Zippers, coffee, Twitter and very tender man parts

I don’t really have time for this. I have two briefs due this week. The first is an opposition to a motion for summary judgment in a product liability case. The second is a reply brief in our consumer fraud class action against BP for failing to disclose debit card charges to Oregon gas purchasers. And if that’s not enough, I have legislative meetings this week on consumer legislation that would help end insurance abuses by covering Oregon insurance companies under the Unlawful Trade Practices Act.

All of that is an over-long explanation of why this post is going to be quick and somewhat dirty. Too many things.

So on the Twitter, I wandered into a conversation–if you can call it that–between Nicole Augenti (@Nicole1515), a Connecticut trial lawyer, and Ted Frank, @tedfrank*, a lawyer who I understand devotes most of his practice to objections in consumer class actions. Ted also blogs at the Manhattan Institute’s Point of Law blog, a blog that is supported by the Manhattan Institute, a well-known corporate-funded think tank devoted to re-design of the U.S. civil justice system to make it more corporate friendly. “Corporate friendly” is a euphemism. These smart people reportedly funded by the Koch brothers and a number of large corporations are bent on destroying the civil justice system through radical restrictions of the right to trial by jury.They do so through a number of initiatives, with allies like The Federalist Society, think tanks, blogs, coordinated message points, etc.

They are doing this through “tort reform”–an insidious notion that they know better than juries whether corporations should be held responsible when they misbehave. They are doing so through mandatory arbitration to ensure that consumer and employee claims never make it into the courtroom. And they are doing it through allied media and public relations firms.

So against this backdrop, Mr. Frank is called out for this particularly inane blog post. Ms. Augenti comically tweets: “So, Ted Frank (TORT REFORMER!) is mad he can’t sue for penis zipper injuries?? http://www.pointoflaw.com/archives/2013/03/zippers-and-mcdonalds-hot-coffee.php … ” The Twitter back and forth starts with a very smart, accomplished intellectual of the caliber of Ted Frank accusing Ms. Augenti of illiteracy and wondering whether she isn’t a walking malpractice trap.

But the point, which he doesn’t want to address, is how messed up Mr. Frank is on the law of product liability. He is too busy taking swipes at another pal of mine, Susan Saladoff, for her seminal work on the great documentary, Hot Coffee, the Movie.

So now let’s get to the errors of Mr. Frank’s analysis. That’s why I am writing this, after all.

According to Ted Frank, if Stella Liebeck, the consumer in the McDonald’s case, can sue because she burned herself on hot coffee, so can men who suffer injuries to delicate organs (informally referred to as the Johnson, the little brain, the schlong; more formally known as the penis) when using zippers.

How does Mr. Frank get to the schlong injury claim? He oversimplifies and misstates the law of product liability.  According to Mr. Frank, Susan Saladoff, who had a great run as a capable Oregon trial lawyer, advances the theory that product liability claims exist anytime someone or many people get injured by a product. He knows that he has oversimplified Susan’s point. She doesn’t say that.

What Mr. Frank ignores is that the consumer must prove that a product is unreasonably dangerous to pursue a product liability case. “So coffee is hot and everyone knows that,” is the prevailing knock on the McDonald’s case. What people don’t realize is that the coffee temperature was not hot, it was HOT. McDonald’s sold it at a temperature that caused major, horrible burns when spilled on humans. And they did it knowing that this was a problem, based on the hundreds of prior injuries.So it’s not that coffee can burn, but that McDonalds set the temperature at an unexpected and unreasonably high temperature that is a danger.

And now Mr. Frank wants to talk about zipper injuries to the schlong. So let’s talk. Here is how it works. If the manufacturer sells a dangerous product and the danger could be eliminated by design, then the manufacturer is responsible. After all, it is up to manufacturers who profit from selling products to take steps to avoid needlessly injuring consumers. I assume even the Manhattan Institute agrees with that basic principle, but maybe I am wrong.

So if a manufacturer uses razor sharp edges on his new, hip jeans, and Mr. Frank slices off his Johnson, he can sue. I imagine every guy would agree that such an injury would be horrifying…. But apart from the sensitive topics, the consumer–here Mr. Frank–must prove that the product was dangerously defective, usually by design. Mr. Frank knows this. He simply does not like that such cases exist.

Worse, he chides Saladoff and those of us who dare to call out corporations for misconduct by misstating what we must do to prove our cases. It’s not enough to show that 700 or thousands are injured while using a product. While that fact is interesting, and it may bear on what the corporation should have known, it does not prove the case. The 700 instances in McDonald’s coffee litigation was part of the factual showing, but if that’s all that was proved, the case would not have gone to the jury.

Two things gall me about the Manhattan Institute and their ilk. First, they invariably think they know better than juries. Ted Frank is a smart guy. I mean that genuinely and in a non-snarky fashion. He is accomplished, well-educated and highly credentialed. That said, he is not smarter than a jury. No single person is.

I say that as someone who has won and lost case. I’ve won very big verdicts, and I’ve lost in heartbreaking fashion. But at the end of the day, I am prepared to accept the judgment of the jury. That was the genius of our founders. It is what is enshrined in the Seventh Amendment. In my experience, those who try cases on both sides recognize the wisdom of the jury. This is true of my colleagues who represent corporations in the courtroom.

Along those lines, I would be surprised if Mr. Frank or anyone else at Point of Law has much jury trial experience. (Open invitation: Please let me know if I am wrong.) But even so, they are smarter than juries?

I said there were two things that galled me. The second is something I’ve seen many times in the decades in my law practice. A person is injured,  a consumer is wronged, a family is harmed. The injury may be a result of something as simple as a dangerous, inattentive driver causing a wreck, or a corporation wrongfully taking money to which it not entitled. Or it may be something as complicated as injury from toxic chemicals. The injured person often looks at me and says, “Well, I’m really injured, not like so many of those people you hear about….” I try to remain neutral and gracious and ultimately attribute it to an old adage: Comedy is when you slip on a banana peel; tragedy is when I slip on a banana peel.

So all this is the long answer to Ted Frank and why from time-to-time he gets push back from me on Twitter. Ted is obviously a true believer. But he is wrong to believe that he knows better than the founders who gave us the Seventh Amendment and more than a group of jurors who listen to the evidence and render decisions.

___

*Was going to provide a link to Ted Frank’s Twitter feed, but apparently he blocked me. Sadz, as the kids say.

Update: Le Cordon Bleu Portland/Western Culinary Int. and Career Education Corp case on hold for appeal

From a recent blog comment and email, I realized that we did not update our blog on this case. The Court of Appeals denied our motion to dismiss. As a result, the case is on hold, and the January trial date is off.

The news came while I was in trial on Bixby v. KBR and in the tumult of that case, the need to update readers here fell of my radar. My apologies to all who are waiting for news.

The Court of Appeals’ denial of our motion to dismiss means that we must go through the long process of appeals. My guess is that we’ll have the case briefed and argued this year, but a decision and final return to the trial court might not happen until 2014 or even possibly later.

The appeal is over whether some people in the class–those who signed later enrollment agreements–must go to arbitration. It’s particularly aggravating because approximately half the the class who signed early versions of the enrollment agreement are not impacted by the appeal.

We are disappointed, of course. This early appeal appears to be part of Career Education Corp’s plan of delay. While the case may be delayed, the legal team remains fully engaged and committed. Our day will come.

Please let us know if you have questions. But keep in mind that we don’t provide legal advice via blog comment.

David Sugerman

Judge denies defense motions in Career Education Corp Western Culinary Institute class action

Happy to report that Judge Baldwin denied defendants’ motions for summary judgment and to decertify the class in Surrett v. Western Culinary Institute, our consumer fraud class action for former Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland students. We’re very pleased.

The gist of Judge Baldwin’s ruling is that there is sufficient evidence for a jury to decide whether the school and its parent corporation, Career Education Corp., defrauded students by failing to disclose important information. We’re very pleased. Now a bit more discovery and then full-on trial preparation.

It does look like we will be moving into mediation later this month. We had an early attempt at mediation long ago, and it failed miserably. Much  has happened since. Watch this space for updates or–for quicker information–like us at on Facebook here. We tend to post quicker updates there.

Update: Consumer fraud class action Career Ed Corp and Western Culinary Institute

In blog comments, we have been asked for updates on this case, which is below. A few things. First. A better source of quick update is our firm Facebook page. Assuming you are an FB user, simply go here and like the page, and you’ll get more timely information. Second. We have to be mindful of  what we post here. It’s a public page. No doubt that counsel for Career Education Corp and Western Culinary/Le Cordon Bleu Portland read this blog–greetings, Mr. Nylen–so we act accordingly.

And now to the specifics. Last Friday we appeared in front of Judge Baldwin for a long hearing on defendants’ motions to decertify the class and for summary judgment. For people keeping track at home, if granted, the first motion would end the class action and require everyone to go forward individually. If granted, the second motion would end the case, with a victory for the defendants.

Judge Baldwin did not rule from the bench and instead took the motions under advisement. This was not a surprise–there were many pages of pleadings and exhibits to review. It’s a big job digesting all of it.

I handled oral argument for the class, which went approximately two hours. While it’s not a particularly good predictor of outcomes, I felt good about how oral argument went. The defendants have since filed another motion, asking the Court to take into account a recent decision in New York dismissing a law school fraud class action. We’re not particularly impressed with the new argument–New York law is different. So are law schools.

While there is no fixed deadline, I would expect to hear back from Judge Baldwin by early or mid-April. He instructed the sides to come up with a proposed schedule for the rest of the case as well.

Meanwhile, we are preparing for trial of this large and complicated case. It’s been an interesting ride over the last four years. The legal team for the class has put in thousands of hours of work. (Yes, you read that correctly.)  The case continues to present many challenges. Our task remains to overcome each obstacle and get the case to trial.  No one said this case would be easy, but I remain pleased with our progress. And while it may look like nothing is happening, behind the scenes we continue to push forward to our day in court.

 

Twitter from the jury box in Brooklyn

My sleepy Monday started with full-on Twitter commentary emanating from a courtroom in Brooklyn. It seems that Ryan J. Davis (@RyanNewYork), a Brooklyn social media-active guy had gotten pulled into court for jury duty.

Mr. Davis was live-tweeting voir dire–AKA jury selection–from the court room. That’s to say, he was broadcasting his observations on Twitter while sitting on a case. He explained:

Ryan J. Davis

@RyanNewYork Ryan J. Davis

“Nobody had told me not to tweet, everyone can see me clearly on my phone.”

Some of his tweets were amusing and harmless, but at least a few crossed the line, including one regarding the merits:

Ryan J. Davis

@RyanNewYork Ryan J. Davis
“Apparently the woman suing the nursing home has been in like 6 accidents and is always suing. Raises some flags.”

And then there was this somewhat ominous appraisal of one party’s attorney:

Ryan J. Davis

@RyanNewYork Ryan J. Davis

“Plaintiff’s attorney said “you won’t see me on any late night tv ads'” I don’t believe him.”

Ryan, being a skilled social media user, quickly saw that a small group of trial lawyers were talking about what he was doing. He was eventually told by the judge that he should not be posting on Twitter, and he wondered whether one of us had complained to the judge.

Through the limited space of Twitter posts, I explained that I had not and promised to elaborate on the complicated problems of jurors and social media.

So now we’re caught up, and Ryan this is for you.

Our civil justice system stands and falls on the jury and the integrity of the process. The injured woman sought access to justice because she believed that the nursing home should be held accountable for maintaining its facility in a way that was safe for those entering the business. Whether she is right or wrong, injured or not, it is up to the jury selected to hear the evidence and render a verdict. My worry is that Twitter and social media disrupt that process.

You engaged in the very human process of forming impressions on things that mattered (the woman’s credibility based upon someone’s claim that she had made prior claims) the credibility of her counsel (based upon his appearance and conduct). You did that without the benefit of actual evidence.

I imagine that happens to many potential jurors, so you’re still in an unremarkable position. But then those are broadcast to tens of thousands of people who follow you and beyond. Until earlier today, I did not follow you; I only picked up on the stream because someone flagged it for me.

So we’ve taken the initial impressions that aren’t based on evidence and broadcast them outward from the courtroom. I imagine some of your 30,000+ followers responded, retweeted, etc. and next thing you know the merits of a case in Brooklyn are grist for the social media mill.

Now if it seems like I’m picking on Ryan, that’s not my intention. Assuming Ryan accurately heard all and correctly tweeted the lack of instructions regarding use of Twitter, the problem is upstream with the court and counsel. But it is a problem.

It goes back to the foundation of the civil justice system–the jury. The parties need to know that their case will be tried on evidence in the courtroom. Put another way, if I am trying that case, I know how to put on a case, challenge through cross-examination witnesses who are adverse, and analyze and argue the evidence. But I can’t argue with information and influence that enters the jury room through Twitter and other social media.

Some in the social media world may say, “Tough luck, pal. This is the new world; get used to it.” To which I say, “Not without a fight.” Because the civil justice system is what levels the playing field between oligarchs, corporations and consumers. Do you have any doubt about a large, institutional corporate nursing home’s chain ability to influence via social media jurors who are willing to listen during trial? Do we doubt for a moment the power of protected corporate interests to exploit these channels?

So at the risk of sounding pompous (or worse), we need to figure out how to divorce social media from the jury box. To do otherwise is a loss for consumers who count on the integrity of the civil justice system as a uniquely American means of leveling the playing field between the oligarchs and the rest of us.

Ryan, if you catch this, thanks for the teachable moment. Hope that I’ve explained my concerns and the stakes adequately. Happy to discuss in detail if this is of further interest.

David

 

 

A modest proposal: Close your Umpqua Bank account

Great coverage here in today’s Oregonian by Brent Hunsberger regarding Umpqua Bank’s decision to cram mandatory arbitration down the throats of Umpqua customers. If you’re an Umpqua Bank customer, you might want to seriously consider moving your funds to a credit union.

By way of background, the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion touched off a race to the bottom. The Court gave corporations great power to require customers to take any disputes to arbitration, while banning class actions.

The Court fell for the old Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football argument that arbitration is cheaper, easier and better for consumers. Arbitration is none of those things to consumers–especially in small consumer cases. In those cases in which the amount at stake might be $20-200, arbitration filing fees, hearing fees and arbitrator payment fees effectively bar individual consumers from pursuing their claims.

When the likes of Umpqua Bank and ATT Mobility engage in small-dollar rip offs of many consumers, they earn large amounts of money. To put it concretely, if a bank illegally charges five dollars each year to a million customers, it earns $5 million per year in illegal profits. In the past, consumer lawyers have stopped that nickel and diming by pursuing class actions. If a class of a million consumers collects $5 per consumer plus attorney fees and costs, does anyone think the bank will continue the illegal practice?

Banks–and those who represent them–dislike class actions. They settled on a simple strategy. Ban class actions and require consumers to go to arbitration. Ending consumer class actions is a bit like filling the slop pit for a bunch of hungry swine. They’ll be all over that deal.

Once the Supreme Court decided ATT Mobility v. Concepcion, banks, cell phone providers, credit card companies–hell, almost any big business that sells things or services under a written contract–all rushed in for the feeding frenzy. So I guess it is no surprise that Umpqua wants to get in on the action.

So where are consumers in this? If you care about this issue and you are an Umpqua customer, the best response is to vote with your feet. Move it to a consumer-friendly credit union. Because if enough Umpqua customers move, I’m guessing they will get a little nervous. And if a lot of Umpqua customers move, I’m thinking they might get a lot of nervous.

So do it if you can. If they can’t treat us better than slops in a trough, seems to me they don’t deserve our business.

BP faces Oregon consumer fraud class action

You pull into one of BP’s Oregon ARCO or AM?PM stations, and fill up with gas. The street signs tells you that gas costs a specific amount; maybe $3.50 per gallon. BP’s ARCO and AM-PM advertise some of the lowest gas prices in Oregon. At the pump, the price per gallon matches the sign you saw from the road.

So maybe you buy five gallons. But when you pay with your debit card, you’re assessed a debit card charge of $.35 or .45. So the price per gallon just went up seven to nine cents per gallon over the amount advertised.

BP markets ARCO gas as lower cost. The debit card fee does more than just hurt consumers. It also puts honest competitors at a disadvantage.

Oregon law is clear. Street signs advertising gas prices are supposed to be truthful. The prices charged at the pump are supposed to be the prices that Oregon consumers actually pay. Gas stations have to disclose add-on charges or conditions on their prices.

Oregon BP ARCO and AM PM mini-markets are not doing it. They’re violating Oregon law with every debit card charge.

Yes, it’s only a small charge. But lots of small charges add up to a lot of money. And BP is a master at collecting a lot of money.

Somewhere along the way, things went wrong. And somehow BP and its ilk decided that they were entitled to ignore state law and charge illegal add-on charges. For consumers, this nickel and diming amounts to a series of bites out of us and our bank accounts. It’s dishonest.  To my way of thinking, the undisclosed add-on is a form of corporate corruption.

Fortunately, Oregon’s Unlawful Trade Practices Act provides a means of stopping this type of behavior. And yes, we filed the consumer fraud class action this week against BP because Oregon consumers deserve better. For those interested here is a pdf version of the complaint: Complaint Scharfstein v BP

One of the things about our commitment to handling consumer fraud class actions is that there never seems to be shortage of work for me and my law firm. Consumer fraud class actions are challenging cases, but there is something satisfying about being part of a small group of consumer lawyers willing to stand up against predation by the likes of BP. That’s why we are working late into the waning hours of 2011.

I am pleased to be joined on the case by my friend and frequent collaborator, Oregon consumer attorney Tim Quenelle. Tim and I handled the Comcast late fee class action together. We make a good team.

As with all of our major impact and consumer fraud class actions, I imagine this will be a long and hard-fought case. So this is how we close out 2011 and roll into 2012. We’ll report on it from time-to-time here. Feel free to check back for updates.

Also, if you have been bitten by the BP debit card charge in Oregon, please feel free to let us know via comment or through contact. We would love to hear your story.

Career Education Corporation and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day

Last week, Career Education Corporation’s stock took a breathtaking fall. It started with the resignation of Gary McCullough, the CEO. That happened so quickly, he did not even have time to offer the usual walk-the-plank rap that he was leaving to spend more time with his family.

The next day, November 2, the company provided earnings information to investors in their earnings call. The earnings call reportedly included revelations that about an internal  investigation by outside counsel.

It seems that independent counsel reviewed the calculation of placement rates at some of CEC’s schools. CEC revealed that placement rates at some of its schools were improperly calculated. That is when CEC’s stock took its breathtaking fall.

The upshot is that Career Education Corporation is facing serious problems. Or, in the words of a favorite kid’s book, CEC had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Against this backdrop, we continue to pursue our consumer fraud class action against Career Education Corp. and the Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland for former culinary students at the Portland campus. The calculation of placement rates is one of the major issues in our case.

I’ll be interested to see what else comes out from these investigations. Regardless of what else comes out, we’re getting ready to complete depositions and get ready for trial.

Update: NPR did a story two days ago. Access it here

Updated: 9 Nov 2011

Fighting the robber barons: Illegal debt card charges for overdrafts

News today that West Coast Bank reached an agreement with the FDIC relating to its “courtesy coverage” overdraft protection. According to Brent Hunsberger’s report in The Oregonian, the issue was ineffective opt outs. But there is a bigger problem with Oregon banks ordering transactions in a way that triggers a cascade of overdraft charges.

I’m particularly interested in this area and looking at various cases. If you have had multiple overdraft charges assessed by Umpqua Bank, I’m interested in talking to you about the problems.

While it’s good that the FDIC stepped in, I am concerned that they did not fully take care of consumers who were affected by West Coast Bank’s overdraft charges. Still, enforcement is essential. Failing that, those of us who dare to fight the robber barons provide the next best thing.

Feel free to contact me if you have a story about Umpqua or any other Oregon bank that is overcharging on overdraft fees.

David Sugerman

ARCO debit card fees–Again?

Oregon readers know about our gasoline rules. In Oregon, there is no self-service. So when you pull up to the pump and ask the attendant to gas it up, you commit to the purchase the minute the gas starts flowing into your tank.

ARCO does not take credit cards. Consumers can pay cash or with debit cards.

Over a decade ago, I did my first consumer class action against ARCO in Oregon. They were charging an undisclosed debit card fee for consumers who paid with debit cards.

After a hard-fought battle, we settled that class action case many years ago. Part of the settlement required ARCO to post debit card fee disclosure signs at the pump. We demanded the fee notices so that consumers would know before committing to the purchase that they were paying an extra charge.

That extra charge is now 45 cents per purchase. So when you buy five gallons worth of gas, it is nine cents per gallon more than the posted price if you pay with a debit card.

That’s right. It appears that ARCO, which is now a subsidiary of Gulf oil spill British Petroleum, is back to nickel and diming consumers. My annoyance knows no bounds…I really dislike nickel and diming consumers.

If you have had a problem with ARCO debit card charges in Oregon, I would appreciate a call or an email so that we can properly analyze and address this problem.