Archive for the ‘Liability / Lawsuits / Insurance’ Category.

My Emotional Support Alpaca

This is a great article about the fraudulent practices people pursue to try to take advantage of rules about service animals that help people with true disabilities to bring their pets with them everywhere.  This kind of crap strikes me as being in the same category as folks who used to hire disabled kids to go to Disneyworld with them so they could skip the lines (a practice, by the way, that led to Disney giving fewer special privileges to handicapped kids because of the abuse).

I will say from personal experience that the pressure on service businesses to succumb to this sort of service animal fraud is immense, especially in places like California where the financial penalties for even tiny well-meaning infractions of bewildering ADA rules are substantial.  My employees once felt they had to allow a woman to bring her horse (!) into the park because she had letters like the ones in this article saying she required the horse for emotional support.

This week I was at a conference where a featured speaker was an executive of the Forest Service named Joe Meade who happens to be blind.  I say "happens to" because Joe is one of the best, and best-loved, executives in that organization and what makes him great has little or nothing to do with his disability.  But I watched him work his way through a hotel with his service dog -- a casino hotel I got lost in about 4 times and I could read the signs -- and the skills that dog had are simply amazing.  Service dogs like that get deference from service businesses for a reason.  It infuriates me that people are trying to counterfeit that kind of credential so they don't have to pay an extra airplane fare for their cat.  And the only way they get away with it is because of our screwed up tort system that leaves service businesses at the mercy of even the most outrageous claims.  Because we businesses have given up on, particularly in places like California, ever getting real justice.

hattip:  Overlawyered.

Thanks Popehat, for Throwing Cold Water on My Outrage

I read this in my feed today, and was all ready to vent some outrage at how we business owners were screwed over by the tort system

The owner of the Aurora movie theater that was the site of a deadly 2012 attack could have reasonably enough foreseen the danger of such an attack to be held liable for it, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Noting "the grim history of mass shootings and mass killings that have occurred in more recent times," U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that Cinemark — owner of the Century Aurora 16 theater — could have predicted that movie patrons might be targeted for an attack. Jackson's ruling allows 20 lawsuits filed by survivors of the attack or relatives of those killed to proceed toward trial.

"Although theaters had theretofore been spared a mass shooting incident, the patrons of a movie theater are, perhaps even more than students in a school or shoppers in a mall, 'sitting ducks,' " Jackson wrote.

The about 6 spots down in my feed reader I found this from Ken White at Popehat:

The court said:

None of these facts, even when taken together, compels the conclusion that Cinemark knew or should have known of the danger that the patrons of Auditorium 9 faced. I reiterate that this Court is in no way holding as a matter of law that Cinemark should have known of the danger of someone entering one of its theaters through the back door and randomly shooting innocent patrons. I hold only that a court cannot grant summary judgment on what is normally a question of fact under Colorado law unless the facts so overwhelmingly and inarguably point in Cinemark’s favor that it cannot be said that a reasonable jury could possibly side with the plaintiffs on that question. I am not convinced. Plaintiffs have come forward with enough – and it does not have to be more than just enough – to show that there is a genuine dispute of material fact. A genuine fact dispute must be resolved by the trier of fact, not by a court’s granting summary judgment. Whether the jury will resolve this issue in the plaintiffs’ favor is a different matter entirely.

In other words, the court did not find that the shooting was foreseeable. The court found that if a jury believed the plaintiffs' experts and evidence, the jury could conceivably find that the shooting was foreseeable.

Wow, thanks for jamming a stick in to the spokes of my accelerating rage bicycle.  Ken seems to be making an implicit argument here for carefully understanding the facts first before haring off in a fever of righteousness over an inaccurate and perhaps purposefully inflammatory headline.  Boy, I don't think he understands the Internet at all.

PS-  I must agree with one of Ken's commenters -- while this may be absolutely correct as a matter of law, there is something wrong with a legal system that is going to subject Cinemark to a jury decision on whether the actions of a madman, perpetrating a crime that was by all measures unprecedented, were "foreseeable".  There has got to be some safe harbor against being responsible for bad outcomes that occur in the general vicinity of someone with deep pockets.  Juries strike me as a terrible vehicle for making this kind of determination.  Their decision is more likely to be made based on how sympathetic the plaintiff is and how rich and faceless the defendant corporation is, and not whether it is really justice to hammer a movie theater for not being prepared for crazed shooters.

Punitive Damages and Double Jeopardy

A Florida jury awarded the widow of a deceased smoker $23 Billion in punitive damages against RJ Reynolds.

Here is what confuses me -- the $23 billion is obviously not the damages to the woman and her family directly (that was a separate much lower figure) but is somehow calculated as a penalty for RJ Reynolds pursuing bad practices with everyone.  This has to be a penalty for harm to many people, perhaps to all of RJ Reynolds customers.  So what happens when there is a second suit?  Can another person get yet another $23 billion, forcing RJ Reynolds to essentially pay twice for the same bad practices?  Or if a million other ex-customers sued, could RJ Reynolds be forced to pay $23 quadrillion in total? Or should past punitive damages for the same actions be deducted from future awards, saying something like "RJ Reynolds should be penalized $23 billion but that was already paid out to someone else so the net in this suit is zero."

I have no problem suing for actual harm and have opposed limits on regular damage awards -- who can say in advance what the actual damages might have been?  Damage caps tend to be a poor substitute for cleaning up the real problems, which include junk science, no penalty for frivolous suits, and presumption of guilt against deep-pocketed defendants.  But I have never, ever understood punitive damages.

Update:  Jacob Sullum has some related thoughts

Although the main purpose of tort litigation is supposed to be making victims whole, so-called punitive damages explicitly aim to punish wrongdoers. That is usually the function of the criminal justice system, which therefore provides additional protections for defendants, including a higher standard of proof, stricter evidence rules, and penalties prescribed by statute. Attorneys seeking punitive damages do not have to contend with any of those safeguards.

The very concept of punitive damages is oxymoronic, since actual damages (a.k.a. compensatory damages) are a measure of the harm caused by a tort. Punitive damages, by contrast, express a jury's outrage at the defendant's conduct and may be completely unmoored from the injury suffered by the plaintiff (who nevertheless gets the money). In this case, the punitive damages are about 1,400 times the actual damages, which the jury put at $16 million. That huge mutiple seems to violate Florida law, which caps the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages at three or four unless "the defendant had a specific intent to harm the claimant"—a description that clearly does not apply to a tobacco company with millions of customers, even if it prevented them from making informed decisions by hiding the dangers posed by its products.

Patent Trolling: It's Not Just For Software

Via Walter Olson:

“Hundreds of home builders in the Pacific Northwest have been put on notice that if they use a dehumidifier to dry rain-damaged projects, they are infringing on a patent recently issued to a father and son who claim they invented the process.”

I wonder if I can patent "the reduction in grass height using a sharpened, spinning blade" and drive all of my competitors out of business?

Wow, Who Would Have Predicted This?

Diana Wang accepted a job.  The terms of that employment were very clear up front -- like most interns, she would be paid in skills and experience and resume fodder rather than money.  The employer provided exactly the promised terms.  So Diana Wang sued her employer.  Now she is having trouble finding anyone to hire her.  Wow, that is sure unexpected.   Maybe she could go work for Obama's OFA, except (lol) they don't pay their interns either.

Courts Have Become the Temple of Junk Science

If the Left is really as passionate as they say they are about taking on people and institutions who are anti-science, then they should be dedicating themselves to rethinking the current tort system.  Toyota may be facing $5 billion in settlements due to a defect that government reports and independent studies say is not there.

And recall NHTSA's performance during the furor almost four years ago over alleged runaway Toyotas. Its then-overseer, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, happily participated in congressional hearings designed to flog for the benefit of trial lawyers the idea of a hidden bug in Toyota's electronic throttle control.

When the agency much more quietly came out with a report a year later debunking the idea of an electronic defect, notice how little good it did Toyota. The car maker still found it necessary to cough up $1.2 billion to satisfy owners who claimed their cars lost value in the media frenzy over a non-defect. Toyota has also seen the tide turning against it lately as it resists a deluge of accident claims.

At first, opposing lawyers were hesitant to emphasize an invisible defect that government research suggested didn't exist. That was a tactical error on their part. In an Oklahoma trial last month involving an 82-year-old woman driver, jurors awarded $3 million in compensatory damages and were ready to assign punitive damages in a complaint focused on a hypothetical bug when Toyota abruptly settled on undisclosed terms.

In another closely-watched trial set to begin in California in March, an 83-year-old female driver (who has since died from unrelated causes) testified in a deposition that she stepped on the brake instead of the gas. The judge has already ruled that if the jury decides to believe her testimony, it is entitled to infer the existence of a defect that nobody can find.

These cases, out of some 300 pending, were chosen for a reason. Study after study, including one last year by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, finds that elderly female drivers are inordinately prone to "pedal misapplication." If Toyota can't prevail in these cases, the company might be wise to run up the white flag and seek a global settlement that some estimate at upwards of $5 billion—quite a sum for a non-defect.

KlearGear Sucks

I don't have a lot to add about this story.  A company called KlearGear trying to fine customers for writing a bad review about it (based on some BS prior restraint on criticism buried in their terms and conditions) and then hounding the customers' credit rating through debt collection agencies.  But I am all for the Streisand effect bringing karmic retribution to such folks, so here is my contribution to Google.

By the way, I found their current header warning to be odd:

notice-tues

Anyone ever heard of a "business hour" before?  Since most customers would not really freak at a 48 hour or 2-day order processing time, anyone want to bet that this means 6 business days (6x8 hours) or over a week, but is meant to fool folks into thinking only two days?  I would ask them directly but there is no way to send them an email without registering first as a customer.  Since by registering, I apparently cede my ability to ever criticize them, I won't be able to write them for clarification.

Our business gets mostly positive reviews, but we get bad ones from time to time.  Every bad review is both a pain in the butt (as they hang around forever on the Internet) but also an opportunity for me to learn and identify problems in the business.  On a couple of occasions I have identified personnel problems through online reviews that let me fix a real problem before something much worse happened.

Update:  The bottom of their home page says "As seen on ABC's Good Morning America".  Yup.  LOL

 

Fargo, But with Lawyers and Porn

This is a little dated, but Ken White has a mega-update on the Prenda Law case he has been following.

The ins and outs of this case are complicated beyond belief (likely purposefully by the key players in a bid to obfuscate what they were doing), but the basic facts appear to point to this:  Prenda and a series of related entities were buying copyrights to porn, uploading electronic versions of these videos to known pirating sites, and then suing folks who downloaded the files  (knowing that most folks, embarrassed that they downloaded "Chubby Nurses in Heat" or whatever, will fold and pay a settlement rather than get in a public legal fight).  One reason for the complexity and obfuscation is that the porn companies (AF holdings and many other shells) have to pretend on the one hand that they didn't upload the files themselves in a "honeypot" operation, and on the other hand that they have no relation to Prenda Law.  By the way, the scheme apparently brought in about $2 million in 2012 alone of which at least two thirds, and likely more, ended up in the pockets of the key principles.

What makes the case so fun to read about is the just idiotic antics and evasions by the key players, the hapless lawyers, the "dog ate my homework" excuses in front of senior Federal judges, etc.   All this combined with an arrogance among the principles that could be a case study in the Wikipedia entry on Dunning-Kruger effect.   The bad guys remind me of nothing so much as the William Macy character in Fargo.   This, for example, is a hilarious article with examples of one principle after another offering absurd testimony to various Courts.

Since the post above, Ken has an update here.

The Problem with Job Discrimination Legislation

Congress is considering adding gays and lesbians to the list of protected groups covered by the EEOC.  As former chairman of a group that tried to get gay marriage legalized in Arizona (at least until we were shot down by gay rights groups that did not want libertarians or Republicans  helping to lead the effort), I hope I don't have to prove that I have no problem with differences in sexual orientation.  But I have a big problem with Federal employment discrimination law.

If you are unfamiliar with how it works, this is perhaps how you THINK it works:  An employee, who has been mistreated in a company based on clear prejudice for his or her race / gender / sexual orientation, etc. has tried to bring the problem to management's attention.  With no success via internal grievance processes, the employee turns finally to the government for help.

Ha!  If this were how it worked, I would have no problem with the law.  In reality, this is how it works:  Suddenly, as owner of the company, one finds a lawsuit or EEOC complain in his lap, generally with absolutely no warning.  In the few cases we have seen in our company, the employee never told anyone in the company about the alleged harassment, never gave me or management a chance to fix it, despite very clear policies in our employee's manuals that we don't tolerate such behavior and outlining methods for getting help.  There is nothing in EEO law that requires an employee to try to get the problem fixed via internal processes.

As a result, our company can be financially liable for allowing a discriminatory situation to exist that we could not have known about, because it happened in a one-on-one conversations and the alleged victim never reported it.

What I want is a reasonable chance to fix problems, get rid of bad supervisors, etc.  A reasonable anti-discrimination law would say that companies have to have a grievance process with such and such specifications, and that no one may sue until they have exhausted the grievance process or when there is no conforming grievance process.  If I don't fix the problem and give the employee a safe work environment, then a suit is appropriate.  The difference between this reasonable goal and the system we actually have is lawyers.  Lawyers do not want the problem to be fixed.  Lawyers want the problem to be as bad as possible and completely hidden from management so there is no chance it can be fixed before they can file a lucrative lawsuit.

I worry in particular about how this will play out with a new gay/lesbian discrimination law.  We have employed a number of gay couples over the years, and never had any particular internal issue  (I had to defend one couple in Florida from a set of customers who thought that it was inherently dangerous to employ gay people around children camping, but I did so gladly).  But I know I have employees who have religious beliefs different form my own such that they think gay people are damned, evil, whatever.  So now what do I do when I have one of these religious folks in conflict with an employee who is gay?  If I don't separate them, I am going to get sued by the gay person for a hostile work environment.  If I move the gay person, I will get sued for gay discrimination.  If I move or fire the religious person, I will get sued for religious discrimination.

I am happy to work hard to build a respectful, safe work environment, but such laws put me as a business owner in no-win situations.  And the lawyers who craft this stuff consider this a feature, not a bug.  Heads I sue you, tails I sue you.

Race and Modern America

One organization does not ask applicants about race and hires through a race-blind process.  The other organization hires teams of "race raters" to guess applicants' race from their name and picture.  Guess which one is suing the other for being racist.

Citizen's Initiatives Dealt A Significant Blow

Since I am part of a group working to pass a ballot initiative in Arizona to allow same sex marriage in this state, I was obviously pleased with the decision to strike down DOMA yesterday.

However, the decision not to rule based on lack of standing on the Prop 8 suit creates a real mess above and beyond any implications for same-sex marriage.

Proposition 8, a California initiative to ban same-sex marriage that likely would not pass today, was introduced and passed five years ago because the authors of the initiative knew it was a step legislators would never take but that they thought (correctly at the time) that the voters would support.  In fact, in a nutshell, this is exactly what the initiative process was meant to achieve.  If citizens think the legislative process is broken on a particular issue (e.g. taxes, where legislators have entirely different incentives vis a vis raising taxes than do taxpayers), they can do an end-run.  In a sense, this is exactly what we are doing in Arizona with our Equal Marriage initiative, though of course with the opposite desired end result from Prop 8.  But just as in that case, we do not have high hopes of the current legislator passing such a Constitutional Amendment, so we are doing it through citizens initiative.

The problem in the Prop 8 case was that when the law was challenged in court, neither the governor nor the legislature was willing to defend it in court (remember, that it was passed over their opposition).  Given the very nature of ballot propositions and the reasons for them discussed above, this is likely a common occurrence.  But the Supreme Court refused to rule on the case because, as I understand their argument, only the administrative or legislative branch of the state government has standing to bring the appeal (ie defend the original law that was overturned by a local Federal court).

This is a really bad precedent.  It means that any initiative passed by citizens that is opposed by the current state government is enormously vulnerable to attack in courts.  If the government officials are the only ones who have standing, and they refuse to defend the law, then it will lose in court almost by summary judgement.

There has got to be some process where courts can grant citizens groups who filed and passed such initiatives standing to defend it in court.  Certainly there could be some judicial process for this, almost like the process for certifying a class and its official representative in a class action suit.  Without this, citizens initiatives are going to lose a lot of their power.

Update:  Scott Shackford at Reason writes

So should we be worried? Could the reverse – voters approve gay marriage recognition only to have the state refuse to back it – happen? What if the voters approved term limits for state legislators and they just ignored it?

The majority decision was not unsympathetic to the argument (incidentally, it’s interesting to see how polite these arguments are when you end up with such an unusual combination of justices on each side) but firm in that: 1) Getting a ballot initiative passed does not make you an agent of the state with standing; and 2) If you aren’t an agent of the state who is expected to defend the law, then you have to have proof of a personal harm and the proponents do not. Arguably, if the situation were reversed (the state refusing to defend an initiative recognizing gay marriage), it’s easy to see how they could allow standing and the outcry that would cause. A person denied a marriage license from a same-sex ballot initiative may be able to prove harms from discriminatory policies and earn standing.

I had not thought of it that way, but it is interesting that the Court could not find any demonstrated harm to straight petitioners from the legality of same-sex marriage.  I suppose that is a good sign.

Congrats to Overlawyered, as it Moves to Cato

The Overlawyered blog is one of the blogs I read every day, and is one of the grand old blogs of the Internet, dating back to when AOL was relevant, Pets.com was still paying for Superbowl ads, and I was still using Netscape to browse.

The move to Cato is described here.

On The Looming Death of American Football

Death by tort lawyer in 3...2...1

A Colorado jury has awarded $11.5 million in a lawsuit originally brought against helmet maker Riddell and several high school administrators and football coaches over brain injuries suffered by a teenager in 2008.” While the jury rejected the plaintiff’s claim of design defect, it accepted the theory that the helmet maker should have done more to warn of concussions.

If the helmet makers are getting nailed, wait until every high school and college in the country is sued, not to mention the massive suit looming against the NFL.  Expect to see a debate soon, beginning in state legislatures, over tort protection for football.  Texas, for example, has several of the country's tort hellholes but if Friday night high school football is threatened, you can bet that the legislature will be moved to action.

Bitcoin Prediction: Death by Tort Lawyer

The Bitcoin price correction most of us expected seems to be occurring 

BTC crashy

So what is next for Bitcoin?  I predict death by lawyer.  In modern America, no one loses this much value this fast without calling an attorney, because such losses can't possibly be due to one's own poor decision-making (e.g. buying an illiquid currency after a 5x runup in its price), it must be due to GETTING HOSED.  I am not a securities attorney, but my guess is that someone will argue Bitcoin was not a currency but a digital commodity and that commodity trading laws were not followed.  Or something like that.  The CFTC, which left MF Global customers hang out to dry, will launch a simultaneous investigation to gain pub for themselves and support the civil suit.  Because it will be a much higher priority for this Administration to kill an incipient competitive currency than to go after a major Obama bundler.

Anyway, the main entertainment value will be to see if there is actually someone who can be sued, given the dispersed nature of the Bitcoin network.  But expect people to try.  I would even bet we see the suit in days -- "entrepreneurial" tort houses probably have already drafted the paperwork and gotten some schlub to buy 1 bitcoin so he can be lead plaintiff (preferably in a hand-picked jurisdiction) in the class action and are just waiting for the bubble to burst to file.

An Insane Theory of Product Liability

Via the WSJ today:

Can a drug company be held liable for damages caused by generic drugs it didn't produce? That's the expansive new theory of "innovator liability" on parade in Alabama, where a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court could do damage throughout the U.S. economy.

In Wyeth Inc. et al., v. Danny Weeks et al., Mr. Weeks says he suffered from side effects from taking the generic version of an acid-reflux drug called Reglan. He sued Wyeth for fraud and misrepresentation, though the company didn't make the drug he took and had exited the Reglan market in 2002, five years before he took it. The court ruled 8-1 that Wyeth could be held liable for injuries because the generic manufacturer couldn't change the warnings on the product it copied.

First, this is nuts -- being held liable for problems with a product you did not make, simply because you invented it years before.   Are we going to start suing the estate of Thomas Edison every time someone buys a bad lightbulb?

But second, note how helpless Wyeth is now.  Drug makers are used to insane law suits that drain all the profit from helping millions of people to pay off a few folks who had adverse side effects (this same process literally destroyed the vaccination business until the government gave them special liability protection).

But let's accept the court victory - perhaps the drug really has a problem that has been discovered.  If the maker was being sued, he could just pull the drug from the market (as has happened any number of times after adverse suits) either forever or until the FDA will approve new warning language.

But in this case, Wyeth can't do this.  The generic drug makers will keep on selling the product - after all, they are not getting sued, and Wyeth will keep paying.  Wyeth does not even have standing to try to get the FDA to change the warnings on the drug.  If Wyeth tries to buy out the generic maker and shut it down, and new seller will simply takes its place.    If this case stands, Wyeth can be steadily bled to death and there is nothing they can do to stop it.

Finally, I don't want to get away without a mention of just how broken the FDA drug regulation regime is.  The original Supreme Court decision that led to the generic maker being immune to suits really turned on the impossibility of getting the FDA to change even one word on a drug's warning label.

I Thought We Got Bizarre Workers Comp Claims at My Company

... but these are worse.  But for someone who runs a small business, not wildly surprising.  Employers who believe that abject carelessness and rule-breaking on the employee's part should result in no claim do not have sufficient experience with the system.  At this point, whatever its origins, workers comp is effectively no-fault bad outcomes insurance.  If a bad thing happens to the worker on the job, then it generally pays no matter what the fault or facts of the case.

Our problem tends to be that we get a whole heck of a lot of "injuries" in the 3-4 hours between when we fire someone and when they leave the property.

Via Overlawyered.

Is The NFL Doomed?

I think Megan McArdle is being naive about the tort system in this country when she writes

So Junior Seau's family is suing the NFL over head injuries, which lead to chronic brain damage, and possibly his suicide.

...

But this lawsuit strikes me as pretty out there.  Junior Seau can't possibly have been unaware that football caused head injuries.  Nor even that multiple concussions are probably bad for you.  Note how many people are still playing, even though we now know this all too well.

Really?  I know of cases where people have successfully sued for drownings that occurred within feet of a no swimming sign.  I could easily ask if there are really people unaware that water can cause drownings.   Any sense of individual responsibility has been stripped from the tort system, such that it has become a way for folks who had bad outcomes of some sort to cash in from deeper pockets, irrespective of any reasonable sense of justice.

The NFL knows this and is clearly running scared.  How do we know?  Just look at Saints coach Sean Payton, who just went back to work after a one year suspension, a historically really large penalty for a coach.  He was accused of tangential association with a bounty system players and coaches had in place for great plays that may also have been a bounty system for injuring opposing players.  The NFL knows this goes on all the time, but must now prepare for the day they are in court getting sued for having an unsafe work environment.  They do not want a case based on negligence to be made far worse by accusations that the league was actively promoting behavior that created injuries.  So they threw the book at him.  The other folks who were suspended threatened the NFL with suits for all sorts of due process errors, but the NFL didn't care.  They can survive a judgement on an unjustified suspension of one or two players.   They cannot survive a judgement on causing hundreds to have brain damage.

Quoting from Walter Olson, who spends most of his time studying the tort system in this country:

 if subjected to the same injury liability rules that American courts apply to other businesses, organized football is unlikely to survive.

Software Patent Horror

Ever since Amazon managed to patent one-click ordering, I have been skeptical of software patents.  When I was in the Internet field, I saw companies patent some, uh, patently obvious stuff, roughly akin to patenting an on/off switch.  Or even worse, multiple companies would get patents for the equivalent of an on/off switch, with this company claiming it has the patent for on-off switches for lighting, and this one for appliances, and this one for all electrical devices, and then all three end up sitting in court for about 10 years arguing about who has the patent for turning on the bulb in your refrigerator.

Kevin Drum brings us an amazing horror story of a patent that apparently I owe licensing fees for -- and probably you do too.

Vicinanza soon got in touch with the attorney representing Project Paperless: Steven Hill, a partner at Hill, Kertscher & Wharton, an Atlanta law firm.

"[Hill] was very cordial and very nice," he told Ars. "He said, if you hook up a scanner and e-mail a PDF document—we have a patent that covers that as a process."

It didn’t seem credible that Hill was demanding money for just using basic office equipment exactly the way it was intended to be used. So Vicinanza clarified:

"So you're claiming anyone on a network with a scanner owes you a license?" asked Vicinanza. "He said, 'Yes, that's correct.' And at that point, I just lost it."

Drum has a good discussion, including some prior art with which he actually participated.

Great Moments In Lawsuits

I have mixed feelings about Groupon.  Having been an executive at Mercata 10+ years ago, I recognize that they have gotten further than we did with the group buying model by a) waiting for there to actually be social media and b) delivering electronic goods (coupons) rather than hard goods.  As a customer, I have satisfactorily participated in several groupons and as a business we have used it a couple of times as a promotional program.  As an investor, I was short Groupon for quite a while, convinced that they had no particular barrier to entry for competitors like Amazon who could grab the market if there was enough money at stake.

So, all that aside, I was fascinated by the recent settlement of a class action lawsuit.  Prior to the lawsuit, all customers could get a full refund of their Groupon through a simple contact with Groupon customer service.  After the lawsuit, customers during the class action period can only get a partial refund and then only by going to a separate class website and hassling with forms and doing a lot of waiting.  The plaintiffs will actually get less than they would have had the lawsuit not gone forward, the difference being the millions required to pay off the tort lawyers to go away.

Having just had to pay the fees of a tort lawyer who brought a frivolous suit against our company just to make him go away, I am sympathetic.  Had the plaintiff approached me directly, I might have given her a few bucks just to settle and avoid getting lawyers involved.  But instead the lawyer got part of his fees paid in the settlement and the plaintiff got zip.  Basically just legal blackmail, with the plaintiff as unpaid pawn.

Enjoy the NFL This Weekend, You May Not Have It For Long

I think Walter Olson is dead on with this:

Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune looks at the cultural and legal responses to the mounting evidence that professional football inflicts brain damage on many of its players. He quotes my view that if the litigation system carries over to football the legal principles it applies to other industries, the game isn’t likely to survive in its current form.  [sorry for quoting the whole thing Walter, I just couldn't figure out how to excerpt it]

There is a very good chance that the NFL could go the way of Johns Manville or Dow Corning.  Those companies still exist after being sued into bankruptcy, but that is only because they had other businesses to shift into.  The NFL just has football.  And after reading the concussion stories recently, plaintiff's lawyers are going to have a hell of a lot better scientific case than they had with breast implants.    I honestly think it will take an act of Congress to keep the NFL alive, giving them some sort of liability exemption similar to what ski resorts got years ago.

And don't think the NFL does not know this.  If you are wondering why they handed out insanely over-the-top penalties for bounty-gate in New Orleans, this is why.  They are working to establish a paper trail of extreme diligence on player safety issues for future litigation.

As an aside, I find it frustrating that there is not a better helmet solution.

As a second aside, there is a guy here in Phoenix who was showing off an accelerometer for football helmets, with some kind of maximum single g-force or cumulative g-force trigger that would cause a player to be pulled from a game, sort of like how a radiation badge works.  Good idea.  Look for these to be mandatory equipment in high schools in colleges.    Takes the absurd guess work out of concussion diagnosis today, particularly since this diagnosis is done by people (the player and their team) who have strong incentives to decide that there was no concussion.

As a third aside, there are those who argue helmets are the problem.  Just as people drive less safely with seat belts and air bags in cars, helmets lead to less care on the field.  I will say I played rugby for years (without a helmet of course) and never had one concussion, or any head hit anywhere close to a concussion.  In amateur rugby in the leagues I played in, reckless behavior that might lead to injuries was strongly frowned upon and punished by the group.  Teams that played this way quickly found themselves without a game.  There were plenty of ways to demonstrate toughness without trying to injure people.

Attention Lawyers, We need a Hand, Not a Brain: A Licensing Parable

Several sites have reposted this Craigslist ad, gasping in shock at it as evidence of massive foreclosure fraud

We are a collection agency/debt buyer. What we are looking for is a part time attorney to work for us as our corporate counsel, on our payroll, about 5 to 6 hours a week. This is a short term employment arrangement, no longer than 90 to 120 days.

Your job will be to sign pleadings, praecipe for entry of appearances, praecipe for writ of execution, and garnishment orders. Our paralegal will prepare all paperwork for your signature. This is very standard stuff for us.

If you are an attorney looking for challenging legal work, this is not for you. WE DO NOT NEED F LEE BAILEY- we are fee shopping. If you passed your boards with a D+, and you can sign your name, you possess all the credentials required for this job. If this opportunity interests you, please feel free to reply to this email with a brief description of who you are, when you got your law license, and what you will be needing from us in the way of compensation.

I would instead offer it as a lesson in the stupidity of state-enforced professional licensing arrangements.  Let me rewrite it:

We have all the legal knowlege we need.  We know exactly what the forms look like and mean.  We have written all the documents and tested them over time during our long presence in this business and we know them to meet our legal needs.   We have no need, in other words, for legal help.

However, attorneys have gotten together and created an attorneys guild, and, what's more, have convinced the government to pass laws that require membership in the guild to perform certain gate-keeping functions.  In our case, we need a member of the guild to sign some forms to make them legal, both because the guild has strong influence and because certain folks have convinced everyone that all mortgage pain in this country came from having a machine perform this signature function rather than a flesh and blood hand.  So we need a flesh and blood hand rather than a machine to sign foreclosure documents.  Unfortunately, that hand has to be attached to a brain that has passed the bar exam, and because the guild is pretty good at limiting its membership, we expect to have to pay an absurd amount of money for this trivial function that could be duplicated by a six-year-old (and used to be performed by a simple $100 machine).

Don't get us wrong -- if we were on trial for our lives or facing a nasty, complicated lawsuit or wanted to draft a custom contract to protect our interests, we would be very happy to consider the opinion of third party licensing groups as to the merit of a particular attorney.  Ironically, though, even then current licensing would be absurd, for in this case it would not greatly exceed our quality requirements (as it does for signing our foreclosure paperwork) but it would vastly undershoot our need due diligence needs.   Perhaps there is some legal function for which attending an ABA-accredited school and passing the bar exam is the perfect level of quality assurance, but we have not found it yet.

More SLAPP-happy Lawyer Fun

Apparently the co-owner of the Miami Heat Ranaan Katz does not like to be criticized by the plebes.  So like many rich guys nowadays, he sued a blogger who he felt was saying hurtful things about him, because as we all know the First Amendment has a built in exception for college students and billionaires who have a right not to be offended by other peoples' speech.  So far, this is just the usual SLAPP nuttiness, up to and including a rallying of support by attorneys willing to help out pro bono.  This latter can usually solve the problem, as these suits gain their strength not from any legal merit but from the ability to intimidate ordinary people unfamiliar with the legal system and without the resources to hire top attorneys to defend themselves.

But, as with the case of serial moron Charles Carreon, Katz and his attorneys then proceeded to drive right over the cliff.  Because they then sued the attorney's representing the blogger on the brilliant theory that by providing legal advice to the blogger, the attorneys made themselves parties to the bloggers "crimes."  Seriously.   By which theory Jerry Sandusky's attorneys will soon be serving time for child abuse.

Charles Carreon Totally Loses It

I will admit, I can get angry, especially when I believe someone has done me wrong.  But over time, I have learned to distrust this anger.  About twenty of twenty of the actions that I have most regretted in life or that have backfired on me have been undertaken during such periods of anger -- from yelling at innocent airline employees to writing scathing business letters that only make a situation worse.  I have learned to impose on myself a sort of count-to-ten rule, where if I am really ticked off about something, I force myself to wait 24 hours before I respond.  It works for me.

Attorney Charles Carreon needs to figure out a parallel strategy, or else he needs a business partner or family member who can perform an intervention for him.  Because last week, he totally lost it.

As you might remember from our last episode, Carreon was representing a web site called Funnyjunk where people post content strip-mined from other sites.  One of those sites, the Oatmeal, got mad about their cartoons ending up on this site without compensation, and called them out online.  No lawsuit, nothing unnatural, just good old American criticism.

I don't know enough about copyright law to know if Funnyjunk was in the right or wrong.  The Oatmeal could have tied it up anyway in copyright suits, but chose not to.  So of course Funnyjunk responded in asymmetric fashi0n by hiring Carreon to threaten the Oatmeal with a $20,000 lawsuit.  Apparently they were really sad and hurt by the Oatmeal's criticism, and argued that the Oatmeal abused their copyrighted name by using it online in the criticism (a hilarious charge given how the whole thing started).  By the way, in case anyone is confused about this, though this approach is tried constantly, courts have routinely held that there is no such copyright that bars someone from criticism or comment using one's name.

At this point, this all constituted irritating but fairly normal (unfortunately) behavior of people and lawyers online who don't really understand the First Amendment.

Then Charles Carreon drove over the cliff.

On Friday, he apparently sued not only the Oatmeal  (for criticizing him online, causing other people to hate him, and for violating his copyright in his own name) but also, get ready for this, the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society.  Why?  Because when the Oatmeal first got Carreon's demand letter, its proprietor said he would raise $20,000 for charity instead, and send Funnyjunk a picture of the money.  To date, nearly $200,000 has been raised for the two charities by Oatmeal fans who wanted to show their support.

Apparently, according to Carreon's suit  (I still can't believe he actually filed this), the money that was raised for these charities was tainted because it was raised in the name of making him look like a doofus.  Which, by the way, is exactly right.  I am not a huge fan of either charity (they use too much money in both cases for political activism rather than solving problems), but I gave $100 just to help hammer home the point that Charles Carreon is an idiot.

Perhaps this guy has no friends.  But if he does, one of them needs to be grabbing his collar and shoving him up against the wall and explaining in one syllable words how suing two prominent charities is NOT a path to success in the war to reclaim his reputation.  The guy basically kneecapped himself with his opening shot.   He will soon learn that while it may be increasingly against the law on college campuses to hurt someone's feelings with your speech, it is not illegal in the rest of America.  And he will also soon learn all about California's tough anti-SLAPP law, as he finds himself headed to Bank of America to take out a second mortgage on his home so he can pay the legal bills of those he has sued with the intent to suppress their speech.

Update:  Mr. Carreon, welcome to the Streisand effect.  Last Thursday, none of his first page Google results mentioned this incident.  Today, there are five.

Update #2:  Mr. Carreon claims his web site has been hacked.  Maybe.  But I will observe that for the web NOOB, "buying the cheapest Godaddy hosting account that is fine for my normal 12 visitors but crashes when I get 50,000 hits in an hour from Reddit" and "hacking" often look the same.

Update #3 and irony alert:  If you want to see something odd, check out the web site he and his wife run.  The site is full of very raw critiques that would easily land a desk full of lawsuits in the Carreon mailbox if the legal system routinely accepted the type of censorious lawsuits he himself is attempting to initiate.  If he takes the linked site down, the screenshot is here.  As an aside, I am constantly amazed at how liberals, including those who claim to be feminists, seem so obsessed with the sexuality of Conservative women and couch so much of their criticism in terms up to and including rape images (particularly oral sex).

Shareholder Lawsuits

The general utility of shareholder lawsuits has confused me for quite some time.  Way back in the blogging stone age of 2006 I wrote a guest post at Overlawyered that said in part:

But from a philosophical standpoint, shareholder suits have never made much sense to me. While I can understand the shareholders of the company suing a minority shareholder who might be enriching themselves disproportionately (e.g. Rigas family at Adelphia), suits by shareholders against the company they own seem… crazy.

Any successful verdict for shareholders against the company would effectively come out of the pockets of the company’s owners who are.. the shareholders. So in effect, shareholders are suing themselves, and, win or lose, they as a group end up with less than if the suit had never been started, since a good chunk of the payout goes to the lawyers. The only way these suits make financial sense (except to the lawyers, like Bill Lerach) is if only a small subset of the shareholders participate, and then these are just vehicles for transferring money from half the shareholders to the other half, or in other words from one wronged party that does not engage in litigation to another wronged party who is aggressively litigious. Is there really justice here?

OK, you could argue that many of these shareholders are not suing themselves, because they are past shareholders that dumped their stock at a loss. But given these facts, these suits are even less fair. If these suits are made by past shareholders who held stock (ie, were the owners) at the time certain wrongs were committed, they are in fact paid by current and future shareholders who may well have not even owned the company at the time of the abuses, and who may in fact be participating in cleaning the company up. So these litigants are in effect making the argument that because the company was run unethically when they owned it, they are going to sue the people who bought it from them and cleaned it up? Shouldn’t the payment be the other way around, with past owners paying current owners for the mess they left?

So I found this decision in a case at Sears refreshing:

A federal appeals court on Wednesday put the kibosh on a shareholder antitrust suit against the board members of Sears Holding Corp, finding that the suit only served to enrich the plaintiffs' lawyers.

The ruling from the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit marks the latest victory for Ted Frank, of the Center for Class Action Fairness, who argued that the suit was an abuse of the legal system and conferred no benefit on Sears shareholders at large. The 7th Circuit agreed.

"The only goal of this suit appears to be fees for the plaintiffs' lawyers," Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

Several law firms, including Vianale & Vianale, filed the proposed class action on behalf of two named investors in 2009. The derivative suit accused two Sears directors of holding positions on the boards of several competing companies, in violation of federal antitrust law.

Given the high cost of litigating an antitrust suit, Sears reached a settlement with the investor plaintiffs, agreeing to get rid of one of the directors and pay $925,000 to the investors' attorneys.

Frank, who specializes in challenging class action settlements, argued that the resolution was a raw deal for Sears shareholders, costing them legal fees and a director they had recently re-elected. The deal also would not prevent someone else from filing a copycat suit, given that one of the two targeted directors would remain on the Sears board. What's more, the problem of interlocking boards is usually resolved when the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission asks a company to fix the violation.

Frank, himself a Sears shareholder, asked to intervene in the case to block the settlement, but the Illinois district court refused, finding that the plaintiff investors adequately represented the interests of Frank and the other shareholders.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit panel reached the opposite conclusion, finding the interests to be "entirely incompatible." The panel sent the case back to the district court, with instructions to allow Frank to intervene and to rule in favor of the Sears defendants.

"The suit serves no goal other than to move money from the corporate treasury to the attorneys' coffers, while depriving Sears of directors whom its investors freely elected," Easterbrook wrote.

Charles Carreon Discovers the Streisand Effect in 3..2..1...

I hate excerpting Ken at Popehat in times like this, because I simply love reading all his prose and hope you will do so as well rather than settling for the excerpt only.  I love Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon not because it is his best story (it's not) but because it has some of his best prose.  Six pages on eating Cap'n Crunch and ten or so on getting a wisdom tooth extraction, and I was left begging for more.  Ken is my blogging equivalent.  I could read a whole book just with Ken calling out censorious lawyers for threatening bloggers to try to shut them up.

That said, he has been writing of late about a site called Funnyjunk sending a lawyer-cum- Tony-Soprano after the Oatmeal.  Today he really rips into said lawyer, named Charles Carreon:

See, a legal threat like the one Charles Carreon sent — "shut up, delete your criticism of my client, give me $20,000, or I'll file a federal lawsuit against you" — is unquestionably a form of bullying. It's a form that's endorsed by our broken legal system. Charles Carreon doesn't have to speak the subtext, any more than the local lout has to tell the corner bodega-owner that "protection money" means "pay of we'll trash your shop." The message is plain to anyone who is at all familiar with the system, whether by experience or by cultural messages. What Charles Carreon's letter conveyed was this: "It doesn't matter if you're in the right. It doesn't matter if I'm in the wrong. It doesn't matter that my client makes money off of traffic generated from its troglodytic users scraping content, and looks the other way with a smirk. It just doesn't matter. Right often doesn't prevail in our legal system. When it does, it is often ruinously expensive and unpleasant to secure. And on the way I will humiliate you, delve into private irrelevancies, harass your business associates and family, disrupt your sleep, stomp on your peace of mind, and consume huge precious swaths of your life. And, because the system is so bad at redressing frivolous lawsuits, I'll get away with it even if I lose — which I won't for years. Yield — stand and deliver — or suffer."

Our system privileges Charles Carreon to issue that threat, rather than jailing or flogging him for it. And so Carreon supports bullying like that. He's got a license to do it. He knows that his licensed threats — coming, as they do, on the [slightly odd] letterhead of a lawyer — inspire far more fear and stress than the complaints of a mere citizen, and by God he plays it to the hilt.

By contrast, Charles Carreon doesn't like shows of force that you or I can muster. "I'm completely unfamiliar really with this style of responding to a legal threat," he sniffs. There's a whiff of Paul Christoforo of Ocean Marketing in there — the sentiment "how was I to know that I was picking on someone stronger than I am? Is that fair?" But what he means is "if the people I threaten don't have to dig into their pockets to go hire a lawyer, and spend unpleasant hours with that lawyer, and lay awake at night worrying, and rely on a lawyer who is part of my privileged culture, but can stand up for themselves . . . how can I intimidate them so easily?" Perhaps some rude Oatmeal followers did actually send true threats or abuse to Charles Carreon's office — which I condemn. That's morally wrong and not helpful to the cause of free speech; it's harmful. But I fail to see why Charles Carreon sending that threat letter is more legitimate, admirable, or proper than ten thousand Oatmeal fans sending back the message that Charles Carreon is a petulant, amoral, censorious douchebag. It doesn't take lawyers, it doesn't take law school, it doesn't take any special privilege conferred by the state — it only takes a robust right of free expression — sending it back by blogging it, tweeting it, posting it on Facebook, and posting it in comments on forums. Charles Carreon has power derived from an inadequate legal system and letters of marque from the State Bar; The Oatmeal has the power of goodwill and community respect earned by talent. There's no reason to exalt Carreon's power and condemn The Oatmeal's.

Read it all.  The Oatmeal's response is also classic.