Showing posts with label public health. Show all posts
Showing posts with label public health. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Unregulated, 'Dark Waters' chemicals persist in cookware, clothing, sickening people, environment

Comedian and social critic John Oliver's latest top story on HBO's Last Night concerned PFAS, the artificial chemical substances behind non-stick coatings on cookware and incorporated into food wrappings and textiles, known to be highly dangerous to human health.


The stuff persists, Oliver explained, in new, unregulated, and unlabeled formulations, despite a horrific track record of illness, from obesity to terminal cancer, and environmental damage.  Oliver related recent history by quoting parts of the landmark New York Times Magazine feature by Nathaniel Rich in 2016, "The Lawyer Who Became Dupont's Worst Nightmare."  That piece inspired the unsettling 2019 feature film Dark Waters.  Oliver also excerpted a 2018 documentary, The Devil We Know.

PFAS, a "forever chemical" that persists in the environment for thousands of years, is now in the blood of virtually all Americans.  Food wrappings and clothing are our greatest risk, Oliver explained, and there is no labeling to warn us.

I just caught this on a spot-check. Adiós, sartén.
In my household, since Dark Waters brought the issue to our attention, we've exclusively adopted silicone tools to use with non-stick-coated cookware.  And at the first sign of scratching, out goes the pan or pot: a pricey luxury we are lucky to be able to afford, while we only worsen the environmental problem.  We have lately been investigating non-stick alternatives, and Oliver has ignited the gas burner under us to get moving on that.

PFAS is in the water supply, too, sometimes in alarming doses, 70 parts per trillion (ppt) being the EPA's recommended maximum concentration in drinking water.  Oliver pointed viewers to a "PFAS Contamination" interactive map created by the NGO Environmental Working Group.  The map is intriguing and informative to play around with, as it compiles water quality data from around the country.

But the most frightening takeaway from the map is the data it does not contain.  Data collection is hit or miss.  The closest results to me in East Bay Rhode Island come from a small school serving only 40 persons (4 ppt), a Massachusetts water district serving 13,627 persons (20 ppt), and the Pawtucket (R.I.) water system, serving 99,200 persons and reporting a PFAS excess at 74 ppt.

My local water authority, Bristol County (BCWA), says my water rather comes from Providence, which is not on the EWG data map, and where water quality reports appear to be missing.  It further undermines my confidence in the system that BCWA has been wanting to build a pipeline to Pawtucket, which offers, BCWA says, "another source of excellent quality water."

At last, Europe is moving ahead with regulation; I hope that will spur the United States to follow suit.

[UPDATE, 17 Oct. 2021:  Providence Water sent me a copy of the 2020 Water Quality Report in the mail. As anticipated by Oliver, there is no mention in the report of PFAS.]

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Scholar in torts, comparative law publishes book on Chinese law, article on slow WHO pandemic response

Professor Chenglin Liu has completed two new and exciting projects of interest to lawyers and legal educators.

A torts professor on the faculty of St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, Professor Liu kindly joined my Comparative Law class via Zoom in the spring to talk about coronavirus legal issues and public health regulation in the People's Republic of China.  His visit generated more discussion and questions than we had time for.

Professor Liu has now completed a landmark book, Chinese Law in Context (CAP 2021) (Amazon).  The publisher's précis reports:

Chinese Law in Context provides a unique perspective on the Chinese legal system. It first offers insight into Chinese legal history and the impact of Confucianism. Then, by examining significant scandals and corruption during the past two decades, the book analyzes constitutional law, property law, and tort law from a comparative perspective. It also covers food and drug safety laws and regulations, which are rarely addressed in other works but are increasingly critical in the context of U.S.-China bilateral trade relations.

Prof. Liu
A teacher's manual is forthcoming.

Professor Liu also has published a new article relevant to the pandemic, The World Health Organization: A Weak Defender Against Pandemics.  Consistently with Professor Liu's expertise in tort law, the article contemplates causation as between WHO management of the coronavirus and responsibility for its impact.  Here is the abstract:

Why did the World Health Organization (WHO) not act in a timely fashion to declare the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)? If it had done so, could the United States have heeded the warning and controlled the spread of the virus? Is the WHO’s delay a factual cause of the calamities that the United States has suffered? This article addresses these questions. Part I examines the development of the WHO and its governance mechanism, major powers and limits, and past achievements and failures. It also explores how the WHO responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and what could have been done—but was not done—in the early stages. Part II analyzes why the United States failed to effectively respond to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Part III concludes that the WHO did not, and in the future will not, have the power and courage to make a prompt PHEIC declaration because of institutional constraints. However, the WHO’s delay in acting was not a factual cause of the harm suffered in the United States because the Trump Administration would not have acted differently even if the WHO issued the PHEIC warning swiftly.

The article appears in 28:2 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and Law (2021).

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Court affirms widow's $21m verdict vs. Big Tobacco, upholds punitive damages despite '98 settlement

Marlboro Red Open Box by Sarah Johnson (CC BY 2.0)
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed a $21m verdict against Philip Morris USA in favor of the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer in 2016.

Fred R. Laramie started smoking in 1970, at age 13, when a store clerk gave him a free sample pack of Marlboros, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recounted.  He became a pack-a-day smoker and remained loyal to the brand, unable to quit despite trying, until his diagnosis and death in 2016.

Laramie's wife, Pamela, sued under the Massachusetts wrongful death statute.  She alleged that Marlboros were dangerously defective for their engineered addictive properties, an excess of the risk of smoking known to consumers and indicated on cigarette labels since 1969.  The jury in the Superior Court awarded Pamela Laramie $11m in compensatory damages and $10m in punitive damages.

The bulk of the high court's 37-page, unanimous opinion analyzes the inventive defense argument that the large punitive award is precluded by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) of state claims against Big Tobacco.  As the court recalled in a footnote:

The [Big Tobacco] defendants agreed to pay approximately $240 billion to the settling States over twenty-five years, and to pay approximately $9 billion per year thereafter in perpetuity, subject to various adjustments. The agreement allocated approximately four percent of those payments to the Commonwealth. The defendants also agreed to restrict cigarette advertising and lobbying efforts, to permit public access to certain internal documents, and to fund youth education programs.

Punitive damages are not awarded in Massachusetts common law; they must be authorized by statute.  The wrongful death statute authorizes punitive damages when the defendant caused injury "by ... malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct ... or by ... gross negligence."

The plaintiff successfully relied on internal documents of Big Tobacco that demonstrate the artificial manipulation of the nicotine content in cigarettes.  In the 1990s, the revelation of such records marked the plaintiff breakthrough that precipitated the collapse of Big Tobacco's long-successful wall of defenses in product liability litigation.  The revelation represented, more or less, the information at issue in the case of whistleblower-scientist Jeffrey Wigand, reported in 1996 by Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes and subject of the 1999 feature film, The Insider.

The SJC rejected the defense argument of claim preclusion.  The court recognized a qualitative difference between the claims of the Attorney General that resulted in the MSA and the claim of Laramie that persuaded a jury.

The "wrong" the plaintiff sought to remedy was the loss she and her daughter sustained due to Laramie's death, caused by Philip Morris's malicious, willful, wanton, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct, see [wrongful death statute,] G. L. c. 229, § 2. The "wrong" the Attorney General sought to remedy, by contrast, was the Commonwealth's increased medical expenditures caused by Philip Morris's commission of unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of [consumer protection law,] G. L. c. 93A, § 2.

Product liability, like punitive damages, is not a function of common law in Massachusetts, at least formally.  The commonwealth imposes strict product liability through a wide-ranging consumer protection statute, "chapter 93A."  Product liability is effectuated formally as a warranty obligation by eliminating the requirement of contractual privity between plaintiff and defendant.  But from that point, functionally, the courts breathe life into the system with multistate common law norms.

Probably Philip Morris's best argument for claim preclusion arose in the theory that chapter 93A affords treble damages, which were incorporated, in theory, into the MSA, and therefore overlaps with chapter 229 in wrongful death.  But the court distinguished the two statutes.  While both afford punitive recovery, the tests and purposes differ.  Damages under 93A were predicated on commercial practices that caused injury to state interests, while 229 damages, which are not capped, arise from culpability in inflicting personal injury on a decedent in a wrongful death action, here, Fred Laramie.

The court rejected a range of other asserted errors, whether because not error or harmless error, in relation to evidentiary admissions, jury instructions, and closing arguments.  Philip Morris had prevailed in the trial court on plaintiff claims of negligence and civil conspiracy.

With regard to jury instructions, the SJC distinguished product liability in warning defect, which was not plaintiff's theory of liability, from the design defect the plaintiff did claim.  The jury was properly instructed, the court held, that 

congressionally mandated warnings were adequate as a matter of law to warn Mr. Laramie and other members of the public of the hazards associated with smoking. The law, however, does not permit a cigarette manufacturer through its statements or actions to mislead consumers or make misrepresentations about the risks or hazards associated with smoking.

Philip Morris complained that the jury was thereby misled to test for liability in misrepresentation or warning defect.  The excerpted bit strikes me, too, as problematic.  Nevertheless, the SJC wrote that the jury was correctly instructed on the elements, so the instructions were "clear" when "viewed as a whole."

Interesting for torts pedagogy in product liability is the court's recitation of defense theories that were rejected at trial.

In its defense, Philip Morris introduced evidence that there was no adequate, safer alternative design for Marlboro cigarettes. An expert for Philip Morris testified that all cigarettes are dangerous, and that any proposed alternative design was not safer, not acceptable to consumers, or not technologically feasible. Philip Morris maintained that Marlboro cigarettes were not unreasonably dangerous to Laramie because Laramie understood the risks of smoking.

Reports linking smoking to cancer had been published in the 1950s and 1960s, and people had recognized that tobacco was addictive "going back almost [one hundred] years."  Moreover, there was testimony that every pack of Marlboro cigarettes sold between 1970 and 1984 contained a warning label from the Surgeon General that "cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health," and that every pack sold thereafter contained one of four warning labels that are still in use. Cigarette advertisements also were banned from television and radio beginning in January 1971, when Laramie was thirteen or fourteen years old. In addition, since January 1972, every print advertisement for cigarettes has been required to include a warning label similar to those on cigarette packs.

In sum, based on this evidence, Philip Morris argued that Laramie caused his own death because, despite being adequately informed of the health risks of smoking, Laramie chose to smoke, and then chose not to quit smoking.

(Paragraph breaks added.)  The plaintiff overcame the no-alternative-design defense by hypothesizing that Fred Laramie might not have become addicted to a low-nicotine cigarette.  Defense theories in assumption of risk, personal choice, and sufficiency of warning all fell short against the showing of nicotine manipulation.

The case is Laramie v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., No. SJC-13070 (Mass. Sept. 15, 2021) (oral argument at Suffolk Law).  Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt authored the opinion for the unanimous panel of six justices.  Disclosure: As an attorney in private practice, I worked on the Philip Morris defense team on tobacco litigation in the 1990s.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Talk traces 'nuisance' from King Henry I to COVID-19


Yesterday I had the privilege to present in a lecture series (virtually) at Jagiellonian University (UJ) on the tort of nuisance in American common law.  I sketched out the historical background of nuisance relative to the recent lawsuit by the State of Missouri, against the People's Republic of China, alleging public nuisance, among other theories, and seeking to establish responsibility and liability for the coronavirus pandemic.  Here is a video (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) of the presentation, also available from Facebook, where the lecture streamed live.  A narrative abstract is below the video.
The Tort of 'Nuisance' in American Common Law:
From Hedge Trimming to Coronavirus in 900 Years
Nuisance is one of the oldest civil actions in Anglo-American law, dating to the earliest written common law of the late middle ages.  Nuisance for centuries referred to an offense against property rights, like trespass, interfering with a neighbor’s enjoyment of land.  But a nuisance need not be physical, and colorful cases have addressed nuisance achieved by forces such as sound, light, and smell.  In recent decades, nuisance has undergone a radical transformation and generated a new theory of civil liability that has become untethered from private property.  State and local officials have litigated a broad new theory of “public nuisance” to attack problems on which the federal government has been apathetic, if not willfully resistant to resolution, such as climate change and the opioid epidemic.  Just last month, the State of Missouri sued the People’s Republic of China, asserting that COVID-19 constitutes a public nuisance.  Emerging from understandable frustration, public nuisance nevertheless threatens to destabilize the fragile equilibrium of state and federal power that holds the United States together.

Here are some links to read more, as referenced in the presentation:

Here is a two-minute video (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) of only my PowerPoint (no audio), if you want an idea about the course of the talk:



The four-part lecture series, "American Law in Difficult Times," comprises:
Paul Kurth: The American Low-Income Taxpayer: Legal Framework and Roles Law Students Play
May 12, 18:00
Event - Video

May 19, 18:00
Richard Peltz-Steele: “Nuisance” in American Common Law Tort: COVID-19 as a Public Nuisance?
Event - Video

May 26, 18:00
Susanna Fischer: Art Museums in Financial Crisis: Legal and Ethical Issues Related to Deaccessioning
Event - Video

June 2, 18:00
Cecily Baskir: American Criminal Justice Reform in the Time of COVID-19
Event - Video


Here is the lecture series invitation (Polish) from the American Law Students' Society (ALSS) at UJ, via Facebook:



Here is an "about" from ALSS and partners:
❖ ABOUT AMERICAN LAW IN DIFFICULT TIMES:

The American Law Program (Szkoła Prawa Amerykańskiego) run by the Columbus School of Law, The Catholic University of American [CUA], Washington D.C., and the Faculty of Law and Administration, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, as well as the American Law Students’ Society (Koło Naukowe Prawa Amerykańskiego) at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, sincerely invite you to participate in a series of four one-hour online open lectures and discussion sessions delivered by professors from the American Law Program.

The lectures will be devoted to a variety of legal issues mainly relating to COVID-19 difficulties facing people and institutions, for which legal solutions may be useful.

The lectures will be available through Microsoft Teams as well as a live-stream via Facebook. Participants willing to participate through Microsoft Teams are kindly asked to provide the organizers with their e-mails no later than 6 hours before the commencement of the lecture, by e-mail to kn.prawaamerykanskiego@gmail.com.

Your participation in all four lectures will be certified by the American Law Students’ Society. Only those participants who provide the organisers with their name, surname and e-mail will be granted such certificates.
I am grateful to Jagoda Szpak and Agnieszka Zając of ALSS at UJ; Wojciech Bańczyk, Piotr Szwedo, Julianna Karaszkiewicz-Kobierzyńska, and Gaspar Kot at UJ; and Leah Wortham at CUA.  The lecture series is sponsored by, and I am further grateful to, the Koło Naukowe Prawa Amerykańskiego (ALSS), Szkoła Prawa Amerykańskiego (School of American Law), and the Ośrodek Koordynacyjny Szkół Praw Obcych (Coordination Center for Foreign Law Schools) at the Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie (UJ in Kraków), and to CUA.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Legal attacks on lockdown mount; R.I. Governor's time will run out, report warns

Persons entering Rhode Island remain subject to 14-day
quarantine in the present phase 1 of reopening. Photo by
Taber Andrew Bain CC BY 2.0.
A former Rhode Island Supreme Court justice and a libertarian think tank asserted this week that R.I. Governor Gina Raimondo is running out of rope in sustaining her emergency lockdown orders.

Earlier in the pandemic, we law types found ourselves with time on our hands to read up on, and sometimes write about, the legal landscape of emergency powers.  Report 98-505 from the Congressional Research Service (here from the Federation of American Scientists and updated March 23, 2020) and CDC public health emergency guidance (2009, updated 2017) suddenly became popular downloads.  The 50-state compilation of quarantine and isolation laws at the National Conference of State Legislatures was well visited.  Various guides to emergency powers have blossomed since.  Heritage published a "constitutional guide" as early as March.  The Brennan Center updated a 2018 report about three weeks ago.  At Lawfare, Benjamin Della Rocca, Samantha Fry, Masha Simonova, and Jacques Singer-Emery overviewed state authorities the week before last.

Wisconsin Supreme Court chamber (Daderot CC0 1.0)
This week brought news of the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision two days ago, striking down the Wisconsin governor's stay-home order.  Clarity around the scope of the ruling and guidance as to how it should be implemented was woefully lacking from the 4-3 fractured court, and public confidence in the decision was undermined by the participation of a lame duck conservative justice in forming the majority.  Against the backdrop of a state supreme court already badly tarnished by partisan politics, the decision has only aggravated America's White House-fueled ideological in-fighting over coronavirus public policy.

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo
Personally, I've been happy with the leadership of Governor Gina Raimondo in responding to the crisis in my home state, Rhode Island.  But to be fair, I work in Massachusetts, and my job has been relatively secure.  There have been peaceful protests against lockdown in Rhode Island, and there is no doubt that the economic closure is devastating the small-business-heavy economy in the nation's smallest state.

On Wednesday, Robert Flanders, Matthew Fabisch, and Richard MacAdams published a legal analysis of Governor Raimondo's emergency orders.  The report came from the free-market think tank, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.  The authors are all lawyers; Flanders is a former associate justice of the state supreme court and was once a Republican challenger to U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.  Flanders wrote a companion editorial for The Providence Journal.  (HT@ Gene Valicenti.)

The takeaway from the report in the news is that the Governor has overstepped her emergency authority and is ripe for a lawsuit.  That's an understandable but unfair oversimplification.  The report is a solid legal analysis that examines the scope of state executive authority from a range of angles, including the statutory framework and constitutional limitations such as takings.  The popular takeaway derives from just one thread of the analysis, if an important one: The Governor's emergency powers must be limited, and a key dimension of those limits is time.

Rhode Island State House (cmh pictures CC BY-NC 2.0)
The report does not purport to adjudicate the Governor's emergency response as wrong or right.  Rather, the authors opine, when the Governor's authority runs up against the reality that exigencies are, by definition, not perpetual, the General Assembly has a responsibility to step up and lead.  That might mean simply extending the Governor's authority to make the kind of spot decisions that will be required for subsequent phases of reopening.  Or the legislature may override executive-ordered closures and force the reopening of the economy.

Saliently, the legislature should take charge of public policy.  The most cumbersome branch of government in its populous operation, the legislature is to be excused in the throes of emergency.  But after enough time has passed, the most democratically responsive branch of government should be able to gather its wits, get on its feet, and make law.  Decisions such as whether K12 schools will reopen in the fall, for example, not just financial shortfalls, should be the subject of fact-gathering legislative hearings right now.

The inevitable logic of this ideal is subject to reproach on grounds that many of our state legislatures in the United States, Congress besides, have become dysfunctionally non-responsive to increasingly severe social and economic problems. This paralysis has many and complicated causes, including corporate capture and unbridled gerrymandering.

In the functionalist reality of our government of separated powers, if one branch abdicates its mantle, the others will fill the vacuum.  Thus, in the absence of legislative leadership, a governor may be expected to carry on with policy-making, and a state supreme court, especially a politicized one, may be expected to push back.  It's in this sense that the pandemic crisis is exposing yet another grave institutional weakness in the infrastructure of American government.

If a legislature remains paralyzed long enough, the people will become antsy.  Among the ultimate remedies for legislators who would shirk their duties, some are more palatable than others (video: Liberate Minnesota protest, April 17, by Unicorn Riot CC BY-NC 3.0).  Once upon a time in Rhode Island, residents took up arms to compel the legislature to expand enfranchisement through a constitutional convention.

Alas, one problem at a time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

In memoriam: Sam Lloyd, TV lawyer 'Ted Buckland'

Sam Lloyd in 2009
(BrokenSphere
CC BY-SA 3.0)
Sam Lloyd played Ted Buckland on Scrubs. Lloyd died one week ago, on April 30.

Ted definitely makes my short list of favorite TV lawyers.  I'd say he's neck-and-neck with Jackie Chiles for number one in the sitcom genre, edging out Lionel Hutz.  Lloyd as Ted also appeared in three episodes of Cougar Town and in three episodes of the short-lived web series, Scrubs: Interns.  Lloyd's extensive filmography in other roles dates back to Night Court in 1988 and includes Ricky in Seinfeld.  Lloyd talked TV with the AV Club in 2011.

YouTube user nitemare91191 created a "Best of Ted" Scrubs compilation in 2007.


The a cappella comedy included in these clips was not just for laughs.  Lloyd and his "The Blanks" (YouTube channel: check out this A-ha cover) were a talented quartet in real life.  Lloyd was a nephew of actor Christopher Lloyd.

Zach Braff and Donald Faison also remembered Sam Lloyd at the top of their podcast, Fake Doctors, Real Friends, on Tuesday (cue to 1m30s, duration about 5 minutes).


Lloyd died at age 56 from an inoperable brain tumor diagnosed only a year ago.  He leaves behind his wife, Vanessa, and their one-year-old son, Weston.  A moving tribute is posted on the family's GoFundMe page, which was started last year to help pay for Lloyd's healthcare.

Rest in peace, Sam Lloyd, and thanks for the comic relief.

Let's take a pause, too, to think about why working people with cancer in the world's 12th richest country need GoFundMe pages to pay for healthcare, and why no one still running for President has a plan to change that.

Maybe it's time for the Great Realization.



Wednesday, April 8, 2020

'Ley contra la pandemia': CFP se extiende a las contribuciones en español


¡Convocatoria de contribuciones!

Los académicos, estudiantes, profesionales, todas las disciplinas, todas las naciones, están invitados a contribuir con artículos, comentarios y otros trabajos al nuevo sitio web y blog, Law Against Pandemic. Se aliente especialmente el trabajo de los estudiantes.  (CFP en inglés via The Savory Tort.)

Law Against Pandemic es un espacio para el debate sobre los aspectos legales de las pandemias como una herramienta de desarrollo y popularización de los logros de las ciencias sociales. El objetivo principal del proyecto es a crear una plataforma de publicación de artículos de alta calidad sobre aspectos legales de pandemias, para contribuir al discurso y al análisis de posibles soluciones.

Se aceptan textos en inglés, francés, alemán, polaco, y, ahora, español.


  

Siga Law Against Pandemic en Facebook y en Twitter.

 

 Envíe su manuscrito por email.


Estos comentarios recientes se publican en Law Against Pandemic.

Alternative dispute resolutions during global pandemic and beyond
by August Adamowicz

Is there a tool that could be used by the lawyers to mitigate the negative effects arising from the situation we are in? I believe that in some instances proper use of Alternative Dispute Resolution methods could help resolve disputes remotely, but also after the epidemic ends it could reduce the number of urgent court cases and at least in some part help to return the judicial system to normal functioning.  Read more.

Pandemic and international trade law. Is there a silver lining?
by Cyprian Liske

Current events show more clearly than ever how strong economic interconnections between countries are in the modern, globalised world. A severe crisis in just one country can break supply chains around the whole globe, not even to mention financial consequences which, as we know at least since 2008, can spread just like a deadly virus.... How do the countries choose to deal with it internationally? Do we restrict trade in the face of such dangers? Or are we trying to liberalise it in order to keep the flow of goods? What about the export of deficit goods which may be used by countries to fight pandemic domestically?  Read more.

Labour market after COVID-19
by Łukasz Łaguna

Currently, the whole world is fighting the COVID-19 epidemic. All countries are racing to find anti-crisis solutions to ensure the least possible losses for every labour market. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that no country in the world will be able to maintain such intensive financial assistance in the long run. High social benefits are only an ad hoc aid for the temporary maintenance of financial continuity of entrepreneurs.  Read more.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Doctor's blog briefs COVID-19, medmal, learned intermediary doctrine, and addiction in legal profession

Like you, likely, I am at home.  And one thing I can tell you about home:  This ain't Rwanda.  Where I was supposed to be.  Apologies in advance to students for the classes I will have to reschedule in upcoming semesters to make up some of my sabbatical research.  Or maybe the university will afford me some bonus away time, compassionately understanding the impact of the crisis.  ROTFL.

So here I sit with some time to catch up on reading, and I want to share some worthwhile items here on the blog.

For starters, I'm terribly excited about what my friend and former student Joseph Grillo, M.D., J.D.-nearly-complete, has been writing over at his eponymous blog.  Here are recent headlines, links, and snippets in reverse chronological order.  Did I mention that Dr. Joe (LinkedIn) is an infectious disease specialist?

You have a look-see, below, while I go refresh my Whole Foods delivery window window.

Or not.



Image by Prawny from Pixabay
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – The Available Evidence
March 19, 2020

There is currently a large amount of information being circulated on the COVID-19 viral pandemic. Much of it is inaccurate and some is hysteria – often fostered by the mainstream media. In my view, the best way to combat this virus is by having evidence-based information and acting accordingly. There is a significant amount of accurate information currently known, but there is also considerable information that remains unknown at this time. Presented below is a discussion of both. Please feel free to contact me with questions at jfgrillo1@gmail.comRead more.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay
The Effects of the Affordable Care Act on Medical Malpractice Claims
March 17, 2020

The seemingly interminable debates about the ACA and health care reform in the last few years have focused mainly on health care access, quality, and cost. Debates on the medical malpractice component of the issue have focused almost entirely on cost. The familiar arguments in favor of limiting liability include the financial and health costs of defensive medicine; decreased physician supply in certain specialties and geographic areas; excessive awards; and high transaction costs, including attorney and expert witness fees. The equally familiar arguments in favor of maintaining tort liability include the need to promote civil justice, deter substandard care, identify incompetent practitioners, and encourage systemic quality improvement. There is a complicated and nonlinear relationship between medical malpractice events, medical malpractice claims, and medical malpractice costs. [Footnotes omitted.]  Read more.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay
Editorial: The Edges of Physician Liability and The Learned Intermediary Doctrine
March 12, 2020

The Learned Intermediary doctrine paints an idyllic picture of patients’ total reliance on their physicians to choose drugs and of physicians choosing drugs that best promote patient welfare. These images, however, are increasingly out of sync with the present-day healthcare system. For instance, managed care and other cost control measures employed by insurance companies have altered the doctor-patient relationship.  Read more.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay
Suffering in Silence – The Addiction Epidemic in The Legal Profession
March 10, 2020

A recent course required an oral presentation on a topic of our choosing. Unknowingly, I chose to research and present my findings on addiction in the legal profession. What I found is worth expounding. Also worth noting is that these findings were presented to the university administration. Their response was chilling. In short, they claimed to “have this.” I am certain of a few things – they don’t “have this,” that being stagnant is at the heart of the crisis, and the status quo continues – drugs continue to be sold and consumed, and law students are suffering in silence. Therein lies a microcosm of a crisis within the legal profession.  Read more.

Image by Alina Kuptsova from Pixabay
Urgent Care – an Emerging Source of Clients for Medical Malpractice Attorneys
March 4, 2020

Urgent care centers are increasingly becoming Americans’ go-to option for certain health problems according to a study in JAMA Intern Med. 2018. Visits to urgent care clinics increased by 119% among commercially insured Americans between 2008 and 2015During the same time period, emergency room visits for low-severity conditions — like those treated at urgent care centers — decreased by 36%. The reasons for these trends are numerous, including the high costs and long wait times associated with ER visits. While there are certainly benefits to such clinics, there are potential pitfalls for patients.  Read more.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

CFP: Law Against Pandemic


Calling contributors!


Scholars, students, practitioners, all disciplines, all nations, are invited to contribute articles, commentary, and other work to the new website and blog, Law Against PandemicStudent work is especially desired, so professors, please spread the word (at an appropriate social distance) in your schools.

Law Against Pandemic is a "[s]pace for debate on the legal aspects of pandemics as a tool of development and popularisation of the achievements of social sciences." The project states as its main goal, "Creation of a publishing platform for high quality articles on legal aspects of pandemics, in order to contribute to the discourse and the analysis of possible solutions."

"We will publish articles and commentaries on the interrelations between law and pandemics.  There is no character limit. We accept texts in English, French, German, and Polish."

Read more in Law Against Pandemic guidelines.

 

Follow Law Against Pandemic on Facebook and on Twitter.

 

 Email submissions.


Currently available from Law Against Pandemic:



Mikołaj Sołtysiak, SARS-CoV-2 a stosunki zobowiązaniowe [SARS-CoV-2 and contractual relations].  Mikołaj Sołtysiak is a third-year student in civil law at Jagiellonian University in Poland.  The article is in Polish; here is the abstract, my translation:
The epidemic state means a period of extraordinary circumstances affecting many contractual relationships. Civil law provides for certain constructs that will enhance the content of contracts in exceptional circumstances, but only to a limited extent. Many situations caused by SARS-CoV-2 do not qualify for the use of mechanisms such as rebus sic stantibus, or lack of liability due to force majeure, and yet, it seems axiologically inappropriate to be indifferent to such cases. Here the key role of the legislator is revealed.
While Sołtysiak contemplates a need for the exercise of legislative power, I contributed a piece to Law Against Pandemic on the need in the United States for the federal executive authority to step up to the challenges of the coronavirus crisis.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

COVID-19 stresses United States on domestic borders; war analog might foster state solidarity upon federal power

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo was recently
threatened with a lawsuit by New York Governor Andrew
Cuomo.  U.S. Air National Guard Photo
by Master Sgt Janeen Miller (2016).
I have just published at the new blog, Law Against Pandemic. Here is the abstract:

The coronavirus pandemic is stressing not only our healthcare systems, but our political and legal systems.  The pandemic has challenged our sense of identity in humankind, pitching us back and forth between a spirit of global solidarity and a competition of human tribes for resources and survival.  That tension plays out in our political and legal responses to the pandemic, manifesting the natural human temptation to tribalism in both international and intranational dimensions.

As policymakers struggle to respond to the pandemic and to curb the outbreak of COVID-19, I have been struck by the emergence of interstate tensions in the United States.  The pressure of the pandemic, aggravated by a slow and uncertain governmental response at the federal level, has been a brusque reminder that the United States are a plural: a federation of states that famously endeavored “to form a more perfect Union,” but that, like human governance itself, remains a work in progress.


Read more at the new blog, Law Against Pandemic

 

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Practical obscurity, other privacy arguments deliver blow to media in Mass. FOIA case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided a state open records case in mid-June that invites lower courts to substantially broaden privacy exemption from access to information. The case is Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC v. Department of Public Health, No. SJC-12622 (Mass. June 17, 2019) (Lexis).

The Boston Globe is seeking access to a database of state birth, marriage, and death records from the Department of Public Health (DPH). In disagreement with state administrative officers enforcing the open records law, DPH refused access in part, citing statutory protections of personal privacy.  The SJC rejected dispositive motions from both sides, electing to clarify the law and remand for a range of further fact finding.

The case resonates with various problems that have become familiar to privacy law over the last few decades. First, can privacy arise in a compilation of records, when the records are not private one by one?  Second, can privacy preclude disclosure of records in government possession because the records are more about individuals than about the government? Third, how can personal privacy in electronic public records account for an individual's hypothetical privacy interests in the future?

First, the compilation problem arises in that these vital records already are available to the public. Members of the public are allowed to go to  DPH's research room during 11 opening hours each week to view vital records in the electronic database. There are limitations, though. A researcher must search for a name, viewing responsive records only one at a time. Printing is not available, though there is no limitation on copying down information.

At issue legally, then, is whether mere compilation can change the public/private disposition of a record. Historically, the answer to this question was no. Norms of public records law as it developed in the 20th century held that a record should be evaluated within its four corners.

However, that position changed at the federal level, under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), with the landmark case, U.S. Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (U.S. 1989). In that early instance of database access, the Supreme Court construed the FOIA contrary to access on various grounds.  The case was an infamous loss for the access NGO Reporters Committee, which filed as amicus on behalf of the Globe in this case.

Among the conclusions of Reporters Committee, the Court embraced the doctrine of practical obscurity: the notion that a record that is hard to find, whether by rifling through paper or by collecting geographically disparate components, may therein preserve a privacy interest against disclosure when compiled electronically with other such records. With its limitations on record access through the research room, DPH means to effect practical obscurity. The SJC was receptive to the argument, and it will remain to the lower court to decide what weight that privacy holds. Practical obscurity has been a thorn in the side of access advocates for the 30 years since Reporters Committee, while it has captivated courts.

Second, the content problem goes to the disputed heart of access law, its purpose. In Reporters Committee and subsequent cases, the federal courts embraced the cramped position that the purpose of access law is to reveal "what government is up to." Thus when records contain personal information, access opponents ground resistance in statutory purpose without even needing to rely on privacy exemptions.

Access advocates have argued powerfully against this position, especially in the states. Simply knowing what information government is collecting about individuals seems an important priority in the digital age. And the limited purpose argument ignores the plain theoretical position that government records are public records simply by virtue of ownership or possession, because ours is a government of the people. 

On this score the SJC was more solicitous of a broad construction. The state law expressly cites the watchdog purpose. Nevertheless, the Court reasoned that the statute more broadly means to further public interests, which may require disclosure even of personally identifying information in public possession. At the same time, the Court observed that public interests may weigh against disclosure, acknowledging personal privacy protection as a public interest. In the instant case, the Court cited only a public interest in record accuracy, as argued by the Globe, to favor disclosure. The balance is left to remand, but the interest of accuracy seems thin relative to the array of privacy arguments deployed by DPH.

That array arises in connection with the third and most contemporary problem, the protection of individuals' hypothetical privacy interests. Here again is a privacy interest that conventional access law would have disregarded. Yet the SJC was solicitous.

This same problem has been much discussed in the internet age in the guise of the right to be forgotten, or right to erasure. If a government entity is obliged to disclose databases upon demand, then it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to withdraw information from the public sphere later. Access absolutists say, so be it. But privacy advocates assert that meritorious processes for correcting or sealing sensitive public records, such as criminal histories or family matters, are undermined by an internet that "never forgets."

Especially with regard to vital records, the SJC spent some ink on the problem of sex changes and the discovery of a person's birth identity. That is a factor rightly weighed into the privacy balance on remand, the Court held. While evincing compassion, the Court's position is sure to rile access advocates. There seems no logical stopping point from the Court's position to the conclusion that all personally identifying information must be protected against disclosure, in case any one person wishes to change identity in the future. That would be a rule ripe for abuse in official hands.

This decision is bad news for access advocates. It invites privacy to the table as a weight co-equal with access, virtually lifting the presumption-of-access thumb from the scale. The government won broad discretion to conceal its activities relative to people.

At the same time, the Court showed itself to be in step with contemporary privacy law. For better and worse, people are looking to government to protect them against abuses of information in the private sector, from identity theft to big data analytics. In the absence of legislation, the courts have been ever more inclined to oblige.

It remains to be seen what price this protection will exact from transparency and accountability of the government itself.