Legal Brief: Firm Penalized $2.5 Billion for Accident They Did Not Cause and in Which No One Was Hurt; Scientific Evidence Weak for Plaintiffs in Nation’s Largest Class Action Suit; Legal Reform Under Assault; Husband Asks Federal Court to Stop Wife from Smoking

Firm Penalized $2.5 Billion for Accident They Did not Cause and in Which No One Was Hurt
In another example of bizarre jury verdicts, CSX Transportation (formerly Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad) has been found liable for $2.5 billion in punitive damages by a New Orleans jury for a train tank-car fire in which no one was hurt on a train that CSX did not own, repair, transport or load; they simply owned the track — track that otherwise not involved in the fire.

According to Liability Week (September 15), the incident forced 8,000 people to be evacuated from their homes overnight and led to a class-action suit filed by attorneys the same day alleging that nearby residents had suffered physical and mental anguish. Other companies involved were found liable for more than $1 billion in compensatory damages. CSX president and chief executive A.R. “Pete” Carpenter maintained that the verdict was “clearly inconsistent with the facts” and would be appealed.

Scientific Evidence Weak for Plaintiffs in Nation’s Largest Class Action Suit
Few know the history of the breast implant scare as well as Dr. Elizabeth Connell, an Emory University gynecologist and former chairwoman of the FDA panel appointed to study the safety of silicone breast implants. Now that the first implant lawsuit, part of the largest class action lawsuit in American history, is coming to trial, jurors will be asked to cut through years of propaganda and make a legal determination about whether or not silicone leaks from breast implants cause connective tissue diseases, cancer, and complaints such as fatigue and headaches. Dr. Connell has advice for them: “There is no significant association” between implants and the illnesses.

The Detroit News (August 21) notes that numerous studies cast “severe doubts” on the plaintiffs’ claims, citing a 1994 Mayo Clinic study which found no link between implants and connective tissue diseases and a 1995 New England Journal of Medicine study of 87,500 nurses, which found no association. The group included 516 women with connective tissue diseases, of which three had breast implants. This proportion was no higher than in women without implants.

 Legal Reform Under Assault
Forbes Magazine reports that “thirty minutes after Illinois Governor Jim Edgar signed a sweeping tort reform bill on March 9, 1995, the state’s trial lawyers fired back.” The lawyers used a self-appointed consumer advocate to “front” as their plaintiff, the magazine says, and challenged the measure in plaintiff-friendly Cook County circuit court. The reforms included provisions to cap non-economic and punitive damages, and eliminated “joint and several liability,” which gives lawyers free license to sue the deepest pockets with a connection to the case, even if they don’t have a heavy responsibility.

The suit was thrown out of court, but individual trial lawyers filed dozens of other protest cases, raised $800,000 to fight the case in the state Supreme Court (hiring Harvard’s Laurence Tribe to argue it) and made extensive campaign contributions to Democrats, helping them gain a slim majority in the state House over the reform-minded GOP.


Tort D’Jour: Husband Asks Federal Court to Stop Wife from Smoking
Retired Army Colonel Richard J. Thomas of Chicago, married 43 years, has filed a lawsuit under the federal Clean Air Act in attempt to force his wife, Sally, to quit smoking. Thomas, a former smoker, quit 12 years ago.

According to an August Associated Press story, tobacco smoke is not regulated under the Clean Air Act, but Thomas is undeterred. He says he’s filing to lawsuit because he loves his wife, and will drop the suit if she quits voluntarily.

Thomas’s attorney, Christopher Helt, hopes Mrs. Thomas doesn’t quit so federal courts will regulate tobacco smoking by individuals. “I’d like to see this issue resolved by the courts,” he said.*

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