[March 21, 2020] Sabbatical update: For obvious reasons, I am home, and not in Africa. Thanks to my wife who booked my return journey from Windhoek to Boston. Stay tuned for a return to normalcy. Meanwhile, #QuarantineLife.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Let's put democracy out of its misery


Democracy ain’t all that. 

That must be what Reince Priebus has been thinking this year.  The possibility has been on the mind also of author and professor Jason Brennan, of Georgetown University.  Brennan is touring New England this week to talk about his new book, Against Democracy.  I knew of Brennan from one of his earlier works touting my faith, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know.  This week I had the good fortune to meet him in Providence, thanks to the Rhode Island Federalist Society.  On my commute this morning, I heard that he’ll be on WGBH’s excellent Innovation Hub this week. 

Brennan’s thesis in short is that when we talk about how best to select our leaders in human society, democracy might not be the endpoint and high point of human achievement.  He offered a simple thought experiment:  Imagine a professor instructs students that instead of grading exams on the usual A-F merit system, each person in the class will get the same grade, an average of everyone’s performance.  No surprise, students don’t study and perform poorly.  The incentive for each individual to do well is diminished along with the risk that poor preparation will be reflected in any one person’s grade.

Brennan explains that the same dynamic is at work in democracy.  If any one person’s vote is vastly unlikely to have an impact on the general election, then the individual has only weak, and largely symbolic or emotional, incentives to become informed and vote intelligently.  Surveys of how well informed voters are sadly support this thesis, with voters performing only about as well as chance would predict in answering simple multiple choice questions about politics.

What’s better than democracy?  Brennan isn’t shilling for any model, but provided a compelling and fair tour of the possibilities.  He pointed out for one example that simple gambling—imagine betting on the next President of the United States, if the model could be translated into politics—is a rather good predictor of outcome.  The gambler has skin in the game the way a voter does not, so has a proportionate incentive to be well informed.  Other potential models would jettison one person, one vote in ways that would reward better informed voters with greater influence.  I was reminded of my “oligarchy of the intelligentsia” phase when I studied politics at university.

A model I found enchanting, maybe because of its cool name, is “the Simulated Oracle.”  Imagine that along with a person’s vote, we collect also some basic demographic data and even administer a short quiz on political know-how.  With large enough data sets, we could employ the magic of statistics to control variables and correct for self-serving biases.  Factors such as race and gender, the community I live in, and my wealth can be predicted to evidence self-serving biases in my voting behavior, not necessarily the vote that a more altruistic me might cast.  The Simulated Oracle can control variables and correct for irrational or unfair biases, transforming my vote into a hypothetical ideal, the vote my better self would cast.  Weight everyone’s votes accordingly, and we might get a result that compensates for individual rent-seeking.

The mythology of democracy is emotively powerful in our society today, shaping how we define ourselves and our ideals.  But the U.S. Constitution—in, for examples, life tenure in the Article III courts, a republican representation system, and the original method of selecting senators—was designed to temper the risky excesses of pure democracy.  Moreover, the framers intended the Constitution to be amended.  There is no reason to think that progress means evolution toward pure direct democracy.  Remember Ross Perot suggesting instant home voting on contemporary issues?  Today that sounds like a good way to run Dancing with the Stars, and not so good a way to make foreign policy, tax policy, or really to do anything important.

Rather, we are engaged, or should be engaged, in an ongoing process of perfecting the organization of human society.  It’s not so strange to imagine that democracy as we know it now is just one stop on our journey.

Brennan is awash with fascinating data about the American electorate, and I’ll share just one item.  Turns out that people who self-identify with political third parties, such as libertarianism, are among our most informed voters. 

Am I blushing?

Friday, October 14, 2016

'Goliath' bursts onto Amazon scene


Tonight marks the premiere of Goliath on Amazon TV/Video.  Billy Bob Thornton, a native of Bill-Clinton-"Boyhood Home" Hot Springs, Arkansas, stars as a tort lawyer, presumably our David, in the saga of a wrongful death lawsuit against big-money interests.

The story line is far from unprecedented, but my expectations are high.  This show comes to us from producers David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro.  We have Kelley to thank for a pantheon of my most beloved TV lawyers, including Arnie Becker, Douglas Wambaugh, Ally McBeal, Alan Shore, and Denny Crane.  Jonathan Shapiro has been a key writer behind some of those characters, having worked on James Spader projects from The Practice to The Blacklist.

Goliath comes at a good time, as the election cycle has heightened American angst about dysfunctional institutions.  With the Supreme Court opening its new term with only eight justices, Citizens United and the role of wealth in politics looms large over the weird dynamics playing out in all three branches of government right now.  When Kelley and Shapiro appeared at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in August to talk about Goliath, they said that dysfunction in the civil litigation system would be a central theme in the new show.  The trial, figurative and literal, of protagonist Billy McBride (Thornton) would expose the impact on our justice system of dramatic resource disparities between individual plaintiffs and "Goliath" corporate defendants, as well as the related, gradual extinction of our jury system.  I'll paste below my tweets from that event, which convey a flavor of the presentation.

Reviews of the show so far are positive, if guarded.  The consensus seems to be that the haggard lawyer fighting for justice and thereby his own redemption is a tired cliché.  Yet the Kelley/Shapiro-led execution of the show and the small-screen mastery of Thornton--whose understated lead as Malvo in TV's Fargo s1 was a morbid joy--make Goliath irresistible viewing nonetheless.

I'm tied up this weekend with a couple of projects and might not be able to binge Goliath off the bat.  So no spoilers!

--
Kelley & Shapiro at ABA (Aug. 2016)



My tweets from ABA Annual, Aug. 5:

Friday, October 7, 2016

'Intentional Investment in Abnormally Dangerous Activities'? Not today, Mass. App. says in climate-change suit

A Massachusetts appeals panel affirmed dismissal in a climate change-related suit by Harvard students against the university.

Almost two years ago, in November 2014, a coalition of Harvard students sued the university over climate change.  The suit calls to mind the style of greenhouse-gas litigation that resulted in a plaintiff-favorable court order in the Netherlands in 2015 (NYT).  But the plaintiffs here pursued a more time-honored if indirect strategy of social protest, seeking to compel divestment, that is, to compel Harvard to divest its charitable fund investments from fossil fuel-friendly business.  Specifically, the targets for divestment were defined in the complaint as "companies whose primary business activities involve the extraction and sale of prehistoric, or non-renewable, carbon-based fuels."

The plaintiffs advanced two theories, one the "Mismanagement of Charitable Funds" and two--this is the goody--"Intentional Investment in Abnormally Dangerous Activities."  Should we call it "IIADA"?

Do you know that giddy feeling you get in your belly when you hear the name of a new tort for the first time?  It's like when you first heard about umami.

The plaintiffs articulated a case for "abnormally dangerous activities," naturally with roots in strict liability for abnormally dangerous activities, looking to the severity of harm with a shade of social balancing:

Fossil fuel companies' business activities are abnormally dangerous because they inevitably contribute to climate change, causing serious harm to Plaintiffs Future Generations' persons and property, . . . because this harm outweighs the value of fossil fuel companies' business activities by threatening the future habitability of the planet, . . . and because this harm is appreciably more serious and more irreparable than that created by comparable industries, making fossil fuel companies' business activities not a matter of common usage.

The inability to avert risk through the exercise of reasonable care is also a qualifying characteristic of strict liability for abnormally dangerous activities, and the plaintiffs adopted it. They alleged: "No amount of reasonable care by fossil fuel companies can substantially reduce the risk of such harm because doing so would require either curtailment of fossil fuel companies' own business activities or mitigation efforts by other parties that would likely lower demand for fossil fuel companies' products."

On culpability, though, the plaintiffs were content to go with something more than strict liability.  Not that they went all the way to full-on subjective intent.  The complaint alleged that "Defendants know with substantial certainty, or should know with substantial certainty, that . . . investments fund fossil fuel companies' business activities and . . . contribut[e] to climate change."  "Knowledge with substantial certainty" is the familiar only-slightly-watered-down cousin of pure intent, but "should know with substantial certainty" smacks of a somewhat less rigorous and objective inquiry.

(Wondering about Rule 11 issues?  Plaintiffs were pro se, not that that resolves the question.  I suppose, if the plaintiffs' motivation was principally political attention-getting, the defendants' had best avoid dragging things on in collateral proceedings.)

Alas, the courts did not take the bait.  The case failed for its rather massive standing problem, despite plaintiffs' valiant efforts to press for a special doctrine--vaguely reminiscent of public trust, which has been posited as a vehicle to get to climate-change standing in U.S. law.  No dice.

And the case failed because the courts didn't care for the new flavor of tort.  The appellate court observed of the proceedings below: "The judge noted that no court in any jurisdiction has ever recognized that tort, and in any event creating a new tort in the Commonwealth is the function of the Supreme Judicial Court or the Legislature."

Back to the tort test kitchen.

The case is Harvard Justice Climate Coalition v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, No. 15-P-905 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 6, 2016).

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Big Tobacco wins in Mass. trial for medical monitoring

Big Tobacco's Philip Morris prevailed in a product liability jury trial in Massachusetts in late September.  Hat tip: Torts Today.

The litigation started in 2006 with Massachusetts Marlboro smokers not alleging physical illness as such, but seeking medical monitoring in the form of "Low Dose CT Scanning of the chest" to early detect lung cancer.  State law in the United States has been increasingly receptive to medical monitoring as a form of award in mass tort cases, though a division has emerged in the jurisdictions between acceptance and rejection of the theory.  An award of medical monitoring essentially recognizes a civil wrong upon a modicum of extant physical injury, so raises concerns about the appropriate scope of tort liability.  If the tort system becomes too far detached from substantial, quantifiable loss, we worry about susceptibility to fraud, incentives to over-litigiousness, reliability of the courts to resolve disputes, and ultimately whether tort law will so pervade our lives that we fear liability for causing hurt feelings.

In the decade of litigation in this PM case, the federal court certified questions to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to ascertain whether Massachusetts law recognizes a medical monitoring claim, and if so, when the statute of limitations period begins to run.  The SJC found its way to answer the first question in the affirmative in 2009 (455 Mass. 215).  The Court at that time wrestled with the physicality question, opining that indeed, "[n]egligence in the abstract does not support a cause of action" (quoting precedent).  But the Court found enough of a physical-injury hook on which to hang its hat.

"Our tort law developed in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries," the SJC wrote in 2009, "when the vast majority of tortious injuries were caused by blunt trauma and mechanical forces. We must adapt to the growing recognition that exposure to toxic substances and radiation may cause substantial injury which should be compensable even if the full effects are not immediately apparent."

So there is physical injury, the Court explained further:
Subcellular or other physiological changes may occur which, in themselves, are not symptoms of any illness or disease, but are warning signs to a trained physician that the patient has developed a condition that indicates a substantial increase in risk of contracting a serious illness or disease and thus the patient will require periodic monitoring.  Not all cases will involve physiological change manifesting a known illness, but such cases should be allowed to proceed when a plaintiff's reasonable medical expenses have increased (or are likely to increase, in the exercise of due care) as a result of these physiological changes. 

The Court set out the plaintiff's burden--in equity, rather than in tort--to prove:
(1) The defendant's negligence (2) caused (3) the plaintiff to become exposed to a hazardous substance that produced, at least, subcellular changes that substantially increased the risk of serious disease, illness, or injury (4) for which an effective medical test for reliable early detection exists, (5) and early detection, combined with prompt and effective treatment, will significantly decrease the risk of death or the severity of the disease, illness or injury, and (6) such diagnostic medical examinations are reasonably (and periodically) necessary, conformably with the standard of care, and (7) the present value of the reasonable cost of such tests and care, as of the date of the filing of the complaint [grammatical non-parallelism in original!]. 
Expert testimony is "usually" essential.

On the second certified question, the Court found that the statute of limitations could afford some play room.  The Court ruled that plaintiffs' claims could come within the limitations period if the remedy sought, monitoring by low-dose CT scan, represented a new technological remedy where no remedy was previously available.  Moreover, this equity action would not preclude a later tort action, should cancer manifest and be detected.  The discovery rule would not run the limitations period on the cancer action until detection.

But all for naught in the end, in this case at least.  Back in federal court in September 2016, the jury rejected the plaintiff's claim of design defect in Marlboro cigarettes under the "RAD" test.  A design defect is a kind of product defect that may be said to occur when a product is properly made, because the failure is in the design itself.  RAD is a way of testing for design defect by asking whether the manufacturer could have availed of a "reasonable alternative design" that would not have contained the same injury-causing defect as the design that was employed.  Specifically, applying Massachusetts law, the federal court required the plaintiffs "to show that there was a safer, feasible alternative design for Marlboro cigarettes (i.e., an alternative design that would not unduly interfere with the performance of the product from the perspective of a rational, informed, non-addicted consumer)."  Plaintiffs could not meet that burden.

The case also involved a "93A" claim, referring to Mass. Gen. Laws ch 93A, an important statutory claim in Massachusetts tort law that can sometimes give a plaintiff an alternative route to a win and can generate a multiplier on damages.  Formally 93A is a consumer protection statute, but unusually broadly drawn, it appears routinely as a companion to conventional tort claims.  However, there was no alternative route in this case, and the 93A claim failed upon the collapse of the design-defect theory.

The case is Donovan v. Philip Morris, No. 1:06-cv-12234-DJC (D. Mass. Sept. 22, 2016).  Here is the court Order:
Judge Denise J. Casper: ELECTRONIC ORDER entered. In accordance with D. 540, 569 and 733, the Court reserved judgment on Plaintiffs' c. 93A claim against Defendant Philip Morris. This claim, as both parties acknowledge, is premised upon the breach of implied warranty of merchantability (i.e., the design defect claim). D. 29 at ¶¶ 100-110; D. 736 at 2; D. 725-1 at 3 (noting that a breach of warranty claim generally constitutes a violation of c. 93A and cases cited). It was the design defect claim for which a jury, after a contested and well-tried case by both sides, found Philip Morris, not liable. D. 718 (verdict form). Having considered the evidence presented at trial and the parties' proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, 725, 736, 740 (Plaintiffs' reply), the Court renders judgment for Philip Morris on the c. 93A claim and makes the following findings and conclusions.

The jury found for Philip Morris on the design defect claim, finding in the first instance that Plaintiffs failed to show that Marlboro cigarettes produced by the Defendant are defective and unreasonably dangerous. D. 718 at 1. The court finds that the Plaintiffs failed to show that there was a safer, feasible alternative design for Marlboro cigarettes (i.e., an alternative design that would not unduly interfere with the performance of the product from the perspective of a rational, informed, non-addicted consumer) and that the Defendant's failure to adopt a safer, feasible alternative design was unreasonable. The Court adopts the Defendant's proposed findings of fact, D. 736 at ¶¶ 14-82 in this regard.

Having found and concluded that Plaintiffs failed to prove this first, requisite element of the breach of implied warranty of merchantability claim, the Court need not address the remaining elements of that claim. D. 715 at 159-60 (jury charge addressing elements of design defect claim). Since this claim was the basis of the alleged unfair and deceptive act under c. 93A, the Court concludes, by a preponderance of the evidence and based upon the same findings of fact, that Plaintiffs c. 93A claim fails as well.

Accordingly, the Court shall enter judgment for Defendant Philip Morris as to the c. 93A claim (Count III). (Hourihan, Lisa) (Entered: 09/22/2016)

Full disclosure: I served on the Philip Morris litigation team many, many years ago.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mass. SJC refuses worker-union privilege in civil discovery



The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused to find a worker-union evidentiary privilege in a civil lawsuit by an educator against her school, affirming the Superior Court.

Nancy Chadwick, a Massachusetts teacher at Duxbury High School and former president of the Duxbury Teachers Association, alleged bullying and harassment by a direct supervisor, leading to her dismissal.  She sued for discrimination and retaliation in December 2014.  At issue in discovery were 92 emails sought by the defendant and alleged by the plaintiff to be protected by a union-union member privilege.

The SJC, per Justice Hines, refused to recognize the privilege under Massachusetts labor law or in common law.  The Court recognized that labor statutes at both the state and federal level, the latter per National Labor Relations Board precedent, can privilege communication by union members.  But looking to the apparent intent of the legislature in Mass. Gen. L. ch. 150E, the Court reasoned that the scope of that privilege is the protection of collective bargaining rights, not the furtherance of a civil lawsuit.

In the common law analysis, the Court admonished that its power to recognize privilege under Evidence Rule 501 to be “exercised sparingly.”  The Court observed that the Supreme Court of Alaska recognized a broad privilege under state statute in 2012.  But that is the minority position.  New Hampshire declined to find a privilege in grand jury proceedings in 2007.  And a California appellate court opined in 2003 that the authority to create such a privilege should rest with the legislature.

The SJC agreed that “the Legislature may be in a better position to decide whether to create a privilege and, if so, to weigh the considerations involved in defining its contours.”  McCormick on Evidence (3d ed. 1984) was quoted in a parenthetical: “It may be argued that legitimate claims to confidentiality are more equitably received by a branch of government not preeminently concerned with the factual results obtained in litigation, and that the legislatures provide an appropriate forum for the balancing of the competing social values necessary to sound decisions concerning privilege.”  Moreover, the SJC found “speculative” any harm that might result to the plaintiff for the court’s refusal to recognize the privilege.

In a footnote, the SJC clarified that its decision did not diminish inherent judicial powers to award protective order, as under civil procedure rule 26(c).

The decision is significant in part because Massachusetts is regarded as a state (or commonwealth) friendly to organized labor.  The SJC decision asserts a conservative view of separated powers such as to interpret statute and to evolve the common law under rule 501.  The latter especially has implications for other potential common law privileges, such as the journalist’s privilege.  Also, because the decision arises in the context of public employment, the lack of union privilege may have implications for construction of sunshine laws that incorporate common law and “other law” confidentiality by reference.

The case is Chadwick v. Duxbury Public Schools, no. SJC-12054 (Oct. 4, 2016) (PDF).