It appears an ill-natured prankster spread adhesive on the toilet seat of a Home Depot in Florissant, Mo., in suburban St. Louis. The hapless patron who was next to sit down claims in his suit that the earlier, similar incident in Colorado (which we covered here and here) should have put Home Depot on notice that “a strong possibility that instances of copycat behavior would occur”. With that awareness in hand, the retail chain could have — what? sent in an employee to check for seat-gluing after each time a customer used the facility? (The Smoking Gun, Jun. 13).
Federal toilet-flow regulation, writes Andrew Ferguson, resulted from a successful collaboration between organized industry and environmentalists against the interests of the general public. (“Can Deregulating Toilets Revive Republicans?”, Bloomberg News, Jan. 24).
“A man who sued Home Depot claiming that a prank left him glued to a restroom toilet seat has passed a lie detector test, a newspaper reported.” After Bob Dougherty made headlines with his allegations that employees of the home improvement chain failed to respond to his calls for help, “Ron Trzepacz, former director of operations in Nederland, where Dougherty lives, said that Dougherty claimed in 2004 that he was glued to a toilet seat in the town’s visitor center but pulled himself free.” However, Dougherty said he knew nothing of Trzepacz or of such an incident and offered to take the polygraph test, which was arranged by a local television station. (AP/CNN, Nov. 11). Amid the numerous puzzling aspects of the case, one aspect is reassuringly familiar, namely that it’s Not About the Money (see Nov. 7, etc.) “It’s not about the money. I want my health back. I want to be back to normal,’ Dougherty said. ‘I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody ever, ever again.'” His lawsuit asks $3 million for pain, humiliation and other losses. (AP/CNN, “Man glued to toilet may have history”, Nov. 8). Possibly the most groanworthy headline, of several candidates, was the Dallas Morning News’s: “Toilet allegation: Was it stunt No. 2?” (Nov. 8).
A group of volunteer parents and teens built the Uncle Bud Skate Park in downtown Marshfield, Massachusetts over the last five years, but the state Office on Disability is threatening to order the park closed to the public because the park does not meet accessibility requirements. (The park does contain an ampitheater, so it’s not just an issue of accommodating disabled roller-bladers.) So far Public Works Superintendent R. Jeb DeLoach has responded in Harrison Bergeron fashion, by removing a bench and a portable toilet that was not handicapped accessible. (Needless to say, this does not make the park any friendlier to the handicapped, but rather makes it equally unfriendly to the non-disabled.) There’s still an issue because only one of the three entrances to the park is accessible; compliance costs for this and other violations will raise the cost of the park 25%. (Shamus McGillicuddy, Patriot-Ledger, Apr. 12) (via Newman, who asks, “[I]f you hated the handicapped and wanted to hatch a plot that would cause children and their families to resent them, could you really do better than this?”). For the tale of the wheelchair ramp in the mountains, see Jul. 9, 2003.
Meals-on-wheels officials in Gloucestershire were preparing to distribute to elderly clients paper napkins printed with tips on how to avoid being a crime victim, but paused the initiative after being warned that no safety assessment had been made of the possible choking hazard should pensioners insert the napkins into their mouths; the distribution eventually went forward, but critics said the episode encouraged the portrayal of aged persons as senile (Martin Wainwright, “No napkins … elderly might eat them”, The Guardian, Apr. 13). The Royal Chesterfield hospital is locked in a longstanding battle with claims-chasers who prowl its accident and emergency facilities promoting no-win, no-fee legal practices. Said a spokesman: “They have been approaching patients, asking them how they came about their injuries, was it their fault and if they want to sue. We have had several complaints from patients. These people are also handing out official-looking leaflets with an NHS-type logo which makes it look as if the hospital is endorsing their actions.” (Nick Britten, “Hospital lawyers target ‘ambulance chasers'”, Daily Telegraph, Apr. 14). Until recently a number of Scottish prisons provided inmates with chamberpots rather than in-cell toilets for overnight use; the practice has now been ruled a human rights violation and taxpayers are on the hook for compensation claims that some see rising as high as £100 million. (Hamish MacDonell and John Robertson, “Slopping-out prisoners ‘to sue for £100m'”, The Scotsman, Feb. 11; Kirsty Scott, “Slopping out judged a breach of human rights”, The Guardian, Apr. 27, 2004). And the newsletter of the Association of Lloyd’s Members, serving participants in the venerable London insurance market, will be reprinting with credit occasional items from this website (after having asked our permission, which we were happy to grant).
December 15 — “Two men shot in suspected drug deal win $1.7 million”. Catching up on a story that slipped by us last month: A Miami jury has returned a verdict against Ramada Inn for negligent failure to provide security after the shootings of Eddie Talley and Jerry Woods in the parking lot of a Hialeah, Fla. Ramada Inn in 1995. Damages have not been determined pending an appeal, but the two are seeking a total of $1.7 million for their injuries.
According to Miami Herald and Associated Press accounts of the case, Talley, whose rap sheet includes a Georgia felony conviction for possession of cocaine and marijuana, and Woods were staying at the Ramada while visiting relatives over the holidays. Around 7:20 p.m. on December 18, 1995, they were sitting in the inn’s parking lot in their borrowed Jeep Cherokee accompanied by three-time convicted felon Gerald Lloyd, 42, when after several minutes they were approached by two gunmen who demanded that they hand over their money and almost immediately began firing, wounding Woods and Talley. When police arrived they found that not only the attackers but also their victims had fled the scene. They found no drugs in the Cherokee, but Lloyd’s van, parked nearby, contained a duffel bag containing $38,000 in small bills and an electronic scale. (Lloyd later said the scale was for weighing jewelry and the cash for buying real estate.) They also found “small packets of crack and powdered cocaine in Talley’s jacket inside his hotel room at the Ramada Inn” but did not charge him.
Police Detective Bassam Fadel of the Hialeah force said the department received no cooperation from the three men in the investigation, and the shooters were never found. However, Woods and Talley’s aversion to entanglement in legal process did not extend to a reluctance to engage in civil litigation, and they proceeded to sue the hotel chain charging negligent security; it employed a security guard, but only between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Celeste Muir proceeded to exclude from the civil trial, as prejudicial, much of the evidence from the police investigation about the suspected drug deal. Raul E. Garcia Jr., the attorney who represented Woods and Talley in the civil suit, defended the verdict: “I don’t think there was enough evidence to arrive at the conclusion that this was a drug deal gone bad,” an interestingly precise, we might even say lawyerly, wording for him to adopt. (Jay Weaver, “Two men shot in suspected drug deal win $1.7 million”, Miami Herald, Nov. 25; “Jury Rules Against Ramada Inn”, AP/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 25). (Update June 6, 2001: appeals court overturns verdict)
December 15 — From the quote file. “In recent years, the Supreme Court has become the chief human resources director for the nation’s workplaces.” (“Can’t We All Just Work Together?”, the editors, Legal Times (Washington, D.C.), Nov. 8 — not online)
December 15 — Philadelphia Inquirer Tech.life: “Web Winners”. We’re pleased that our topical page on tobacco litigation has been named one of the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s weekly “Web Winners”, part of the paper’s Tech.life section. The feature is also syndicated to other newspapers and appeared in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. (Nov. 18)
December 14 — Victory in Florida. Circuit Judge Amy Dean yesterday dismissed Miami-Dade County’s lawsuit against the gun industry seeking to recoup the cost of shootings. The ruling was the third tossing out a city gun suit; last week a Connecticut judge dismissed Bridgeport’s claim, and in October an Ohio judge dismissed Cincinnati’s. (Jay Weaver and Don Finefrock, “Miami-Dade gun lawsuit thrown out”, Miami Herald, Dec. 14; Mark Long, “Judge KOs Miami Gun Maker Lawsuit”, AP/Washington Post, Dec. 13, links now dead).
Despite the gun industry’s strong initial showing in the suits, it still faces a potentially ruinous cost of legal defense. Judges in Chicago and Atlanta have signaled a willingness to allow municipal claims to proceed to the stage of pretrial “discovery”, assuring a manyfold jump in the quantum of expense even if the gun makers eventually prevail in full.
A little-noted news report this fall in the Wall Street Journal sheds light on the thinking of some of the lawyers behind the suits. According to the report, one faction of outside lawyers for some of the cities, “especially Los Angeles and San Francisco”, have “argued against an early settlement”. One reason is that they hope to use the litigation, with its compulsory subpoena power afforded by the discovery process, to get at gun makers’ confidential files, correspondence and business documents; coincidentally or not, records obtained that way could prove invaluable to them in further for-profit litigation against the manufacturers even should the cities eventually settle or abandon their claims. And more: “Prolonged litigation and larger legal costs also would increase the financial pressure on the industry to accept new curbs.” In other words, these lawyers are suggesting that the cost of litigation be deliberately employed to bleed gunmakers as a means of gaining leverage over them. (Paul M. Barrett, “Gun Makers, Municipal Representives Ready to Meet on Settlement of Lawsuits”, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 24 (requires online subscription)). Because of this country’s lack of a loser-pays rule, gun manufacturers, like other defendants in litigation, have little hope of holding their persecutors answerable for the use of such tactics.
December 14 — California’s worst? The reform-oriented Civil Justice Association of California has nominated its picks for the most outrageous lawsuits of the decade in the Golden State. A sampling:
* A man sued the city of San Diego for emotional distress occasioned by his extra wait to use the men’s room at an Elton John concert after women began cutting in and using it. He also sued the beer concession for contributing to his repeated use of the facilities. The judge tagged him and his lawyer with sanctions for meritless litigation (sometimes it seems it takes a case this bad before judges’ll do that).
* An Oakland bank robber sued bank, city and police after a tear-gas device hidden in the loot went off and injured him during his getaway.
* The Santa Clara County YMCA was sued for failing to provide a lifeguard at a Jacuzzi that was 3 1/2 feet deep and less than 8 feet per side square.
* Disneyland was sued for emotional distress after a patron’s kids saw the strolling cartoon figures out of character and realized they were just regular people (Civil Justice Association of Calif. release, Dec. 8 — full list)
December 14 — Relax, you’re being taken care of. Is it okay for a lawyer pressing an injury case to set up his client in a free apartment, thus boosting the likelihood that he’ll stay the course to an eventual settlement payday? How ’bout if he pays the client’s electric bill, cable TV bill, gas bill and phone bill too? In Philadelphia, attorney Marvin Barish has been performing those generous services for client John Shade but recently became the target of an ethical challenge from the opponent in the case, who said the relationship violates legal ethics. Mr. Barish describes the assistance as “humanitarian” and says it breaches no rules because he does not have a legal right to recoup the expenses later from Mr. Shade. (Shannon P. Duffy, “Motion to Disqualify Counsel: Isn’t Paying Plaintiff’s Rent, Utilities Against the Rules?”, Legal Intelligencer, Oct. 27 — full story). (Update: court refuses to disqualify Barish from case; see March 13).
December 13 — New improvement to the Overlawyered.com site: we become a desktop. Until now the column running down the left side of this site’s front page has mostly consisted of a blank grey expanse. Starting today it’ll be much less blank since we’re using it to house a series of link clusters — a “portal” or “desktop”, as we think the jargon has it. We’ve picked the links ourselves (well, okay, they’re based on our editor’s bookmarks, but is there something so wrong with that?) and we hope they’ll appeal to readers who share our tastes in law, government and public policy, news and commentary, business, book stuff, science, skepticism, humor, and that sort of thing. At a minimum they provide a jumping-off point for keeping abreast of breaking news, checking out the state of the American legal system, or simply investigating links we’ve found stimulating (we don’t always agree with the sites’ contents, as should prove obvious).
Check out the new additions to the front page’s left column and you’ll see they’re reasonably self-explanatory. The earlier groupings are relatively practical in nature and often relate to the upkeep of this site (search, breaking news, legal news and research, policy and business stuff) while the later ones progress toward opinion writing (including many of our favorite online columnists), and so to matter for leisure, reflection and diversion. Feel free within reason to nominate links we should add, bearing in mind that when it comes to selection choices our whim is as iron, and that (even with teeny-tiny type sizes) space in the list is at a premium.
December 13 — Tobacco bankruptcies, and what comes after. “Tobacco companies may soon deem it rational — perhaps imperative — to seek bankruptcy protection from tort creditors….
“[A tobacco company would, first, want to file in the state in which it was incorporated, such as Delaware. Second, it] would probably want to file the case as a ‘prepackaged plan,’ which would be negotiated with the debtor’s major constituents, such as banks, shareholders and, perhaps, tort claimants before filing. Third — and most important — it would want to continue to manufacture cigarettes after reorganization. It is therefore possible that, under a confirmed plan, tort creditors [such as state governments, trial lawyers, and other key players in the demonization of the companies — ed.] would own interests in a business that, depending on your theory of tobacco company liability, continued to engage in the tortious conduct that created liability in the first place.” (Jonathan Lipson, “Bankruptcy: Tobacco companies”, National Law Journal, Dec. 6 — full story). The crusade against tobacco-selling, in other words, would end with the crusaders getting to own a share of that richly profitable enterprise. For further details, see the close of Orwell’s “Animal Farm”.
December 13 — Pie menace averted. Members of the Community Advent Christian Church in Norwalk, Ct. wanted to bake pies this Thanksgiving and donate them to the city’s emergency shelter, but were told that under a state regulation home-baked pies cannot be donated to the shelter and that any pies that get donated anyway are thrown out, reports the Norwalk Hour. State health officials had informed shelter administrators that only commercially baked pies or pies baked in the shelter’s own kitchen are acceptable. Parishioner Rae Russo termed “ridiculous” the suggestion that she make use of the shelter’s kitchen to bake a pie for donation, asking, “Do you think their oven is cleaner than my own?” (Yvonne Moran, “Home-baked pies shelved”, Norwalk (Ct.) Hour, Dec. 10 — not online)
December 11-12 — Victory in Connecticut. In Waterbury, Ct., Superior Court Judge Robert F. McWeeny has dismissed the city of Bridgeport’s lawsuit against gun makers, which had sought to blame the city’s notoriously high crime rate on those manufacturers as opposed to its own failures of governance. “When conceiving the complaint in this case,” wrote Judge McWeeny, “the plaintiffs must have envisioned [the tobacco settlements] as the dawning of a new age of litigation during which the gun industry, liquor industry and purveyors of ‘junk’ food would follow the tobacco industry in reimbursing government expenditures and submitting to judicial regulation.” But the plaintiffs, he ruled, “have no statutory or common law basis” for a recoupment claim and “lack any statutory authorization to initiate such claims”. The ruling follows a similar rebuke in October to Cincinnati’s attempt to mulct gun makers for the costs of shootings, which Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman likewise dismissed as having no legal basis.
Bridgeport mayor Joseph Ganim, who masterminded the suit and is considered ambitious for statewide office, vowed to appeal. “We have a right, and the people have a right, to have this case heard by a jury,” he spluttered. Okay, Mr. Mayor, we’ll put it in words of one syllable: there’s no such right if you don’t have a law to sue on. And you don’t have one here. So you lose. Now go home. (John Springer, “Judge Dismisses Suit Against Gun Industry”, Hartford Courant, Dec. 11; “Conn. Judge Throws Out Gun Lawsuit”, AP/Washington Post, Dec. 10, link now dead)
December 11-12 — Guest Choice Network Site of the Day. Overlawyered.com was picked as Friday’s Site of the Day by the Guest Choice Network, an informative and often witty website that sticks up for the rights of the hospitality business and its customers against the rampant nannyism that if left unchecked would in time compel every restaurant, hotel and nightspot to be drink-free, smoke-free, red meat-free, wagering-free, sweets- and snacks-free, peanut- and other allergen-free, swordfish-free, flirtation-free, caffeine-free, perfume-free, and in the last analysis freedom-free. Highlights include the “Attack of the Nanny” game (an animation waggles her finger as she comes after you), an explanation of why Ralph Nader’s proposed American Museum of Tort Law would more appropriately be a house of horrors, and a retort against the Food Prudes written by the CEO of — yum! — Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
December 11-12 — Weekend reading: columnist-fest. Bunch of good columns to recommend:
* “Last night, my daughter refused to put on her pajamas until I had checked to make sure there was no WTO under the bed,” writes the Chicago Tribune‘s Steve Chapman. We hear the World Trade Organization “wants to dismantle democracy, starve working people, pave over rain forests, destroy the family farm and clog your bathtub drain,” but a closer look just illustrates once again the reasons why Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader really deserve each other (“WTO gonna get you mama”, Dec. 2)
* New John Leo column on zero-tolerance policies is especially timely given the latest report: 12-year-old Kyle Fredrikson of Inverness, Fla. stomped his foot in a puddle at school, splashing classmates and a school employee. A nearby deputy arrested and handcuffed the youth, bundled him into a patrol car and whisked him to jail where he spent two hours. (“Zero Sense”, New York Daily News, Dec. 4; “Schoolboy’s puddle stomp gets him cuffed, arrested”, Tampa Tribune, Dec. 9, link now dead)
* Chicago Tribune‘s John McCarron on how the legal jihad against managed care is likely, after destabilizing the current employment-based health insurance system, to lead to the sorts of coverage disruptions and renewed cost inflation that will end with Washington stepping in to impose something on the order of Canadian-style “single payer” care — though there’s little evidence most Americans actually want that outcome (“Paralysis prognosis”, Oct. 11)
December 10 — Not the advertised side? The intersection of law and politics is a dodgy business, isn’t it? On Wednesday we described a recent race for state senate in Louisiana between two attorneys both of whom (we said, relying on the National Law Journal) practice mostly on the defense side in litigation. Now a reader from Baton Rouge writes in to say we were led astray in characterizing one of them that way. For more details, see the correction/addendum we’ve added to our December 8 report.
December 10 — “Case’s outcome may spur many more lawsuits”. A “big” trial is pending in Fayette, Miss. over the diet compound fen-phen. If it ends in as large a verdict as the lawyers hope, it just might lead to the unraveling of a laboriously crafted $4.8 billion settlement between claimants and drugmaker American Home Products. This AP dispatch quotes the editor of this website, who cites Mississippi’s reputation these days as a state where many unpleasant surprises can await out-of-state defendants (Paul Payne, “Case’s outcome may spur many more lawsuits”, AP/Biloxi, Miss. Sun-Herald, Dec. 9 — full story).
December 10 — Sixth most powerful. Only sixth? For the second year in a row Fortune pronounces the Association of Trial Lawyers of America the sixth most powerful interest group in Washington, D.C. That’s ahead of the Chamber of Commerce or National Association of Manufacturers, ahead of the doctors or teachers or realtors or farmers or public employees or auto workers or Hollywood studios. (“The Power 25”, Fortune, Dec. 6). But as Robert Samuelson points out in an excellent column in the current Newsweek, press coverage systematically underrates the influence in Washington of ideological lobbies such as Public Citizen and the National Organization for Women, which often work closely with organized lawyers to press for wider rights to sue. As if to confirm Samuelson’s point, Fortune omits such groups as Public Citizen, NOW, the ACLU, the NAACP and People for the American Way from its list of the capital’s supposed top 100 influence-wielders. (Robert Samuelson, “The Stealth Power Brokers”, Newsweek, Dec. 13, link now dead).
December 10 — Concern for health. On Wednesday the state of Texas executed convicted axe murderer David Martin Long, whom doctors had pronounced to be in serious condition after he ingested a drug overdose two days earlier in an apparent suicide attempt. “Because Long’s doctor deemed such a move ‘risky,’ state officials used an airplane staffed by medical personnel to ensure that he arrived in good health after the 25-minute trip” to the death chamber in Huntsville, reports the New York Times. (Jim Yardley, “Texas Inmate Is Executed Despite Overdose”, New York Times, Dec. 9 (free, but registration required))
December 10 — Driving up housing costs. California has some of the most expensive housing in the United States, and one reason, a legislative panel was told this fall, is the state’s intensely litigious climate with regard to construction-defect suits. Erection of condominiums, townhouses and other high-density residential units plunged in the mid-1980s after a wave of lawsuits led most insurers to stop accepting business from builders of multi-family housing. “We did one condo project and faced six years of lawsuits. We would never do another,” said a former official of a leading nonprofit developer of affordable housing. One lawyer who represents California homebuilders “said that his firm alone had defended 1,500 defect cases since 1989.” (Catherine Bridge, “A Building Controversy”, The Recorder/Cal Law, Oct. 5). In August the state Supreme Court helped matters when it overturned an appeals court decision and ruled by a 5-2 margin that plaintiffs in construction contract disputes are not entitled to damages for emotional distress. (Erlich v. Menezes (FindLaw; see Aug. 23 entry); Civil Justice Association of California release, Aug. 23; Coalition for Quality, Affordable Housing (seeks alternatives to litigation); Miller Law Firm (plaintiffs’ side)).
December 9 — Gun lawsuits: HUD, White House pile on. Not to be rude, but which is more likely to lead to a surge in crime in your neighborhood: the opening of a gun shop, or the opening of a big new low-income housing project subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (Andrew Cuomo, Secretary)? Yet Cabinet member Cuomo has made it a special project of his to enlist the federal government’s legal might behind the theory that gun sellers are the cause of crime, and now the White House has announced that it’s helping prepare a class-action lawsuit against gun makers to be filed by independent local authorities that run subsidized housing projects. “The real question is: Why isn’t the proper role of HUD and local authorities as defendants in lawsuits? They shouldn’t be able to dump their failings on others,” notes University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein.
“We have safety caps on a bottle of aspirin; it makes no sense not to have safety devices on guns,” said Cuomo, in a line one may suspect his staff has been polishing for the occasion. The obvious responses are that 1) there’s a federal law on the aspirin bottles and no federal law on the other, and if Cuomo doesn’t like it he should go see Congress; 2) the reason there’s cumbersome packaging on aspirin bottles is that those who take aspirin never need to reach it in an emergency where every second counts; where a drug is needed in emergencies, as with asthma inhalers or epinephrine injectors, the childproofing is dispensed with; 3) the Bill of Rights doesn’t include an Amendment about pills or their bottles, meant to prevent a powerful central authority from gathering to itself too complete a monopoly of control over the means of medication; and 4) the childproofing law for pill bottles itself isn’t such a hot idea, because it leads many elderly persons with arthritic hands to transfer their pills to unmarked containers, where they figure in more mix-ups later.
Steve Sanetti, vice president and general counsel of Sturm, Ruger & Co., called the suit “crazy” and an “inversion of responsibility,” noting that the federal government already is in charge of regulating gun sales. Glock general counsel Paul Januzzo termed it “ridiculous”: “I don’t believe that anybody could possibly have a good faith legal basis to file that,” he said. “They call it pressure. I call it blackmail.” Although several gunmakers have filed for bankruptcy protection since the latest round of litigation began, President Clinton denied that the suit was intended to drive them bankrupt — never mind whether that’s the predictable and foreseeable result of his actions. (DURABLE LINK)
Sources: “U.S. preparing to sue gun makers on behalf of public housing residents”, Dallas Morning News (New York Times Service), Dec. 8; Anne Gearan, “White House Preparing Gun Lawsuit”, AP/Washington Post, Dec. 8, link now dead; Christopher Noble, “Gun makers say planned U.S. lawsuit makes no sense”, Reuters/Deseret News, Dec. 8; Mike Dorning, “U.S., Public Housing Agencies Discuss Gun Industry Suit”, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 8; Randall Mikkelsen, “Clinton says not seeking to bankrupt gun makers”, Reuters/Excite, Dec. 8, link now dead; Richard A. Epstein, “Lawsuits Aimed at Guns Probably Won’t Hit Crime”, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9 (online subscribers only).
December 9 — Czar of Annapolis, and buddy of Fidel. American Spectator profile by Max Schulz of zillionaire asbestos lawyer, political kingmaker, and would-be slayer of lead-paint manufacturers Peter Angelos (see also our October 19 commentary). The article says Angelos’s treatment of the Maryland legislature as his own little fiefdom, which he uses to obtain a steady flow of bills that expand liability in cases he’s suing on, has grown so heavy-handed that even pliant Annapolis lawmakers are murmuring about revolt. Angelos’s stewardship of the Baltimore Orioles has been far from a success (though he’s been adept at milking hometown affection for the team for political advantage) and reached a low point in the recent spring episode in which, after pulling strings at the U.S. State Department, he was allowed to bring the Orioles down to Havana for an exhibition game against the Cuban national team — a major propaganda coup for the repulsive Fidel Castro. The long trail of victims Castro has left strewn behind him over the decades was apparently not of sufficient concern to Angelos to deter him from sitting alongside the dictator, the two chatting amiably in their box seats (Max Schulz, “Baltimore’s Little Caesar”, American Spectator, December 1999, link now dead).
December 9 — “Attorney blames airline for man’s drunken in-flight rage”. “The attorney for a drunken Tennessee man charged with assaulting and swearing at members of a flight crew yesterday blamed the airline for the incident that caused pilots to divert the course of the Dallas- to- London- bound plane and land at Logan International Airport.” Attorney Michael Cerulli of Swampscott, Mass. said that American Airlines’ alcohol policy was to blame for the behavior of his client, Hussam Jaber, 33, who became truculent and had to be calmed down by a co-pilot. Prosecutors, however, said that Mr. Jaber had brought his own bottle of gin onto the plane. (Franci Richardson, “Attorney blames airline for man’s drunken in-flight rage”, Boston Herald, Nov. 27 — full story).
December 9 — 125,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. If you’d like the counter to spin even faster, why not mention this humble site in your e-newsletter, ask your favorite webmaster to include it on his or her links list, or propose us to directories like Yahoo, DMOZ, Excite and LookSmart in categories where we’re not currently listed and would logically fit?…Thanks for your support!
December 9 — Welcome WTIC News Talk visitors (“Ray and Robin’s picks“). See November 18 item.
December 8 — “‘Lawyer’ Label Hurts at Polls”. In off-year elections held through the South this fall, the National Law Journal reports, many candidates scored with voters by pointing out that their opponents were plaintiff’s lawyers themselves or were backed by that group. All but one of ten Louisiana legislative candidates who were labeled as trial lawyers lost, and losses by two attorney incumbents contributed to the GOP takeover of the Virginia general assembly. One exception to the trend: attorney Bobby Bright was elected mayor of Montgomery, Ala., ousting controversial longtime incumbent Emory Folmar. An Alabama pollster agrees, however, that “‘trial lawyer’ has become a pejorative term.”
Charles R. “Chick” Moore, a former president of the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association, lost in a challenge to an incumbent who breezed home with 62 percent of the vote. Moore complained that it was unfair for the opposition to call voter attention repeatedly to his status as a trial lawyer, since he was trying to campaign on the issue of education. However, “[o]f Mr. Moore’s first $138,411 in contributions, more than four-fifths came from lawyers, and more than $40,000 donated during the last two weeks of the campaign came from past and present Trial Lawyers Association officers” — rather a lot of interest for his colleagues to take in advancing an education platform. In perhaps the most remarkable episode, two lawyers who practice on the defense (as opposed to plaintiff’s) side [see note below] ran as opposing candidates in a New Orleans race for state senate; both proceeded to accuse each other of being soft on you-know-who. “The Trial Lawyers Are Desperate to Beat John Hainkel,” declared one side, while a brochure distributed by the other was titled, “How LOW Will The Trial Lawyers…Go To Defeat Jimmy DeSonier?” (“Sen. Hainkel won handily.”) (Mark Ballard, National Law Journal, Nov. 18 — full story).
Correction/addendum: the above characterization of candidate Jimmy DeSonnier as practicing on the defense side followed the National Law Journal‘s description of him as “a GOP litigator who often represents slip-and-fall defendants”. Writes Dan Juneau from Baton Rouge, La.: “Hainkel, the winner in the election, is a defense attorney, but DeSonnier is a plantiff attorney who until right before the election served on the board of directors of the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association. Hainkel will now become president of the Louisiana State Senate, much to the chagrin of the trial lawyers who poured huge contributions into the campaign against him. Hainkel won with 75% of the vote.”
December 8 — Update: toilet of terror. As we reported in this space December 1, Canadian tourist Edward Skwarek and his wife Sherrie have sued the Starbucks coffee chain for $1.5 million, alleging that an intimate part of Mr. Skwarek’s anatomy was caught and mangled while he was seated on the toilet seat of a Starbucks outlet in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The Smoking Gun has now posted a copy of the 4-page complaint, signed by attorney Stuart A. Schlesinger of the law firm of Julien & Schlesinger P.C., along with a photo of the offending commode (“Is this the most dangerous toilet in America?”).
December 8 — Annals of zero tolerance: scissors, toy-gun cases. In Newport News, Virginia, senior Shiana Floyd has been suspended for 11 days under a zero-tolerance weapons policy after a teacher observed a pair of scissors that had fallen out of her purse. Ms. Floyd, interested in fashion, says she often uses the scissors to cut illustrations of clothes out of magazines. And in Columbus, Ohio, a federal judge has upheld Westland High School’s expulsion of 17-year-old Stephen Koser after a deputy patrolling the school parking lot noticed a plastic toy gun, which the deputy mistook for a real one, underneath the seat of the car belonging to Koser’s mother, which he had driven to school. Young Koser, who’d had disciplinary problems in the past, got himself in more trouble by losing his temper and spouting profanities when confronted about the supposed weapon; his family said the toy gun had been left in the car by a neighbor child and that Koser was unaware of it (Stephanie Barrett, “Suspended for carrying scissors”, Hampton Roads, Va. Daily Press, Dec. 7, link now dead; Robert Ruth, “Judge Upholds Student’s Expulsion for Toy Handgun”, Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 3)
December 8 — Welcome Bedtime Stories visitors. Offbeat news tidbits, Internet humor, and the occasional bit of inspiration or uplift: all are found on this free twice-a-day email service, edited by Milan Vydareny, consisting of “anecdotes, humor, and commentary on the human condition”.
December 7 — The fateful t-shirt. Stewart Gregory of Cincinnati, Ohio, is suing NBC, the “Tonight Show” and host Jay Leno, saying he was “battered” and “forcefully struck” in the face on Sept. 11, 1998 when the warm-up comic who preceded Leno on the show blasted a freebie t-shirt into the audience with an air gun. Gregory, who is representing himself without a lawyer, seeks damages in excess of $25,000 for his “pain and suffering, disability, lost wages, emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment”, as well as punitive damages. Court papers say audience members are frequently pelted with freebie paraphernalia as part of the warm-up. (Ann W. O’Neill, “Fan Slaps Leno With Suit After In-Your-Face T-Shirt Giveaway”, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 5, link now dead; Amy Reiter, “Does Carrey Need to Exercise?” (second item), Salon, Dec. 7) (& see update, Dec. 22)
December 7 — Rolling the dice (cont’d). Latest lawsuit by an Internet gambler seeking to blame his losses on the credit card companies that advanced him the money: Frank Marino’s action in San Rafael, Calif., against American Express and Discover. We last reported on this genre of suits in August. An “American Express spokeswoman said the company has not been served with a complaint yet and added it prohibits merchants from accepting the American Express card via the Internet for gambling purposes.” (Yahoo/Reuters, “American Express And Discover Sued for Online Loans”, Dec. 7, link now dead)
December 7 — “Power Tools: America’s Children at Risk”. We thought this parody, with its motto “It Feels Good to Give Up a Little Freedom for a Lot of Safety” and its invention of the litigious pressure group M.I.L.T. (Moms Insisting on Licensed Tools), was a pretty funny take-off on anti-gun hysteria. A scary aspect, however, was how often visitors have taken it for real. (part of Robert Frenchu site).
December 7 — Welcome Association of Trial Lawyers of America. We certainly appreciate the traffic you’ve sent us via a recent link in an online mailing from ATLA-NET, even if we fear that our efforts do not always succeed in pleasing your membership (“Your site is a pack of lies,” began one polite and elegant missive we received yesterday from a Texas correspondent who described himself as a “lawyer and damn proud of it”).
December 6 — “Dial ‘O’ for Outrage”: some highlights from this site. Our editor’s November column in Reason, newly online, retells a few of the more colorful tales to appear on this site during its first weeks this summer. Among the highlights: the prosecution of the Florida man accused of felony parrot-dunking, the unusual relief sought by devout Hindu vegetarians in a lawsuit against Taco Bell, the “psychiatric disability dog” account that may have sounded like a shaggy-dog story unless you were the defendant, the legal woes of a California housing developer dragged to court for “discriminating” against lawyers, and a Canadian feminist’s complaint against Bugs Bunny. (Walter Olson, “Dial ‘O’ for Outrage, the Sequel: Tales from an Overlawyered America”, Reason, Nov. 1999 — full column).
December 6 — When agencies like getting sued. The Environmental Protection Agency gets sued a whole lot by private environmental groups, and according to Ben Lieberman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute we should not assume that it necessarily finds these suits unwelcome or resists with full vigor. “In fact, every time EPA ‘loses’ one of these cases, the result is an expansion of the agency’s power and authority.” The resulting settlement or court order obliges the agency to regulate some new area, while affording it political cover against the inevitable outcry from regulated parties. The ceaseless litigation enables lawyer-wielding activist groups to “set the nation’s environmental agenda to an extent few outside Washington realize.” One sign of whether the agency is unduly upset over its role as frequent defendant: “agency records…reveal that it hands out millions of taxpayer dollars to the very organizations that routinely take it to court.” (Ben Lieberman, “Environmental Sweetheart Suits”, Competitive Enterprise Institute Update newsletter, Oct. 21 — full article).
December 6 — “Patients’ rights”: a double standard? “Ironically, although the [Patients’ Bill of Rights] bill would allow people to bring tort lawsuits against private-sector plans, it does not grant similar rights to Medicare beneficiaries or to those participating in the government’s health plan for federal workers.” Under present law, if Medicare disallows coverage for treatment it deems medically unnecessary, a beneficiary can go though an appeals process and eventually sue, but only for the cost of the treatment, the same as is now the case with private health plans under ERISA. Malpractice-like suits for pain and suffering and other “consequential” damages are barred. The same is true of beneficiaries under medical programs for federal employees.
“If it is good policy to give private workers the chance to recover noneconomic damages from their employers (directly or indirectly), why shouldn’t individuals covered under these federal programs have the same rights? The answer, of course, is that the federal government is not prepared to try to persuade taxpayers that the increased cost this would entail is a good use of their tax money or to persuade the beneficiaries to accept reduced benefits to offset these additional litigation costs. It is easier for the government to force private employers (and their employees, stockholders and customers) to bear them. If Medicare beneficiaries and federal employees demanded rights equal to those extended in the Patients’ Bill of Rights, the cost of the new legislation would be better appreciated.” — Washington attorney John Hoff, “Patients’ Rights: A Double Standard”, National Center for Policy Analysis “Brief Analysis” # 307, Dec. 3 (full paper).
December 3-5 — If true, then all the better. “Lawyers make claims not because they believe them to be true but because they believe them to be legally efficacious. If they happen to be true, then all the better; but the lawyer who is concerned primarily with the truth value of the statements he makes on behalf of clients is soon going to find himself unable to fulfill his professional obligation to zealously represent those clients.
“Another way of putting this is to say that inauthenticity is essential to authentic legal thought. Practicing lawyers must often maintain a peculiar mental state in which they fail — authentically — to recognize the inauthenticity of their claims. A lawyer must be authentically inauthentic, so much so that he can honestly (?) echo Samuel Goldwyn’s observation that the most important quality in successful acting is sincerity. ‘Once you’ve learned to fake that,’ Goldwyn observed, ‘you’ve got it made.’ It is, to say the least, an awkward state of mind, but it is the essence of the legal form of thought. And it is this form of thought that, ironically, preserves the lawyer’s sanity in the face of the madness of law.”
— From Jurismania: The Madness of American Law (Oxford, 1998) by Paul F. Campos, professor of law at the University of Colorado and director of the Byron R. White Center for American Constitutional Study; the book is now out in paperback (via Across the Board, Oct.).
December 3-5 — Microsoft roundup. We’ve found the Yahoo Full Coverage compilation to be the most useful overall starting point in keeping up with the siege of Redmond, and can also recommend the pages that Reason and the Financial Times put up collecting their own output on the case. Robert Samuelson argues in the Washington Post that the company’s hardball tactics toward competitors didn’t harm end-users (Nov. 17) and two antitrust boosters fired back with a response that ran Nov. 30 (links now dead). Money magazine’s Walter Updegrave asks (Nov. 15) why the Justice Department doesn’t try its hand at breaking up some monopolies that are considerably more resistant to innovation and competition as well as closer to its home base, such as the U.S. Postal Service (100 percent market share!), the Social Security system, and the U.S. Mint. And a group calling itself the DoJ (Department of Jest) has put out a MS-Monopoly board game that raised a smile. Like everyone else they’re kinda worried about getting sued, so much so that, anticipating that occurrence, they provided (it’s been removed) a handy form for visitors to use to sue them. Update: they have indeed had to pull down the page after legal saber-rattling by Hasbro, which puts out the real Monopoly game: see Aug. 16-17, 2000.
December 3-5 — Piece of the action. The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that Liberty County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Brown should not have paid herself nearly $1 million in commissions from taxes she collected over a period of seven years. The ruling follows a crackdown on the practice that some Georgia local officials had pursued of diverting a share of tag fees and other public revenues to their own personal accounts, by way of a commission. Ms. Brown’s official stipend now stands at about $64,000 a year, but she’d been doing considerably better than that from the commission set-up. It’s no wonder a state would feel obliged to crack down on practices like this — otherwise, just to take one example, lawyers representing government entities might soon imagine that they had a right to pocket a share of the sums they recovered representing the public. Wait a minute — you mean they already do? (Lawrence Viele, “Tax Official Can’t Pocket $1M in Fees”, Fulton County Daily Record, Oct. 20 — full story).
December 3-5 — Weekend reading: evergreens. Pixels to fall back on after the bouts of cider-mulling and tree-trimming:
* Party of the first part wishes to make goo-goo eyes at party of the second part: if you get into the dangerous situation of feeling romantically attracted to someone at the office, lawyers at the firm of Littler Mendelson will help draw up a “love contract” designed to protect you and your employer from liability should things not work out. It will stipulate that you “independently and collectively desire to undertake and pursue a mutually consensual social and amorous relationship.” (Alex Fryer and Carol M. Ostrom, “Office sex almost never puts CEOs out of work”, Seattle Times, Sept. 28, 1998; James Lardner, “Cupid’s Cubicles”, U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 14, 1998; John A. Lehr, “Office Affairs”, Ventura County (Calif.) Star, Sept. 28, 1999, link now dead.)
* Probate and trust perils: This four-part investigation, entitled “Final Indignities”, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for the St. Petersburg Times‘s Jeffrey Good. It found surprisingly lax oversight of probate abuses in the nation’s leading retirement state. (August 28 and successive Sundays, 1994).
* Race car great Bobby Unser got in trouble under environmental laws when his snowmobile got lost and broke down in a blizzard and was later found in a protected wilderness area. Was it the Sierra Club that sicked the feds on him? (Unser statement and discussion at oversight hearing on the Wilderness Act, April 15, 1997; David Wallis, “Bobby Unser: Race Car Champion as Scofflaw”, Salon, June 6, 1997; Unser testimony before the House Judiciary Committee May 7, 1998, reprinted in Federalist Society Environmental Law and Property Rights Working Group newsletter, v. 3, issue 1). Unser was convicted and made to pay to a small fine after a judge ruled that the prohibition against motorized vehicles in the 1964 Wilderness Act does not require an intent to break the law.
December 3-5 — Welcome KPRC talk radio visitors. Our Houston- and coastal Texas-specific stories include coverage of the junk fax saga in the Houston courts, the Toshiba settlement in Beaumont, and the doings of famed lawyer John O’Quinn.
December 2 — Connecticut, sue thyself. Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal keeps Schuming up headlines by boosting lawsuits against gun manufacturers; he’s filed an amicus brief to support Bridgeport’s suit, and threatened to make his state the first of the fifty to join various big-city mayors in seeking to recover the costs of shootings. One especially ironic aspect of his aggressive role is that the very same state government he represents has itself been involved quite recently and deeply in promoting the manufacture of firearms. In 1990, the state was so concerned that the Colt Mfg. Company might close its doors that it invested $25 million in state workers’ pension fund money to finance a bailout plan. The investment proved disastrous, with the state losing all but $4 million of its outlay, and the fiasco played a major role in discrediting the then-popular idea of “social investment” of pension funds. There’s no doubt, however, that both its intended and actual result was to ensure the production of more guns by Colt — some of which inevitably found their way onto the scene of accidental or deliberate shootings. Nor did the state use its dominant financial position in the deal to attach many of the kinds of strings to gun distribution that the suits now blame gunmakers for not attaching. We eagerly await the Nutmeg State’s lawsuit against itself.
Connoisseurs of irony will also enjoy learning about the subsequent job history of then-Connecticut state treasurer Francisco Borges, who was a leading figure in the Colt pension-investment debacle. Mr. Borges has now moved on to become treasurer of none other than the National Association of Colored People, which has filed a much-publicized lawsuit against gun makers. The NAACP presumably should not be expected to add Mr. Borges to its list of named defendants, given that, if it obtains a cash settlement for its complaint, it will be putting him in charge of spending the resulting windfall.
Sources: Diane Scarponi, “Blumenthal supports Bridgeport’s lawsuit against gunmakers,” AP/Danbury, Ct. News-Times, Sept. 8; Marc L. Kaplan and Salo L. Zelermyer, “Conflict and Interest: An Analysis of the President’s Social Security Proposal”, National Taxpayers Union Foundation Issue Brief #109; Eric V. Schlecht, “Government-Sponsored Gun Lawsuits By The Numbers — Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know, But Should”, NTUF Issue Brief #118; Statement of Maureen Baronian, House Subcommittee on Social Security, March 3, 1999.
December 2 — “Actions without class”. Sizzling editorial in today’s Washington Post should lay to rest once and for all the notion that outrage at the overreaching of the Fourth Branch is somehow confined to the editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal. “One could hardly ask for a better portrait of everything that is predatory about class-action plaintiff’s lawyers” than the new Microsoft suits, the Post declares. “Cases such as these have next to nothing to do with the interests of consumers but are essentially commercial ventures within the judiciary.” The supposedly represented victims “are likely to get some token payment while their self-declared champions get millions of dollars. It is simple buzzardry.” As for HMOs, the tactic of torpedoing the companies’ stock price to get them to settle “isn’t law. It’s an extortion racket…..[W]here the interests of the consumers are so obviously being subordinated to those of their self-declared lawyers, class actions affect policy with far less democratic legitimacy than even those cases brought by advocacy groups acting on behalf of the public interest as they see it. It is long past time to reform this system.” If you agree, write to say so — you can bet the other side is preparing its letters (full editorial).
December 2 — “Who’s Afraid of Dickie Scruggs?” Big Newsweek profile of “Richard Furlow Scruggs, ‘Dickie’ to his friends, [who] may be the most influential man in America that you’ve never heard of,” and whose success in managing the political side of the tobacco heist from his base of operations in Pascagoula, Miss. had nothing whatever to do with the fact that he’s the brother-in-law of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. He’s now planning to apply to HMOs the lessons of the legal playbook that emerged from asbestos and tobacco: “Raise the stakes so high that neither side can afford to lose,” so there’ll have to be a settlement. Couldn’t Scruggs’s firm have been a little less grabby, and kept for itself less than $900 million or so in fees from the tobacco deal? “‘Then we wouldn’t have anything for the next round,’ he says.'” Aside from HMOs, any future projects? “After seeing what Wal-Mart has done to once thriving downtowns, Scruggs is toying with the idea of going after the giant retailer on antitrust grounds. ‘They’ve damaged the fabric of American life,’ he says. ‘It offends me.'”
Surprise revelation: as part of the HMO settlement he’s pushing, Scruggs actually favors capping annual damage payouts by the managed-care companies. That way “one or two ruinous judgments won’t bankrupt the industry (and leave companies unable to settle with trial lawyers)”. All is explained — when adopted for the right kinds of reasons, caps on damages turn out to be okay after all (Adam Bryant, Newsweek, Dec. 6, link now dead).
December 2 — Toshiba and Ford, in the same boat. “For years, America’s high-tech industry has been largely untouched by the worst excesses of mass litigation.” But after the one-two punch of the Toshiba settlement and Microsoft class actions, it’s time for Silicon Valley to realize it’s in the same boat on this issue with “smokestack” industry. An editorial in Financial Times draws an interesting parallel between the Toshiba laptop case and another “no-harm” mass-product-defect class action, against Ford Motor in California; which recently ended in a mistrial; the lawyers had gone to court to represent a class of car owners injured by the prospect that an alleged stalling defect might someday manifest itself in their Ford vehicles, though in practice they had never encountered it. (“Microsoft: Fighting Back”, Dec. 1 — full editorial)
December 1 — Indications of turbulence. An arbitrator has awarded veteran captain Wayne O. Witter, “known by his initials as ‘Captain WOW,'” partial back pay in his protracted dispute with Delta Air Lines. “The Atlanta-based carrier had removed him from duty and questioned his mental fitness to fly after he got into an argument with his co-pilot and flight engineer in the cockpit. That incident followed his arrest and commitment to a psychiatric hospital after he was accused of threatening his wife….His case was the subject of a page-one article in The Wall Street Journal in 1996, highlighting the difficulties airlines and regulators face in determining when a pilot’s mental state is grounds for removing him from duty.” Eventually Capt. Witter won a battle with the Federal Aviation Administration to get back his medical certificate, but too late to resume flying Delta passengers, since he’s now past the FAA’s age limit of 60 for commercial pilots. (Martha Brannigan, “Grounded Delta Pilot Wins Back Pay Following Dispute Over Mental Fitness”, Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, Nov. 19 (online subscription required)).
December 1 — Starbucks toilet lawsuit. Nominated by reader acclamation: Lawyers for 37-year-old Canadian tourist Edward Skwarek are suing Starbucks over an August incident in which they say their client was seated on a toilet in one of the coffee chain’s outlets in Manhattan when a highly personal part of his anatomy got caught between the seat and the bowl. Skwarek is asking for $1 million for what he describes as dire and permanent injuries to the affected organ, and his wife is also requesting $500,000 as compensation for loss or impairment of his husbandly services. How much would they have to pay you, esteemed reader, to allow your name to be permanently associated with a news story of this sort in publications worldwide? (Reuters/Excite, Nov. 29, link now dead)
December 1 — Hurry with those checks. U.S. News & World Report reports in its “Whispers” column that the Association of Trial Lawyers of America is “begging” members to get those campaign contribution checks in the mail. “In South Carolina, ATLA executive Ken Suggs E-mailed members: ‘We are about to default on our pledge to the Gore campaign, something ATLA has never done before.’ In his note titled ‘future of the profession,’ he adds: ‘If any of you can afford any contribution (it has to be personal money), I would greatly appreciate it. Checks should be made to Gore 2000. Send them to me and I’ll get them to the campaign.'” (Dec. 6)
December 1 — Drunks have rights, too. In Kenner, Louisiana, this summer, a “drunken bicyclist who was seriously injured when he ran a stop sign and pedaled into the path of a police cruiser speeding to a call was awarded $95,485.” Judge Bob Evans ruled that a Kenner police officer shared responsibility for the accident with bicyclist Jerry Lawrence. “Lawrence’s lawyer, Rusty Knight, said the ruling proves that ‘drunks have some rights, too'”. Police said they would appeal. (“Drunken bicyclist awarded $95,485”, Spokane.Net, June 17; Canoe/AP) (update July 24, 2000: appeals court throws out verdict).
December 1 — Welcome The Occasional readers. This new literary review edited by Andrew Hazlett has plenty of content worth checking out, including writing by Richard Mitchell, Cathy Young and Lynne Munson and outbound links that will lead you to such wonders as — we would never make this kind of thing up — the early calypso music of Louis Farrakhan, complete with audio clips. We are its “Recommended Site of the Week”.
December 31, 1999-January 2, 2000 — New safety rule likely to increase death toll. “The National Transportation Safety Board — acting out the Clinton Administration’s desire to inject children into every political issue — declared 1999 the ‘Year of Child Passenger Safety'”. The Federal Aviation Administration accordingly reversed its longstanding policy and decided to prohibit children under the age of two from riding in their parents’ laps (a practice that saved parents the price of a ticket). Instead they’ll have to be placed in separate child restraint seats. But the cost of the additional tickets will induce many families to drive rather than fly, and an earlier FAA study found that “while mandatory child restraints might prevent five fatalities over the next 10 years, an estimated 82 children and adults would perish on the nation’s roads as families sought cheaper transportation alternatives.” (“The cost of toddler restraints” (editorial), Detroit News, Dec. 23; Jacob Sullum, “Little Restraint” (syndicated column), Reason Online, Dec. 22)
December 31, 1999-January 2, 2000 — NYC subtenants from hell. Susan Teeman’s gruesome ordeal in the New York City housing courts began when she gave her subtenants Stuart and Susan Levy one month’s notice that she needed to reclaim from them her $550-a-month, one-bedroom apartment on E. 76th St. That was back in 1985. It took eleven years of litigation to get them out, followed by a few more years’ worth of tag-on court proceedings, during which time they engaged in tactics that judges labeled “outrageous,” “abject nonsense,” “vexatious” and “reprehensible”. Don’t read this one unless you want to get upset (Dareh Gregorian and Erika Martinez, “Subtenants from Hell Gave Her a New Lease on Strife”, New York Post, Dec. 30)
December 31, 1999-January 2, 2000 — More assertions of link liability. In a suit filed in California Superior Court in Santa Clara County, lawyers for the DVD Copy Control Association are seeking a restraining order against some 72 programmers and websites, attempting to block dissemination of software that allows consumers to de-encrypt the digital movie format for purposes of copying. The suit targets not only websites which make the software available on their servers for download, but also popular discussion sites such as Slashdot and Usenet archive Deja which have allowed the posting of web addresses where the software may be found. “If linking to data is ever ruled a liable offense, then the Web is effectively worthless. I think the courts will recognize this,” said Rob Malda, one of the founders of Slashdot. On Wednesday Judge William J. Elfving denied the request for a temporary restraining order; a hearing on the request for a permanent order is scheduled for January 14. (Slashdot reporting and discussion; Chris Oakes, “Case Hinges on Reverse Hack”, Wired News, Dec. 28 and “DVD Round One Goes To Hackers”, Dec. 29; Mike Musgrove, “Suit Targets DVD-Copying Software”, Washington Post, Dec. 29, link now dead).
December 31, 1999-January 2, 2000 — “Love contracts” spreading to U.K. An unnamed British company is following the lead of some U.S. firms by drawing up “love contracts” for employees to sign if they become romantically involved with co-workers, to protect the company from later charges of sexual harassment (see Dec. 3 commentary). The BBC says there’s a question “whether such contracts will rile employees by killing off what many see as a harmless facet of office life”. (“Beware of the ‘love contract'”, BBC News, Dec. 30).
December 31, 1999-January 2, 2000 — Free expression, with truth in advertising thrown in? A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that Roseville, Minn. personal-injury attorney Todd Young has a constitutional right to fly the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger, outside his office to advertise his practice. Town officials had objected to the flag as a banner prohibited by its advertising-sign ordinance. Municipal attorney Joel Jamnik said the town was not planning an appeal but would instead attempt to reword its ordinance more carefully to remedy what the judge saw as impermissible vagueness. “These are essential rights,” said Young. (John Welsh, “Avast, ye swabs! Jolly Roger to fly freely in Roseville”, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 29)
December 29-30 — Class action toy story. Toys-R-Us, Mattel, Hasbro, and other toy companies agreed this year to settle antitrust charges brought by private class action lawyers and the attorneys general of 44 states, which accused them of having conspired to allow only a limited selection from the manufacturers’ toy lines to be sold in warehouse discount stores (for example, toys destined for those stores were often grouped in “combination packs” for customers willing to buy several at a time). The terms of the settlement included $3.25 million for the private lawyers, $1.8 million to be recycled into the budgets of the state AGs, $335,000 for the National Association of Attorneys General, and $12.8 million to be distributed among the states for children’s programs. In addition, the companies agreed to furnish toys from their inventory with a nominal value of tens of millions of dollars to be distributed to poor kids at Christmas, an agreement that gave the state attorneys general the perfect occasion for issuing self-congratulatory press releases (samples: Calif. (link now dead), N.Y., Texas, Tenn., Idaho, Iowa). “At Christmastime in 1998, 1999 and 2000,” notes Forbes‘s Dan Seligman, “the attorney general of just about every state gets to play Santa Claus, and has a chance to dwell publicly on the wonderfulness of attorneys general who bring toys to the kids.” Meanwhile, actual customers who bought toys during the period get $0.00 — it would be impractical to identify them, explains the settlement notice — and some even suspect those customers will foot the bill in the end as companies pass on the cost of such litigation in higher prices. (Dan Seligman, “Mutant Ninja Lawsuits”, Forbes, Oct. 18).
December 29-30 — Down repressed-memory lane I: costly fender-bender. A jury in Milford, Connecticut has ordered George B. Daniels to pay Andrea Karlsen more than a half million dollars over a low-speed auto collision that, Karlsen’s attorney argued, caused her post-traumatic stress disorder by bringing back memories of childhood abuse. Daniels, himself a sitting judge in New York who has been nominated to the federal bench by President Clinton, acknowledged that the mishap on the Boston Post Road in Orange, Ct. on Dec. 29, 1991 had been his fault. “But he testified that the accident was so minor that neither an ambulance nor a tow truck was needed afterward”. Plaintiff’s attorney Loren Costantini, however, sought more than $6 million in damages, arguing that the incident had “triggered post-traumatic stress disorder in Karlsen and memories of childhood abuses so severe that she became ill — both mentally and physically — and unable to work as a flight attendant.” Ms. Karlsen, a former model and Playboy bunny, became distraught after the verdict, “screaming and crying in disappointment that she was not awarded more money”, and yelling at defense attorney John Costa, “You’re a murderer. He tried to kill me.” (Heather O’Neill, “$523k awarded for fender bender”, Connecticut Post, Nov. 6; “Judge must pay accident victim $500,000”, AP/Norwalk, Ct. Hour, Nov. 7 (not online); Thomas Scheffey, “All in her head”, Connecticut Law Tribune, Nov. 16).
December 29-30 — Down repressed-memory lane II: distracted when she signed. A Canadian judge has granted a woman’s request to nullify a 1990 separation agreement with her ex-husband which she had signed under mental duress; the duress was occasioned, she said, by reemergent memories of childhood sexual abuse. Accepting the woman’s claim of incapacitation, Mr. Justice Donald Taliano found that she was “so overcome by mental illness that she was incapable of dealing with even the simplest of life’s demands, let alone the complexities of a separation agreement” and ordered her ex-husband to repay her $180,000 (Canadian), although his earning capacity is limited since he is retired and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. (Donovan Vincent, “Man ordered by court to repay ex-wife $180,000”, Toronto Star, Sept. 7, not online)
December 29-30 — Just like the Bourbons. Ah, those editorial-writers at the New York Times, who for so long have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. “It has become fashionable to depict the proliferation of lawyers and lawsuits as something negative — both symptom and cause of a self-indulgent ‘culture of rights'”, rumbles the paper’s Dec. 24 editorial. “This fashion may pass… At the moment, though, Congress and the current Supreme Court seem determined to exploit this misconception in mischievous ways…” There in a nutshell you have the Times‘s editorial philosophy on the litigation issue: sure, Americans may be dragging each other through the misery of courtroom battles in “proliferating” ways, but it’s a “misconception” to view that as “something negative”. (“The Expanding Reach of Civil Rights”, Dec. 24, not online)
December 29-30 — Spreading to Australia? “Children exposed to their parents’ smoking may soon begin suing them”, predicts a prominent Australian lawyer. Note, however, the real financial target: “Children would be reluctant to bring such claims, he conceded, but not if the parents’ home and contents insurers were the opponents.” Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine some parents conniving at suits against themselves as a way of scooping cash for their offspring out of their homeowners’ policies. Attorney Eugene Arocca also predicts Australia may follow the lead of some U.S. courts which count smoking as a factor against parents in child custody battles. (Darwin Farrant, “Children may sue smoking parents”, The Age (Melbourne), Dec. 27 (via Junk Science)). (more on smoking and custody: SmartDivorce.com, TOTSE, ASH) (& see Jun. 3-4, 2002).
December 27-28 — “Year’s Weirdest News”. News of the Weird columnist Chuck Shepherd includes two litigation stories in his ten-oddest list this year. (“A Look At…The Year’s Weirdest News”, Washington Post, Dec. 26). Under the heading “Now That’s a Return on Investment”: “A jury in Birmingham, Ala., ruled in favor of Barbara Carlisle and her parents in their lawsuit against two companies that overcharged them $1,224 for two satellite TV dishes, awarding the threesome $581 million. After cries of ‘jackpot justice,’ the judge slashed the award to a mere $300 million.” (quoting Associated Press, May 11, Aug. 27) And: “A judge in Tampa denied tobacco-litigation lawyer Henry Valenzuela his $20 million share (out of $200 million in legal fees from the state’s 1997 settlement with cigarette companies) because he was late in paying his $2,500 share of a litigation expense”. (Larry Dougherty, “Lawyer won’t get tobacco money”, St. Petersburg Times, July 27). The $200 million refers to the fee obtained by the former law firm of Yerrid, Knopik & Valenzuela; collectively, law firms were awarded $3.4 billion for representing the state of Florida.
December 27-28 — Zero tolerance roundup. Scott Hogenson, writing at Conservative News, recalls the time a sixth-grade classmate in his small Minnesota town stabbed him in the hand with a pencil. “I probably deserved it. Perhaps I teased her one too many times”. Both parties have since grown into happy, productive adults; how lucky they are that it happened thirty years ago, at a time when the consequences for her did not include a serious police record, expulsion, etc. (Scott Hogenson, “Assault With a Deadly Pencil”, Conservative News, Dec. 10.) In Windsor, Ont., the Children’s Aid Society promptly launched an investigation after an 11-year-old girl turned in a story for her 6th grade class about a fictional family with a violent father. “This accusation was just thrown at me,” said the girl’s mother, Laura Scalia, who is single, describing the visit of an official who showed up at her door. “No effort was made to substantiate who I or my daughter are….It seems so easy for them to screw someone’s life up.” (Don Lajoie, “11-year-old’s school essay sparks children’s aid probe”, Windsor Star/National Post, Dec. 17).
The Christian Science Monitor says a zero tolerance policy may work best if it “allows principals some leeway to define what ‘zero’ is”, which might seem to retreat from the original concept, no? (Peter Grier and Gail Russell Chaddock, “Schools get tough as threats continue”, Nov. 5.) And we recently stumbled across a site entitled “Zero Tolerance = Zero Common Sense = Zero Justice“, which hasn’t been updated much lately but has scores of links and clips from the period 1996-98 documenting the trouble kids were getting into when found in the possession of lunchbox bread knives, water pistols, cough drops, and so on. (H. Churchyard site).
December 27-28 — “Bug lawyers” prosper. The Montgomery, Ala. law firm of Crosslin, Slaten & O’Connor has found a happy niche representing exterminating companies. (Its website: www.buglaw.com.) Several of its attorneys have themselves become certified pest control operators, and the firm has its own plane, which it dubs Bug One, to reach clients quickly. “Reflecting the general trend toward litigiousness, pest control operators are being sued more.” (Richenya A. Shepherd, “‘Bug Lawyers’ Invade the South”, National Law Journal, Dec. 13).
December 27-28 — You shoulda flunked me! Derek Boult, a former student at Murrietta Valley High School near Riverside, California, has sued the school and his football coach, saying he was improperly given passing grades and promotions as part of a policy of according favorable treatment to student athletes. The lawsuit, which also names the school’s former football coach, charges that overly lenient grading deprived Boult of the right to an education as provided by the state constitution. Eventually Boult proved unable to keep up the requisite minimum 1.5 grade point average, had to switch to a remedial school and was unable to graduate with his class. His attorney, Anthony D. Weber, of Palm Desert, charges that the school should have given him failing grades at an earlier point and taken him off the team. “He deserved to have bad grades,” he said. “He didn’t deserve to play football.” (Daniel G. Jennings, “Athlete Sues School for Letting Him Pass”, San Francisco Daily Journal, Oct. 25 — not online)
December 27-28 — “Few Settlement Dollars Used for Tobacco Control”. The year’s most durable shock-the-naive story: states are spending only a minor share of their enormous tobacco-settlement booty on causes dear to anti-smoking activists, such as those billboards and TV ads that hector smokers and vilify cigarette executives. “Of the 23 states that have decided how to spend their money, the majority appear to view the dollars primarily as a hefty new revenue source to be spent on whatever the state needs.” How many serious observers imagined it would be otherwise? In Rhode Island, putatively in the vanguard of children’s-health activism as the first state to sue lead paint makers, “teen smoking has increased from 21% in 1993 to 34% in 1999,” if the numbers from a state Health Department survey are to be believed. (Alissa Rubin, “Few Settlement Dollars Used for Tobacco Control”, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 25).
December 27-28 — 150,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Thanks for your support!
December 23-26 — Christmas lawyer humor. A selection culled from around the web:
“Merry Christmas from the Legal Department” (Yuletide wishes consisting entirely of disclaimers):
Though we, the “Greetor,” wish you well
In our Holiday Entreaty,
We limit all your claims, Dear Friend
(Hereinafter called the “Greetee”).
We wish you dreams of Sugar Plums
And dancing Christmas Lights,
But if these Fancies come to Naught
You have no Vested Rights… ” (more)
— LaughNet; attributed to Edward G. McManus.
“What hath a lawyer to do with Christmas? For Christmas is a joyous festival of loving and giving, in a dark, cold time of year; when we forget ourselves in all kinds of silliness as we try to forget our troubles, a time of wild abandon learnt from our pagan ancestors, and at bottom hath no logick to it. Whereas your lawyer is a crabb’d and serious fellow, who hath studied his eyes out reading the Law and aspires to be old and blind before his time, and knows no more of wild abandon than a fence-post; a sober black-coated mole of a man, who’s always teaching us to be ungenerous, and always writing mean-spirited documents that turn square corners and won’t give a poor fellow an inch; who wouldn’t give away one of his old scintillas without he gets a proper quid pro quo for’t. He wouldn’t know jollity if it bit him, and never, never can forget himself; and if a handsome wench should catch him ‘neath the mistletoe would cavil and demur and plead in bar ’till he’s made her sign a solemn oath that she won’t sue him for sexual harassment….” (more)
— “Joys of the season for divorce lawyers” by Virginia attorney Richard Crouch. Notwithstanding the puckish tone of the above, the piece goes on to offer serious and sensible advice on how to avoid letting holiday strains turn someone you love into a potential client of the divorce biz.
“The night before Christmas” (attorney’s version): “Whereas, on an occasion immediately preceding the Nativity festival, throughout a certain dwelling unit, quiet descended, in which could be heard no disturbance, not even the sound emitted by a diminutive rodent related to, and in form resembling, a rat;…” (link now dead) (HumourNet, Dec. 6, 1995, from NEA Journal, Dec. 1960)
“A lawyer’s Christmas” (same idea): “…Hosiery was meticulously suspended from the forward edge of the woodburning caloric apparatus… ” (more) (TnT Web Design site)
“Restructuring at the North Pole” “As you know, the eight maids-a-milking concept has been under heavy scrutiny by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A male/female balance in the workforce is being sought….The four calling birds will be replaced by an automated voice mail system with a call waiting option. An analysis is underway to determine who the birds have been calling, how often and how long they talked….The two turtle doves’… romance during working hours could not be condoned. The positions are therefore eliminated….Regarding the lawsuit filed by the attorney’s association seeking expansion to include the legal profession (‘thirteen lawyers-a-suing’) action is pending.” (more) (author not known, Don Tolin webpage)
December 23-26 — “Trial lawyers on trial”. Trevor Armbrister’s outstanding new Reader’s Digest article scrutinizing the plaintiff’s bar is now online at the Digest website. It’s got drop-your-jaw numbers on campaign contributions, hard-hitting coverage of the tobacco-fee scandal and the Florida and Maryland laws retroactively expanding tobacco liability, a concise summary of the Norplant and breast-implant outrages, new and pithy quotes from such keen observers as John Langbein, Stuart Taylor, Jr. and Marc Arkin, a few words from the editor of this site on the need for a loser-pays rule, and much, much more. Don’t even think of missing this one (Trevor Armbrister, “Trial lawyers on trial”, Reader’s Digest, Jan. 2000).
December 23-26 —“Fen-Phen Settlement Might Be Off”. Not for the first time, lawyers rely on the Mississippi courts to get unusually favorable results that they hope to roll out nationwide. This Associated Press article also quotes this site’s editor (who’s clearly on a roll today) (Paul Payne, AP/Excite, Dec. 22, link now dead)
December 23-26 —“In race to sue Microsoft, some trip”. In the legal siege of Redmond, “the race to sue — and stake a claim in this hoped-for gold rush — is producing some memorable legal bloopers,” reports David Segal of the Washington Post. “Lawyers behind one suit filed in a California state court, for instance, seemed momentarily confused about Microsoft’s core business. The complaint drafted by San Diego’s Krause & Kalfayan suggests at one point that the software maker is actually competing in the generic drug market. ‘These arrangements have enabled Microsoft Corporation to exclude other developers of Intel-compatible PC operating systems from obtaining the supply of such generic drugs’ active pharmaceutical ingredient (“API”),’ the complaint states on Page 2.” Partner James C. Krause sheepishly admits that the firm copied out the pleadings from an earlier class action and forgot to change the relevant verbiage. And it wasn’t the only law firm caught up that way: the suit filed by the law firm of Shelby & Cartee in Birmingham, Ala. describes’ Microsoft’s principal business as being “within the State of Texas” and asserts its right to represent customers injured by past purchases of Windows 2000 (which hasn’t gone on sale yet) and customers of “‘MacIntosh Computer Company’ (it meant Apple Computer Inc.)”
Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley, the Cincinnati firm of famed master-of-disaster Stanley Chesley, charged that Microsoft’s actions “prevent[ed] development of a Windows 95 version of Netscape Navigator”, but one was introduced years ago; a lawyer with the firm explains that by “prevent” he meant “delay”. “It seems like all of these cases were written under the influence of an active pharmaceutical ingredient,” Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray told the Post. “The only people who are going to benefit from these cases are lawyers.” (David Segal, “In race to sue Microsoft, some trip”, Washington Post, Dec. 21 — full story)
December 23-26 — Jovanovic conviction overturned. A New York appeals court has overturned the kidnapping and sex abuse conviction of Columbia University graduate student Oliver Jovanovic. (“New York appeals court throws out conviction of ‘Cybersex’ defendant”, AP/CNN, Dec. 22). This site briefly commented at the end of July on the unfairness of Jovanovic’s trial, at which the judge, applying New York’s “rape shield” statute, forbade the defendant’s lawyers to introduce as evidence emails from the accuser which cast doubt on her story; for more details, see coverage in the New York Post, by Post columnist Steve Dunleavy, and by Brian and Elisabeth Carnell for the Women’s Freedom Network. Jovanovic has served 20 months of a 15-year sentence. Update: all remaining charges dropped against Jovanovic on Nov. 1, 2001 (see Jan. 9-10, 2002)
December 23-26 — New subpage on Overlawyered.com: legal ethics in crisis. Okay, we admit that if we pulled together everything on this site raising questions of legal ethics we’d have a subpage too big to use. So we’ve just gathered here links and commentaries on a range of topics that includes witness-coaching, ethical billing practices, civility, conflicts of interest, champerty and the role of contingent fees, “pay for play”, discipline of errant lawyers by the bar, client protection, judicial ethics, and other matters likely to come up in a course on professional responsibility.
December 22 — A question of t-shirt velocity. On December 7 we summarized the “flying t-shirt” suit filed by Stewart Gregory of Cincinnati against NBC’s “Tonight Show” and host Jay Leno, alleging he was “battered” and “forcefully struck” when the warm-up comic who preceded Leno on the show blasted a freebie t-shirt into the audience with an air gun. The next day the AP ran a short item on the case, which added a new detail or two (earlier reports had Gregory alleging that he was hit in the face, the new one says eye) and quoted the 56-year-old plaintiff: “It’s not frivolous when you get hit with a hard object traveling 800 feet per second.” (“‘Tonight’ Audience Member Sues”, AP/Washington Post, Dec. 8). Reader Bob Kanyok from St. Louis writes: “800 feet per second is 545 miles per hour, the speed of a jetliner. A ‘hard object’ the size of a t-shirt at 800 feet per second would have done a lot more than injure his eye, it would have torn his head off. Odd how no one else has picked up on this. Are all the reporters out there innumerate?”
December 22 — Popular continuing-legal-education course: “How to Hammer Allstate”. Seminars with that title have been playing to overflow crowds of trial lawyers around the country. The big insurance company has angered plaintiff’s attorneys by taking a hard line in defending claims filed against its auto policyholders, especially where vehicle damage is minimal and the claim is of soft-tissue injury. “There’s a sense of righteous indignation,” says Robert I. Reardon Jr., who organized one such seminar for the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association which drew 320 lawyers. Allstate lawyer William Vainisi agrees that the company has been mounting a tough defense effort but says it is directed against “inflated demands and built-up medicals”. (Mark Ballard, “Hot CLE Class: Hammering Allstate”, National Law Journal, Dec. 10). The company has also infuriated attorneys in recent years by contacting persons who have been involved in crashes with its policyholders and urging them to consider settling the claim without a lawyer, a step that its opponents charge violates rules against the unauthorized practice of law. (Danielle Rodier, “Allstate Sheds UPL Claim, Still Faces Consumer Protection Suit”, Legal Intelligencer, April 14; ArkTLA; W.V. bar (link now dead); Phila. Trial Lawyers Assn.; NYSTLA; Conn.; Insure.com). More: Apr. 18, 2000.
December 22 — Pay us for this service. Dr. Xavier J. Caro was stunned recently when lawyers for his wife Cora, from whom he is seeking a divorce, demanded $550,000 from him as a “community loan” as a prepayment of costs for her forthcoming criminal defense. Cora Caro is in the Ventura County, Calif. jail on charges that she murdered three of the couple’s four sons, ages 5, 8 and 11, on Nov. 22 before turning the gun on herself (she survived). The demand letter from Agoura Hills attorney Rand E. Pinsky “lists $600,000 to $800,000 as the equity value of the couple’s Presilla Road home as well as investments and properties they own”, according to the L.A. Times. “The normal procedure in a criminal matter is that defense costs are prepaid,” Pinsky said. Dr. Caro has countersued his wife. “Doctor Files Wrongful Death Suit Against Wife”, L.A. Times, Dec. 16).
December 22 — Tobacco fee fight looms in Mass. Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly is vowing to fight “with every resource we have” to prevent the Boston law firm of Brown Rudnick Freed & Gesmer from collecting roughly $500 million, which the firm says is its share of a $2 billion contingent fee owed by the state over 25 years to five firms that represented it in the tobacco-Medicaid litigation. Reilly says the Brown firm has already been awarded $178 million for the representation: “At some point, enough is enough.” (Frank Phillips, “Reilly to fight claim of lawyers”, Boston Globe, Dec. 20).
December 21 — Accessible websites no snap. It’s hard to think of a better way to slow the growth of the Net than to menace web providers with exposure to liability for mounting or running ordinary, garden-variety websites or online services. Yet under prevailing interpretations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, both large and small e-tailers, online publishers, and applications providers may be open to damage suits on the grounds that their offerings are not accessible (as the term goes) to disabled users. Last month the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit against America Online, charging that it has not moved with sufficient vigor to make its services fully available to sightless users (“Lawsuit: AOL Ignores Blind”, Reuters/Wired.com, Nov. 5, link now dead). AOL is a big business, of course, but there’s no reason to think that accessibility obligations under the ADA do not extend all the way down to many “mom-and-pop” ISPs, applications providers, online magazines and journals, e-stores, and so forth.
What exactly, does it mean for a site or service to be accessible? Disability advocates have declared many commonly encountered features in web design to be unacceptable barriers to one or another group of users. Among them are displays that depend on color to convey information, common methods of employing tables and graphics to assist in page layout, navigational designs that respond to mouse but not keyboard commands, and streaming audio when not accompanied by text translation. (Adam Clayton Powell III, “Is Your Site Accessible?”, Reason, July 1999; W3C, Web Accessibility Initiative). Web operators who ignore the advice of experts in this field must be seen as setting themselves up at some point for potential costly lawsuits. Yet the alternative of giving top priority to ADA compliance is hardly attractive either, since it might involve tearing down existing nonconforming webpages pending future redesign, refusing to employ developers who haven’t gone through special courses aimed at helping unlearn common page-construction habits, and abandoning decentralized publishing models in which many different employees, group members or customers are permitted to erect free-form content on a site. Almost incidentally, another effect would be to involve publishers of all shapes and sizes — First Amendment or no — in ongoing, intimate negotiations with government agencies and private pressure groups over questions of what they will and will not be allowed to publish.
But not to worry, say many disabled advocates — “Bobby” will save the day! Available at the Center for Applied Special Technology site, “Bobby” is a free program with sponsorship from leading businesses that will review any website and automatically diagnose where it needs to be fixed to provide handicap accessibility. Sounds easy enough, right? To be sure, the wave of favorable publicity about Bobby this summer revealed the embarrassing fact that many of the federal government’s own major websites, including the White House site itself, were not Bobby-compliant — this even though the U.S. Justice Department was rattling its sword to call private companies’ attention to the issue of high-tech accessibility. (To see the ways in which this site falls short on Bobby, click here; to see how badly the White House still flunks, here).
Given that pretty much everyone’s website seems to be out of compliance, ADA or no ADA, it was with much interest that we noticed the splashy, full-page ads recently announcing the launch of a major new website, evidently with substantial financial backing behind it, that would be specifically geared to the needs of disabled users. The site, called WeMedia, is affiliated with We magazine and aims to create an online community of disabled users for purposes of both service and advocacy. Finally, a chance to see how the experts themselves deal with the accessibility problem! You can therefore imagine how crestfallen we were to find the following notice blazoned on the site’s front page: “Currently, We Media’s site is not 100% ‘Bobby’ compliant. However, we are working very hard over the next few weeks to make sure that it becomes so.” [Update: a check on 2/7/00 finds that WeMedia now displays a Bobby approval button.]
December 21 — “Lawyers stealing less, clients say.” Now there’s a jolly, upbeat headline for you! “For the first time in its 16-year history”, the fund that reimburses victimized clients when Empire State attorneys commit theft or fraud is experiencing a sharp drop in payouts, according to the New York Law Journal. Officials say they believe the drop in client-cheating is genuine and credit, in part, two major reforms: banks are now directed to notify the client-protection fund when lawyers bounce checks from their escrow account, and insurance companies that pay to settle personal-injury claims are now directed to notify the claimants themselves about the payments rather than rely on their lawyers to tell them. (John Caher, “Lawyers stealing less, clients say”, New York Law Journal, Nov. 19).
December 21 — Oops! Didn’t mean nothing by that, ma’am. At D. McRae Elementary School in Fort Worth, Tex., counselor Seth Shaw got in trouble, according to his account, after he said “Hello, good looking” to a female newcomer he encountered in the office. She turned out to be an outside consultant there to conduct a training workshop on sexual harassment. Officials asked Shaw, a nine-year veteran, to resign over the incident, but school trustees settled for a 20-day unpaid suspension. (Martha Deller, “Fort Worth school counselor assessed 20-day unpaid suspension”, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dec. 17).
December 20 — Pack your toothbrush, son. Five years ago young law clerk Richard Poff decided to blow the whistle on questionable practices he’d seen firsthand at his employer, the influential Birmingham, Ala. plaintiff’s firm of Roden, Hayes & Carter. The firm, he said, had been paying hospital and police employees for leads in injury cases, and charging gambling and golf junkets, Royal Caribbean cruises and liquor store bills against client accounts. What happened next? All three name partners drew bar suspensions and pled to misdemeanors after arguing, in part, that the expense-charging had not affected clients’ eventual take from their cases.
So was Poff given a hero’s thanks by a local legal profession grateful for his help in cleaning itself up? Not exactly: he became virtually unemployable, was hit with a still-pending $1 million default judgment for libeling his old boss, got thrown in Birmingham jail for three days, and was ordered sent for psychiatric examination. “It seemed as though every judge in town was warning him to pack a toothbrush.” For a while, a judge even ordered the state’s press not to report on the proceedings. The state’s Supreme Court has yet to rule in the affair, but the lesson’s been made crystal clear for anyone who might be tempted to emulate Poff: don’t try to fight the legal fraternity. (Michael Goldhaber, “Crazy in Alabama”, National Law Journal, Dec. 15).
December 20 — Cute names for laws: enough, already. One example of the triumph of sentiment over dispassion in contemporary law is the naming of new criminal statutes after the victims they’re meant to avenge. Thus we got the “Megan’s Law” sex offender registries, followed more recently in New York by “Buster’s Law”, a felony animal abuse statute named after a murdered cat. We’re not alone in our dislike for this practice: Albany lawyer Terence Kindlon says you shouldn’t “give cute names to law…Can you see the words ‘Buster’s Law’ coming out of the mouth of Oliver Wendell Holmes?” Currently defending a Rensselaer Polytechnic student who faces a possible two-year jail sentence for breaking his dog’s leg during what he says was an attempt at discipline, Kindlon believes the law’s headline-friendly nomenclature is presenting him with an uphill battle. “It is sort of a celebrity law, it is a law with a built-in press agent.” (Joel Stashenko, “Attorney questions practice of naming laws after victims”, AP/Schenectady Gazette, Dec. 19)
December 20 — Those Bronx juries. “In civil cases, they are extraordinarily generous. ‘Let’s face it: the Bronx civil jury is the greatest tool of wealth redistribution since the Red Army,’ said attorney Ron Kuby, who won a $43 million civil judgment against subway gunman Bernie Goetz from six Bronxites.” (“Bronx juries: all things to all people”, AP/Newsday, Dec. 18).
December 20 — Stroller-parking: then and now. Last Tuesday a Manhattan jury rejected a Danish woman’s claim “that New York City police officers had falsely arrested her outside an East Village restaurant after she left her baby daughter in a stroller on the sidewalk to go inside for a drink”. It did, however, award Anette Sorensen $6,400 in compensatory damages for the cops’ failure to inform her that she had the right to summon help from the Danish consulate, plus $60,000 in punitive damages — an outcome that, perhaps oddly, both sides in the case appear to view as vindication for the police. In today’s New York Times, Sven Larson writes a letter from Hvidovre, Denmark, to dispute Sorensen’s claim that she was only following the practice in her home country: “While many [in Denmark] leave carriages outside shops for a couple of minutes, no one parks a baby outside a restaurant after 6 p.m. for as much as an hour.” The difference, he says, is that in Copenhagen “the police would have asked her kindly to bring the carriage inside and nothing more would have happened”. (Benjamin Weiser, “Damages but No False Arrest in Stroller Case”, New York Times, Dec. 15; letter, Dec. 20). By coincidence, we happened to be visiting James Lileks’s Institute of Official Cheer, an online archive of vintage ad images, and found this 1950 A&P grocery store ad from Life treating it as a selling point for the market that so many mothers left their baby prams out front.
December 20 — News flash: Bill Clinton endorses loser-pays! He now thinks parties charged with wrongdoing should be able to collect for the burdensome cost of their legal defense, if they’ve prevailed in the end. Whoops, scratch that…turns out Bill wants his legal fees covered re the independent counsel investigation, but everyone else who gets dragged into court and eventually prevails can just go fish. (Charles Babington, “Clinton May Ask U.S. to Pay Legal Fees”, Washington Post, Dec. 18)
December 20 — Welcome Robot Wisdom readers. We got a mention yesterday on Jorn Barger’s weblog, one of the earliest, most eclectic and most widely followed examples of the genre.
December 17-19 — Splitsville, N.Y. Cover story in last week’s New York on the city’s big-league divorce biz arrives at a consensus view of the broad legal trends (“equitable distribution” keeps getting messier and more expensive, “lawyers have to play constant catch-up as new, intangible assets are added to the marital-property pot”, judges have vast discretion so it’s hard to predict what they’ll do), celebrity tactics (on the oft-used gambit of threatening to send dirt to the tabloids, the “bullet of embarrassment only has cash value when it’s in the chamber”), the cushy, cash-vacuuming role of minor players (asset evaluators and guardians of children’s interests, appointed by the court and paid out of the marital estate, can “make a fortune”, agrees the city’s top judge) and social strain (guest at East Side dinner party bursts into tears on finding she’s been seated beside lawyer who’d represented her husband, but it wasn’t easy to re-seat him: “At a table for ten,” he explains, “I’d done five divorces”).
Bitter clients? No trouble finding those: “Being the best divorce lawyer in New York is like being the best devil in Hell,” says publisher Judith Regan, whose own split has cost more than $1 million over seven years. “It means you’re avaricious, conniving, and vicious….Divorce law is not about justice or fairness or protecting anyone’s rights or what’s best for a child; it is big business.” “The first thing they get is a net-worth statement,” says another unhappy customer, plastic surgeon Ronald Linder. “Then they make sure they get your total net worth.” Lawyers counter that unreasonable clients often spurn settlement and insist on fighting every issue, though attorney William Beslow notes that “there’s a built-in incentive to keep litigation going by either purposely misadvising clients or telling them what they want to hear, which solidifies the relationship but ensures conflict”.
Attorney Raoul Felder, as is his wont, dispenses extreme quote. Of charges that threats of publicity constitute extortion: “Isn’t every lawsuit a form of legal extortion? The law is constructed that way. Pay me or go to court.” According to New York, a “low point” in Felder’s career came when he “[p]ublicly declared Robin Givens wanted nothing from Mike Tyson one day after privately demanding an $8 million settlement.” “On one level, it’s sleazy,” he says. “On another, I’m not robbing supermarkets.” (Michael Gross, “Trouble in Splitsville”, New York, Dec. 13).
December 17-19 — Truth in recruitment? An Essex County, N.J. jury yesterday awarded more than $10 million to former New York Giant football player Philip McConkey on the grounds that he had been lied to when he was recruited for a management job at an insurance brokerage which was in talks to sell itself to a larger company. McConkey said he would never have taken a job at Alexander & Alexander in May 1996 had he realized the firm would be bought in December of that year by insurance company Aon Corp. The job offered base pay and benefits of $352,000 a year, with a chance of commissions of $3 million to $5 million a year. The following March he was fired from the job, he said. Frank G. Zarb, chairman of A&A at the time, testified that when he interviewed McConkey he’d already engaged in preliminary talks with Aon, but considered A&A’s management as the side that would come out on top if the two companies were combined.
The company also pointed to McConkey’s employment contract, which it said demonstrated that he was an “at-will” employee who could be dismissed for any reason. In vain: the jury voted the former wide receiver and Navy helicopter pilot $3 million for lost income, $2 million for emotional distress, and $5 million in punitive damages. Zarb himself, however, “was dismissed as a defendant before the trial started”; he is now chairman of the National Association of Securities Dealers, which runs the NASDAQ stock market. The case may represent a breakthrough for employment plaintiff’s attorneys who have for years been pushing “recruitment fraud” theories of recovery. (Jeffrey Gold, “Jury Finds NASD Chairman Lied”, AP/Excite, Dec. 16)
December 17-19 — Transit shutdown. A jury has awarded $50 million to Shareif Hall, who lost a foot in an escalator accident on the Philadelphia subway system, and $1 million to his mother, Daneen. Robert T. Wooten, a board member of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), called the jury verdict a “very, very serious financial blow” to the finances of the transit agency, and predicted service cuts and fare increases if the award or any substantial fraction of it is upheld on appeal.
According to the boy’s lawyer, Thomas Kline, the jury was angered when memos emerged from the transit agency that stated that the escalators were in poor and deteriorating condition. State law limits personal-injury awards against public entities, but Kline successfully recharacterized the claim as in part one of deprivation of the boy’s civil rights; $25 million of the jury’s award was to compensate the boy for that purpose, and therefore is not subject to the limit. (“Boy awarded $50 million in Pennsylvania escalator accident”, AP/CNN, Dec. 15, link now dead; Claudia N. Ginanni, “Documents Uncovered Mid-Trial Fuel $51 Million Injury Verdict v. SEPTA”, PaLawNet, Dec. 15 (subscription))
Update: After the verdict, Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson expressed anger over SEPTA’s mishandling of physical evidence and failure to provide relevant documents requested by the plaintiffs. The agency settled the case for $7.4 million and pledged to improve both its escalators and its litigation behavior in the future. (Claudia Ginanni, “Judge Fines SEPTA $1 Million Authority; Held in Contempt for Withholding Evidence”, The Legal Intelligencer, Dec. 23; “SEPTA Settles Escalator Suit for $7.4 Million”, Jan. 6) (see Jan. 29-30 commentary).
December 17-19 — “New Mexico county is ordered to use non-English-speaking jurors”. A judge ruled this fall “that potential jurors in Dona Ana County cannot be eliminated simply because they do not speak English”. Now officials are wrestling with questions like: should each juror get his own translator? How will the presence of translators in the jury room influence deliberations? What if a juror facing a language barrier asks to be excused from sitting on a case? Court-paid translators can expect to get a workout, given that all the testimony, documents and exhibits, lawyers’ arguments and judges’ instructions in cases will commonly be in English. And Spanish is not the only language that must be accommodated; one prospective juror spoke a particular Indian dialect the translation of which would have required the services of a specialty translator at $180 an hour, had the juror not been excused for health reasons. (AP/FindLaw, Dec. 13)
December 17-19 — Most unsettling thing we’ve heard about Canada in a while. We knew political correctness held great sway in the public life of our northern neighbor, but didn’t realize the following: “Canada’s most powerful tool against politically incorrect speech is its hate speech code, which prohibits any statement that is ‘likely to expose a person or group of persons to hatred or contempt’ because of ‘race, color, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation or age.’ Prosecutors are not required to show proof of malicious intent or actual harm to win convictions in hate speech cases, and courts in some jurisdictions have ruled that it does not matter whether the statements are truthful.” (Steven Pearlstein, “In Canada, Free Speech Has Its Restrictions: Government Limits Discourse That Some May Find Offensive”, Washington Post, Dec. 12)
December 16 — Got milk? Get sued. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a veggie-oriented group of litigious bent that claims 5,000 physician supporters, last figured in these columns on Sept. 25 when it urged the federal government to file a tobacco-style lawsuit against “Big Meat”. Now comes word that PCRM expects Massachusetts state senator Dianne Wilkerson to join it in a lawsuit it has organized charging that the federal government is being racist by distributing milk to schoolchildren. The reasoning? Black children are more likely than white children to display lactose intolerance, a condition that prevents them from digesting one of the major nutrients in milk. Wilkerson was also concerned to learn that a large cereal manufacturer was sending free cereal to the Boston schools, thus encouraging more milk consumption. “I want us to become health-food conscious, lactose-free public schools,” Wilkerson told the Boston Globe. “There are other options, like calcium-fortified juice.” (“Got milk? Minority schoolchildren do, and maybe they shouldn’t”, AP/Boston Globe, Dec. 13, link now dead (via Lucianne.com))
December 16 — GM verdict roundup. Marion Blakey, who used to run the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, finds it remarkable that verdicts like this summer’s Anderson v. General Motors (see our July 10, August 27 commentaries) allow lawyers to shift legal responsibility for accidents away from drunk drivers to automakers with their deeper pockets, at the eventual expense of car buyers. (“Drunken drivers make mockery of justice”, Detroit News, Dec. 9). The Los Angeles jury’s initial award of $4.9 billion, since reduced by the judge to a putatively more reasonable $1.2 billion, “surpasses the combined gross domestic product of Afghanistan and Albania”, writes op-ed contributor Jim Lafferty (“Two astronomical lawsuit awards may be start of dangerous trend”, San Diego Union-Tribune, Nov. 14). The Federalist Society has mounted a series of panel discussions around the country on the lessons of the Anderson case, and has posted transcripts of the proceedings on its website. And on Monday the Christian Science Monitor ran an op-ed point-counterpoint about the case between R. David Pittle, technical director of the remorselessly pro-litigation Consumers Union, and classic-car auctioneer Mitch Silver. (R. David Pittle, “Fix car design before lawsuit“, and Mitch Silver, “Create wise policy, not crash-proof cars“, Dec. 13). Update Aug. 3, 2003: case settled on undisclosed terms.
December 16 — Gotta regulate ’em all. Quebec Language Minister Louise Beaudoin has threatened legal action against the makers of Pokémon trading cards for allowing them to be sold in the province without French-language packaging or instruction. Ms. Beaudoin said a French version of the popular cards is sold in France itself, Belgium and Switzerland, but is not available in la belle province despite local laws mandating use of the language: “I don’t understand and I can’t accept it … we hope this ultimatum will result in our law being respected.” The cards’ manufacturer, Wizards of the Coast of Renton, Wash., says rights to sell the Japanese-origin cards are divvied up geographically, and that it has North America; it completed an English-language translation first, and now has finished work on a French version which it expects to have on sale in Quebec by February. (Sean Gordon, “Quebec minister demands French version of Pokemon”, National Post (reprinted from Montreal Gazette), Dec. 10) (earlier Pokémon coverage: Oct. 13, Oct. 1-3).