Category: Tort Law


FAN 102.1 (First Amendment News) Laurence Tribe Petitions Court in Defamation Case

The case is Scholz v. DelpThe issue raised in it is whether the First Amendment creates a categorical presumption that statements about a person’s motive in committing suicide are matters of “opinion” rather than “fact” and thus cannot be the basis of a defamation action. The state court judgment below was in favor the First Amendment claim.

Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe filed a cert. petition on behalf of Petitioner Donald Thomas Scholz. Professor Tribe begins his brief my stating:

“This case presents the fundamental question of whether the First Amendment creates a categorical presumption exempting from defamation actions statements about a person’s motive in committing suicide, on the basis that such statements are generally matters of ‘opinion’ rather than ‘fact.’ The Massachusetts SJC held that the First Amendment does create such a presumption and that, as a result, Petitioner Scholz – the producer, primary songwriter, and lead musician in the rock band ‘Boston’ – cannot proceed with his defamation actions against the Boston Herald, two of its reporters, and its principal source, for falsely accusing Mr. Scholz of causing the suicide of the band’s lead singer, Brad Delp.”

Professor Laurence Tribe

Professor Laurence Tribe

“The SJC deepened a significant conflict among many state and federal courts as to whether statements about the cause of a particular suicide, and about motive more generally, are categorically exempt from claims of defamation. It also departed from this Court’s core holding in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990), that there is no need to create a special First Amendment privilege for statements that can be labeled opinion. This Court emphasized that creating such a privilege would tilt the balance too far against the important interest in protecting personal reputation against unjustified invasion. And it explained that existing First Amendment limits on defamation actions suffice to protect freedom of expression.”

The the three arguments advanced by Professor Tribe in his cert. petition are:

  1. “This Court Should Grant Review to Resolve a Deep and Abiding Conflict among Courts as to Whether Statements about Motive Generally, and about Motive for Suicide Specifically, are Categorically Exempt From Defamation Claims”
  2. “This Court Should Grant Review Because the SJC’s Ruling Conflicts with Malkovich by Creating a First Amendment Exemption from DefamationActions Not PreviouslyRecognized by this Court,” and
  3. “This Court Should Grant Review Because of the Importance of the Question Presented.”

Professor Tribe closes his brief by stating:

“These sensational stories also can cause severe harm to those falsely accused of causing the suicide. In instances, like the one in this case, where a friend or family member is blamed for a suicide, the reputational and emotional toll exacted from the person wrongly accused can be particularly significant. “Suicide exacts a heavy toll on those left behind as well. Loved ones, friends, classmates, neighbors, teachers, faith leaders, and colleagues all feel the effect of these deaths.” This heavy toll is dramatically compounded when friends or loved ones are falsely blamed for contributing to the suicide. But the SJC’s decision below shields from suit those who propound such false stories no matter how reckless they are in doing so. And, to compound the harm further, the SJC, far from resting its judgment on Massachusetts law, wrongly blames the First Amendment for that travesty of justice.”

 Response due April 4, 2016

The Court’s 2015-2016 First Amendment Docket

Cases Decided

** Shapiro v. McManus (9-0 per Scalia, J., Dec. 8, 2015: decided on non-First Amendment grounds) (the central issue in the case relates to whether a three-judge court is or is not required when a pleading fails to state a claim, this in the context of a First Amendment challenge to the 2011 reapportionment of congressional districts) (from Petitioners’ merits brief: “Because petitioners’ First Amendment claim is not obviously frivolous, this Court should vacate the judgments of the lower courts and remand the case with instructions to refer this entire action to a district court of three judges.”) (See Rick Hasen’s commentary here)

Review Granted

  1. Heffernan v. City of Paterson (cert. petition,  amicus brief) (see blog post here)
  2. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al. (all briefs here) (Lyle Denniston commentary)

Oral Arguments Schedule 

  1. January 11, 2016:  Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al. (transcript here)
  2. January 19, 2016:  Heffernan v. City of Paterson (see Howard Wasserman SCOTUSblog commentary here)(transcript here)

Review Denied

  1. Electronic Arts, Inc. v. Davis
  2. American Freedom Defense Initiative v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority 
  3. Bell v. Itawamba County School Board (see also Adam Liptak story re amicus brief)
  4. Town of Mocksville v. Hunter
  5. Miller v. Federal Election Commission
  6. Sun-Times Media, LLC v. Dahlstrom
  7. Rubin v. Padilla
  8. Hines v. Alldredge
  9. Yamada v. Snipes
  10. Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris
  11. Building Industry Association of Washington v. Utter (amicus brief)

Pending Petitions*

  1. Scholz v. Delp
  2. Justice v. Hosemann 
  3. Cressman v. Thompson
  4. POM Wonderful, LLC v. FTC (Cato amicus brief) (D.C. Circuit opinion)

First Amendment Related Case

  • Stackhouse v. Colorado (issue: Whether a criminal defendant’s inadvertent failure to object to courtroom closure is an “intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right” that affirmatively waives his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, or is instead a forfeiture, which does not wholly foreclose appellate review?)  (see Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press amicus brief raising First Amendment related claims)

Freedom of Information Case

→ The Court’s next Conference is on March 25, 2016.

Though these lists are not comprehensive, I try to track as many cases as possible. If you know of a cert. petition that is not on these lists, kindly inform me and I will post it.


FAN 101 (First Amendment News) Levine & Wermiel on First Amendment & Right of Publicity — Using Justices’ Papers to Understand Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co.

Zacchini offers little or no guidance in cases involving mere depictions of individuals, as opposed to appropriation of their actual performances in full. — Paul M. Smith (cert. petition in Electronic Arts v. Davis)

Nothing in the Court’s opinion [in Zucchini] suggested that its analysis would have been different had the news broadcast been limited to a five- or ten- second excerpt . . . . — Brian D. Henri (brief in opposition in Electronic Arts v. Davis)

Lee Levine

Lee Levine

Lee Levine and Stephen Wermiel are at again — digging in Justices’ personal papers to reveal how the law of a First Amendment case came to be, replete with surprises and insights.

First they started with a law review article: “The Landmark that Wasn’t: A First Amendment Play in Five Acts,” Wash. L. Rev. (2013), which gave rise to several commentaries.

Then came a book: The Progeny: Justice William J. Brennan’s Fight to Preserve the Legacy of New York Times v. Sullivan (2014). Now comes their latest work, “The Court & the Cannonball: An Inside Look,” American U. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016).

In their latest work, Levine ( a seasoned media law lawyer & casebook author) teams up once again with Wermiel (law professor, Brennan Biographer & former WSJ reporter) to dig up the inside history of another First Amendment case — this time Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. (1977), a 5-4 ruling.

The Facts: In 1972, Hugo Zucchini performed as a “human cannonball” at the Geauga County Fair in Burton, Ohio. In his act, Zucchini was shot out of a cannon and into a net 200 feet away. His performance lasted 15 seconds.  During one of these performances, a Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. freelance reporter attended the fair, replete with a movie camera. Petitioner noticed the reporter and asked him not to film the performance. Respondent honored the request that day but returned the following day and videoed the entire act. This 15-second film clip was shown on the evening news, together with favorable commentary. Petitioner brought a tort action (right of publicity) for damages and Respondent raised a First Amendment defense, among other things.

See “Zucchini: Human Cannonball” documentary trailer

Prof. Stephen Wermiel

Prof. Stephen Wermiel

The issue in the case was: Do the First and Fourteenth Amendments immunize the Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. from damages for its alleged infringement of an entertainer’s state-law right of publicity?

→ The Supreme Court Lawyers:

  • John G. Lancione argued the cause and filed a brief for Petitioner.
  • Ezra K. Bryan argued the cause for Respondent.

→ Judgment: 5-4 in favor the Petitioner. Justice Byron White wrote the majority opinion and Justices Lewis Powell and John Paul Stevens each wrote separate dissents.

→ Enter Levine & Wermiel: Here are a few excerpts from their forthcoming article:

“Although the 1977 ruling is often cited as holding that the right of publicity tort survives constitutional scrutiny under the First Amendment, an examination of the case and of the Supreme Court Justices’ available papers shows that the Court did not view the case as presenting the type of claim that has become prevalent today.”

Hugo Zacchini; human cannon ball; in position for great blast off.

Hugo Zacchini; human cannon ball; in position for great blast off.

“For the Supreme Court, the internal papers indicate the case was about the right of a performer/producer to control the display of his entire act. The Court was not focused on the more contemporary claim that athletes, celebrities, and others have a right to control the use by anyone else, especially for commercial purposes, of their name or their visual image. Nor did the Court’s ruling address the First Amendment issue raised in contemporary cases when a name or likeness is used in a creative work or other public communication. . . . .”

Conclusion: “If nothing else, the record of the Court’s deliberations in Zacchini appears to support the view that that decision does not purport to speak to the viability of a First Amendment-based defense to the kind of “right of publicity” claims asserted by contemporary plaintiffs seeking compensation for the use of their name, likeness, or even their performance, in the context of a video game, sporting event, news report or other creative work produced by someone else. To the contrary, the Court’s deliberations in Zacchini suggest that, at least in contexts where the asserted “right of publicity” is not akin to a claim for common law copyright, there is no basis to depart from traditional modes of First Amendment analysis and engage instead in the kind of ad-hoc balancing of state-created and constitutional rights . . .”

Judge Srinivasan on Free Speech Read More

Green Bag Article 02

The Ultimate Unifying Approach to Complying with All Laws and Regulations

Professor Woodrow Hartzog and I have just published our new article, The Ultimate Unifying Approach to Complying with All Laws and Regulations19 Green Bag 2d 223 (2016)  Our article took years of research and analysis, intensive writing, countless drafts, and endless laboring over every word. But we hope we achieved a monumental breakthrough in the law.  Here’s the abstract:

There are countless laws and regulations that must be complied with, and the task of figuring out what to do to satisfy all of them seems nearly impossible. In this article, Professors Daniel Solove and Woodrow Hartzog develop a unified approach to doing so. This approach (patent pending) was developed over the course of several decades of extensive analysis of every relevant law and regulation.



Better Bar Design Means Better Revenue and Health for Bartenders

With the resurgence of cocktail culture, one may not think about a bartender’s work area, but it turns out that area is not well-designed so much so that bartenders have health problems and they can make fewer drinks. So in the age of let’s design and fix that, a bartender has come up with an “ergonomic, behind-the-bar workstation—which he calls the ‘race track’.” The new design lets the bartender stay in one place, have everything within forearm reach, and gets rid of the well (across which a bartender must lean and thus hurt his or her knees). The creator is seeking a patent, and the expected cost right now is five figures (they are hand built). The Wired piece covers some history of the bar and how ice changed the way we drink and how today the craft cocktail trend means efficiency is at a premium. As Wired notes

A good bar with a smartly built bartender station, on the other hand, is a blue-ribbon-prize-winning cash cow. Your typical cocktail den, Simó says, will rake in between $6,000 and $8,000 in sales in a night. At a nightclub, you more than triple that. A single bartender can ring in $10,000 in sales, by himself. That’s all contingent on how fast he can sling drinks, and Lafranconi says the race track is optimized for that kind of speed. “We can increase the output by about 10 to 15 drinks per hour.”

Throw in the health issues–“Tending bar in 10-hour shifts, night after night, can lead to injuries like tennis elbow, tendonitis, and plantar fasciitis”–and the future bar will let you be closer to the bartender, get your drink faster, and keep him or her in good enough health to be there the next time you visit. Pretty cool.


Richard Nixon’s Law Review Note

240px-Elvis-nixonThough I was exposed to this in law school, many of you may not know that Richard Nixon wrote a Note while he was a law student at Duke for Law and Contemporary Problems. The paper is entitled “Changing Rules of Liability in Automobile Accident Litigation,” and provides a solid analysis of the tort doctrines of the day.  An interesting curiosity.


FAN 83.1 (First Amendment News) Momentum Builds in Right of Publicity Case — Volokh & Rothman File Amicus Brief Urging Review

Professor Jennifer Rothman

Professor Jennifer Rothman

The momentum is building in Electronic Arts, Inc. v. Davis, the Right of Publicity case in which Paul M. Smith recently filed a cert. petition. In what may be shaping out to be the most important First Amendment case of this Term, Smith has just received some impressive support by way of an amicus brief to be filed later today by UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh and Loyola, Los Angeles, Law Professor Jennifer Rothman. Twenty-nine noted scholars signed onto their brief (see listing below).

If ever there was cert-worthy case — a case in which the cert. stars seem to be aligning — the EAI case is the one. The circuit and state courts are all over the conceptual map with assorted and conflicting tests being used in the SecondThirdFifthSixthEightNinthTenth, and Eleventh Circuits and in the FloridaKentucky, and Missouri Supreme Courts. Confusion abounds, and this as asserted First Amendment rights twist in the varying doctrinal winds.

Enter Volokh and Rothman, two scholars quite familiar with this intersection of tort law and the First Amendment.  Here is how they open their brief: “The right of publicity affects a vast range of fully constitutionally protected speech. Right of publicity lawsuits are routinely brought over books, films, songs, paintings and prints (in traditional media or on T-shirts or cards), and video games that mention someone’s name, likeness, or other ‘attributes’ ‘of identity.’ The First Amendment must often protect such references to people, whether in news, entertainment, or art. Courts throughout the country have therefore recognized First Amendment defenses in many right of publicity cases involving expressive works.” (notes omitted)

“Unfortunately,” they add, “there are now five different First Amendment tests that lower courts use in right of publicity cases (setting aside cases involving com- mercial advertising, which is less constitutionally protected than other speech). Unsurprisingly, these different tests often lead to inconsistent results, which leave creators and publishers uncertain about what they may say.” (note omitted)

Professor Eugene Volokh (credit: UCLA Magazine)

Professor Eugene Volokh (credit: UCLA Magazine)

Because of the confusion in the lower courts, Volokh and Rothman argue that this “state of uncertainty is especially dangerous not for major enterprises such as Electronic Arts, but for smaller authors and publishers that lack the money to litigate such cases (even when their First Amendment defense is very strong). Many such small speakers are likely to be chilled into following the most restrictive standards, and the most restrictive interpretations of those (often vague) standards. If this situation is left uncorrected by this Court, a wide range of expression in movies, plays, novels, songs, video games, documentaries and more will be deterred.”

The rulings in Davis v. Electronic Arts, Inc. (9th Cir. 2015) and Keller v. Electronic Arts, Inc. (9th Cir. 2013), they stress, “also treat the First Amendment defense to the right of publicity as weaker than the First Amendment defense to trade- mark law. This too merits this Court’s review.”

Below is the list of scholars who signed onto the amicus brief:

  1. Jack Balkin
  2. Barton Beebe
  3. Erwin Chemerinsky
  4. Stacey L. Dogan
  5. Jay Dougherty
  6. Gregory Dolin
  7. Eric M. Freedman
  8. William K. Ford
  9. Brian L. Frye
  10. William T. Gallagher
  11. Rick Garnett
  12. Jon M. Garon
  13. Jim Gibson
  14. Eric Goldman
  15. Stacey M. Lantagne
  16. Mark A. Lemley
  17. Raizel Liebler
  18. Barry P. McDonald
  19. Tyler Ochoa
  20. Aaron Perzanowski
  21. Lisa P. Ramsey
  22. Kal Raustiala
  23. Martin H. Redish
  24. Betsy Rosenblatt
  25. Steven H. Shiffrin
  26. Christopher Jon Sprigman
  27. Geoffrey R. Stone
  28. Rebecca Tushnet
  29. David Welkowitz

Gifford and Jones on Keeping Cases from Black Juries: An Empirical Analysis of How Race, Income Inequality, and Regional History Affect Tort Law

My colleague Donald Gifford (whose book we featured here) and his co-author sociologist Brian Jones have an important new piece up on SSRN entitled “Keeping Cases from Black Juries: An Empirical Analysis of How Race, Income Inequality, and Regional History Affect Tort Law.” The piece is provocative and original: it may the first paper to use cross-state comparisons in an empirical study of the impact of race, income inequality, regional variations, and political ideologies on tort law.

Here is the abstract:

This Article presents an empirical analysis of how race, income inequality, the regional history of the South, and state politics affect the development of tort law. Beginning in the mid-1960s, most state appellate courts rejected doctrines such as contributory negligence that traditionally prevented plaintiffs’ cases from reaching the jury. We examine why some, mostly Southern states did not join this trend.

To enable cross-state comparisons, we design an innovative Jury Access Denial Index (JADI) that quantifies the extent to which each state’s tort doctrines enable judges to dismiss cases before they reach the jury. We then conduct a multivariate analysis that finds strong correlations between a state’s JADI and two factors: (1) the percentage of African Americans in its largest cities, and (2) its history as a former slave-holding state.

These findings suggest that some appellate courts, particularly those in the South, afraid that juries with substantial African-American representation would redistribute wealth or retaliate for grievances, struck preemptively to prevent cases from reaching them. Surprisingly, we do not find a consistent association between a state’s JADI and either income inequality or its political leanings. In other words, race and region, rather than economic class or politics, explain the failure to embrace pro-plaintiff changes that occurred elsewhere.

We suggest, therefore, that states that declined to discard antiquated anti-jury substantive doctrines between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s should acknowledge that these precedents were tainted by their predecessors’ efforts to keep tort cases from African-American jurors and refuse to accord them deference.

Air Traffic Control for Drones

8435473266_16e7ae4191_zRecently a man was arrested and jailed for a night after shooting a drone that hovered over his property. The man felt he was entitled (perhaps under peeping tom statutes?) to privacy from the (presumably camera-equipped) drone. Froomkin & Colangelo have outlined a more expansive theory of self-help:

[I]t is common for new technology to be seen as risky and dangerous, and until proven otherwise drones are no exception. At least initially, violent self-help will seem, and often may be, reasonable even when the privacy threat is not great – or even extant. We therefore suggest measures to reduce uncertainties about robots, ranging from forbidding weaponized robots to requiring lights, and other markings that would announce a robot’s capabilities, and RFID chips and serial numbers that would uniquely identify the robot’s owner.

On the other hand, the Fortune article reports:

In the view of drone lawyer Brendan Schulman and robotics law professor, Ryan Calo, home owners can’t just start shooting when they see a drone over their house. The reason is because the law frowns on self-help when a person can just call the police instead. This means that Meredith may not have been defending his house, but instead engaging in criminal acts and property damage for which he could have to pay.

I am wondering how we might develop a regulatory infrastructure to make either the self-help or police-help responses more tractable. Present resources seem inadequate. I don’t think the police would take me seriously if I reported a drone buzzing my windows in Baltimore—they have bigger problems to deal with. If I were to shoot it, it might fall on someone walking on the sidewalk below. And it appears deeply unwise to try to grab it to inspect its serial number.

Following on work on license plates for drones, I think that we need to create a monitoring infrastructure to promote efficient and strict enforcement of law here. Bloomberg reports that “At least 14 companies, including Google, Amazon, Verizon and Harris, have signed agreements with NASA to help devise the first air-traffic system to coordinate small, low-altitude drones, which the agency calls the Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management.” I hope all drones are part of such a system, that they must be identifiable as to owner, and that they can be diverted into custody by responsible authorities once a credible report of lawbreaking has occurred.

I know that this sort of regulatory vision is subject to capture. There is already misuse of state-level drone regulation to curtail investigative reporting on abusive agricultural practices. But in a “free-for-all” environment, the most powerful entities may more effectively create technology to capture drones than they deploy lobbyists to capture legislators. I know that is a judgment call, and others will differ. I also have some hope that courts will strike down laws against using drones for reporting of matters of public interest, on First Amendment/free expression grounds.

The larger point is: we may well be at the cusp of a “this changes everything” moment with drones. Illah Reza Nourbakhsh’s book Robot Futures imagines the baleful consequences of modern cities saturated with butterfly-like drones, carrying either ads or products. Grégoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone presents a darker vision, of omniveillance (and, eventually, forms of omnipotence, at least with respect to less technologically advanced persons) enabled by such machines. The present regulatory agenda needs to become more ambitious, since “black boxed” drone ownership and control creates a genuine Ring of Gyges problem.

Image Credit: Outtacontext.


Child Safety, Part III

How might tort law respond, if at all, to the preferences of parents and the general population to invest about twice as much in child safety as adult safety? (see this post for a summary of the data, and this post for a discussion of whether those preferences are normatively defensible).

Here’s my take, which you can read more about here:

Because the studies that I’m drawing from concern the allocation of safety-related resources, they have their most direct implications when we view tort law as (at least partially) a means to make people safer by deterring risky behavior. Those studies create two main implications, one for levels of care and one for damages.

Under a deterrence rationale, the standard of care in tort law reflects what we want potential tortfeasors to invest in accident prevention. The investment patterns from my first post in this series suggest that, at least as a prima facie matter, people want potential tortfeasors to invest twice as many resources in preventing accidents when children are the primary potential victims, even when both children and adults are equally vulnerable.  And if my second post in this series is right, we have reasons to respect those preferences. So when children are among the foreseeable class of victims, courts should require a heightened level of care. Although courts appear to respond to a child’s increased vulnerability to harms—they blindly run out into the street to reach ice cream trucks, for example—I have not found evidence that courts have picked up on the extra value that we appear to place on child safety. I’ve also looked at practitioner treatises, and so far I cannot find any mention that courts or juries are more likely to find a defendant negligent if the victim was a child. So, as a prima facie matter, there are reasons to question whether judges and juries are applying a sufficiently stringent level of care in cases involving children.

To motivate potential tortfeasors to take a heightened level of care for children, damages for child victims should be about twice as high as damages for adult victims. Currently, tort damages tend to exhibit child discounts or mild child premiums. This should not be a surprise. We ask juries to set damages in particular ways that constrain their discretion. For wrongful death, we generally ask them to set damages by looking at the economic contributions that the decedent would have made to her relatives. This puts a very small value on dead children, and results in child discounts even after we add non-economic damages. For permanent injuries, some back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that juries tend to award children 20-25 percent more than adults. This is approximately what we would expect if juries were awarding damages based on the number of years that a victim will have to live with her injuries, and then discounting those future yearly payouts to arrive at a single lump sum.   But that child premium is significantly lower than the 2 to 1 ratio that a deterrence-oriented tort system might strive for. So, as a prima facie matter, there are reasons to question whether damages for child victims are high enough to generate the amount of deterrence that people appear to desire.

Of course, there is much more to say.

A fuller deterrence analysis would require examining a host of additional factors, such as whether regulatory agencies or market forces or the threat of criminal liability already provide extra protection for children, whether risk compensation or substitution effects operate differently for the adult and child populations, the differences between contractual settings like medical malpractice and stranger cases, how to handle “hidden-child” cases (which would be partially analogous to thin-skull cases), etc. I invite readers to offer their thoughts on these issues. But as a first cut, there are reasons to think that tort law does not offer the desired mix of protection for adults and children.

We could also ask what civil recourse and corrective justice accounts of tort law might contribute to the discussion. But I will leave that for another day.


Child Safety, Part I

Parents: Do you invest more in your child’s safety than your own? Less? Roughly the same amount?

I’ve been pondering these questions lately. I have numerous friends who have purchased safer cars once they became parents, or suddenly took an interest in the finest of fine print on warning labels. These anecdotes suggest that we invest more time and money in child safety compared to adult safety.  Interestingly, more rigorous empirical examinations support these anecdotes. Those data suggest that parents invest about twice as much in protecting children as they do in protecting themselves, even when both are facing the same probability of experiencing the same harm. Parents are not alone in this preference. Both parents and nonparents appear to want governments to invest about twice as many resources in protecting children as adults. Here’s some of the data:


Readers: Does this ring true?

Stay tuned for what these preferences might mean for tort law…