At The Corner Of Literature And Lawsuits: The Harper Lee Litigation

Back in 2010, our fearless leader Mills Gallivan offered his thoughts about To Kill a Mockingbird in a post entitled “Bluejays and Mockingbirds.”  Today, we revisit To Kill a Mockingbird, or rather, provide an update on Harper Lee, the author of one of the most brilliant legal novels ever written (in our own humble opinion).

As reported by CNN, Lee is suing the Monroe County Heritage Museum for trademark infringement.  As quoted by CNN, the lawsuit makes the following claims:

“The museum seeks to profit from the unauthorized use of the protected names and trademarks of ‘Harper Lee’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ It is a substantial business that generated over $500,000 in revenue for 2011, the last year for which figures are available,” said the lawsuit filed last week. “But its actual work does not touch upon history. Rather, its primary mission is to trade upon the fictional story, settings and characters that Harper Lee created.”

For its part, the museum isn’t admitting any infringement.  USA Today quoted the museum’s attorney as follows:

The museum’s Birmingham attorney said the tourist attraction is within its rights to educate the public and preserve the area’s history. “It’s sad that Harper Lee’s handlers have seen fit to attack the nonprofit museum in her hometown that has been honoring her and the town’s rich history associated with that legacy for over 20 years,” [Matt] Goforth said.

Goforth further stated that “Every single statement in the lawsuit is either false, meritless, or both.”  Some of the facts surrounding the case, however, appear to suggest otherwise.  First, the website for the museum is tokillamockingbird.com.  The gift shop is called “The Bird’s Nest” and contains lots of “Mockingbird” memorabilia, according to news reports.

The case is pending in the the Southern District of Alabama (C.A. No. 1:13-cv-490), where it was filed on October 10, 2013.  Lee seeks a permanent injunction against the museum.  On November 5, 2013, the museum filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.  As of the date of this post, the court had set out a briefing schedule for that motion, and states that it will take up the motion on November 26. What will Lee have to prove?  In order to succeed on the merits of a trademark infringement claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant used the mark in commerce without her consent and  that the unauthorized use was likely to deceive, cause confusion, or result in mistake.  Davidoff & CIE, S.A. v. PLD Int’l Corp., 263 F.3d 1297, 1300-01 (11th Cir. 2001).  Seven factors are considered as to the likelihood of confusion: (1) type of mark; (2) similarity of mark; (3) similarity of the products the marks represent; (4) similarity of the parties’ retail outlets and customers; (5) similarity of advertising media; (6) defendant’s intent; and (7) actual confusion. Frehling Enters. v. Int’l Select Group, Inc., 192 F.3d 1330, 1335 (11th Cir.1999). Of these, the type of mark and the evidence of actual confusion are the most important. Aronowitz v. Health-Chem Corp., 513 F.3d 1229, 1239 (11th Cir. 2008). Federal courts may grant permanent injunctions where infringement is found to have occurred in order to prevent further infringing use of a mark, and such injunctions should be designed to keep the former infringers a safe distance away from the protected mark. Id. at 1242.

This lawsuit is getting a lot of attention from the media world, and we are also interested in the outcome.  We’ll follow along with everyone else, and let you know of any developments.

The Unreasonably Dangerous Chicken Nugget?

There is a new report that may disgust you, but it probably won’t surprise you. The American Journal of Medicine recently performed an “autopsy” of two chicken nuggets – one each from two different fast food restaurants. The results? Not good, we’re afraid. As summarized by CBSNews.com:

Nugget number one was about 50 percent muscle tissue such as from the breast or thigh, which is what most people think of when they think of chicken meat. The rest of it was made from fat, blood vessels and nerves, specifically the cells that line the skin and internal organs of the chicken.

Nugget number two was 40 percent muscle. The rest was fat, cartilage and bone.

Yummy.

Now, being the skeptical lawyers that we are, we’d like to point out a few things that were acknowledged by the authors of the study.  First, two nuggets is not exactly a scientific sample.  Second, we’d like to know which restaurants sold these chicken nuggets so that we could look at the ingredients list(s) and determine if there is anything potentially questionable as to its representations.  Would it be a potentially false advertising claim to promote such nuggets as “all white meat,” for instance?  Is the ingredient list inaccurate?  Third, it is possible, although highly unlikely, that these nuggets are not indicative of the fast food industry as a whole, indicating another issue with the so-called “sample.”

Until these pressing questions are resolved, however, you might want to skip the nuggets.  We’re sure the fries are all natural. Until then, we await the nugget litigation.

FDA Considering Rule Change Affecting Suits Against Generic Drug Makers

Through the years, many of our posts here at Abnormal Use have focused on the Food and Drug Administration and, in particular, its treatment of generic and brand name drugs.  Despite the drugs’ apparent ability to be substituted for one another medically, the FDA treats generics and brand names very differently in terms of the manufacturers’ liability, and the ability to change or alter warning labels.

In broad terms, generic drug manufacturers have very little control over the labels that are placed on their products.  The labeling and warning requirements promulgated by the FDA with regard to a particular brand name drug are simply passed along to the generic form of the drug—in other words, generic drug manufacturers are required to provide the exact same warnings as the brand name drug.  The lack of control, however, is met with a corresponding insulation from liability—in the past, the Supreme Court has shielded generic drug manufacturers from lawsuits involving allegations of inadequate labeling.

All of that may be changing, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2013 ruling in the case of Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 133 S. Ct. 2466, 186 L. Ed. 2d 607 (2013) [PDF].

Some background is necessary here.  Plaintiff Karen Bartlett suffered severe injuries allegedly caused by a generic anti-inflammatory drug, sulindac, manufactured by Mutual Pharmaceutical Co.  Bartlett, who took the drug for shoulder pain, suffered severe burns over much of her body and is now nearly blind.  The Court’s opinion is difficult to read in some places, outlining Bartlett’s medical ordeal in graphic detail.  Bartlett spent months in a medically induced coma, was tube-fed for a year and underwent a dozen eye surgeries. Rather than focusing on labeling requirements—a sure loser of an argument based on precedent—Bartlett alleged that the drug was designed defectively and was unreasonably dangerous.  On appeal, the Boston-based appeals court ruled in favor of the damages awarded to Ms. Bartlett, opining that the Mutual Pharmaceutical could have (and by implication, probably should have) decided not to sell sulindac at all. For its part, the Supreme Court did not see the case the same way, and reversed the award, saying the company was “not required to cease acting altogether in order to avoid liability.”  The high court ruled in favor of the manufacturer, causing a virtual uproar in the consumer drug world.  As cited in this Wall Street Journal online article, “Critics have argued that it makes little sense that a consumer’s right to sue depends upon whether he took a brand-name drug or a generic equivalent.”

Fast forward five months, and the FDA has taken note of the uproar.  It recently proposed to grant (or burden) the generic drug manufacturers with the same ability to change their labels as brand name manufacturers, with the FDA ostensibly requiring the same rigorous review process as applies to brand name drugs.  Quoting The Wall Street Journal law blog’s analysis:

If adopted, the new regulation would remove a legal distinction that prompted the Supreme Court to shield generic drug makers from product-liability lawsuits, even while allowing such claims against manufacturers of brand-name drugs.

The implication being, of course, that it would open up generic drug makers to liability.  As is expected with any major change to regulatory policy, reaction has been mixed:

Public Citizen, which had petitioned for the FDA rule change, praised the move Friday, saying it would “provide added protection to the tens of millions of people who regularly use generic drugs.”  The Generic Pharmaceutical Association reacted cautiously, saying it is concerned that multiple labels on the same drug “could drive up costs…and should be approached very carefully.”

This is a development to be watched carefully.  Depending on how the FDA amends its rules, a flood of litigation could be building right behind the change.  It might also mean the demise of some generic drug manufacturers who don’t wish to be in the lawsuit business.  It’s going to be an interesting season at the FDA, for sure.

Obama: Shorten Law School To Two Years

Here at Abnormal Use, we’ve blogged a lot about the future of legal education.  Specifically, we interviewed Rod Smolla, the now-former President of Furman University, who had thought a lot about the subject during his time at Washington and Lee University School of Law, where he led the effort to revamp the third year curriculum.  We also blogged about the value of a legal education, and whether or not students are getting their money’s worth and the unintended consequences of the high cost of a legal education.  We even proposed some solutions of our own, in the context of lawsuits being filed against lawsuits over the issue. Well, President Obama thinks he may have the solution:  nix the third year altogether.  As recently reported by The New York Times, our Lawyer in Chief made some surprising remarks in a town hall meeting at Binghamton University in New York.  His remarks, like our own discussions, were made in the context of the larger discussion about the cost of higher education – both in dollars and potential opportunity costs.  For the most part, when folks are in school they are not working, or at least most are not working full time.

The President summed up the issues quite nicely in his brief remarks, as quoted in The Times:

On Friday, he questioned the utility of a third year of classes and suggested that students use their final two semesters to gain work experience. “In the first two years, young people are learning in the classroom,” Mr. Obama said. “The third year, they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm even if they weren’t getting paid that much, but that step alone would reduce the costs for the student.”

He acknowledged that eliminating a third year could possibly hurt a law school’s finances and ability to maintain a strong faculty. “Now, the question is,” Mr. Obama said, “can law schools maintain quality and keep good professors and sustain themselves without that third year? My suspicion is, is that if they thought creatively about it, they probably could.”

It’s a tough issue.  We will continue to weigh in on it as we see developments, and bring you the perspective of other experts on the issue.  We’d love to hear your thoughts, as well.

(Stay tuned for some additional thoughts on this issue tomorrow).

Flexing Free Speech Rights With Your Index Finger – The Fourth Circuit and Facebook

Recently, our own Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the First Amendment in the context of 21st century technology.  As you likely know all too well, Facebook has invaded most areas of our lives – it seems only appropriate that it envelop our jurisprudence, as well. As reported by The Washington Post, the Fourth Circuit has held that by clicking the “Like” button on a Facebook post a person is exercising his or her First Amendment rights. The case is Bland v. Roberts, — F. 3d —, No. 12-1671 (4th Cir. Sept. 18, 2013) [PDF].

The facts of the case are straightforward, but they inspire some good old fashioned eye rolling.  A Hampton, Virginia sheriff’s deputy was fired after he clicked “Like” on the Facebook campaign page of the candidate running against his boss.  [Sidenote:  Why would you do that?  This is a clear violation of the "silly plaintiff" rule.  But we digress.]  The fired employee, Daniel Ray Carter, sued, saying that he was fired for exercising his free speech rights.  The federal district court granted summary judgment against Carter on the grounds that clicking “Like” was not an actual statement, and thus, it did not rise to the level of protected speech. Both Facebook and the ACLU filed amicus briefs in which they disagreed with the district court.  The Fourth Circuit overruled the district court, and we believe rightly so.  Judge Traxler, writing the opinion, likened the “Like” to a political sign posted in a front yard.  Did Carter have the right to display a yard sign of his boss’s opponent on his front lawn?  Yes.  [Is it a good idea?  Different question.]  In our opinion, the district court not only got it wrong, but very wrong.  First Amendment jurisprudence makes it abundantly clear that non-verbal “speech” is protected.  The district court seems to have stepped back in time, forgetting some important precedent.

The Washington Post also had a nice article preceding the Fourth Circuit’s opinion, highlighting other disputes that have arisen from the use of social media in the workplace.  You can find that story here.

Do you “Like” the Court’s opinion?  What implications do you think it will have going forward?  Remember, the related issue of an employer’s ability to force employees to give up Facebook passwords is also still hanging out there.  A U.S. News report from April 2013 on that subject, outlining the lawsuits and proposed legislation, can be found here.

New Wal-Mart Case A Study In Proximate Cause

Proximate cause is one of the more difficult concepts for first year law students.  I myself have fond [terrible] memories [nightmares] of Ms. Palsgraff, and I know most of you do, too.

A new suit against Wal-Mart may stretch that concept to its limit.  As reported by the Associated Press and found on FoxNews.com, a Nebraska man is suing Wal-Mart in Nebraska federal court for $650,000 over his wife’s death. The facts of the case are these.  The plaintiff’s wife purchased several cans of food at Wal-Mart, which were allegedly overloaded by one of the store’s employees into a plastic bag.  On the way to the car, the bag broke, and one of the cans of food sliced the wife’s foot.  The foot later became infected, and she ultimately died as a result of that infection.

The plaintiff alleges that Wal-Mart failed to properly train its employees to double bag heavy groceries.  The plaintiff has also sued the manufacturer and the distributor of the plastic bag on products liability theories. We believe that there will be significant proximate cause hurdles for the plaintiff to overcome, and a jury will likely struggle with this issue in the same way that a first year law student might.  We will continue to monitor the case in Nebraska federal court and track any significant rulings on proximate cause that arise out of the case.

Zimmerman Case Puts More Florida Laws Under Scrutiny

In the course of following the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, the entire country learned about Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law.  In case you’ve been under a rock for the better part of a year and a half, Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer who encountered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin one night in his gated community.  After calling the police, Zimmerman and Martin got into an altercation that resulted in Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin. While the defense team for Zimmerman did not actually use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as a defense at trial, the case itself brought that law and others like it from other jurisdictions under intense scrutiny.  Protests such as this sit-in reported by The New York Times sprung up around the nation against these types of laws, passed in the name of self defense.

Zimmerman’s recent acquittal has brought another Florida law into the limelight.  As reported by NBC News, Zimmerman’s attorneys are preparing a motion that would ask the State of Florida – i.e. the Florida taxpayers – to pick up part of the tab for his defense, to the tune of almost $300,000.  The motion would be based on a Florida law that “says a defendant who’s acquitted isn’t liable for costs associated with his or her case,” according to NBC.

Like good little lawyers, we looked up the statute.  It states as follows:

(1) A defendant in a criminal prosecution who is acquitted or discharged is not liable for any costs or fees of the court or any ministerial office, or for any charge of subsistence while detained in custody. If the defendant has paid any taxable costs, or fees required under s. 27.52(1)(b), in the case, the clerk or judge shall give him or her a certificate of the payment of such costs, with the items thereof, which, when audited and approved according to law, shall be refunded to the defendant.
(2) To receive a refund under this section, a defendant must submit a request for the refund to the Justice Administrative Commission on a form and in a manner prescribed by the commission. The defendant must attach to the form an order from the court demonstrating the defendant’s right to the refund and the amount of the refund.
Fla. Stat. Ann. § 939.06.  A few decisions out of Florida have clarified the statute.  First, the public policy behind the statute is fairly obvious, but it’s worth repeating.  The purpose of the law is, as stated by the Florida District Court of Appeals, is to “protect a defendant from costs when he is innocent or when the state fails to pursue a vigorous prosecution.”  State v. Crawford, 378 So. 2d 822, 823 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1979).
It should also be noted that not everything that Zimmerman–or his lawyers–spent on behalf of his defense effort is eligible for reimbursement; only “taxable costs” are provided for in the statute.  The Supreme Court of Florida has provided some guidance here:
Given its plain meaning, the relevant portion of this statute simply says: No acquitted criminal defendant shall be liable for any court costs or court fees, any costs or fees of a ministerial government office, or any charges for subsistence, and that if such a defendant has paid any of these taxable costs he or she shall be reimbursed by the county.
Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, Pinellas Cnty. v. Sawyer, 620 So. 2d 757, 758 (Fla. 1993).  Examples of costs that would not be reimbursable under Florida law include investigative costs, private attorneys’ fees, deposition transcription fees, video deposition fees, process service fees,  expert witness fees, and fees for transcription of excerpts of trial.  Id.; Hillsborough County v. Martinez, 483 So.2d 540 (Fla. Ct. App. 1986); Justice Admin. Comm’n v. Neighbors, 927 So. 2d 218, 219 (Fla. Ct. App. 2006).

It will be interesting to see if this law receives the same kind of attention and criticism as Stand Your Ground.  The Zimmerman case continues to make news and provide a microscope with which to view the rule of law and other issues of socio-economics and race in America.  Fascinating stuff.

New Jersey Snowmobile Case Provides Additional Commentary On “Reasonably Foreseeable Misuse”

Recently, we provided some commentary about an Alabama court’s interpretation of what is “reasonably foreseeable” with regard to the operation (or accidental operation) of a handgun.  As a quick reminder, that case involved a man who wound up shooting himself in the stomach because he carried his gun without any safeties engaged.  That court denied the gun manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment, buying the argument by the plaintiff’s lawyers that a gun manufacturer should have reasonably anticipated that a carrier of the derringer might need to fire the gun so quickly that “a pause to disengage the two safety features [of the derringer] would destroy the defensive advantage he was buying.” Today, we will continue our inquiry into what different jurisdictions perceive to be “reasonably foreseeable” in the products liability context.  Conveniently, this also continues another journey we seem to be on: the search for the stupidest plaintiff.

The case is Mohr v. Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd., A-5194-10T4 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. July 19, 2013).  The plaintiff in this case lifted up the back of his friend’s Yamaha snowmobile–while the engine was running.  The track broke while the end was in the air and gave the plaintiff such a bad leg injury that the leg had to be amputated.

The plaintiff sued Yamaha on theories of products liability, “claiming that . . . Yamaha had failed to provide an adequate warning against lifting the machine while it was running.”  At trial, the jury found Yamaha liable for failure to warn.  There is some interesting commentary about the presence and adequacy of the warnings, but we find the issue of “foreseeable misuse” more interesting, in light of our recent Alabama gun case.  The court in this case provided some reminders about use and misuse under New Jersey law:

To prove that a product is dangerous and thus requires a warning, a plaintiff must address the issue of product misuse, either by proving that the product was not misused, or by proving that the misuse that occurred was foreseeable.  A defendant may still be liable when a plaintiff misused the product, if the misuse was objectively foreseeable.  The absence of misuse is part of the plaintiff’s case. Misuse is not an affirmative defense. Thus, the plaintiff has the burden of showing that there was no misuse or that the misuse was objectively foreseeable.
(internal citations and quotations omitted).  In this case, the court of appeals agreed that the misuse by the plaintiff was foreseeable.  First and foremost, as the court points out, the evidence submitted on the issue of foreseeability was entirely one sided; only the plaintiff provided any evidence on the subject.  That usually signals that the other side has conceded the issue, and therefore signaling to the court that there is “no genuine issue of material fact.”  As the Court pointed out:
In fact, in a colloquy with the court on the first day of the trial, defendants’ attorney essentially conceded that plaintiff’s misuse was foreseeable, and the judge restated his understanding that “as Yamaha’s counsel now states, there is no contention that this particular hazard or risk was not foreseeable.”
Still, it is interesting to hear the plaintiff’s argument.  First, the plaintiff presented expert testimony that it is common practice for snowmobile users to lift the machine while it’s running to perform cursory maintenance, as the plaintiff was doing on the day of his accident.  The experts also explained that handles attached to the rear of the machines were “invitations” to lift it, and that lifting it while the snowmobile’s engine was running was a “reasonably foreseeable use.” While we don’t agree that lifting a moving piece of machinery to repair it while it’s running is “reasonably foreseeable,” apparently, lawyers in New Jersey believe that a New Jersey jury would believe that argument.  That’s the only explanation we can think of.  Then again, we don’t have many snowmobiles here in South Carolina.

Can You Hear Me Now? U.S. Marshals Lose Track Of Encrypted Radios

I was probably 10 or 11 years old when I first heard about the United States Federal Witness Protection Program.  It sounded so exotic to me, surpassed only in my mind by the actual spy program of the CIA.  My friends and I would daydream about what our name would be and where we would live if all of a sudden we were whisked away from our actual, “real” lives.  We’d play make-believe, blaming our little brothers for some minor slip of the tongue about their real names or city of origin that would make us move again, getting new names and new lives again. Unfortunately, some folks in the real witness protection program may also be thinking about a name and address change.  As reported by The Washington Post and other outlets like the Huffington Post, the U.S. Marshals Service seems to have lost track of about 2,000 encrypted two-way radios.  Oops.  According to The Huffington Post:

In interviews with the paper, some Marshals told The Wall Street Journal they were worried not only about the wasted money, but also about the prospect of criminals getting hold of the radios and using them to gain access to privileged law enforcement activities.

Yikes.  Now, the Marshals are saying that it might be a function of poor record keeping, rather than an actual equipment loss.  Nevertheless, they can’t really say one way or the other, a fact that may pose a security risk to those people who rely on the Marshals for protection.

And even if it’s just a matter of poor record keeping and not actually losing the radios, that probably should not give us any additional comfort.  Unless, of course, they use a different record-keeping system for the people they’re supposed to be tracking.

No Matter What You Think of Scalia’s Opinions, This Guy Thinks They’re Musical

As a Justice of the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia (or, more pointedly, his opinions) are a polarizing force.  Although gruff and cantankerous from the bench, he’s apparently not such a bad guy outside the courtroom.  After all, we’ve heard reports of hunting trips with Justice Kagan, and it’s been reported that he has eaten New Year’s Eve dinner with Justice Ginsburg since 1982.  Apparently, he’s the funniest Justice, too, eliciting more laughter with his comments than any other, according to Boston University law Prof. Jay Wexler.

Justices Scalia and Ginsburg also share a love of opera, as reported by U.S. News & World Report in a 2007 piece:

An opera aficionado, Scalia, along with fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appeared as an extra in a 1994 production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Scalia appeared onstage for about an hour and a half during the second act in a costume first worn by Plácido Domingo during the world première of Goya in 1986.

Well, apparently, the opera connection doesn’t end there.  According to NPR’s Nina Totenberg, and reported on NPR, a new opera about these two legal heavyweights has been completed.  The composer, Derrick Wang, is a new graduate of the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, who heard music in the opinions and dissents:

I realized this is the most dramatic thing I’ve ever read in law school … and I started to hear music — a rage aria about the Constitution,” Wang said. “And then, in the midst of this roiling rhetoric, counterpoint, as Justice Ginsburg’s words appeared to me — a beacon of lyricism with a steely strength and a fervent conviction all their own. And I said to myself, ‘This is an opera.’

Well, the opera is finished, and Justices Scalia and Ginsburg got a preview last month at the Supreme Court, the day after the Court’s term ended.  No news yet on whether it will be performed elsewhere, but in our opinion, the highest court isn’t exactly community theater.