Tag Archive for 'sue'

Amtrak Crash Leads to Multiple Lawsuits

Amtrak Crash Leads to Multiple Lawsuits

The Amtrak crash just outside of Philadelphia on May 12 killed eight passengers and injured 200 others. The incident is considered one of the worst train crashes in American history. Traveling more than twice the speed limit at 106 mph, the train derailed at 9:21 p.m.

So far, two crew members and four passengers have filed lawsuits against Amtrak. The four passengers filed a federal lawsuit, requesting Amtrak pay for medical bills and lost wages. One of the passengers has undergone several surgeries to halt her arm from being amputated. Another crew member described a brain injury that occurred due to the crash.

One of the crew members, Emilio Fonseca, was operating the train at the time of the crash. He filed a civil complaint against the company, arguing he suffered “serious and permanent personal injuries” and should receive compensation under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act.          Amtrak Accident

In order to avoid bankruptcy, in 1997 Congress set a $200 million limit to compensation Amtrak can be held liable for. The mental and physical injuries of passengers and crew members were significant, but the limit will lessen compensation that can be rewarded to each victim of the accident.

The Federal Employers Liability Act

The FELA is a federal law that is specific to railroad workers. The act was created in 1908 to protect railroad workers by compensating them for injuries sustained while on the job. Workers are rewarded compensation only if they can prove the railroad company was at least partly responsible for injuries suffered.

FELA is similar to workers compensation, but FELA is a fault based system. Workers must prove the injury was caused by negligence of a railroad employee, its agent or contractor, or from a faulty piece of equipment. Also in contrast to worker compensation plaintiffs, railroad workers may sue in a state or federal court for damages if proof of liability of the railroad company exists.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the Amtrack accident. Time will tell whether the train’s engineer, Brandon Bostian, a mechanical issue, or an outside source will be held responsible for the crash.

Why FunnyJunk’s Lawsuit Against Matthew Inman Was Doomed

What do you get when you combine an online comic strip and an allegedly thieving website?  What else? A lawsuit.  But not just any lawsuit, the ending to this one has a twist that could only be possible with the power of the internet.

Those familiar with “The Oatmeal” no doubt have already heard about the legal saga surrounding Matthew Inman’s popular internet comic.  If you haven’t read the strip before, check out some of its greatest hits here.

So how did “The Oatmeal” go from the funny pages to the front pages?  Well, it all started when FunnyJunk reposted some of Inman’s comics on its site.  While many authors might not mind the free advertising, most would oppose other companies profiting off of their work, especially when said authors aren’t getting a cut of the money.

In the case of FunnyJunk, the website takes much of its content from other sites, which it then reposts to earn more advertising revenue.  As you can imagine, Inman wasn’t too happy when “The Oatmeal” became a target.  So in true new media fashion, rather than request FunnyJunk take down his work, he posted a tirade against FunnyJunk’s practices.

Funny Junk wasn’t happy with the negative portrayal.  But rather than ignore Inman’s blog and take down the offending material, FunnyJunk’s attorney filed suit against Inman.

Now you might be wondering what FunnyJunk could possible sue Inman for.  After all, they were the ones who allegedly took his material and posted it without his permission.  Well apparently, that little bit of information didn’t stop them from claiming Inman’s tirade defamed the company.

Before we get to Inman’s unique response to the lawsuit, let’s take a moment to exam FunnyJunk’s defamation claim.

Defamation comes in two forms: libel and slander.  Libel is when the offending comment is printed and slander is when it’s spoken.  While both companies and people have standing to sue for defamation, plaintiffs generally must show three elements in order to win.  Specifically, the statement must have been communicated to a third party, caused reputational harm, and be malicious.

Now even if Inman’s blog met all of these requirements, the problem is that truth is always a defense to any defamation claim.  Meaning that a libel lawsuit would immediately fail if the alleged harmful statements are true.  Inman’s comments merely stated what FunnyJunk did.  No more, no less.

So why would a company file a defamation lawsuit that’s near impossible to win?  It could be a scare tactic to get Inman off FunnyJunk’s back.  The company requested $20,000 in damages from Inman, however, instead of paying up.  Inman posted FunnyJunk’s demand letter along with a new blog saying that he would instead raise $20,000 in donations.  He’d then mail a picture of the money along with another picture of the mom of FunnyJunk’s lawyer seducing a bear to the company.  Inman capped it off by saying he’d donate anything he raised to charity.

Surprisingly, Inman’s fundraising effort paid off in spades.  He earned over $100,000.  Though despite the large amount of money, Inman still plans to give it all to charity.  A great move on his part as it will raise his already positive public image.  And conversely, lower FunnyJunk’s.

Man Held in Jail for 5 Days Without Food or Water Sues Feds

Well, this is embarrassing. A few weeks ago, a young man was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and held in a jail cell for five days, with no human contact, food, water, or even a toilet. And this was after he was told that he would be released without being charged, just as soon as the authorities finished up some paperwork on his case.

But when 23-year-old UC San Diego engineering student Daniel Chong sat alone for several hours, he started to get annoyed. As the hours turned into days, he began to fear for his life. After all, going just a few days without water can cause severe health problems, which could quickly become life-threatening.

When he was finally found in his cell, Chong was delirious and weak. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors said he was close to suffering kidney failure, and was so dehydrated that he was having trouble breathing. He had to spend 3 days in intensive care, and was hospitalized for a total of 5 days. I’m no doctor (obviously), but it sounds like he wouldn’t have survived another day or two in that cell.

Indeed, the article linked above indicates that, after a few days, the solitude, hunger, thirst, and fear truly got to him, and he began to lose his mind. He even tried to take his own life by breaking his glasses and cutting his wrist with the broken glass. Thankfully, he did not succeed in this attempt.

Well, he is now suing the federal government for $20 million, to compensate him for this ordeal.

While some people may argue that this is excessive (and if the federal government is smart, it will end up settling with him), and goes well beyond simply compensating the victim for his injuries. However, it’s impossible to put an exact dollar amount on the amount of mental and physical anguish that Mr. Chong must have suffered in his ordeal. What he went through is something I would never wish on my worst enemy.

And if this lawsuit ensures that such blunders never happen again, I’d say it would be worth every penny that the government has to pay out. Because, frankly, the fact that this happened is an absolute disgrace to the federal government, and an embarrassment to all of us.

Think about it: a person (who was ultimately never charged with a crime) almost died of thirst in federal custody, because everyone involved in his arrest and detention apparently just forgot about his existence. Some might say that he was a criminal, and we shouldn’t be shedding any tears for him.

To that I have two responses: first, he was never actually charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. Second, even if he had been convicted of a major drug-related crime, it would in no way excuse what was done to this man. After all, in this country we generally pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t engage in cruel and unusual punishment. And if starving/dehydrating somebody half to death doesn’t constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment, I’d love to know what does.

Incidents like this harm the legitimacy of law enforcement in the public’s eyes, as well as the legitimacy of government in general. And we seem to be going through a phase where the public’s faith in the government’s ability to (or interest in) doing its job is at a historic low. And these types of incidents certainly don’t help matters.

Now, I don’t think the individual DEA agents involved in this incident left the victim in the jail cell on purpose. It probably was an honest (albeit very serious) mistake. Chances are, they were overworked, and lacked some of the administrative and logistical support they needed in order to keep track of the people in their custody. Such a scenario, in this era of government austerity and across-the-board budget cuts, is easy to imagine.

I think this incident, and similar ones, are partially a symptom of our broken drug laws. The United States imprisons more people than any other country on Earth. A large plurality of the people in federal and state custody in the U.S. were convicted of drug charges – casualties of the “war on drugs” that the government initiated in the 1980s. The fact is, American drug policy has resulted in the incarceration of more people than the system was designed to handle, leading to overcrowding of prisons, skyrocketing costs, and, occasionally, tragic incidents like the one discussed in this article.

While I don’t pretend to have a perfect solution to the overlapping problems of drug abuse and over-incarceration, I think a few simple reforms could reduce these problems significantly. For example, it’s glaringly obvious that our mass-incarceration approach to the drug problem has failed. It has overcrowded the prisons, led to skyrocketing law enforcement costs, and it does not appear to have done much to curb illegal drug use.

A good first step would be to stop relying on prisons as the primary method for dealing with the illegal drug problem, and focusing instead on treatment and rehabilitation programs, which can cost far less than prison, and be far more effective in reducing drug use. Furthermore, I’d like to see possession of small amounts of recreational drugs such as marijuana decriminalized.

Of course, I’m not saying that reforming our drug laws would solve the very separate problem of government incompetence, but by arresting fewer people, the burden on a large number of government employees (such as DEA agents, for example) would be reduced, which would almost certainly reduce the occurrence of incidents like this one.

Facebook Involved in an Unusual Lawsuit between Uncle and Nephew

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!

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

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?