Lawsuit Abuse Fortnightly #1-1
Six Months to Go and Counting
In October 1999, notorious asbestos and tobacco plaintiffs’ attorney Ron Motley boasted to The Dallas Morning News that if he failed to bring the lead paint industry -- which he had just sued in Rhode Island -- “to its knees” in three years, he would give the industry his 156-foot yacht, “Themis,” named for the Greek goddess of law. Two and a half years later, the former lead paint industry still has never lost or settled a lawsuit against it. Time’s running out on Mr. Motley; in six months we’ll tell him where to send the keys.
Take Two Coupons and Call Me in the Morning
A federal judge in Chicago recently approved a $9 million settlement against a group of food companies over genetically modified corn. The corn, not approved for human consumption, had nevertheless found its way into products on supermarket shelves. According to The National Law Journal, the companies will attach $6 million in coupons, each worth a dollar off, to packages of their products. The lawyers who filed the lawsuit on behalf of consumers who said they suffered allergic reactions from eating the genetically modified corn products were awarded $2.4 million, none of it in coupons.
Under the headline “A Presumption of Intelligence,” The New York Times reported in late March that a High Court judge in Great Britain has thrown out 36 lawsuits filed against McDonald’s by persons claiming to have suffered scalding burns caused by hot coffee or tea. The judge ruled, in essence, that McDonald’s cannot be held liable for a person’s inability to understand that “hot” means “hot,” and that fairly well-established means exist for cooling such beverages, “such as stirring and blowing.” The Times pointed out that this is in sharp contrast to a similar case in the United States in 1992, when an Albuquerque woman was scalded by hot coffee and was awarded $160,000 plus $480,000 in punitive damages before the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
More Hot Coffee -- American Style
Earlier this year a New York jury awarded a Starbucks customer $4.6 million for first-degree burns -- the least serious type of burn -- she received on her right hand when an espresso machine spewed out steam and hot coffee during a sales demonstration. The plaintiff asserted she had developed classic symptoms of “reflex sympathetic dystrophy” and, as a result, was permanently disabled by the accident. Starbucks contended she had put herself in a dangerous situation by keeping her hand on the filter handle while steam was erupting and failed to undergo therapy for her reported disorder. (As reported in The National Law Journal.)
If You Can’t Beat Them, Sue Them
Sun MicroSystems has joined AOL in suing Microsoft Corporation for anticompetitive behavior. A trial court’s finding that Microsoft has a monopoly in the PC-based operating system market opened the door for such suits. While both suits seek over $1 billion in damages, no evidence was presented during the trial of any harm to consumers. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized on March 11, “Sun and AOL obviously face challenges in the marketplace but have decided to go prospecting in the courts instead for a lucky payoff from a competitor. That’s usually a pretty good sign of what management really thinks of its business.”
Clean Water No Obstacle to Citizen Lawsuits
Demonstrating a curious bit of logic, the California Supreme Court recently ruled that private lawsuits against non-state regulated water companies and industrial concerns in the San Gabriel Valley could go forward even though the California Public Utilities Commission found the water provided to the plaintiffs was “in no way harmful or dangerous to health,” and had indeed been found to be safe for the past 25 years. The Court also ruled lawsuits could not proceed against state- regulated water suppliers, but suits alleging property damage and personal injury from contaminated water could proceed against all other defendants, even though the water in question is and has never been contaminated. (As reported on the website of the Washington Legal Foundation.)
55 Down and Counting
Depending upon who’s doing the counting, some 55 asbestos companies -- or companies with some tenuous connection to asbestos -- have been forced into Chapter 11 since 1979 by the rapacious attention of the plaintiffs’ bar. In the past 15 months alone, 16 new victims have been added to the list, including Babcock & Wilcox, Armstrong World Industries, the former GAF Corporation, W.R. Grace, USG Corp., Owens-Corning, and auto-parts manufacturer Federal-Mogel Corp. Now on the hit list are such corporations as Georgia-Pacific, Halliburton, and the Big Three automakers. The vast majority of the suits being filed today are not by people who are actually sick from asbestos exposure, but who fear they may get sick in the future and thus lose out on their share of the financial pie.
They’re All Living in a Motel Down the Street
State courts in a number of states, including West Virginia, Texas, and Mississippi, allow out-of-state plaintiffs -- even if they had never lived or worked in the state -- to join so-called “jumbo consolidation” suits, where thousands of plaintiffs and scores of defendants are joined in a single suit. The results can be mind- boggling. According to an article in the March 4 issue of Fortune, “by July 1999 some 9,100 asbestos plaintiffs from all over the country were suing in rural Jefferson County, Mississippi -- about 700 more asbestos plaintiffs than there were county residents.”
Help a Kid Quit Smoking; Fill a Pothole
The massive $206 billion settlement reached in 1998 between 46 states and the tobacco industry was ballyhooed at the time as finally providing the financial resources necessary to conduct long-term and effective smoking prevention and cessation programs. Nothing of the sort has happened. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only about 5 percent of the money received by the states so far has gone to such programs. Four states -- Alabama, Arizona, Michigan, and Tennessee -- have not spent a dime on prevention and cessation efforts. Instead, much of the tobacco windfall is funding totally non-tobacco-related projects, such as highway repair and water projects.
Time for a Legal Consumer’s Bill of Rights?
Probably the hottest legislation in states these days are “Patient’s Bill of Rights” bills. With any luck, a Bill of Rights for legal consumers won’t be far behind. “Consumers of legal services are unaware they have certain rights,” writes Kristin Armshaw in the Winter 2001/2002 issue of ALEC Policy Forum. ALEC has drafted model legislation, titled the Legal Consumer’s Bill of Rights, that “does not interfere with contractual freedom and does not increase government regulation. It merely makes legal consumers aware of the rights they are granted under the currently un-enforced ethics codes.” The bill is based on language that can be found at www.halt.org.
Lawsuit Abuse Fortnightly
Published bi-weekly by The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization founded in 1984. The full text of this two-page newsletter is also available in Adobe Acrobat's PDF format; click here.
Publisher: Joseph L. Bast
Editors: Diane Carol Bast, Paul Fisher, Dan Hales
Information on lawsuit abuse can be found on these Web sites: