Tag Archive for 'lawsuit'Page 2 of 22

No, You Can’t Sue a Movie Theater for Overpriced Popcorn

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In a lawsuit that I’m sure “tort reformers” will point to as being yet another example of how broken our legal system is, and why we desperately need to immunize wealthy defendants from compensating the victims of their wrongdoing save the economy from frivolous lawsuits, a moviegoer has decided to sue the owner of a movie theater for charging what he believes to be an unfair price for concessions. Yes, really.

This is an example of a lawsuit filed by someone who obviously has no idea how the American legal system (or economy) works. I’ll just get this out of the way: you don’t have a legal right to cheap popcorn, soda, Milk-Duds or Junior Mints at a movie theater. Are the prices on these items at movie theaters ridiculous? Yes, you could make that argument. But are you being forced at gunpoint to buy a $5 box of Sno-Caps? If your answer is “yes,” I suggest you leave that theater and call the police. Maybe there’s only one movie theater in your town, so you don’t have any basis for comparison; but I can assure you that the employees of normal theaters don’t behave that way.

But since this man’s lawsuit doesn’t allege that he was in any way forced to pay those high prices for candy, I’m going to go ahead and assume that that’s not the case. This lawsuit betrays a basic misunderstanding of both the law and simple economics. First, he claims that the high price of concessions at movie theaters violates the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, which is similar to the unfair competition laws that exist in the majority of U.S. states. These laws are meant to prohibit legitimately unfair business practices, such as false advertising, defamation of one’s business competitors, price fixing, and the like.

Most Michigan lawyers would probably say that the law in question doesn’t apply to this case, as the movie theater does not provide a vital service, does not misrepresent its prices, and many other reasons. What’s most surprising to me is the fact that this guy actually found a lawyer to take his case, and he isn’t just some crackpot representing himself (with the complaint hopefully written in crayon). According to this article, the plaintiff’s lawyer has publicly stated that the lawsuit is at least in part based on the fact that movie theaters charge far more for their food items than other stores charge for the same items. Last I checked, that’s not a legal wrong that warrants compensation.

But I’m most surprised by the fact that this guy actually found a lawyer to take his case. There’s really no question that the case is a loser. I hope for his sake that he’s not working on contingency.

But more importantly, cases like these, and the lawyers who take them, call the entire legal profession into question by cheapening and delegitimizing it.

This is because there are certain interests, most of them connected to business, who have a strong interest in changing tort law to their advantage. Because large corporations engage in the largest number of transactions with the general public, they’re subjected to the largest number of lawsuits. This is not a criticism of large corporations, mind you. It’s just an illustration of the simple fact that, in day-to-day life, a certain percentage of things go wrong.

And, sometimes, when a transaction goes wrong, whether one party breaches a contract, or a customer slips and falls in a grocery store on some oil that was spilled hours before and never got cleaned up, one party is clearly at fault. To deal with those cases, we have a legal system that compels culpable parties to compensate the victims for any harm directly caused by whatever culpable conduct they engaged in.

There are some plaintiffs who have abused this system, either by fabricating injuries or suing over injuries that were obviously nobody’s fault. And, occasionally, one of these lawsuits will fall through the cracks and a plaintiff will end up walking away with a significant judgment. Or, more often, the facts of a lawsuit will be misreported by the media, making the plaintiff’s case look ridiculous when it’s actually valid.

This has led to a movement that’s broadly referred to as “tort reform.” Tort reform largely involves making it more difficult for plaintiffs to recover for injuries they’ve sustained, through heightened burdens of proof, shorter statutes of limitations, damage caps, and other measures. The stated goal is always to protect the economy from being drained by nonsense lawsuits. And I don’t doubt that many people who advocate for tort reform are sincere in this goal and in their beliefs. But the simple fact is that many tort reform organizations are backed by large corporations, and engaged in significant political lobbying.

And one of the most powerful pieces of ammunition is lawsuits like this. I have no doubt that this lawsuit will be thrown out in its very early stages. However, it will almost certainly be used as “proof” that, in order to prevent absurd lawsuits like this one from happening is to prevent victims of medical malpractice from collecting more than $250,000 in damages, or something similar.

I hope the public, and our state legislatures, resist these calls. Cases like this are amusing, and can be dismissed with a laugh. But more importantly, they test our commitment to one of our society’s core values: access to the courts. Let’s hope that that value isn’t compromised any time soon.

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Facebook Involved in an Unusual Lawsuit between Uncle and Nephew

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Family feuds have been a common form of entertainment on television.  Many of us have tuned in to watch shows like Family Feud, Modern Family, Growing Pains, etc.  In the legal realm, family feuds have comprised of a practice termed family law.  Attorneys who practice family law are considered to have a “tough heart” by many because it is not easy watching families endure events such as divorces and custody battles.  Speaking of families and lawsuits, a recent lawsuit of a nephew sewing his uncle for harassment over Facebook pictures gives new meaning to the term “family feud.”

A man from Minnesota named Aaron Olson sued his uncle because his uncle had posted childhood pictures of him, in front of a Christmas tree, in a rabbit costume.  Rather than untagging himself from the picture, or calling his uncle and politely asking him to remove the picture, Aaron sued his uncle for harassment in a Minnesota district court.

Olson’s claim was based on the fact that the pictures were “innocuous family photographs.”  Posting such photographs on Facebook establishes a platform for mean comments to be directed towards Olson.  The court dismissed this case, and the Court of Appeals of Minnesota denied Olson’s complaint.

The Judge in the Court of Appeals of Minnesota stated that harassment occurs when words have some sort of adverse effect on the safety, security, or privacy of another person.  Therefore, mean or disrespectful comments do not constitute harm to one’s safety, privacy or security. The court ruled that the district court was correct in stating that the evidence submitted by Olson (the Facebook pictures of him in a rabbit costume, in front of a Christmas tree) did not satisfy the requirements to prove harassment.

This lawsuit is probably the most ridiculous one I have heard of to date.  The obvious lesson to take away is that if you have a minor issue with a relative, talk to them.  The power of effective communication can do wonders, keep people out of court, and put the money spent on potential litigation back into your pocket!

More importantly, when frivolous suits are brought into court, it is a misuse of the judicial system and a waste of judicial resources.  People should realize that the judicial system is there to tend to complex matters that cannot be solved in the home or office environment, not minor family feuds over embarrassing photos.

So, a few tips to people out there.  Before thinking about going to court, evaluate the basis of your lawsuit.  If your lawyer explains things to you, you will be hit with a hefty legal bill.  Rather than depending on your lawyer, think about how much merit you have in your claim.  Next, think about solutions that do not involve litigation.  Often, litigation complicates matters before reaching a resolution.  If there is a quicker way to achieve some closure out of court, go for it.  Lastly, confide in a close confidant to see if your potential claim passes the “straight face test.”  Specifically, after conveying your claim to your confidant, examine their expression.  If it is not of a straight face, and rather is one of disgust, surprise, or awkwardness, it is likely that your lawsuit is frivolous.  Avoid filing it and resolve matters in the comfort of your own home!

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Memo to 9/11 Truthers: The Courts Are Not A Megaphone

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So, it’s come to this. The crackpots who believe that 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by the Bush administration, the Israeli government, or lizard-men from space (seriously) have graduated from standing on the street with sandwich boards and megaphones to filing lawsuits against current and former federal officials in court, alleging that they were behind the attacks.

These lawsuits were focused on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney. The plaintiffs claimed that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and others either allowed the attacks to occur, or directly orchestrated them, in order to create a political climate that would be supportive of war in the Middle East, which would open up access to Middle Eastern oil, from which they would theoretically profit.

I’m not going to go into the details of why these allegations are completely absurd. Suffice it to say, I think that if you’re a 9/11 “truther” (a member of the ironically-named 9/11 “truth” movement, which promotes these conspiracy theories), there’s probably something wrong with you. Either that, or you’ve spent too much time in your basement reading pamphlets, and not enough time out in the real world.

Instead, I’m going to discuss the merits and implications of using the judicial system to advance these insane theories. Here’s the short version: you shouldn’t use the court system to advance whatever pet conspiracy theory you’re currently harboring. The end.

Of course, the reasons for this warrant at least some discussion. First of all, contrary to popular perception, the court system actually has some pretty efficient mechanisms at filtering out frivolous lawsuits. These cases are usually dismissed very quickly, and, in the most extreme cases, the people who bring them can be hit with hefty fines, to compensate the taxpayers for the time and judicial resources that were wasted dealing with the case, and to deter others from bringing frivolous lawsuits.

In the case I linked to in the first paragraph, the court that dismissed the lawsuits back in 2010 hit the lawyers who brought it with $15,000 in sanctions. And the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has just upheld that sanctions order. This is pretty similar to the case of Orly Taitz – a dentist/lawyer who is obsessed with the notion that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and is therefore constitutionally ineligible to serve as president.

She has been filing numerous lawsuits in the last few years, demanding everything from the removal of the President from office to his imprisonment for treason.  Not surprisingly, she has to contend with sanctions and threats of disbarment pretty frequently.

I think that the courts should deal with lawsuits based on nonsensical conspiracy theories in precisely this manner. It’s very important for citizens of a free society to have as much access to the courts as possible. In the U.S., state and federal courts are the primary means of adjudicating legal disputes, and ensuring that legal rights are protected. However, that does not mean that every conspiracy theory is automatically a valid legal dispute.

In order to ensure that they can operate efficiently, and hear valid legal disputes, courts have to dismiss the lawsuits that are clearly nonsense. I think it’s pretty obvious that these all-encompassing conspiracy theories fail the smell test. The notion that human beings (who couldn’t cover up a hotel break-in in the 70s, remember) could pull off a conspiracy of that magnitude without leaving a single piece of definitive evidence is insane.

And even if you assume that these conspiracy theories are true, and that some shadowy cabal really did pull off 9/11, what do the plaintiffs in this lawsuit expect to accomplish? Do they really think that a federal trial court would be able to do anything to such an all-powerful organization?

It’s almost as if they simply want to draw attention to themselves. Funny, that.

Anyway, when actual smoke-and-mirrors government conspiracies take place, they’re typically found out. Prior to the Watergate scandal, the facts of that case could have been the plot of a political thriller – and it would probably have been considered implausible. But, it happened. Conspiracy theorists will point out that this shows that government conspiracies do happen. And they’re right. But it also shows that keeping a secret among more than 2 or 3 people is incredibly difficult. Remember, Watergate ended with a president resigning in disgrace.

So, it stands to reason that, if these 9/11 conspiracy theories were true, there would be some solid evidence that might have a chance of holding up in court. However, 9/11 truthers have produced no such evidence. Hence, their cases have all been dismissed.

The court system already has a moderate problem with people accepting its legitimacy. It is the constant target of politically-motivated attacks against “judicial activism” and “frivolous lawsuits.” Occasionally, there really are frivolous lawsuits, like the one discussed here. If the court were to do anything other than dismiss this case at the earliest opportunity, opportunistic politicians and activists would have pounced on it, and used it to attack the legitimacy of the court system as a whole. Frankly, we can’t afford that.

That’s not to say I think the court should use the public’s opinion of it as a significant basis for making its decisions. But, as a practical matter, that is always lingering in the background. If I believed that there were a shred of real evidence in support of these conspiracy theories, I’d be completely in favor of the courts hearing these lawsuits. And if the 9/11 truthers can produce such evidence, I’d be championing their right to pursue these cases, even if they were ultimately proven to be without merit. Until then, it’s back to the Internet massage boards for them.

Can Pay-What-You-Want Businesses Sue Non-Paying Customers?

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With the ever omnipresent ghost of Christmas commercialization turning the Season of Giving into the time of year where corporate fat cats can get their poorly run companies back into the black just enough to justify taking their huge bonuses, it nice to see that some businesses still know what it means to give back to their community.

Not only is Curtis Masters’s benevolence, in the form of his pay-what-you-want plumbing services, a much needed lifeline for poor Texans with a plumbing problem or two, but Masters’s kindness is also doing wonders to repair the stereotypical image of the shady plumber.  That kind of PR is priceless.  Masters has apparently been operating his business this way for over 15 years.  But according the 63-year-old plumber, the move to a pay-what-you-want operation wasn’t so much a strategic marketing move, but rather a call from God.  Masters states that he was told by God to use his master (ba-dum-bump) plumbing skills to help people in need and that he believes as long as he functions like this, God will provide for him.  Regardless of your views on religion, you have got to admire Masters’s commitment to his beliefs and his customers.

Now what Masters is doing is obvious very generous, especially in this current economic recession of ours; but what caught my eye about the story was the more obvious fact that there are probably a lot of people out there who would be perfectly happy letting Masters walk away with nothing for his work.  In fact, in the new report Masters even states that he has had some customers who seemed like they could pay more, but instead paid nothing for very complex work he did for them.  Of course this is to be expected when one functions on a pay-what-you-want business model.  Healthy fast food chain Panera Bread learned this the hard way after it had to shutter its third pay-what-you-want experiment in Portland, Oregon after it was getting too many non-paying customers and local homeless shelters started sending their hungry clientele its way.

But still, it seems a little wrong that people could easily take advantage of Masters’ kindness.  One of my friends asked me after reading this story if Masters could opt to take any legal action against any customers who he felt paid him less than what he should have gotten.  This is a question that seems like it should have an easy answer, but it turns out that like most things in law, the answer is a little more complicated and ultimately unclear.

When parties decide to exchange promises to perform duties in exchange for money or something in return, a contract is formed.  In legal terms, this contract formation process is called offer, acceptance and consideration.  If any of those factors are missing, a contract isn’t formed.  In addition, even when a contract is not clearly laid out, courts can infer that an implied-in-fact contract was created and award damages for a breach of contract.  An implied-in-fact contract usually arises in situations where services are exchanged for pay, as in Masters’ plumbing work.  These types of contracts occur when a party is unjustly enriched by receiving a benefit that they didn’t pay for, but knowingly accepted.  In these cases, a court can award the party that gave the benefit the fair market value for his or her work.

So it would seem that under an implied-in-fact contract theory, Masters and other do-gooders could possibly recover payment from entitled deadbeats too cheap to cough up some dough.  Masters provided a plumbing service, his customers authorize and allow him to work on their pipes, and they are obviously enriched by the services he offers because their plumbing is fixed.  All this appears to be grounds for a court to infer the formation of an implied-in-fact contract.  But the problem comes in when you factor in how Masters and other pay-what-you-want businesses functions.

Masters tells his customers up front in person and in writing that they are allowed to pay whatever they can afford for the work he provides.  Courts have long held that parties are free to contract in whatever way they wish as long as the parties both enter their contract knowingly without undue influence and that the agreement itself is legal.  From this perspective, an argument can easily be made that Masters, and other businesses like his, entered into the contract fully aware that he could come out of the other end with nothing, and that furthermore he expected that it could happen.  So in this sense, Masters wouldn’t have any recourse against non-payers.

What’s the answer?  Like I said, it’s not clear.  But it definitely would be an interesting case for a court to decide since there are good arguments to be made on both sides.

What do you guys think of pay-as-you-go business models?  Should cheapskates be forced to pay if they can afford it and how much?

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New Software Revealing Photoshopped Images; Likely Lawsuits Against Publishers

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Finally, the world will be getting technology to show us just how gross-looking Kim Kardashian really is.

A couple of computer scientists over at the Dartmouth College’s Department of Science have developed software that will measure how much photographs have been digitally altered, or as the cool kids say “Photoshopped.”  The developers, Eric Kee and Hany Farid, say the software is capable of analyzing the geometric and photometric changes in a picture and then assign a number rating that correlates with the level of Photoshopping that has occurred.  You can take a look at the software tool in action here.  The before and after shots range from startling to downright disturbing – especially the ones featuring Kim Kardashian and Kim Cattrall, woof.

Now aside from the software being a cool novelty and gossip magazine news article-generating machine, there are some serious and practical applications for it.  Chief among them is its ability to combat the growing low self-esteem and personal image issues plaguing today’s youths and adults.   For years, magazine gawkers have been killing themselves to attain the unattainable beauty filling every page of today’s periodicals, all the while never knowing the true extent of each picture’s falsities.  And in all honesty, I’d like to say I was never fooled by these sorts of images, but as I later learned after the proliferation of high-definition television I was right in line with the rest of the sheep.  I mean, who would’ve guessed that the only thing needed to reveal all the wrinkles and blemishes on television was an extra 240 pixels?

But I think another more interesting and potentially more lucrative use for the software comes to play in the field of new venues for lawsuits.  For years, people have criticized the fashion and media industries for putting out digitally altered pictures.  These critics argue that the images damage the self-esteem of viewers by causing them physical and emotional distress.  The problem has always been getting concrete data as to the extent of the damage these sorts of images can cause to a person.  This software could serve as an important step for other researchers to draw further correlations between the level of digital alterations in photos and the amount of distress they’ve caused to people.  This data in turn can then be used as possible evidence in lawsuits against publishers.  As crazy as all this might sound, many countries, such as Norway and France, currently have legislation pending in their respective governments that would require publishers to include warning labels telling viewers that a photo has been digitally altered.  So don’t be surprised if you see similar bills popping up on our side of the pond.

Furthermore, the software tool could also be used as a scientifically-based method to assist plaintiffs in calculating the amount of compensatory damages they should receive in any potential lawsuits based on Photoshopped images.  Calculating damages is always a difficult and long process.  Our country’s legal system is one that requires plaintiffs to not only show the harm they’ve suffered, but also the amount of monetary damages that stems from it.  It’s through this way that court awards can be justified as fair, because not having such a system in place could potentially lead to awards that are wildly out of sync with a plaintiff’s initial harm.  A rating system for digitally altered photos would do wonders in helping to provide some firm numbers on a plaintiff’s pain and suffering.

So what do you guys out there think about Dartmouth College’s latest computer experiment?  Do you think digitally altered images are really all that bad for society or is this another case of people with too much time on their hands?

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