McDonald’s Coffee Case, 20 years Later — And Why It Is Still Important

Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s, a/k/a The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case, continues to be in the news despite the fact it was tried 20 years ago in New Mexico. 20. Years. Ago.

It was in the news two years ago with the documentary Hot Coffee.

And it pops up this week via postings at Abnormal Use and Overlawyered, among other places, claiming there are myths that need debunking, as if 20 years of analysis wasn’t enough.  Even I’m bored with the subject, and this type of case fits in my wheelhouse, and is especially important to anyone that tries cases in front of juries.

Was this a frivolous suit because hot coffee is supposed to be hot? Or was it a perfectly reasonable case of an excessively dangerous product (scalding coffee) with an inadequate warning as the jury found? Should the case be better known, and summarized, as Hot v. Scalding?

You know what? My opinion doesn’t really matter. And yet I talk about it every time I pick a jury. Every. Single. Time.

Why? Because people form opinions based on headlines they see in the papers, be they digital or paper. People don’t form opinions based on run-of-the-mill cases because those hear about them. Only the outliers make headlines (which is often compounded by lousy reporting).

And so I bring the subject up, time and again, asking how people feel about this ancient and (in)famous case. I don’t try to change their minds. I don’t try to argue that case. And that is my point.

All cases are different. We all know that intellectually, but it is the emotional part of the brain that lawyers need to worry about. No matter which side of the -v- we happen to be standing on, we want to know– we need to know — if there is some preconceived notion about the overall subject (lawyers, litigants and lawsuits) that the person might have.

If a potential juror is going to have an opinion or emotional reaction (that they will admit to) it is likely that the McDonald’s coffee case will bring it up.

I’m bored with the actual details by now, yet I talk about it all the time. And so should you if you are picking a jury.

It doesn’t matter what you think. It only matters what they think.

A Botched Execution (And A Good Lawsuit?)

lethalinjectionYou’d have to be living under a rock not to know about the botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett. Oklahoma, in its infinite wisdom, figured it would be just fine to give an experimental combination of drugs to its death row inmate.

It didn’t work out so well, as a vein apparently burst, he didn’t get the first drug that was supposed to knock him out, and he suffered mightily before having a heart attack and dying. Or at least that is what they are claiming.

But the part that really jumped off the pages of the stories was this: When it became evident that Lockett hadn’t been rendered unconscious by the first drug, and was in pain, prison officials lowered the shades between the witnesses and the condemned. They didn’t want anyone to see what The State was doing.

And anytime The State acts in secret, people should be alarmed. Especially when there is absolutely no reason for secrecy.

It is that very secrecy, in fact, that allows elected officials and their prison appointees to claim that the condemned don’t suffer when given various drug cocktails. Because if they suffered, then there would be an Eighth Amendment problem regarding cruel and unusual punishment.

The official timeline — or at least the first iteration of one, as none of the real witnesses in the execution chamber have actually testified — goes like this:

18:23  –  The drug midazolam was administered intravenously.

18:30 —  A doctor said Lockett was still conscious.

18:33  –  Lockett was unconscious, and vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride were administered.

18:42 — The shades for the witnesses were lowered. The official timeline does not say why, but there are accounts elsewhere that Lockett had appeared to be conscious in the previous few minutes.  From the New York Times: “Lockett, began to writhe and gasp after he had already been declared unconscious and called out “oh, man,” according to witnesses.”

18:44 – 18:56  ”The doctor checked the IV and reported the blood vein had collapsed, and the drugs had either absorbed into tissue, leaked out or both,” according to the timeline.  The director of the corrections department then asked whether Lockett had been given enough of the drug combination to kill him, and the doctor said “no.”  ”Is another vein available? And if so, are there enough drugs remaining?” the doctor was asked, according to the timeline. The doctor’s answer to both questions: “No.”

18:56 Execution called off

19:06 Lockett pronounced dead.

Missing from the timeline? Any acknowledgment that Lockett was in pain, contrary to the claimed protocol.

I know, you are shocked, just shocked, that the official timeline whitewashed what the condemned man was doing or trying to say.

Secrecy. It has surrounded the death penalty since we stopped public hangings. It now consists primarily of trying to make an inherently violent act — killing — antiseptic, and therefore palatable to the public. A firing squad would be quicker and more efficient, but then the killing becomes more real.

But the veil of secrecy, I think, can now be broken. Dropping the shades in front of the witnesses won’t work this time, despite wiping it from the official timeline.

Because he suffered in a way that was unintended, as others have  before him, the Estate of Clayton Lockett now has a simple claim for personal injury due to the negligence of prison officials, in addition to a civil rights claim for cruel and unusual punishment. This would be for the 24 minutes between 18:42 – 19:06.

Such a lawsuit, of course, really wouldn’t be about the money. It’s about lifting that veil of secrecy. Because of the suffering, the estate lawyers, if they brought such a suit, would be able to question each and every person in that execution room. And all of the people that ordered the drugs, devised the drug protocol, medically supervised the procedure and delve into all the ways it was tested (or that it wasn’t).

And so much more.

No, it really wouldn’t be about the money at all. It would be about ripping down the veil and using the disinfecting qualities of sunlight so that people can actually see how The State’s machinery of death works, to see what happened and why it happened.

And citizens can see exactly what they voted for and paid for.

Shooting the Messenger (I’ve Been Sued Again) – Updated

Michael J. Katz

Michael J. Katz

Last year a judge eviscerated an orthopedic expert in open court for being a liar. A legal blogger reported it. And now that expert has taken his wrath out on the blogger by suing him for defamation.

And it turns out that I’m the blogger that reported it, and last week suit was filed against me to the tune of $40 million. This is the story.

You remember Dr. Michael Katz, don’t you? He’s the defense expert I wrote about last year that was subjected to the deeply lacerating comments of Justice Duane Hart, who called him a liar from the bench. And when I say he called him a liar, I mean that he did it many, many times and used the word “perjury” to describe the testimony.

The judge also, apparently, used the phrase “Typhoid Mary” in addition to “a liar and a thief,” and invited the attorneys in the courtroom to spread the word that Dr. Katz had been caught lying, according to the suit.

Just to be clear, as we start here, I had no role in that litigation.  Rather, the boundaries of the suit concern my reporting on what transpired in the courtroom and offering my opinions on its significance.

The basis of Justice Hart’s wrath against Katz was a medical-legal exam that Katz did on behalf of a defendant in a personal injury suit. Two issues arose from it.

First, that the brief nature of the physical exam — an orthopedic exam of the shoulder that lasted, according to the transcript of the proceedings, one minute and 56 seconds, but you can view it yourself here on YouTube — conflicted with Katz’s claim that his customary and usual exam was 10 to 20 minutes. The surreptitiously recorded video also shows a couple minutes of history being elicited and the doctor asking what hurt.

Second, and apparently far more important to Justice Hart than the time it took to do the exam, is that he didn’t believe Katz did all of the tests he claimed he had done in that brief period. How do we know that was the most important thing to Justice Hart? Because Katz quotes him saying so in the Complaint.

Katz, according to the judge, makes millions of dollars doing these so-called “independent” medical exams, or IMEs.

I reported on those court proceedings and some of Justice Hart’s lacerating remarks, as well as a subsequent court appearance before him, and reported the judge’s statements that he was going to refer Katz to the District Attorney for criminal investigation, to the administrative judge to commence civil contempt proceedings and to the Office of Professional Medical Conduct to investigate action against his medical license.

That’s a lot of whoopass.

Dr. Katz concedes in his Complaint that Justice Hart made heaps of cutting comments about his integrity, and has now agregated them into one place. This includes comments Justice Hart made both on the record and, allegedly, off.

In Katz’s recitation of facts in the Complaint — a stark re-telling of a jagged wound being ripped open by a judicial gavel — it is asserted that Justice Hart said (¶75)…:

off-the-record, that Dr. Katz’s career doing IME work might be over, calling him a “no good liar,” and told him to retain a lawyer.

And that (¶ 77):

He threatened Dr, Katz with criminal prosecution and imprisonment multiple times, off-the-record, throughout the morning.

And this (¶79):

The doctor’s career doing IME’s might be over. If he gets caught in a lie on something that’s material at trial his future use to anyone is useless, correct? That will follow the doctor forever.

And that Justice Hart said (¶82):

I would strongly suggest you do not do anything because you’re in more trouble than you think. It’s probably that your career doing IME’s is over. It’s possible, unless this case is settled, that I might be taking more – the attorneys have a duty basically not to do anything with regards to the district attorney. If I find out or if I even suspect something is going on I have a duty to get in touch with the district attorney and getting in touch with the district attorney is not a good thing for you in this case. Understood?

And that this occurred in the presence of Katz’s criminal defense attorney who subsequently appeared (¶84):

Justice Hart announced, in open court, but off- the-record, “Your client is a liar and a thief.”

And this (¶95):

During the court appearance, despite stating that he would seal the record in exchange for a settlement, Justice Hart actively invited other attorneys who were present, or even in the courtroom on unrelated business, to order copies of the transcript in order to “spread the word” concerning Dr. Katz’s alleged perjury.

And this (¶98):

Justice Hart referred to Dr. Katz as “Typhoid Mary” and accused him of “getting caught red-handed in an out-and-out lie,”

And this (¶99)

he gave a laundry list of tests that he did…Did he perform those tests in whatever time he did [sic] that he testified to? No.”

And this (¶120):

Off-the-record, Justice Hart continually pressured Dr. Katz to state on the record he would no longer practice ”medical-legal” examinations, repeatedly berated Dr, Katz, stating that “his career was over,” and even stated that defendants’ counsel wanted to “tear [Dr. Katz] a new asshole.”

And this (¶128):

Again counsel, it is not the time so much if the doctor thinks he can explain the time. It is not the time problem. It is that there are tests that he testified to that he didn’t do. That is the perjury.

And this in trying to persuade him to retire (¶128):

I unsealed the record. Everybody from now on when he testifies as to the tests that he performed, it is always going to be questioned from now on. After about a month or two, nobody is going to go near him anyway. So he is not giving up much. What he is giving up is me referring it to the District Attorney and to the Administrative Judge. I would think that he wants to consider it again. Nobody is going to go near him.

And this to his criminal defense lawyer (¶130):

It is that the tape shows that he didn’t do the tests that he spent a considerable amount of time talking about that he did. That is the perjury. Yes, he didn’t do the tests. It is not just me saying it. It is not just the plaintiff saying it. The defendants are saying it too. Does your client really think if the insurance industry or some of the insurance companies that hired him before when they find out he lied, do you really think they will go near him?

In other words, the damage to Katz’s reputation were based on the exceptionally sharp comments of Justice Hart. The was brought on, according to the judge, by Katz’s conduct.

But Katz can’t sue the judge. Hence the title of this post, Shooting the Messenger, for I was the one to report it.

I ask you dear reader, is this not newsworthy? Especially in light of Katz’s claim that he has ”testified in countless personal injury and medical malpractice cases as an expert witness, most often for defendants, over the past twenty years” (¶10) and that he was “one of the premier expert witnesses in the field of orthopedic medicine” by the time this case came up (¶41) and that he was “a highly regarded expert witness in the area of orthopedic medicine” (¶44).

So, if you take his self-description at face value, yes, the trauma to such a person’s integrity by a judge would certainly seem to fit any definition of newsworthiness.

Katz also claims in his lawsuit that “there is no indication” Justice Hart carried through on his statement that he would refer him to the D.A. or to the Office of Professional Medical Conduct (¶22). Maybe he did, maybe not, I have no way of knowing since investigators don’t generally blab about what they are investigating. And apparently, Katz doesn’t know for sure either.

But then, quite oddly, he repeated this mantra of the judge allegedly not subsequently reporting. He repeated it many, many times. As if the judge’s conduct subsequent to publication was important. This is a sample from the Complaint:

149. Turkewitz also falsely stated and implied that Dr.Katz was being investigated by the Attorney General’s Offîce and the Office of Professional Medical Conduct despite the fact there was no evidence of any such investigation when Turkewitz published his blog posts.

Given that Katz had already quoted the judge saying he was going to do exactly that — report him to the D.A. and Office of Professional Medical Conduct — it is bizarre to complain that I reported it. How can it be defamatory to report on what a judge said?

This is one of the many comments that Katz himself quotes of Justice Hart on the issue (¶124):

Let the record reflect that I gave Dr. Katz the option of and I would institute a special proceeding to retire from the medical/legal business. Retire at the time and he has declined. What I am now going to do, I am going to order a full transcript of everything, the trial and the subsequent proceedings. I will present that to both the administrative judge of Queens and the District Attorney. I would recommend to the District Attorney that they explore prosecuting Dr. Katz for perjury.”

This dumping of crap into a complaint indicates a person scrambling to find an issue somewhere, someplace.  And it reminds me of a post I wrote last year, on the importance of lawyers saying “no“ to potential clients. Lousy defamation cases happened to be one of my examples.

Vetting a new case is important. The fact that a potential client has hurt feelings because a judge said mean things about him, and it was reported, is not enough to sustain a defamation lawsuit. Not in the United States, anyway.

In my postings I offered not only my opinions on why the potential legal troubles were significant to Katz, but more importantly, offered my opinions in a series of posts about why I thought this was one piece of evidence of pervasive insurance fraud that I believe is ongoing by the insurance companies themselves. I’ve called for an investigation by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman or NYS Financial Services Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky (as he oversees the insurance industry).

You may consider these calls for an investigation my petition for redress of grievances.

And now I’ve been sued for my efforts. That’s right, sued for reporting on proceedings in open court and offering my opinions.

first-amendment-719591I think that most people with even a rudimentary understanding of our First Amendment would know that such a suit is verboten. And certainly anyone that has gone to law school must know this. Because both the freedom of the press and the right to petition for redress of grievances are two our First Amendment freedoms.

And lest the part about a free press be unclear, New York has its own Civil Rights Law § 74 that makes it even clearer, though Katz and his counsel seem to be blissfully ignorant of it:

A civil action cannot be maintained against any person, firm or corporation, for the publication of a fair and true report of any judicial proceeding, legislative proceeding or other official proceeding, or for any heading of the report which is a fair and true headnote of the statement published.

The Complaint makes some other patently idiotic allegations, such as this one (¶25):

Turkewitz attempts to generate interest in his site by posting seemingly provocative and/or scandalous material.

Even if was true true — and the ABA Journal apparently didn’t think so when it kept picking me for its Blawg 100 and selected me for its Blawg Hall of Fame, based on being “a great source for news and commentary” — what difference would it make?

Is the citizenry supposed to curtail opinions because a writing is provocative? Can anyone else hear Thomas Paine laughing? Has anyone seen cable “news” shows lately or listened to talk radio? Rush Limbaugh (and a gazillion others) would shrivel up and die if he couldn’t be provocative or scandalous.

So where is the gravamen of the complaint against me?  It is by this type of allegation (¶27):

Turkewitz falsely stated and implied, among other things, that Dr. Katz had committed perjury, fraud and was guilty of racketeering. Turkewitz’s blog posts were intended to create the impression that Dr. Katz had been charged with and/or convicted of criminal perjury and other crimes which would make him unfit to act as an expert witness.

The problem with the allegation is that I never said he was convicted of anything. And Katz’s lawyer knows that, which is why there is no quote of me ever writing such a thing. But it does get repeated many times, as if repeating it like some talismanic incantation will magically make it truthy.

And then there is this one (¶28):

Turkewitz’s blog posts go so far as to expressly compare Dr. Katz to a ”convicted felon” and a “prisoner.” Dr. Katz was not charged with or convicted of any crimes.

Nope. Missed again. There is a reason there is no real quote from me. Because this is what I actually wrote about witnesses in general (with reference also to Dr. Robert Israel, who has his own problems from medical-legal exams):

Defense attempts to preclude Drs. Katz and Israel from testifying in future trials seem doomed to fail. They are, after all, eyewitnesses to injuries.  If a convicted felon came upon a car accident shortly after it happened and saw injuries, would he be precluded from testifying simply because one side or the other didn’t like his testimony? If he saw the injuries a month or year later, would he magically be precluded? Are prisoners precluded from testifying? Making matters worse for those that hired these doctors over the years is that they are responsible for creating them as witnesses.

While the medical-legal examiner is an expert that can give opinions, s/he is also a fact witness as to what transpired on a particular day. A fact witness is a fact witness. It matters not if the witness to a collision is a nun or a felon, or the witness is a doctor hired to defend a lawsuit. The only question is whether the witness is available to testify.

And my opinion is shared by my co-defendants, Paul Kassirer at defense firm Lester Schwab.  Kassirer is quoted in the Complaint with having sent my initial posting about Katz via email to other defense lawyers with this comment (¶212):

“More to the point, even if he is eventually arrested and convicted of perjury, NY law is clear that he is not legally ‘unavailable’. Accordingly, whoever has retained him will not be entitled to another IME. As long as he was licensed and was competent at the time of the exam, he can testiff and therefore is not ‘unavailable.’

And this is all backed up by New York law, as Katz is certainly not the first witness to experience legal or credibility issues. On February 27th of this year, Justice David Schmidt in Brooklyn dealt with this exact issue regarding Katz, and concluded that the defense attempt to preclude his testimony must fail. In Atchinson v. Metropolitan Enterprises, he wrote, after describing the comments by Justice Hart:

“[t]he defendants’ concern that the plaintiff may impeach the examining physician’s credibility … [is] not a sufficient basis to compel a second examination” (Carrington v Truck-Rite Dist. Sys. Corp., 103 AD3d 606, 607 [2d Dept 2013], citing Schissler, 289 AD2d at 470Futersak v Brinen, 265 AD2d 452 [1999]). The instant facts are analogous to the cases of a public attack on the professional credentials of an IME physician; such cases hold that instances of compromised professional integrity do not warrant a subsequent IME (see e.g. Giordano v Wei Xian Zhen, 103 AD3d 774, 775 [2013] [fact that examining physician was arrested and surrendered medical license subsequent to examination and note of issue filing does not justify additional examination]; Carrington, 103 AD3d at 607 [same];Schissler, 289 AD2d at 470 [fact that examining physician was subjected to professional discipline subsequent to examination and note of issue filing does not justify additional examination]; Futersak, 265 AD2d at 462 [same]). Defendants advance no authority suggesting that the present situation concerning Dr. Katz is distinguishable because he has been accused (as recorded in a court transcript) of perjury.[5]

In the subject heading, I wrote that I’ve been sued “again.” I was sadly, dragged into the Rakofsky v. Internet fiasco. My response in that suit was to say, “go shit in a hat and pull it down over your ears,” though I did offer the pseudo-legal latin version for those that want lawyers to speak pretentiously: vade et caca in pilleum et ipse traheatur super aures tuos. 

In that post, I also detailed the other times I was threatened. I’ve also defended another defamation suit with a take-no-prisnors attitude. It has never ended well for those that threatened or sued.

Was filing this suit a dumb thing to do? Yes, on multiple levels.

First, if Justice Hart didn’t previously report this matter to the D.A. or the Office of Professional Medical Conduct, this suit may act as a reminder.

Second, Katz has now further publicized the vicious tongue-lashing that he received from a judge. I learned about it from a New York Post reporter, and that call was followed up by a Daily News reporter, both the day after it was filed. Who alerted them?

By suing the messenger, Katz invites not only repetition of the claims he has catalogued, but enormous backlash from free speech advocates. There are a great many people who don’t take kindly to frivolous defamation claims and the chilling of free speech that often comes with them. There is a fair chance that those who did not previously know about Katz, will now learn.

Updated 5/28/14: Justice F. Dana Winslow has ruled on a motion in another case about whether Katz can be cross-examined on Justice Hart’s conclusions. The answer is, yes he can. The matter is Graser v. Dimeo, where Katz claims to have done a 45-minute defense medical exam.

This was the reasoning:

It is well settled that, for impeachment purposes, a witness may be cross-examined with respect to prior immoral, vicious or criminal acts which have a bearing on the witness’s credibility. Badr v. Hogan, 75 NY2d 629. The Court of Appeals has extended the rule beyond the “immoral, vicious or criminal’ categories to include prior conduct that simply demonstrates the witness’s “untruthful bent,” such as using an alias [People v. Walker, 83 NY2d 455], or publishing books advocating cheating [People v. Coleman, 56 NY2d 269].

The cross-examiner must have a reasonable basis in fact for asking questions about prior misconduct, and must do so in good faith. People v. Kass, 25 N.Y.2d 123; People v. Green, 272 A.D.2d 341. If the witness denies the prior misconduct, the cross-examiner may press the witness further, but is not permitted to introduce extrinsic evidence to refute the witness’s denial. Id., at 635.

In the case at bar, the Court finds that plaintiff has a reasonable, good faith basis, to cross-examine Dr. Katz regarding the truthfulness of his testimony in the Bermejo Action. Dr. Katz’s prior conduct need not have resulted in a formal adjudication of wrongdoing. It is enough that facts exist which tend to show a propensity for untruthfulness; that is that Dr. Katz gave false information in circumstances in which he was required to be truthful. See People v. Walker, 83 NY2d at 461. Plaintiff’s counsel may ask Dr. Katz about his testimony in the Bermejo Action and about the underlying facts which suggest that his testimony was false. Counsel may not, however, call other witnesses or introduce extrinsic evidence (such as the video recording), to refute Dr. Katz’s answers.

Although such inquiry may be prejudicial to defendant, the Court notes that if it weren’t, it would be of no use to the plaintiff. The question is not whether such inquiry is prejudicial, but whether it is unfairly or unduly so. The Court determines that it is not. Where, as here, the inquiry has a factual basis, and bears on the question of the witness’s credibility, it is fairly and properly allowed. See Castillo v. 62-25 30th Avenue Realty, LLC, 74 AD3d 1116 (allowing defense counsel to question plaintiff’s treating physician regarding underlying factual allegations that led to suspension of his license to practice medicine); Spanier v. New York City Tr. Auth., 222 AD2d 219 (allowing defense counsel to question plaintiff’s treating physician about prior allegations of improper billing).

The Court thus finds no basis to bar the cross-examination of Dr. Katz regarding the proceedings in the Bermejo Action. The nature and extent of such cross-examination is left to the discretion of the trial judge. See Badr v. Hogan, 75 NY2d at 634.

Elsewhere on the suit:

Simple Justice (Scott Greenfield):

This has nothing to do with the fact that Justice Hart found Katz to be a liar, of course, but it’s all that Turk’s fault because he posts “provocative and/or scandalous material.”

Legal Satyricon (Marc Randazza):

If Dr. Katz dared to file suit in Nevada, California, Oregon, or a growing number of other states with meaningful anti-SLAPP statutes, his litigation campaign would likely end post haste. It would be thrown out of court, and the judge would bruise his ego in the shape of the defendants’ attorneys fees and costs. But this is not California, or even Nevada – it is New York. Without meaningful relief, we are left only with the disinfectant of cleansing light shone upon those who file such censorious lawsuits.

Passover and the Boston Marathon Bombing

Exterior, Kings County Supreme Court (Brooklyn) — Photo credit, me.

Once again, a confluence of two seemingly unrelated events. On the one hand, today is the first day of Passover. On the other, it is the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Passover celebrates breaking away from tyranny and bondage and the establishment of freedom and the rule of law. While celebrated by Jews, we recognize its universal symbolism. So too do others, as we see the Ten Commandments displayed in courthouses around the country as an example of one of the first descriptions of written law.

The bombing, by contrast, represents both anarchy and totalitarianism. Anarchy from the acts of violence themselves, and (to the extent news stories are accurate that this was an act of militant Islamism) the use of that anarchy to promote theocracies where religion reigns supreme and freedom is restricted.

I have a place in my heart for the Boston Marathon, having been privileged to run it in 2009 and again in 2012. This year it is run with a still-fresh wound, despite the brave faces many victims wear.

But this will not be the first time a marathon is run in the wake of a terror attack.

In 2001 the NYC Marathon was run just two months after the World Trade Center fell, and the fires were still burning. As we crested the Verazzano Bridge at the one mile mark of the race’s dramatic start, you could see the hole in the downtown skyline.

There were some that didn’t show up to run that year, concerned over reports in the week before the race that a bridge was the next suspected target. Rumors and fear ruled the day.

But 25,000 did show up. And the streets were teeming with people that day for a massive public event for which adequate protection could not be assured. And the reason for the lack of protection was simple, if you want to live in a free society, you can’t “protect” 26 miles of roadway through the streets of New York.

We knew that back then. People with guns or backpacks with bombs could emerge from the crowd of 2 million at any time. Runners and spectators alike had bulls eyes on their chests. But it was important to be there and to celebrate New York and to say that we would not live our lives in fear. Cowering was not an option.

BostonStrongAnd it will be important again next Monday when the 118th Boston Marathon is run. The crowds will be thick and the runners stoked, with each participant — runners, volunteers and spectator alike — tossing caution to the wind to be there. They know that others will be watching them on this great stage.

The police will try to protect parts of the race course, of course, as they do in New York and all major sporting events. But the reality is that the security is a thin veneer. There is always a way in a free society to wage an attack.

Freedom is like that. It is hard to gain, as recent events show in the Middle East and now Ukraine. In biblical times it took us 40 years of wandering in the desert to get there.

It’s easy to become complacent about freedom and to take it for granted when there is no challenge to it.

But when the challenges to freedom come — and terror attacks are certainly such challenges — it feels good to see people willing to put themselves out there to celebrate it, and thereby protect it. Spectators will, quite literally, be manning the barricades.

Cowering is not an option. #BostonStrong

A $9 Billion Punitive Damages Verdict in Actos Drug Trial (How much is too much?)

punishmentWe once again see a whopping punitive damages verdict and need to discuss: Just how much is too much? For the reasons that follow, I think that a ratio of punitive:compensatory damages of 100:1 or greater are sustainable based on current opinions from the Supreme Court.

At issue for the moment is a $9 Billion punitive damage award against Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical and Eli Lilly this week. The case concerned the diabetes drug Actos, and the manufacturer’s failure to warn that it increases the chances of bladder cancer. There was also a $1.5M compensatory damage award.

The punitive award spanking was no doubt influenced by the defendants’ destruction of documents. Juries tend to hate it when people destroy important documents.

It isn’t my objective to analyze the details of the trial, which I did not follow, only to go back and try to forecast what the judge might do with the punitive damage award, and more importantly, what the appellate judges will do if the matter doesn’t settle.

But there really isn’t a straight answer. In the most significant Supreme Court ruling on the subject, State Farm v. Campbell, the majority opinion by Justice Kennedy gave three conflicting statements on the subject. He cited first, for instance, to the older case of BMW v. Gore, that:

[W]e concluded that an award of more than four times the amount of compensatory damages might be close to the line of constitutional impropriety.

For reference, BMW v.Gore dealt with punitive damages against a car dealer that repainted a new car that had been damaged, but had failed to disclose it. The verdict was $4,000 in compensatory damages. But the jury also awarded $4,000,000 in punitive damages as it was the policy of BMW to do this.

For this purely commercial transaction, the Supreme Court felt that due process was not served by such a large award, as the defendant didn’t have notice of this potentiality. And with that, the court established three guideposts to determine if a punitive award was constitutional or not:

  1. The degree of reprehensibility of the conduct;
  2. The ratio between punitive award and plaintiff’s actual harm, and
  3. The legislative sanctions provided for comparable misconduct.

Now lets return to the court’s State Farm decision, because, as I noted before, there were three seemingly contradictory statements. Having first quoted the 4x amount as being reasonable, Justice Kennedy then went on to write:

[F]ew awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages will satisfy due process.

So now Kennedy is at at a 9:1 ratio. But just as Gore was a commercial transaction, so too was State Farm v. Campbell. In that case Campbell caused a terrible auto collision, and State Farm acted in bad faith in defending its insured. At issue was not the personal injuries of the victims, but the contract between State Farm and Campbell.

Perhaps, since a physical injury was not truly at stake in State Farm, or perhaps just to cobble together a majority, Justice Kennedy then went on to make a third comment on the permissible extent of a punitive damage award, knocking out both the 4x and 9x ratios he had previously described:

Nonetheless, because there are no rigid benchmarks that a punitive damages award may not surpass, ratios greater than those we have previously upheld may comport with due process where “a particularly egregious act has resulted in only a small amount of economic damages.”

Following State Farm, it had become accepted wisdom among many that the Supreme Court would only allow a single digit multiplier, notwithstanding that last quote, or perhaps a bigger multiplier in only the smallest of cases.

But I never believed that the “single-digit ratio” was  a real line in the sand. One reason is that the Supremes eventually let stand a 97:1 ratio in Philip Morris v. Williams, a cigarette case with an $821,000 compensatory award and a 97.5M punitive award that went up to the Supreme Court on multiple occasions.

Now some would argue that letting something stand without deciding the issue (SCOTUS granted cert on the case’s third and final trip to the high court and then later dismissed it as improvidently taken) is not the same as affirming a lower court decision.

But here is something else: That 9:1 ratio nonsense from State Farm is confirmed as nonsense by looking at the conduct of  two members of the 6-3 State Farm “single-digit” majority. First, a review of the oral argument the second time Philip Morris v. Williams came before SCOTUS  (p. 30, line 5) finds this statement by Justice Breyer:

…the more severely awful the conduct, the higher the ratio between the damage award and the injury suffered by this victim in court. And if it’s really bad, you’re going to maybe have a hundred times this compensation instead of only ten times or five times. So — we take it into account, the extent of the harm that could be suffered, in deciding what that ratio should be. That means it goes to the evilness of the conduct.

So Justice Breyer seems not to think too much of that 9x single-digit formulation.

And then there is Justice Stevens, also in the 6-3 State Farm majority. When SCOTUS sent Philip Morris back to Oregon for a redetermination of punitive damages based on jury instructions, Justice Stevens dissented. He was also OK letting that 97:1 ratio stand.

Since both Stevens and Breyer were part of the 6-3 State Farm majority, it is clear that there was most definitely not a majority of justices willing to stick to single digit multipliers for a personal injury case.

So what will happen in the Actos litigation? I think that a punitive damage award of 100x or greater is in the cards if the plaintiffs satisfy the court that the conduct was reprehensible (the second guidepost in the BMW v. Gore). And I also think, given the significant document destruction that led to that whopper of an award, that satisfying that element won’t be too difficult.

Assuming that the $1.5M in compensatory damages aren’t touched, I think that ultimately a punitive award of $150M+ is sustainable under current law.

Allen v. Takeda Pharmaceuticals North America Inc., 12-cv-00064.

New York Central Mutual Slammed in Bad Faith (And What it means for you)

Helene Blank

Helene Blank

Her name is Helene Blank and she last appeared on this page ripping into the City’s Corporation Counsel for his incredible hypocrisy in calling our courts inefficient.

She isn’t just a top trial lawyer here in New York, and a frequent lecturer to others. No, she is also something else. She’s pissed. Again.

And she’s got a damn good reason…so without further ado, Helene Blank as guest blogger…

——–

It’s a tale of corporate greed, in all its ugly manifestations, which starts with grave human suffering. And thanks to a federal court decision last week, we share it today in all that ugliness.

We turn the clock back to November 11, 2000, in the Town of Ulysses, New York, when Peggy Horton, a married mother of three and licensed registered practical nurse, was struck by Ralph Wade when he failed to yield at a stop sign.

No one disputes that Wade caused the collision (not an accident). What he did was unfortunate. But what his insurance companies did next to the two of them for almost a decade – and what they almost got away with and could get away with today — is inconceivable. Yet it continues to happen all the time.

Horton underwent six separate surgeries to correct the damage done to her back — starting with a fusion of two spinal levels and progressing to the insertion of hardware due to instability, incisional hernias, hardware removal and additional fusion.

She never returned to work as a nurse. She suffered from depression and post traumatic stress. Even the doctors hired by the insurance company agreed, finding that she suffered from what is known as failed back syndrome and that she would have nothing but a life of pain to look forward to.

Eleven months after the collision, Horton sued Wade.

Wade was insured by New York Central Mutual for $500,000.00. In addition, he had an umbrella policy with his homeowners insurance, Quincy Mutual, for another million. This is where the ugliness comes in.

Despite the fact that both insurers were immediately notified of this lawsuit, the primary insurer (New York Central Mutual) withheld the existence of the excess million for years. Horton, unaware of the extra million, had agreed to accept the 500K in settlement, perhaps recognizing that a personal judgment against Wade would be useless, under the well-known legal theory that you can’t get blood from a stone.

For her massive injuries and inability to work, New York Central offered the piddling sum of $75K.

The irony is that if it hadn’t been for its greed in refusing to offer the primary $500K when it had multiple opportunities, New York Central would have gotten away with hiding the existence of the excess policy. Instead, because of its greed, New York Central not only has to pay its primary policy of $500K, but also has to pay the excess million excess held by Qunicy (plus interest).

The long, sad and shocking  story only came to light when the excess/umbrella carrier brought a law suit in bad faith, against New York Central Mutual in the Northern District of New York. The suit was based on New York Central’s apparent failure to cheat this plaintiff in a timely fashion and settle quickly before the excess was revealed, resulting in it being on the hook for the late-revealed excess million.  See: Qunicy Mututal v.New York Central Mutual

Quincy Mutual showed that, at multiple times, the plaintiff had agreed to accept the $500K in final settlement of her action because at that time, despite being legally entitled to the knowledge of all available insurance — that knowledge was withheld from her lawyers. New York Central fouled up yet again, apparently, as after the excess million was finally revealed, she still gave them a short time to meet the 500K demand.

But this isn’t about the good faith of a plaintiff keeping the settlement door open. It’s about the greed of the insurance company. Perhaps the insurance carrier thought that, if the litigation was delayed long enough and Horton suffered more due to her inability to work, it could strike a better deal.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David Peebles found New York Central had acted in “gross disregard” of the excess carrier’s interest when it stuck to its $75K settlement offer and lost opportunities to settle with Horton.

The real outrage for all consumers is that you could not open up a settlement, which is induced by the insurance company, if you learned later that there was in fact more coverage.

Wade — the negligent driver that started it all —  was put to the expense and worry for years that his personal assets might be in jeopardy because all the experts agreed that Horton’s losses well exceeded his available coverage. He was forced to hire private counsel to protect him because his insurance companies were not keeping their part of the contracts that he had bought and paid for.

Both the plaintiff and the defendant lost here. But the insurance companies did not. They kept their money for years longer than they ever should have been allowed to, dragging the parties through the court system for almost a decade before they resolved this matter.

New York Central Mutual continued to use the money without a care towards their statutory obligation to negotiate in good faith to protect their insured.

So it’s time that victims like Peggy Horton get the right from Albany to open up a settlement if you learn after you accept what you were mislead into believing was all the available insurance when in fact it wasn’t.

This unbridled corporate greed has to end. Insurance companies should not be allowed to cause additional harm to injured victims, to their insureds, and needlessly keep un-winnable litigation going for years and years without any recourse by the people they harm.

We all lose when this happens – our courts’ limited resources are clogged up with cases that should be resolved, victims who can’t work, who need the money to live are kept waiting forever and dragged through the system for no reason, and the people who paid their hard earned money to protect themselves with insurance are entitled to have the contract they paid for honored.

 

Ribbeck Law Bench Slapped Over Malaysian Aircraft Disappearance; Threatened with Sanctions

RibbeckLawFirm-714660Chicago based Ribbeck Law was sharply bench slapped yesterday and threatened with sanctions by Cook County Judge Kathy Flanagan over the motion it filed regarding missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The motion had allegedly been made to identify parties to a potential lawsuit that it intends to file in the United States.

Noting that similar Ribbeck motions had been rejected previously regarding air crashes in San Francisco and Laos, Judge Flanagan was not kind to Ribbeck. Via the Chicago Tribune:

“Despite these orders, the same law firm has proceeded, yet again, with the filing of the (Malaysia crash) petition, knowing full well there is no basis to do so,” Flanagan wrote.

The judge said she “will impose sanctions” if Ribbeck Law continues to make such filings.

While the firm claims it “expects” to represent half the victims, this seems (to me) to mere huckstering and puffery to obtain clients. The basis of my opinion? Repeat conduct.

We start with this, from the Tribune, regarding the missing Malaysian plane:

The first petition, filed March 25, named as a plaintiff Januari Siregar, who was described as the father of missing passenger Firman Chandra Siregar, 24.

But the plaintiff has turned out to be an uncle at odds with the rest of the family, and a spokesman for Siregar’s real father told the Tribune in an email Monday that he had not authorized Ribbeck Law to take legal action in Chicago.

From there we turn to the fact that the firm has put out press releases regarding its filing. Why put out press releases? As a way of trying to get a message to other victims that says, “Hey! We’re already handling this case, why not come to us?”

And from there we roll back further to last year when the National Transportation Safety Board reported the Ribbeck firm, in connection with the crash landing of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco, to the agency that regulates attorneys for further investigation of its online communications and in-person meetings with passengers. This was, presumably, referring to its disciplinary commission.

According to this Associated Press articleRibbeck was the only firm that warranted such referral (as of the time it was written). The referral came because because the NTSB “received an unspecified number of complaints about solicitations since the July 6 accident that killed three Chinese teenage girls and injured 180.”

I have also used this blog to present evidence of Ribbeck violating both a federal 45-day anti-solicitation law for aviation crashes as well as New York’s 30-day anti-solicitation rule for personal injury matters. The firm, for example, set up a website  and ran Google ads for the purpose of soliciting victims from the crash of Continental Airlines 3407 in Buffalo in February 2009. The contact person was attorney Monica Kelly. Other firms had also erred by doing this, as I noted in a February 16, 2009, posting.

A week later I followed up, and it wasn’t pretty for the firm. All the other firms had yanked down their ads, having been caught doing what they shouldn’t. Did Ribbeck? See: Ribbeck Firm of Chicago Still Soliciting Buffalo Plane Crash Victims?

And there is much more. From the Chicago Tribune two days ago:

In a recent commission action that is public, however, Kelly was recommended for censure last month for allegedly continuing to try to represent a survivor of a 2009 Turkish Airlines crash in the Netherlands that killed nine passengers and crew. The survivor had sent a letter terminating the relationship, records show. Kelly has appealed the decision.

According to commission records, Kelly also was accused of improperly soliciting that victim, who walked away from the crash but later learned he’d suffered a broken back and other injuries. The man testified that four people came to his home in 2009 as he was recuperating in bed, set up a projector and pitched him on Ribbeck’s prowess as an aviation litigator, according to the records. In its written ruling, the panel said there was not enough evidence to sustain those charges.

In 2008, Kelly’s brother and partner in the firm, Manuel von Ribbeck, was cited while working for another firm he allegedly posed as a Red Cross worker when he approached a man who’d lost his wife and daughter in a plane crash in the Bahamas.

The man alleged von Ribbeck invited him to a nearby hotel, where a projector had been set up and literature about the firm he was working for was passed out. The man told his lawyer, John Ruiz of Miami, who later filed a complaint with the disciplinary commission.

James Healy-Pratt, from London-based StewartsLaw, which is also dealing with these issues, gave me his thoughts on yesterday’s order threatening Ribbeck, given the fact that the airliner is still missing and that such lawsuits are often kicked out of US courts. He said he was:

surprised and confused with the premature legal activity in Chicago State Court. This was especially so, given that the airliner is still missing to this day, and the public fact that some 10 years of US Federal Court decisions have kicked out real lawsuits, on forum non conveniens motions, in foreign air disaster cases just like MH370. What was not surprising was the swift, decisive, and no-nonsense response of the Chicago State Court in dismissing the baseless lawyering, and promising sanctions for any repeat performances. This was an unwelcome and insensitive distraction for many of the families of MH370 at a very difficult time.

Other aviation lawyers are also outraged.  From this Reuters article:

Several U.S. aviation lawyers and experts called the Ribbeck filing premature and a publicity stunt, since the details of the plane’s disappearance were still largely unknown.

Justin Green, a lawyer with competitor aviation law firm Kreindler & Kreindler, said the filing was “nothing short of outrageous.”

“Without plane wreckage, victims’ bodies and any substantial evidence of cause or potential motive, there is simply no way to determine liability at this point in the investigation, and any legal counsel should recognize that,” he said in a statement on Monday.

And Robert Clifford, who also litigates aviation disasters, had last week predicted Ribbeck’s motion in the missing Malaysia case would be tossed out of court. He told Inside Counsel the filing was “grossly premature and without foundation.” He also described it as a “publicity stunt.”

There is a big downside to putting out press releases, filing frivolous motions to garner press attention and using the web to solicit clients in violation of federal and state rules. And that downside is that it may pique the interest of others who have strong opinions on ethics.  It isn’t only victims and their families that are watching.

 

Knicks and Dolan to Be Sued in Class Action?

Blame DolanIt isn’t often that you see the Chairman of a company acknowledge that he doesn’t know his company’s business. But that, it seems, is what James Dolan has done.

And now as a result, rumors are swirling around New York’s legal community about a potential shareholder class action lawsuit.

If you aren’t from New York, you might not know that Dolan’s father, Charles Dolan, is the billionaire founder of Cablevision and HBO. Cablevision owned the NY Knicks before being spun off in 2010 as The Madison Square Garden Company. And the MSG Company owns the Knicks (as well as the Rangers, Madison Square Garden and MSG Networks). 

Both Cablesvision (CVC) and MSG Co. (MSG) are publicly traded, which is to say, legally accountable to their shareholders.

Now Charles’s son James has been running the Knicks for close to two decades, during which the team has no championships, much misery, and one lost sexual harassment lawsuit. Through the years he’s said little to nothing publicly, sometimes going years between press conferences.

The times of saying little have apparently changed, however, as Dolan has turned into a chatterbox with his recent introduction of Phil Jackson as the team’s latest savior.

Of course, when someone who hasn’t been giving interviews for years suddenly opens his mouth, it might be wise to get a little practice first. Dolan didn’t, as he apparently spoke the truth when he said:

“That I don’t know basketball.”

Yet he’s running the team and still holds the title of Executive Chairman.

Now let  us ruminate on that concept for a moment.  The guy who runs a pro basketball team, that is publicly owned, admits that for nearly two decades he doesn’t know  basketball. And lest you think it was an off the cuff joke, the Knicks’ performance over those years back that statement up. The team’s front office is ranked dead last by ESPN.

And then he goes on to say that in two hours with Phil Jackson, the Zen Master taught him basketball. So, will any of the protesting fans contact counsel (not me) regarding a class action lawsuit? Well, they might try, but they need to be a deceived shareholder also.

Knick fans are pissed. A group calling  itself Knick Fans 4 Life, has set up a Facebook page to organize its activities (with 2,658 likes and growing). Part of its mission statement regards Dolan’s failure to allow knowledgeable basketball people the autonomy/power to make basketball related decisions.

Of course, today is April Fool’s Day, and long-time readers know I have, shall we say, a bit of a history with running April Fools gags (SCOTUS and fantasy baseball, official white house law blogger, and more).

So the question the reader might ask: Are today’s rumor of a shareholder class action suit real or did Turkewitz make it up?

And the answer: Does it matter?

Yup. Today is Opening Day

Mets LogoAs the saying goes, hope springs eternal in the hearts of baseball fans everywhere on opening day. For today, we sit in first place, having lost no games. And a crocus has popped up in the garden.

What will tomorrow bring? Know ones knows. Spring is about hopes and dreams, and for the moment we will leave it at that.

But here’s a link to past posts in this blog on baseball.

We’re talking baseball

The Whiz Kids had won it,
Bobby Thomson had done it,
And Yogi read the comics all the while.
Rock ‘n roll was being born,
Marijuana, we would scorn,
So down on the corner,
The national past-time went on trial.

We’re talkin’ baseball!
Kluszewski, Campanella.
Talkin’ baseball!
The Man and Bobby Feller.
The Scooter, the Barber, and the Newc,
They knew ‘em all from Boston to Dubuque.
Especially Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.

NJ Files Ethics Complaint Against Rakofsky (And Why It’s Important to You)

Internet_dogThe New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics has filed a Complaint for misconduct against Joseph Rakofsky. It’s dated December 16, 2013, but hasn’t been previously reported.

There are two main issues in the Complaint. The first deals with the way he described his prior legal experience in web site advertisements. The second with the way he sought business in states where he isn’t admitted to practice law.

For the reasons below, I think this is a pretty important case to follow that affects all lawyers, regardless of whether we advertise or not.

But first, a very fast primer for those new to the Rakofsky saga: He was a recently admitted New Jersey attorney advertising his services in New York and other states, claiming vast experience. He then went down to Washington D.C. to try his very first case — a murder trial.

He didn’t do well, with the judge declaring a mistrial part way through citing, among other things, his lack of competence.

The Washington Post picked up the story of the trial, and then bloggers picked up the WashPo story and added more, regarding (among other things) the subject of his advertising and its relationship to his actual legal experience. Then he committed career suicide by suing a boatload of bloggers for defamation, including me, in a case quickly dubbed by Scott Greenfield as Rakofsky v. The Internet.

He then amended the suit to add those that skewered him for starting the suit. The case was finally dismissed last year.

Primer over. Read those links if you want more (or some of the 101 links here), as it’s time to turn to the nuts and bolts of the ethics complaint and his response. But I really only want to touch on one issue, and will leave the rest for others, as I am local counsel to many of the people sued. What you get here today, therefore, is mostly just a few facts and only limited opinions.

The first of the two subjects the ethics complaint touches on is the way he advertised himself, among many other claims, as having:

worked on cases involving Murder, Embezzlement, Tax Evasion, Civil RICO, Securities Fraud, Bank Fraud, Insurance Fraud, Wire Fraud, Conspiracy, Money Laundering, Drug Trafficking, Grand Larceny, Identity Theft, Counterfeit Credit Card Enterprise and Aggravated Harassment.

And the problem identified by the Office of Attorney Ethics is that he had barely any experience at all and inflated the importance of brief stints at a few firms, some no more than a few months long. The Complaint maintains that this was misleading advertising. In his answer to the Complaint, Rakofsky states that one of the mitigating circumstances for his conduct was that he was “young and inexperienced.”

The second issue had to do with his advertising his services in Washington D.C. and New York (and Connecticut, though that isn’t cited in the Complaint), even though he’s not admitted in those states. That is a big no-no. His defense, culled from his answer, is that he was a partner of some type with Sherlock Grigsby in Washington D.C., who was local counsel to the murder trial, and with Richard Borzouye in New York, who was local counsel here as Rakofsky sought pro hac vice admissions in several matters.

The exact nature of those relationships is described by Rakofsky’s counsel in the answer as “partners in that they shared expenses and referrals of cases providing access to other jurisdictions.” This, he seems to argue, lets him advertise that he has an office for the practice of law in other states. Rakofsky’s counsel asserts, in fact, that “This was intentionally his business model.”

Now there is a lot of meat and potatoes for others to analyze within those documents — competence, partnerships, advertising, solicitation, unlicensed practice of law and more — but this is the part that I wanted to discuss: When these twin issues of misleading advertising and practicing law outside his own jurisdiction were brought to the attention of the New York judge that heard the motions to dismiss in our defamation case, he rejected it all. He called it, quite charitably, mere “puffery” and moved on. (See Transcript 4.8.13, at page 38-40.)

Other judges might have been livid and lowered the boom on him, not only sanctioning him but referring him to the District Attorney for potential prosecution regarding the practice of law without a license. I think most people believe he got off very easy.

There will be a hearing in New Jersey at some point in the future on the ethics charges, though it’s not yet scheduled. My understanding is that such hearings are open to the public. The Complaint and answer in this matter are likewise public and I’ve provided them at the bottom of this post.

New Jersey is, therefore, very much unlike New York, where most disciplinary matters are kept hush-hush. Attorney Dominic Barbara, for example, infamously racked up nine Letters of Caution, nine Admonitions, and two Advisements without the public knowing, before finally being suspended. But it was only then, at the time of suspension, that all those other sanctions came to light.

New York and New Jersey couldn’t be more different, it appears, in how they handle ethics complaints.

The issue of lawyers exaggerating their experience in a misleading way has percolated among many law bloggers, often summed up by the now-ancient (1993) New Yorker cartoon that I used as art work above, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The instances of ethics committees trying to hold lawyers accountable for internet advertising are few and far between, and it’s clear that the attitudes of ethics panels will differ between states. While I obviously have a personal interest at stake, I can’t help but think that an objective viewer will find some pretty important lessons that emerge when the smoke has cleared, and possibly new case law.

The matter deserves to be watched — not to kick Rakofsky again — but to see how a state ethics committee will handle issues of misleading advertising on the internet. While the standard of what constitutes misleading is no different than a dead-tree Yellow Pages ad, the reality is that vastly more information can be put up on a website. And that means greater opportunity to “massage” a biography, and greater ease for lawyers to advertise their existence in jurisdictions where they aren’t admitted to practice.

The ultimate decision in this ethics case will matter to to us all. Because even if you don’t advertise, our collective reputation as attorneys is affected by those that do.

The Office of Attorney Ethics Complaint is here:ComplaintAndExhibits (December 16, 2013)

Rakofsky’s Answer is here: Answer Rakofsky (January 27, 2014)

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