Overlawyered & Overgoverned

An annual helping of tales from a litigious society.


How were we governed, regulated, policed, lawyered, and judged in 2000? Sadly, much the same as in 1999. Here are some of last year's month-by-month "highlights":

January: New York City announced that it did not intend to give back the brand-new $46,000 Ford Explorer it had seized from 34-year-old construction worker Joe Bonilla after his arrest on drunk-driving charges, even though Bonilla had been found not guilty of the charges.

A husband and wife filed a million-dollar lawsuit against the University of Miami School of Medicine for failing to warn them that their daughter might be born with Down Syndrome even though the school knew that they were first cousins to each other, a "high-risk" category that often prompts additional precautionary testing. (The couple's grandparents are also first cousins to each other.)

Serious fire code violations, including lack of smoke alarms in sleeping quarters and an improperly installed firewall, threatened to delay the ribbon-cutting of a $1-million public facility in Charleston, West Virginia. The facility was a fire station.

February: Escaped Bulgarian murderer Mincho Donchev, who lived for 10 years as a "mountain man" burglarizing vacation cabins in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, won a $412,500 settlement in his lawsuit against Snohomish County for excessive force in his arrest. A police dog had mangled Donchev's foot as officers tried to subdue him. At the time of the arrest, Donchev was armed with knives, handguns, and a pronged stick. Donchev's attorney said the money would help ease his client's re-entry into society on his release from prison.

Former Chicago city treasurer Miriam Santos, once a rising political star, "blamed her now-overturned conviction on extortion charges on pre-menstrual syndrome," reported UPI. "I am human and probably the first woman to go to jail for PMSing," she told a news conference.

ABC confirmed that it had paid $933,992 to Mark Sanders, an employee of the Psychic Services Network. A jury endorsed Sanders' complaint that the net-work's newsmagazine PrimeTime Live had harmed his reputation in 1993 when it covertly videotaped him and his colleagues working the phones and aired the resulting tapes in a show designed to depict the call-a-psychic business as "a scam and illegitimate."

March: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued before a federal appeals court that Conrail violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it denied a dispatcher's job to an employee with a heart condition that can cause him to black out. According to the Detroit News, the agency told the court "that 'while consciousness is obviously necessary to perform' train-dispatcher tasks, 'it is not itself a job function.'…The [job] involves directing trains and taking emergency action to prevent crashes."

Salon reported that New Age alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra, who says he won a $1.6 million settlement in his defamation suit against The Weekly Standard a while back, described the legal action as "an act of love" meant to lift the magazine to "a higher state of awareness."

Ed O'Rourke sued Tampa Electric, along with six bars and stores that sold him alcoholic beverages, over a 1996 incident in which he was blasted by 13,000 volts of electricity after breaking into a fenced, gated, and locked utility substation and climbing up a transformer in what he termed a "drunken stupor."

April: Four New Jersey kindergartners were given three-day suspensions after they pretended their fingers were guns and played at shooting each other in a game of cops and robbers. "This is a no-tolerance policy. We're very firm on weapons and threats," said district superintendent William L. Bauer. "Given the climate of our society, we cannot take any of these statements in a light manner."

A Norwich, Connecticut, couple sought $21 million in damages from Publisher's Clearing House, the magazine sweepstakes company, saying that its repeated notices marked "Document of Title" and "official correspondence from the Publisher's Clearing House board of judges" with messages such as "Congratulations! Your recent entry was a winner! And Approved for $21 Million!" convinced them that they would receive the grand prize in person on Super Bowl Sunday. They even got all dressed up to wait for the knock on the door, but it never came, resulting in devastating emotional distress.

Vili Fualaau, now 16, who figured in national headlines because of his affair with his former grade school teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau, is seeking damages from his suburban Seattle school district because it had not prevented the relationship. All parties described that relationship as consensual.

May: Rob Barry, who has sold peanuts for 19 years in the stands at Boston's Fen-way Park, said he may retire in response to an order from management forbidding him from tossing the packaged legumes across rows of seats to buyers. The Ara-mark company, which runs the food concession, is worried about being sued by a bystander hit by a flying goober bag.

The Internal Revenue Service agreed to stop dunning a New Mexico businessman who inadvertently dropped a fractional penny while calculating his tax return and as a result came up one cent short. Counting penalties and interest, the IRS had been trying to extract $286.50 for the one-cent error.

June: A judge reinstated a foreman at an Omaha wastewater treatment plant after he'd been caught on hidden camera repeatedly taking naps at work. The city had not properly disclosed the evidence against him before a pre-termination hearing, said the judge. The worker also claimed that his persistent dozing was the result of a sleep disorder.

Marthe Kent, director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's safety standards program and head of the agency's controversial ergonomics initiative, told a trade publication that issuing a regulation "is a thrill; it's a high." She added: "I love it; I absolutely love it. I was born to regulate. I don't know why, but that's very true. So as long as I'm regulating, I'm happy."

A court in Sydney, Australia, awarded the equivalent of $15,600 in compensation to a spa masseuse who said she suffered stress and depression from having to hear clients gripe about their personal problems.

July: Just as the federal government geared up a big campaign to raise the alarm about private Web sites that purportedly invade visitors' privacy by using "cookies" to track their movements, it was revealed that dozens of federal agencies' sites use cookies to track visitors, including visitors seeking information on such sensitive topics as drugs and immigration.

The Washington Post reported that most of the campaign Web sites of politicians who vocally support disabled rights fail to heed even minimal guidelines for disabled accessibility. Among the sites in question were those of George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Ralph Nader.

Disabled activists in New Haven, Connecticut, lodged a complaint against the schooner Amistad, a traveling historical exhibit, saying it was not wheelchair-accessible. The original Amistad was the scene of a famous slave revolt in the mid-1800s and its recreated version is meant to evoke the overcrowding and other inhumane conditions of the slave trade.

August: Police in Davidson, North Carolina, defended the decision to search a woman's car for drugs after an officer noticed that she had in her car a copy of a newspaper with a photo of a marijuana plant. Nothing unlawful was found.

Miami plaintiff's attorney Stanley Rosenblatt, after persuading a jury to vote a $145 billion punitive damage award against major tobacco companies, told Knight-Ridder that other legal issues so absorbed his attention that he wasn't giving any thought to the possible fees he might recover from the action.

September: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that belief in odd scientific notions, such as cold fusion or mysterious messages from UFOs, may be entitled to antidiscrimination protection on the same basis as religious belief.

A judge criticized an Indianapolis law firm for billing heirs $1.5 million for administering the estate of a wealthy businessman who died without a will, a sum that included 900 hours worth of work it says it spent calculating those very fees.

October: Owens Corning, the top maker of home insulation, filed for bankruptcy under the pressure of hundreds of thousands of asbestos lawsuits, most filed by workers with no significant illness. The previous year, 12 Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, including Reps. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), Howard Berman (Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Maxine Waters (Calif.), and Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) had signed a report declaring that "there is little likelihood that asbestos liability could lead to bankruptcy" for Owens or other big companies. According to the Democrats, "the principal remaining asbestos defendants are not facing any significant threat of bankruptcy." Among other companies they named as in no danger of going broke was Armstrong World Industries, the largest maker of flooring, which proceeded to seek protection from creditors in December.

Zoning authorities in Snydersville, Pennsylvania, sent a violation notice to father and son farmers Jake and Stuart Klingel because they had carved a maze through their cornfield and opened it to the public for a fee.

November: A three-judge panel ruled that Atlantic City, New Jersey, casinos did not violate the federal racketeering law by reshuffling blackjack decks frequently when they knew or suspected that patrons were counting cards, a memory technique that can improve a customer's odds of beating the house as the number of remaining undealt cards declines. Federal Judge Morton Greenberg ruled that the claims "border on the frivolous" because the New Jersey Casino Control Commission specifically authorizes casinos to reshuffle at will, because the players "can avoid any injury simply by walking away from the alleged wrongdoers, the casinos," and because the loss of the chance to make money at a casino's expense can hardly be characterized as "an injury to business or property."

December: Reversing a lower court, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that one Robert Shindler had no grounds to sue the Grand Casino Tunica for extra winnings he said he was due, in the court's words, "for a series of mini-baccarat games he played on August 22, 1997. Shindler claims that although he wanted to bet $20,000 per hand, casino personnel would only let him bet $5,000 at a time."

A federal judge ruled that although Tina Bennett had been "belligerent and displayed an unprofessional attitude" at her job, had "difficulty controlling her emotions" and was "incredibly sensitive to criticism," she was nonetheless entitled to sue arguing that these personality traits were caused by severe depression and should have been accommodated under the ADA by her employer, the Unisys Corp.

In Great Britain, the defense ministry announced that the noise to which soldiers are exposed from military brass bands, and likewise the noise from gunfire during infantry training exercises, was in violation of occupational-safety regulations safeguarding workers' hearing. "One solution would be to provide ear protectors during training, but then soldiers couldn't hear their sergeant major giving orders," said a ministry spokesman.

The chief of Britain's military staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, assailed as "ill-conceived" a proposal floated by figures within British officialdom that the armed services should be compelled to accept disabled recruits for front-line positions.

Meanwhile, British schoolyards are prohibiting children from engaging in skipping and other quaint pastimes such as the game of "conkers," played by throwing chestnuts at classmates. A survey by Keele University found educators were nervous about being sued, and one headmaster declared that if he had his way he would "ban all playtimes, as they are a nightmare."