Category: Tort Law


Pet Food Scare

Pet owners have understandably begun suing Menu Foods over the deaths of pets from tainted pet food. Rat poison has apparently been discovered in the food, but it’s a mystery how the poison got there. Aminopterin, the poison in question, cannot be used for killing rats in the U.S. The FDA had apparently been investigating whether wheat gluten in the food had been contaminated, but spraying rat poison on wheat doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So, taking license to speculate, let’s assume that a good explantion is never found. What happens to these lawsuits? Will this become the res ipsa case that replaces Byrne v. Boadle (the man hit on the head by a barrel of flour that apparently fell out of a building)? Or, will this case test whether (or come to exemplify that) strict products liability is (or is not) truly strict? If we conclude the defendant wasn’t negligent, the only possible action will be strict liability. Recent case law seems to have pushed strict products liability into a form of negligence, but will courts really deny pet owners recovery?

Competing Ourselves to Death

In the run up to the Superbowl, the NYT has a disturbing story on the fate of Ted Johnson of the New England Patriots. Johnson suffered several concussions while playing and now suspects that they have permanently diminished his mental capacity. Johnson’s case is not isolated, and is leading to worries about “the N.F.L.’s record of allowing half of players who sustain concussions to return to the same game.” What’s next, the return of the flying wedge?

From a brute lawyerly perspective, the controversy raises some interesting issues. Are coaches and trainers negligently encouraging the injured to play? Could the players sign away any right to sue their teams (or the league) in cases like these? Might some political pressure need to be brought to bear here, like that which finally got baseball to face up to its steroid mess?

From a broader social perspective, other concerns arise. I’m presenting tomorrow at the Int’l Association of Science and Technology Studies on biotechnological enhancement that raises cognate issues. I’ll address a potential inversion of the traditional relationship between technology and values. Usually we think of values as guideposts that allow us to judge the worth of certain technological advances. But what happens when technology itself alters our cognitive capacities? Can it undermine our values? Certain drugs, trainings, or even game strategies might blunt or otherwise obscure our understanding of the world and ourselves. If we share Martha Nussbaums’s account of emotions as judgments of value, might these so-called performance-enhancements diminish the possibility of our rightly discerning our ends?

Any sporting pursuit that requires its participants to systematically risk their health in competition is troubling. But concussions like Johnson’s are doubly so, since they appear not merely to diminish or distort cognition, but to compromise one’s ability to even recognize the diminution taking place. The difficult question for regulators of various performance-enhancing neuropharmacological interventions is whether they have the potential to blunt users’ perceptions of the deep changes they wreak in users themselves. Substance addiction has been modeled as a case of “increasing marginal utility,” where the more one uses, the more one wants. New neural performance enhancement addiction might work in a far subtler way–by blunting the appeal of alternate sources of value and satisfaction.


MySpace Sued for Facilitating Offline Sexual Assaults

AP reports that four families have sued MySpace because their daughters were sexually assaulted (offline) by other MySpace members. This isn’t the first time MySpace has been sued on this front; last year, MySpace was sued in Texas state court for the same issue in Doe v. MySpace.

These lawsuits are obvious losers for two independent reasons. First, there’s a major causation problem. Can MySpace be deemed, as a legal matter, a contributing factor to an intentional tort committed outside its “four walls”? This strikes me as a major stretch of causation doctrines.

Even if you don’t buy that, then I’m 100% confident these attempts to hold MySpace liable for other people’s behavior will fail due to 47 USC 230. 47 USC 230 has routinely insulated websites for liability for torts committed outside their network. This was the central issue in the Fourth Circuit’s seminal Zeran v. AOL case, 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. Nov. 12, 1997), where the court insulated AOL for the offline harassment sparked by online postings. For other examples of websites avoiding liability for offline conduct, see, e.g., Doe v. America Online, 783 So. 2d 1010 (Fla. 2001) (AOL not liable to harmed child for child porn generated off AOL and distributed through it); Doe v. Bates, 2006 WL 3813758 (E.D. Tex. Dec. 27, 2006) (same basic case as Doe v. AOL); Prickett v. infoUSA, Inc., 2006 WL 887431 (E.D. Tex. Mar. 30, 2006) (information republisher not liable for offline harassing behavior made using published data); Barnes v. Yahoo, Inc., 2005 WL 3005602 (D. Or. Nov. 7, 2005) (Yahoo not liable for offline harassments made in response to bogus profile submitted by angry ex-boyfriend).

Given the obviously futile nature of this lawsuit, this lawsuit may be more about publicity than about seeking justice. Despite this, these lawsuits may nevertheless exacerbate two trends, both of which are not necessarily positive.

First, legislators cannot resist the meme of protecting kids online, and this lawsuit will give legislators another incentive to think that they should regulate social networking sites to protect kids. See, for example, Sen. McCain’s proposed “Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act.” (How could anyone ever oppose a law with a title like that???) However, such regulations run into difficult definitional issues (what is a “social networking site”?) and, if poorly drafted (as Congress tends to do with Internet regulation), could jeopardize lots of legitimate activities and conversations.

Second, this lawsuit will also encourage Congress to target sexual offenders for further restrictions of their online behavior, like McCain’s Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act and like the proposed federal sex offender email registry as a way to blacklist them online (see a similar effort in Virginia). Sexual offenders have become the new pariah in our society–they are a tiny percent of the population and, based on the nature of their offenses, shunned by majority interests (indeed, it is politically incorrect to do anything but shun them). As a result, there is no meaningful counterbalance to any majority-led political efforts to strip them of rights. To the extent that depriving them of rights online could improve the safety of children, I’m all for it. However, I have yet to see any social science explaining what online restrictions of sexual offender behavior actually supports this goal. Without any scientific support, regulatory efforts are typically more about grandstanding by attacking unpopular minorities than about improving our safety.

I want to be clear–I worry a lot about how I can protect my children online, and I haven’t figured out how to best do that. This kind of stuff keeps me up at nights because of my heavy responsibilities as a parent. At the same time, I remain concerned that legal intervention to supplement my efforts will not help me execute my duties as a parent, but they will nevertheless come at a significant cost by curtailing otherwise robust and socially enriching communication environments.


Barrett v. Rosenthal: Blogger Immunity for Defamatory Comments

Recently, in Barrett v. Rosenthal, the California Supreme Court held, similar to most courts addressing the issue, that bloggers are immune from being sued for “distributor” liability under defamation law. Under defamation law, the original speaker of a defamatory statement (a false statement that harms a person’s reputation) is liable. A “distributor,” one who further disseminates a falsehood spoken by another and who “knows or should have known” about the defamatory nature of a statement, is also liable. A federal law, 47 U.S.C. § 230, however, provides: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Most courts have interpreted § 230 to immunize the operators of websites or blogs against distributor liability for comments posted by others.

On the surface, Barrett doesn’t appear to be all that exceptional a case. Yet it is noteworthy because the California Supreme Court is reversing a rather notable opinion by the California Court of Appeals, which had taken a different interpretation of § 230 that didn’t provide such a broad immunity.

Most courts are interpreting § 230 very broadly. The plain meaning of § 230 is far from clear, but courts are reading it as a broad federal abrogation of a significant dimension of state defamation law. The court in Barrett stated that if its interpretation was at odds with what Congress wanted, Congress could always clarify the law. But this argument can be made for any interpretation. Perhaps courts should err on the side of narrowly interpreting federal laws that could preempt state law.

Moreover, I find § 230 immunity to be somewhat of a problem because it creates a rather inconsistent body of law. For example, consider the following scenarios:

1. You tell me a libel about X and I then write about it on my blog.

In this situation, § 230 would not apply. I’m the publisher, and I would be liable for defamation assuming other limitations on defamation liability don’t apply.

2. You email me a libel about X and I then post your email on my blog.

This situation is unresolved. Some courts say I’m not the publisher and am immune. For example, in Batzel v. Smith, 333 F.3d 1018 (9th Cir. 2003), the court stated that a person who forwarded an email by another to a newsgroup was immune under § 230. Barrett involved a somewhat similar situation, and the court explicitly dodged the question of whether the defendant could be considered the “publisher” and be liable (the court only held that § 230 eliminated distributor liability). I find the Batzel holding to be quite dubious. Is there any difference between this scenario and #1 besides the fact that #1 was said orally and #2 was by email?

3. You post a comment to my post with a libel about X. I’ve set up my blog so that it requires my approval before any comments are posted. I get an email notification of your comment; I approve it; and your comment gets posted.

What would courts do here? I bet most will say that I’m immune, even though I deliberately allowed your comment to be posted. But is this much different than #2?

4. You post a comment to my blog with a libel about X. I’ve set up my blog so it allows comments to be automatically posted without my prior approval. X emails me that it is defamatory and asks me to take it down. I refuse.

In this scenario, most courts would hold that I’m immune. Is this really that much different than #3? Once I’m emailed about it, aren’t I in virtually the same position as I am in #3?

For some other interesting discussions of the Barrett decision, see the following posts by Eugene Volokh, Eric Goldman, and Michelle Malkin.


Was Johnny Cash a Law Professor?

johnny-cash-01.jpgI have posted before about the music of the law. Of late I have been prepping and researching to the music of Johnny Cash, and I wonder if perhaps his songs were meant as law-exam issue spotters. Here are two examples. First, in the “The Boy Named Sue,” Cash tells the story of a man who tried to kill his father for naming him “Sue,” a sobriquet that apparently resulted in a life time of torment. Suppose, however, that the boy named Sue, rather than trying to kill his father in a honky-tonk brawl had instituted a law suit. Is there a cause of action for tortious naming?

Second, in “One Piece at a Time,” Cash tells the story of a factory worker who over the course of two decades steals a Cadillac piece by piece by piece from the factory. He and his friends then assemble the car, which proves difficult due to the constant evolution of car models. (There is no doubt some point about planned obsolesce in here as well.) He then sings:

About that time my wife walked out

And I could see in her eyes that she had her doubts

But she opened the door and said “Honey, take me for a spin.”

So we drove up town just to get the tags

And I headed her right on down main drag

I could hear everybody laughin’ for blocks around

But up there at the court house they didn’t laugh

‘Cause to type it up it took the whole staff

And when they got through the title weighed sixty pounds.

How exactly did he get title to the car? More importantly, what crime — if any — is he guilty of. The parts for the car were taken over a period from 1949 to 1973. How many larcenies have there been here? To the extent that the crime depends on the value of the item taken, should defense counsel argue that there is a single crime or hundreds of crime committed seriatim. (Can he avoid any under the statute of limitations?) What of special crimes dealing specifically with cars. Is it grand theft auto if you take it one piece at a time?


The Cost of Litigation

dollars1a.jpgThe NY Times has an interesting article about defamation law involving a lawsuit by a judge against a newspaper for libel. The article noted some interesting facts about the nature and cost of defamation litigation:

The [Medial Law Resource Center] said judges win at trial at about the same rate — 60 percent — as anyone else who takes a news organization to court. But of those that are appealed involving public officials, the media win about 68 percent of the time.

The reason, experts said, is that appellate courts tend to be less susceptible to emotional arguments than juries and more attuned to the legal standard of malice as it applies to public officials, including judges.

Still, during the last several years, the center said, the media have appealed a smaller percentage of cases. In the 1980s, news organizations appealed about 87 percent of the verdicts against them; since 2000, they have appealed 76 percent.

“The media tend to win, but it can be expensive to litigate because you aren’t vindicated until appeal,” Mr. Dodell said. He said that 60 percent to 80 percent of the dollars his company paid out went to defense expenses, not awards.

I am one who believes that the media should be responsible when it defames people or invades their privacy, but the last paragraph in the excerpt above is quite alarming. One of the primary problems with our legal system is its extravagent cost, and the problem is only getting worse. The problem is caused in large part by lawyers, who command extremely high hourly rates. Litigating a case is increasingly a big production, almost like producing a small movie.

One possible solution is eliminating the so-called “American rule” for litigation costs, which holds generally that each side bears its own costs. In other countries, the loser pays. Proponents of a loser pays rule argue that it will weed out frivolous lawsuits brought solely to intimidate defendants to settle rather than expend massive litigation costs. Critics of shifting to loser pays argue that such a rule would seriously deter many legitimate tort cases, as large organizations can run up litigation costs and make the risk-to-reward likelihood in a case too unfavorable for anybody to litigate. In other words, a loser pays rule might result in too few worthy cases being brought. In contrast, the American rule doesn’t overly discourage litigation, and it forces the parties to try to resolve the case themselves. But the incentive is to settle quickly regardless of who’s in the right because of the enormous potential litigation costs. Changing the American rule to loser pays still will not address the problem that we have an extremely overpriced dispute resolution system.

The great value of our legal system is that it allows people the opportunity to present their side of the story and to be heard. But that takes time and often a lot of attorney labor, which is why it is so expensive. I believe that at some point, our legal system must evolve to address the problem of cost, as the litigation process itself is becoming worse than losing the case. Is there a viable solution?


The Next McDonald’s Coffee Case?

starbucks.jpgMaybe so:

[An Indiana couple] have filed a lawsuit against Starbucks, accusing a [local] store of serving scalding hot chocolate that seriously burned their little girl.

Michael and Alexis Brennan filed the suit Tuesday in Marion Superior Court on behalf of their daughter, Rachel. Rachel’s age is not included in the lawsuit, but it says she was in a child restraint seat in the back seat of the family car Nov. 2, 2004, when Alexis Brennan went to the Starbucks at 116th Street and I-69.

Brennan ordered a child’s hot chocolate with whipped cream and an adult hot chocolate without whipped cream at the drive-through. According to the lawsuit, Starbucks’ policy is to serve child drinks at lower temperature than adult drinks to avoid kids getting burned.

Brennan handed her daughter the child drink, and as she pulled away from the window, it spilled into Rachel’s lap.

The child was “screaming in pain,” and her mother pulled over, got Rachel out and removed her clothes to find the “skin on Rachel’s leg was falling off of her.” She suffered serious burns that required repeated medical attention and could require more medical attention, the lawsuit said. The parents are seeking unspecified damages.

Obviously, the kinds of cases that get turned (by certain interest groups) into urban legends about the tort system can’t be easily predicted. Some facts about this case – Starbuck’s policy of usually not serving hot drinks to children, the uncomfortable fact that the victim is a child and not an adult, and the alleged severe burns suffered – all might combine to make it less likely that norm entrepreneurs will seize upon this case as an example of the system run amok. But you never know – I did find the case on the Drudge Report, after all.


Online Blacklisting of Medical Malpractice Plaintiffs

stethoscope.jpgIn a disturbing development, websites are emerging to create blacklists of individuals who file medical malpractice claims. According to an article at

In 2004, a group of Texas physicians launched The site listed the names of plaintiffs, attorneys and expert witnesses in medical malpractice cases. That site did not make any distinction between cases that ended in plaintiff verdicts and those that ended in defense verdicts or settlements.

According to the New York Times, a North Texas man had trouble finding a physician for his 18-year old son after his name was posted on the site. He had filed a medical malpractice suit after his wife died from a missed brain tumor, and had won an undisclosed settlement. was shut down four days after the Times article was published.

A new website to blacklist medical malpractice plaintiffs has emerged, called According to the article:

In the latest effort to enable doctors to shun patients who sue, an offshore company has launched an Internet site that lists the names of plaintiffs who have filed medical malpractice cases in Florida and their attorneys.

The site,, encourages doctors to consider avoiding patients who are listed in the database, and it strongly encourages plaintiffs who have lost their cases at trial to turn around and sue their plaintiffs attorney. . . .

Unlike the Texas site, plans to list only plaintiffs who filed cases that ended in a defense verdict, a settlement, or a plaintiff verdict on only one count while other counts were dismissed.

The overwhelming majority of med-mal cases that go to trial result in defense verdicts. A large percentage of claims never go to trial, and many of those result in settlements. Some experts say that it’s not possible to say that cases are “frivolous” just because they don’t result in a plaintiff verdict.

The article also discusses an interesting study about medical malpractice lawsuits:

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One of the Oddest Tort Cases

In what has to be one of the oddest tort cases I’ve ever heard of, the plaintiff won a $750,000 verdict, which was subsequently reduced to $400,000. To find out what his injury was, click here.


Oprah, Suicide, Free Speech, and Torts

I am embarrassed to admit that I sometimes tape and later watch “Oprah” on t.v. I do not know that I am huge fan of her show, but I certainly find some of the guests she has on the show interesting. Anyway, Oprah said something last week that baffled me, as a legal matter. My responsive e-mailed to her GC drew no reply, so I come humbly to the blogosphere to see what you all might offer.

On one of Oprah’s shows last week, she interviewed the parents and sister of a 19-ish year old Florida State college student – very bright, very creative – who killed herself. The young-woman fed her kittens and cleaned her apartment, and then went to a hotel, took some variation of cyanide, and died. Before she left this earth, she sent a timed-delayed e-mail to her parents, starting off with a sentence along the lines of “As you probably know by now, I have passed away….” (The e-mail explained that she had struggled with depression, and she basically found the struggle futile.) I believe she also sent an e-mail to a friend and to the police, so that they would know where to find her body.

Though the story is tragic in and of itself, an overwhelmingly sad aspect of the story is that this young woman found information on the internet that helped her execute her suicide plan and some might say encouraged her to or at least coached her regarding following through. Specifically, she had been frequenting a “pro-choice” suicide blog (or chat board or message board or some such – allow me to say “blog”). (The pro-choice phrase came from the show.) It seems that the young woman was able to glean technical information about how to kill herself or links to information on what, specifically, to do kill herself from that blog. Worse, I believe her parents or Oprah said that this young woman was posting regularly on the blog to update the blog readers and posters about her two-week countdown to killing herself. One person on the blog actually helped her craft her final e-mail to her parents. Dear God.

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