Lawsuit Abuse Fortnightly #2-1

Published January 1, 2003


Victory #1: Car Not Guilty of Fireworks Explosion

The search for deep pockets in litigation is never-ending. On a recent Fourth of July, six young people rented a car from Enterprise Rent-A-Car and drove through a neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa, shooting bottle rockets at pedestrians. One of the bottle rockets exploded prematurely, setting off Roman candles and other fireworks inside the car. Two of the passengers were severely burned and a third died. Since the young man who was actually firing the rockets ended up in jail on an unrelated matter and was effectively judgment-proof, the injured passengers sued Enterprise instead on the legal theory that the owner of a car is responsible for any damages it causes. The jury would have none of it, however, and in October completely exonerated the rent-a-car company. From The National Law Journal

Victory #2: Mississippi Legislation Signed into Law

In December, Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed into law a bill that caps at $20 million punitive damages in product liability cases. Previously, in October, he signed a bill limiting jury awards against doctors. Mississippi often appears in this newsletter – in fact, it appears again in this issue – due to its well-deserved reputation as a “judicial hell-hole” for defendants of all kinds. In recent years, seven juries in Mississippi found companies liable for more than $100 million in punitive damages. From The Times-Picayune

Victory #3: Fen-Phen Lawyers Caught with Their Echocardiograms Down

We’ve reported in past issues how lawyers representing the $3.75 billion fen-phen settlement trust had gone to court to stop certain plaintiffs’ law firms from fleecing the trust with bogus heart-valve damage claims. Recently, the judge overseeing the trust agreed and, in a strongly worded opinion, questioned the ethics of two New York firms and their doctors who had set up an assembly line operation for reviewing claimants’ echocardiograms “that would have been the envy of Henry Ford.” The judge had an outside medical expert review 78 claims from the two firms. Every single one was “medically unreasonable,” i.e. bogus, and was thrown out. The judge also referred the action of the two law firms to New York disciplinary authorities “for further review and consideration” and ordered trust officials to audit 100 percent of claims certified by the two doctors. From The Legal Intelligencer

Victory #4: Mold Litigation Dries Out

A Texas appeals court has thrown out the majority of a $32 million jury award against Farmers Insurance for its alleged failure to deal fairly with a couple whose 22-room house had been damaged by mold. The court left intact $4 million in actual damages, but threw out $17 million for mental anguish and punitive damages. It also ordered $8.9 million in lawyers’ fees to be recalculated and probably reduced. The home owners said they would appeal. From The New York Times

Victory #5: Lawyer Fees Reduced for Tobacco Litigation

Like Attorneys General in many other states, Illinois’ AG Jim Ryan signed a poorly thought out agreement with private law firms to sue tobacco companies on the state’s behalf. When the tobacco companies settled, Illinois was left looking at a $910 million bill – 10 percent of the state’s share of the Master Settlement Agreement – for hardly any legal work. On December 17, the Cook County Circuit Court approved a settlement between the lawyers and the State of Illinois reducing the fee to the still-princely sum of $121 million. From The Chicago Sun-Times


If They Built Tanks, Would People Buy Them?

When the door latch on a Chrysler pickup truck failed in an accident, the driver, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the truck and killed. The door latch met all federal safety standards and the driver would most likely have survived the collision had he been wearing his seat belt. Nevertheless, a jury found Chrysler liable for more than $200,000 in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages. The jury concluded Chrysler could have installed better latches if it wanted to, but chose not to in order to save money, a line of reasoning with infinite (and bad) applications. The award was upheld on appeal. From The National Law Journal

Beauty Is Fleeting and Footing Can Be Precarious, But Lawsuits are Inevitable

A 36-year-old man who wanted to be photographed with a contestant at the American Coed Beauty Pageant took one too many steps backwards and fell off the stage, injuring his back. He sued the pageant organizers and was awarded $3 million for his injuries. However, because the jury found the pageant only 25 percent liable, his net award was “only” $750,000. From The National Law Journal

Mississippi Jurors Go from Ridiculous to Outrageous

Two former jurors in Mississippi have sued the television news program 60 Minutes for $6 billion – $597 million in actual damages and $5.9 billion in punitive damages – claiming the program defamed them. The two had served on separate panels that awarded $150 million verdicts involving asbestos and a diet drug.

During the 60 Minutes program, a man who won a non-jury settlement in a lawsuit over the obesity drug Redux said Mississippi juries awarded such huge amounts because they believed they were going to be given a cut of the action. The man didn’t get in trouble for his comment, which he said was only a joke. The insulted jurors also sued the owner of a local paper who said on the show that jurors were just trying to stick it to Yankee companies. From AP

Finding a Gun in a Deep Pocket

A West Palm Beach jury recently heard a lawsuit arising from a tragedy in which a teacher was shot and killed by a 13-year-old student who brought a gun to school. The jury awarded $24 million to the widow of the teacher, placing 45 percent of the blame on the school board for allowing the student to come on campus with the gun, 50 percent on the man he stole the gun from, and 5 percent on the weapons distributor who sold the gun to the man from whom the gun was stolen. Since the school and the victim of the theft were not defendants in the case, only the gun seller was found liable and ordered to pay $1.2 million. The teacher’s wife is appealing, saying the distributor should be forced to pay the whole $24 million. The actual manufacturer of the gun is no longer in business. From AP

Published 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

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