There’s Always News Coming Out of D.C.

A few Washington-related items that came across my radar screen in recent reading:

  • Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman says he never considered running for president while in his service as U.S. ambassador to China. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that. But Huntsman notes that he never intended to stay in the previous role for more than two years — and admits that he failed to tell that to President Obama. Oops!
  • While many are criticizing the federal health care reform effort for what it tries to do, a former administration official is blasting it for its failure to address a related subject. Former OMB Director Peter Orszag says that as long as doctors follow evidence-based protocols, they should be exempted from medical malpractice suits. "His quote: "Unfortunately, in the health act, this was one of the largest missed opportunities." Anything to help curb the lawsuit mania that grips our country would be a good thing. Can we start over on that reform thing?
  • News flash! The U.S. Postal Service is a broken system — and Congress wants to fix it. Ending Saturday delivery and closing more branches are part of the plan, as well as renegotiating collective bargaining agreements. I don’t know the answer, but something must be done sooner rather than later to fix an uncompetitive, costly government-run program.

Woman Files Lawsuit, Claims McDonald’s Makes Parenting Hard

I don’t know what I can add to this. The Foundry reports:

Monet Parham, an employee of the California Department of Public Health, has lent her name—and that of her daughter Maya, age 6—to a preposterous class-action lawsuit alleging that McDonald’s is “unfair” to parents. The lure of a Happy Meal toy, Parham claims, so provokes Maya’s “pester power” that familial conflict ensues.

We’re not making this up.

The real tragedy here is that Parham is free to file a wholly frivolous lawsuit, while there’s no recourse for McDonald’s to recoup its legal costs. Nor can Maya hold her mother responsible for thrusting her into the national spotlight as a “pest” when, in reality, there’s nothing the least bit untoward about the little girl’s attraction to toys.

Perpetrating this scam is the (so-called) Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), whose bread and butter is filing baseless lawsuits against major food manufacturers and restaurants, including Denny’s, Burger King, Coca Cola, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. All of which generates loads of front-page headlines and major bucks from liberal foundations. But were it not for the capitulation of some gutless corporations, the CSPI would likely have been rendered powerless a long time ago.

To their credit, McDonald’s executives have pledged to “vigorously defend” the Happy Meal against the CSPI suit, the particulars of which ought to make every responsible parent wince. To wit:

  • “Maya has requested Happy Meals from Parham because of McDonald’s marketing practices, and sometimes Parham, not wishing to cause family rancor, purchases such meals.”
  • “Because of McDonald’s marketing, Maya has frequently pestered Parham into purchasing Happy Meals, thereby spending money on a product she would not have otherwise purchased.”
  • “Maya, age six, continually clamors to be taken to McDonald’s ‘for the toys.’ Maya learns of Happy Meal toys from other children in her playgroup, despite Parham’s efforts to restrict Maya’s exposure to McDonald’s advertising and access to Happy Meal toys.”

It’s rather perverse for Parham to claim that McDonald’s is “interfering” in her family while, at the same time, she’s inviting judicial intervention into parenting decisions. As an employee with the nutrition section of California’s health department, Parham can already nag her fellow citizens about their eating habits. But asking the court to strip parents of their authority to decide what to feed their children constitutes Nannyism of a different scale.

More Frivolous Lawsuits

Courts play a critical role in society. A justice system, however, that permits extremely frivolous (and extremely costly) lawsuits demonstrates there is a great deal of room for improvement. Everyone pays the prices for lawsuit abuses. The Heartland Institute looks at a few:

An 18-year-old high school student in shop class attached an electrical cord to one of his nipples with an alligator clamp, while a classmate used another alligator clamp to attach the cord to the student’s other nipple. A third student plugged the cord into an electrical wall socket.

The resulting three-second shock knocked the student to the ground and briefly stopped his heart. The boy survived but allegedly suffered short-term memory loss and brain damage.

Naturally, he’s suing the school and the teacher for failing to warn him it could be dangerous to play with electrical cords.

Laws Don’t Alleviate Doctor Fears

Fact: Doctors are worried about malpractice lawsuits.

Analysis: Such worries can increase actions that drive up health care costs. And a new study says that caps on economic damages are often not enough by themselves to take care of the problem. Health System Change reports:

Even in states with economic damage caps in malpractice suits, physicians remain highly concerned about being sued, suggesting that many popular tort reform proposals may do little to deter the practice of defensive medicine that contributes to unnecessary health spending, according to a study by researchers at the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) in the September Health Affairs.

“Our results suggest that many popular tort reforms are only modestly associated with the level of physicians’ malpractice concern and their practice of defensive medicine. The results raise the possibility that physicians’ level of concern reflects a common tendency to overestimate the likelihood of ‘dread risks’—rare but devastating outcomes—not an accurate assessment of actual risk,” according to the article.

“Whether justified or not, physicians’ liability fears are a policy problem because defensive medicine raises health care costs and potentially subjects patients to unnecessary care,” said Emily R. Carrier, M.D., senior HSC researcher and coauthor of the study with James D. Reschovsky, Ph.D., senior HSC researcher; Michelle M. Mello, Ph.D., J.D., a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health; Ralph C. Mayrell, a former HSC health research assistant; and David Katz, M.D., an associate professor at the University of Iowa.

The authors point to recently funded demonstration projects to test new approaches to liability reform, including alternatives to litigation that emphasize early disclosure and settlement of claims through less adversarial processes, as a way to address physicians’ liability concerns more effectively.

The Health Affairs article, titled “Physicians’ Fears of Malpractice Lawsuits Are Not Assuaged By Tort Reform,” is based on findings from HSC’s 2008 Health Tracking Physician Survey, which is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which also funded the study. The survey includes responses from 4,720 physicians who provide at least 20 hours per week of direct patient care and had a 62 percent response rate.

The survey asked physicians to indicate how strongly they agreed with the following statements based on a five-point scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree:” (1) I am concerned that I will be involved in a malpractice case sometime in the next ten years. (2) I feel pressured in my day-to-day practice by the threat of malpractice litigation. (3) I order some tests or consultations simply to avoid the appearance of malpractice. (4) Sometimes I ask for consultant opinions primarily to reduce my risk of getting sued. (5) Relying on clinical judgment rather than on technology to make a diagnosis is becoming risky because of the threat of malpractice suits.

Between 60 percent and 78 percent of all physicians agreed or strongly agreed with each of the five statements related to malpractice concerns. Physicians agreed most strongly with the statement that it is becoming increasingly risky to rely on clinical judgment rather than diagnostic testing, with 78 percent either agreeing or strongly agreeing.

Heartland Institute Reviews Odd Lawsuits Around the Country

The Heartland Institute released another installment of its Lawsuit Abuse Fortnightly newsletter recently, which is normally good for a chuckle and a solid read. Here’s an excerpt of one lawsuit that you may have seen in the news, as well:

A Queens woman is suing Citibank, claiming the bank fired her because she looked too sexy at work.

The woman was a business banking officer at a Citibank branch in Manhattan. The branch manager and his assistant told her “she must refrain from wearing certain items of clothing, in particular, turtleneck tops, pencil skirts, [or] fitted business suits,” the suit alleges. She told them other women workers wore such clothing, the suit says. “In blatantly discriminatory fashion, plaintiff was advised that as a result of the shape of her figure, such clothes were purportedly ‘too distracting’ for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear.”

She also alleges she was told “as a result of her tall stature, coupled with her curvaceous figure, she should not wear classic high-heeled business shoes, as this purportedly drew attention to her body in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers.”

The claim was originally filed in court but dismissed because she had previously agreed any employment disputes would be settled in private arbitration, where her case is now pending. 

While I’ve certainly never been accused of being too attractive for work, I was once falsely accused of being "too cool for school" by an acquaintance. And maintaining my innocence did prove to be a very trying and litigious process, so I can see why this is such a noteworthy hearing.

Green & Gold Paint Thicker Than Water

The Heartland Institute’s "Lawsuit Abuse Fortnightly" newsletter was recently released. You should read the whole thing, but we’ll feature this gem about some serious Green Bay Packers fans. Also, lawsuit aside, kudos to the Packers for a lifetime of some serious branding success. A waiting list of nearly 75,000? Is this Lambeau Field or Heaven?

Forget the issue of who gets the family jewels when dear old Dad kicks the bucket. In Wisconsin, the more important question is who gets the Green Bay Packers tickets.

Two brothers are currently embroiled in a court battle over 13 midfield Packers season tickets. Their father left the tickets to one brother but stipulated the brothers were to share any proceeds from scalping them, allegedly worth about $250 to $300 per game per ticket. The brother without possession of the football tickets claims in court the tickets really belong to both of them.

The Packers are among some NFL franchise teams designating season tickets as family property. The tickets rarely go on the market, and there is a multi-millennium-long waiting list. “For instance, if you put your name on the waiting list today, you would be number 74,659,” Sports Illustrated noted a few years ago. “An average of 70 people give up their tickets every year, which means you’ll have your tickets by the 3074 season. Luckily you’ll still catch Brett Favre’s last year.”

Turning 14 Days Into Fortnightly, Lawsuit Style

The only previous time I recall hearing the term "fortnight" is when the Wimbledon tennis championship rolls around each summer. The Brits (and the Americans who report on the event) love the word instead of just saying 14 days. Who can blame them? It’s a chance to be different — except when everyone is doing the same thing.

I had the pleasure of attending matches at Centre Court at Wimbldeon a few years ago. My family was able to soak in many of the British traditions, as well as witness a streaker who was trying his best to impress Maria Sharapova. It seemed to take a fortnight to get him off the court and out of the stadium.

But I digress. The topic was fortnight and how it was rarely seen until the Heartland Institute’s development of the Lawsuit Abuse Fortnightly. When I first became aware of this online reality look at just what’s wrong with our court system and why it costs us so much money, the updates were coming infrequently (at least not on a fortnightly basis). The British must have complained, because the 2009 updates have been appearing like fortnightly clockwork.

While I’m happy to see the time schedule aligned, it’s sad that the editors can so easily come up with enough cases of abuse to share on a biweekly basis — or every 14 days —  or fortnightly.

My favorite from the current edition is below. Read all the latest bizarre news.

A 78-year-old Wisconsin woman is suing the Monroe, Wisconsin senior citizens center after she was barred from it for violating the center’s code of conduct.

She alleges the center violated her right to free speech and its code of conduct is unconstitutional after the center wrote her saying she failed to treat others with respect, used abusive language, and physically threatened others. The center said they’d let her back in if she completed an anger management course.

“She, in my view, is entitled to [compensation], but her main goal is to be able to enjoy the senior center,” said her attorney.

Loony Lawsuits Unfortunately Keep Coming Back

A recent fact I read: there are more than 169,000 law offices in the United States. And, just like any profession, most of the lawyers operating out of those offices are doing the right thing. Put all the jokes aside — for now. Lawyers play a critical role in many aspects of everyday business and life.

But there are, just like any profession, some wishing to take shortcuts to get the job done or utilize their knowledge for their own personal gain. And when the legal system allows that abuse to occur, watch out.

That’s why there has to be an Institute for Legal Reform and an occasional publication from the Heartland Institute titled Lawsuit Abuse Fortnightly. You hear about one of these "cases too bad to be true" and you might not give it a second thought. Check out these resources and you get a litany of those "bad" examples, enough to make you a little queasy.

The latest Heartland offering has its usual array of bizarre court cases — each carrying a price tag in time and resources no matter the outcome. This issue includes a contribution from the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and their "top five looniest lawsuits" of 2008.

Check it out, shake your head and feel free to let your representatives in Washington know that change is long overdue.

Ohio Still Entangled in Lawsuits from Election — the 2004 Election

The Cincinnati Enquirer published an article last week claiming Ohio taxpayers are still "on the hook" for legal fees stemming from lawsuits against the state in the 2004 election. Yikes. It states there were 23 lawsuits against the former Secretary of State, with over $1 million still needed to settle seven of the suits.

All but one of the settled cases involved election law. That one, settled for $73,139, involved a business-records suit in which a Brown County truck driver sued because his Social Security number was posted on a state Web site.

Last week, the Ohio Controlling Board OK’d payment of the latest judgment, awarding five TV networks and the Associated Press $325,521 in attorneys’ fees and expenses from a 2004 case. The lawsuit challenged (former Sec. of State Ken) Blackwell’s order to block ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox News and the AP from conducting exit polling within 100 feet of the polls on Election Day 2004.

Brunner, a Democrat, fired some of the outside counsel hired to defend those cases shortly after she took office in 2007. But 13 of the cases remain active in state and federal courts, including a lawsuit that challenged Bush’s narrow re-election.

Pretty brutal considering times are tough and taxpayers need all the breaks they can get. No word yet if anyone plans to sue the Bengals for having to endure their games this season.

Hat tip to our very own Glenn Harkness for the info.

Definitely Wapner: Could a “Loser Pays” Civil Justice System Be What America Needs?

A new report from the Manhattan Institute asks a very intriguing question: If the losers in civil court cases had to pay the winners’ legal fees, would it cut down on the abundance of frivolous lawsuits in the United States? Naturally, they believe the answer is "yes":

In addition to being overly expensive, American litigation is all too often inefficient and unfair. The fees and expenses incurred by lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit are almost as costly as transfer payments to plaintiffs claiming injury. Mass tort litigation, for example, over asbestos, has been exposed as rife with fraud. Small businesses are regularly besieged with nuisance suits that they must settle if they hope to avoid crippling legal costs. Last year’s $54 million lawsuit against a small Washington-area dry cleaner alleging that it had lost a pair of pants was remarkable not only for the astronomical damages claimed but also the almost $100,000 in legal fees incurred in successfully defending against it. In American law, even when a defendant wins a lawsuit, he loses.

This study explores the likely effects of adopting a "loser pays" rule for attorneys’ fees in the United States. Loser pays, sometimes called the "English rule" but actually, in essence, the rule in place in the rest of the world, refers to the policy of reimbursement by the parties who lose in litigation of the winners’ legal expenses, including attorneys’ fees. This study argues that loser pays could be an important part of a larger effort to reduce litigation costs, better compensate prevailing litigants, and better align tort law with its goal of deterring socially harmful conduct. A loser-pays rule would discourage meritless lawsuits, but because any such rule should also ensure plaintiffs of modest means but strong legal cases access to justice, our proposal calls for:

  1. A robust litigation insurance industry similar to those that now exist in other loser-pays countries; and

  2. A cap on recoverable fees to eliminate the incentive that large litigants might have to attempt to "buy a verdict" under loser pays.

So what do you think? Is this true justice, or could it be unfairly manipulated somehow?