Legally Speaking: The World Turned Upside Down-Part II

John G. Browning May 6, 2008, 10:28am

If the wackiness afoot in the legal system makes you wonder sometimes if the end of the world is approaching, then you're not alone. Some of the hard to believe developments that have occurred recently make me wonder if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are going to show up carrying briefcases.

Case in point – Northwestern University Law School's choice of a commencement speaker. When most law schools will have Supreme Court justices, prominent attorneys, or high-ranking government officials addressing the proud members of the Class of 2008, Northwestern's graduates will get to hear from – wait for it – Jerry Springer.

Northwestern's law school dean, David Van Zandt, defends the choice of the raunchy talk-show host, stating that "Mr. Springer is an alumnus who has held public office as a city council member and mayor of Cincinnati. We look forward to his participation."

Dean Van Zandt is being modest about Mr. Springer (Class of '68); after all, he left out Springer's 1974 resignation from the Cincinnati City Council after paying for sex (with a personal check, no less), his fling with a porn star, and of course the seemingly endless parade of transvestites, strippers and women seeking to find out who their babies' daddies are that regularly make up his show. There's no word yet on whether the graduation ceremony will also feature mudwrestling lesbian strippers.

If that isn't bad enough, then how about the unmitigated gall demonstrated by two Baltimore teenagers and their lawyers recently. The two teenagers were part of a gang of middle-schoolers who viciously attacked a woman in 2007 while riding on a Baltimore city bus.

After beating the woman nearly to death because she allegedly failed to show them "respect," the teenagers received sentences ranging from time in a juvenile treatment facility to home detention and community service. The two plaintiffs were ordered to perform community service, were suspended from school and were banned from riding on Maryland Transit Administration buses.

Now the two are suing the MTA for $10 million each ($5 million for the school suspension, $5 million for the loss of bus privileges), claiming that being suspended from school and not being allowed to ride the bus is somehow unfair. If you ask me, after taking part in such a brutal crime these kids are lucky they're not under a bus.

The questionable judgment displayed by the lawyers suing the Maryland Transit Administration on behalf of a couple of little thugs reminds me of the lack of judgment used by Florida criminal defense attorney David Lamos in 1999 while representing J.G. Parker. Parker was facing capital murder charges for allegedly taking part in the 1982 murder of Frances Slater, a store clerk.

In what he recently characterized as a "joke," during the course of his defense Lamos faxed a two-page motion to prosecutor Lawrence Mirman with the defendant's name on it, and written in what was later referred to as "ebonics."

The broken English motion uses vernacular like "dig dis" and cites case law by stating things like "His posishun wuz rejected by de Flo'ida Supreme Court. Man! He awaits 'esecushun."

In addition to sending a "joke" motion in incredibly poor taste, Lamos also allegedly asked the prosecutor to check if they had any job openings. With representation like this, it probably comes as no surprise that Parker was convicted, sentenced to death, and that a public defender now representing Parker at the post-conviction stage maintains that the defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Lamos insists that the "joke" motion had no relevance to the case, was never introduced into evidence, and that "if you look at the content of it, it is ridiculously funny." Let's hope the joke isn't on Lamos' former client.

Personal injury lawyers are often called upon to be creative in coming up with new theories of liability and potential defendants. Even so, I was a little surprised to see a recent death blamed on, of all things, a hamster.

According to a federal lawsuit filed by Nancy Magee and her lawyer Richard Bickelman, Magee's late husband Thomas (a 54-year-old businessman) underwent what was thought to be a successful liver transplant on April 10, 2005. But when a virus spread throughout his body shortly thereafter, Magee went into organ failure and died on May 7, 2005.

An investigation revealed that the liver Magee received, as well as organs transplanted into three other recipients, had been harvested from a woman who had contracted lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV); in fact, two of the other organ recipients died shortly thereafter as well.

Probing further, it was learned that the alleged source of the LCMV was a sickly hamster that the organ donor had purchased on March 19, 2005, from a PetSmart store in Warwick, R.I., before she died in early April. As a result, the Phoenix-based pet industry giant is now being sued by Magee's widow for negligence. Neither PetSmart's corporate spokesman nor their attorney had any comment on the suit or its theory of causation.

While no hamsters can be blamed for the next lawsuit, the NBA might want to re-think their training for team mascots. The Chicago Bulls and their mascot "Benny the Bull" (portrayed by Barry Anderson) are being sued by a fan over a high five gone bad.

According to the lawsuit filed by dentist Dr. Don Kalant Sr., he was sitting near courtside and raised his arm for a high five from the exuberant costumed mascot. Instead of slapping Kalant's hand, however, "Benny the Bull" grabbed the oral surgeon's arm, allegedly hyperextending it and rupturing the biceps muscle.

Kalant later had surgery, and is now suing the Chicago Bulls and their mascot for his medical bills, pain and suffering, and lost wages as a result of the red fuzzy bull "running out of control" through the crowd.

So far, no judge or jury has called "foul" on this lawsuit. What's next - replacing "Towel Night" or "Bobblehead Night" with "Lawsuit Night?"

Finally, just when you think that you can depend on a reliable premise – that judges excel at decision-making – along comes something that makes you think twice. An article in the Cornell Law Review entitled "Blinking on the Bench: How Judges Decide Cases" theorizes that judges rely primarily on their intuition when making decisions – and that such intuition is usually wrong.

In the study, researchers asked 295 Florida trial judges to solve three short "story problems" (part of a so-called "Cognitive Reflection Test") that are intended to distinguish intuition and deliberative reasoning.

Nearly one-third of the judges answered all three questions wrong, while about the same percentage only got one question right. According to the authors of the article, judges are inclined to use intuition "when awarding damages, assessing liability based on statistical evidence, and predicting outcomes on appeal," and such intuitive judgments are often flawed.

The questions, just in case you're curious, are as follows:

1) A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? (Answer: 5 cents)

2) If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? (Answer: 5 minutes).

3) In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? (Answer: 47 days)

I'm not sure I buy into the conclusions drawn by this article. After all, a judge's fairness, integrity and common sense – qualities not measured by this study – have always seemed to be the most important factors to me.

And besides, if the study's main premise is to be believed, we have to question the article itself – one of the authors happens to be a judge.

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