Food Poisoning: Townsend Farms

Very pleased to be working with Bill Marler, aka @bmarler, of Seattle’s Marler Clark LLC on a food poisoning Hepatitis A contamination case against Townsend Farms to be filed here in Oregon. I’ve long been a fan of Bill’s work. When I told my family I would be jumping this weekend, my teenage daughter described my excitement as a “man crush.” (Yikes!-that sounds kinda creepy.)

The case involves Hepatitis A contaminated fruit products sold through Costco stores. Townsend Farms manufactured the product. CDC recall information is here.

We will be filing a class action State court here in Oregon. Bill’s firm and the the Food Safety News blog are the best source of information on this litigation, though we will from time-to-time provide updates here as well.

Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

David Sugerman

 

Oregon Court Confirms Jury Verdict for Oregon Qarmat Ali Veterans

It’s a good day for the Oregon Qarmat Ali veterans.

Today,  the Court confirmed the jury verdict in favor of the first 12 Oregon Army National Guard veterans who suffered contamination injuries at the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant in Iraq in 2003.  Here is a link to the PDF opinion:  724 – opinion & order re trial

Judge Papak denied virtually all of KBR’s motions for which it sought a new a trial. Judge Papak left intact each veteran’s $6,250,000  punitive damage assessment and reduced each veteran’s compensatory damage assessment from $850,000 to $500,000. Judge Papak reduced those damages based on a case that came down after argument, Howell v. Boyle, 353 Or. 359, 298 P.3d 1 (2013). Just so we’re clear, the veterans disagree with the reduction part of Judge Papak’s legal ruling.

In any event, this is a great day for the veterans and their families. They told their stories to the jury, and the jury did justice. After a detailed, independent review, Judge Papak confirmed the jury’s findings.

For my part, I could not be happier for these vets and their families. When our system of justice works, it is a thing of beauty.

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.

Thinking about toy safety

Nice post  here on holiday toy safety. It’s a timely reminder for parents and grandparents who might be out shopping for kids’ gifts. There are those who grumble about toy safety initiatives and safety regulations.  The reality is that those who complain haven’t faced the horror of a profoundly injured child.   Nothing compares to that type of tragedy. No family should have to go through anything like it.

That’s meant as kudos for oregonconsumer.org. There aren’t enough independent voices out there protecting consumers.  That’s why I am a supporter.

Health care reform rhetoric, vandalism and violence: what are the legal options?

Here is a disturbing CNN report on threats of violence and acts of vandalism triggered by heated rhetoric of the health care reform debate. I have to say that I’m especially troubled by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and his smug admission that this is all melodrama.

Thanks, sir. Glad that putting your opponents in harm’s way is “just” a little game.

I’ve seen questions floating through blogs and social media about why these people can’t be stopped from abusive rhetoric.  Short answer is that the First Amendment generally prevents a court from telling someone that they can’t speak.

So the demigods, sideshow freaks, and rodeo clowns are free to continue heating things up with half baked allegations and over-heated rhetoric. But when violence results in injury, lines have been crossed. Only then will we be able to hold people accountable in court. Only then will an irresponsible speaker face a reckoning.

Not pretty, I know–especially when you see and hear the kind of stuff that we’ve faced over the last few days. But it’s a line that we have to honor.

A similar thing happened here in Oregon many years ago. When the White Aryan Resistance leader, Tom Metzger, incited a trio of skinheads to violence, he faced a wrongful death claim brought by the Seraw family, who lost their son in a senseless hate-filled attack.

If any wingnut is crazy enough to start firing shots or throwing bombs, there will be a reckoning. And it will be epic.The threats of violence aren’t going to shout the rest of us down. We’re going to have health care reform. Now maybe it’s time to act like grown ups and get on with the business of living in a democracy.

Toyota cover-up much worse than the acceleration problem

The Toyota acceleration problem has gotten a lot of press play. Most recent is yesterday’s story about a Prius that went berserk on a California interstate.  Looks like the engineering staff at Toyota doesn’t yet have this thing corralled.

One of the interesting things about the work I do representing consumers is that I’ve learned that juries are often fairly forgiving of institutions and mistakes. Here is what I mean. In court when businesses, hospitals, or government agencies admit to mistakes, my experience is that jurors are very understanding.

On the surface, it appears that Toyota is taking this, “mistakes were made” approach to defending the sudden acceleration cases.  But underneath is a story that so far has not gotten much play.

Apparently, Toyota has known for years about the problems with its cars. Not a big surprise.

But much worse, Toyota may have hidden the defects and may have violated all sorts of court rules and orders by hiding evidence and stonewalling in cases.  At least that is what one of Toyota’s former lawyers claims.

If this is true and if the story gets traction, Toyota is in major trouble.  Apart from sales issues, their liabilities will go through the roof when–not if–these Book of Knowledge documents are ordered produced.  Seems like their only hope is to completely discredit their former counsel.  I suppose it’s possible that everything he says in the linked CNN interview is fiction. But I doubt it.

The linked story talks about Toyota’s trade secrets.  Toyota thinks it doesn’t have to disclose those in injury cases. Toyota is wrong.

But as long as we’re on the subject, here is a trade secret from a consumer-side lawyer who toils in the trenches. Representing an injured consumer in a  design defect case is tough.  It’s hard to communicate the technical parts of the case. Leading the jury through the thicket of complexity to a just result for the injured consumer is a major challenge.  On the other hand, when that complicated design defect case becomes a case about hidden or destroyed evidence, the business is very likely in big trouble should the business choose to go to trial.

Health club waivers gone wild–why I won’t do business with Westside Athletic Club

After settling into my current schedule, I realized that I would probably work out more frequently if I joined a health club near my office. Westside Athletic Club has a location near my office in Big Pink, Portland’ s US Bank building. So I headed over to check it out. At the front desk, the peppy staff member enthusiastically endorsed my plan. And then she handed me a form that I needed to fill out and sign.

The form included a waiver of claims that appeared to immunize the health club from harms and losses caused by its fault. I told her I wouldn’t sign, and for her part she told me that she couldn’t allow me to look at the club. I asked her to tell management that they had just lost a sale. She was very polite and apologetic and promised to pass along my refusal.

So what’s the problem here, and why am I so snippy about such things?

Some legal background, first. Oregon generally enforces waivers and releases. In other words, if I sign a waiver, it will generally be enforced. There are a few exceptions, but you’re not reading this for details or even advice, so we won’t get too geeky about all this. Also, in the proper situation, I don’t have much of a problem with a waiver. For those of us who choose high risk activities like skydiving, skiing off the groomed portion of the mountain, scuba diving, and white water rafting, we have to accept that hazards exist and grievous injuries are possible. A properly balanced waiver isn’t particularly offensive in those settings.

But Westside wanted way more than that. While it wants people as customers, it refuses to take responsibility for something as simple as the safety of its club. If, for example, a Westside employee spilled oil all over a floor and didn’t clean it up, and the waiver-signing patron slipped and shattered her knee-cap, Westside would be off the hook for all harms and losses.

That’s a line that it should not cross and why I won’t do business with them. As a customer, I think I should be able to expect that the health club will keep the place properly maintained. Failing that, I won’t join a club that hides from its responsibility.

Now let’s be clear, injuries don’t happen often. As well, I’m going to guess that Westside was simply following legal advice. I wouldn’t be surprised if other athletic clubs foist the same provisions on their visitors. Still, those are excuses, and they don’t overcome the basic problem of taking responsibility for our actions. So Westside, if you want me to visit or join your health club, please offer me a deal we can both live with. I know business is tough, but that’s true for both businesses and consumers. I’m not interested in paying dues if you’re not willing to take responsibility for the safety of your club.

David Sugerman