Hurricane Sandy Litigation Round-Up

Our hearts and prayers go out to all of those impacted by the horrible events of Hurricane Sandy. To all the first responders, members of the armed forces, and good Samaritans across the state, we express our deepest appreciation for your courage and sacrifice.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, it is only a matter of time before the storm of litigation begins. With damages expected to exceed $50 billion, state and city taxpayers are certain to bear additional costs as local governments brace for a surge of storm-related lawsuits.

During the course of the storm, a construction crane attached to a luxury high rise building snapped under the severe winds and remains suspended precariously a thousand feet above the streets of Manhattan; Business Insider predicts lawsuits over lost business by nearby businesses which were evacuated. A CNBC video shows footage of the crane collapse and asks when the “blame game” will start foreseeing an “avalanche” of lawsuits following this disaster. Another video from Fox news asks what crazy multi-million dollar lawsuits will come from this tragedy.

Fortunately, those in need of an outrageously high-interest loan to finance a jackpot lawsuit are in luck: at least one lawsuit lender is still up and running, and was quick to put out an “alert” that their services were not interrupted.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:Giuliani Emphasizes Need for Tort Reform in New York

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE- October 24, 2012 (Washington,D.C.): Speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 13th annual Legal Reform Summit in Washington, D.C., former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani stressed the need for New York to enact meaningful lawsuit reform. He noted that past efforts to pass tort reform had been stalled by the powerful trial lawyer lobby, and highlighted the substantial fiscal and social costs of frivolous lawsuits.

The cost of lawsuits for New York City was hundreds of millions during Giuliani’s tenure as mayor.  Frivolous lawsuits are a major issue for local governments, with the cost of lawsuits on New York City alone estimated to exceed $730 million in the coming year.  Lawsuits have taken a toll on taxpayers and diverted resources from critical services, such as city teachers, police officers, and firefighters, noted the former Mayor.  Giuliani highlighted a case in which a criminal fleeing from the police tripped on a pothole and was awarded $70 million for his injuries. “When a jury in New York sees NYC as a defendant, they forget that they are really the defendant – that they are paying out their money and they pay out money in huge quantities,” he said.

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Crash Into Panther, Sue State

By: Michael Seinberg

You’re out on your motorcycle for an early spring ride, just minding your own business when, from out of nowhere, an incredibly rude wild animal suddenly runs across the street. Not having supernatural reflexes, you hit the animal, an endangered Florida panther, and go flying, sustaining multiple injuries. The panther doesn’t even have the good graces to die and runs away, leaving you in a heap on the road. How rude!

So, of course, your only option is to sue the state of Florida – specifically the Florida Department of Transportation – and a company called Transcore ITS, which designed the area’s newly installed (two months earlier) R.A.D. (roadside animal detection) warning system. Kenneth Nolan and his wife Debra are each seeking $15,000 for, “Permanent disability, disfigurement, mental anguish, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, expense of hospitalization, medical expenses, loss of earning, and loss of earnings capacity.” Debra is suing for loss of “support, services, and consortium of her husband.” One hopes the panther has a good attorney as Lawrence Bohannon, the Nolans’ attorney sounds like a real shark.

The Nolans claim part of the issue is that the grass wasn’t mowed where the R.A.D. sensors were placed and there was no large panther crossing sign either. Considering the fact that there are only about 160 of these rare beasts still in the wilds in Florida, I’m having a hard time buying this suit at all. According to Florida wildlife officials, the main two causes of panther deaths are fighting amongst panthers and collisions with vehicles. So far, this year has not been kind to the animals with 15 dead and counting.

The bottom line is that riding a motorcycle is, has always been, and always will be, a risky (and voluntary) activity. When one goes out on a bike, a certain amount of inherent risk is assumed, in that you are moving along at highway speeds without a ton or two of metal around you, free to both enjoy and be endangered by the elements of nature. What if it had been a squirrel, a pelican, or an alligator? If you’re not willing to assume the risk, don’t ride. And if you hit an animal, don’t blame nature and then sue the state.

And here’s the important thing to remember – the state of Florida has invested a significant amount of money in these R.A.D. sensors, with the ultimate goal of keeping motorists and wildlife safe. But unfortunately, they are being exploited for profit, and now the state finds itself facing increased legal liability exposure as a result. Will lawsuits kill this important advance in safety technology? Will other states see incidents like this and think twice about adopting new, life-saving technologies?

Either way, Florida taxpayers are footing the bill for this preposterous case. Personally, I’m rooting for the panther.

NYC Pays $735 Million in Settlements; Lawyers Cheer

By: Michael Seinberg

For those of you keeping score, Manhattan trial lawyers have hit it out of the park and into orbit. According to the City of New York, the city government will spend $735 million this year to settle lawsuits and pay out awards for suits that claim negligence, police abuse, property damage, improper arrests, collisions with fire trucks, potholes that cause accidents, and slip and falls.

“It’s a huge problem for the city and trial lawyers will say it’s only justice, but it’s also a matter of some people considering a case before a New York jury the same as winning the lottery,” said E.J. McMahon, a research fellow for the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center for New York State Policy.

To put this massive outlay into perspective, $735 million is the largest aggregate settlement figure in the city’s history – a 32% increase from the previous year, and almost SIX TIMES what Los Angeles pays per capita to handle similar issues.

One of the major reasons that New York pays out so much more per capita than major cities in California, Illinois, and Texas is that all three states impose limits on intangible “non-economic” damages, such as pain and suffering, which helps deter jackpot justice cases.  Most recently, Pennsylvania enacted “fair share” liability reform, ensuring that defendants like city governments are not forced to pay huge settlements when they are found only minimally responsible for an injury. Unfortunately for taxpayers, New York has not enacted any meaningful liability reform in almost three decades – largely due to lobbying efforts by wealthy trial lawyer interest groups.

While $735 million is a frightening sum, what is perhaps even scarier is the breakdown on just where that money goes.  About $119 million covered police misconduct and civil rights violations, $130 million went to malpractice claims from the city’s 11 public hospitals and on it all goes. Because NYC runs its own school district, the city is liable for all school-related lawsuits as well.

New York City, home to some 8 million people, is self-insured perceived as having endlessly deep pockets. But the reality is that lawsuits hit taxpayer where it hurts – in their wallets. New York City estimates its lawsuit costs will continue to rise to $815 million by 2016, dwarfing the annual budgets of entire city agencies. Now, more than ever, New York lawmakers must take action and enact rational limits on liability.

Commendable Response to Deceptive Argument

In recent weeks, we shared a piece which was published in the Albany Times Union which covered some preliminary findings of a study by the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. The study breaks down the annual cost that municipalities bear as a result of lawsuits and has found that at least $1 billion is spent per year on legal defense, judgments, and settlements for lawsuits.

A predictable response arose from the new President of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, Michael Jaffe, which aimed to talk down our organization rather than dispute the facts of the study.  “While conservative groups and corporate lobbyists such as the so-called Lawsuit Reform Alliance like to spread the myth that New York is “sue happy,” the truth is quite the opposite.” 

A recent letter to the editor, in response to Jaffe, brings up various flaws in his misleading argument.  “Michael Jaffe should have submitted his letter after further reflection,” it begins, and continues to highlight weak and incorrect allegations made by Jaffe.  This was a factual and well written letter revealing the deceptive practices weighing down our state.

Lawsuits Cost NY Taxpayers $1B a Year

Rick Karlin of the Albany Times Union published a piece today highlighting the preliminary findings of a study by the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy which breaks down the annual cost that municipalities bear as a result of lawsuits.  The study discovered that approximately one billion taxpayer dollars are spent annually on legal defense, judgments, and settlements for lawsuits. Municipalities are often brought into a lawsuit even if there is little or no negligence on their part, simply because an incident happened on public property.

“So far, researchers have learned that counties spend more on lawsuits than other municipalities such as towns or cities.

Any number of disputes or accidents can spark a lawsuit. Motorists have sued municipalities claiming that the roads were poorly plowed in winter, leading to accidents.”

Karlin noted the infamous ‘Scaffold Law‘ and its potentially devastating effect on localities; any public construction project can become a costly nightmare for a municipality if a worker is injured, even if the worker was largely responsible for their injuries.

“In one western New York case, a construction worker sued the Town of Amherst after he fell off a ladder while inspecting a public building. The suit forced the town to borrow to cover the costs.

That’s an example of what reformers term the Scaffold Law, which says a property owner is responsible for injuries on a property regardless of who is at fault.”

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WCNY: Liu Warns Bike Share Program May Lead to More Lawsuits for City

New York City Comptroller John Liu recently expressed concern over potential litigation against the city following the launch of the Citi Bike bike share program.  This echoes the recent decision in a small town in Washington State to eliminate their helmet law because of potential lawsuits due to lack of enforcement. Will liability fears destroy a good public program?

WCNY reports:

“While many in the city are eagerly waiting the start of the city’s bike sharing program, at least one man isn’t. New York City Comptroller John Liu is warning of safety and lawsuit problems that could come with the launch of Citi Bike.

Liu said the city may not be equipped to handle the lawsuits or the safety concerns that may accompany the July start of the largest bike share program in the country. He noted that New York City’s bicycle fatality and injury rates — without the bike share program — are about four times as high as Washington DC’s, which has a bike share program involving 1,100 bikes.”

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Why Does a Medicine in New York Cost 6000% More than in Pennsylvania?

It’s not worth more, it just costs more.

By: Tom Stebbins

In the Sunday, January 8thDaily News, columnist Beverly Weintraub wrote an article, ‘Anatomy of a Ripoff,’ about her shock at the bill she received from a local hospital for services her son had recently received. One notable number from Ms. Weintraub’s editorial was $6.52.  This was how much a Pennsylvania hospital charged her son for medication that cost $439.90 at hospitals here in New York, a difference of over six thousand percent.  While Ms. Weintraub focused on the confusing billing, an astute reader may wonder why this medication costs so much more in New York than in Pennsylvania.

One of the principal reasons is the cost and fear of litigation.  And in New York we have laws, strongly supported by trial attorneys, that encourage litigation.  For example in New York, if a hospital is found 1% liable for an injury, they can pay 100% of the judgment. The Pennsylvania Legislature recently passed “Fair Share Liability,” fixing this loophole and bringing down the cost of medical care for everyone.  New York should do the same.

Actress Sues New York City for Accident with Cyclist

A Brooklyn actress, Dana Jacks, is suing New York City for $3 million after being struck by a cyclist in Prospect Park last summer, Mail Online reports .  She is claiming that her accident and 25 day hospital stay was a result of the city’s Parks Department and NYPD “negligent, careless and reckless” lack of traffic enforcement.  Jacks has already filed a lawsuit against the cyclist who hit her in Brooklyn Supreme Court.  According to the New York Post, the cyclist filed a countersuit claiming Jacks was walking “unlawfully outside the crosswalk” and “knocking him to the ground” .

Although  this was an unfortunate accident for the actress, suing the city for the monumental amount of $3 million will drain tax dollars that could be used to fix the problem and instead use them for costly settlement or trial proceedings.  Because it is often targeted as a “deep pocketed” defendant in lawsuits, the City has so far paid out $561 million in tort related claims for 2011, an astronomically high number which could be drastically lowered by enacting meaningful tort reforms.

In September, New York City Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo gave a speech to the Citizens Budget Commission calling for tort reform as a solution to regain the city’s economic stability.  In his speech, he highlighted two major reforms which he says would lower the city’s payouts by $100  million; implementing reasonable limitations on non-economic damages and reforming the doctrine of joint and several liability, which can force a deep pocketed defendant who is minimally at fault to pay the entire cost of a judgment.

Reforming our civil justice system and eliminating frivolous lawsuits could save the state millions and put money back into the pockets of taxpayers statewide.

New York woman files multi-million dollar suit against county and officials

Monica Pierce of Horsehead, NY is suing various parties in regards to a search of her home in 2008 which she states was illegal.  Pierce is suing the Horseheads village police, Officers Seth Zawko, Richard Skebey, Mark Fitzgerald and Sgt. Daniel M. West, and Maggie Campanella, a county Child Protective Services caseworker.  She has recently added the county of Chemung to this extensive list.

In 2008, Pierce’s home was searched by Horsehead police after her daughter, daughter’s father and daughter’s stepmother informed the police of marijuana activity happening in the home.  According to the police, Pierce gave them permission to search the house and actually led them to the bedroom.  Monica is claiming she gave no such permission.

After the search, Pierce was charged with unlawful dealing with a child which was later dropped.

Now she is stating that her constitutional rights were violated and is seeking $1 million from each defendant in addition to punitive damages, attorney fees and other amounts.

In an interview with the Star Gazette, Chemung County attorney, Bryan Maggs, called the case “ridiculous”.

Municipalities deal with frivolous cases such as this one far too often.  The cost of defending these cases alone is exorbitant, then there is the actual cost of judgment or settlement.  Municipalities are forced to either raise taxes or cut services to cover the cost.

SUNY Albany is currently conducting a study to uncover the true cost of lawsuits to municipalities.  This information has never before been so thoroughly documented, although the extreme costs are often talked about; such as the recent speech by city counsel Cardozo highlighting the $561 million that NYC alone paid out for lawsuits in 2011.

Stay tuned for more on this groundbreaking study.