Legally Speaking: Whatever happened to �

John G. Browning Apr. 23, 2008, 9:18am

I frequently hear from readers curious about what happened after a column – how did a particular case turn out, what happened to a particular litigant, and so forth.

While I can't always devote an entire column to following up on any one subject, I do try to provide some closure in terms of what happened after an article ran.

For example, last year I wrote about restaurant critics who have actually been sued over their dining reviews. One of the cases I discussed was a verdict against The Irish News following a negative review by food critic Caroline Workman. The Belfast critic and her paper were sued by the owners of Goodfellas restaurant, who recovered libel damages of 25,000 pounds.

In March 2008, Northern Ireland's Court of Appeal overturned the verdict, saying that the jury lacked a clear understanding of what was fact and what was commentary in the article. Following the appellate decision, Irish News editor Noel Doran said that the ruling "sent out a strong message that newspapers had to be entitled to publish fair, reasonable and informed reviews."

Critic Caroline Workman felt similarly vindicated, saying "Nobody likes a bad review, but if I can't write honestly, good reviews are pointless." Not surprisingly, the owner of Goodfellas had a decidedly different reaction, saying that overturning the jury's verdict "makes a farce of the judicial system."

Another story that had its concluding chapter after the column was published dealt with the lawsuit against Caterpillar Inc. by the family of American peace activist Rachel Corrie. Ms. Corrie died in 2003 in the Gaza Strip, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer while purportedly protecting the homes of Palestinian Arabs that were being destroyed. The Corrie family sued Caterpillar, arguing that the bulldozer manufacturer had knowingly sold equipment to Israel that was allegedly used to violate international law.

In September 2007, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals did as I had predicted, holding that Caterpillar could not be held legally liable. The court reasoned that because the bulldozer equipment was paid for with American government funds, holding in favor of the plaintiffs would question if not actually condemn American foreign policy toward Israel.

An attorney representing the Corrie family, Marja LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights, described the decision as "a huge disappointment for us and for our clients," while the attorneys for Caterpillar were hopeful that the ruling "will bring to an end what has been a lengthy but fair judicial process."

Another column, "Dancing With The Lawyers," looked at the phenomenon of "negligent dancing" lawsuits. I suppose as long as there are bars and drunken girls, there will be lawsuits over such dancing.

After that column was published, yet another lawsuit was filed, this time by 20-something Amy Mueller of Joliet, Ill. After falling and breaking her ankle while trying to climb onto the bar in order to dance on it, Ms. Mueller decided to sue Sammy's Bar and Grill for more than $50,000. The bar contends that Mueller's injuries – which have led to three surgeries – are her own fault. It's all fun and games until someone puts an eye, er, ankle out.

I also wrote about outrageous lawsuits filed by prison inmates, many of which revolved around food. Well, they're at it again.

On March 24, 2008, the Vermont Supreme Court heard arguments in a class action lawsuit brought by inmates who contend that their food actually constitutes a form of punishment. The food in question is nutraloaf – a mixture of cubed whole wheat bread, nondairy cheese, raw carrots, spinach, seedless raisins, beans, vegetable oil, tomato paste, powdered milk, and dehydrated potato flakes.

Inmates maintain that the concoction tastes awful and is used as a disciplinary tool, while prison officials say that it is a "complete meal" that is used to keep prisoners from using or abusing food and food containers against the correctional staff. Food as cruel and unusual punishment? Clearly these inmates never ate at my high school cafeteria.

Some time ago, I also wrote about data breaches by various companies, in which the personal identifying information of hundreds of thousands of consumers have been lost or stolen due to the negligence of these companies.

One of them, ChoicePoint, lost the personal information of 163,000 people when thieves managed to gain access to the company's massive database (home to about 19 billion records, including Social Security numbers, addresses, and real estate holdings).

After paying a then record $10 million fine in 2006 to the Federal Trade Commission and an additional $5 million to compensate affected consumers, ChoicePoint entered into an agreement last year with 43 states including Texas.

The agreement calls for payment of a $500,000 settlement, as well as periodic audits and the implementation of greater security measures to ensure that only legitimate companies can get access to such personally identifying information.

I also wrote recently about some people whom you would be surprised to find are lawyers, including a couple of NFL cheerleaders.

It turns out that there's another beauty with a J.D. seen regularly on television. Stacey Gardner, a model who graduated from Southwestern Law School and passed the California bar exam in 2005, probably expected to be carrying a briefcase around in her chosen profession. But while eating lunch at a little cafe, she was approached by a casting director. Now she's lugging around Suitcase No. 2 as one of the 26 beautiful women on the hit game show "Deal or No Deal."

Don't look for her to carry luggage around forever, though; she's engaged to professional tennis player Mardy Fish, and hopes to go into sports and entertainment law someday.

Another story with a happy ending concerned one of the more ridiculous legal proceedings I wrote about last year. The owner of Geno's Steaks, a popular Philadelphia eatery, had placed a sign in the window of his shop that read "This is America, when ordering, please speak English."

Critics alleged that the sign was discriminatory, and that the sign discouraged customers of certain backgrounds from eating there. Philadelphia's overly politically correct, over-reaching Commission on Human Relations held a formal hearing, even though it acknowledged that no patrons had actually been denied service on the basis of their inability to speak English.

It even brought University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Camilla Charles, who climbed out of her ivory tower long enough to testify that the Geno's sign was reminiscent of "whites only" signs from the Jim Crow South.

Mr. Vento, who argues that the sign expresses opinions protected by the First Amendment, testified that he had concerns over the issue of immigration reform. He also had a simple, legitimate business purpose for the sign: to keep the line moving at his busy eatery. Vento was represented by attorneys from the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm in Atlanta.

In a gesture whose irony was apparently lost on the Commission on Human Relations, the hearing took place at the historic Arch Street Meeting House; given to the Philadelphia Quakers by William Penn in 1693, the building has been called a symbol of "tolerance, equality and peace."

In March 2008 the three-member panel of the Commission announced that in a 2-1 vote, it found that the English-only signs were not discriminatory, thus ending the silly prosecution. Common sense won out after all.

If only all the cases I write about had such happy endings.

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