Tag: trial lawyers

The CPSC’s Defective New Complaints Database

We are told constantly that government can play a beneficial role in the marketplace by taking steps to make sure consumers are more fully informed about the risks of the goods and services they use. But what happens when the government itself helps spread health and safety information that is false or misleading? That question came up recently in the controversy over New York City’s misleading nutrition-scare ad campaign, and it now comes up again in a controversy over a new database of complaints about consumer products sponsored by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

As part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), Congress mandated that the CPSC create a “publicly available consumer product safety information database” compiling consumer complaints about the safety of products. Last week, by a 3-2 majority, the commission voted to adopt regulations that have dismayed many in the business community by ensuring that the database will needlessly include a wide range of secondhand, false, unfounded or tactical reports. The Washington Times editorializes:

…[Under the regulations as adopted last week] anybody who wants to trash a product, for whatever reason, can do so. The commission can leave a complaint on the database indefinitely without investigating its merits “even if a manufacturer has already provided evidence the claim is inaccurate,” as noted by Carter Wood of the National Association of Manufacturers’ “Shopfloor” blog….

Trial lawyers pushing class-action suits could gin up hundreds of anonymous complaints, then point the jurors to those complaints at the “official” CPSC website as [support for] their theories that a product in question caused vast harm. “The agency does not appear to be concerned about fairness and does not care that unfounded complaints could damage the reputation of a company,” said [Commissioner Nancy] Nord.

Commissioners Nord and Anne Northup introduced an alternative proposal (PDF) aimed at making the contents of the database more reliable and accurate but were outvoted by the Democratic commission majority led by Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. Nord: “under the majority’s approach, the database will not differentiate between complaints entered by lawyers, competitors, labor unions and advocacy groups who may have their own reasons to ‘salt’ the database, from those of actual consumers with firsthand experience with a product.” Commissioner Northup has published posts criticizing the regulations for their definitions of who can submit a report, who counts as a consumer, and who counts as a public safety entity.

For those interested in reading further, Rick Woldenberg, a leading private critic of the law who blogs at AmendTheCPSIA.com, has critically commented on the politics of the proposal here, here, here, here, and here. More coverage: ShopFloor with followups here and here, New York Times, Sean Wajert/Mass Tort Defense. I’ve been blogging for the past two years at my website Overlawyered about the wider problems with the CPSIA law, including its effects on books published before 1985, thrift stores, natural wooden toys, ballpoint pens, bicycles, plush animals, Irish dance costumes, rocks used in science class and many more. Most of these problems remain unresolved thanks to the inflexible wording of the law as well as, sometimes, the unsympathetic attitude of the commission majority. I’ve heard that bringing overdue investigative oversight to the ongoing CPSIA disaster is shaping up as a priority for many incoming lawmakers on the (newly Republican-led) House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose outgoing chair, California Democrat Henry Waxman, is closely identified with the law and its consumer-group backers.

Lame-Duck Menace: The Paycheck Fairness Act

At Compensation Cafe, Stephanie Thomas explores some of the “nonsensical implications” of a misnamed bill that’s a high Obama administration priority in the lame duck session:

Let’s assume that John and Jane have identical characteristics (education, work experience, etc.) except for gender. ABC Company makes offers of employment to John and Jane on the same day, for the same position, for the same starting salary: $45,000. Jane accepts the offer, but John negotiates the salary, and ends up with $50,000. Under the current equal pay laws, there’s no problem; John is earning more because he negotiated and Jane did not. Makes sense, right? Under the Paycheck Fairness Act, ABC Company would be guilty of gender discrimination.

Here’s another example. Assume that Sam and Sally have the same education, work experience, etc., and are both hired by WidgetCo on the same day. WidgetCo sets Sam and Sally’s starting salary at $2,500 more than they were making at their previous job. Sam was earning $37,500 at his previous job, and Sally was earning $36,000; their starting salaries at WidgetCo are $40,000 and $38,500. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Under the Paycheck Fairness Act, WidgetCo would be guilty of gender discrimination.

One final example. Assume that Brad and Bridget both work for Alpha Inc., have the same job title, same level of responsibility, etc., and they are both earning $100,000 per year. Brad asks for a 5% raise, but Bridget doesn’t ask for a raise. Brad gets the raise and ends up earning more than Bridget. Again, no problems here, right? Wrong - under the Paycheck Fairness Act, Alpha Inc. would be guilty of gender discrimination.

“Making matters worse, under the new law, damage awards would be uncapped, and class-action procedures loosened. Bring on the trial lawyers,” notes a Chicago Tribune editorial. For more on this very bad bill, check out the papers and presentations from a panel last week put on by our friends at the Hudson Institute. Earlier here and, at Overlawyered, here, here, etc.

Of Butterflies, Tsunamis, and Draconian Recusal Standards

Last October, I blogged about Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, a lawsuit in Mississippi alleging that the defendant oil, coal, utility, and chemical companies emit carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, which exacerbated Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the plaintiffs’ property.  Mass tort litigation specialist Russell Jackson called the case “the litigator’s equivalent to the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’”  In a brief that Cato was due to file this week, I framed the operative question as, “When a butterfly flaps its wings, can it be sued for the damage any subsequent tsunami causes?”

The plaintiffs asserted a variety of theories under Mississippi common law, but the main issue at this stage was whether the plaintiffs had standing, or whether they could demonstrate that their injuries were “fairly traceable” to the defendants’ actions.  The federal district court dismissed the case but a dream panel (for the plaintiffs) of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could indeed proceed with claims regarding public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence. 

In my blog post, I predicted that the Fifth Circuit would take up the case en banc (meaning before all the judges on the court, in this case 17) and reverse the panel.  And this was all set to happen – even though eight judges recused themselves, presumably because they owned shares of defendant companies – with en banc argument slated for May 24.  I was planning to head down to New Orleans for it, in part because the judge I clerked for, E. Grady Jolly, was going to preside over the hearing (the only two more senior active judges being recused).

But a funny thing happened on the way to legal sanity.  On Friday, not half an hour after I had finished editing Cato’s brief, the court clerk issued a notice informing the parties that one more judge had recused and, therefore, the en banc court lacked a quorum.  As of this writing, I still don’t know who this judge is and what circumstances had changed since the granting of the en banc rehearing to cause the recusal.  And indeed, by all accounts the Fifth Circuit is still figuring out what to do in this unusual (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) situation where a court loses a quorum it initially had – having already vacated the panel decision.

In short, the court could decide that the vacatur stands and either remand to a (now-confused) district court or rehear the case in a new random panel assignment.  More likely, however, the court will now reinstate the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad panel decision – and we’ll tweak our brief to make into one that supports the defendants’ inevitable cert petition.

All in all, an illustration of the absurdity both of litigating climate change politics in the courts and of forcing judges (including Supreme Court justices) to withdraw from cases for owning a few hundred dollars’ worth of stock.  If that’s all it takes to corrupt federal judges, we have bigger problems than trial lawyers run amok!

Health Care Bill Improves Lawyers’ Financial Health

The great thing for legislators about a nearly 2000 page bill – such as, oh, the House’s latest health care salvo – is that very few people bother to read the whole thing.  So it’s easy to bury little gifts to favored supporters.  Or big ones. 

For example, check out section 2531  – that’s pages 1431-33 for those following along at home – which has gone largely unnoticed in the major news cycle.  These three pages of the bill reward states that refrain from setting (or repeal) any caps on medical malpractice rewards – and the accompanying lawyers’ fees! – by requiring the Secretary of Health and Human Services to provide them a bribe an “incentive payment.”

As Hans von Spakovsky notes at NRO’s Corner, this “alternative medical liability law” aims to eviscerate cost-saving measures that protect doctors from frivolous lawsuits that increase the cost of health care to the consumer.  So this has nothing to do with providing better or cheaper care, covering the uninsured, or even eliminating waste and fraud.  Instead, it’s a pure sop to one of the Congressional Democrats’ key constituencies: trial lawyers.

For more information on free market health care reform alternatives, please visit Cato’s Health Care website here.