Archive for the ‘ad damnum clause’ Category

False and Misleading Headlines (Youth Baseball Edition) – Updated

An unhappy Brett Lawrie of the Toronto Blue Jays throws his helmet in 2013.

An unhappy Brett Lawrie of the Toronto Blue Jays throws his helmet in 2013.

Headlines make a difference, as headlines can skew the viewpoint of the reader before the facts are even read in the article. That is, if the article is even read. Many folks, of course, just skim.

And so it is with KCRA in Sacramento, CA.

The headline reads:

14-year-old Little Leaguer sued by coach for celebrating win

The problem? That isn’t really why anyone was sued. An actual reading of the article reveals that the defendant, a 14-year-old, threw off his helmet as he raced home with a winning run. But the helmet hit the coach and caused a torn Achilles tendon.

The kid, in other words, wasn’t sued because for celebrating, but for causing an injury to his coach.

As per the article’s actual text:

In legal papers filed in court, the teen’s former coach, Alan Beck, contends the boy “carelessly threw a helmet, striking Plaintiff’s Achilles tendon and tearing it.”

Whether the underlying facts support the suit or not, I have no way of knowing. All we have now is a legal pleading and a short news story.

Will it be tossed out on assumption of risk grounds? Perhaps. Throwing helmets isn’t exactly part of the game, but as you can see from the graphic above of Brett Lawrie throwing his helmet in 2013, it does happen on occasion.

But one thing is clear. The headline writer didn’t accurately tell you what the story was about.

Does this matter? You bet. Because headlines like this help to shape public opinion, and that public opinion affects how potential jurors will feel about cases before a trial even starts.

(hat tip, Conrad Saam)

Update (1/16/14):  CNN now has the story, with interviews with the parents of the kid being sued, bemoaning the suit, and the coach who brought the suit discussing his Achilles injury from a 6-foot tall, 180 pound kid, and the lack of apology. CNN harps on the amount sued for: $500,000. And that makes this a good time to remember that ad damnum clauses such as this are a very bad idea. They have, thankfully, been outlawed in New York.

The coach that sued says “it’s not about the money,” but the fact that there is a number in the complaint for the media to focus on takes that issue out of his hands.

While I don’t know if this suit will survive due to assumption of risk issues — and if California law is the same as New York law I think it will get tossed — it’s clear that the CNN focus is on money instead of safety. I wrote about that recently when Red Bull was sued for $85M — where I noted that it was a very poor move to put a number in the complaint, not only because it isn’t allowed but because it shifted the focus away from product safety.

 

Death by Red Bull, An $85M Lawsuit, And The Money Shot

RedBullLogoThe story comes over the transom like so many others do — with a big fat headline screaming about a lawsuit with a multi-million dollar claim. This one claims that the energy drink Red Bull caused death. And the gist of the claim seems to be — based on this newspaper article as well as the Complaint that I obtained from plaintiff’s counsel – a failure to warn that Red Bull is actually more dangerous than what Red Bull lets on.

The result is that 33-year-old Cory Terry – who was a regular consumer of the product — is dead after downing one of the drinks during a basketball game.

The Complaint itself cites a litany of medical problems allegedly caused by Red Bull that spans many years and many countries, and cites to a number of studies of over-caffinated drinks that have appeared in the medical literature. It then goes on to state causes of action based on strict liability for a failure to design the product properly, a failure to warn of the dangers, breach of warranty and fraud.

For the purposes of my posting, let’s assume that it’s accurate that Red Bull failed to properly warn about the drink’s contents and committed fraud. If true, it could be an interesting lawsuit. Whether it caused this particular death is another issue.

I’ll assume it’s all true because I have an altogether different bone to pick with Ilya Novofastovsky — he being the lawyer that brought this suit.

And that bone is with the claim for $85M for this unmarried construction worker who left behind a 13-year-old son.  Now it’s not $85M in compensatory damages as the NY Daily News story would have you believe. It is $5M each for seven different causes of action plus $50M in punitive damages.

But here’s the problem: In New York, you aren’t allowed to put an ad damnum clause in a lawsuit. That’s the fancy pants Latin phrase for the monetary demand. New York outlawed this practice — a practice I’ve always despised — for medical malpractice cases in the 80s and for all personal injury cases in 2003. Ten. Years. Ago.

At that time Walter Olson, the founder and editor of Overlawyered, celebrated the demise of the ad damnum clause, as did his oft-times foils the lawyers themselves. As Olson noted back then:

New York thus becomes the latest state to adopt a measure that is relatively rare among litigation reforms in eliciting widespread support from among both defense interests (example: American Medical Association model legislation, PDF) and the plaintiffs’ bar…The state bar association urged Pataki to sign the bill, saying it “will reduce pretrial publicity about how much money is sought from particular defendants, and deals with the common misunderstanding by the general public that the amount sued for is the amount actually obtained by plaintiffs.”

And yet, some lawyers still put that clause in. Why? There are only two possible reasons, as I explained last year when a lawyer sued for $30M over a dog bite: Either the lawyer is ignorant of the law or the lawyer is deliberately violating it in the hunt for headlines. It’s your call as to which is worse, ignorance or a potential ethics issue.

And so Ilya Novofastovsky becomes the latest lawyer to embarrass the rest of us, as we face down potential jurors who appear in the courthouse. It’s headlines like this that poison the well of potential jurors. He may not have caused embarrasement deliberately, but that’s the effect.

Every time I pick a jury I am forced to deal with unusual claims that appear in press headlines, distracting me from the job I was hired to do. The biases are there, planted firmly in their brains by lawyers that make monster claims that bury the reason they actually took on the suit. The fact that these claims are outliers is of no significance, because these are the ones that jurors see in the paper. These are the cases, and the lawyers, that help to poison public opinion.

And lest you think I am overstating the case,  you are free to read the acerbic comments that accompanied that Daily News article. This is a sampling, and think for a moment how the comments would be different if the story headline dealt not with money, but with the product being mislabeled and focusing on the fraud, which is the actual crux of the complaint:

Wow. This has “looking for an easy buck” written all over it.

Ka-ching!

He chose to drink it. Now shut the hell up about suing the company for 85 million. You just want some easy money.

The family is simply looking for some cash.

Welcome to America. There are no consequences for filing frevious law suit. $85million? That’s what he would have made in his lifetime of robbing and stealing perhaps.

Opportunists looking for a quick payout.

And so the headlines — those things that affect jurors — aren’t about fraud and product problems. They are about the money; the money is always in the headline.

A quick story on the subject: A bunch of years ago a TV reporter was doing a story on New York’s broken sidewalks and wanted to interview me regarding one of my cases, that being an elderly woman who’d tripped and busted her arm. It was a plain vanilla case, so to speak, but a good example of what happens when you don’t fix busted sidewalks. They are dangerous, and that’s what the story should be about (and what the reporter told me it would be about).

With the camera rolling, the reporter then asked how much we were suing for. This was the money shot, so to speak. Being prepared for that inevitable question I responded in three to four very unquotable sentences about how difficult it was to predict the future, and the potential surgeries, but that I didn’t think the case would exceed x.

That’s great, she said, now can you give me the answer again, but shorter, with just the money? And with the camera rolling again I slowly gave her the same three to four unquotable sentences.

I wasn’t giving her the money shot. While money may be what we are forced to sue for, since I can’t get my client’s health back, this was a story about safety.

Lesson: Don’t give the press the money shot. If you do, the story is no longer about safety, injury prevention and personal responsibility for those that are negligent (or worse). Now it’s all about the money.

Eventually, a lawyer will need to turn to the money when in front of a jury. But then it can be presented on its own terms, unfiltered by the distortions of the press.

Update (11/1/13): Max Kennerly discusses the substance of the case.

The $30M Dog Bite (and Rosemarie Arnold)

Rosemarie ArnoldI was pissed when I saw the article in the paper: A doctor walked her dog in a school playground where it wasn’t supposed to be and attacked a child, biting off part of his earlobe. The kid (through his parents) sued the doc. For $30,000,000.

Yeah, I was mad. But not at the doctor and not at the dog. I was mad at the lawyer, Rosemarie Arnold, who belches on one of her websites that she is the “Queen of Torts.”

Really? The Queen? Well, let’s see about that, shall we?

Wouldn’t the “Queen of Torts” have the fundamental knowledge that, when starting a personal injury lawsuit in New York, you are not allowed to put in an ad damnum clause? That’s the part where you state an actual amount of money. The Legislature killed that idiotic provision back in 2003. As Walter Olson noted at the time on Overlawyered, the measure enjoyed “widespread support from among both defense interests … and the plaintiffs’ bar, which is perennially embarrassed by news items…”

That law was amended because it is, most often, impossible to know the extent of an actual injury soon after it occurs, because the injury has not stabilized and it is too difficult to predict the future at that early point in time. Will the person need one surgery or five? Will the pain resolve itself in six months or not?

As a result of this problem, some lawyers would put crazy numbers in the complaint “just in case,” so that they would not be precluded later if the client’s health went downhill. At the same time, it was grossly unfair to the defendant, as newspapers loved to put this stupidity in headlines. This was particularly true in medical malpractice cases.

So the old law was, thankfully, changed by the Legislature.

Which brings us back to Rosemarie Arnold and her claim on behalf of the child that he suffered a $30M injury to his ear. There are only two reasons for Ms. Arnold to do this:

1.  The Queen of Torts is actually ignorant of the law; or

2.  Rosmarie Arnold willfully elected to ignore the law, in the hunt for headlines, thereby raising ethical issues about her willfully ignoring the law.

Neither of these scenarios is good for her, as one goes to the issue of ignorance and the other to the issue of ethics. Pick your poison.

Back in 2007, during my virgin year as a blogger, I first wrote about this issue. It’s time to expand on it, thanks to Rosmarie Arnold.

When I go in to pick juries, I am constantly faced with the deep cynicism that is fed by insurance companies and newspapers that thrive on outlier suits for spurious claims or that claim enormous damages. To the jurors, fed by such media attention, every lawsuit represents greed and lottery-like jackpots, while to the litigants, the suit is simply at attempt to  measure what is fair and reasonable under the circumstances and receive just compensation.

Rosemarie Arnold, in bleating a $30M claim to the press, just made my job more difficult, as well as the jobs of all the other personal injury attorneys in the state. And she  has added one more straw to the camel’s back in damaging the rights of litigants trying to pursue justice in the courts.

Perhaps the publicity she got from the suit was good for Ms. Arnold, but it was detrimental to the cause of civil justice. As is often the case, the bad conduct of a few people in a group taints the rest in the eyes of the public. There isn’t any group that wants to see its own misbehaving and damaging the reputation of the rest.

And on the cause of civil justice, since I’m on the topic, it’s worth noting that the self-proclaimed Queen of Torts isn’t even a member of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, the premier bar association in the state that fights in Albany to protect the civil justice system from those who seek to damage it. Some Queen.

Frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing this taken up by a judge or ethics committee.

I emailed Ms. Arnold using the form on her website two days ago, seeking comment, and no one got back to me.

A Dead Child In Central Park (6 Legal Issues)

It is rare for me to discuss a local accident. But I do so today regarding the tree limb that fell over the weekend killing a 6 month old girl in Central Park that also critically injured her mother. She was holding the baby and posing for a picture being taken by the father on a clear summer’s day. It is, essentially, a trauma that could have happened to anyone.

And I write because WABC-TV called me to discuss the liability issues on the air, and it raised a number of concepts that local television isn’t really equipped to handle in soundbite format. And the last two of those issues are things that the Legislature should address:

First — A Duty to Inspect: The tree was inside the Central Park Zoo, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society that also runs the Bronx Zoo. But the limb was overhanging an area just outside the zoo where it came down. Who’s responsible? The answer is that the owner of the tree has a duty to inspect and maintain that tree. And the landowner over which that limb hangs, and under which its patrons walk, also has that duty. And given that this is not an obscure part of the woods but one of the most heavily trafficked spots in Central Park, that duty is rather substantial.

Second — Contractual Obligations: Based on news reports, the Central Park Conservancy has a contract with the Parks Department to do inspections. This would be a contractual obligation that could likewise make them a defendant if a suit were brought.

Third — Notice of a Troubled Tree Limb: The issue of notice is critical, meaning that the zoo/park would be responsible only if they knew, or should have known, that there was a problem with the tree limb. This is similar in concept to the banana peel on the supermarket floor. Just because someone slips on it doesn’t make the store responsible. The store needs to have known it was there (an employee saw it or customer told them) or it was so blackened and old that it is clear the store should have known about it with reasonable care. Those same concepts apply to the tree limb, and much will be made in the investigations about the adequacy and reasonableness of the inspections that took place (if they took place).

Fourth — The Rush To Find a Lawyer: This veers off now away from responsibility to the sad fall-out of tort “reform.” If a municipality is going to be sued, then local laws require people to file a Notice of Claim within 90 days of an incident so that the municipality can investigate. That means that while the husband/father is grieving and trying to help his stricken wife, he has to go looking for lawyers and meeting them. That is terribly unfortunate, but the sad result of attempts by our Legislature to limit actions by forcing excessively tight limitations periods on those that have been injured.

Fifth —  The Demand for Damages: Not only must the father find a lawyer fast (and without a clear head he runs the risk of making a mistake in who he hires) but that lawyer must then make a demand for damages in that Notice of Claim. In other words, without even knowing what the future holds for his wife, there must be some number stuck in the Notice. This is a practice that has been mostly legislated out of existence, except for this one place in the Notice of Claim. But that number will bear no relation to reality. Since the extent of the injuries won’t be known at such an early stage, the lawyer must cover all contingencies and assume a worst case scenario. But this unrealistic number will then be broadcast in headlines far and wide by the media as if it actually has meaning. The Legislature should get rid of this provision, as it serves no useful purpose whatsoever other than for headline writers.

Sixth – Valuing the Life of a Child: In New York, unlike the vast majority of other states, a parent cannot sue for grief over the lost child. An action can only be brought for the pain and suffering of the child, or a wrongful death action for the financial loss. So if a child was knocked out at the time of a car accident, for example, and doesn’t physically suffer and  dies afterward, the law deems the child’s life to have little value since there was little financial loss to be expected. The family is thus unable to hold accountable those that did the true damage.  While some may feel odd about financial recoveries under such circumstances, it is really up to the people who suffered the loss to decide if they wish to donate money to charities, fund education, or embark on any other type of expense that they believe appropriate. The Legislature should bring our archaic wrongful death law into the modern era, and rid us of  this insult to grieving families.

New York Cleans Up Claims Act

One of my pet peeves is the demand for damages that often gets placed in personal injury suits. Sometimes those claims for a bazillion dollars end up in the paper. Which is to say, they make the attorney (and the bar as a whole) look stupid and greedy. The folks at Overlawyered and other tort “reform” sites love that kind of stuff.

Except that the ad damnum clause — as it is still known to latin-loving lawyers who want to look smart in front of others — is usually all-but-meaningless. The claims are often put in because the lawyer has no choice, since putting a number in may be statutorily required (though putting a stupid number in is not). The basic problem in determining what the demand will be is that, quite often, it is unknown how extensive the injuries will be when the complaint is drafted. So an attorney, scared of putting in a number too low and being bound by it if the injuries turn out worse than currently known, puts in a whopper of a number to be safe. Making a $100,000 demand on a case that turns out to be worth $300,000 could lead to big problems depending on where you are.

Back in the 80s, New York did away with this foolishness in medical malpractice cases, because the doctors’ lobby thought the big numbers in the complaints were outrageous. Big numbers made big headlines. When the case settled for less, or was resolved on some “normal” terms, it certainly wasn’t newsworthy. The medical community was right to want this demand removed from the filings.

Then New York expanded the rule to all personal injury cases in 2003. Thankfully, we were no longer required to create some number to put in the papers.

But there was one catch. If you sued the State of New York in the Court of Claims, you were required to make that damages demand. And a case was dismissed this year for failing to do so. New York clearly needed to get its act together on this.

As of last week, that problem no longer exists as it has been legislated out of existence.

Other states that still require such a speculative demand at the outset of a suit should likewise send this rule to the trash heap. It is unfair to a plaintiff that is forced to create it and likewise unfair to a defendant that must endure it.