TortsProf Blog

Editor: Christopher J. Robinette
Southwestern Law School

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

SoCal Gas Agrees to $1.8B Settlement Over 2015 Leak

In 2015, fumes from a failing natural gas storage well were released into the mountains above the San Fernando Valley, sickening people with nausea, headaches, and nosebleeds.  On Monday, SoCal Gas announced agreements to pay up to $1.8B to settle litigation over the leak.  The first agreement requires around 97% participation from approximately 36,000 plaintiffs and court approval of how the money will be distributed.  Second and third agreements involve separate settlements and dismissing named plaintiffs in a business class action, both of which are subject to court approval.  Plaintiffs' attorneys spoke from the steps of the Los Angeles federal courthouse:

“There was no plan when the well blew up on what to do,” said attorney Brian Panish. “Because of those failures, these people suffered. We’re thankful we can do our best to offer fair and just compensation.”

Panish said that affected residents gave depositions by Zoom during the pandemic and that some still living in the area believe that the storage field, which is active, should be shut down.

But he said that the settlement shows that the gas company has taken some responsibility.

“It sends a loud message about what had happened — people were justified in their complaints,” he said.

Gregory Yee, Tony Barboza, and Leila Miller of the LA Times have the story (behind a paywall).

September 29, 2021 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 27, 2021

COVID-19 Suits Against Businesses Through the Lens of Cruise Ship Cases

At Bloomberg News, Robert Iafolla & Jake Holland cover COVID-19 suits against businesses through the lens of cruise ship cases.  Here's the lede:

The limited success of cruise line Covid-19 lawsuits showcases the high bar consumers must meet to hold businesses liable for alleged virus exposure, suggesting they can overcome legal hurdles—but only in the right circumstances.

Cruise ship passengers filed at least 42 lawsuits in federal court alleging injuries—ranging from emotional distress to death—due to exposure to Covid-19, an analysis of Bloomberg Law data shows. About 15% of those cases have settled on undisclosed terms, and 40% of them have been dismissed. None have advanced to trial.

The data highlight the long odds consumers face to win such lawsuits in less confined environments than a cruise ship. The pervasive presence of the virus makes it very difficult to prove that spending time at a specific business caused a consumer to get sick, legal observers say.

August 27, 2021 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 2, 2021

Lytton on New York's New Firearms Public Nuisance Statute

Writing in The Regulatory Review, Tim Lytton analyzes New York's recently passed statute on firearms and public nuisance. 

August 2, 2021 in Current Affairs, Legislation, Reforms, & Political News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 19, 2021

NJ Tarasoff Case: Coleman v. Martinez

The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the Appellate Division's overturn of a grant of summary judgment; the majority held that a licensed social worker owed a common law duty to the victim of a schizophrenic patient:

In sum, Martinez treated a patient convicted of two violent assaults at a
dire time in her life and proceeded to watch her decompensate. Further, once
that decompensation became a barrier to T.E.’s reunification with her children,
Martinez identified Coleman as an antagonist and personification of that
barrier. “It does not seem highly extraordinary” that those actions would result
in a violent assault against Coleman.

The opinion is here:  Download Coleman.martinez.nj.2021  (Thanks to George Conk for the tip.)

July 19, 2021 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

U.S. Air Force Held Primarily Responsible for 2017 Church Shooting

In 2017, a former serviceman killed 26 people and injured over 20 more when he opened fire in a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  A federal judge has ruled the U.S. Air Force was 60% responsible based on its failure to submit the shooter's criminal history to the FBI database, allowing him to purchase the weapon he used in the attack.

"The argument in this case was that the government had in its possession, particularly the Air Force, had in its possession information about a conviction for an offense of a service member which they failed to report — carelessly — to federal government authorities so it could be included in the National Crime Information Center database that then could be accessible for background checks at retail," [Timothy] Lytton said. "And that carelessness on the government’s part made them liable for the resulting harms, which were of course the mass shooting.”

Unlike other "high-profile" mass shootings, the Sutherland Springs lawsuit didn't involve a venue that was negligent or a gun store that sold a firearm illegally.

"We don’t have a lot of mass shootings where the problem is that a person who’s currently enlisted in the armed services had a conviction that wasn’t properly reported by the service to the federal government, that’s a sort of unusual fact pattern so I can’t really identify a trend of liability against the federal government in mass shootings," he said.

Texas Public Radio has the story.

July 13, 2021 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 12, 2021

Lytton on Illegal Firearms as Public Nuisance

Tim Lytton has an article at The Conversation regarding New York's new law defining illegal firearms as a public nuisance.  He anticipates a Second Amendment challenge to the law, but even if it survives:

The main impact of these lawsuits is to put pressure on gun manufactures to do more to prevent inventory theft and illegal sales by retailers. Since 2000, the gun industry has operated a program to prevent illegal straw purchases, suggesting manufactures think they may be able to affect how retailers operate. Even still, little is known about whether this program has had any impact on gun violence rates. That’s why no one really knows if forcing gun manufacturers to more closely supervise retailers will work.

Part of the problem is a lack of government funding since the mid-1990s for public health research on alleged links between industry sales practices and gun crimes. Recent funding for this kind of research may clarify the value of regulating illegal gun sales as a public nuisance.

Until then, passing laws to prompt litigation against the gun industry is just a shot in the dark.

July 12, 2021 in Current Affairs, Legislation, Reforms, & Political News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Nestle v. Doe

The USSC just issued its most-recent opinion on the Alien Tort Statute in Nestle v. Doe.  At JD Supra, Dechert's Andrew Boutros & Jay Schleppenbach review the decision.  The highlights:

  • In its just-issued opinion in Nestle USA, Inc. v. Doe, No. 19-416, slip op. (2021), the Supreme Court reaffirmed its holding from Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 569 U. S. 108 (2013), that the Alien Tort Statute does not apply extraterritorially.
  • Allegations that “financing decisions” that took place in the United States related to Ivory Coast cocoa farms that allegedly used child labor were insufficient to make plaintiffs claims domestic; these were just allegations of “general corporate activity” not sufficiently related to the actual wrongdoing alleged.
  • The Court did not resolve the question on which it originally granted certiorari, which was whether Alien Tort Statute exempts corporations from suit altogether.

June 23, 2021 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

New at the American Museum of Tort Law

Bob Rabin discusses Dominion's defamation suit against Rudy Giuliani here.

Dorit Reiss answers two questions:  1. What happens if the Covid vaccine injures you?  2.  Should we deny medical care to those who refuse the vaccine?.  

March 3, 2021 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

NY: Grandparents in the "Zone of Danger" Can Recover Emotional Distress Damages

Last week, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that a grandparent in the zone of danger can recover emotional distress damages for the death of their grandchild.  Unlike many jurisdictions, New York does not recognize negligent infliction of emotional distress for bystanders.  However, this holding expands recovery within the "zone of danger" by including grandparents as an "immediate family" member.  Debra Cassens Weiss has the story at ABA Journal.

February 24, 2021 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 11, 2021

AMTL: Two New Founders

The American Museum of Tort Law has added two new founders:  James E. Fitzgerald of Wyoming and Marc J. Bern of New York.  The entire list is here:  Download Our founders February 2021

February 11, 2021 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 4, 2021

IN: Senate Passes COVID-19 Immunity Bill

Last week, the Indiana Senate passed a COVID-19 immunity bill.  As with many such bills, there is an exclusion for gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct.  The Indiana House of Representatives votes on a similar bill this week.  Lexology has details.

February 4, 2021 in Current Affairs, Legislation, Reforms, & Political News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

MO: COVID-19 Immunity Bill Ready for Vote in Senate

In Missouri, a COVID-19 immunity bill passed out of committee and is ready for a full vote in the Senate.  Senate Bill 51 provides:  "No individual or entity engaged in businesses, services, activities or accommodations shall be liable in any COVID-19 exposure action."  There is an exception for recklessness or willful misconduct.  Additionally, a one-year statute of limitations is imposed.  News-Press Now has details.

February 2, 2021 in Current Affairs, Legislation, Reforms, & Political News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Nursing Homes Plead PREP Act Immunity to COVID-19 Cases

Nursing homes across the country are invoking the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act to claim immunity from COVID-19 suits.  The PREP Act was originally passed in 2005 in order to encourage production of emergency vaccines during an epidemic by providing immunity to pharmaceutical manufacturers.  The Trump administration invoked the Act in March relating to COVID-19:

It authorizes the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), during a public health emergency, to shield from liability makers of “countermeasures” such as diagnostic tests, protective gear and vaccines like those developed by Pfizer Inc, Germany’s BioNTech and Moderna Inc.

The PREP Act does not apply to instances of serious injury or death caused by willful misconduct; when immunity applies, the injured person may seek compensation from a government fund (though most claims are denied).  

All rulings have been against nursing homes so far, but pleading the Act, which allows defendants to move from state to federal court, can buy them time.  In December, the Trump administration added agency guidance in favor of nursing homes.  Only one ruling, against a defendant, has come down since the guidance, so it remains to be seen whether nursing homes will begin winning cases.  Tom Hals at Reuters has the story.

January 28, 2021 in Current Affairs, Legislation, Reforms, & Political News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

COVID-19 Suits in 2020

Relatively few suits alleging physical or economic harm due to COVID-19 were filed in 2020:

Lex Machina released its first Torts Litigation Report in November, identifying 173 tort cases related to COVID-19. Most were filed against cruise lines and nursing homes, and as Law.com reports, judges have dismissed many of them.

The largest group of COVID-19 suits were filed by businesses against their insurers.  ABA Journal has the story.

January 5, 2021 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 4, 2021

IA: Punies Not Available for Victims of Excessive Force by Law Enforcement Officers

Last Thursday, in a case about excessive force by law enforcement officers, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that there is no vested right to punitive damages and the state legislature may bar them completely, as it did in the Iowa Tort Claims Act.  Alina Rizvi has details at Jurist.

January 4, 2021 in Current Affairs, Damages, Legislation, Reforms, & Political News | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

NJ: Supreme Court Accepts Attorney-Client Arbitration Agreements

In the context of a legal malpractice case, the New Jersey Supreme Court accepts arbitration clauses in attorney-client contracts, but requires a full explanation to the client of the advantages and disadvantages.  The case is Delaney v. Sills, and George Conk has commentary at Otherwise.

December 22, 2020 in Current Affairs, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Rothstein & Irzyk on Employer Liability for "Take-Home" COVID-19

Mark Rothstein and Julia Irzyk have posted to SSRN Employer Liability for "Take-Home" COVID-19.  The abstract provides:

Workplace exposure to SARS-CoV-2 has been a source of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19, especially for “essential workers,” such as those employed in health care and meatpacking. Many family members of these workers also have become infected and died. If the employee’s exposure was the result of the employer’s negligence, the family member or the family member’s estate might be able to recover from the employer using the “take-home” liability theory first developed in asbestos cases. This article discusses the elements of these cases and how they relate to workers’ compensation, OSHA enforcement, and other aspects of workplace safety and health protections.

December 16, 2020 in Current Affairs, Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 11, 2020

COVID-19 Suits, Preemption, and Workers' Compensation

At Law.com, Amanda Bronstad covers suits by employees against Tyson Foods.  The defendants in those cases have argued negligence claims are preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act.  In the cases filed in Iowa, defendants also cited the workers' compensation bar.  Tyson opted out of workers' compensation in Texas, the only jurisdiction in the United States in which that is possible.  Bronstad then discusses preemption as applicable to other industries.  For instance, nursing homes sued for negligence have attempted to argue preemption based on the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act:

At least four federal judges, in New Jersey, Kansas, Pennsylvania and California, have ruled against the nursing homes, granting remand of the cases to state courts.

“The allegations are ‘you didn’t take enough steps to keep us from getting COVID.’ Courts are looking at that, saying that’s not what the PREP Act had in mind,” Robinette said. “Basically, what the PREP Act is talking about is certain drugs, biological products or devices—for instance, once a vaccine has been developed. But the suits are alleging things like your failures to do certain things have led to us getting COVID.”

December 11, 2020 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 7, 2020

Sharkey on Holding Amazon Liable As a Seller

Cathy Sharkey has posted to SSRN Holding Amazon Liable As a Seller of Defective Goods:  A Convergence of Cultural and Economic Perspectives.  The abstract provides:

Amazon’s e-commerce business, which offers a platform for third-party vendors, defies conventional categorization for products liability purposes. Professor Marshall Shapo’s conception of “tort law as a cultural mirror” sheds light on how products liability law has evolved so as to hold Amazon liable even as the seismic shift away from brick-and-mortar physical stores to the virtual marketplace has transformed the reasonable expectations of consumers. Holding Amazon liable is likewise supported by the economic perspective embodied in the “cheapest cost avoider” analysis; namely, that Amazon is best situated to take actions to minimize risks and prevent accidents from defective products. This convergence of cultural and economic perspectives and the emergence of a culturally specific norm of efficiency-as-responsibility in the context of the virtual marketplace, signals tort law’s ever moving march forward into the modern era.

December 7, 2020 in Current Affairs, Scholarship, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

PA: Governor Vetoes COVID-19 Immunity Bill

On Monday,  Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf vetoed a bill that would have provided immunity to certain businesses, including schools, from COVID-19 lawsuits.  Governor Wolf got it right, for reasons I explained in an earlier post:

Yale undergraduate Josh Czaczkes, Tom Baker, & John Witt have just finished a really interesting research project.  Using a database run by Baker at Penn, the group determined that 80% of liability policies have coverage for losses for infection by virus.  Only 20 of 100 policies had an exclusion.  Thus, COVID-19 immunity would primarily benefit large insurers and not businesses, many of which are small.  The group uses the finding to oppose immunity legislation.  Their post is at Balkinization

Moreover, the early cases are being won by defendants.  See here and here.  Plaintiffs are having trouble proving injury and, especially, causation.  I have spoken to several plaintiffs' lawyers over the last few weeks, and they all say the same thing about COVID-19 cases.  They are very wary of them, and would only take such a case under limited conditions.  Specifically, I have heard from more than one firm that the injury would have to be death before it would be worth considering.  I think immunity is unnecessary. 

December 2, 2020 in Current Affairs, Legislation, Reforms, & Political News | Permalink | Comments (0)