Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Who does he think he is? Mr. Halliburton?

A young man was arrested in Fort Worth last week when he tried to cash a check for $360 billion dollars. The astute bank teller became suspicious and pressed the button that calls the cops. Turns out the young man had taken a check from his girlfriend's mother's purse and hoped to use the funds to start a record label. Gotta hand it to this fellow...when he rolled the dice, he rolled 'em big.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Florida jury awards doctor $24.2 million in asbestos lawsuit

A Miami-Dade jury awarded a doctor and his family almost $24.2 million after finding that his rare type of cancer was caused by exposure to brake pads made with asbestos. The defendant, Honeywell, previously bought the company, Bendix, that manufactured the brake pads.

What strikes me about this article is the arrogance of the Honeywell spokesman, who said the company is ''confident we will ultimately prevail on appeal,'' and that "there is no supportable evidence that Mr. Guilder's disease was caused by exposure to Bendix products.'' Uh, clearly there was some evidence. But beyond that is the pure chutzpah of corporate interests these days. "Oh, we'll win on appeal." Most maddening is that they often do.

DNA evidence sets Dallas County man free 27 years later

James Lee Woodard, 55, is free after serving 27 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Texas Wesleyan law student Alexis Hoff was instrumental in his release, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

How do you even begin to apologize to someone like Woodard? He's spent half his life behind bars, his parents died while he was in prison, and now he has no place to go. And he said, "I don't want to waste my time on negative energy. I don't have any retaliatory or vindictive thoughts about it. I'm just glad it's over." Simply incredible.

Kudos to Ms. Hoff. She isn't even a lawyer yet and she may have just won the biggest case of her career.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sandra Bullock Involved In Head-On Crash

Actress Sandra Bullock and her husband were involved in a head-on crash last Friday night in Gloucester, Mass. Apparently the woman driving the car that hit their SUV was arrested and charged with DUI. Bullock, her husband and their driver were not hurt.

3 observations:
  • Her husband is named Jesse James.
  • My father-in-law, an Austin attorney, defended a building contractor in a suit brought by Bullock over some work on her home on Lake Austin. Said she was very nice in person.
  • Gloucester is not pronounced "Glahwo-chester," as I was once rather-rudely told by someone from that part of the country. As I recall, it rhymes with "oyster" or something like that.

"Abuse of Corporate Citizens?" You're Joking.

A man rented a U-Haul truck to help his daughter move. While getting out of the rear of the truck, the 6-ton truck rolled over the man and left him a paraplegic. 14 surgeries later, he still requires around-the-clock care.

He filed a lawsuit against U-Haul, alleging negligence for renting out a truck that was not roadworthy with faulty emergency brake and worn-down gears. A Dallas County jury last Friday found U-Haul liable and awarded the plaintiffs $87 million.

U-Haul says it plans to aggressively appeal the verdict. It issued a statement that this verdict "is another example of abuse of the legal system against corporate citizens in America."

Shame on U-Haul. There has never been a more corporate-friendly time in our justice system than right now. Big Business has lobbied to change the laws in their favor, they've plowed thousands of dollars into electing judges who are favor corporations over consumers, and they're benefitting from a 20-year media campaign to vilify victims and their lawyers and poison the jury pool against plaintiffs.

The fact that a Dallas County jury hit them hard tells me that the evidence was truly damning, but U-Haul will no doubt string this out in the appellate system for years to come.

Worker Injured At Denton County Gas Rig

NBC5i reporting that a gas rig worker was injured Monday morning at a gas rig in Krum.

It happened just before 11 a.m. at Barnett Oil Lease on Burns Ranch Road. The worker was injured after something malfunctioned on the rig, according to Tom Reedy, spokesman for the Denton County Sheriff’s Office.

The worker was taken by helicopter to the hospital. There was no word on his condition.

These sorts of injuries are bound to increase in the Barnett Shale play around Tarrant, Wise, Denton, Johnson (etc.) Counties. Talk to the guys working on the pipelines and wells, and you'll be shocked at the safety shortcuts being taken. Gotta get that gas to market fast, I guess.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Op/Ed on the problem of health insurance subrogation

Judy Kostura, an Austin lawyer with a wealth of expertise in insurance subrogation matters, has a good op/ed in today's Austin American-Statesman:

Why you should always read the fine print

Judy Kostura, LOCAL CONTRIBUTOR, Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wal-Mart's recent efforts to deprive an employee of her injury settlement highlight an unfair advantage insurance companies enjoy in the legal arena. Unfortunately, the Wal-Mart example is not an isolated incident. The legal tactic Wal-Mart used against the policyholder has recently been endorsed by the Texas Supreme Court and is being used daily against injured Texans.

Deborah Shank, an employee who was covered under Wal-Mart's group health plan, was catastrophically injured in a wreck caused by an 18-wheeler. Wal-Mart's employee health policy paid the medical expenses and the Shank family looked to the justice system to hold the trucking company accountable. A settlement from the trucking company was put in a trust account to help fund the round-the-clock care that Shank's severe brain injury requires.

Wal-Mart attempted to raid the trust account to recover the money it spent, relying on a subrogation clause in the health policy fine print. Wal-Mart backed off on its demand only after being vilified in the court of public opinion.

You never heard of subrogation? Look closely at your health insurance policy. After the pages promising benefits in exchange for your premiums, you'll find a section demanding reimbursement from you if you are hurt because of someone else's negligence.

Texas has allowed insurance companies to include subrogation clauses for years, but the insurers were reimbursed only after the injured policyholder was paid for lost wages, scarring, future medical expenses, pain and other damages. Putting the policyholder first is known as the "made whole" doctrine and required courts to interpret the fine print fairly. Allow me to use a real Austin example.

For privacy, let's call this client "Mary." One morning, Mary kissed her toddler son goodbye as she dropped him off at day care on her way to work. Minutes later, a car crossed the center stripe and smashed into Mary head-on, breaking her neck and trapping her inside a burning vehicle. Brave bystanders pulled her from the flames. Rendered a quadriplegic by the wreck and burned on her arms and legs, Mary lost her job, was divorced by her husband and spent months in a hospital.

The other driver's insurance company paid Mary $100,000, which was all of the coverage available. It was not much for a 34-year-old divorced mother who would never walk or work again, but it would help. Mary's health insurer, armed with a subrogation clause, demanded that Mary hand over the entire proceeds of the settlement. Because of the "made whole" doctrine, the legal system required Mary's health insurer to waive its subrogation interest, allowing her to keep the recovery.

Vanessa Cantu, like "Mary," was rendered a quadriplegic in a collision and was able to secure a settlement from the insurance company of those responsible for her injuries. Her settlement didn't compensate her fully for her terrible injury, but it helped. Cantu's insurer, Fortis, sued her to recover the money it had paid under the policy. The case found its way to the Texas Supreme Court. The court sided with the insurance company and wrote an opinion that eviscerated the 92-year-old "made whole" doctrine in Texas law. Cantu was the first person hurt by this wrong-headed decision, but she won't be the last. The Fortis v. Cantu case gives insurance companies a free rein to write deceptive and onerous health insurance policies, promising benefits on one page and taking them away in the fine print on another.

Insurance companies should be treated fairly, but they shouldn't be able to jump to the front of the line when settlements are paid for serious injuries. Public outcry saved Shank in the Wal-Mart case. The Texas "made whole" doctrine saved Mary, but the Texas Supreme Court has taken that away.

We need a legislative solution. Congress and the Texas Legislature should enact a strong and unambiguous "made whole" doctrine that puts Texas families first.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Study accuses Merck of deception in promoting Vioxx

A study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association accuses pharaceutical giant Merck of deception in promoting Vioxx. According to the researchers, who had access to thousands of documents gathered in lawsuits involving Vioxx, Merck "waged a campaign of deception to promote its drug, moving slowly to warn of possible hazards while at the same time dressing up in-house studies as the work of independent academic researchers." Among the allegations are that Merck gave the Food and Drug Administration an incomplete accounting of deaths in a clinical trial involving Vioxx, and that studies ostensibly done by independent scientists were done by employees or contractors.

Two observations: First, this highlights the growing problem of "preemption," in which drug makers avoid civil liability by hiding behind the FDA's approval of drugs and devices. That is, if the federal government thinks something is safe enough to sell to the public, a slick trial lawyer and a jury of twelve yokels ought not find to the contrary and award a bunch of money to some poor sap who dies from using it. Preemption has been a darling of the Bush administration and has found sympathetic ears on the Supreme Court. The problem is, as this Vioxx study points out, the FDA is getting their information from the drug makers themselves. Bad idea.

Second, when individuals lie and kill people, we call that a felony and we punish them. When drug companies lie and kill people, their market share increases and their stock rises. How is that right?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Another Truck Wreck in Dallas reporting a wreck in Dallas on Stemmons (I35) near Carpenter Freeway involving a cement mixing truck, a car and a motorcycle. Photos show the cement truck on its side apparently on top of an automobile. Southbound lanes of I35 are closed while rescue workers are on the scene.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

San Francisco files suit against credit card "arbitration" service

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the city attorney is suing a leading credit card dispute resolution service, accusing it of favoring industry and stacking the system against consumers in debt collection cases.

The suit, filed by the office of City Attorney Dennis Herrera late last month in San Francisco Superior Court, alleges that National Arbitration Forum, one of the nation's biggest dispute resolution companies, is biased in favor of debt collectors. It says the forum "is actually in the business of operating an arbitration mill, churning out arbitration awards in favor of debt collectors and against California consumers."

The complaint cites forum statistics showing that of 18,075 cases brought before one of its arbitrators from January 2003 to March 2007, a total of only 30 resulted in victories for consumers.

The suit touches on a matter that's become an increasing concern for consumer groups in recent years - the push by financial services companies and other businesses to impose mandatory arbitration as a substitute for lawsuits to settle disputes with customers.

If I did the math right, consumers win approximately .16 of the cases and the credit card companies and banks win...uh...99.84 of the cases. Amazing.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Plush Rocker Toys Recalled By Tek Nek Toys Due to Fall Hazard

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in cooperation with the firm named below, today announced a voluntary recall of the following consumer product. Consumers should stop using recalled products immediately unless otherwise instructed.

Name of Product: Rock ‘N Ride Plush Rocker Toys
Units: About 122,000
Manufacturer: Tek Nek Toys Int’l L.P., of Southlake, Texas

Hazard: The base of the rocker can become unstable and allow the rocker to tip forward or backward, posing a fall hazard to children.

Incidents/Injuries: Tek Nek Toys has received 35 reports of the rockers tipping over, including

ten reports of injuries such as bumps, bruises and lacerations.

Description: This recall involves Rock ‘N Ride plush rocker toys sold in eight models: brown pony, pink pony, pink unicorn, deluxe pony, deluxe bull, lil’ penguin, lil’ propeller plane and Clifford big red rocker. The toys have molded plastic rocker bases and were sold for children at least 18 months old and up to 65 lbs. A button on the toy’s ear, hat or dash activates songs and phrases when pressed. Rockers included in this recall have a date code from July 26, 2007 through December 29, 2007. The date codes are printed on a sticker inside the battery compartment.

Sold at: Wal-Mart, Toys “R” Us, Kmart, Target, Atwoods, and Pamida stores nationwide and Internet retailers from September 2007 through March 2008 for about $30.

Manufactured in: China

Remedy: Consumers should immediately take the rocker toys away from young children and contact Tek Nek Toys for a free replacement base.

Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact Tek Nek Toys toll-free at (888) 686-2728 anytime, or visit the firm’s Web site at

Seinfeld unhurt after rollover car wreck

EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. - Jerry Seinfeld was in a harrowing rollover wreck but was unhurt after the brakes on one of his vintage cars failed.

Seinfeld was driving alone when the brakes on his 1967 Fiat BTM stopped working Saturday evening, East Hampton Town Police Chief Todd Sarris told the New York Post. Seinfeld tried the emergency brake, to no avail, and then swerved to keep the car from careening into an intersection, Sarris said.

The two-door sedan flipped over and came to a stop just yards from the highway, Sarris said, adding that the comic’s maneuver “probably avoided a very serious accident.”

The comedian took the crash in stride. “Because I know there are kids out there, I want to make sure they all know that driving without braking is not something I recommend, unless you have professional clown training or a comedy background, as I do,” Seinfeld said. “It is not something I plan to make a habit of.”

(I didn't know Seinfeld was 53...)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Pillaging Continues

State Farm boosting home rates again, especially on coast, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports today.

"State Farm blamed the increase along the coast on the increased cost of reinsurance, which insurance companies buy to guard against the huge losses associated with hurricanes.

Galveston County residents who have both home and auto insurance through State Farm will see their rates go up by 7.9 percent, according to the Texas Department of Insurance. Those residents who have home insurance only will see their rates go up by more than 20 percent, according to the department.

The department says State Farm will take in $42 million more statewide annually because of the adjustments. By contrast, the company estimates increased revenue at $35 million to $40 million.

State Farm has 29.3 percent of the home-insurance market in Texas.

In 2003, regulators ordered the company to roll back home rates by 12 percent, but it has refused and is fighting the order in court."

Wal-Mart drops claims against injured former employee

Wonders never cease.

CNN is reporting that a former Wal-Mart employee who suffered severe brain damage in a traffic accident won't have to pay back the company for the cost of her medical care, Wal-Mart told the family Tuesday.

Eight years ago, Debbie Shank was stocking shelves for the retail giant and signed up for Wal-Mart's health and benefits plan.

After a tractor-trailer slammed into her minivan, the 52-year-old mother of three lost much of her short-term memory and was confined to a wheelchair. She now lives in a nursing home.

Wal-Mart's health care plan lets the retail giant recoup the cost of its expenses if an employee collects damages in a lawsuit. And Wal-Mart set out to do just that after Shank and her husband, Jim, won $1 million after suing the trucking company involved in the wreck. After legal fees, the couple received $417,000.

Wal-Mart sued the Shanks to recoup $470,000 it paid for her medical care. However, a court ruled that the company could only recoup about $275,000 -- the amount that was left in a trust fund for her care.

The Shanks appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court declined in March to hear the case. CNN told the couple's story last week, prompting thousands of angry blog responses and at least two online petitions to boycott the company.

On Tuesday, Wal-Mart said in a letter to Jim Shank that it is modifying its health care plan to allow "more discretion" in individual cases.

"We wanted you to know that Wal-Mart will not seek any reimbursement for the money already spent on Ms. Shank's care, and we will work with you to ensure the remaining amounts in the trust can be used for her ongoing care," Curran said.

"We are sorry for any additional stress this uncertainty has placed on you and your family."

On a related note, Keith Olbermann excoriates Wal-Mart here.