The Art of “Litigation” War (Part III)

In this installment of Abnormal Use‘s exploration of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, we analyze the following tactics from “Attack By Stratagem,” the third chapter of the book:

Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:

  1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
  2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
  3. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
  4. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
  5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

Every now and again, we come across those who approach litigation with an ultra-aggressive, yet helter-skelter approach. While we appreciate zealous advocacy, these litigators often miss the mark on the most crucial component of litigation – obtaining a favorable result for your client.

Litigation is, by definition, adversarial. However, being adversarial need not equate to “fighting” every step of the way. It is imperative that we pick our battles. Focus on the battles that matter. Focus on the battles that you can win. Rather than wasting time on trivial discovery battles which necessitate expending time and resources that are disproportional to the net positive a “victory” will mean for your case, focus on the substantive matters. Spend your time in preparation. Researching the law. Preparing for depositions. Drafting dispositive motions. Readying your case for trial. Don’t develop a reputation with the court and your fellow members of the bar of fighting over the trivial. Develop a reputation for fighting over substance. People will take note and appreciate the fact that when you raise an issue, it has teeth.

When looking at the substance of your case, identify its strengths and weaknesses. Pick the battles that you can win and concentrate your resources on that front. If you have a case of clear liability, be up front about it and set your sights on damages.  Acknowledge where the law might not be in your favor and shift your legal arguments to where it is. Judges and juries respect candor. They appreciate getting to the point and not wasting their time on unnecessary issues.

Once you identify the points that matter and the battles that you can win, your focus is clear and you know where to direct your resources. There are many things in litigation beyond our control. However, we can control our own preparation. Whether it be on a football field or a courtroom, the first step in winning any battle is in being more prepared than your opponent. When you walk into a courtroom, you should feel as if you know the facts and the law. Be more prepared than opposing counsel.  The preparation will always shine through in your performance.

As mentioned, the outcome of litigation can never be known with certainty. However, if you focus on the points that matter, identify your battles, and properly prepare, you have put yourself and your client in the best position for success. In this position is exactly where you want to be when you put your case in the hands of 12 jurors whom you do not know.

Part I of The Art of “Litigation” War can be accessed here.

Part II of The Art of “Litigation” War can be accessed here.

The Art of “Litigation” War (Part II)

In this installment of Abnormal Use‘s exploration of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, we analyze the following tactics from “Waging War,” the second chapter of the book:

There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. . . . In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

In “Waging War,” Sun Tzu stresses the importance of curtailed warfare. As Sun Tzu aptly notes, “if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.” The longer war is waged, the more resources consumed and the more lives lost. As such, prolonged warfare results in a smaller net benefit to be gained by victory. Such is often true in litigation.

It is no secret that plaintiffs and their attorneys often have more to gain by resolving a case sooner rather than later. Resolution of a claim early in litigation (or even pre-suit) benefits a plaintiff by putting money in his or her pocket earlier and cuts down on the amount of fees a plaintiff must reimburse his or her attorneys. Likewise, for the attorney, who is most often working on a contingency fee, an early settlement provides a certainty of recovery and frees up time to work on other matters. Certainly, there are situations in which an early resolution is not possible (i.e., a lack of a meaningful pre-suit settlement offer). Assuming there is a legitimate offer on the table, however, the net benefit of protracted litigation only to obtain a slightly better settlement or judgment may not be worth the risk.

While not as obvious on the surface, there is often little for defendants to gain by way of lengthy litigation. Any seasoned defense attorney can tell tales of cases that were ultimately resolved after lengthy litigation for a sum far greater than what they could have pre-suit. Those cases are usually ones in which the defendant was operating with its optimal leverage pre-suit (due to a preliminary understanding of liability and/or damages) only to see the price of playing poker rise as discovery called into question the facts or theories upon which the defendant relied. Similarly, there are those cases that ultimately resolve at the pre-suit evaluation, but only after thousands of dollars in fees were incurred. In either situation, the net benefit of litigation, at least from a financial perspective, may be negligible.

Certainly, there are cases for both plaintiffs and defendants that should be tried for a variety of reasons. Unlike Sun Tzu, we would not venture so far as saying that there are “no” instances of a party benefiting from “prolonged warfare.”  In those cases, however, it is imperative that counsel and their clients be on the same page regarding the costs of “war” and the risks of battle. Inherent in every case is risk. There is not a good case that cannot be lost (or, conversely, a bad case that cannot be won). Litigators should never be fearful of prolonged litigation, including trial. However, they should always be cognizant of the risks and costs of protracted litigation when searching for that necessary “victory.”

Note: An online translation of The Art of War can be accessed here.

Part I of The Art of “Litigation” War can be accessed here.

Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 Accused of Ripping Off Tupac Images

Retailer Urban Outfitters is known, in part, for its trendy t-shirts. Whether it be a catchy slogan or a retro graphic, Urban Outfitters covers your t-shirt needs. But, where exactly does it obtain the endless supply of images for all of those shirts? Well, according to a new lawsuit, at least some of those images are pilfered from certain artists.

According to a report from ConsumeristPlaintiff Danny Clinch filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters and fellow retailer Forever 21 (and several other entities discussed below) alleging that the retailers infringed on his copyrights by producing t-shirts featuring images of rapper Tupac Shakur. Clinch alleges that he took the photos which were featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1993 and 1996. The photos were copyrighted in 2002. Nonetheless, Amaru/AWA Merchandising, the company in charge of licensing TuPac merchandise, entered into a license agreement with a company called Planet Productions which purported to grant Planet a license to use the copyrighted photographs. Planet then authorized an outfit known as Bioworld Merchandising to produce the t-shirts which, in turn, were sold to Urban Outfitters and Forever 21. While Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 are the “big ticket” defendants in this matter, we don’t know what, if anything, they knew about the chain of custody surrounding the Tupac photos’ copyright. Whatever the case, this is not the first time Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 have faced such allegations. As reported by Teen Vogue:

Designer Charles Smith II and Alala founder Denise Lee both recently accused Forever 21 of ripping off their designs. On top of that, people on Twitter have been accusing Forever 21 of stealing fonts from Kanye West’s Life of Pablo merchandise and ripping off Rihanna’s Fenty x Puma sandals. Just last month, Frank Ocean accused the company of plagiarizing a font from his Blonde cover. For Urban Outfitters’ part, Coachella sued Urban Outfitters, Inc. in March over its sister company Free People’s Coachella collection, which it says was sold without the festival’s permission.

Again, who knows what, if anything, Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 knew about any of these alleged copyright infringements? However, at this point, Urban Outfitters may want to just start designing t-shirts itself just to be safe.

The Art of “Litigation” War (Part I)

During a recent bout of insomnia, I found myself reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. I have read the ancient Chinese military treatise several times over the years but never during my time as a practicing attorney. As I read the text, now through the eyes of a litigator, I realized that all attorneys could learn from Sun Tzu’s wisdom. Aside from his guidance on the proper usage of spies, attacks by fire, and whatnot, Sun Tzu’s military stratagem is a perfect litigation guide book. While a quick Google search reveals that I was not the first to make this observation, we here at Abnormal Use now offer our perspective on the issue (in a multi-part series, of course).

As an initial matter, we must caution that we by no means view litigation as “war” in the traditional sense. In our experience, litigation is most often handled with the utmost civility between attorneys fairly representing their clients. While litigation is adversarial, we do not suggest it should be hostile. Rather, we contend that some of Sun Tzu’s strategies can aid litigators in effective advocacy.

With this backdrop, we begin our series by analyzing the following tactic from “Laying Plans,” the first chapter of the book:

[W]hen able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Much of “Laying Plans” deals with deception in warfare. While we condemn unethical deceptions in litigation, Sun Tzu’s general premise is well-taken. When you are weak, you must appear strong. When you are strong, you must appear weak. When we enter a courtroom and stand before a judge or a jury, we must speak with confidence. Regardless of the challenges we might face in arguing our positions, we must speak authoritatively. If we do not act and speak like we should prevail, then we should not expect to do so.

A former professor tells a story from his early days of practice. He was to try a criminal case in front of an unfamiliar judge. He received a tip from a local practitioner that the judge was a real stickler for the rules of evidence and, when the judge would hear something objectionable, he would look up from his notes and tilt his head slightly to the right. With this tip in mind, the professor made a point to observe the judge for the duration of the trial. Every time the judge tilted his head, the professor stood and objected.  Without pause, the judge sustained every objection. Even though the professor’s client was ultimately convicted, the judge spread the word of a young attorney who knew the rules of evidence better than any other lawyer who had appeared before him. As a result, the professor quickly became known among the bar as an evidence expert. Little did they know that he had earned a “C” in his evidence class at Duke Law School. They also never suspected that if the judge had asked him to specify the grounds for his objections, he would have fainted on the spot. Nonetheless, he owed his newfound stardom to his ability to speak with authority.

Conversely, there is also merit, as Sun Tzu suggests, to appearing “weak” when you are strong. By “weak,” we do not necessarily mean acting as if you do not know the law. Rather, the appearance of “weakness” can be much more subtle and nuanced. For example, when we have what we believe to be a strong case, it is natural to state that position up front to opposing counsel. While there is a time and place for that, there is much to be said by holding back. As good as your case may be, it is likely not as good as you suspect. There are no “perfect” cases.  As such, rather than championing your position and showing all your cards, be more reserved. Let opposing counsel share his or her side first. It will help you to better assess the holes in you case (which are undoubtedly there).

When in law school, I participated in a civil practice program which allowed 3L students to gain experience by representing indigent parties under the supervision of a licensed attorney. In handling a landlord-tenant matter, I called opposing counsel, an experienced attorney 30 years my senior. After a pleasant conversation, I hung up the phone and saw a scowl from my supervisor. She informed me that I had put myself in a bad position – not because of the substance of the conversation – but because I had said, “Yes, sir” (as any good Southerner would do).  As such, she believed that I had placed myself in an inferior position and would remain that way throughout the litigation. The case ultimately resolved favorably for my client. While I agree that we should show strength when we are weak, I did not agree with my supervisor at the time, nor do I agree with her now. Call it “weakness” or “strength,” but not enough can be said about simply being friendly to opposing counsel.  Regardless of how good (or bad) my case may be, a little bit of kindness goes a long way in litigation. Resolving disputes is never easy, but it is much easier when you have friends on the other side.

Sun Tzu would have said the same, right?

Note:  An online translation of The Art of War can be accessed here.

Dogs: Man’s Best Friend Or Unreasonably Dangerous Product?

According to a report from the Clinton Herald, a lawsuit has been filed against the Clinton (Iowa) Humane Society after a dog adopted from the agency bit a 15-month old child. The dog, which was possibly a pitbull-mix, was received by the Iowa Humane Society after it was saved from being euthanized at a Louisiana shelter.  The suit asserts product liability, negligence and breach of warranty claims against the Humane Society as well as a strict liability claims against the adopted dog parents, Kris and Ashley Greene.  The theory against the Humane Society is premised on the notion that the agency failed to warn the Greene’s of the risks of transitioning a dog from a shelter to a home and of a dog’s potential dangerous propensities. The plaintiff claims that the lack of instructions or warnings renders the dog not reasonably safe.

We here at Abnormal Use find this suit interesting to say the least. While dogs are technically property in the eyes of the law (in most jurisdictions), treating them as products for product liability purposes creates some significant problems. Most notably, unlike traditional products, dogs are living, breathing creatures capable of independent thinking and actions. When a product leaves the manufacturer, we know how it is supposed to “act.” When it does not act as it was intended, it is typically because of some defect (either in its manufacturing or its design). That’s product liability. On the other hand, dogs are all different.  No two dogs are the same either due to nature, nurture, or some combination of the two. We can never know for sure just how a dog is going to act in any situation. So how do we regulate whether a dog acted as intended?

To be fair, the case here is premised on a failure to warn, not that the dog was “defective” per se. We can certainly appreciate the need to disclose if a dog is known to have a checkered past or is otherwise prone to violence. But wouldn’t a simple negligence theory do the trick to protect against these types of harms?

No need to bring product liability principles into it.

Costco v. Titleist: The Golf Ball War You Wouldn’t Expect

Last year, Costco began selling golf balls. As the largest American membership-only warehouse club, Costco’s introduction of a new product such as a piece of sporting equipment would not ordinarily be noteworthy or otherwise unusual. Except that the balls became a bit of a cult phenomenon and flew off the shelves and the company completely sold out of the product by January. The golf balls are now selling for insane amount on Ebay. So what gives? The Costco balls are actually manufactured by South Korea’s Nassau Golf – the same company that manufactures TaylorMade golf balls. Nassau apparently unloaded some of its balls to Costco. Costco then branded the balls with a Kirkland Signature logo and sold them for $29.99 per TWO dozen. After golfers realized the balls’ performance was on par with some higher end balls, word began to spread and the rest is history.

While golfers may have been delighted with Costco’s venture into the golf ball industry, some golf ball manufacturers were not. According to a report from seattlepi.com, Acushnet, maker of Titleist golf balls, sent a cease and desist letter Costco earlier this year, alleging that the Costco balls infringed upon eleven of the company’s patents. In addition, Acushnet alleged that Costco had engaged in false advertising on account of the Kirkland Signature guarantee that all Kirkland products “will meet or exceed the quality standards of leading national brands.”

In response, Costco has filed a declaratory judgment action against Acushnet in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. As a preemptive strike, Costco seeks a judicial declaration that Costco was not violating Acushnet’s patents and has not engaged in false advertising. According to Costco, while others (including reviewers and golf professionals) have compared the Costco balls to the higher-end Titleist balls, Costco has never done so (at least not publicly).

In a written statement published by Golf World, Costco stated:

We have asked the Court to protect our right to continue to sell our Kirkland Signature golf ball against challenges made by Acushnet under patent and advertising laws. . . .The success of the ball with our members and the favorable comments it has received from reputable reviewers apparently have caused Acushnet to believe that our ball directly competes with the Titleist Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls. … Our golf ball will go back on sale in early April, but supplies are limited.

We here at Abnormal Use have never played with the Costco golf balls and, to be honest, with our golf games there would be no discernible differences found with an equipment change. Assuming that the balls actually live up to the hype, we understand why Acushnet may be upset with the competition. If Acushnet is really concerned about patents, however, we would think its real beef would be with Nassau who made the balls in the first place. But our best guess is that this matter is not really about patents at all. The real issue is that Acushnet does not want someone to undercut its premium price point. It is for this reason Acushnet has filed suit against a number of smaller companies who produce economy balls in the past. At least on the surface, it does not appear that Acushnet is concerned with companies like Nassau (a/k/a Taylor Made) who sell golf balls which compete at the same premium price point. Acushnet knows it has that marketplace cornered. But let someone sell a competing product for a percentage of the price, now Acushnet has a problem.

We are curious to see how this one plays out. We are hoping for quick resolution by April, so we can pick up a dozen of those Costco balls for the summer golf season.

Misled By A Beer’s Label: A New Lawsuit Over “Hawaiian” Beer

As reported by West Hawaii Today, a new class-action lawsuit has been filed against Craft Brew Alliance, Inc. and Kona Brewing Company over some allegedly deceptive advertising. Specifically, the lead plaintiff alleges that he purchased a 12-pack of Kona’s Longboard Island Lager under the belief that the product was brewed in Hawaii, a suspicion based, at least in part, on the beach and surfer depicted on the bottle’s label. The lager, however, is apparently brewed stateside – a fact, that if known by the plaintiff, would have apparently dissuaded him from his purchase.  The suit, filed in a federal court in California, asserts a violation of California business laws, common law fraud and misrepresentation, as well as several other causes of action.

According to its website, Kona began brewing beer back in 1995 at a brewery in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. That facility still produces beer. However, its bottled beer and mainland draft is produced at several breweries located within the mainland of the United States. The list of brewing locations is included on the labels of Kona beers.

We here at Abnormal Use find this lawsuit intriguing on several levels.

First, there is nothing on the Longboard Island Lager packaging (as shown below) that specifically says that it is brewed in Hawaii.

kona_longboard_lager1

Admittedly, the name “Kona” coupled with the depicted surfers catching waves in front of a mountain certainly offers a Hawaii-vibe. That said, Olive Garden also attempts to resemble an authentic Italian bistro, but no one is accusing it of leading its patrons to believe that its food is authentic Italian. Kona does not represent that its beer is brewed in Hawaii. Rather, in our opinion, Kona merely represents that its product is a beer best-consumed on a beach vacation a la Corona or Landshark.

Secondly, even if the plaintiffs can prove that Kona implicitly represented that the beer was brewed in Hawaii, how have the plaintiffs actually been damaged? We consider ourselves beer snobs. As such, we have never viewed the quality of beer to hinge upon the location of the brewing facility. (This is not wine, after all).  While we do enjoy certain beers from certain regions of the country, our preference  has more to do with the breweries themselves than the region in which they are located.  A good beer may be brewed in California, but it is not a good beer because it was brewed in California.

We are guessing that the plaintiffs actually purchased the Longboard Lager because they like the way it tastes.  And, they like the way it tastes regardless of whether it was brewed in Hawaii, Oregon, or Tennessee. To claim otherwise is either completely disingenuous or a display a beer snobbiness than even we can’t comprehend.

New McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit: Still Trying To Relive the Liebeck Litigation

According to reports, a Michigan man has filed suit against McDonald’s, alleging that he was burned by hot coffee at drive-through. The allegations in the case go a little something like this:

On December 5, 2016, Carl Honeycutt, while a front seat passenger in a vehicle operated by his friend, made his way to a McDonald’s drive-through in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Honeycutt ordered a cup of coffee. The McDonald’s employee handed the cup of coffee to the driver of the car who, in turn, handed the cup to Honeycutt. When Honeycutt took hold of the cup, the cup’s lid popped off and coffee  spilled onto Honeycutt’s chest. As a result, Honeycutt allegedly sustained second-degree burns.

In an interview with M Live, Honeycutt’s attorney, Joshua Cecil, stated that he is was well aware of the infamous Stella Liebeck lawsuit. But does this case really have anything in common with its infamous predecessor? Cecil seems to hope so. Cecil argued that the Liebeck lawsuit prompted McDonald’s to take steps to maintain its coffee at a reasonable temperature, but independent franchisees may not always follow through. Keep in mind, however, that there is no information as to the actual temperature of Honeycutt’s coffee or whether its temperature was outside the bounds of McDonald’s corporate policies. (Also, there is thing we have heard about a time or two that coffee, by its nature, is meant to be served hot).

The lawsuit raises two theories of negligence: (1) failing to secure the lid to the cup and (2) the coffee was served at an “excessive and unreasonable temperature.” The latter clearly paves a way down the Liebeck path. However, Liebeck verdict aside, the former may be the better path to any recovery rather than fight through the 20+ years of rhetoric over whether a company can be held liable for serving a hot product at a hot temperature within industry standards.

Let It Be! Lawsuit Between Beatle Son and Parents of My Cousin Vinny Actress Comes to an End

According to a report from the New York Post, a lawsuit over a rotting tree in Greenwich Village has settled after two years of litigation. You might not think such a case is a big deal. It is true that tree litigation does not normally grace the pages of Abnormal Use. This case, however, is different. Really different. Why, you say? Well,  the litigants just so happen to be the son of a Beatle and the parents of My Cousin Vinny’s Mona Lisa Vito (aka Marissa Tomei).

Back in 2015, Gary and Addie Tomei filed suit against Sean Lennon, the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, claiming that a rotting ailanthus tree on Lennon’s property had encroached upon their property, causing damage to their 4000 square foot townhouse (purchased for $9.5 million back in 2008). Specifically, they alleged that the roots of the 60-foot-tall tree cracked their front stoop, broke the iron railings, and encroached upon their basement. The Tomeis sought the removal of the tree plus a hefty $10 million in damages. In a total boss move, Lennon demanded that the Tomeis alter the entrance of their multi-million dollar townhouse to accommodate his encroaching tree.

Now, the lawsuit which pitted litigants associated with two of our favorite things against each other has come to an end. The exact details of the settlement are confidential. However, it is known that the tree at the center of the dispute was cut down last month. To us, it sure sounds like the son of a Beattle lost out to the parent’s of the out-of-work hairdresser.

Wal-Mart’s Venture Into Craft Beer Under Fire

According to a report from the Chicago Tribune, a new class action lawsuit has been filed in Ohio against Wal-Mart, accusing the retail giant of shady beer sales. Specifically, the suit takes issue with Wal-Mart’s sale of its own line of “craft” beer in collaboration with Trouble Brewing. The problem, according to the complaint, is that Trouble Brewing does not really exist. In reality, the Wal-Mart brew is brewed on a contract basis by Genessee Brewing, which is owned by North American Breweries and produces more beer than would warrant the “craft” moniker. Plaintiffs allege that Wal-Mart has created a “wholesale fiction,” placing its beer on the shelves around other legitimate craft beers, to deceive consumers into purchasing craft beer at a higher, inflated price.

So what really is a “craft” beer? The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as “small, independent, and traditional.” To qualify, a craft brewery must produce less than 6 million barrels of beer annually, be less than 25 percent owned or controlled by a non-craft brewery, and make beer using only traditional or innovative brewing ingredients. While Genessee isn’t Anheuser Busch InBev or MillerCoors, the “Trouble Brewing” brand, assuming the allegations in the complaint are true, certainly doesn’t sound like a “small, independent, and traditional” beer – especially when considering the fact that it is backed by one of the world’s largest companies in Wal-Mart. And, we are guessing Genessee doesn’t offer Trouble Brewing tours and flights of the entire Trouble Brewing line over a game of cornhole.

It should be noted that the Trouble Brewing beers do not specifically identify themselves as “craft” on their packaging. However, as a senior buyer for Wal-Mart told the Chicago Tribune in an interview, “We were intentional about designing a package that conveyed a look and feel you’d expect of craft beer.” If only catchy packaging were all it took to make a craft beer.

As avid beer drinkers, we are certainly sensitive to craft beer deception. As such, we can empathize with the plaintiffs on this ground. As defense lawyers, though, we must assert assumption of risk as an affirmative defense. Something about Wal-Mart and the purchase of craft beer just doesn’t sound right in the first place. With so many craft breweries, growler stations, and local bottle shoppes popping up on every street corner, it has never been easier to pick up a craft brew. Wal-Mart certainly isn’t the place we would think of when it comes to trying out a new beer.