In the wake of the September 11 bombings, Congress established a Victims Compensation Fund and limited liability for a number of deep-pockets who were also victimized by the attacks. A number of academics questioned that it was even conceivable that innocent third parties could be held liable for a terrorist attack. Anthony J. Sebok, What’s Law Got to Do With It? Designing Compensation Schemes in the Shadow of the Tort System, 53 DEPAUL L. REV. 901, 917 (2003); RICHARD A. NAGAREDA, MASS TORTS IN A WORLD OF SETTLEMENT 104 (2007); Peter Schuck, Special Dispensation, AM. LAWYER (June 2004); see also LLOYD DIXON AND RACHEL KAGANOFF STERN, COMPENSATION FOR LOSSES FROM THE 9/11 ATTACKS (RAND Institute for Civil Justice 2004).
Overlawyered readers knew better, because they had seen the Port Authority get socked with a $1.8 billion verdict (Oct. 27, 2005; Oct. 29, 2005; Nov. 2, 2005) after being held 68% responsible for the deliberate bombing of the World Trade Center by terrorists in 1993. The Port Authority appealed the absurd ruling, but the Appellate Division has affirmed unanimously (via) since, after all, such absurdities are central to the modern tort regime and thus not “legal error” to abandon the centuries-old concept of intervening causation. As I noted in a related Wall Street Journal editorial, contingent-fee attorneys’ incentives are not to seek out the truth behind wrongdoing, but to construct a narrative that will hold the deepest pocket the most responsible, regardless of the effect on justice. This distortion has worked its way into popular culture; a survey of family members of September 11 decedents found that the median respondent held the terrorists only 30% responsible for losses. Gillian Hadfield, Framing the Choice between Cash and the Courthouse: Experiences with the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, 42 L. & SOC. R. __ (forthcoming 2008). See also my House testimony on the expansion of the 9/11 Fund.
- Plenty of reaction to our Tuesday post questioning the NYT school-bullying story, including reader comments and discussion at other blogs; one lawprof passes along a response by the Wolfe family to the Northwest Arkansas Times’s reporting [updated post]
- Geoffrey Fieger, of jury-swaying fame, says holding his forthcoming criminal trial in Detroit would be unfair because juries there hate his guts [Detroit News]
- Another Borat suit down as Judge Preska says movie may be vulgar but has social value, and thus falls into “newsworthiness” exception to NY law barring commercial use of persons’ images [ABA Journal]
- Employer found mostly responsible for accident that occurred after its functionaries overrode a safety device, but a heavy-equipment dealer also named as defendant will have to pay more than 90 percent of resulting $14.6 million award [Bloomington, Ill. Pantagraph]
- New Mexico Human Rights Commission fines photographer $6600 for refusing a job photographing same-sex commitment ceremony [Volokh, Bader]
- “Virginia reaches settlement with families of VA Tech shooting victims” [Jurist]
- Roger Parloff on downfall of Dickie Scruggs [Fortune]
- Judge in Spain fined heavily and disbarred for letting innocent man spend more than a year in jail [AP/IHT, Guardian]
- Hard to know whether all those emergency airplane groundings actually improved safety, they might even have impaired it [Murray/NRO “Corner”, WSJ edit]
- “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value” — tracking down the context of that now-celebrated quote from a Canadian Human Rights Commission investigator [Volokh]
- Who was it that said that lawyers “need to be held accountable for frivolous lawsuits that help drive up the cost of malpractice insurance”? Hint: initials are J.E. [three years ago on Overlawyered]
On September 3, 2003, 19-year-old Frederick Nesbitt was underaged at “Wing Night” at the C View Inn in Cape May, New Jersey, so the waitress at the bar only served him soda while his companions drank pitchers of beer. (His 21-year-old companion James Hamby had a suspended license for drunk driving.) But Nesbitt had been drinking rum and drinking beer with the others before they got to the bar; and Hamby spiked Nesbitt’s drinks with rum under the table at the bar, which was presumably busy serving sixty other people and didn’t notice. So Nesbitt had a 0.199 blood-alcohol level when, speeding, he “lost control [of his car], careening back and forth across the road before striking a guard rail and landing on the driver’s side. He was thrown out the rear window while Hamby, who was found in the car, was pronounced dead at the scene.” Nesbitt is serving a five-year prison term for vehicular homicide, but Hamby’s estate is suing the bar. (It settled with Nesbitt for his $50,000 insurance coverage.)
The lower court threw out the case since the bar didn’t serve Nesbitt any alcohol, but a New Jersey appellate court ruled that the bar has a duty to arrange transportation for anyone who walks in who appears to be drunk “regardless of whether Nesbitt’s intoxication resulted from the service of alcohol by the inn or from other causes” (notwithstanding the absence of such a cause of action under the dramshop statute) so the bar will now have to hope the jury credits the witnesses who say that Nesbitt didn’t appear drunk. (Mary Pat Gallagher, “N.J. Court: Bar May Be Liable for Fatal Crash Even if It Didn’t Serve Patron Alcohol”, NJ Law J, Mar. 24; Tom Hester & Abby Green, “Court adds to taverns’ duty toward safe driving”, Newark Star-Ledger, Mar. 21; Insurance Journal, Mar. 21; AP, Mar. 20; NJLawman.com message board).
If your drinks appear more expensive in New Jersey, it’s because you’re paying for insurance for drunk drivers who might stop at the bar to use the restroom. Of course, why stop at bars? Why not convenience stores?
- UK: Paramedic twists ankle on steps responding to emergency call, plans to sue elderly couple [Daily Mail]
- Critics say litigiousness is part of the business plan for rental outfit Leasecomm, which has sued its customers more than 92,000 times [Boston Globe, Daily News Transcript]
- Great big predators of the alternative press? Jury awards $15 million against SF Weekly to its main competitor, Bay Guardian [SF Chronicle]
- Tacoma public schools sued after mentally ill student brings gun to school and kills classmate [KOMO]
- How the parties traded positions with each other on trade [Gordon, Commentary]
- Now Canada has its own “human rights” complaint against plastic surgeon who declines to undertake transgender-related surgery [Steyn, Macleans; earlier Catholic hospital case from California]
- Florida Supreme Court hears appeal of Joe Anderson $18 million “false light” defamation verdict against Gannett’s Pensacola News-Journal [WSJ law blog; earlier]
- Ottawa lawyer Richard Warman keeps suing bloggers and dragging websites before those Canadian hate-speech tribunals, so no criticizing him please [Levant, Five Feet of Fury (& more), Steyn]
- Discontent continues over judges’ standardless discretion in granting alimony awards [NLJ]
- Death of widow Alice Lawrence isn’t expected to end her litigation with law firm Graubard Miller over contingency fee [NYLJ; earlier]
- Labor arbitrator tells Florida school to rehire employee who reported to work with cocaine in his system [six years ago on Overlawyered]
- As governor, Huckabee signed a good tort reform package capping punitive and non-economic damages, and reforming joint and several liability and venue law, but the rest of his economic record is big-government. And David Harsanyi is critical of Huckabee’s claimed opposition to nanny-statism. [Insurance Journal; Human Events; Harsanyi; RCP; Michael Tanner @ FoxNews]
- Update to the popular Bridezilla flowers lawsuit; florist files opposition. Lots of comments ensue. [Lattman]
- South Dakota Supreme Court: no, you can’t sue a pharmacy for being a “drug dealer” when plaintiff steals prescription medicine for a disabled friend and injures himself OD’ing on it. [On Point]
- Former litigator hired to invest $100m in court cases for UK hedge fund. [Times Online]
- Atkins fallout in Texas and California, as professional anti-death-penalty experts there happily minimize subject IQs to call their intelligent clients retarded. Earlier: Feb. 2005; Sep. 2003. [Science Evidence blog; and again]
- Heartbalm tort of alienation of affection withstand constitutional challenge in Mississippi. Earlier: Jul. 5; Nov. 2006, etc. [Torts Prof]
- Bob Woodruff biography: I would have died if my injury happened in the United States because of fear of liability. [Murnane]
- I’ve updated my paper on Thomas Geoghegan’s new book. [SSRN]
- Overlawyered holds slim lead at ABA Blawg 100 popularity contest. But why aren’t any of you voting for Point of Law? [ABA Journal]
- Ethical questions for Vioxx lawyers [WSJ law blog] And who’s going to make what? [same; more from Ted at PoL]
- American lawyers shouldn’t get all self-congratulatory about the courage shown by their Pakistani counterparts [Giacalone; more]
- Just another of those harmless questionnaires from school, this time about kindergartners’ at-home computer use. Or maybe there’s more to it [Nicole Black]
- Probe of personal injury “runners” bribing Gotham hospital staff to chase business nets another conviction, this one of a lawyer who stole $148,000 from clients [NYLJ; earlier]
- Facebook sometimes sends text messages to obsolete cellphone numbers relinquished by its users, so let’s sue it [IndyStar]
- Series on defensive medicine at docblog White Coat Rants [first, second, third]
- Arm broken by bully, student wins $4 million verdict against Tampa private school; bully himself not sued [St. Petersburg Times]
- Washington, D.C. reportedly doing away with right to contest a
trafficparking ticket in person [The Newspaper, on “the politics of driving”]
- “Walking headline factory” Scruggs to be arraigned November 20 [Rossmiller]
- More on whether government’s refusal to alter paper currency discriminates against the blind [Waldeck, ConcurOp via Bader; earlier]
- Eric Turkewitz hosts a truly marathon Blawg Review #134 [NY Pers Inj Law Blog]
You may recall the case of De Villers v. County of San Diego (Mar. 2006; Jul. 2006). Kristin Rossum was found guilty of poisoning husband Gregory de Villers and trying to make his death look like a suicide; his family sued both Rossum and her employer, the county of San Diego, and a jury found that Rossum was only 75% responsible, but that still put taxpayers on the hook for $1.5 million. An appellate court has stepped in to belatedly throw out the case against the County. (via On Point)
I’m going to have much much more to say about this case, but for now, let us simply note that a jury found for the plaintiff in a lawsuit against McDonald’s over her victimization by a perverted prank phone call, and awarded $6.1 million; we mentioned the incident in the comments to this lengthy September 2006 discussion of a similar lawsuit that was thrown out of court, and first noted the potential for litigation in April 2004, days before the actual incident took place in this suit.
What the press coverage to date has not mentioned is that the person who almost certainly perpetrated the incident was acquitted after the Kentucky case fell apart because the criminal defense attorney was able to impeach the witnesses by noting their financial stakes in the civil litigation decided today. Thus, thanks to our civil litigation system’s quest for the deep pocket, the guilty party went free and a tertiary innocent victim got hit with damages. Which is precisely why it’s a misnomer when trial lawyers rename themselves associations for “justice.”
Mark Steyn throws down the gauntlet:
Last week the New York Times carried a story about the current state of the 9/11 lawsuits. Relatives of 42 of the dead are suing various parties for compensation, on the grounds that what happened that Tuesday morning should have been anticipated. The law firm Motley Rice, diversifying from its traditional lucrative class-action hunting grounds of tobacco, asbestos and lead paint, is promising to put on the witness stand everybody who “allowed the events of 9/11 to happen.” And they mean everybody – American Airlines, United, Boeing, the airport authorities, the security firms – everybody, that is, except the guys who did it.
According to the Times, many of the bereaved are angry and determined that their loved one’s death should have meaning. Yet the meaning they’re after surely strikes our enemies not just as extremely odd but as one more reason why they’ll win. You launch an act of war, and the victims respond with a lawsuit against their own countrymen.
But that’s the American way: Almost every news story boils down to somebody standing in front of a microphone and announcing that he’s retained counsel. Last week, it was Larry Craig. Next week, it’ll be the survivors of Ahmadinejad’s nuclear test in Westchester County. As Andrew McCarthy pointed out, a legalistic culture invariably misses the forest for the trees. Sen. Craig should know that what matters is not whether an artful lawyer can get him off on a technicality but whether the public thinks he trawls for anonymous sex in public bathrooms. Likewise, those 9/11 families should know that, if you want your child’s death that morning to have meaning, what matters is not whether you hound Boeing into admitting liability but whether you insist that the movement that murdered your daughter is hunted down and the sustaining ideological virus that led thousands of others to dance up and down in the streets cheering her death is expunged from the earth.