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Showing posts with label wrongful death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wrongful death. Show all posts

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Judge Jackson Media Law, Torts Tour: From Big Meat 'COOL' to 'A Love of Food' and 'Everlasting Life'

[A revised version of this post is available to download as a paper on SSRN.]
The Hon. KBJ (Wikicago CC BY-SA 4.0)

Profiles of U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson have proliferated since her announcement as a leading contender for the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Breyer, and President Biden announced her nomination yesterday.

Judge Jackson has practiced in both criminal and civil environments, and in public and private sectors.  She focused in different practice roles on criminal law and appellate litigation, and she served on the federal bench at the trial and appellate levels.  So much of her work, and that which has garnered the most attention, for example in the excellent SCOTUSblog profile by Amy Howe, interests me as a citizen in general more than as an academic and media-law-and-torts aficionado.

Nevertheless, I compiled here cases of interest to me, which I found whilst poking around in her trial-court record on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (D.D.C.).  You might not see these discussed elsewhere, but they might be of interest to comparative-bent, media-law types like me, if that's even a thing.  In my ordinary-joe capacity, I am not in step with Judge Jackson's inclinations in some other areas of law.  But any Supreme Court Justice, just like any political candidate, is going to be a mixed bag, especially in a compulsorily two-party system.

In the cases below, a decidedly unscientific sample, I like some of what I see, especially skeptical diligence in access-to-information cases, sound reasoning in intellectual property law, careful application of preemption doctrine in medical-product liability, and a couple of thought-provoking First Amendment entanglements.  I see a mixed record on venue for transnational cases, something I've been worrying about lately, but the outcomes are defensible as consistent with lousy U.S. law.


Main topics:
● Civil procedure/statute of limitations:
WMATA v. Ark Union Sta., Inc. (2017)
Copyright/music royalties: Alliance of Artists & Recording Cos. v. Gen. Motors Co. (2018)
Defamation, false light/actual malice: Zimmerman v. Al Jazeera Am., LLC (2017)
First Amendment/child pornography: United States v. Hillie (2018)
First Amendment/commercial speech, compelled speech: Am. Meat Inst. v. U.S. Dept. Agric. (2013)
FOIA/national security, law enforcement: Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. Dept. Justice (2017)
FOIA/Vaughn index, trade secrets, deliberative process: McKinley v. FDIC (2017)
FOIA/deliberative process/personal privacy: Conservation Force v. Jewell (2014)
FSIA/CCFA, forum non conveniens: Azima v. RAK Invest. Auth. (2018)
FSIA/torture: Azadeh v. Iran (2018)
Insurance/settlement: Blackstone v. Brink (2014)
Product liability/causation, preemption, learned intermediary: Kubicki v. Medtronic (2018)
Trademark/infringement: Yah Kai World Wide Enter. v. Napper (2016)
Wrongful death/sovereign immunity, contributory negligence: Whiteru v. WMATA (2017)
Wrongful death, product liability/forum non conveniens: In re Air Crash ... So. Indian Ocean (2018)

Quirky pro se claims:
Defamation/litigation privilege/statute of limitations: Ray v. Olender (2013)
Copyright/infringement: Buchanan v. Sony Music Ent. (2020)
Copyright/pleading: Butler v. Cal. St. Disbursement Unit (2013)
Copyright/subject-matter jurisdiction: Miller v. Library of Congress (2018)
FTCA/FOIA, civil rights: Cofield v. United States (2014)
Legal profession/sovereign immunity, absolute immunity: Smith v. Scalia (2014)

And the case with the best name:
A Love of Food I v. Maoz Vegetarian USA (2014)


WMATA (D.C. Metro) (Max Pixel CC0)
Civil procedure/statute of limitations.  WMATA v. Ark Union Sta., Inc., 269 F. Supp. 3d 196 (D.D.C. 2017).  The transit authority of the District of Columbia alleged that negligent maintenance by the Union Station America Restaurant, defendants' enterprise, resulted in a burst sewer pipe that severely damaged the Metro Red Line in 2011.  Judge Jackson opened the opinion cleverly, with what could almost be a dad joke: "This is a case about whose interests the [WMATA] serves when it spends money to repair damaged transit infrastructure in the Metrorail system—a proverbial third rail of this region's politics."  (My emphasis.  How could I not?)

D.C. has a generous five-year statute of limitations, but even that time had run.  Determining that the corporate-body WMATA remained a creature of government for relevant purposes, evidenced by its operational subsidies—cf. WMATA, infra, in negligence/sovereign immunity—Judge Jackson applied "the common law nullum tempus doctrine, which dates back to the thirteenth century," to exempt WMATA, as sovereign, from the statute of limitations.  The court explained: "Although the nullum tempus doctrine originated as a 'prerogative of the Crown[,]' the doctrine's 'survival in the United States has been generally accounted for and justified on grounds of policy rather than upon any inherited notions of the personal privilege of the king.' .... Specifically, 'the source of its continuing vitality ... is to be found in the great public policy of preserving the public rights, revenues, and property from injury and loss, by the negligence of public officers'" (citations omitted).

Pixabay
Copyright/music royalties.  Alliance of Artists & Recording Cos. v. Gen. Motors Co., 306 F. Supp. 3d 422 (D.D.C. 2018).  Judge Jackson dismissed a trade-group-plaintiff claim against automakers that their in-car CD hard drives created digital music recordings (DMRs) within the meaning of the federal statute, the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 (AHRA), entitling copyright holders to royalties.  The AHRA was intended by Congress to protect the music industry against the alarming ease of creating high-fidelity copies of digital music by requiring manufacturers, importers, and distributors to employ copy-control technology.  Though having earlier allowed the claim to proceed against other technical challenges under the AHRA, the court decided, with the benefit of the first phase of discovery, that the defendant automakers' devices were not digital audio recording devices within the meaning of the statute.  In a methodical analysis, Judge Jackson explained that the content of the hard drives was excluded from the statutory definition of a DMR because of the coordinate presence of play software and other data.  The court rejected industry's theory that the appropriate frame of analysis was a particular partition of the drive, where music code might be located more readily.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 947 F.3d 849 (2020).

Zimmerman
(All Pro Reels CC BY-SA 2.0)
Defamation, false light/actual malice.  Zimmerman v. Al Jazeera Am., LLC, 246 F. Supp. 3d 257 (D.D.C. 2017).  Two professional baseball players, both called Ryan (a Zimmerman and a Howard), sued Al Jazeera America over a documentary, The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers (2015), in which an interviewee linked the pair to performance-enhancing drugs.  The plaintiffs were clearly public figures, so actual malice was at issue.  In a thorough explication of the making of the film followed by a straightforward recitation of the media torts, Judge Jackson narrowed the plaintiffs' claims to allegations stated in the film, excluding liability for promotional content.  The court found it plausible, upon "contextual clues," that a reasonable viewer could attribute the interviewee's statements to the filmmakers: "The film weaves [the source's] statements into a broader narrative about doping in sports that the producers themselves have purportedly confirmed through their own investigation."  Judge Jackson then explicated the actual malice standard and its amped up, St. Amant, iteration of recklessness.  Critically, the plaintiffs alleged that the source had recanted his claims about the Ryans during a subsequent, yet pre-publication, interview, giving Al Jazeera serious cause to doubt the source's veracity, if not actual knowledge of falsity.

Naturally, this case might be of interest to Court watchers, given the present hubbub over the Sullivan actual malice standard.  I'm no fan, and I'll have more to say about that in the future.  Zimmerman hardly depicts a Judge Jackson ready to pitch in with Justices Thomas and Gorsuch to upend the status quo.  But she understands the standard and at least might be amenable to a semantically sincere construction of "reckless disregard."

First Amendment/child pornography.  United States v. Hillie, 289 F. Supp. 3d 188 (D.D.C. 2018).  Criminal cases are not usually my jam, but this one had a First Amendment angle.  Judge Jackson allowed conviction of a defendant for sexual exploitation of a minor and possession of images of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.  On the facts as explicated by the court, that sure seems like it was the defendant's intent: "carefully placing and positioning the camera in hidden locations in J.A.A.'s bedroom and bathroom" and "succeed[ing] in capturing several extended images of J.A.A.'s exposed genitals."  Missing, though, was the express "lasciviousness" required by federal statutes, a fatal flaw for the prosecution, the D.C. Circuit ruled.  14 F.4th 677 (2021).  The defendant relied on statutes, not the First Amendment, but the D.C. Circuit referenced First Amendment case law extensively to support its interpretation of what Congress required.  Despite the substantial latitude to which the government is entitled to prosecute child pornography, beyond the legal constraints of outlawing obscenity as to adults, the appellate court concluded that Judge Jackson erred in permitting the jury to infer the defendant's lascivious objective.  One might expect that social conservatives would side with Judge Jackson on this case. 

Labeled French beef
(by Yuka for Open Food Facts CC BY-SA 3.0)
First Amendment/commercial speech, compelled speech.  Am. Meat Inst. v. U.S. Dept. Agric., 968 F. Supp. 2d 38 (D.D.C. 2013).  This must have been a grilling initiation to the federal bench for Judge Jackson.  A meat industry trade association challenged "country of origin labeling" regulations (truly, "the COOL Rule") promulgated by the Department of Agriculture, on, as one might expect from Big Meat, any legal theory that might stick to the cast iron: namely, the statutory authority of the Agricultural Marketing Act, promulgation under the Administrative Procedure Act, and the First Amendment.  The first two make my eyes glaze over; it's the First Amendment that grabbed me.  Meat and the First Amendment are, of course, long-time frenemies, going back to the heyday of The Jungle, and on through the secret grocery workers of journalism ethics fame.  Then there was the whole pink slime era, and animal-welfare activists came trespassing through to take pictures.  Oh how we laughed until we cried.

Anyway, in this case, Judge Jackson capably explicated the niche case law of compelled commercial speech and charted the fine if squiggly line separating free speech and business regulation.  The risk of deception was more than merely speculative here, she opined, and consumers were demonstrably confused.  Industry mistakenly claimed a burden on its pocketbook, rather than its speech rights, Judge Jackson admonished.  The COOL Rule was reasonable and hardly burdensome for its expectation of truthful and uncontroversial disclosure.  Preliminary injunction was denied.

Big Meat was not easily deterred; the case went for a rodeo ride the following year.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 746 F.3d 1065 (Mar. 28, 2014), vacated upon granting rehearing en banc, No. 13-5281 (Apr. 4, 2014), and then reinstated affirmance (July 29, 2014).

U.S. Defense Department image (C)
FOIA/national security, law enforcement.  Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. DOJ, 296 F. Supp. 3d 109 (2017).  Privacy advocate EPIC sued DOJ under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to learn more about past wiretap spying under the post-9/11 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  EPIC was especially keen to see how the government had justified surveillance requests it set before the famously amenable Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).  Namely, EPIC sought: "(1) Westlaw printouts that were attached to a certain brief that the government submitted to the [FISC], and (2) portions of certain reports that DOJ issued to Congress, consisting of summaries of FISC legal opinions, descriptions of the scope of the FISC's jurisdiction, and discussions of process improvements."  DOJ produced a Vaughn index.  Ex parte and in camera, Judge Jackson reviewed the materials and adjudged them properly withheld under exemptions 1 (national security as to the congressional reports), and 3 and 7(E) (national security statutes and law enforcement techniques, as to everything else), with some nitpicks as to redactions and notations.  I'm sure EPIC did not care for the result, but the transparency problem seems to be a statutory one.  Judge Jackson did a pretty deep dive on the docs.

FOIA/Vaughn index, trade secrets, deliberative process.  McKinley v. FDIC, 268 F. Supp. 3d 234 (D.D.C. 2017), then No. 1:15-cv-1764 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2018).  Judicial Watch, per experienced FOIA-requester attorney Michael Bekesha, represented a plaintiff against the FDIC.  In the reported opinion in 2017, the court compelled the FDIC to produce a Vaughn index. The Judicial Watch plaintiff was investigating FDIC placement of Citibank into receivership in 2008 and 2009.  The FDIC sought to protect 12 documents as trade secrets and eight documents as deliberative process.  The court faulted the FDIC for failing to support either claim of exemption with any contextual explanation, including the nature of its decision-making authority on the latter claim.

I note that Judge Jackson's reasoning on the trade-secret analysis might have been undermined subsequently by the Supreme Court's industry-deferential ruling on exemption 4 in Food Marketing Inst. v. Argus Leader Media (U.S. 2019).  (I signed on to an amicus on the losing side in FMI.)  In an earlier FOIA case, Government Accountability Project v. FDA, 206 F. Supp. 3d 420 (D.D.C. 2016), Judge Jackson similarly relied on pre-FMI doctrine to reject, as unduly conclusory, FDA resistance, at the behest of a pharma trade association, to production of records on antimicrobial medications.

Vaughn index in hand on remand, plaintiff persisted in challenging the adequacy of the FDIC search and "whether withheld information 'has already been made public through an official and documented disclosure.'"  Judge Jackson rejected both claims in a short opinion in 2018.  She found the first merely speculative.  As to the second, the plaintiff "argued that the FDIC's withholdings were improper because the requested information was 'officially' acknowledged by Former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair in the book Bull by the Horns—a book that Bair published after leaving office."  Judge Jackson held that "that contention, too, must be rejected. A book or other material that a former government official publishes in her personal capacity does not qualify as an 'official acknowledgment' of the information contained therein for the purpose of FOIA."

Bison trophy at Beaty Biodiversity Museum, Vancouver, B.C.
(by Nikkimaria CC BY-SA 3.0)
FOIA/deliberative process, personal privacy.  Conservation Force v. Jewell, 66 F. Supp. 3d 46 (D.D.C. 2014).   A nonprofit foundation that promotes big-game hunting sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife, in the Department of Interior, under the FOIA to obtain records related to denials of permits that would allow the import into the United States of hunting trophies of Canadian bison.  For the record, I'm fine with denying those permits, and I could be persuaded to block importation of the hunters, too.  Nevertheless, transparency....  

Judge Jackson authored a workmanlike exploration of various exemption theories asserted by Interior: accepting attorney-client privilege (exemption 5) and personal-information exemption (6); rejecting deliberative-process exemption, crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege, and work product privilege (all exemption 5).  She cited House reports to bolster her interpretations of what exemptions 5 and 6 require.  In a pattern that became familiar, or maybe just speaks to agency neglect, she faulted Interior for a conclusory ("woefully short") Vaughn index that failed to support exemption.  As to exemption 6, which has been aggressively enlarged by federal courts in furtherance of the privacy rage, Judge Jackson accepted Interior's redaction of employee personal information as more or less immaterial to the sought-after accountability.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed summarily in No. 15-5131 (Dec. 4, 2015).

FSIA/CFAA; forum non conveniens.  Azima v. RAK Invest. Auth., 305 F. Supp. 3d 149 (D.D.C. 2018).  Judge Jackson was reversed in this one, 926 F.3d 870 (D.C. Cir. 2019), but I prefer her analysis.  Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and for common law conversion and unfair competition, plaintiff, a Kansas City, Mo., businessman, sued a business partner, a public investment authority (RAKIA) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE, specifically the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah), after their business relationship soured, alleging that RAKIA "commissioned the repeated surreptitious hacking of his personal and business laptops ... and then published disparaging material that was illicitly gleaned from Azima's computers...."  RAKIA sought dismissal under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) on grounds of sovereign immunity, under a contractual forum selection clause, and, relatedly, under the common law venue doctrine of forum non conveniens.

Judge Jackson rejected all three grounds.  The plaintiff plausibly portrayed RAKIA, an investor rather than governing entity, as a commercial actor and alleged tortfeasor, bringing into play the FSIA commercial and tort exceptions.  As alleged, the hacking would have inserted malware into the plaintiff's computer systems, even if the insertion occurred abroad, so the locus of alleged tortious injury was Kansas City, bolstering the FSIA analysis.  The forum selection clause did not pertain, Judge Jackson reasoned, because it was articulated in the parties' contract for a prior commercial venture; the contract hardly covered subsequent hacking.

As to venue, Judge Jackson faulted RAKIA for failing to meet its "heavy burden" to show that Azima would get a fair shake in RAKIA's preferred venue of London, where RAKIA might have hoped for a more favorable outcome on immunity.  I like that analysis—but cf. infra, re wrongful death/forum non conveniens.  My comparative law class just read Professor Vivian Curran's masterful recent work on foreign law in U.S. courts, in which she convincingly demonstrated U.S. federal judges' penchant to over-employ forum non conveniens and thus shirk their responsibility to adjudicate.  

Perhaps proving Prof. Curran's thesis, the D.C. Circuit disagreed, holding that the forum selection clause burdened the plaintiff with having to show why London would not work as an appropriate venue, else face dismissal for forum non conveniens.  I would be remiss not to mention also: Prof. Curran further faulted the courts for lazy reliance on partisan evidence (my words) when foreign law is concerned, and both Judge Jackson and the D.C. Circuit declared a lack of any responsibility to investigate themselves the adequacy of London as a forum.

FSIA/torture.  Azadeh v. Iran, 318 F. Supp. 3d 90 (D.D.C. 2018).  Plaintiff was an inmate of an Iranian jail and alleged torture and intentional torts at the hands of the republic.  A U.S. court ruling in such a matter is principally symbolic.  Iran will not respond; a plaintiff might hope to recover against a U.S. government claim on frozen assets.  Accordingly, in this case, a magistrate judge recommended entering default judgment in favor of the plaintiff.  I have here omitted cases in which Judge Jackson adopted in toto a magistrate's report; in this case, she did not.

Relying on a manual of the U.S. district courts, the plaintiff had effected service on the state of Iran erroneously, under the wrong order of process under the FSIA.  Judge Jackson wrote: "Judges are sometimes called upon to set aside heart-wrenching and terrible facts about a claimant's treatment at the hands of a defendant and enforce seemingly draconian, technical mandates of law. This is an especially difficult duty when the machinery of the judicial system itself appears to have played a role in the claimant's mistaken view of the applicable legal requirements. The somber circumstances of the instant case present one such scenario...."  The court put the default judgment on hold and gave the plaintiff a second crack at proper service.  Judge Jackson subsequently entered default judgment against Iran, in the sum of $36,411,244, in No. 1:16-cv-1467 (D.D.C. Sept. 5, 2018).  Reproduced therein, the magistrate's report detailed the plaintiff's ordeal.

Insurance/settlement.  Blackstone v. Brink, 63 F. Supp. 3d 68 (D.D.C. 2014) (D.C. law).  In an insurance dispute arising from the alleged wrongful death of a pedestrian, plaintiffs and their attorney apparently changed position on whether to settle with defendant-driver's insurer, State Farm, for the defendant's $100,000 policy limit.  After a telephone conversation, State Farm sent a check and a release form to the plaintiffs' attorney.  The check crossed in the mail with a letter from the attorney rejecting the offer.  Applying D.C. law, Judge Jackson determined that the parties had reached an enforceable agreement on the telephone, evidenced by the specificity of the attorney's instructions on how and where to send the check.  The court wrote of the parties' competing narratives: "On this record, it is far more plausible that [plaintiff counsel] accepted [State Farm's] offer on behalf of his clients [plaintiffs], intended that it be final and binding, and later had misgivings about his earlier decision to accept. Unfortunately for Plaintiffs, courts have long held that such buyer's remorse does not vitiate a demonstrated initial intent to be bound by the settlement agreement" (original emphasis).

A Medtronic product (Alan Levine CC BY 2.0)
Product liability/causation, preemption, learned intermediary.  Kubicki v. Medtronic, 293 F. Supp. 3d 129 (D.D.C. 2018) (D.C. law).  Parents of a diabetic consumer who suffered traumatic brain injury as a result of low blood-sugar levels sued the manufacturers of an insulin pump, alleging various theories of product liability.  Judge Jackson threw out some claims, against one manufacturer and upon one theory, as time barred, because plaintiffs had added them to the complaint too late for the District's three-year statute of limitations.  Judge Jackson navigated the tricky shoals of preemption doctrine to find some but not all liability theories expressly preempted, and the remainder not impliedly preempted, by FDA medical-device approval.  A sliver of remaining plaintiff theories survived summary judgment for presenting triable questions of fact on causation and on the learned intermediary doctrine relative to alleged failure to warn.

Trademark/infringement.  Yah Kai World Wide Enter. v. Napper, 195 F. Supp. 3d 287 (D.D.C. 2016).  The defendant ran the Everlasting Life Restaurant & Lounge as an enterprise of the African Hebrew Israelite community, "who claim to be descendants of biblical Israelites and who follow a strict vegan diet," until their relationship soured.  The plaintiff-community sued when the defendant persisted in doing business as "Everlasting Life," which a community leader had registered as a service mark (pictured).  Trial did not go well for the defense; Judge Jackson wrote that the defendant "displayed some signs of dissembling, such as the evasive nature of his answers with respect to the existence of a purportedly independent and unincorporated food business that he claimed to have created by himself in his home garage prior to the Community's formation of its restaurant businesses."  The court found likelihood of confusion and, accordingly, infringement.  If only defendant had partnered with Big Meat to serve litigious hungry hunters returning from Canada.

Wrongful death/sovereign immunity, contributory negligence.  Whiteru v. WMATA, 258 F. Supp. 3d 175 (2017).  This time the WMATA, the D.C. transit authority, was a negligent defendant rather than plaintiff—cf. WMATA, supra, in civil procedure/statute of limitations—and this time, the authority was ruled not sovereign for purposes of immunity.  In what was essentially a slip-and-fall, the plaintiff-decedent's estate and parents blamed the WMATA for not discovering the decedent—a lawyer, by the way—injured on a train platform, in time to provide life-saving medical treatment.  A creature of state compact and D.C. statute, the WMATA enjoys an immunity analogous to that of federal defendants under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).  Borrowing the FTCA rule of immunity for discretionary governmental functions, which often presents a frame-of-reference problem in its granular application, Judge Jackson rejected the WMATA theory that officials' conduct was discretionary.  Rather, properly, I think, the court accepted the plaintiff's framing of the case as alleging unreasonable comportment with the WMATA standard operating procedures for platform inspection.

At that time in 2017, factual questions in the case precluded summary judgment.  However, in 2020, Judge Jackson awarded the WMATA summary judgment upon the plaintiff's contributory negligence.  480 F. Supp. 3d 185.  The District is not a comparative fault jurisdiction.  The plaintiff's heavy intoxication when he fell was undisputed, and, Judge Jackson opined, video evidence plainly showed that the plaintiff fell because he over-relied on a low wall for support.  Just this month, the D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded,  ___ F.4th ___ (Feb. 11, 2022), holding that under D.C. law for common-carrier liability, contributory negligence is not the complete defense that it usually is in negligence in the District.

Suggested search area for MH370 debris
(Andrew Heneen CC BY 4.0)
Wrongful death, product liability/forum non conveniens.  In re Air Crash Over the Southern Indian Ocean, 352 F. Supp. 3d 19 (D.D.C. 2018) (multi-district litigation).  This case marks a tragic disappointment.  Judge Jackson dismissed for improper venue, forum non conveniens, the claims of families of passengers of missing airliner MH370 against defendants including Malaysia Airlines and Boeing.  The claims arose under the Montreal Convention on international air carriage, common law wrongful death, and product liability.  The thrust of the problem is that what happened to MH370, including the final resting place of the fuselage and an understanding of what went wrong, remains a mystery, and even less was known in 2018.  My money is on pilot hijacking, by the way; read more in the definitive account to date by the incomparable William Langewiesche for The Atlantic. 

Judge Jackson opined:

All told, the Montreal Convention cases in this MDL involve only six U.S. citizens with a direct connection to the Flight MH370 tragedy, as either plaintiffs or decedents. Among the hundreds of passengers on that flight, only three were citizens of the United States, and while the United States undoubtedly has a strong public interest in the claims involving their deaths, its interest pales in comparison to Malaysia's interest in litigating these claims. Malaysia's public interest includes not only an interest in the untimely deaths of the Malaysian pilot and crew, but also an interest in determining precisely what happened to Flight MH370, given that a Malaysian airline owned, operated, and maintained the aircraft; the flight took off from an airport in Malaysia for a destination outside the United States; and it disappeared from radar when Malaysian air traffic controllers were handing off the flight. And Malaysian authorities made substantial investments of time and resources in the wake of this disaster: Malaysia conducted extensive civil and criminal investigations, and changes in Malaysian law led to the creation of a new national Malaysian airline. It is Malaysia's strong interest in the events that give rise to the claims at issue here that makes this a distinctly Malaysian tragedy, notwithstanding the presence of the few Americans onboard Flight MH370. 

I really want to lash out against this reasoning.  But probably it would be like when I was a little kid fed up with allergy-testing shots and kicked my doctor.  Despite my reservations about forum non conveniens, see Prof. Curran, supra, I admit that my frustration stems from doubt that the case could be fairly prosecuted in Malaysia, even if the plane is found, rather than a confidence that the United States is a logical venue.  It might not even matter, as the Montreal Convention probably would curb recovery even in U.S. courts.  Insofar as I have any legitimate gripe, it's in part that forum non conveniens is just a witless rule out of step with a globalized world, and in part that Judge Jackson should have done some independent investigation of the adequacy of Malaysia as a forum.

The aftermath of the MH370 disappearance revealed concerning deficits in transparency, and, thus, potentially in accountability, in the Malaysian investigative process.  And while I don't think Boeing is to blame, having watched Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (2022) on Netflix just last weekend—Langewiesche wrote about the 737 MAX for The New York Times—leaves me distrustful.  Indeed, however relying upon precedent, Judge Jackson declined MH370 plaintiffs' last-ditch demand that, at least, Boeing be compelled to promise to abide by U.S. discovery in connection with any subsequent litigation abroad.

The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 946 F.3d 607, and the Supreme Court denied cert., 141 S. Ct. 451, in 2020.

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Here are some quirky pro se claims, just to stimulate the noggin.

Defamation/litigation privilege/statute of limitations.  Ray v. Olender, No. 13-1834 (D.D.C. Nov. 21, 2013).  Judge Jackson dismissed an odd $5m pro se defamation claim against an attorney, apparently based on a 1965 suit for copyright infringement and counter-suit.  She held the claim barred by the one-year D.C. statute of limitations and, anyway, based on statements in pleadings, protected by the litigation privilege.

Copyright/infringement.  Buchanan v. Sony Music Ent., No. 18-cv-3028 (D.D.C. May 26, 2020).  In a wide-ranging complaint, pro se plaintiff accused defendant music producers of stealing from songs he submitted for consideration.  Dismissed, because three of four songs were not registered; plaintiff could not show that any producer actually received a copy of the fourth song demo tape; and plaintiff anyway failed to allege substantial similarity, beyond allegation of "steal[ing]," between defendants' hits and the plaintiff's "I Gos Ta Roll." 

Copyright/pleading.  Butler v. Cal. St. Disbursement Unit, No. 13-1684 (D.D.C. Oct. 23, 2013).  Pro se plaintiff accused the state of copyright infringement for using his name in all capital letters.  Dismissed for failure to plead adequately.  BUTLER.

Copyright/subject-matter jurisdiction.  Miller v. Library of Congress, No. 1:18-cv-02144 (D.D.C. Nov. 5, 2018).  Judge Jackson dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction a $100m pro se copyright infringement claim by an author of "a book of songs" who alleged that the Library of Congress stole the book and allowed it to be used by others.  Held, he should have filed in the Federal Claims Court.  I'd return the book, but the fines....

FTCA/FOIA, civil rights.  Cofield v. United States, 64 F. Supp. 3d 206 (D.D.C. 2014).  A Maryland prisoner, pro se plaintiff sought billions in damages against ICANN and the Obama Administration for improper FOIA denials and race discrimination.  On the latter count, the plaintiff essentially accused the government of establishing a business monopoly in ICANN that leaves African-American persons "intentionally omitted, to be left behind when it comes to technology ... by design[.]"  An intriguing idea, but not the best spokesperson.  The court dismissed for sovereign immunity, as the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) authorizes neither FOIA complaints, which do not entitle a plaintiff to tort damages, nor constitutional claims.

Defendant-Justice Scalia (Shawn CC BY-NC 2.0)
Legal profession/sovereign immunity, absolute immunity.  Smith v. Scalia, 44 F. Supp. 3d 28 (D.D.C. 2014).  Yup, that Scalia.  The pro se plaintiff was denied admission to the Colorado Bar after "refus[ing] to submit to a mental status examination," and then sued officials, including judges who denied his appeals.  Even the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which rated among plaintiff's theories, cannot overcome federal sovereign and judicial absolute immunities, Judge Jackson held.  She declined to order Rule 11 sanctions, but did hit the frequent-filing plaintiff with a pre-filing injunction, going forward.
Maoz Falafel, Paris
(Björn Söderqvist CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Finally, I don't really care what happened in this case; I just love its name: A Love of Food I v. Maoz Vegetarian USA (D.D.C. 2014).  Plaintiff Love of Food was "a franchise of Maoz's vegetarian quick service restaurant" in D.C.  When the business failed, Love of Food blamed Maoz.  Maoz had failed to register its offering prospectus properly with the state of Maryland, but, Judge Jackson held, that omission did not give Love of Food standing.  The court issued mixed results on the, uh, meatier claims of misrepresentation, finding a material dispute of fact over the veracity of startup estimates.

Just wait 'til Big Meat hears about this.

I gos ta roll.

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.

Monday, June 28, 2021

No duty: Court clears homeowner of liability in fatal shooting that sparked town ban on Airbnb

Not where the party was: historic Henfield House in Lynnfield, Mass.
(photo by John Phelan CC BY 3.0)

A homeowner is not liable in the shooting death of a party guest in a case that sparked a town ban on Airbnb, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on June 7.

A 33-year-old father of two, Keivan B. Heath was shot and killed at a house party in Lynnfield, in northeastern Massachusetts, in the early-morning Sunday hours of Memorial Day weekend in 2016.  The plaintiff in wrongful death sued party organizers and the homeowner, who had rented out the house.

According to the court opinion, drawing facts from the complaint with reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff, defendant Victor had "informed the [homeowner] that he planned to hold a college reunion party. However, he advertised a Saturday event on social media as the 'Splash Mansion Pool Party,' open to 'Special Invitation & Girls Only,' with three named disc jockeys to provide the music."  More than 100 persons attended.  

The property was the home of the Styller family.  The property comprised "a 5,000 square foot home, a three-car garage, a 2,000 square foot patio, an in-ground heated pool, and a pool house with a fireplace and a bar on a three-acre lot in Lynnfield."  Defendant Styller

rented out the premises for short periods of time using a variety of Internet platforms [including Airbnb and HomeAway (now Vrbo), according to Boston magazine]. During each rental, the [Styller family] would leave the property and stay elsewhere. In the listings, the defendant touted the property's secluded location, fenced-in yard, and electronically operated gates. He also described the property as being in one of the safest areas in Massachusetts. Renters used the house for, among other things, business retreats, conferences, "photo shoots," and reunions.

The court described the tragedy:

At approximately 3 a.m., police received two 911 calls reporting that someone at the party had been shot; one caller said that the decedent was "dying," and the other reported that people were attempting cardiopulmonary resuscitation and then said, "he's gone." Police arrived to find many vehicles leaving and people fleeing on foot. The decedent was lying alone, face up and unresponsive, near the pool. He was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead in the emergency room. The cause of death was two gunshot wounds to the chest.

The murder remains unsolved.

Affirming dismissal in favor of Styller, the SJC opinion is a straightforward analysis of duty in negligence.  The duty of a property owner reasonably to maintain property in a safe condition does not extend generally to protect an injured from the "dangerous or unlawful acts" of third parties.

The plaintiff attempted to predicate liability on "special relationship" exceptions for foreseeable harms and for common-carrier defendants.  The court rejected both theories.  On foreseeability, courts have drawn exceptions in cases in which property owners knew of violent crimes on premises in the past.  But plaintiffs could not sustain the allegation here.  "Although the complaint cites a finding made by a Land Court judge in a related case that short-term rentals have 'significant external effects on the neighboring community and community at large,' it does not allege that short-term rentals are correlated with an increase in violent crime" (footnotes omitted).

Significantly for the short-term rental market, the court refused to analogize an Airbnb, Vrbo, etc., host to a common carrier or place of public accommodation, such as a transport provider, restaurant, or hotel, which would enhance the defendant's duty.  "This comparison missed the mark," the court wrote.

Aside from the fact that there is no allegation of any relationship between the defendant and the decedent other than the fact that the decedent was shot and killed on property owned by the defendant, perhaps the biggest difference between the relationship between a business establishment and its customers and the defendant's relationship to the decedent is that the defendant had no control over the premises during the rental period.

Styller's duty as a property owner stopped with the condition of the property at the time he turned over the keys.

In a related case decided the same day, the SJC ruled against Styller in a dispute in Land Court with the town of Lynnfield.

After the Heath murder, Lynnfield amended town law expressly to ban short-term property rentals, such as Airbnbs.  Lynnfield asserted that short-term rentals such as Styller's already violated the law.  But ordinances, such as a prohibition on operating a "lodging or rooming house," were ambiguous on the contemporary home rental question.

The SJC disagreed with the Land Court's ruling that the short-term rental of a whole home violated the law as to rooming houses, before amendment.  However, Styller wanted a ruling that his prior use was permissible, and the SJC would not go that far.  In the sum of various provisions, the court held, town law "clearly and unambiguously excluded, in pertinent part, purely transient uses of property in [a residential zoning district]."

Of interest from a procedural perspective, the court ruled on the zoning case despite alleged mootness arising from Styller's sale of the property.   "Unlike standing, 'mootness [is] a factor affecting [the court's] discretion, not its power,' to decide a case," the court explained.

[W]e view the viability of short-term rental use of property in the context of existing zoning regulations as one of public importance, in the sense that it raises "an important public question whose resolution will affect more persons than the parties to the case" and that "is primarily a matter of statutory [or, in this case, zoning bylaw] interpretation, not dependent on the facts of the particular case."

As well, Styller argued that the permissibility of the rental before the town amended the law remained a live issue in collateral matters of insurance coverage.

The wrongful death case is Heath-Latson v. Styller, No. SJC-12917 (June 7, 2021) (Justia).  The zoning case is Styller v. Zoning Board of Appeals, No. SJC-12901 (June 7, 2021) (Justia).  Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote both opinions for a unanimous court, excluding the two most recently appointed justices.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Waiver of negligence precludes later suit by family, high court holds in nursing home, diving death cases

Image by edar from Pixabay
In two cases at the end of February, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made clear that a person's express disposal of a negligence claim can preclude a later wrongful death suit by family.  In other words, Massachusetts wrongful death claims are derivative, not independent, of a decedent's rights.

"Wrongful death" and "survival" actions are creatures of 19th-century statute in Anglo-American law, the historic common law having extinguished all causes of action upon death—for curious historical reasons that I won't explicate here.  Formally, "wrongful death" is an action by surviving family for their losses, upon the occasion of the decedent's passing.  "Survival" is an action by the estate on behalf of the decedent, as if the decedent had lived.  However, this distinction is often blurred in law, as the actions are brought together as "wrongful death" under Massachusetts statute, and is often blurred in fact, as a single person may stand as a family member and estate representative at the same time.  However the actions are characterized in court, wrongful death and survival have become so universally entrenched in Anglo-American tort law, often upon sparsely worded and rarely amended statutes, that they function in the courts very much like common law causes of action, subject to interpretation in deep bodies of case law.

Image by whitfieldink from Pixabay
In one of the February cases, Jackalyn Schrader, acting with power of attorney for her mother, Emma, signed a "voluntary and clearly labeled" commitment to arbitrate disputes upon admitting Emma to residence at the Golden Living Center-Heathwood, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., in February 2013.  After Emma died in December 2013, Schrader brought a wrongful death claim under Massachusetts statute, in federal court, alleging that nursing home negligence caused bedsores, leading to Emma's death.  Schrader sought to evade the effect of the arbitration agreement by pointing out that she had not signed it in her personal capacity, and state law vests a wrongful death claim in family.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay
In the second of the February cases, Margaret C. Doherty, as representative of the estate and the decedent's statutory beneficiaries, sued in wrongful death upon a 2014 diving accident that took the life of her son-in-law, 37-year-old Gregg C. O'Brien.  O'Brien "was a certified open-water scuba diver [and] drowned while participating in a promotional diving equipment event that was sponsored by [defendants] and held in Gloucester," Mass.  Before participating in the event, O'Brien had signed:
a release from liability which had several subsections that were set forth in all capital letters and underlined, including "effect of agreement," "assumption of risk," "full release," "covenant not to sue," "indemnity agreement," and "arbitration."  In capital letters under the subsection titled "effect of agreement," it said, "Diver gives up valuable rights, including the right to sue for injuries or death." It also told the decedent to read the agreement carefully and not to sign it "unless or until you understand." ... [T]he subsection titled "covenant not to sue" stated that the decedent agreed "not to sue ... for personal injury arising from scuba diving or its associated activities," and that the decedent's "heirs or executors may not sue."
Asserting defendants' negligence, Doherty sought to evade the effect of the release by pointing out that the statutory beneficiaries were not party to any agreement.

Associate Justice David A. Lowy
In Schrader's case, the First Circuit certified a question to the Supreme Judicial Court to determine whether a wrongful death action in Massachusetts is independent of a decedent's action, so Schrader would be free of the arbitration agreement, or bound by the decedent's action, so Schrader would be bound by the arbitration agreement, even though she signed it only on behalf of her mother.  Schrader might have understood that her theory under statute was weak, because she sought to play up the court's power to evolve wrongful death law beyond the text of statute.  The court agreed that it had considerable power to evolve wrongful death as a function of common law.  At the same time, though, the court insisted that its job begins with statutory interpretation.  Resorting to the text of Massachusetts's first-in-the-nation, 1840 wrongful death statute, and in accordance with the weight of authority in other states, the court found the derivative nature of a wrongful death claim inescapable.  Schrader must therefore seek relief under the arbitration agreement.

In Doherty's case, the Supreme Judicial Court cited its decision in Schrader and likewise concluded, affirming, that the claims on behalf of the decedent's statutory beneficiaries were derivative and not independent of the decedent's rights.  "Therefore ... the valid waivers signed by the decedent preclude the plaintiff, as [O'Brien's] 'executor or personal representative,' from bringing a lawsuit ... for the benefit of the statutory beneficiaries."

The cases are GGNSC Admin. Servs., LLC v. Schrader, No. SJC-12714 (Mass. Feb. 27, 2020) (Justia; Suffolk Law), and Doherty v. Diving Unlimited Int'l, Inc., No. SJC-12707 (Mass. Feb. 27, 2020) (Justia).  Justice David A. Lowy wrote both decisions for a unanimous court.

'Game changer,' $2.5m punitive affirmance elucidates 'gross negligence' in medmal

The Massachusetts Appeals Court in late February affirmed an award of $2.5m in punitive damages in a case of death from botched laparoscopic surgery for a hiatal hernia.  In affirming, the Court reiterated terms and circumstances that allow a jury to differentiate "gross negligence" from mere negligence in the medical context.

According to the court opinion, Laura Parsons died after laparoscopic surgery to repair her hiatal hernia resulted in surgical tacks penetrating her pericardium, the membrane surrounding the heart.  The jury laid blame squarely on defendants surgeon, nurse, and employer for tacks having been inserted in the diaphragm too close to heart tissue.  Parsons died of cardiac arrest two days after surgery, and an autopsy observed "puncture marks on the posterior aspect of the heart."

In addition to $2.6m in compensatory damages, the jury charged the surgeon with $2.5m in punitive damages for "gross negligence," the threshold for punitive damages in medical malpractice in Massachusetts.  The Appeals Court affirmed.  Mass. Lawyers Weekly called the decision a "game changer" in favor of punitive damages for medmal plaintiffs (Mar. 5, 2020, pay wall).

An issue on appeal was the jury instruction on "gross negligence."  More than negligence and less than recklessness, "gross negligence" is a familiar yet elusive norm in Anglo-American common law.  The Appeals Court in part faulted the surgeon's counsel for failing to state objection to the usual jury instruction on the standard, though the court seemed content with the instruction on its merits.  The court observed, "While drawing the line between ordinary negligence and gross negligence can be difficult, 'the distinction [between them] is well established and must be observed, lest all negligence be gradually absorbed into the classification of gross negligence [citations omitted]."

The court concluded, "The evidence as a whole permitted the jury to find that [Dr.] Ameri's use of the tacker in Parsons's surgery manifested many of the common indicia of gross negligence. See Rosario v. Vasconcellos ... ([Mass.] 1953), quoting Lynch ... [Mass. 1936] ("some of the more common indicia of gross negligence are set forth as 'deliberate inattention,' 'voluntary incurring of obvious risk,' 'impatience of reasonable restraint,' or 'persistence in a palpably negligent course of conduct over an appreciable period of time'").

The case is Parsons v. Ameri, No. 18-P-1373 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (Justia).  Justice Massing wrote for a unanimous panel with Sacks and Hand, JJ.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Dive boat company petitions to limit liability under maritime protection law

The diving boat MV Conception burns off the coast of Santa Cruz island, California. Photo released by the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office.
Expectant defendants in the horrifying case of the California dive boat fire have petitioned the U.S. District Court to limit their liability exposure under the Shipowners' Liability Act of 1851, 46 U.S. Code § 30505, et seq.  (Hat tip to my Torts I-II alumna, Mara D. Fox, UMass Law J.D. anticipated 2021, for heads up on this story from KTLA 5 Los Angeles (see also L.A. Times).)

Bringing this filing to light is not to knock the petitioners.  Their legal move is smart and routine.  But it raises to light one of the many historic and arguably anachronistic legal liability limitations that are allowing seagoing corporations effective immunity from tort, and therefore impunity in practices regarding physical safety, worker rights, and environmental protection, as just recently rounded up by Hasan Minhaj on Patriot Act.

Deepwater Horizon families visit Congress, 2010. (Nancy Pelosi CC BY 2.0.)
The Shipowners' Liability Act played its part after the sinking of the Titanic, as KTLA coverage observed, and more recently in the 2010 disaster when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico (movie; recent coverage; documentary by BBC, James Fox, NatGeo, PBS; report on litigation settlements).  A 2011 Senate bill would have amended the Shipowners' Liability Act, Death On the High Seas Act, and Jones Act to restore wrongful death claims; the bill died in committee.

An excellent overview of the liability act can be found in the background of a comment by Christopher S. Morin, The 1851 Shipowners' Limitation of Liability Act: A Recent State Court Trend to Exercise Jurisdiction over Limitation Rights, 28:2 Stetson L. Rev. 419 (1998).  Morin, a U.S. Navy veteran and now a Florida attorney, explained (at 422, footnotes omitted):
The primary impetus for enacting the Limitation Act was to promote American shipbuilding, commerce, and investment in the merchant marine industry, placing the United States shipping industry on a more competitive footing with those foreign countries already benefiting from forms of limitation. Before comprehensive insurance protection, it was important for investors and owners to have the security that their liability would not exceed the value of their investment—namely the value of the vessel. Thus, in its most basic form, the Limitation Act permitted vessel owners and bareboat charterers to limit their liability to the vessel's post-accident value.
The act was successful for its time, Morin wrote.  But "[m]ore recently, many"—"[c]ourts, lawmakers, and environmentalists alike"—"have criticized the Limitation Act as an outdated and unnecessary tool in the modern insured maritime industry" (p. 423, footnotes omitted).

Here from the Free Law Project is In re Truth Aquatics, Inc., No. 2:19-cv-07693 (C.D. Cal. filed Sept. 5, 2019).

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Minhaj: With tort impunity, cruise lines externalize risk, costs to workers, passengers, environment

One of my favorite comedians—saw him perform Homecoming King at intimate Cherry Lane in NYC in 2016—Hasan Minhaj (self-described "second brown John Oliver") has taken on the wide range of problems associated with cruise lines' foreign flagging and legal impunity at sea, threatening the safety and well-being of passengers with legal impacts including virtual immunity from tort liability.  (Patriot Act s4e04.)


Instrumental in this deplorable state of affairs for our part, in U.S. law, is the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), 46 U.S.C. §§ 30301–30308.  On its face the act simply invites maritime wrongful death actions into U.S. courts.  However, the act's "shortcomings" have been documented in legal scholarship for a long time; the devil is in the details, specifically, damages, which are limited by § 30303 to "fair compensation for the pecuniary loss sustained."  Note, "pecuniary," not the familial wrongful death intangibles recoverable in domestic tort law, and maybe zero for, say, an elderly retired person.  Minhaj reports that attempts to amend the law have been torpedoed in Congress.

But DOHSA is just one piece of the big, messy picture of maritime liability, or non-liability, for cruise lines.  Most civil wrongs involving passengers are sexual assaults, which can come under the lax, overwhelmed, or de facto non-existent jurisdiction of the vessel's flag home.  Same for the abusive conditions to which cruise ship workers are subject, from working hours that would never be tolerated on land, on through to the minuscule compensations available for debilitating injury, such as loss of limb.  And all that's to say nothing of the devastating environmental impact of cruise ship polluting and dumping that occurs beyond the reach of regulators.

Minhaj aptly paints the ugly picture of what happens when an industry escapes the norm-setting and deterrence mechanisms of domestic tort law.  As he suggests, the relatively affordable cost of a cruise as a vacation optionand I confess, I've gone, I've loved it, and I'd like to go againis born disproportionately by an oppressed workforce, injured passengers, and the voiceless marine environment.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Beijing internet court rules against ISP Baidu on posthumous defamation claim under PRC Tort Law

In a Chinese defamation case, the Beijing Internet Court has ruled in favor of the plaintiff and contrary to American tort norms regarding ISP immunity and posthumous defamation.

Sixth Tone reported on the suit "filed by the son of the late playwright, screenwriter, and composer Zhao Zhong" (赵忠).  The suit alleged that an anonymous user of Baidu's Baike, China's answer to Wikipedia, edited Zhao's biographical page to defamatory effect.  The edits by user "charming and beautiful woman" (Qiaonü Jiaren) criticized Zhao as a "thief" and cultural "traitor," and deleted the libretto of the opera Red Coral from his listed oeuvre.  The changes remained on the page for five years, from 2013 to 2018, until Zhao's family noticed and demanded correction.  Baidu reversed the edits.  The son nevertheless complained of negligence in Baidu's failure reasonably to moderate content and consequent reputational injury to the family.

The court ruled against Baidu.  Beijing tort lawyer Qu Zhenhong told Sixth Tone that Baidu's compliance with the defamation notice-and-takedown procedure of PRC Tort Law article 36 did not relieve the internet service provider of liability under article 6 for the defamation's five years in publication.  That approach deviates from the powerful ISP immunity of 47 U.S.C. § 230 in the United States—which has faced slowly mounting criticism both at home and in Europe.

A second deviation from American tort norms arises in the allowance of a defamation action by the family after the death of the person defamed.  Common law jurisdictions including the United States continue generally to observe the historic rule that defamation claims die with their claimants, though states are widely experimenting with the posthumous right of publicity by statute.  Cf. The Savory Tort on Defaming the Dead.

The court made clear that it approves of a family's ancillary defamation claim, not just a decedent's claim that persists after death.  "A negative social assessment of the deceased not only violates the reputation of the deceased, but also affects the overall reputation of the deceased's close relatives as well as personal reputation," People's Court News wrote in summary of the court's decision (Google translation). "Therefore, for any close relative of the deceased, they have the right to request the court to protect the right [of the] deceased, or to pursue the responsibility of infringing on their own reputation based on their close relatives."

By its publisher's description, Red Coral (Hong shan hu) "describes the story of the peoples who lived in the red coral island and fought against the troops of Chiang Kaishek. They cooperated with the Red Army and defeated the enemy with the guidance of the people's Liberation Army."  Red Coral was adapted to film in 1961 (DVD pictured).