December 2010 Court Decisions: Decided
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December 2010 Archives

Tobacco Firm to Pay $152M for Giving Cigarettes to Black Children

A jury returned a landmark tobacco verdict in a big tobacco case against Lorillard Inc. The world's third largest tobacco company was sued by Marie Evans and her estate after she allegedly became hooked on cigarettes as a child. Evans claimed that a person known as the "Cigarette Man" would come to her housing project and give free cigarettes to kids. According to her attorneys, it was part of a diabolical plan to get customers hooked at an early age and then keep them for the rest of their lives. Evan's died at the age of 54 from lung cancer after smoking a pack and a half a day for decades, Boston.com reports.

Legal pundits had questioned whether such a case had a chance of being successful. The events giving rise to the incident happened around 1957, and Congress did not even require a warning label on cigarettes until 1969.

However, it was illegal in 1957 to give free cigarettes to children in Massachusetts. Still, it seemed to be an insurmountable task to establish sufficient evidence in the case with over 50 years passing. The "Cigarette Man" was obviously nowhere to be found, so the evidence was murky at best.

Toyota Paid $10M to Settle Sudden Acceleration Case

Toyota's confidential settlement in a fatal sudden acceleration case is confidential no more.

We now know the case settled for $10 million.

The settlement involved a Toyota sudden acceleration case filed by the relatives of California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor and three other victims. Saylor was killed in a brutal crash that was captured on a 911 phone call. Legal experts had anticipated in the wake of Saylor's death and the subsequent recall that settlement figures would be far higher than $10 million.

Nazi Salute at City Meeting Protected by First Amendment

Santa Cruz, California, is a laid-back, granola-friendly, surfer-centric kind of town. So the legal battle over a "disruption" of a city council meeting due to an act of free expression is all the more surprising.

Equally striking is the unanimous Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that the Nazi salute is protected speech. Homeless advocate Robert Norse's salute was an expression of protected speech, not a disruption of the meeting and his suit against the council, mayor, police and city may proceed, the Court held.

Robert Norse has been an advocate for the poorest in Santa Cruz for decades and has constantly battled with city officials over the treatment of the homeless, reports The Los Angeles Times. During a city council meeting, in opposition to the mayor's treatment of another speaker at the meeting, Norse raised his hand in a silent Nazi salute. This action got Norse removed from the meeting for disruptive behavior and held by police with no charges for over five hours before he was released. Norse sued.

Madoff Victims Get $7.2 Billion from Jeffery Picower's Widow

It may not have been Christmas magic, but the sudden addition of $7.2 billion to the fund to reimburse the victims of Bernard Madoff is almost a miracle.

Certainly, it is the biggest forfeiture in U.S. history and will help to ease some of the pain that Madoff created with his historic Ponzi scheme. Bernie Madoff is now serving out his 150-year sentence in a medium security federal prison.

Where did the money come from? The widow of one of Madoff's major investors, Jeffery Picower, has agreed to turn over the proceeds of his investments over 35 years with Madoff, reports CNNMoney. Barbara Picower said in a prepared statement that "this settlement honors what Jeffery would have wanted, which is to return this money so that it can go directly to the victims of Madoff."

Makers of Skoal Smokeless Chewing Tobacco Pay $5M in Wrongful Death

In what is believed to be the first wrongful death victory over smokeless chewing tobacco, the makers of Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless chewing tobacco have been ordered to pay $5 million to the family of a long-time user. Bobby Hill began chewing tobacco at the age of 13 and continued until his death from mouth cancer at 42.

The case featured some interesting and ultimately convincing evidence including: thank you notes written to minors for their use of Skoal, complimentary can openers to help open the can and free samples.

Although none of those tactics are employed today, they nevertheless provided examples of the company encouraging an unhealthy and ultimately deadly past time. The fact that Hill did not smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol was also helpful in drawing a strong connection between his use of tobacco and his death.

Enzyte Male Enhancement Pill Founder May Get Less Time in Jail

Why is this man smiling? Perhaps because that man, responsible for those catchy male enhancement commercials staring Smilin' Bob, and also for fraud, money-laundering and conspiracy, might spend a bit less time in jail.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the trial court overseeing the prosecution of Enzyte mogul Steve Warshak to reconsider his sentence. The appellate court has requested the trial court review the dollar amounts Warshak was convicted of illegally gaining.

Warshak is the founder of Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals. The company's most popular product, Enzyte, was pushed by Smilin' Bob, reports the Cincinnati Enquirer. Warshak was convicted at trial of defrauding his banks and customers of more than $400 million dollars. The convictions against Warshak were upheld by the court, but the exact amounts lost to victims must be re-examined. Under federal sentencing guidelines, this can affect the amount of time Warshak will be sentenced to spend behind bars.

'Obamacare' Unconstitutional? Judge Slaps Down Healthcare Law

Congress has unconstitutionally required Americans to get health insurance. That was the conclusion reached by Virginia federal judge Henry Hudson after he examined the constitutionality of one of the bigger provisions of Obamacare.

The insurance mandate, which required most Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty by 2014, was challenged in hopes that the court would stop implementation of the law until it could be reviewed by a higher court.

So what gives the federal government the right to require Americans to buy health insurance? The Commerce Clause. The basic premise behind the Commerce Clause gives Congress the right to regulate economic activity. Heath insurance, proponents argue, is a form of economic activity.

Elizabeth Smart's Abductor Guilty of Kidnapping, Rape

Guilty as charged. In the drawn-out, highly-publicized trial of Elizabeth Smart's abductor, a federal jury in Salt Lake City found Brian David Mitchell guilty of kidnapping and multiple instances of rape of the then 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart.

Mitchell, 57, may now face life in prison. The trial saw the prosecution's case rest on two key witnesses: three days of testimony by Elizabeth Smart, and testimony by Mitchell's estranged wife Wanda Barzee who is currently serving a 15-year sentence stemming from the abduction.

E-Cigarettes Can't be Banned, Regulated by FDA

Variety is the spice of life. The importance of options also applies to tobacco products.

E-cigarettes are the most recent take on tobacco and a recent U.S. Court of Appeals opinion affirms that the tobacco vapor cigarette is, in fact, a tobacco product, rather than a drug as the Food and Drug Administration argued.

The issue before the court hinged on an important classification: whether electronic cigarettes are a tobacco product or a drug or device. If they were classified as the latter, they would fall under regulation by the FDA. In ruling that e-cigarettes are a tobacco product, the FDA's role is limited to overseeing the marketing of the product, but it cannot restrict the sale.

Wal-Mart Sex Discrimination Class Action Goes to Supreme Court

The massive Wal-Mart sex discrimination suit could have a hand in the future of all class action lawsuits when the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case this term.

The Court will consider whether some 1.5 million female Wal-Mart workers can go forward with the largest discrimination class-action suit in U.S. history. Wal-Mart was first sued nine years ago for allegedly paying women less than men and promotion women less frequently.

The Justices agreed to reconsider the decision of a federal appeals court which allowed women who worked at over 4,400 different stores to band together in their lawsuit. Wal-Mart argued that their working experiences were too varied for a class action case to make sense. Wal-Mart, along with a number of other companies, contends that it is time for the Supreme Court to step in and restrict class action cases. Many companies believe that the class action system is unfair, and that corporations should be able to defend lawsuits on a case-by-case basis.

Contintental, Mechanic Found Guilty in Concorde Crash Deaths

A French court has found Continental Airlines and one of its mechanics, John Taylor, guilty in the 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde. John Taylor was found guilty of involuntary homicide in the Concorde crash that killed 113 people and led to the end of commercial supersonic travel. Three other criminal defendants involved in the design and certification of the plane were found not guilty.

The decision to prosecute the aviation accident in criminal courts drew heavy criticism from the aviation industry who is concerned such prosecutions will dissuade witnesses from cooperating in investigations.

Mich Sup. Court: Woman Can Sue Over Toilet Paper Dispenser Injury

On the face of it, it sounds like one of those decisions that leads to ridiculous warnings like: "Caution, Contents Hot" on a cup of coffee. However, the Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that a woman who was injured by the toilet paper dispenser in a restaurant bathroom will proceed to a jury trial.

On New Year's Eve, 2007, Sheri Schooley and her husband were at the Texas Roadhouse in the suburbs of Detroit. When she went to the restroom, the toilet paper dispenser fell onto Schooley's hand, reports the Associated Press.

Schooley says her hand was broken and years later, she still has lost most of the use of her hand. She has had to give up her job as an administrative assistant because she can no longer type and the injury has also impacted some of her ability to crochet and bowl.

Wis. Juveniles Better Off Getting DUIs at Home Than Out of State

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently handed down a confusing decision in a confusing case. However, the lesson from the case is crystal clear: young drivers need to be aware of zero tolerance laws regarding alcohol in their own states, and in any other state they drive in.

The Wisconsin court addressed the case of Gerard Carter, an Illinois man who was 26-years-old when arrested for DUI in East Troy, Wis., reports the Associated Press. Carter already had one prior drunken driving conviction in Wisconsin, so he was charged with it being a second offense. Then prosecutors found out he had been charged with two more violations of the Illinois zero tolerance laws. This law applies to drivers under 21 who either have a trace of alcohol in their system, or who refuse a blood alcohol test.

Ground Zero Workers to Get up to $815M in 9/11 Settlement

The City of New York was sued for its failure to provide the proper equipment to rescue and cleanup workers following 9/11. After years of sickness (including asthma and blood cancers from continued exposure to toxic dusts) and legal complaints, the much publicized 9/11 settlement has been reached.

Those individuals that opted into the Ground Zero class action, 10,043 in total, settled for up to $815 million -- a group that represents cops, firefighters, and to emergency workers. 95.1% of the plaintiffs approved of the settlement figure that took over two years to negotiate.

Judge Dismisses Challenge to Obama Healthcare Law

The requirement that most Americans purchase health insurance by 2014 was one of many controversial parts of the Obama healthcare law.

It has now been challenged and dismissed a couple times over, with close to two dozen challenges still awaiting review in federal court. The latest dismissal was a 54-page opinion by federal judge Norman Moon that examined the constitutionality of a healthcare requirement.

Specifically, the issue before the Virginia court was whether the federal government could, in fact, govern how and when Americans get healthcare insurance. The answer? The all-encompassing interstate commerce clause.