINK)
April 20-22 — “Lie-tery winners”. All sorts of basically decent people, from cops to grandmothers, would never think of shoplifting or forging checks but do seem to think it’s okay to lie in lawsuits. “Just ask anyone who has taken more than a handful of depositions or cross-examined witnesses at trial — especially witnesses in tort cases. … the oath has become virtually meaningless,” writes Kirkland & Ellis partner Michael Jones (“Lie-tery Winners”, National Law Journal, March 22).
April 18-19 — Mistletoe dangerous even when absent. LeRoy Crawford says his female boss at the New York Stock Exchange behaved seductively and made remarks such as “if there were mistletoe, I would give you a kiss,” when giving him a Christmas bottle of cologne. Things went from bad to worse, and he now wants $1 million in compensatory damages and $1 million for “special damages as a result of physical and mental injury”. (Peter Noel, “Sex on the floor”, Village Voice, April 11-17).
April 18-19 — Randomness of case assignments questioned. San Francisco assigns cases for pre-trial motions to one of two judges, and it seemed that the plaintiff’s firm of Wartnick, Chaber, Harowitz & Tigerman kept getting lucky by drawing the more favorable judge to hear its asbestos cases. Lucky, indeed: over the past two years, 94 percent of the firm’s cases were assigned even numbers, instead of the odd numbers that would have sent the cases to the other judge. (Dennis J. Opatrny, “Playing the Numbers”, The Recorder, April 9).
April 18-19 — “Guests sue inn for overbooking”. When five Massachusetts couples arrived at Vermont’s romantic Woodstock Inn for an investment club weekend last April, they found the inn had inadvertently overbooked its rooms, and three of the couples had to stay at a local B&B. The inn proprietors were terribly apologetic and treated all five couples to the weekend’s lodging for free, as well as giving them a free dinner. Nonetheless, four of the couples are suing for a sum “substantially in excess of $25,000” in a Boston court. (AP/Boston Globe, April 17).
April 18-19 — Tempest in an arsenic-laced teacup? President Bush deserves credit for standing up to demagogues by pulling back this bad regulation: Steve Chapman, “Who’s really poisoning our drinking water?”, Chicago Tribune, April 12; George Will, “The costs of moral exhibitionism”, Washington Post, April 15; Jason K. Burnett and Robert W. Hahn, Brookings/AEI Joint Center study, “EPA’s Arsenic Rule: The Benefits of the Standard Do Not Justify the Costs”, abstract, Jan. 2001; Mercatus Center (George Mason U.) Public Interest Comment series, Sept. 19, 2000; Michael Kinsley, “Bush is right on arsenic. Darn!”, Washington Post, April 13; Michael Y. Park, “Study: Arsenic Rule Would Have Increased Deaths”, FoxNews.com, April 17; Nick Schulz, “Poisoner-in-Chief Is Saving Lives”, American Spectator Online, April 17; Diane Rehm show transcript (National Public Radio), March 28.
April 17 — Reparations: take a number. National Journal columnist Stuart Taylor Jr. traces the link between demands for compensation for century-old evils such as slavery and colonization and legal battles over liability for decades-ago sales of products like lead paint and asbestos (“Paying Reparations for Ancient Wrongs Is Not Right”, The Atlantic/National Journal, April 11; our take, Reason, Nov. 2000). The group of lawyers mapping out slavery-reparations suits are scheduled to huddle on strategy today in Washington, and say they plan to name businesses as well as the U.S. government as defendants (Jamal E. Watson, “Lawyers plan suit for slavery reparations”, Boston Globe, April 13). The conservative magazine Insight has given uncritically positive coverage to demands for compensation over Japan’s World War II mistreatment of American servicemen, despite the clear laying to rest of such claims by postwar treaty. You’d think victims of the crimes of communism over its long reign would be even better placed to score positive ink in the conservative press, but we seem to hear little about them — not that we would want to load up the reparations bandwagon even further, you understand (Stephen Goode, “New book documents Japanese exploitation”, Insight, undated).
April 17 — A Pulitzer for Dorothy Rabinowitz. The Wall Street Journal editorialist, whose searing commentaries on dubious child-abuse prosecutions have helped expose some of the most glaring injustices to flow from sentimentalism and credulity in our legal system, snags one of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes for her commentaries on American society and culture (Yahoo Full Coverage — Pulitzers). OpinionJournal.com keeps an archive of her media criticism; her articles on abusive prosecution, when online at all, are found at far-flung corners of the web (“A Darkness in Massachusetts” -I-, -II-, -III- (RickRoss.com); more columns on Amirault case; “Through the Darkness” (the Grant Snowden case, forever linked with the name of Janet Reno) (DennisPrager.net); Wenatchee case -I-, -II-).
April 16 — “Woman settles hot pickle lawsuit with McDonald’s”. Or at least its local franchisee: “A woman who claimed she was permanently scarred by a hot McDonald’s hamburger pickle has settled her lawsuit against the restaurant chain. MAR Inc., which does business as McDonald’s in Knoxville, admitted no wrongdoing in the agreement signed by a judge Thursday. Other details of the settlement are to remain confidential. ” (see Oct. 10, 2000) (AP/CNN, April 13).
April 16 — New batch of reader letters. Our correspondents tell why the law makes it perilous to hire a home renovation contractor in New York, ask about buying T-shirts from us, wonder whether Indian-derived place names such as Wichita and Massachusetts are next up for abolition, lament American law’s resistance to the obvious fairness of the loser-pays principle, and hail a Supreme Court decision upholding employment arbitration.
April 16 — Big numbers. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if the injuries resulting from a transportation accident are sufficiently severe, a wealthy business must have been at fault. Teledyne Continental Motors of Mobile, Ala. has agreed to pay $27 million to settle a suit on behalf of survivors of five skydivers killed in the crash of a Cessna, though its attorney said the company’s oil tube design does not cause engine failure as the plaintiffs alleged (Joe Lambe, “$27 Million Settlement in Skydiving Plane Crash”, DropZone.com, March 16; “Poor Preflight Probably Killed Skydivers: NTSB”, Aero-News.Net, June 29, 2000). An Indiana appellate court has upheld a $55 million jury verdict against the Kroger Co. over a truck accident at a company terminal, rejecting the company’s contention that the award was excessive and in conflict with workers’ compensation laws (the injured man, a truck driver, worked for a wholly owned subsidiary of the large grocery chain). (Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Finding No Direct Employment Relationship, Indiana Appellate Court Upholds PI Award”, National Law Journal, March 28). A Los Angeles jury has just voted $55 million against General Tire, a unit of Germany’s Continental Gummi-Werke, over a “tread separation” accident (if you thought those were unique to Firestone, think again). (Myron Levin, Los Angeles Times, April 14; “Jury orders tire maker to pay $55 million”, AP/CNN, April 14). Among the plaintiff’s lawyers in the case was Brian Panish, famed for his 1999 feat in getting another L. A. jury to award $4.9 billion against GM, later reduced to $1.2 billion. And another well-known maker of replacement tires, Cooper Tire, got hammered the same week for $10 million in El Paso (“Jury OKs $10M Award Vs. Cooper Tire”, AP/FindLaw, April 13). Also see Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Two Tire Companies Punctured by Juries”, National Law Journal, April 24, with more details about both tire cases.
April 13-15 — It was the bar’s fault. “A 20-year-old Jamison man, who was shot last summer, says a Warminster bar is partially to blame for the incident. Had he not become drunk from alcohol consumption that night, Martin Joyce’s judgment would not have been impaired, he would not have approached an unknown man for change and he would not have been shot, alleges a suit filed in Montgomery County Court.” (John Corcoran, “Intoxication caused judgment error, suit claims”, Doylestown, Pa. Intelligencer-Record, April 11).
April 13-15 — Anti-Ritalin lawyers still acting out. Despite some early setbacks, tobacco-veteran lawyers including Richard Scruggs, John Coale and Marc Saperstein continue to seek megabucks damages against drugmaker Novartis (formerly Ciba-Geigy) over the widespread prescribing in schools of Ritalin, the drug meant to combat attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and related conditions. There’s a strong case to be made against the thoughtless overuse of this drug, but how characteristic of our litigation system that it proposes to take decisions about its use out of the hands of both medical professionals and parents, instead inviting the lawyers to shop around until they find a few sympathetic courts and a jury or two willing (effectively) to ban the drug through punitive damages. PBS “Frontline” covered the issue recently (“Medicating Kids“) and its website includes a section on the litigation (“ADHD Lawsuits“) which points out a noteworthy recent development: on March 8 of this year federal judge Rudi Brewster threw out a suit seeking class-action status on behalf of everyone in California who had used or bought Ritalin, and also “ruled that activities by defendants intended to advance the medical understanding, diagnosis and treatment of ADHD were free speech protected under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute.” This latter is significant because efforts by businesses to engage in medical promotion or policy defense of products, trade association activity etc. are now routinely sued over by trial lawyers in themselves (conspiracy! public brainwashing! tobacco all over again!) and anti-SLAPP statutes might prove useful in rebuffing such causes of action.
MORE: Sept. 18 & Sept. 22, 2000; Nancy Shute, “Pushing Pills on Kids?”, U.S. News, Oct. 2, 2000; Shankar Vedantam, “A symptom of the times? ADD, Ritalin focus of suits”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 11, 2000; Bob Seay, “Ten Questions for the Lawyers”, About.com ADD site, Sept. 16, 2000.
April 13-15 — “2000’s Ten Wackiest Employment Lawsuits”. Gerald Skoning of Chicago’s Seyfarth Shaw compiles an annual roundup of the most bizarre cases in employment law. Among this year’s highlights: a Minneapolis woman took a job in a sex-toy store and then filed a hostile-environment harassment lawsuit because of all the dirty talk she had to listen to; an Ohio court allowed a worker at a mental health facility to proceed with his reverse disability-discrimination claim that he had been singled out for mistreatment as the only employee at the facility without a mental disability; and a Boeing employee claimed that the company’s objection to his working in the nude was a failure to accommodate his religion, shamanism (“2000’s 10 Wackiest Employment Lawsuits”, National Law Journal, March 29).
April 12 — Zero-tolerance spiral. The WSJ‘s OpinionJournal.com “Best of the Web” feature has lately made it a special project to collect reports of zero tolerance excesses, which are fast mounting beyond our ability to record them. F’rinstance, there are the school officials in West Annapolis, Md., who have banned kids from playing tag during recess, citing the school’s “no-touching” policy (Kimberly Marselas, “City school bans students from playing tag”, Annapolis Capital, March 26); and the honor student given an in-school suspension in West Monroe, La., for drawing a GI Joe-style commando with canteen, knife and grenades (Emeri O’Brien, “3rd-grader suspended for drawing”, Monroe, La. News-Star, March 24; “Soldier drawing gets wide attention”, March 27). A 16-year-old student at Legacy High School in Broomfield, Colo. “may be charged with a felony after school officials found an unloaded BB gun in his car.” (Christine Reid, “Student may face felony charge over unloaded BB gun”, Scripps-Howard, April 8). And in the continuing search for ways to build character in the leaders of tomorrow, some favor snitchlines: “Cedar Rapids police are believed to be the first in Iowa to create a student hot line to take tips on illegal activity. Teens who call about classmates they believe to have alcohol, drugs or weapons on school property get $50 if the police recover anything.” (Kate Kompas, “Teen crime hot line offers cash”, Des Moines Register, April 5).
April 12 — “The Last Tycoon”. This Baltimore City Paper profile from last August, which we missed at the time, says contingency fees to Peter Angelos’s law firm topped $100 million for asbestos work on behalf of Bethlehem Steel workers alone, with more riches expected to flow in from fen-phen, lead paint and those supposedly deadly cellular phones. “When it comes to Baltimore’s politics and finances, it seems, almost nothing happens without Peter Angelos. … in 1999, 10 lawyers and lobbyists were registered with the State Ethics Commission on his behalf.” The minority leader of the state house describes the Orioles owner’s power in Annapolis as “absolutely magical” and “amazing … It’s all based on huge amounts of money flowing [from] Peter Angelos’ pocket and into the coffers of the Democratic Party.'” (Molly Rath, Baltimore City Paper, Aug. 16, 2000)(more).
April 11 — Lost his live client, had to substitute dead one instead. In St. Louis, where lots of dead people are registered to vote, “a dead man was listed as the chief plaintiff in a lawsuit filed on Election Day in November,” according to the L.A. Times. “He was having trouble voting, the suit said, due to long lines at his polling station. So he petitioned a judge — successfully — to keep city ballot boxes open late. … The lawyer who filed the suit explained the mix-up by saying he had intended the plaintiff to be Robert ‘Mark’ Odom, an aide to a Democratic candidate for Congress.” However, “Odom had voted, without a wait, by the time the suit was filed,” and the papers had been prepared with his name on them. But as California judge William W. Bedsworth suggests, this supposed explanation if anything makes the case more egregious: the lawyer “‘explained’ how he filed a suit on behalf of a dead person by saying that the plaintiff turned out not to have had his rights violated, and the only available person with the same name happened to be dead. And this caused not the batting of an eyelash in St. Louis. No immediate suspension, no call for disbarment, no investigation into how he got a judge to sign this thing”. (“Meet Me in St. Louis”, The Recorder, April 9).
April 11 — Update: “metric martyr” convicted. In the first such prosecution in Britain, greengrocer Steven Thoburn of Sunderland has been convicted of violating a 1985 compulsory metric system laws by selling bananas in pounds and ounces (see Jan. 22) (“‘Metric martyr’ convicted”, The Guardian, April 9; “Bananas” (editorial), Daily Telegraph (editorial), April 10; footrule.org, of which the late Jennifer Paterson (TV’s “Two Fat Ladies”) was an honorary member).
April 20 — Not tonight, gotta coach my kids. “Children as young as 7 and 9 were coached to fake injuries in a car insurance fraud case in western Arkansas, a lawyer for the state Insurance Department said.” Eleven people in the Fort Smith area were charged with setting up liability claims by staging accidents so as to make it appear that other drivers were at fault. “Clay Simpson, an attorney for the department, said some used children as passengers and trained them to act injured after the staged crashes”. One of the adults evidently decided to add realism, according to Simpson, and “physically struck one of the small children in the head so he would have an injury … and be able to go to the hospital.” (Arkansas Insurance Department press release, April 13; Chuck Bartels, “Eleven Charged for Staging Crashes”, AP/Excite, Apr. 13; “The youngest grifters”, AP/ABC News, Apr. 14).
April 20 — Web-advertisers’ apocalypse? Most noteworthy tidbit in WSJ news story a while back on wave of privacy suits against cookie-deploying Web ad firms, quoting Fordham Law’s Joel Reidenberg, a specialist on the topic: “Even advertisers could have some liability to the extent they benefited from and participated in the DoubleClick network. ‘Anybody in the chain of information who participated in the passing off of information to others would be potential targets,’ Mr. Reidenberg says.” (Richard B. Schmitt, “Online Privacy: Alleged Abuses Shape New Law”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 29, 2000, fee-based archive).
April 20 — Arm yourself for managed care debate. How much higher will medical costs go when Congress makes it easier to sue, and how many more families will get priced out of health insurance? How coherently will a cost control system work once it’s geared to whichever jury gets angriest? Resources: Krishna Kundu, “The Norwood-Dingell Liability Bill: Health Insurance at Risk”, Employment Policy Foundation cost study, Mar. 24; “The Problems with Punitive Damages in Lawsuits against Managed-Care Organizations”, New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 27; Health Benefits Coalition.
April 20 — Letourneau scandal: now where’s my million? “The teen-ager who fathered two children by his former grade school teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau, is seeking damages from a suburban [Seattle] municipality and school district. Vili Fualaau, now 16, and his mother, Soona, are seeking damages of at least $1 million for emotional suffering, lost income and the cost of rearing the girls, who are in the care of the boy’s mother.” The suit charges school officials with failing to protect the boy from the amorous advances of his teacher, 38, who’s now serving a 7 1/2 year sentence for her involvement with him. “The teen, his mother and Letourneau previously have said in television appearances and in a book that the relationship was consensual.” (“Teen-age boy seeks damages in Washington state teacher sex case”, AP/CNN, Apr. 14).
April 19 — All dressed up. James and Cynthia Harnage of Norwich, Ct. are seeking $21 million in damages from Publisher’s Clearing House, the magazine sweepstakes company, which they say in or around last December sent them repeated notices marked “Document of Title” and “official correspondence from the Publisher’s Clearing House board of judges” with messages such as “Congratulations! Your recent entry was a winner! And Approved for $21 Million!” The Harnages say they came to be convinced that they would receive the grand prize in person on Super Bowl Sunday and even got all dressed up to wait for the knock on the door, but it never came. According to a local paper, Mr. Harnage describes himself as devastated by the letdown; the lawsuit alleges fraud and breach of contract and says the couple suffered emotional distress. (“Disappointed couple sues Publisher’s Clearing House”, AP/Newsday, Apr. 14; “Couple sues Publisher’s Clearing House”, New London (Ct.) Day, Apr. 16).
April 19 — From the incivility frontier. Richard F. Ziegler, writing in the Feb. 7 National Law Journal: “Until recently, the classic example of incivility in litigation was famed Texas lawyer Joe Jamail’s defense of a deposition witness in the 1993 Paramount-QVC Network-Viacom takeover battle. According to the excerpts of the deposition transcript included in an addendum to an opinion by the Delaware Supreme Court, Jamail told the examining lawyer that he could ‘gag a maggot off a meat wagon’ and made other vituperative remarks that the Delaware court labeled ‘extraordinarily rude, uncivil and vulgar.’ . … Mr. Jamail’s ‘maggot’ rhetoric has now been displaced by a new classic in incivility: a pre-suit letter sent by a New York litigator that threatened the prospective defendant with the ‘legal equivalent of a proctology exam’ if the plaintiff’s claim weren’t satisfied without litigation. That wording, plus some other aggressive tactics by the same lawyer, ended up costing the would-be proctologist a $50,000 sanction (now on appeal).” The sanctions were handed down last November by federal judge Denny Chin against litigator Judd Burstein, in a case called Revson v. Cinque & Cinque P.C. However, prospective targets of legal intimidation should not get their hopes up too high: a few years ago the Second Circuit, which includes New York, “sustained as proper a pre-suit letter that sought to encourage settlement by threatening the opposing party with harmful publicity.” (Richard F. Ziegler, “Litigation: The Price of Incivility”, National Law Journal, Feb. 7).
April 19 — Microsoft case: commentators. A gamut of views, ranging from the moderately appalled to the fully appalled:
* Robert Samuelson on the clash between the living thing that is the New Economy and the seemingly robotic lurch of antitrust enforcement (“Puzzles of the New Economy”, Newsweek, April 17);
* Tom Watson, though declaring himself “no cyberlibertarian,” laments that the suit “has permanently created a Federal presence in the development of networked software in the United States. And that means, of course, lots of lawyers getting lots of hourly fees to litigate in an area they clearly don’t understand.” (“Justice Department Saves the Internet, Film at 11”, AtNewYork, April 6 — via Q Queso);
* Michael Kinsley has fun with a New York Times reporter on the question of whether it was shocking for Bill Gates to try to fend off Justice Department assault by — eeeuw! — hiring lobbyists (“The Timesman With a Microchip on His Shoulder”, Slate, April 17).
April 19 — $60,000 battle over $5 t-shirt. In Westerly, Rhode Island, court wrangling has now gone on for two years over whether then-sophomore Robert Parker’s heavy-metal t-shirt (“White Zombie”, number 666 on back) was unnecessarily disruptive and thus in violation of the school dress code. (Michael Mello, “RI ‘Satanic’ T-Shirt Case Continues”, AP/Washington Post, Apr. 10). Update Aug. 29-30: case has settled.
April 18 — Brockovich story, cont’d: the judges’ cruise. Picking up where we left off yesterday with more highlights from Kathleen Sharp’s investigation for Salon:
* Not long after the case settled with its lucrative $133 million lawyers’ fee, the two L.A. lawyers who’d teamed with the Masry/Brockovich firm to handle the PG&E case, Thomas Girardi of Girardi & Keese in Los Angeles, and Walter Lack of Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack in Century City, “organized a weeklong Mediterranean cruise for 90 people, including 11 public and private judges. The three PG&E arbitrators were among those invited,” reports Sharp. “One judge called it ‘absolutely incredible.’ A luxury yacht floated on azure waters; tuxedoed butlers balanced silver trays of free champagne; young bikini-clad ladies frolicked on the sun-splashed deck, according to retired Judge [William] Schoettler, who was a guest. As another bare-chested judge remarked at the time: ‘This gives decadence a bad name.'”
“The cruise was organized under the banner of Girardi and Lack’s Foundation for the Enrichment of the Law. Girardi told the Los Angeles Times that the cruise included ‘an extensive professional program,'” which would make it allowable under judicial rules, but retired judge Schoettler can’t recall anyone he knew actually attending a lecture. “The cost was about $3,000 per person, about half the normal rate; Girardi told the Times he and Lack had received a discount for chartering the entire Cunard cruise ship. After some confusion, all of the judges on the trip paid their way, save two unrelated to the PG&E case who were invited to lecture.”
* Some of the judges in the arbitration had an unusually friendly relationship with Girardi: one had officiated at his second wedding, Schoettler had flown in his Gulfstream to attend the World Series, and so forth. “‘I became aware that I should absolutely stay away from [arbitration firm] JAMS or its retired judges when it came to any dealing with Tom Girardi,’ said Laurence Janssen, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson. … ‘The common lore imparted to me was that it would be crazy to get in front of any JAMS arbitration with Girardi.'” The outcry over the post-Hinkley-case cruise helped spur a California Supreme Court inquiry into the arbitration system. (Kathleen Sharp, “Erin Brockovich: The Real Story”, Salon, April 14).
Incredibly — given all the above — some in the White House and in the Al Gore campaign are hoping to ride the success of the celluloid “Erin Brockovich” into a chance to seize the initiative on behalf of the wonders of the beneficent tort system and the wickedness of the mean old tort reformers who’d like it to be regulated and supervised more closely. That came across in both a relatively light column by the New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd (“The Erin Factor”, April 5) and a thuddingly heavy one by Salon‘s Joe Conason, whose writings often sum up the theme-of-the-week of the Clinton/Gore attack machine (“Lessons from ‘Erin Brockovich'”, March 28). Given the revelations in Kathleen Sharp’s article — which, if there’s any justice, should be in contention for the next round of journalistic prizes — it now may be time for Gore’s backers to hope that public opinion doesn’t start focusing on the Hinkley case. Also recommended: Dennis Byrne, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times that “as I sat through the movie with a reporter’s skepticism, I was uneasy about how one-sided it was,” and offering a list of “movies you’ll never see come out of Hollywood”, (“A feel-good story with a bad taste”, April 12, link now dead); and Michelle Malkin, “The truth about Erin Brockovich”, syndicated/ Jewish World Review, April 17.
April 18 — Catfight! This store’s not big enough for two tigers. Federal appeals court reinstates Kellogg Co.’s suit against Exxon over the two companies’ use of cartoon tigers, both of which date back to the 1950s. For years Exxon’s “tiger in your tank” was mostly seen at the gas pump, but more recently the petroleum company has moved him indoors to tout food items at its convenience stores, angering the Battle Creek-based cereal company, which uses Tony the Tiger to sell its Sugar Frosted Flakes. (“Kellogg Renews Suit Against Exxon over Tiger”, AP/Washington Post, Apr. 12).
April 18 — Update: trial lawyers’ war on Allstate. Plaintiff’s attorneys score some advances in campaign against big insurer known for lawyer-averse claims practices (see “How To Hammer Allstate”, Dec. 22). A New Haven, Ct. federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that that company committed fraud by discouraging third parties involved in accidents with its insureds from retaining lawyers. A Seattle judge agreed with trial lawyer arguments that for Allstate to urge such third-party claimants not to hire lawyers amounts to the unauthorized practice of law and is thus illegal. And a Nassau County, N.Y. judge has levied sanctions against the company for insisting on its policyholder’s day in court against a claim where it should in the judge’s view have conceded liability. (Mark Ballard, “Allstate Tactics Under Fire,” National Law Journal, Jan. 31; Thomas Scheffey, “Allstate Suit Gets Nod From Connecticut Court”, Connecticut Law Tribune, Feb. 14; Michael A. Riccardi, “Appeal Battle Over Allstate Sanction Case May Help Tort Plaintiffs”, New York Law Journal, Mar. 22). Update Apr. 25, 2004: insurer prevails in Connecticut federal case.
April 17 — Brockovich story breaks wide open. Salon scoops competition with journalist Kathleen Sharp’s impressive investigation of the real lawsuit that inspired “Erin Brockovich”. In the Hollywood tale, after our spunky heroine vanquishes nasty Pacific Gas & Electric, the residents of Hinkley, Calif. win big. In the real world, many of the Hinkley clients feel they got the royal shaft from the lawyers who represented them, and are now proceeding to sue those lawyers, specifically Brockovich’s firm of Masry & Vititoe, headed by Ed Masry:
* Of the $333 million settlement paid by PG&E, the lawyers kept a handsome 40 percent ($133 million) share, plus another $10 mil to cover expenses, yet were short (the clients say) on detail to back up the latter largish number. Worse, they say Masry, Brockovich & Co. held on to their money for six months after the settlement, a delay that appears highly irregular to the experts Salon checks with, while not paying interest or even returning their phone calls (the lawyers claim the payments did include interest). Some with large awards also got steered toward certain financial planners, among whom was Ed Masry’s son Louis.
* When the payouts eventually came, many clients found the division of spoils mysterious, arbitrary-seeming or worse. Divided among the 650 plaintiffs, the announced $196 million would provide about $300,000 per client. However, an outside lawyer who interviewed 81 of the plaintiffs says he was told they received an average of $152,000, and Salon reports that many long-term residents with presumably documented medical ailments got payments of $50,000 or $60,000. The numbers are in fact secret, which means clients can’t get an accounting of who received what — you’ve gotta protect the privacy of the other plaintiffs, right? Moreover, “there was no mention of the criteria, formula or method by which the money would be divided,” other than a statement that the amounts would be based on clients’ medical records. Yet some residents say their medical records were never solicited. One elderly, ailing resident “blew up at one of the attorneys, who didn’t like his attitude,” according to a fellow townsman, and “got a real bad deal,” allotted in the end only $25,000: “fairly or not, some residents say they saw a pattern in the distribution method. ‘If you were buddies with Ed and Erin, you got a lot of money,’ said [client Carol] Smith. ‘Otherwise, forget it.'”
* Even while the case was pending, many clients (as well as the outside press) found themselves unable to keep tabs on its progress; it was resolved in arbitration, which takes place off the public record. “We had no idea what was going on and weren’t allowed to watch,” said one plaintiff. Yet with help from the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Universal Studios managed to obtain a copy of the trial transcript — more than many of the actual plaintiffs in the case have yet managed to do. When journalist Sharp attempted to interview the lawyers on the Brockovich team, the resulting conversations were “short and explosive and terminated abruptly by the lawyers.” And when an outside lawyer took an interest in the disgruntled clients’ case, Masry and fellow lawyers at once seized the offensive, suing him for allegedly slandering them and interfering with their business relationship with the clients; this slander suit was filed, then dropped two weeks later, then reinstated, then dropped again.
* What about the science? (see April 14 and March 30 commentaries) Fumes from the application of chromium-6 in industrial settings are indeed dangerous to workers who inhale them, but the crux of the Hinkley controversy was what kind of health risk the substance poses as a trace water pollutant. Sharp quotes toxicologist Sharon Wilbur at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who flatly contradicts Brockovich on whether the contaminant could have caused the various health problems sued over.
* Sharp also unearths allegations leveled by the Brockovich-side lawyers and by others that the first set of lawyers PG&E had used on the case had engaged in potentially serious misconduct, including privacy invasion by hired gumshoes. It’s hard to know how much weight to give these allegations, but if credited even in part they might suggest a motive for the utility to accept a hasty settlement of the case on unfavorable terms.
Some of Sharp’s sources evidently have a bit of an ax to grind against arbitration as an institution, but the article is still a triumph of sheer reportorial legwork, too rich in detail to summarize in one day. Tomorrow: the judges’ posh Mediterranean cruise, mounting press interest in the case, and the politics of it all. (Kathleen Sharp, “Erin Brockovich: The Real Story”, Salon, April 14).
April 17 — Annals of zero tolerance: kindergartners’ “bang, you’re dead”. Four kindergartners playing “cops and robbers” at Wilson School in Sayreville, New Jersey were given three-day suspensions after they pretended their fingers were guns and played at shooting each other. “This is a no tolerance policy. We’re very firm on weapons and threats,” said district superintendent William L. Bauer. “Given the climate of our society, we cannot take any of these statements in a light manner.” (“N.J. kindergartners suspended for threats during playground ‘cops and robbers’ “, AP/Court TV, April 6; see also Nov. 20 commentary).
April 17 — Another sampling of visitors. The hundreds of diverse websites that link to us include the Wyoming Libertarian Party (“I’d say this country is overlawyered, but some trial lawyer will probably sue me for saying it”), Arrosage Lemay, a pest control and lawn maintenance enterprise in Notre-Dame- de- la-Salette, Québec (catch the antennae-wiggling animations), and Ridgefield Focus, a community site serving a town of which we’re very fond, Ridgefield, Ct.
April 14-16 — Great moments in defamation law. At a sentencing hearing for James Hermann, who’d pled guilty to armed robbery, defense lawyer Robin Shellow argued that despite her client’s extensive criminal record (six previous adult convictions) he deserved to be treated with some leniency because he’d been struggling with a heroin problem. But this last statement of hers was mistaken: though Mr. Hermann admitted in a probation report that he was high on crack cocaine and Valium when he’d used a shotgun to rob a Milwaukee custard store owner, his drug use did not include heroin. Hermann proceeded to sue her for defamation, and although the judge in the criminal case said her slip hadn’t affected the length of the sentence either way, Hermann proceeded to line up an expert witness willing to testify that he’d “suffered psychological harm as the result of being called a heroin addict instead of a cocaine addict”, according to Shellow’s lawyer, Randal Arnold. Psychologist Paul M. Smerz told the court that Hermann had suffered “lessened sense of self-confidence, self-esteem and overall self-image” and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his attorney’s groundless comment. The case dragged on for two years and finally settled this spring as it was approaching trial when Shellow agreed to refund $500 of her original legal fee to Hermann. (Cary Spivak, “‘Hey, I use coke, not H’, robber says in suit v. his lawyer”, National Law Journal, Mar. 27).
April 14-16 — “Erin Brockovich”: plume of controversy. Julia Roberts’s screen appeal is undeniable, but how good’s the science? The New York Times‘ Gina Kolata joins the fray (title says it all: “A Hit Movie Is Rated ‘F’ in Science”, April 11), while Brockovich herself, who’s currently traversing the country helping organize toxic tort suits, spars with critic Michael Fumento in the letters column of the Wall Street Journal (letters exchange reprinted at Fumento website; Raphael Lewis, “Opening in a toxics case near you, Erin Brokovich” [sic], Boston Globe, Apr. 1; Edward Lewine, “Writer’s Slam Angers Real Erin Brockovich”, New York Daily News, Apr. 2; this site’s March 30 commentary).
April 14-16 — “Saints, sinners and the Isuzu Trooper”. Column by Washington Post‘s Warren Brown on Consumer Reports/Isuzu Trooper dustup (see April 10) finds plenty to criticize on both sides. “If anything is to be learned from the Isuzu-CU conflict, it is, perhaps, that both David and Goliath deserve equally aggressive scrutiny because both are equally capable of screwing up.” (“Saints, Sinners and the Isuzu Trooper”, April 13 — online chat with Brown scheduled for Monday 11 a.m. EST at Post site).
April 14-16 — Police resent political gun-buying influence. Part of the developing plan for strong-arming independent gunmakers into a Smith & Wesson-type settlement is to get cities and counties to redirect police-gun purchases toward favored manufacturers such as S&W and any companies that sign similar agreements. But many on police forces see it as playing politics with their lives to select guns based on anything other than their optimality for police use, which requires ease of control and use, speed, accuracy and reliability under extreme conditions. (Smith & Wesson has not been a popular brand in police use.) “Adherence to a particular political philosophy” shouldn’t play a part in gun purchases, Gilbert G. Gallegos, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, told the Los Angeles Times. A few jurisdictions like Atlanta, Berkeley and San Mateo County, Calif. have signed onto the program, but the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is planning to stick with its 9-mm Berettas. “Politics aren’t going to enter into how we choose our firearms,” said Capt. Garry Leonard of the department. “When you think of what we do for a living, we just can’t take chances.”
Glock general counsel Paul Jannuzzo said that, in a recent phone call, Housing Secretary Cuomo asked about his company’s sales to police and “made it fairly clear” that those sales would be at risk if the company didn’t play ball. “I think the expression he used was, ‘I have a lot of push with these Democratic mayors,'” said Jannuzzo. “There was no doubt in my mind that I’d just been threatened with economic extortion”. Told about the charge, Secretary Cuomo, ever the model of grace in controversy, retorted: “It’s an interesting response from the subject of an antitrust investigation,” referring to the trade-restraint probe recently launched against the gun industry for allegedly shunning S & W (see March 31). (Richard Simon and Eric Lichtblau, “Police Feel Pressure to Choose the ‘Code'”, Los Angeles Times, Apr. 9).
April 13 — Judge dismisses suit blaming entertainment biz for school shootings. U.S. District Judge Edward Johnstone has dismissed an action on behalf of school shooting victims in Paducah, Ky. against 25 enterprises whose movies, videogames and Internet sites had allegedly incited teenage gunman Michael Carneal to go on his rampage (“Federal judge dismisses lawsuit against movie, video game makers”, AP/Freedom Forum, April 7; “Suit blaming media for Kentucky killings dismissed”, CNN/Reuters, April 7; see July 22 and Nov. 2 commentaries). Plaintiffs vowed to appeal the ruling, which came shortly after a Senate hearing at which conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) lent a sympathetic ear to the lead plaintiff’s charges against the videogame industry (“Witness tells Senate panel: Video games taught teen killer how to shoot”, AP/Freedom Forum, March 22).
Other litigation continues to move forward around the country seeking to blame the media and game makers for school violence, including the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former Army psychologist signed as an expert witness by the plaintiffs in the Carneal case, has been much in the press lately denouncing such games as Doom and Quake (“The Games Kids Play”, John Stossel/ABC News 20/20, Mar. 22). And Vermont state senator Tom Bahre (R-Addison) has introduced legislation in that state which would hold makers of graphically violent movies and other media liable for the costs of acts of real-life violence that their products are deemed to have incited. An AP report says Bahre’s bill would “place the burden of proof on those producers to show that their depictions of violence did not cause an actual event.” (“Vermont lawmaker wants to hold media responsible for violence”, AP/Freedom Forum, Dec. 29).
April 13 — Bill Gates and the Nasdaq: why didn’t the Munchkins sing? “When the wicked witch is dead, you expect the Munchkins to break out in song. But that was not the reaction in the technology sector this week, after a federal judge found Microsoft Corp. guilty of behaving like a bully.” Nasdaq, composed heavily of tech firms that Microsoft is supposed to have victimized, fell off a cliff. Paradoxical? “Economists Thomas Hazlett of the American Enterprise Institute and George Bittlingmayer of the University of California at Davis recently published a study in the Journal of Financial Economics documenting that whenever the government’s antitrust suit scores a victory, an index of non-Microsoft computer stocks falls — and when Microsoft wins a round, computer stocks rise.” (Steve Chapman, “The Real Cost of the Microsoft Verdict”, Chicago Tribune, April 6).
April 13 — “Congress passes asset forfeiture bill”. Long awaited reforms will make it harder for the government to seize assets first and ask questions later. “The legislation would shift the burden of proof in asset forfeiture cases from the property owner to the government. … It allows federal judges to release property to the owner if continued government possession causes substantial hardship to the owner, extends the time a property owner has to challenge a seizure in court and ends the requirement that a person seeking to recover property post a bond with the court worth 10 percent of the property value.” (AP) To placate prosecutors, however, the bill also gives law enforcement officials a number of new powers. (Jim Abrams, “Congress passes asset forfeiture bill”, AP/Topeka Capital-Journal, April 12; Stephen Labaton, “Congress Raises Burden of Proof on Asset Seizures”, New York Times, April 12).
April 13 — Regulation through litigation: opinion pieces. The topic’s starting to arouse significant attention among the commentariat, and not a moment too soon:
* We think he’s joking dept.: Univ. of Colorado law prof Paul Campos (Jurismania) foresees a gigantic class-action suit against “Big Auto” (“Where are next brave lawyers?”, Rocky Mountain News (Denver), April 11).
* “First, tobacco. Then, guns. Now, Microsoft. Does anyone seriously believe the class-action legal industry will stop there?” asks Wall Street Journal editorialist John Fund, who sees reformist sentiment rising: “In North Dakota and Texas, new ‘sunshine’ laws give the legislature oversight of government contracts with outside lawyers.” (“Litigation gold rush”, MS/NBC, April 4).
* Today’s less-than-spontaneous agitations against each newly designated Industry-To-Hate remind the Kansas City Star‘s E. Thomas McClanahan of China’s old “mass political campaigns” in which the populace was whipped up to support a purge of the “Four Bads” or of “capitalist roaders”. Quotes this site’s editor, too (“Bypassing the checks and balances”, Apr. 10 (click “columns”, then scroll list))
* “None dare call it extortion” is the Las Vegas Review-Journal‘s take (editorial, April 7).
April 12 — Gore amid friendly crowd (again). Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been racing around the country to attend a seemingly unending series of fund-raisers thrown by such prominent personal-injury lawyers as Dallas’s Fred Baron (see Feb. 14) and Cincinnati’s Stanley Chesley (see Mar. 30). Last Thursday it was the turn of Palm Beach, Fla. tobacco-fee tycoon Robert Montgomery (see Aug. 21-22), for a $10,000-a-plate dinner graced by the Veep.
The Washington Post‘s Ceci Connolly writes that at yet another recent lawyer-hosted fund-raiser — this one at the home of Houston’s Denman Heard — Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell said, with Gore looking on, “we are proud as a party to have the support of the trial lawyers. It is nothing we apologize for”. “Gore summed up the differences this way: ‘We fight for the working people, for those who don’t have the resources,” he said. Republicans ‘draw from the wealthiest, most powerful and well-heeled.'”
To be sure, Mr. Montgomery, who hosted last Thursday’s Gore event, could give most GOPers a lesson or two about what it means to be powerful and well-heeled: together with some colleagues he pulled off the Florida tobacco caper, representing the state government and nabbing what was at the time the biggest legal fee in history, $3.4 billion, his own share amounting (per George magazine’s estimate) to some $678 million. Montgomery is also a longtime donor to political candidates ranging from the Kennedy family to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Maybe it’s not so surprising after all that the Democratic National Committee raised more money in the first quarter than its Republican counterpart. (Ceci Connolly, “Democrats Have No Argument with Trial Lawyers”, Washington Post, April 9; Jonathan Salant, “Democrats raise more money than Republicans”, AP/CNN, April 7).
A proper account of the Florida tobacco affair for a national readership remains to be written. For an introduction, check out the following 1998 coverage by Lucy Morgan in the St. Petersburg Times: “Tobacco trial lawyers say they had to hire [Governor Lawton] Chiles’ friends”, March 25, 1998; “Tobacco team lawyer is called to account”, March 31, 1998 (“Did lawyers hired by Florida to fight the tobacco industry cough up more than $100,000 for the Clinton/Gore campaign in hopes of currying favor with the administration? And were those campaign contributions illegally disguised as legal expenses — and actually paid by the tobacco industry?” — with eyebrow-raising details about a Fort Lauderdale meeting between the tobacco trial team and Vice President Gore on Oct. 15, 1996, shortly before the 1996 election); as well as “Tobacco and torts” (editorial by the paper), Dec. 19, 1998 (calling the eventual arbitration award to lawyers “breathtakingly excessive … It’s almost disgusting to think of such riches going to a few people who gave relatively little time and expertise to ‘earn’ them. … receiving billions of dollars in fees for a case that never went to trial is utterly unconscionable. … [the lawyers have put] a face on greed”.) (DURABLE LINK)
April 12 — Triumph of plastic foliage. New York Times home and garden section advises that artificial plants are making inroads in both interior commercial decor and landscaping; unlike the live kind, “they don’t house pests or provoke allergic reactions (and subsequent lawsuits)”. (William L. Hamilton, “The Flowers That Bloom in Spring, Ha Ha”, New York Times, April 6).
April 12 — Cops shoot civilian; city blames maker of victim’s gun. In a suit filed last week, the city of Riverside, Calif. says gunmaker Lorcin Engineering should bear legal responsibility for the shooting by Riverside police of 19-year-old Tyisha Miller of Rubidoux, because it sold the weapon she had on her lap at the time she was shot in a locked, idling car. Officers from the force were later fired for the tactics they used in the shooting, which led to a wrongful-death lawsuit by Miller’s survivors. The city is now seeking to dodge that suit by impleading Lorcin on the theory that had it provided better user training Miller might have known not to keep a gun on her person in a way that approaching officers might interpret as threatening to them, though her gun was later found to be inoperable. Lorcin shuttered its plant in nearby Mira Loma and declared bankruptcy last year, but an attorney for the city suggests it still has money. “Every single claim against Lorcin was dismissed, but at a very expensive cost of $100,000 here, $100,000 there” in legal fees, said owner James Waldorf. (Lisa O’Neill Hill and John Welch, Riverside Press-Enterprise, April 7) (discuss at Press-Enterprise site).
April 12 — Endorsed again. “oh man, this is great. overlawyered.com. check the left side for ‘personal responsibility’ …” — thus one of the April 10 entries on Array, a weblog specializing in art and applied digital technology, but with a wide miscellany of other topics in there too.
April 11 — Stuart Taylor, Jr., on Smith & Wesson deal. His new column on law-stretching gun and tobacco suits is must reading even aside from the handsome plug it gives this website (see below). “One thing I am sure of is that the Framers of the Constitution created Congress — and assigned to it ‘all legislative powers herein granted’ — to set policy for the nation on such complex questions of social engineering [as gun control]. They also made it hard to enact legislation unless backed by a fairly broad national consensus. That’s a far cry from what’s going on now….
“[T]he gun litigation represents a deeply disturbing way of making public policy. It was started by private lawyers and municipalities with big financial interests at stake. The courts have largely been bystanders as the Clinton Administration and its allies have sought to bludgeon gunmakers into settling before trial.” (Stuart Taylor Jr., “Guns and Tobacco: Government by Litigation”, National Journal, March 27; NJ yanks these free columns after offering them briefly as a teaser, so catch this one now.)
P.S. Okay, and now about that plug: “For a fuller taste of these and other peculiar workings of our legal system, with copious links to news reports, check out an amusingly depressing Web site called Overlawyered.com, created and edited by Walter K. Olson of the conservative-libertarian Manhattan Institute,” writes Taylor. “Amusingly depressing” — an ideal slogan for our banner ads (if we ever get around to devising them; someone wanna help volunteer?).
April 11 — Oops: D.A.’s and judge’s fwding of sex pic deemed “unfortunate event”. Dateline Las Vegas: “A pornographic photograph sent by e-mail to dozens of Clark County employees originated from a deputy district attorney’s computer. The e-mail was then forwarded to a senior judge who passed it on to other county workers.” Apparently the sexually explicit photo was meant to reach only one or two recipients, but was inadvertently blind-cc’d to a longer list. County manager Dale Askew said those involved likely would be suspended without pay. “Needless to say employees were not happy receiving it because it came across their computer unsolicited,” said county spokesman Doug Bradford, who called the episode “an unfortunate event.” How lucky for all concerned that they weren’t at a big private firm, where skittishness over harassment liability might have gotten the senders fired. (Adrienne Packer, “Obscene e-mail traced to deputy DA”, Las Vegas Sun, Feb. 9). (DURABLE LINK)
April 11 — Krugman on MS: his “blood runs cold”. “I don’t know anyone outside Seattle who is really pro-Microsoft. But a lot of us are, at least mildly, anti-anti-Microsoft. That is, we worry that the crusade against Bill Gates sets a bad, even dangerous precedent. …
“The anti-anti-Microsoft case does not deny that there is some truth to that story [that Redmond’s market dominance and hard-guy tactics caused a climate of fear among its competitors], but asserts that taking punitive action will be the worse of two evils because it will create a different, and worse, climate of fear — fear that success itself will be punished. Today Microsoft, tomorrow Intel and eventually (as soon as somebody figures out what it does) Cisco.”
“… [W]hen I hear that a coalition of states is demanding damages from Microsoft, as if Windows caused lung cancer; well, my blood runs cold. I know that there is an intellectually respectable case against Microsoft, but I’ve got a bad feeling about where we are going.” (Paul Krugman, “Rights of Bill”, New York Times, April 9).
April 11 — Chat into the microphone, please. Securities and Exchange Commission announces plans to acquire automated software to trawl websites, Usenet and Yahoo/AOL-type bulletin boards searching for phrases like “get rich quick” and “free stock” which might signal illicit securities promotion. The results, including email addresses and other identifying information about posters, will be copied into a giant database and indexed for the convenience of SEC investigators whose job is to file civil charges against persons suspected of stock-jobbing. One company invited to submit bids on the system, the big accounting firm of Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP, has already bowed out of consideration, saying it had “serious concerns about the implications for the privacy of individuals”. The proposal “is equivalent to, in my opinion, wiretapping … the equivalent of planting a bug,” said Larry Ponemon, a partner at the firm in charge of privacy issues. Members of Congress have begun to express concern: “Engaging in such a wide level of monitoring will have a chilling effect on free speech online,” Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) wrote to SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt. “While I understand the need to prevent securities fraud, federal agents should not be allowed to sift through the conversations of millions of innocent parties in order to do so.”
Levitt says there’s little difference in principle betwen current practice — in which flesh-and-blood SEC attorneys laboriously traverse the Web looking individually for possible indicia of fraud — and the new proposal. The commission also says it will keep the data confidential and throw out information that does not establish wrongdoing. Other federal agencies are eager to follow the SEC’s lead, such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has begun talking to vendors: “For us it’s a very exciting prospect,” says acting CFTC director of enforcement Phyllis J. Cela. (Michael Moss, “SEC’s Plan to Snoop for Crime on Web Spraks a Debate Over Privacy”, Wall Street Journal/ZDNet, March 28; Marcy Gordon, “SEC Plans Web Surveillance System”, AP/Excite, March 29; Michelle Finley, “SEC Plan: Free Speech Violation?”, Wired News, March 29; “House panel questions automated surveillance by SEC”, Reuters/Excite, April 4). (DURABLE LINK)
April 11 — Attention librarians. Starting immediately, we’ll be dividing each new month’s archives into three, rather than two, sections; that way readers with low bandwidth won’t have to wait quite so long for those pages to load.
August 31 — Death by mainstreaming. Had safety been the primary concern, Joshua Smurphat of Sunnyvale, Calif., 12 years old and mentally retarded, would probably not have been allowed onto the Drop Zone Stunt Tower ride from which he fell to his death August 22 at the Great America amusement park in Santa Clara. Mechanical failure has been ruled out, and ride designers say that once patrons have been strapped in, it’s physically impossible for them to fall out — provided they obey instructions to remain in their original posture. Even if Joshua’s harness was insecurely fastened, a possibility investigators are still checking into, an ordinary 12-year-old would be apt to notice the problem, but as Jeffrey Lewis, a director of the local United Cerebral Palsy organization, cautions: “in many cases, a consequence of mental retardation is the lack of danger awareness.”
However, both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California disabled-rights law prohibit amusement parks from “discriminating” against persons with mental incapacities by turning them away from rides, or attaching special preconditions to their participation, so long as they meet otherwise applicable requirements such as height and chronological age. “Certainly they couldn’t say that somebody who had a cognitive disability couldn’t participate in a ride,” Sacramento disabled-rights attorney Eric Gelber told the San Jose Mercury-News, apparently well pleased with that result. “We take our obligation to accommodate all of our guests, regardless of disability, very seriously,” said a park spokesman, in what might serve as an epitaph for the unfortunate young man. (Aug. 26; related follow-up, Aug. 28; links now dead).
August 31 — New Overlawyered.com page: Unsafe on any docket. “Crashworthiness” cases have made big headlines this summer, with two California juries voting awards of $5 billion against GM (Chevy Malibu) and $290 million against Ford (Bronco) and the Massachusetts high court upholding a $19.2 million verdict against Chrysler for a Plymouth minivan accident that the plaintiffs blamed on brake locking. We’ve accordingly devoted the ninth in our series of topical surveys to the area, assembling some historical background and links about the Audi 5000 and its supposed penchant for sudden acceleration, the 1993 episode in which Dateline NBC producers got caught practicing what you might call sure-fire journalism, and similar controversies, not neglecting the case that litigation advocates would much prefer to talk about, that of the Ford Pinto.
August 31 — The “we sue Microsoft” business plan. A Bridgeport, Connecticut jury on July 17 returned a verdict in favor of Microsoft in a private antitrust suit brought by a small company named Bristol Technologies. Interviews afterward indicated that jurors had been angered by internal Bristol emails and memos revealing the smaller company’s not-exactly-reluctant attitude toward litigation. A May 1998 message from a company director to Bristol chief executive Keith Blackwell referred to the approaching lawsuit as “the ‘We sue Microsoft for money’ business plan.” Meanwhile, “[a] memo from a Manhattan public relations firm hired by Bristol described a $75,000-plus ‘David v. Goliath Strategic Communications Game Plan’ to attack Microsoft in the press,” reports Karen Donovan in the August 2 National Law Journal. “Then came an e-mail from Keith’s wife, Jean, days after the suit was filed in August. Its subject: ‘Extend the Story, Increase the Pain.'” “The whole scenario was kind of disgusting,” said juror Robert LaBella of Stamford (followup — Thomas Scheffey, “Microsoft, Bristol and Money”, Connecticut Law Tribune, Aug. 23). Update Nov. 30, 2000: judge increases verdict to $1 million, Bristol requests new trial.
August 30 — Do as we say (I). Latest employer to face a big class action under the antediluvian Fair Labor Standards Act for not paying overtime to some of its highly responsible employees (lawyers, in this case): the U.S. Department of Justice. (San Jose Mercury-News, Aug. 25; AP/Mpls. Star-Tribune, Aug. 26). Don’t miss the Detroit News editorial (Aug. 28). Update Jul. 18, 2004: court rejects case.
August 30 — Do as we say (II): gun-suit hypocrisy in Detroit. The Motor City’s police chief confirmed last week that just before suing private gun makers for allegedly not doing enough to curb distribution of their wares, the city itself sold an astounding 13-plus tons of used police weapons to a private dealer. That puts Detroit ahead of even New Orleans and Boston (see Aug. 25 entry, below), in the tonnage and perhaps also the hypocrisy competition when it comes to weapons distribution. Should the city be liable each time one of those surplus guns gets used for a criminal or suicidal purpose? (Detroit Free Press, Aug. 25).
Since its filing, letters to the editor from local residents have flayed Detroit’s gun suit for “holding an innocent party responsible for someone else’s criminal activity” and have suggested that, if the city is going to endorse that sort of logic, “victims of crime in the city of Detroit should file suit against the city for its failure to protect those in the city” (Free Press letters, Jan. 8, May 1). More than one letter-writer has suggested, by way of trying to come up with a reduction to absurdity, that the logical culmination would be to hold Detroit’s own hometown industry, the automakers, liable for the activities of drunk drivers. But as July’s Chevy Malibu verdict shows (see August 27, below, and July 10) that’s exactly what the trial lawyers are already doing with considerable success. It’s not easy to think up a reduction to absurdity of our litigation system that isn’t already well on its way to being implemented in all seriousness.
August 30 — “Tort reform spurs lawsuit filings”. Alabama courthouses work overtime as lawyers file suits in droves to beat the deadline for the application of legislated limits to punitive damages and forum-shopping (Huntsville Times, Aug. 24).
August 30 — Taco Bell not liable for Ganges purification pilgrimage. A judge in Lancaster County, Nebraska has declined to order the Taco Bell restaurant chain to pay for trips to India for Siva Rama Krishna Valluru and his wife, Sailaja. Devout vegetarians as part of their practice of Hinduism, the couple was dismayed to discover that a rice side dish they had been eating contained meat. They had argued that swallowing flesh constituted a sin the expiation of which required them to bathe in the Ganges River as part of a purification ritual, but Judge Jean Lovell said such expenses did not count as reasonably foreseeable (Lincoln, Neb. Journal-Star, Aug. 27; AP/Bergen County, N.J. Record, Aug. 28).
August 30 — “Scholar’s shift in thinking angers liberals”. Harvard’s Laurence Tribe upsets colleagues by concluding that the Constitution’s Second Amendment may not, after all, be a meaningless inkblot. Instead he “posits that it includes an individual right, ‘admittedly of uncertain scope,’ to ‘possess and use firearms in the defense of themselves and their homes.” Heresy! (Tony Mauro, USA Today, Aug. 27).
August 28-29 — Speech police go after opinion articles, editorial cartoons. Columnist Stephen Chapman writes that the faculty union at Daley College was recently hauled before the city of Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations, which has the power to levy fines and issue injunctions. Its sin? Publishing an article critical of affirmative action in its newsletter. The college’s Board of Trustees, which filed the complaint, accused the author of the offending piece, Prof. James Bell, of jeopardizing “the rights of students and staff at Daley to equal access” by “mak[ing] students uncomfortable in an institution where comfort is essential for learning.” In June, after two years, the commission finally dismissed the complaint on the grounds that Daley College was not a “public accommodation”. Also in June, however, Chapman reports, the Department of Human Rights in St. Paul, Minn., filed a complaint against the local newspaper accusing it of racial discrimination for having run an editorial cartoon on college athletics that offended many local blacks. After a public outcry, it backed off (St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 10; AP/Freedom Forum, Jun. 23). Chapman quotes UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh warning that such complaints are only too logical a consequence of today’s “hostile-environment” law, a topic on which Volokh maintains a highly informative website. (column link now dead)
August 28-29 — Weekend reading. Pixels to take out on the canoe or Airstream:
* What goes around comes around: the estate of the famously litigious inventor Jerome Lemelson gets hit with a suit from his former employer saying that it actually owns the rights to many of his patents. Critics accused the late Mr. Lemelson of specializing in “submarine” patents whose applications would lie dormant in the Patent Office for years, then suddenly surface when other companies had made progress on the technology in question. (Victoria Slind-Flor, National Law Journal, August 24; see also lemelsonpatents.com, a website put up by lawyers who’ve tangled with the Lemelson estate.)
* “Why, why, would the American Bar Association honor a scandalous leader who has just been found in contempt of court, and whose disbarment is being considered even now?” Or Webster Hubbell, convicted of stealing from his clients? “What kind of advertisement for the profession of law is that?…[Y]ou can’t embarrass an honest profession. Seduced by the glitz of high office and maybe its own partisan prejudices, the bar got what it deserved” — Paul Greenberg, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (full column). Meanwhile, Judge Richard Posner’s An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton sounds like the book to read in the coming month, to judge from reviews by Stuart Taylor Jr. (National Journal) and James Stewart (New York Observer).
* Time for social conservatives to get off their coercive, government-infatuated Culture War kick: “The problem with cultural conservatism is that it despairs not of culture, but humanity. Its votaries consider us all a bunch of suggestible imbeciles, and they view capitalism as a scam…As it turns out, though, people are pretty reasonable….We’re not in danger of ‘an accelerating descent into barbarism and the destruction, sooner or later, of free society itself.’ …Censorship merely would bollix things up by inviting censors to abuse power and everyone else to become dependent and lazy.” — columnist and Fox News host Tony Snow (link now dead).
August 27 — L.A. judge cuts award against GM to $1.2 billion. From the automaker’s motion for a new trial, we finally learn what the other driver’s name was (Moreno), how drunk he was (“.20 several hours later”), and what happened after the plaintiff’s lawyers succeeded in getting the judge to exclude from the trial any mention of Moreno’s intoxication or the fact that he’d been convicted and imprisoned for felony drunk driving over this crash (“Having moved to exclude it, plaintiffs told the jury, falsely, that his guilt consisted of ‘five seconds of bad judgment’,” whereupon the jury allocated to Moreno only 5 percent of the guilt for the injuries) (GM statement) (earlier Overlawyered.com commentary)(auto-safety litigation generally).
Plaintiffs also successfully fought to exclude evidence that the federal government’s real-world highway statistics show the Malibu among the safest cars of its time in crashes, and that testing had raised safety concerns about the alternate placement of the gas tank sought by the plaintiffs. Reuters now quotes GM as saying that 98 percent of American cars in the 1970s had their gas tanks in the same position as the Malibu’s. (“Judge Tells GM To Pay Record $1.2 Bln Liability”, link now dead). The company also says (Wall Street Journal news report today by Frederic Biddle, online subscribers only) that “there was absolutely no difference in cost” between the two designs.
While Reuters (link now dead) fairly summarizes many of the above facts, you’re in trouble if your local paper relies on the Associated Press. AP correspondent David Germain’s dispatches make it hard to figure out why GM thinks it has a case, merely depicting the automaker as trying to “be let off the hook” (link now dead) and quoting plaintiff’s attorney Brian Panish as saying, of the gas tanks, that “[t]he only people in the whole world who think they’re safe are General Motors and their lawyers” (link now dead), a temptingly checkable assertion left unchecked. Incidentally, Yahoo features Overlawyered.com‘s July 10 commentary as a resource in its Full Coverage feature on the case.
August 27 — Best little forum-shopping in Texas. Two more stories illustrate why lawyers appreciate the Lone Star State for a kind of shopping not found at Neiman-Marcus. Mark Ballard in the National Law Journal relates how plaintiffs have brought a long succession of high-stakes cases to sleepy Texarkana, Texas “for only one reason: Judge David Folsom. The 52-year-old Clinton appointee is the only federal judge in Texarkana. Thus, every suit filed here goes before him.” Find a local resident or institution to stand in as your named plaintiff, and you’re home free: Folsom says he can’t recall ever granting a change of venue, though they’re often requested by defendants who wonder why they’ve been dragged to rural northeast Texas when neither they nor the subject matter of the litigation have any particular connection to that part of the world. An old pal of Bill Clinton’s from Arkansas days, Folsom presided over the $17.3 billion settlement of Texas’s Medicaid class action against the tobacco industry. That case certainly pepped up the local economy: the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce estimates that tobacco lawyers and their staffs spent $6.1 million during the proceedings. (Aug. 26).
Meanwhile, lawyers have obtained a $30 million settlement in a Mexican bus-crash case, much more than what such a case would have brought if filed in Mexico, because they were able to find a Texas judge willing to impose not only a Texas forum but also Texas law. (To get some idea of the asymmetries involved, imagine a Mexican court applying that country’s law to a Texas accident.) AP quotes the plaintiff’s lawyer as openly boasting of having foiled the Mexican legal system’s duly considered policy of not handing out money as readily as ours does. The presumption of those other countries, thinking they can apply their law to accidents on their roads! (AP/Washington Post, Aug. 16; Texas Lawyer, Aug. 23).
August 27 — Company to settle 36,000-plus Norplant suits. The Dallas Morning News reports that American Home Products has agreed to pay what could exceed $50 million to buy partial repose (some suits will remain) from lawyers suing it over the silicone-implant contraceptive. The per-claimant sums aren’t very large ($1,500), but nuisance value multiplied by 36,000 gets into substantial money. For more details, see our August 11 commentary and today’s lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal (online to subscribers only). (Dallas Morning News, Aug. 26; Yahoo/Reuters).
August 26 — Playing rough in Alabama. Last week a Mobile grand jury indicted former Alabama Trial Lawyers Association president Garve Ivey Jr., of Jasper, and a private investigator who has worked with Ivey, Wes Chappell, on charges of bribery, witness tampering and criminal defamation. The charges arise from an episode last year in which a former prostitute named Melissa Myers stepped forward to accuse Republican lieutenant governor candidate Steve Windom of raping her. Windom was elected anyway, Myers’s story soon fell apart, and she began cooperating with authorities looking into the question of whether she had been backed by others in making the allegations. Windom had come under heavy fire from organized trial lawyers for having taken a leading role in support of tort reform; in Alabama, as in other Southern states, the lieutenant governor’s position is a powerful one in blocking or approving legislation. Ivey and Chappell deny the charges and say they look forward to their day in court, and Ivey has sued Windom personally as well: “We are filing our lawsuit in Walker County, my home, not Mobile.” (“Ivey refuses to testify before grand jury”, AP/Daily Mountain Eagle (Jasper, Al.), Oct. 21, 1998; John M. Sandlin, “Ivey sues Windom, indictment reported in Mobile”, Daily Mountain Eagle, Aug. 17; AP/Washington Post, Aug. 19) (see update Sept. 1). Update: a jury in June 2000 acquitted Chappell, acquitted Ivey of the felony bribery charge, and convicted Ivey of the two misdemeanor counts of witness tampering and criminal defamation; appeal planned (see Aug. 31, 2000). Further update: in July 2001 the Alabama Supreme Court reversed these convictions and ordered Ivey acquitted of the charges (see July 7, 2001).
August 26 — Rolling the dice. With Ralph Nader on the warpath against the gambling industry, can the lawsuits be far behind? Wait a minute — here they are! David Rovella in the August 2 National Law Journal reports that class action lawyers in Alabama and Wisconsin have filed suit against credit card companies for allowing their customers to run up debts at offshore Internet casinos. David T. Maple of Birmingham, Ala. lost $49.95 at one such game site but stands to recover a lot more than that as “name plaintiff”, which might mean he is off to a profitable betting career after all. Lawyers say they are hoping to recover billions of dollars in refunds, interest “and even damages” (full story). In a policy analysis for the Cato Institute, Chapman University School of Law assistant professor Tom W. Bell calls Internet gambling “Popular, Inexorable, and (Eventually) Legal“.
August 26 — New feature debuts on Overlawyered.com site. Today marks the launch of our fledgling library of online articles, originally published elsewhere and now reprinted by permission of their authors, discussing some of the problems of the U.S. legal system. The opening line-up includes 28 articles by Michael Fumento, Peter Huber, Jonathan Rauch and Overlawyered.com editor Walter Olson on topics ranging from employment law to medical malpractice litigation, from toxic-tort scares to free speech. We expect to add more authors and articles in the weeks ahead.
August 25 — Gun-suit hypocrisy, Boston style. Last week officials admitted that they failed to follow their own procedures when they disposed of surplus police guns with no strings attached, which leaves the city resembling a Rum-denouncing cleric caught bootlegging on the side, given that it’s suing gun makers for not making an effort to control what happened after guns left their hands (see July 14). “Somebody dropped the ball,” acknowledged Police Commissioner Paul Evans. Why not just end the embarrassment by dropping the suit? (Boston Globe, Aug. 17; link now dead)
August 25 — Calif. state bar improperly spent dues on politicking. The Pacific Legal Foundation had brought suit on behalf of 40 members of the bar in the Golden State. In the 1990 case of Keller v. State Bar, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state bars with compulsory membership must offer a refund to members of moneys spent on politicking to which they object. The California bar proceeded to announce that of the $450.00 dues it charged in 1989, a bare $3.00 was spent on ideological and political activities, a figure it arrived at by designating much of its Washington and Sacramento legislative effort as merely one of “advising” lawmakers which bills to pass. We don’t think so, rules Sacramento County superior court judge Morrison England Jr. after eight years of litigation (AP/Freedom Forum; Aug. 20).
August 25 — Lawyers grabbing too much of Swiss bank settlement, charge Holocaust survivors. Yes, it’s one of the sadder headlines of 1999, and no, it’s not one of the more surprising to many who’ve followed the issue. “Gizella Weisshaus, one of the first to sue the banks, said she no longer wanted to be associated with the lawsuit because it would leave too little money for survivors.” (AP: Washington Post, CNN (links now dead)).
August 25 — “Employee lawsuits increasing”. Survey of 353 companies by Society for Human Resource Management and law firm of Jackson Lewis finds slightly more than half have faced employment-related lawsuits, with nine of ten suits coming from former employees. “Another 37 percent of the companies responding to the survey were sued by a current employee, while 8 percent were sued by unsuccessful candidates for employment.” Partner George Wilkins of Cincinnati’s Dinsmore & Shohl says labor and employment is the fastest growing area at his firm. (John Eckberg, Cincinnati Enquirer, August 22; SHRM June 27 press release)
August 24 — The dream verdict. On July 12, three days after a Los Angeles jury voted $5 billion against GM in the Malibu case, a jury in Ceres, Ca. voted $290 million against Ford in a case where several members of Juan Romo’s family had been killed in a rollover accident in their Ford Bronco. Ford’s motion for a new trial, filed last week, sheds light on how such cases are tried in today’s American courtroom.
Plaintiff’s counsel had railed against the “giant,” “wealthy” Ford with its “lawyers back east in Dearborn.” (“I talked about this case was about…corporate greed and arrogance…It’s also about this. It’s about Mrs. Romo’s purse….She didn’t have furniture for crying out loud, and she’s giving money to the church and she’s putting it [in her purse] to provide for the education of her children.” Damages? “You’ve got to say a number that gets on the front page of every newspaper in the country.”
How to deal with the inconvenient circumstance that the Bronco design more than exceeded the standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration? Keep hammering away at the idea that federal standard-setting (presumably in contrast to jury persuasion) is a “political” process (“that political report called the Federal Register”; “NHTSA has…political appointees”; “You got a reading from a Federal Register as it goes out to the politicians.”)
California law allows affidavits to be taken from jurors after a verdict. According to Ford’s motion, these affidavits revealed that one of the jurors acknowledged she had prejudged the case and told fellow jurors they did not have to follow legal instructions because the case allowed them to “save the babies”. Of one attorney, she said he “really was trying to do something good, and that what he said should be considered as evidence.” And, several jurors testified, the same juror told them at great length about a gruesomely detailed dream she’d had — which she described, not without mystical overtones, as an “omen” — in which a Bronco repeatedly rolled over and killed all the jurors’ children, while the company’s line-up of attorneys and witnesses — armed with guns, no less — “stood by taunting the jurors by chanting ‘Where’s the proof, where’s the proof?’”
The juror affidavits also suggested that the panel was strongly influenced by crash exposés that had aired on “60 Minutes” and similar programs, attacking other Ford models that trial lawyers were suing over, which a second juror saw as proving that Ford had acted in bad faith in such cases. One of these shows, watched by more than one juror, was aired by CBS on May 19, only weeks before the verdict, and included material prejudicial to Ford that the court had excluded from evidence in the Romo case. The apparent influence of the TV coverage helps explain why trial lawyers have gone to such extraordinary lengths over the years, behind the scenes, to shape the coverage on such shows.
After the trial, Ford says, while it was in the process of interviewing jurors to gather affidavits in connection with this new trial motion, plaintiff’s lawyer Larry Drivon was thoughtful enough to send the jurors a free gift, consisting of his own book inveighing against big business (“The Civil War on Consumer Rights“), which happened to feature a whole chapter devoted to attacking none other than the Ford Motor Company. Included was a note and personal inscription to the jurors: “for all us who care.” Update Aug. 27, 2002: appeals court reinstates verdict, Ford seeks review by California high court. More developments; further update Nov. 26, 2003 (appeals court reduces verdict in light of U.S. Supreme Court guidance).
August 24 — Beyond the hired-gun syndrome. Good op-ed in Sunday’s (8/22) Washington Post by David L. Faigman of Hastings College of the Law discussing the Court Appointed Scientific Experts project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Faigman’s book “Legal Alchemy: The Use and Misuse of Science in the Law” will be published in October by W.H. Freeman & Co.
August 23 — Fertilizer manufacturers not liable for World Trade Center bombing. The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has upheld the dismissal of a suit by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which had demanded that manufacturers be made to pay damages for the 1993 terrorist bombing of the twin Manhattan towers on the grounds that the misuse of their wares to make fertilizer-and-fuel-oil bombs was “objectively foreseeable”. The appeals court found the lower court had correctly ruled that the manufacturers’ conduct could never be the “proximate cause” of the bombing: “The terrorists’ actions were superseding and intervening events breaking the chain of causation,” writes Judge Jane Roth. If applied consistently, such logic could be helpful to other manufacturers sued over criminal misuse of their products, such as gun makers. Also rejected was a theory that the fertilizer companies were negligent for not having instituted “know-your-customer” controls on buyers of their product — again, an issue that finds its parallel in the gun litigation. (Legal Intelligencer, Aug. 19) A press communiqué (link now dead) from the clearly bewildered government of Norway describes how two of that country’s leading industrial companies became defendants in the World Trade Center litigation, referring to “the Americans’ so-called product liability law”.
August 23 — You may already not be a winner. A Canadian court has turned away prisoner Allen Crawshaw’s lawsuit asking $10,000 of Corrections Canada for failing to mail his entry last year to the Reader’s Digest sweepstakes, which had a first prize of $1.4 million. Prison officials conceded they should have mailed the entry but denied that the loss of a chance of winning should entitle him to damages: “Did you ever see the odds of those?” said spokesman Dennis Finlay. Crawshaw, a former shop steward for the United Food and Commercial Workers at a British Columbia food plant, was convicted in 1994 of killing his boss after being angered by a one-day suspension over heated comments he’d made criticizing management; Crawshaw was “known [locally] as a peace activist”. (National Post, Aug. 11)
August 23 — Political Site of the Day. We’re pleased to announce that Overlawyered.com is today’s Political Site of the Day, an award service that has been picking daily sites for more than four years, practically as long as there’s been an Internet. A stroll through PSoD’s library of past sites is a good way to appreciate the spectacular diversity of the Net: within the space of two weeks we ran into the home sites of the Serbian/Yugoslavian royal family, PostalWatch (a watchdog group on behalf of those regulated by the Postal Service), How To Win a High School Election (“It doesn’t matter whether you’re popular or not…”), and Libertarian Rock, which will send you free stickers to protest curfew laws.
August 23 — “Beating up on ‘deadbeat dads’.” “Those who decry judicial tyranny and family destruction should pay more attention to family courts, for they are the arm of the state that routinely reaches farthest into the private lives of individuals and families,” notes Howard University political scientist Stephen Baskerville in an American Spectator article sharply correcting the usual let’s-lynch-’em view of “deadbeat dads”. The night after Bobby Sherrill came home from spending five months as an Iraqi hostage, the Washington Times reported, the sheriff was there to arrest him for not paying child support during his captivity. A Texas janitor wrongfully convicted of murder and then exonerated after ten years on death row was presented on release with a $50,000 bill for child support he didn’t pay while in prison.
Officials push through ever-more-punitive regulations against delinquent pops, then hop over to for-profit private collection firms, hired by their former agencies, that grow fat on the resulting business. It’s hard to go along with Baskerville in dubbing the deadbeat-dads problem a mere “myth”, but hard not to join him in worrying about “mass incarcerations without trial, charge, or counsel; an apparat that has systematized the invasion of private homes and the confiscation of children to a bureaucratic routine; [and] political leaders [who use] their public office as a platform to vilify private citizens who have been convicted of nothing and who have no opportunity to reply” (full story).
August 21-22 — The Marie Antoinette school of public relations. The June issue of George featured a lavish photo spread (“Puff Daddies”) of six lawyers who “have raked in more than $5 billion for their firms from tobacco litigation“. The backdrops weren’t the usual stuffy law libraries, either. They included the racing boat, conspicuously labeled “Gunsmoke”, of Pascagoula’s Richard Scruggs, brother-in-law of Senate majority leader Trent Lott (more than $1 billion in fees for representing Mississippi and other states); the twenty-horse equestrian estate of Charleston’s Joseph Rice (somewhere between $1 billion and $10 billion); the private putting green on the Pensacola estate of Fred Levin ($325 million); a foundation endowed by politically ambitious Michael Ciresi of Minnesota ($440 million; “some of the fees are excessive”, he cheerfully agrees); and the opulent bathtub where South Florida’s Robert Montgomery ($678 million), posed, fully clothed, under what the Palm Beach Post called “English artist David Jagger’s painting of a naked woman”. (Montgomery describes as “outrageous” Florida’s move to accept an $11.3 billion settlement without forking over a full one-quarter of it to lawyers as agreed). An ostensibly less material note was struck by Seattle’s Steve Berman (roughly $2 billion), who previously made it big filing shareholder class actions, and who says, “I got the notion in the ’60s that you can protest by growing your hair long or you can get trained in the methods of the establishment and use their own tools to beat them. There’s nothing better than beating them at their own game.”
Addressing an Americans for Tax Reform audience earlier this summer, Wall Street Journal editorialist John Fund said he marveled at the willingness of the legal tycoons to rub their critics’ noses in their taxpayer-leveraged success by cooperating in such displays. “Even the robber barons in the Nineteenth Century knew better than to do it that way. Is it that they don’t have anyone giving them p.r. advice? Or do they just think at this point they’re invulnerable?”
August 21-22 — Weekend reading. Pixels to take to the cabin or island:
* Next on the identity-politics agenda: “Partly due to the flurry of judicial and legislative activity pursuant to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, disability studies, once an arcane field of literary theory, has begun to attract attention from both the media and the academy,” reports Norah Vincent in the August 18 Salon. Brown University professor Carol Poore asserts that “disability is actually preferable to ability in that able-bodiedness ‘is the precondition for being a tool of the ruling class.'” Some in the disabilities movement “maintain that, even if they were presented with a cure for their disabilities, they wouldn’t take it” (full story).
* Overlawyered.com‘s editor devotes his latest Reason column to the legal background of the Supreme Court’s Davis v. Monroe decision in May, the one that allowed schools and universities to be sued for not remedying “student-on-student” harassment. No federal law in fact creates a right to sue over sexual harassment in education; it’s an “implied private right of action”, which means basically that the courts get to make it up as they go along. (“Title IX’s Invisible Ink“, August/September).
* From the north comes word that the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council has declined to take action against Global Television for its July 1998 broadcast of a 45-year-old Bugs Bunny cartoon. A feminist complainant had hauled Global before the tribunal over an episode of the “Bugs Bunny and Tweety” show, alleging that the wascally wabbit had uttered remarks demeaning to women (National Post, Fox News/Reuters, Boston Globe (links now dead))
August 20 — The long march through the courtrooms. From Counterpunch.org, the webzine of left-wingers Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair: “Hardly had she [Hillary Rodham] raised her foot to step over the threshold of radicalism than she turned back. She declined to go with the SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee], turned down an offer to work with Saul Alinsky as a community organizer in Chicago. Anderson quotes her political science prof at Wellesley, Alan Schecter, as saying that by the late 1960s his pupil had decided that the best radical strategy was to ‘”use the legal system” as an agent of change.’ She wasn’t alone in that calculation. The long march of the left through the courtrooms was under way: the world would become a better place, courtesy of courtroom briefs, complaints and class action suits.
“And so what we have seen, across the last three decades, is the left vanishing into the quicksands of regulation. All society’s problems could be fixed by a statute, a rule, a waiver, a program. Much of the antiwar left vanished into the consumer movement, the environmental movement and legal fixitry. The mass movement died and litigation — often successful — flourished amid the ruins” (“The First Lady Syndrome”, August 11 — full story)
August 20 — “Three insurers sued for $100 million”. $300 million, actually, since a Prince George’s County, Maryland court is being asked to mulct Allstate, GEICO and State Farm nine digits’ worth apiece for the offense of applying managed-care-style guidelines to limit policyholders’ personal medical claims after auto mishaps. This AP story commits a few of the usual journalistic sins: 1) it signals no awareness that the dollar demands in such cases can be arbitrarily picked for shock/news value, our legal system putting no price tag on exaggeration; 2) it ignores the probable role of the lawyers as parties-in-interest (though it does report that many of the individual policyholders’ claims are for less than $100); 3) it finesses the purely circular process by which anyone deems such filings newsworthy (the seven named customers would normally have had trouble getting even back-page local coverage, but instead scored big national headlines. Why? Because their lawyers asserted a right to speak for a large class of policyholders nationwide. Why would a court accord these particular lawyers that right? Well, they did get all this national publicity…) Best detail: “All of the plaintiffs have maintained their coverage with the companies despite the disputes.” Mad enough to sue, in other words, but not mad enough to switch companies (Yahoo/AP; link now dead).
August 20 — New Overlawyered.com pages: tobacco tycoons, litigation in the workplace. Two more newsworthy topics get their own subpages, bringing the number of topical pages to eight. Seven weeks old, this site has now served more than 15,000 pages, with our traffic rate nearly doubling this month from last. Thanks!
August 19 — Plus extra damages for having argued with us. In yesterday’s Washington Post, David Ignatius calls global warming a potential “plaintiff’s lawyer’s dream”, quoting former deputy energy secretary Lynn Coleman as saying that if doomsayers’ predictions prove accurate, lawyers could file trillions of dollars in claims against utilities, oil companies and others for weather-related effects. Significantly, Ignatius suggests (“the best analogy may be tobacco”) that future juries will be angered by some companies’ current boldness in debating the issue by way of counter-studies and newspaper ads. Apparently one “lesson of tobacco” is that it’s henceforth going to count as an independently punishable offense to defend one’s business in public controversy (link now dead).
August 19 — Click here to sue! Seattle-based Bendich, Stobaugh and Strong, P.C. specializes in employee class actions arguing that temp, freelance and independent-contractor employees were really “misclassified” and deserve retroactive raises and benefits, no matter what the two sides may have thought they were bargaining for at the time. Taking advantage of the Web, the firm makes it really easy to join its suits against Microsoft (see also Jan. 11, 2000 commentary), Arco, King County (Seattle) and Los Angeles County.
August 19 — NAACP’s “ludicrous” anti-gun suit. Ninety percent of murders of blacks are committed by other blacks, David Horowitz observes, but now litigation offers a handy way to blame the toll on distant white-owned gunmakers, advancing “a fantasy in which African-Americans are no longer responsible for anything negative they do, even to themselves”. (Salon, August 16 — full column).
August 19 — Another scare starts to fizzle. “For three years now, organizations ranging from environmental groups to Consumer Reports have been proclaiming the existence of a deadly wave of endocrine disrupters that cause cancer, infertility, and personality abnormalities,” writes Gregg Easterbrook in the August 30 New Republic. Now the National Academy of Sciences has studied the issue of environmental residues of these synthetic hormones and found much less than meets the eye in the scare reports. (full article). Score another one for skeptics Mike Fumento and Ron Bailey, as well as for the New York Times‘s much-hatcheted Gina Kolata, whose refusal to hype the endocrine-disrupter scare was a chief count in the campaign against her typified by Mark Dowie’s article in the July 6, 1998 Nation.
August 18 — Undislodgeable educators. Tenure laws make it hard in many states to remove even a badly underperforming teacher from the classroom, but hopes for reform rose when Bob Chase became president of the National Education Association with an agenda that included “peer review” methods like those pioneered by NEA’s Columbus, Ohio affiliate. “The goal of peer review is to help people succeed,” Chase has said. “But it could also speed up the process of dismissing a teacher who is not successful….We know that it sometimes takes five or six years to get rid of a teacher, and that is too long.”
But can peer review work if it’s just an overlay onto, rather than a substitute for, the laggard teacher’s right to challenge a dismissal by every current legal means? That question is posed by the case of Ivy Featherstone, a 25-year-veteran teacher in the Columbus schools whom administrators often observed reading the paper in class with his feet up on the desk while students snoozed. Two years of intensively applied peer review, followed by 16 days of hearings, led to the conclusion that Featherstone should be given a “negative release”, and he was suspended without pay. Duration of the process up to that point: three years, and it turned out things were just getting started. Featherstone was soon off to federal court to charge that the dismissal was racially discriminatory, and it’s taken four more years for a judge to dismiss that case — not on the merits, but on the grounds that Featherstone failed to take the procedural steps needed to preserve his rights to sue. (If he had, presumably, the case might still be in progress). The case gets written up in this week’s communiqué (week of August 16) from Mike Antonucci’s invaluable Education Intelligence Agency; subscriptions are free, and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in how schools work.
August 18 — Ohio case fallout. In a blistering editorial (no longer online), the Columbus Dispatch calls the state high court’s striking down of tort reform (see item for August 17, below) “an act of arrogance and an affront to the doctrine of separation of powers”. Meanwhile, furious business groups vow to make the next set of judicial elections a referendum on the court’s activism. Though with a nominal Republican majority, “the current seven-member tribunal has gained a reputation as a ‘plaintiffs’ court.’ Two Republican justices, Andrew Douglas and Paul E. Pfeifer, have become frequent swing voters with decisions endearing them to labor unions and trial lawyers.” (Joe Hallett, Columbus Dispatch, Aug. 17).
August 18 — “Dieters still want fen-phen”. The hazards of the drug are frightening; so are those of obesity, and Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Susan Vela found many local residents wishing the system still permitted them a choice. “It calmed the monster in my body,” said one woman who was able to get down to 136 on fen-phen but has gone up to 210 without it. “Who do I sue to get it back on the market? I’m suffering without it.” (Aug. 16; full story). An August 14 Washington Post editorial calls the recent Texas $23 million award against the drug’s manufacturer “a terrible signal, almost guaranteed to bring thousands more plaintiffs to court on flimsy evidence”.
August 17 — Ohio high court says forget tort reform; should unionists be cheering? By a one-vote margin, the Ohio Supreme Court basically notifies the state’s lawmakers that it won’t tolerate any attempts by them to say how the state’s liability law should operate. “Ohio legislators might as well shut up shop and go home,” said Linda Woggon of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. The decision is the 90th in which a state court has invalidated efforts to curb litigation, according to sources at the American Tort Reform Association, which keeps the dismal count. (Columbus Dispatch (link now dead), Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cincinnati Enquirer coverage). Overlawyered.com intended to give the Ohio constitution a look-through to see whether it in fact contained a provision prohibiting legislatures from legislating, but found that as of this morning the state’s engine for searching the Ohio constitution was broken and returning error messages, which seemed kind of appropriate, actually.
The statute had been challenged not only by the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers (which argued its members would lose business) but also by the state AFL-CIO, whose president William A. Burga, quoted in the Columbus Dispatch, said “anyone who has been harmed or injured” deserves “their day in court and…a fair decision from a jury”. That’s kind of ironic, since unions themselves long ago procured for themselves a series of tort reforms far more favorable than anything being asked for by the business community, insulating them from the risk of unbounded jury awards at the hands of complainants who’ve been (say) roughed up by union pickets. In California, for example, state law already pointedly says that citizens’ “right to be free from any violence, or intimidation by threat of violence” does not apply in a context of “otherwise lawful labor picketing” (gee, thanks, guys!) and AB 1268 (Kuehl), now moving toward enactment in the labor/trial-lawyer-friendly state legislature, would curtail unions’ civil liability yet further, curbing the application of exemplary (punitive) damages and vicarious liability even if acts of violence are committed by unionists for the organization’s benefit.
So here’s the net effect: it’s just dandy and highly constitutional for legislators to immunize unions from the danger of adverse jury verdicts for acts of deliberate violence, but it suddenly becomes an unconstitutional invasion of jury prerogatives when they try to set any limits at all on the award of “noneconomic” damages, for categories like pain and suffering and emotional distress, in cases where businesses are charged with responsibility for accidental injuries. What do you think Mr. Burga of the Ohio AFL-CIO would say if someone “harmed or injured” crossing a picket line in Akron or Youngstown decided to claim a constitutional right to “their day in court and…a fair decision from a jury”? Would he still insist that legislatures have no constitutional power to limit liability?
August 17 — New Overlawyered.com page: The case for loser-pays. Despite continuing strong Main Street interest in the loser-pays idea, there’s been precious little in the way of Web resources on it, so we’ve made it the subject of the sixth and latest in our series of topical links pages. It’s the most basic, the most indispensable, and the most overdue of all legal reforms; if we can bring it even a little closer to enactment, our time will have been well spent.
August 17 — Correction. In the August 6 item, “Courts actually begin to define harassment“, summarizing a recent Chicago Tribune report on the ripple effects of last year’s Oncale decision, we erroneously reported that the Tribune article did not mention the Oncale Court’s unanimity. In fact, it did mention it. Our apologies.
August 16 — Think I’m too litigious? I’ll sue! (I). In Bakersfield, Calif., the developer of the Fairway Oaks community won’t sell new houses to attorneys because it considers them too likely to get into disputes. Attorney Timothy Liebaert said he was “shocked” and “very mad” to be turned away on the basis of such a generalization, so — how better to disprove it? — he’s suing them. However, occupation is not among the list of categories covered by California housing discrimination laws, and a Kern County judge proceeded to rule that there are legitimate business reasons for a developer to prefer non-lawyer customers. Fairway’s sponsors had previously sold to two attorneys among 500 home buyers and had gotten into a protracted dispute with one, though it had not gone to litigation. Liebaert has filed an appeal and plans to keep the case going on new theories, such as a claim that a developer, if it wants to pursue a policy of not selling to lawyers, is legally obliged to announce that policy in its ads. (Reuters/Fox News; Los Angeles Times, July 25)
In 1986 it was reported that two medical groups practicing obstetrics and gynecology in Brunswick, Ga., had refused to accept as patients attorney Amanda Williams, who had filed what the doctors considered meritless malpractice suits against some of their number, or her law clerk Sheryl Jolly. Williams said she found the policy “offensive” but said “they no doubt take it personally when I file a suit on behalf of a client”.
August 16 — Think I’m too litigious? I’ll sue! (II). Remind us to stay on the good side of attorney Michael Bidart of Claremont, Calif.’s Shernoff, Bidart, Darras & Arkin, who garnered big headlines in January when he convinced a San Bernardino County jury to vote $120.5 million against Aetna U.S. Healthcare for delaying approval of a bone-marrow transplant that he argued might have saved the life of patient David Goodrich. Aetna CEO Richard Huber, angered by the verdict, blamed it in part on the efforts of “a skillful ambulance-chasing lawyer”. And Bidart responded to this dastardly insult by…suing Huber last month for defamation in Los Angeles Superior Court. Legal correspondent Reynolds Holding comments in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 8) that Bidart is “apparently more adept at dishing publicity than taking it”.
August 16 — To restore individual responsibility, bring back contract principles. In this recent Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute, Professor Michael Krauss of George Mason U. School of Law says one major reason liability law has fallen into disrepute is that courts have supplanted contract with tort principles; it doesn’t matter whether you foresaw a risk and agreed to bear it, they’ll let you sue anyway. Formerly, the law sought to secure parties’ rights to shape their own relationships, the role of tort law being to secure persons against unconsensual invasion. Now reliable law has given way to “a general social insurance scheme”, particularly in areas like product liability and medical malpractice, with lamentable consequences: “our rights have been given increasingly less respect by government”. (Full paper)