Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label tort reform. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tort reform. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

'1,000 Places to Fall to Your Death,' Utah edition, means American tort law hasn't undermined pioneer spirit

I can't help but check out the tortscape when I travel.  As mentioned last week, I have been traveling recently in Utah.  The sights are breathtaking.  And as an indicator of the health of the American tort system, I am pleased to report, Utah has many places where one can fall to one's death.

If your foreign friends are like mine, then you too are tired of being teased about fencing at the Grand Canyon, supposedly erected by the National Park Service to protect itself from lawsuits.

It's nonsense, of course.  There are a very few railings and barriers installed at the most popular viewing areas at the Grand Canyon.  Given the often present throng, the limited installations are only sensible, to protect the canyon as well as the people.  Plenty of visitors still manage to fall and die.  And if anything about such deaths speaks powerfully to "the American way," it's the sovereign immunity that usually dispatches any subsequent lawsuits.

(In all seriousness, for a tragic and compelling problem in this vein, and an excellent case for torts profs to introduce the Federal Tort Claims Act, see the recent and pending claim against the National Park Service by the family of Esther Nakajjigo, a human rights activist and tourist who was decapitated by a swinging traffic control gate at Arches National Park in Utah in 2020.  Read more from Moab Sun News, NBC News, Fox13 Salt Lake City, and Yahoo News Australia.  The case is Michaud v. United States, No. 1:21-cv-01547-KLM (filed D. Colo. June 8, 2021) (Court Listener).)

Railings such as these represent a reasonable exercise of discretion by any global measure:
surrounding a viewing platform at Sipapu Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument.



My friends' teasing persists because it capitalizes on two stereotypes of Americans: first, as camera-happy tourists who don't know how to handle themselves when voyaging giddily away from home on their precious ten days of unguaranteed vacation; and second, as lawsuit-addicted complainants eager to forsake personal responsibility for a pay day.  Corporate America's tort-deform messaging has saturated the globe.

I should know better.  But, I admit, my insecurities are allayed whenever I discover a new place one can fall to death amid the sublime splendor of an American natural wonder.  And I found many such places in Utah.  I'm thinking about writing a book in the vein of Patricia Schultz's 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.  Mine will be "1,000 Places to Fall to Your Death in America."  It's simultaneous travel literature and tort-reform opposition.

This is my favorite new candidate for the book: Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah.  It's oddly appropriate because the park is in fact named after a corporation.  National Geographic featured the land in color photography in 1949 and, with permission of the Eastman Kodak company, named the area after the company's pioneering color film, which had been introduced in 1935 (and was discontinued in 2009).  The park is a worthwhile stop, or destination unto itself, on Utah's famed Scenic Byway 12, near Cannonville.

Kodachrome Basin boasts some 67 "sedimentary pipes," columns of rock rising from the basin floor.  According to park literature, the pipes are the result of erosion, but geologists are not sure whether historical earthquakes or ancient springs explain the erosion-resistant columns.  There are more than 14 miles of trails in the park from which one can see the pipes and take in the park's chromatic appeal.

I did one of the shorter hikes. The 1.5-mile Angel's Palace Trail rises 150 feet from the basin floor to afford views from Kodachrome to nearby Bryce Canyon.  Angel's Palace offers many short side tracks to scenic viewpoints, like this one:

Here's a 360-degree panoramic:
The trail drops off on both sides:
If you meander down this pathway, it narrows to a small rocky point, maybe 10 square inches of a rounded top of crumbly rock, where, I suppose, someone with a death wish could make a killer TikTok hopping on one foot.  I got only far enough along to take this photo:

In further furtherance of the pioneer spirit, there's one other unmitigated way to die in Utah, and that's in an agricultural encounter.  At the American West Heritage Center in Wellsville, Utah, I was surprised to see this sign:

In 1L Torts, I always include some coverage of sector-specific statutory liability limitations, usually adopted to protect domestic businesses especially from suit by out-of-state tourists.  In my first year as a legal writing instructor in the 1990s, colleagues and I used a problem involving the Colorado skier responsibility law.  Utah has one, too.  This was the first time, though, that I've learned of a sector-specific liability limitation in "agritourism."  Actually, this was the first time I ever heard of agritourism (also "agrotourism").

The cited section of the Utah Code indeed defines agritourism as "the travel or visit by the general public to a working farm, ranch, or other commercial agricultural, aquacultural, horticultural, or forestry operation for the enjoyment of, education about, or participation in the activities of the farm, ranch, or other commercial agricultural, aquacultural, horticultural, or forestry operation."

The statute doesn't depart radically from the negligence standard, but, like the sign says, affords service providers an assumption-of-risk defense when signs are posted.  The statute specifies risks inherent in agritourism:

a danger, hazard, or condition which is an integral part of an agricultural tourism activity and that cannot be eliminated by the exercise of reasonable care, including:
     (i) natural surface and subsurface conditions of land, vegetation, and water on the property;
     (ii) unpredictable behavior of domesticated or farm animals on the property; or
     (iii) reasonable dangers of structures or equipment ordinarily used where agricultural or horticultural crops are grown or farm animals or farmed fish are raised.

I didn't run into any of those problems.  I must be a pioneer at heart.

Me holding up a natural bridge on the Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park
(All photos by RJ Peltz-Steele, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Media want anti-SLAPP security while ignoring real harm, and nobody wants to talk about tort dysfunction

Christian Dorn from Pixabay
On April 7, one of my favorite podcasts, WNYC's On The Media (OTM), ran a story, not its first, on anti-SLAPP laws: statutes in the states (not yet federal) designed to combat "strategic lawsuits against public participation."

I've written about anti-SLAPP many times.  I'm not a fan of the statutes.  The OTM piece is good and important, but it tells only one side of the anti-SLAPP story.  That's a common, and forgivable, shortcoming in mass media coverage of itself.

Why I Care, and You Should Too

I've been a media advocate since I was hooked by my first high school journalism class in the 1980s (hat tip at Mrs. McConnell).  I've been a media defense lawyer and a defamation plaintiff, besides a classroom teacher of media law and the First Amendment.  My hang-up is justice, or the remediation of injustice (yes, I'm a J), and there's plenty of both in the way our news media work in the shadow cast by the shield of the First Amendment.  Advocating for the devil in my classroom, I was a critic of the Sullivan/Gertz actual malice standard decades before it became fashionable, or even socially acceptable in academic circles, to question the supposed sine qua non of free speech.

So when the media defense bar teamed up with state legislators to start piling on anti-SLAPP statutes as another death-blow weapon in the scorched-earth media defense arsenal in the late 1990s, I was skeptical from the get-go.  Upon the siren song of free speech absolutism, now decades on, Americans have fallen into the lazy habit of denying access to our courts to would-be plaintiffs who are genuinely victimized.  As a scholarly observer of tort law, I can tell you, bad things happen when people are systematically disenfranchised from justice.  What's worse, as empirical research has consistently told us for decades, and I confirm from my own experience, the ordinary defamation plaintiff is not the money-grubbing opportunist that tort reformers (or distorters) wish us to imagine; rather, what a defamation plaintiff usually wants, first and foremost, is the truth.  News media defendants might remember the truth from journalism school.

How did we get to a point that when a plaintiff and defendant want the same thing, it's still a zero-sum game?  If with the best of intentions, the U.S. Supreme Court in the civil rights era so distorted the state landscape of defamation law that media defendants lost all interest in compromise, even if the simple compromise is to correct the record and speak the truth.  Sullivan biographer Anthony Lewis recognized this problem in the penultimate chapter of his otherwise-paean to the case in 1992.  And this is why the 1993 Uniform Correction or Clarification of Defamation Act proved a profound failure.  The uniform law proposed using a First Amendment-compliant carrot rather than a constitutionally prohibited stick to coax media defendants to hear complainants out before facing off in court.  But, media defendants implicitly pleaded in response, why should we listen when we always win?

Anti-SLAPP laws are perfect for the thing they're perfect for: To shut down an obvious attempt to abuse the legal process with a sham claim when the plaintiff's true motivation is to harass or silence a defendant engaged in constitutionally protected speech or petitioning, especially when it's whistle-blowing.  "I know it when I see it" is why a South African judge recently allowed anti-SLAPP as an "abuse of process" defense even in the absence of a statute, shutting down a mining company's implausible suit against environmentalists.  Meanwhile, the American anti-SLAPP statute, the darling offspring of mass media corporate conglomerates and financially beholden legislators, tears through court dockets with no regard for the balance of power between the parties.

As a result, sometimes, like the infinite monkey who stumbles onto Hamlet, anti-SLAPP works.  Other times, David is summarily shut out of court at the behest of Goliath.  The dirty secret of the media defense bar is that it's pulling for the latter scenario more often than the former, because Davids pose a much greater threat to the corporate bottom line than the occasional, over-hyped monkey.

Squirrel!  SLAPPs Aren't the Problem

SLAPP suits only work because of a bigger dysfunction in tort law:  Transaction costs are way too high.  Lawyers and litigation cost too much.  (Law school costs too much, but that's another rabbit hole.)  Our civil dispute resolution system, in contrast with those of other countries, so prizes precision as to draw out civil proceedings to absurd expectations of time, energy, heartache, and money.  Too often, at the end of a litigation, both exhausted parties are net losers, and only the lawyers, on both sides, come out ahead.  The tort system is supposed to engender social norms and deter anti-social conduct through its compensation awards, not its overhead costs.  We've so contorted torts, especially when accounting for suits that are never brought, that the norm-setting and deterrent effects of transaction costs dwarf the impact of outcomes.

Anti-SLAPP tries to solve the problem of runaway transaction costs by summarily dismissing claims on the merits when a plaintiff cannot prove the case at the time of filing, usually without the benefit of discovery.  The game is rigged, because the evidence the plaintiff needs is in the possession of the defense.  So plaintiff's unlikely path to proof, already mined with common law and constitutional obstacles to press the scale down on the defense side, is well obliterated by anti-SLAPP. We could use this "solution" of summary dismissal across the board to cut back on tort litigation.  But people wouldn't stand for it in conventional personal injury, because then we'd be overrun with uncompensated and visibly afflicted plaintiffs, and the injustice would be undeniable.

If we dared have the creativity to experiment with more effective dispute resolution mechanisms as alternatives to tort litigation, we might best start with defamation cases, in which we know what plaintiffs want, and it's not money.  Yet here we are, hamstrung by the Supreme Court, disenfranchised by defense lobbyists, and forced to swallow the dangerous myth that we can have free speech only if we stand aside and let mass media deliver misinformation with impunity.

The Case of the Charity Exposé
and the Lamentations of the Media Defense Bar

In the April segment, OTM host and media veteran Bob Garfield interviewed Victoria Baranetsky, general counsel for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), about a lawsuit by also-501(c)(3) nonprofit Planet Aid against CIR.  The lawsuit arose from a 2016 series on the CIR Reveal platform, in which CIR alleged abuse of charitable status by the organization through, inter alia, improper diversion of donor funds.  A California federal judge dismissed the 2018 complaint in March 2021, and Planet Aid, which is appealing, and CIR have very different takes on what that dismissal meant.  Planet Aid emphasizes "46 statements" in the reporting that the court found false, notwithstanding anti-SLAPP dismissal, while CIR emphasizes "several million dollars" of legal costs, "vastly exceed[ing] ... insurance coverage" and impossible to pay without pro bono aid.

CIR is not an outfit that publishes without doing its homework.  So without opining on the merits of the lawsuit, I admit, my gut allegiance in the case tends to CIR.  And I think it's OK that OTM interviewed only Baranetsky.  "Balance" as a journalistic value too often feeds the "talking heads" phenomenon we know from the disintegration of television broadcast journalism.  OTM's report was about the toll of litigation on journalism, not the merits of the CIR stories.  Looking, then, at the OTM story, I find that a side was missing, but it wasn't Planet Aid's.  Missing is reasoned resistance to the anti-SLAPP craze.  Here, then, are my reflections on five media lamentations in the OTM story about anti-SLAPP.

Lamentation Over Forum Shopping

(1) Baranetsky lamented that Planet Aid was permitted to sue in Maryland, where the law was advantageous to a plaintiff, and CIR was forced to incur major costs to move the case to California, where anti-SLAPP law is more protective.  Federal anti-SLAPP would fix this problem.

Forum shopping is a problem, but not specially a media defense problem.  Barring defamation victims from redress equally across the states isn't better than barring them one state at a time; i.e., 50 wrongs don't make a right.  Rather, everything that's wrong with anti-SLAPP would be multiplied by a federal statute.  Plaintiff's choice of forum does aggravate costs, and that allows forum shopping to be used improperly as a SLAPP tool.  The answer is to change how we manage forum selection in federal civil procedure to stop the externalization of costs to defendants and to compel professionalism in the plaintiffs' bar—not to put a thumb on the scale of merits in lawsuits, even SLAPPs.

Moreover, in overriding state court discretion to hear defamation actions on the merits, a federal anti-SLAPP statute would double down on the entrenched Sullivan/Gertz paralysis of the tort system that's precluding the development of innovative alternatives.  Our problem in defamation law is not lack of uniformity in the states, but precisely the opposite, lack of diversity that would generate new approaches.

Lamentation Over the Burdens of Discovery

(2) Baranetsky lamented that California federal courts have allowed limited discovery before dismissing cases under California anti-SLAPP law, thereby upping the costs of money and time for media defendants and mitigating the efficacy of anti-SLAPP. 

Notwithstanding the present debate in the Courts of Appeal over whether state anti-SLAPP laws can displace federal court process, anti-SLAPP puts defamation plaintiffs in a no-win scenario, especially when the plaintiff is a public figure.  Under Sullivan/Gertz, a public-figure plaintiff can prevail only by proving subjective knowledge or intent on the part of the defendant to publish falsity.  Subjective culpability lies only in the mind of the defendant.  Without precogs, we prove subjective culpability with circumstantial evidence.  When the defendant is a mass media organization, that evidence is in the possession of the defendant.  Even in a negligence case with a private-figure plaintiff, it is impossible to probe the culpability of the defendant when the plaintiff has no knowledge of the defendant's internal process, even the identity of a staff editorial writer, for example.

Yet along comes anti-SLAPP to demand (in the usual formulation) that a plaintiff prove likelihood of success on the merits with evidence that the plaintiff could not possibly possess.  Win-win for the media defense, lose-lose for access to justice.  Baranetsky bemoaned the costs, tangible and intangible, of discovery, especially on a nonprofit media outlet.  With that complaint, I am sympathetic.  Again, though, the answer is to change the process to control transaction costs.  The long reach of American discovery is globally infamous and socially problematic in ways well beyond the woes of media defendants.

Baranetsky raised the further point that the permitted discovery was one-sided, so CIR was not able to use discovery to bolster what might be a winning affirmative defense, such as truth.  I take this point, too.  I have some concern about the potential for a media organization—imagine not CIR, but a more partisan and unscrupulous outfit—to misuse discovery to further ill intentions.  But courts can and should control the scope of discovery with appropriate protective orders.   

Lamentation Over Interment by Paper

(3) Baranetsky lamented that the Planet Aid "complaint was about 66 pages, almost 70 pages long.... [B]ecause our reporters did such extensive reporting, published on the radio, published online, there were a lot of remarks to pull in from a really substantive investigation. The complaint here was padded with all of those bells and whistles."  That again upped media defense costs and slowed down the anti-SLAPP process.  

I don't doubt that the complaint was longer than it needed to be.  Plaintiffs anticipating high-profile litigation—by the way, including agenda-seeking litigators from both left and right, as well as state attorneys general—routinely plead "to the media" and to "the court of public opinion," rather than to the court of law.  Excessive pleading runs up defense costs, as well as court time, which is not fair to litigants or taxpayers.  Again, the answer lies in bar and bench control of process and professionalism, not in summary dismissal on the merits.

More importantly, to some extent, a defamation plaintiff's claim in a case over a series of reports must be lengthy, for a very reason Baranetsky said, and not because the plaintiff wants it that way.  It's not "padding," "bells," or "whistles."  Defamation plaintiffs are compelled by rules of pleading to commit a perverse self-injury by republishing the defamation of which they complain.  Thereafter, mass media entities are permitted to restate the defamation as a fair report of a public record, almost with impunity.  As a result, often, the defamation is amplified, and the plaintiff's suffering is vastly compounded.  Even if the plaintiff wins the case, compensation for this added injury is disallowed, and no media entity can ever be compelled to correct or update the record by reporting that the plaintiff later prevailed upon proof of falsity.

In my own plaintiff's case, precisely this happened.  Among countless national outlets, The New York Times reported the defamatory allegations I republished in the complaint, but never covered the case again, despite my entreaties to the reporter and ombudsperson.  To this day, I overhear innuendo based on the Times story with no reference to my later exoneration, which was reported in only one excellent-but-niche publication.  In my experience with would-be defamation plaintiffs, I have seen that this risk alone prevents a victim from seeking redress as often as not.  Once again, we could answer this problem by reforming pleading in defamation, rethinking what "fair report" means in the digital age, and experimenting with dispute resolution, if only Sullivan/Gertz left the defense bar with the slightest incentive to participate.

Lamentation Over Litigiousness

(4) In his introduction to the case, Garfield said, "Without offering evidence to rebut the allegations, the charity promptly sued the news organization for libel."

OTM itself walked back this characterization of Planet Aid's lawsuit as a blindside attack.  An OTM editor's note to the story posted online added that, according to a PR firm representing Planet Aid, the organization "reached out to [CIR] prior to filing its lawsuit asking for a retraction and correction."

I don't know whether Planet Aid's version is right, or OTM's, or maybe the demand letter got lost in the mail.  As I've indicated, I'm not rushing to sign up Planet Aid as my poster child for the Anti-SLAPP Resistance.  But OTM's post hoc characterization of events is, to my experience, typical of media-defense-bar spin.  In reality, rare in the extreme is the case that there is not at least a demand letter and response.

In my own plaintiff's case, I filed suit as late as possible, on the eve of the expiration of the statute of limitations.  I sought to diffuse the disagreement through every possible avenue, both vis-à-vis my defendants and through negotiation with a third party.  Yet when my case turned up years later in a book by an academic colleague, Amy Gajda, she used my case to support the book's thesis that alternative dispute resolution mechanisms on university campuses would help to avert lawsuits by litigious academic plaintiffs like me.  I don't dispute (or support) that thesis in the abstract, but my case did not support it.  Gajda suggested that I rushed to sue, without probing alternatives, which was utterly false.  In fact, it was the refusal of my potential defendants to come to the table—the very problem of Sullivan/Gertz inhibition of dispute resolution—that forced me into a lawsuit as an undesired last resort.

Gajda, by the way, is herself an award-winning journalist and scholar of media law.  Yet she readily contorted the procedural facts of my case to fit her expectations without ever asking me what happened.  We know each other, and I'm not hard to find.  If a top-flight journalist can be so sloppy with the facts in a case about a professional colleague, and I have to lump it, what chance does a lay soul in private life have to correct the record on something that really matters, as against a professional media outlet with a partisan agenda and lawyers on retainer?

How simple it is to make assumptions and feed the tort reformer's myth that greedy plaintiffs eagerly sue at the drop of a hat.  Yet no one properly counseled by an experienced attorney chooses a lawsuit as a first course of redress.  To the contrary, defamation victims, especially in matters as difficult to win as media torts, typically cannot find an attorney willing to take the case at the opportunity cost of sure-thing personal-injury money, and certainly not on contingency.  Plaintiffs wind up not suing for that or many other reasons unrelated to their real losses.  Other reasons include the risk, under anti-SLAPP fee-shifting, of having to pay attorneys' fees to a corporate media defendant's high-priced lawyers—not because the plaintiff wasn't defamed, but because the plaintiff could not meet the enhanced burdens to overcome a First Amendment defense.  Other reasons also include the stigma associated with being a plaintiff in America, a stigma perpetrated by corporate advocates of tort reform and conveniently perpetuated by would-rather-not-be defendants in the media business.

Lamentation Over the Price of Free Speech

(5) Baranetsky opined, "We have to be wary of defamation law being used by public figures and politicians and wielded in ways that can be used retributively. At the same time, make sure that lies aren't being spread.  The hope is that anti-SLAPP laws are really, they're the precise scalpel that's supposed to sharply and acutely figure out which falls on which side of the line."

That's a profound misapprehension of anti-SLAPP laws.  There is nothing about anti-SLAPP that is precise or acute.  Very much to the contrary, anti-SLAPP is designed to be a blunt instrument that stomps out litigation before it can get started, looking scarcely at the quantum of evidence on the merits and rounding down in favor of the defense.  Anti-SLAPP operates upon the very theory of Sullivan/Gertz, which is that the price of free speech is the prophylactic annulment of meritorious claims and the tolerance of misinformation.  The theory of anti-SLAPP is that we don't want to know the truth, and would rather abide falsity, when the cost of disentangling truth and falsity is inconveniently excessive.

Baranetsky's take on anti-SLAPP is ironic in the extreme.  The Sullivan/Gertz constitutionalization of state tort law is based on the age-old argumentative hypothesis of moral philosophy that "the truth will out" in the marketplace of ideas, so the courts ought not intervene to abate falsity.  That proposition has been vigorously refuted by scholars as demonstrably erroneous.  And CIR's very motto, splashed on a home page banner, is: "The truth will not reveal itself."

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I've identified areas of tort law that need reform—abuse of forum selection, excessively broad discovery, permissiveness of fact pleading—and areas of defamation law in particular that need reform, procedural and substantive—pleading requirements, fair report protection, culpability and proof standards, plaintiff access to representation, and availability of alternative dispute resolution—but are paralyzed by federal capture of common law and media defense intransigence.

Let me not understate my appreciation for OTM, WNYC, CIR, and all kinds of nonprofit journalistic enterprises.  I am grateful that CIR did the reporting that it did on Planet Aid, and for the reporting that OTM does all the time on threats to public interest journalism.  I am fearful of a world in which that reporting does not happen.  

Nevertheless, I object to a legal standard that presumes news media have the corner market on truth.  If our system of civil dispute resolution is broken, and I think it is, then we need to fix it.  Anti-SLAPP is at best a patch to paper over unsightly symptoms of our dysfunction, and, too often, it does so at the expense of genuine victims.  Our willingness to ignore injury says more about the sorry state of our democratic character than does our blind fealty to an unbridled press.

At the annual meeting earlier this year of the Communications Law Forum of the American Bar Association, a famously media defense-identifying conference, I heard whispered for the first time some cautious and reluctant concern that media defendants holding all the cards in tort litigation might—wait, is this a secure channel?—might not necessarily be the best strategy to ensure the freedom of speech and to protect the flow of truthful information in America, especially in the digital age.

Now where have I heard that before?

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

'Super tort' might represent failure of public policymaking, but is only tip of melting iceberg

First Circuit remands R.I. suit against Big Oil for public nuisance

Super Tort
(pxhere.com CC0)
A "super tort" sounds delicious.  Indeed, the term refers more often to food than to a theory of civil liability.  Maybe that's why the term animated headlines recently when the defense-friendly American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) used it in an amicus brief to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

In October, ATRA filed its brief on the side of Johnson & Johnson's appeal of a $465m trial verdict of public nuisance liability in the opioid epidemic.  In the brief, ATRA warned that the award represented a "new species of public nuisance [that] will devour all of Oklahoma tort law and, with it, who knows how many businesses."  ATRA explained (my bold):

Since its inception, public nuisance has played a circumscribed role in Oklahoman—indeed, American—jurisprudence. It originated as a property-based tort used to remedy invasions of public lands or shared resources like highways and waterways. The trial court ignored that history, transforming public nuisance into a super tort that exposes Oklahoma businesses to unlimited liability for a broad array of public issues that are far removed from traditional public nuisances.

ATRA further argued its position in terms of the separation of powers, or, classically stated, Aristotelian justice:

The decision will also chill business activity throughout the state for fear that any product linked to a perceived social problem may lead to astronomical and disproportionate liability. It is not the judiciary's role to create a new tort to address social problems. That job belongs to the legislature, which can weigh competing policy factors and study the possible consequences of expanding traditional nuisance law.

Lead paint can
(Thester11 CC BY 3.0)
This isn't the first time ATRA has bemoaned the emergence of a public nuisance "super tort."  Among other tort-reform advocates, defense attorney Phil Goldberg used the term in 2008 and in 2018 to describe lead paint liability.  On the former occasion, echoed in an industry legal brief and in legal scholarship, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island had just rejected industry liability for lead paint on grounds that the defendants had no control over the product at the time it caused harm to children.  An ATRA leader warned of "super tort" in the climate change context as early as 2011 (States News Serv., Apr. 18, 2011 (quoting Tiger Joyce)). (Inapposite here, Patrick O'Callaghan, University College Cork, used the term "super tort" in the Irish Law Times in 2006 to describe potential excess in invasion-of-privacy liability.)

Nevertheless, public nuisance is the leading theory with which the State of Rhode Island now demands that oil companies pay for the past and future consequences of climate change.  Rhode Island alleges theories of product liability and public trust, in addition to public nuisance.  The state's suit is just one of many filed by state and local governments against Big Oil.  The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, at Columbia Law School, tracks all U.S. litigation on climate change, including the Rhode Island suit

Just last week, the First Circuit remanded the Rhode Island suit to state court, rejecting industry claims of federal preemption.  Meanwhile, the case in state court is on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court ponders the outer constitutional limits of personal jurisdiction.  The Court's ruling in an otherwise unrelated case, which I wrote about in April and the Court heard this fall, has ramifications for Rhode Island's thin assertion of jurisdiction over transnational oil defendants.

Over the summer, I spoke about the expansive approach to public nuisance that resulted in the colossal Oklahoma award against Johnson & Johnson and that leads government claims against Big Oil over climate change.  Corporate objections voiced by ATRA, based in Aristotelian justice, are legitimate.  Ironically, as I discussed briefly in my lecture, I see this resort to the courts as an understandable expression of public frustration with corporate capture of our political branches of government.

The Rhode Island complaint images industry-sponsored public service announcements that sewed doubt about climate change and the role of fossil fuel.

Yet despite my skepticism, as a Rhode Islander and a taxpayer, I find the allegations in the state's 2018 complaint awfully persuasive.  The climate science is neatly summarized with color charts, and I'm a sucker for a color chart.  More dispassionately persuasive of moral responsibility on the part of industry, though, are excerpts of trade association advertising that downplayed, if not mocked, climate change science at a time when the industry must have known better.  The ads are eerily reminiscent of Big Tobacco efforts to downplay the risks of smoking for decades through the selectively scientific work of the Tobacco Institute.  That makes me wonder that product liability and consumer protection might be the states' and localities' best approach, not to mention a more doctrinally conservative strategy, and therefore judicially appealing approach, compared with a no-holds-barred theory of public nuisance—if we must rely on the courts alone, after all.

We might ought worry that "super tort" will devour our rational framework of civil liability.  But rather than reject industry responsibility and liability outright, we should add "super tort" to our lately exploded catalog of reasons to examine how and why our political institutions have failed to protect the environment, public health, and human life.

The case in Rhode Island state court is Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp., No. PC-2018-4716 (Bristol County, R.I. Super. Ct. filed July 2, 2018).  The case in the First Circuit was Rhode Island v. Shell Oil Prod. Co., No. 19-1818 (1st Cir. Oct. 29, 2020).

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Court rejects deep-brain-stimulation patient's contract, IIED claims against Boston nonprofit hospital

A patient dissatisfied with deep-brain stimulation (DBS) to treat her depression could not prevail against her nonprofit hospital, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled yesterday, in part because she sued in contract rather than medical malpractice.

The plaintiff-patient sued Brigham & Women's Hospital, Inc. (BWH), in Boston over her DBS treatment, which is experimental with respect to depression, but is approved to treat Parkinson's.  BWH paid for the $150,000+ treatment, which the plaintiff's insurance would not cover, with the design of expanding a program in psychosurgery.

CT scan of DBS implants
(Dr. Craig Hacking, A. Prof Frank Gaillard CC BY-SA 4.0)
The plaintiff initially reported favorable results.  But the relationship between patient and hospital "sour[ed]," the court explained.  The plaintiff became dissatisfied with the repeated interventions required to replace batteries and refine the DBS.  She believed that the hospital was short-changing her treatment because the psychosurgery program was not taking off as hoped.  The hospital pledged to do what was needed to support plaintiff's continued treatment, but the fulfillment of that pledge incorporated some cost-benefit analysis.  And the hospital would not accede to the plaintiff's demand that BWH pay for her treatment elsewhere.

The plaintiff sued BWH for breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED).  The trial court entered summary judgment for the hospital, and the Appeals Court affirmed.

BWH (Jim McIntosh)
The court's opinion spends most of its pages establishing that there was no broken promise to support the breach of contract and promissory estoppel claims.  The hospital promised to treat the plaintiff for free, and it never charged her.

Of salience here, the court also concluded that the plaintiff had misstated a medical malpractice claim as a breach of contract claim, possibly to get around the $100,000 state cap on medmal liability for charitable organizations (not to mention the claims-vetting process of the commonwealth's medical malpractice tribunal).  The plaintiff asserted medmal would not be the appropriate cause of action for an experimental treatment and a dispute over cost.  But the court pointed to the plaintiff's repeated claims of the defendant's failure to comply with "scientific and ethical standards."

Finally, the court's treatment of IIED was instructive, if routine:

To prevail on this claim, [plaintiff] must prove "(1) that the actor intended to inflict emotional distress or that he knew or should have known that emotional distress was the likely result of his conduct; (2) that the conduct was 'extreme and outrageous,' was 'beyond all possible bounds of decency' and was 'utterly intolerable in a civilized community'; (3) that the actions of the defendant were the cause of the plaintiff's distress; and (4) that the emotional distress sustained by the plaintiff was 'severe' and of a nature 'that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it'" (citations omitted) [gendered references in original] ....

BWH's actions do not constitute the sort of extreme and outrageous conduct that would allow [plaintiff] to recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress. BWH's alleged wrongdoing arose in the context of its oral agreement to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in free care to a patient who otherwise could not afford treatment. Even putting "as harsh a face on [BWH's] actions ... as the basic facts would reasonably allow" [citation omitted], no jury could find it utterly intolerable in a civilized society for BWH to discuss alternative treatment options with [plaintiff], to take cost into account in determining what treatment to provide, or to refuse to pay for her treatment at another hospital (without interfering with her ability to transfer her care at her own expense).

Thus, the court rejected IIED as a matter of law.

The case is Vacca v. The Brigham & Women's Hospital, Inc., No. 19-P-962 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 21, 2020) (oral argument).  Justice Eric Neyman wrote the unanimous opinion for a panel that also comprised Justices Englander and Hand.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Planet Money tackles litigation financing, champerty

One of my long-term favorite podcasts, Planet Money, last week tackled litigation financing.  We talk a lot in Torts in law school about America's runaway transaction costs and how they affect, or impede, civil justice.  Litigation financing can seem like manna from heaven when one thinks of tragedy-of-the-commons problems such as climate change.  But then there are the problems of corporatocracy, secrecy, and the distastefulness of commodification. Planet Money traces our distaste to champerty in British common law.  Here's the introduction:
Litigation financing allows third-party funders like Burford Capital to invest in other people's lawsuits, but it's long been considered unethical, and is illegal in many places.  But justice can often hinge more on how much money each side has than on what's actually right or wrong. So Burford argues that allowing investments in lawsuits will give more people access to better justice. And it's been a good business for them. But others worry it might warp the justice system.
Listen to "Capitalism in the Courtoom," episode 942, at NPR, here, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: The Experimental Society by Marshall S. Shapo



Catching up on reading since the close of the spring semester, I just finished Professor Marshall Shapo’s The Experimental Society (Transaction Publishers (now Routledge) 2016) (385 pp.) (publisher, Amazon, SSRN abstract, author interview) (385 pp.).  I highly recommend the book, which is fit for general audiences, besides lawyers and law students.


The experiment of the book’s title refers loosely to the American mix of free market and tort litigation, which works out the rules for what is allowed and not allowed in our society.  The dynamic is most plain in product liability.  A manufacturer brings to market a new and useful product, such as asbestos.  Later it’s learned that the product poses a grave risk to human health.  In extracting accountability for physical injury, the tort system regulates the continued use of asbestos.

What this system ill accounts for is its human toll.  The tort system is a balancing act.  Extreme regulation (vetting?) of everything new—a drug, a car, or a method of cleaning floors—would make research and development prohibitively expense and smother innovation.  Injury and death would result from drugs never developed, or safety innovations never deployed.  At the other extreme, diminished accountability would sanction the prioritization of profit over life.

Civil conflict resolution—our litigation system—threads, marks, and forever revises the boundary between right and wrong.  But our dependence on that system presupposes optimal, if not ideal, efficiency.  In reality, our tort system is rife with inefficiencies.

The starkest of those inefficiencies might be time.  I just takes too long to reach a conclusion in U.S. litigation—months, years, and sometimes decades.  While the wheels of justice grind, injured persons are not made whole, and new victims are claimed.  Another inefficiency is “transaction costs,” that is, the cost of dispute resolution, which is compounded by time.  Our drive for just and precise outcomes means that lawyers, experts, and litigation soak up a disproportionate amount of resources—if a matter can be litigated at all—re-victimizing the injured plaintiff and penalizing a defendant that might or might not have done anything wrong.

But inefficiencies get worse still, as the tort system tends to perpetuate socio-economic inequalities and irrational discriminations.  A poor community, less able to accomplish political organization or campaign contribution, cannot finance tort litigation to combat the impact of industrial pollution as effectively as a wealthy community can.  Even after wrongdoing is established in tort litigation, awards turns on loss, meaning that the working poor and the unemployed have less to recover than the injured doctor or lawyer.  These socio-economic effects exaggerate systemic prejudices of race and gender.  Moreover, bias can be perpetuated in fact-finding through judge and jury in a case.  And bias finds its way even into law itself, such as in liability standards that favor the alienation of real property—and therefore those who can afford it.

The Experimental Society examines the real social impact of our litigation system as hall monitor.  Shapo engages briefly with the familiar territory of product liability for asbestos and cigarettes.  But with that historical foothold, the book ranges widely to examine contemporary risks, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and vaping.  Shapo moreover expands his inquiry well beyond straightforward product liability.  He engages at length with environmental contamination, examining fracking, oil spills, and nuclear accidents.  He considers threats to the food supply, such as mad cow disease with its mysterious pathology.  Shapo also thinks expansively about experiment, embracing in his analysis both the deliberate experimentation of human clinical trials and the inadvertent yet ultimate experiment of climate change.

This encyclopedia of troubling experiments under way in our world delineates one axis of Shapo’s inquiry.  Meanwhile he draws a second axis, which traces the anatomy of risk and rules.  About the first half of the book explicates case studies to the end of broadly defining risk and experimentation.  The latter half of the book dives deep into dispute resolution, considering how this broad range of experimentation in our society has generated various standards, rules, and remediation systems in workplace safety, consumer protection, and mass tort litigation.  Shapo’s end-game, reached in the final chapters, considers the interplay of our experimental society with cultural and moral factors—for example, our values with respect to personal responsibility, risk-utility economics, and technological determinism.

As the back cover of The Experimental Society reminds us, Marshall Shapo—the Frederic P. Vose Professor at Northwestern University Law School, and, disclosure: my lead co-author on the casebook Tort and Injury Law, and a treasured mentor—has been writing about injury law for half a century.

Yet however much the product of an elder statesman in tort law, The Experimental Society is boldly contemporary.  The book is a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to tour the leading edge of risk, health, and law.  The relevant science and technology, business and economics, and law and policy all are laid out in plain language to engage any reader interested in the human condition.

The Experimental Society disappointed me in one respect only: it offers no answer.  The reader should be warned that the book ends with only the urgent question it raises, where the balance should be struck in our tolerance of risk.  This is not The Secret, with the promise to invigorate your fortunes; nor Hidden Figures with its revelatory moral tale; nor the latest blueprint to fix our democracy.  The Experimental Society isn’t selling answers.

Though I was disappointed not to find at the book’s end that Shapo’s wealth of experience could map out The Better Way, that expectation was foolhardy on my part.  However skilled a researcher and writer, Shapo is after all a teacher.  He recounts in the book a Socratic game he played with his eight-year-old granddaughter to demonstrate for her, of all things, Ken Feinberg’s predicament in compensating economic loss after the BP oil spill.  In good American fashion, the girl favored compensation precisely and fully for everyone who suffered injury.  Shapo didn’t tell her that that, ultimately, would be impossible; he showed her.

And that’s what The Experimental Society does: it shows us a problem that is inherent in the human social condition.  It turns the problem over, so we can see it from every angle.  Risk, it turns out, is not antagonistic to life; risk is an indispensable condition of life.  Risk yields reward, and reward makes life worth living.  How do we manage that risk to maximize reward, and what costs are we willing to tolerate in its pursuit?  Shapo knows that that’s an ancient problem—older than Deuteronomy 19:5.  So in The Experimental Society, he does the best a teacher can: to restate an eternal question for a new age.

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: