Category: Tort Law


Breaching a Child’s Confidentiality

the-lost-childOver at the NYT blog is an interesting story about a British writer (Julie Myerson) who has published a memoir about her son’s drug addiction (The Lost Child).  Her 20-year old son has criticized the publication of the book. According to the Telegraph (UK):

The 20-year-old said: “What she has done has taken the very worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work of art, and that to me is obscene.

“I was only 17, I was a confused teenager, I was too young really to know who I was or what was happening.

“What she describes in her book are a series of incidents, it’s not who I am and I find it very sad that she feels the need to tar me with the ‘drug addict’ brush.

“She’s been writing about me since I was two, and, quite frankly, I’m not surprised by anything she does any more.

The NYT Blog asks:

Is it inappropriate and even harmful to expose the private lives of minor children, in particular? What privacy lines should be observed, if any, in writing about family members and others?

It contains responses from four people, Alison Gopnik (a psychology professor), David Matthews (author), Melanie Gideon (author0, and Michael Greenberg (author).  For example, Author David Matthews writes:

Nothing is off limits as far as I’m concerned. Whether an author wants to risk fraying familial and social ties in the pursuit of the truth (as they see it) is a question left up to the writer.

Matthews’ response strikes me as rather extreme. In Britain, family members owe each other duties to keep private information confidential. In the US, the breach of confidentiality tort applies to doctors, lawyers, and others, but hasn’t been extended to friends and family.  Perhaps it should be.

According to the Telegraph article, Myerson’s son said:

“I even consulted a lawyer to try to stop it, but was told there wasn’t much I could do, so I made her take out the part where she said I was selling drugs to my 12-year-old brother, which was one of her fantasies.

I’m surprised that he was advised the law didn’t protect him, since the book was published in Britain and he’d likely have a decent case under British precedent.

The Myerson case is increasingly becoming more common.  Numerous bloggers are chronicling the lives of their children online, posting photos and a day-by-day account of their lives.  What happens when these children grow up and resent having their entire childhood permanently recorded for the world to see?

Should family members owe each other a duty of confidentiality?  Should parents write about a child’s life without that child’s consent?

Hat tip: PogoWasRight


Can You Be Sued for Unmasking an Anonymous Blogger?

mask1A model named Liskula Cohen was being attacked on a blog called Skanks in NYC.  The author of the Skanks blog was anonymous.  Kashmir Hill reports:

Cohen started pursuing the defamation suit against the anonymous ‘Skanks’ blogger in January after discovering the site, on which the blogger called Cohen a skank, a ho, and an old hag, among other nasty things, and posted photos of her, taken from various websites. Since Cohen needed the identity of the blogger in order to file the lawsuit against her, a judge in Manhattan granted Cohen’s request to force Google to reveal the e-mail address and IP address of the alleged defamer.

Cohen has since dropped her $3 million lawsuit.  The unmasked blogger — Rosemary Port — plans to sue Google for $15 million for breaching its fiduciary duty to defend her anonymity.

Over at CyberSLAPP, a website maintained by EFF (disclosure: I’m on EFF’s advisory board), ACLU, CDT, EPIC, and Public Citizen, they have posted documents from the case, including the court’s order to Google to unmask the author of Skanks.

CyberSLAPP seeks to combat frivolous lawsuits to reveal another’s identity:

CyberSLAPP cases typically involve a person who has posted anonymous criticisms of a corporation or public figure on the Internet. The target of the criticism then files a frivolous lawsuit just so they can issue a subpoena to the Web site or Internet Service Provider (ISP) involved, discover the identity of their anonymous critic, and intimidate or silence them.

The Skanks in NYC raises a lot of interesting issues.  I’ll tackle a few in this post.

1.Was Cohen’s lawsuit frivolous? Cohen might have a decent defamation lawsuit, but she subsequently dropped it when she found out Cohen’s identity.  This behavior indicates she was using the lawsuit only to unmask the blogger.  I agree with CyberSLAPP that such a practice should be restricted.

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Traditional v. Economic Analysis

wise-teachingsTo debate over traditional versus economic analysis in law (aka as fairness v. welfare, deontology v. efficiency and normative v. utilitarian), in the coming law review submission season, I’ll submit evidence from torts opinions of Judges Benjamin Cardozo and Richard Posner (I reported other aspects of this research here and here).

Proponents of economic analysis offer to show law’s efficiency as a descriptive matter and many prescribe its use, especially in tort law, where such analysis is most successful. Skeptics question the method’s descriptive accuracy and normative appeal, compared to traditional legal analysis, also making particular contributions to tort law.

While scholars use theoretical, philosophical and doctrinal techniques to defend positions, my new Article’s novel evaluation considers how the methods fare in opinions of two judicial exemplars of the contending conceptions: Cardozo, quintessential traditionalist, and Posner, avatar economist.

Comparative analysis of those opinions, the most ubiquitous in current Torts casebooks, provides evidence that traditional legal analysis is a more capacious and persuasive basis of justification than contemporary economic analysis of law. Selections from my Article’s Introduction follow.

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More on Cardozo/Posner Torts Opinions

Further to my polling inquiry on Cardozo and Posner Torts opinions, the following list includes notes to evoke their context or signifiance.  (Thanks to the several comments on that post; I doubt I’ll prepare the multiple choice quiz on these cases that one kindly suggested, though the following can be used to check answers other comments offered.) Read More


Poll on Famous Torts Cases and Judges


Would readers take a quick poll on famous torts cases and judges stemming from my work “Cardozo and Posner: A Study in Torts” (noted here and here)?    Those judges are the first and second most consequential on tort law measured by opinion frequency in 20 current Torts casebooks.  Both are legendary judges with particular recognition in the law of torts.  

Cardozo’s torts opinions are canonical: 10 appear in the books, 7 in at least 1/4 of them, and all but 1 appear in at least 3 books.  Posner’s opinions enjoy more sporadic interest: 25 opinions appear in the books, only 2 in at least 1/4 of them, and 20 appear in only 1 or 2 books.  

My analysis inter-acts these opinions, in their practical, theoretical and pedagogical contexts, to hypothesize explanations for this differential status.  A simplified version of the thesis: Cardozo’s traditional doctrinalism, supplemented using old-fashioned rhetoric, wins out over Posner’s contemporary economic supplementation of legal reasoning.  posner2

Out of curiosity, I list below the 10 Cardozo opinions and a sampling of Posner opinions and wonder if readers would comment whether they recognize the opinions and, if so, what stands out about them.

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Barnes v. Yahoo!, CDA Immunity, and Promissory Estoppel

yahooThe Ninth Circuit recently decided Barnes v. Yahoo!, a case with some very interesting holdings relating to the Communications Decency Act § 230 as well as promissory estoppel.  I wrote about this case briefly in my book, The Future of Reputation, long before it made it up to the Ninth Circuit.

Celia Barnes’ ex-boyfriend created fake profiles in her name on Yahoo.  Moreover, as the court relates:

The profiles contained nude photographs of Barnes and her boyfriend, taken without her knowledge, and some kind of open solicitation, whether express or implied is unclear, to engage in sexual intercourse. The ex-boyfriend then conducted discussions in Yahoo’s online “chat rooms,” posing as Barnes and directing male correspondents to the fraudulent profiles he had created. The profiles also included the addresses, real and electronic, and telephone number at Barnes’ place of employment. Before long, men whom Barnes did not know were peppering her office with emails, phone calls, and personal visits, all in the expectation of sex.

Barnes contacted Yahoo to get the profiles taken down:

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Let Private Lawyers, Not Police, Govern Cellphone Use While Driving

12-21-07-driving_talking1Will Saletan argues that some local government will soon ban possessing cellphones in the car.  Shorter Saletan:  “first, they came for the train conductors.”

Having just been ticketed by the Cornell police for driving while talking on a cellphone, I’m particular aware of the growth of anti-cellphone laws.  (A side note: NY has a bizarre system of indeterminate fines that aren’t reduced to a sum until after you plead guilty to the offense.  To the extent that this post is read by a municipal judge in Ithaca, I’d ask for mercy.)   But the trend against cellphones should be resisted: we should regulate cellphone-motivated accidents through the private-party negligence regime, not the police-directed traffic liability system.

Deciding which traffic laws to enforce solely through private party lawsuits is a knotty problem, but I think the answer relates to the imposition of strict liability more generally.  When an activity is unreasonably dangerous (drunk driving) and has little to no desirable social consequences, we make it unlawful even in the absence of harm to others.  By contrast, when an activity has both positive and negative social consequences – like long road trips – we punish negligence (nodding at the wheel) only when leads to an accident.

Is cellphone possession and use so unreasonably dangerous, and so without public benefit, that we ought to treat it like drunk driving?  Saletan thinks so, and cites a study that finds drivers equally distracted when drunk as when talking on the phone.  (Not equally dangerous, which is what Saletan says the study claims.)  And I’ll admit that there’s no reason not to force people to use hands-free devices.

But many things can distract drivers.  Should we prohibit passengers?  Especially younger ones, who sometimes have the habit of fighting in the back seat?  How about radio? I’d be curious to see an experiment that compares people listening to Rush or Stern to those who are drunk.  Those guys can really suck you in!

Moreover, cellphone use while driving permits important social benefits.  It boosts productivity by decreasing time wasted in traffic.  A rule that prohibited cellphone use, instead of forcing drivers to merely internalize the cost of use by making them liable for negligent driving, would chill conduct that we want to encourage.  It would also significantly increase the costs of commuting, as individuals will once again have no recourse but to listen to the radio or hum quietly to themselves.  So we should instead permit people to hold, and use, cellphones while driving.  If they hit another driver or cause damage to another’s property, however, we should treat cellphone use as prima facie evidence of negligence.


Presidential Right of Publicity

There was an article yesterday about the company that sells the “Chia Obama,” which is like the “Chia Pet” that you slather with seeds and then water to make a boring ceramic figure look slightly less boring. (As I tell my intellectual property students, not all lucrative inventions are complex. Go ask the inventor of the pet rock.) The news was the Chia Obama was pulled from stores because the firm concluded that the product was inappropriate for its image.

This raises a broader question, which is to what extent, if at all, can the President control the use of his image for commercial purposes. Traditionally, politicians have operated on the assumption that there is no such thing as overexposure. Teddy Roosevelt was famous for delighting in the appearance of his likeness on all sorts of goods, culminating with the borrowing of his name for the teddy bear. Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the Obama Administration told Bloomberg News in February: “Our lawyers are working on developing a policy that will protect the presidential image while being careful not to squelch the overwhelming enthusiasm that the public has for the president.”

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Should We Have Professional Juries?

jury2.jpgAccording to Legal Profession Blog:

The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed an $876,000 plaintiff’s verdict in a slip-and-fall case where the plaintiff had fallen while looking for pantyhose in aisle five of a supermarket owned by the defendant. . . . [T]he jury foreperson was a New Jersey State Senator, full-time law professor and lawyer who had published an article in the New Jersey Law Journal about his experiences serving as a juror. The defendant contended that the article “disclosed that he improperly influenced the jurors and that there was apparent misunderstanding of the jury charges.”

The court’s opinion is here. The article by the law professor — Robert Martin of Seton Hall Law School (who is also a New Jersey state senator) is in the New Jersey Law Journal and requires a subscription to access it.

What should one conclude from this case?

The reaction many would have is that it was unwise to put a law professor on the jury. Shouldn’t one expect when a law professor or lawyer is on the jury that he or she will have significant influence? If you put a bunch of people in a airplane cockpit, none of whom know how to fly a plane, along with a pilot, it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that the people might want to consult with the pilot! As my colleague Jonathan Turley writes in his blog: “Martin’s article is a perfect example why some of us oppose lawyers sitting as jurors. It is a terrible practice that encourages undue influence by a single juror in deliberations.”

But there’s another lesson to be learned from this case. We should have professional juries. I’m increasingly of the opinion that our jury system is a joke. Consider some of the very thoughtful points Professor Martin wrote in his article about his experiences:

I became acutely aware that jurors are not generally permitted to ask questions during trial (except through written request). . . .

Additionally, jurors are usually prohibited from taking notes. . . .

In preparation of our deliberation, the judge gave us detailed instructions, which in this case lasted about an hour. These instructions amounted to a mini-course in tort law, similar in content to what some law students have trouble absorbing over the course of a full semester. Although the judge read from carefully prepared notes, we again were prevented from taking our own notes (but reminded that we must closely follow all of the instructions).

The process which Martin describes (and which indeed is quite common) is ridiculous is so many ways. First, it is ridiculous that juries are basically taught the law after hearing the facts of the case. If one is applying a rule, shouldn’t one know about the rule first in order to determine which facts are relevant and which are not?

Second, it takes law students three years to learn the law — or at least a semester to learn a specific subject like torts — and yet juries are expected to understand the law after just one brief lecture from the judge. Who are we kidding when we think that the jury is really applying the law? Juries probably have little to no idea about what the law is.

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