Friday Links

hoscreatures

Above you’ll find the cover of the House of Secrets #43, published way, way back in 1961. As you can see, the two defendants find themselves in the “Court of Creatures” facing the death penalty. Yikes. We do not believe the Defendants will fare well in this forum.

Writing at The Mac Lawyer, Ben Stevens asks “What if You Could Charge an iPhone in 30 Seconds?” That would be something, wouldn’t it?

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Tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of Professor Mark Osler’s Last Lecture at Baylor Law School (more about which in the image above). For even more on that occasion, see Professor Osler’s 2010 blog post  here. Now, of course, Professor Osler teaches at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota. Back in 2000, he joined the faculty of Baylor Law, where he stayed until 2010. By the way, you can read Professor Osler’s blog, Osler’s Razor, here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.

Don’t forget! You can follow Abnormal Use on Twitter here and on Facebook here! Drop us a line!

Casino Loses Millions, Sues Card Manufacturer

Recently, we wrote about a man suing a Las Vegas casino after he lost $500,000 gambling while intoxicated.  As ridiculous as that suit may be, the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City is now vying for silliest casino lawsuit of the year.  In a new suit filed in federal court, the Borgatta is suing Phillip Ivey, Jr., a big time professional gambler, and Gemaco, Inc., a card manufacturer, claiming Ivey won $9.6 million in a baccarat card-cheating scheme.

We imagine the nearly $10 million in winnings was  against the house edge.

The real kicker is not that Ivey won such a large amount of money but, rather, how he was able to do so.  According to the complaint, Ivey exploited a defect in the cards that allowed him to improperly sort and arrange them using a technique called “edge sorting” – illegal under the New Jersey casino gambling regulations.  The cards, manufactured by Gemaco, were allegedly defective in that the pattern on their backs was not uniform.  Where the cards were supposed to have a row of small white circles designed to look like the tops of diamonds, some of the cards apparently only had half or quarter diamonds.  Allegedly, Ivey was able to sort desirable cards from undesirable ones after observing the defect.

We have to wonder when the Borgatta discovered this alleged defect. In an industry so heavily controlled and regulated, we find it hard to believe that any deck of cards would ever see the light of a casino floor without first being inspected and approved by the casino.  With so much money on the line, casinos have never been shy about self-policing.  If this “defect” was an obvious one, we imagine these cards would have been sent right back to Gemaco.  If there actually was a defect, then it was most likely so slight that it was undetected by even the most careful inspectors.  The fact that Ivey was able to notice the flaw is impressive. Sure, it is easy for the Borgatta to point the finger at Gemaco.  After all, its alleged flaw may have cost the casino nearly $10 million.  But, why did Borgatta use a card with a decorative card backing in the first place?  It seems like such cards would be more susceptible to non-uniformity and enable these types of situations.

We suppose a simple solid design would have been too tacky for the Borgatta.  A casino’s extravagance is what draws the gamblers in to throw away their money.  Unfortunately, this time it backfired.

The Curious Case of the Faulty Belt

Belts are an integral part of many outfits, and most of us take it for granted that our belts always keep our pants at waist level or above.  Vincent J. Vogelsang, an Iowa man, alleges that he discovered the hard way that belts don’t always do their job.

Mr. Vogelsang was apparently minding his own business, staggering around Iowa City with a healthy buzz (.264 blood alcohol content), when suddenly his belt malfunctioned, causing his pants to plummet from waist-level to ankle-level.  Two women, who happened to be in close proximity to Mr. Vogelsang at the time, allege that Mr. Vogelsang then made “lewd and sexual gestures” toward them subsequent to the removal of his pants.  According to Mr. Vogelsang, they had it all wrong and he was simply the innocent victim of a defective belt. Police apparently found the two women more credible and charged Mr. Vogelsang with indecent exposure and habitual intoxication.

Could it be that the women misinterpreted the drunk man’s awkward, uncoordinated attempts to re-clothe himself as obscene gestures? Without knowing more about the facts (and not really wanting to), we can say it is possible.

But it appears that Mr. Vogelsang may be laying the groundwork for a product liability suit! His belt was unreasonably dangerous and defective! It malfunctioned! Will he soon soon?

Hot Dogs: New Standard for Food Purity

When we here at Abnormal Use think of “pure” food products, we think of mountain spring water or fresh fruits and vegetables.  Never do we think of hot dogs. Never (despite our love of hot dogs). However, the Hebrew National brand of hot dogs claims to be just that. Kosher beef. No fillers. No byproducts. No artificial flavors. In other words, Hebrew National claims to be as “pure” as a hot dog can get. We have nothing against the brand, but we still are skeptical about placing “pure” and “hot dog” in the same sentence. A class of consumers has taken such skepticism a step further and filed suit against ConAgra Foods, Inc., the manufacturer of the Hebrew National brand, claiming that these hot dogs were not, in fact, “kosher.” Last year, a federal district court in Minnesota dismissed the suit on the grounds that the First Amendment barred him from addressing the underlying religious questions. Recently, the Eighth Circuit nixed the dismissal and remanded the case back to the Minnesota court. The case is captioned Wallace v. ConAgra Foods Inc., No. 13-1485 (8th April 4, 2014).

It will be interesting to see what becomes of this suit now that it has gained new life. As we discussed above, we understand the skepticism surrounding claims of hot dog purity. But, these plaintiffs have taken things beyond mere skepticism and actually challenged the religious nature of the process. Here, the plaintiffs take issue with whether ConAgra followed proper religious procedures, despite packaging that claims to “meet a higher standard,” being made by people who “answer to a higher authority.” Interestingly, according to the Chicago Tribune, the plaintiffs do not claim to eat kosher themselves. We guess they are just looking out for those that do. Or, just want a better hot dog.

We are no experts on kosher foods and do not know exactly which part of the hot dog-making process to which these plaintiffs object.  We do know that these issues are to be taken seriously. Had these plaintiffs actually followed kosher practices, then we would find some merit behind the claims and understand the trial judge’s reasons for dismissing the matter on religious grounds. But that is not what we have here. What we have are plaintiffs that must have some other standard for their hot dogs. Even if Hebrew National’s claims are not 100 percent accurate (and we have no reason to believe they are not accurate, despite our general hot dog purity skepticism), where have these non-kosher practicing plaintiffs been damaged? Certainly, a 75 percent kosher hot dog must be better than any other hot dog. When it comes to hot dogs, standards are low, anyway, right?

We imagine the plaintiffs are claiming that they paid a premium for the kosher hot dogs. Even if they did, let the plaintiffs tour any other company’s hot dog making plants and they will see that they still got a bargain.

Book Review and Author Interview: Kevin Underhill and The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance

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As lawyers, and denizens of the Internet, we have all received those crazy emails purporting to list strange and counter-intuitive laws. Usually, these emails forwards – traditionally sent by owners of AOL accounts – offer no effort to verify the existence of the laws cited therein (forcing us, if still interested, to turn to Snopes). Recently, Kevin Underhill, a legal humor blogger and partner at the San Francisco office of Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P., has done what needed to be done: he researched all of these silly laws, sifted through the urban legends, and produced a book of unusual statues from both today and days of yore. As a lawyer himself, Kevin provided the citations to these laws, thereby proving that these laws actually did – or still do – exist. The result: The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance,  a very amusing book published earlier this year by the American Bar Association. The book is named for a 1969 Skamania County, Washington ordinance proscribing “any premeditated, wilful and wanton slaying” of a Sasquatch, Yeti, Bigfoot, or Giant Hairy Ape.

In this mighty new tome, Kevin  alerts us to ancient laws once promulgated by the Greeks, Romans and other historic cultures. However, it’s the modern laws of our American states and localities which are the most amusing (and, of course, upon getting our hands on a copy of the book, we immediately flipped to the pages dealing with the Carolinas). From Kevin, we learn of South Carolina Code § 16-17-740, which makes it a crime to “sell or possess a novelty device commonly known as a ‘cigarette load’ which may cause a cigarette or cigar to blow up or explore after being lit.” Writes Kevin: “Information on the number of South Carolinians injured by cigarette loads over the years is difficult to come by, but I assume that the number is or was at one point substantial.” He also directs us to the South Carolina statutory prohibition on minors playing pinball and billiards (found in South Carolina Code § 63-29-2420 and 63-19-2430). Our favorite part: Pinball is banned outright for minors, but they can play pool with parental supervision or consent.). Again, writes Kevin: “The moral dangers of billiards and pinball themselves are not immediately apparent, although I notice that both involve physics and so maybe this open and scandalous display of ‘science’ is considered unseemly. Assuming that the danger arises from the kind of people who are (apparently) commonly found in these locations in South Carolina, we can conclude that pinball enthusiasts are considered a much greater threat, since youth pinball is illegal even with parental consent.” There must be something to this, as we also learn from Kevin that Alabama apparently bans secret passageways in its billiard halls.  (Paging Professor Harold Hill on this point.). Finally, we learn of 17 North Carolina Administrative Code 04B.0312, which provides that “[a] rattlesnake milking exhibition for which an admission fee is charged is subject to the gross receipts tax imposed under G.S. 105-37.1.” After noting that this provision was enacted “[d]espite the risk that rattlesnake milkers might fleet the state in protest,” Kevin informs us that “rattlesnake milking for charity is not taxed, however.” We wonder what happened in 2000 to require the this 1976 rattlesnake statute to be amended. Perhaps we’ll never know.

You get the idea. The book is full of these sorts of laws and Kevin’s witty commentary on them. As you can see, this is no dry enterprise; Kevin is a funny guy, and the book can be enjoyed by lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Of course, we already knew this fact as long-time readers of his law blog, Lowering the Bar, on which he also produces amusing content on a frequent basis.

As a part of this review, Kevin was also kind enough to agree to a brief email interview with Abnormal Use.

1. What has been the response of lawyers and legislators to the books?

 Those who have read the book appear to like it very much, although that statement will be a little awkward if your review says it sucks. If that is the case, I would encourage all readers (and non-readers who have someone willing to read to them) to ignore that review and buy the book immediately. As far as legislators are concerned, I have heard that law-revision projects are now being carried out in almost every English-speaking country as a direct result of the book. But I would take that with a grain of salt since the only time I have heard that was just now when I said it out loud in my office.

2. Has there been any effort to repeal any of the current laws you identified in the book?

 Other than the effort I just mentioned, not to my knowledge. I’d have expected at least the nuclear-armed-dairy-farmer lobby to have taken some action by now. Papua New Guinea did repeal the Sorcery Act last year, but I can’t take credit for that.

3.  Of all the modern laws you mention in the book, which is your favorite, and why?

It depends to some extent what you mean by “modern.” The Guano Islands Act of 1856 is one of my favorites and is still on the books, but it hasn’t been used in a while. I am a big fan of the Brazilian law that requires cell-phone companies to give a discount to people who stutter, and the surprisingly prevalent 316-word definition of “buttocks.” And just because they have popped into my head right now, I will also mention the state laws saying that a “riot” can include as few as two people (except in Alaska, where it takes six to riot).

Obviously I can’t pick just one favorite.

4. You have written much on taco-canceling. Do you foresee the taco-canceling litigation being the subject of a future book?

Probably not, if only because the efforts to turn this into a class action are likely to fail. Everyone who cancels a taco order has his or her own individual reasons for doing so. It’s not something that can be determined on a class basis. Except possibly in California, which is good news for me.

By the way, the image depicted at the top of this post is not the actual cover of The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance. Rather, it is a carefully constructed recreation of said cover by GWB associate and Abnormal Use blogger Batten Farrar. We were inspired by a previous recreation of the cover which Kevin Underhill posted on his Lowering The Bar blog back in early March. You can see that post here. The actual cover to Kevin’s book is here:

esqo

(Click here to read Keith Lee of the Associate’s Mind law blog’s review of The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance.).

Friday Links

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On the cover of House of Secrets #83, defendant Mark Merlin finds himself in a strange court indeed. His fear: that his defense lawyer is “in league” with the strange beats who serve on the judicial tribunal. We don’t know how things turned out for poor Mr. Merlin, but if his suspicions proved true, we hope that he file a grievance with the bar of which his defense counsel was a member.

You simply must see these photographs of the 1966 demolition of the Fresno County Courthouse. Wow. (Original source: The Fresno Bee).

The talent buyer associate for Transmission Events, a company that handles booking of rock bands in Austin, Texas, is named Marcus Lawyer. How cool is that? (See here more information about Mr. Lawyer and rock music in Austin).

A social media tip from the Columbia, South Carolina Free Times:  ”If you’re doing something illegal, you might want to keep a low profile on social media. A 30-year-old man had some run-ins with the authorities. After the man posted something incriminating on social media, the authorities were able to get a warrant; they arrested the suspect and charged him with intent to distribute. Next time you feel like posting about your illegal activities online, just resist the urge and go to a porn site like everyone else.”

By the way, we enjoyed meeting everyone at the DRI Products Liability Conference in Phoenix this week. We hope that everyone has safe travels on the way home from this event.

Move Over Bottled Water, and Make Way for Canned Air

Canned Air

In what could be the saddest development of the last century, HuffPost reports that a Chinese billionaire has determined that there is now a market for soda cans containing air.  Although I am not the first to point it out, this means that Spaceballs has officially become reality – life imitating art in the most depressing way possible.  Those who scoff at the idea of air-in-a-can and think that no one would ever buy it should keep their laughter to themselves.  This canned atmosphere raked in about $800 in sales during its first day on the market, which is no small feat for a product priced at roughly 80 cents per can.  In other words, it is virtually flying off the shelves in the country that lays claim to some of the world’s most polluted cities.

On the bright side, the idea man behind the venture is donating all proceeds to charity.  He hopes that the buzz surrounding his product will spotlight the issue of pollution in China.

So what does this mean?  Should those who enjoy breathing avoid traveling to China?  Should we combine our Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, and Heart to summon Captain Planet?  What’s the difference between canned air and an empty, sealed can?   We here at Abnormal Use do not have the answers.  However, we do know that we who are fortunate enough to live an area where it does not cost to respire should take a deep breath while it’s free.

Feel free to speculate in the comments section about what we can expect in the way of canned air product litigation.

Baidu Scores Dismissal of Free Speech Lawsuit

According to The New York Times, Baidua, a popular Chinese search engine, recently scored a simultaneous victory for both censorship of speech and freedom of speech.  A federal district court in New York recently dismissed a lawsuit that sought to punish Baidu for censorship that limits certain pro-democracy search results.  In dismissing the lawsuit, the judge ruled that Baidu itself maintains a First Amendment right to censor pro-democracy webpages from from its own search results. Baidu is the biggest search engine in China with more than 50 percent of the  market share.  However, the Chinese company is required to comply with the nation’s strict regulations over Internet content. As you may recall, in 2010,  Google decided to shutdown its search engine operations in China following ongoing disputes with the nation’s censorship rules. This lawsuit was filed in 2011 and claimed that Baidu was violating United States laws on free speech because its search results had been censoring pro-democracy works for those accessing the site from New York.  The lawsuit sought a mere $16 million in damages for the purported free speech violations.  However, the district court ultimately ruled against the plaintiff and held that requiring Baidu to include pro-democracy webpages in its search results would actually be a violation of the First Amendment Funny how that works, eh? The court compared Baidu’s filtering of search results to a newspaper’s right to exercise “editorial control” over the contents that it publishes. Baidu has simply created a search engine producing results that favor certain types of political speech. The court’s order states that “[t]he First Amendment protects Baidu’s right to advocate for systems of government other than democracy . . . just as surely as it protects Plaintiffs’ rights to advocate for democracy.” 

Abnormal Use at DRI’s Products Liability Seminar

dri

Well, the annual DRI Product Liability Conference begins tomorrow in Phoenix, Arizona. Big news: We here at Abnormal Use and Gallivan, White, & Boyd, P.A. will be there in person, and we look forward to seeing you there.

Here’s how DRI describes this year’s event:

DRI’s Product Liability Conference is the premier event for attorneys, corporate counsel, and claims professionals who handle product liability cases. Join colleagues and friends at the luxurious Arizona Biltmore for a conference featuring knowledgeable speakers from inside the White House, the South Carolina Court of Appeals, America’s top law schools and product manufacturers, as well as top-tier trial lawyers as they discuss cutting-edge issues in product liability law. Find out what new cases and trends in the law will shape product liability litigation in the years to come, how to communicate quickly and effectively on behalf of a client involved in a crisis, where to score invaluable points while cross-examining an expert witness, and how to counteract the effects of the “reptile theory.”

What better place for a products liability blog to be? Our editor, Jim Dedman, will be attending, so if you see him, be certain to say hello!

The Legacy of Kurt Cobain (A Law Blog’s Perspective)

This past Saturday, April 5, 2014, marked the twentieth anniversary of the self-inflicted death of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain. You may have seen a number of articles and think pieces about the occasion over the weekend. Tomorrow, though, marks the anniversary of the day in 1994 when the world learned of Cobain’s death. That was April 8, 1994, a Friday, which meant that his fans – mostly members of Generation X – began that weekend with the news. Many learned of Cobain’s death from anchor Kurt Loder in this April 8 MTV News broadcast. As far as we here at Abnormal Use are concerned, all that needed to be said about the legacy of Cobain was addressed in 2004 when Spin magazine writer Chuck Klostermann speculated about an alternate history in which Cobain lived. That said, as members of Generation X ourselves (and as lawyers who can’t resist an opportunity to opine on a subject of interest), we feel compelled to comment on the anniversary (despite the fact that Cobain would likely not have appreciated a law blog weighing in on his place in music history). Oh, well.

Cobain was an interesting contradiction. He brought punk rock music to the masses (making 1991 the year that genre finally “broke” into the mainstream). But he clearly disdained the many suburban fans who flocked to his band’s shows. “This is off our first record, most people don’t own it,” he said to the crowd on November 18, 1993 as he introduced “About A Girl” during the recording of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. With that statement, Cobain passive aggressively suggested that the general public, who had heaped praise upon him and bought his album in droves for more than two years at that point, was somehow neglectful in not owning 1989′s Bleach, his band’s first record. Basically, if a fan was not the type of person he would have befriended in high school, or if a listener did not share his political and social opinions, Cobain didn’t want their support. An interesting marketing strategy, that. We suspect that if Cobain had lived into the Internet days, we’d be hearing a myriad stories about his rudeness to certain segments of fans (which is consistent with some actual anecdotes we’ve heard about him in the early 1990′s, as well).

But you can’t deny his talent. He mixed the elements of light hearted pop with heavy grunge and punk (in a far, far more sophisticated and appealing way than what passes for punk, or the inappropriately named “pop punk” genre, these days).  Even within the same song, he would shift from melodic and almost quiet poppiness to heavily distorted and loud guitar, and in so doing, create an extraordinarily catchy tune. Although he downplayed his lyrical abilities (telling interviewers that the lyrics were the last part of a song he would develop, sometimes as late as the day the song was to be recorded), his words, often contradictory themselves, were more thought provoking than he would claim them to be. In addition to his own merits, he introduced a generation of young music listeners to bands they’d never before encountered such as the Melvins, Shonen Knife, Scratch Acid, Daniel Johnston, the Raincoats, and the Wipers. On the aforementioned Unplugged album, he covered the Meat Puppets, Leadbelly, the Vaselines, and even David Bowie. Back in the early 1990′s, there was no Internet (at least not one that was accessible to the general public), and the task of finding new music – especially that which was not promoted on MTV or discussed in Rolling Stone or Spin – was a challenge indeed. In those days, a decision by a musician as famous as Cobain to don a t-shirt promoting a previously obscure band had an immense effect, and thus, fans of Nirvana, if they elected to do so, could explore Cobain’s own musical influences and save such bands from the ash heap of music history. On this very point, Anthony Carew of About.Com once wrote:

In 1992, in a pre-internet era, the ability to find out about fringe acts was limited to what your local record-store was like. Information was a limited commodity, and wearing someone’s t-shirt made a statement long before last.fm profiles did the work for you. In this day and age, when the internet offers the possibility of everyone being an obscure music expert, there’s no comparable act; if Jack White had worn an Ariel Pink t-shirt to the 2005 MTV VMAs, no one would’ve batted an eyelid.

A historical irony: Sometimes, the types of fans Cobain disdained might discover the records and artists he himself held dear.

Whatever the case, on this somber anniversary, to Cobain, we say requiescat in pace.

A few other thoughts and memories on this occasion:

In the 2000 film High Fidelity, based upon the book of the same name by Nick Hornby, John Cusack plays world weary record store owner Rob Gordon. In film, Gordon remarks, “Some people never got over ‘Nam, or the night their band opened for Nirvana.” That’s more profound than you might realize, especially if you know someone who was a member of band who actually did open for Nirvana.

Like many, I spent much of the night of April 8, 1994 driving around my city (Houston, Texas) listening to Nirvana songs on the radio. Of course, the deejays couldn’t resist repeatedly playing the “No, I don’t have a gun” line from “Come As  You Are,” the second single from Nevermind. I remember thinking that it was obnoxious for them to be doing so.

In December of 1993, I had the chance to see Nirvana perform in Houston. It was a Monday night (a school night), so I decided to skip the show. Big mistake, obviously.

Cobain does make it into case law and you’ll find his name if you do a result of same. In United States v. Wecht, No. 06-0026, 2006 WL 1669879, at *1 (W.D. Pa.  June 13, 2006), the court addressed the motion to suppress of famed pathologist Cyril Wecht. According to the opinion in that case, federal agents took possession of a number of Wecht’s files, including “29 unlabeled boxes which contained Dr. Wecht’s private autopsy files in accordion folders, including files on various high profile matters including the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Tammy Wynette, Kurt Cobain, and other notable celebrities and public figures.” Wecht is known in JFK assassination conspiracy circles as a fierce critic of the Warren Commission. But there’s more: Courtney Love Cobain, as Administratrix of the Estate of Kurt Cobain, was a party to Neighbors & Friends of Viretta Park v. Miller, 940 P.2d 286 (Wash. Ct. App. Div. 1997), a case in which “[t]he Neighbors and Friends of Viretta Park, an unincorporated voluntary association, and several individuals who live in the vicinity of Viretta Park  . . . brought this lawsuit against the City of Seattle, its Parks Superintendent Holly Miller, and Howard and Sheri Schultz seeking declaratory judgment that vehicles are barred from the Viretta Park right of  way, and that the City did not have the authority under the plat dedicating the Park to allow the Schultzes to utilize the Park right of way for vehicular access to their property.” We’re not entirely sure why the estate was a defendant in that matter. (Side note: The defendants in that case prevailed on their laches defense. How about that?).

Speaking of conspiracies, you’ve probably heard the nonsense espoused by some who contend that Cobain was murdered. Tom Grant, a former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office detective turned private investigator, is the foremost among them. He’s turned this theory into an income generating mechanism for himself. On his website, he sells a book, more of a large pamphlet of sorts, really, which he has called The Kurt Cobain Murder Investigation. As civil litigators, we’ve seen a lot of lousy, lazy, and poorly developed expert opinion reports in our time, but this one may take the cake. The one word that kept recurring to me as I read Grant’s work was Daubert.

Also worth reading today: “Remembering April 8, 1994” by Chuck Norton of Dead Journalist.