More civil lawsuits in wake of deadly fires in Oakland, Calif.

Surviving tenants and families of victims sue Oakland, Calif. for inspection flaws at a San Pablo Avenue halfway house. Photo Credit: Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group as reported by The Mercury News, 2/9/18

Surviving tenants and families of victims sue Oakland, Calif. for inspection flaws at a San Pablo Avenue halfway house. Photo Credit: Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group as reported by The Mercury News, 2/9/18

Oakland is facing a lawsuit stemming from a fatal fire that killed four people in a halfway house at 2551 San Pablo Avenue in March 2017, The Mercury News reported.

“Surviving tenants and families of victims who lived at 2551 San Pablo Ave. originally filed suit in April 2017 against building owner Keith Kim and a nonprofit agency that provided services there,” explained The Mercury News. “The city was added to the list of defendants in a master complaint filed last month in Alameda County Superior Court.”

Oakland is already facing a suit for a Dec. 2, 2016 fire in which 36 people perished at an electronic dance party at the “Ghost Ship” warehouse. The Ghost Ship lawsuit helped open the door for the San Pablo fire suit: “In November, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled Oakland had a ‘mandatory duty’ to ensure safety at the Ghost Ship warehouse. The tentative ruling pierced through broad immunities protecting California cities from civil lawsuits to protect workers who either botched inspections of a building or failed to perform the inspection at all,” the report stated.

Both the San Pablo and Ghost Ship fires exposed deep flaws in Oakland’s fire inspection system. According to the San Pablo lawsuit, “These people were plunged into darkness and thick, black smoke and tried to exit the unsafe structure. The interior of the three-story, 43-unit building was a known fire hazard which was cluttered with storage, debris, discarded furniture and open piles of garbage.”

Closure of Office for Access to Justice

Photo Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times as reported on 2/1/18.

Photo Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times as reported on 2/1/18.

The ability of the poor to access civil courts suffered a setback with the effective closure of the federal Office for Access to Justice, critics of the move say.

“The Justice Department has effectively shuttered an Obama-era office dedicated to making legal aid accessible to all citizens, according to two people familiar with the situation,” the New York Times reported.

The Office for Access to Justice began in 2010 under former Attorney General Eric Holder. “Its offices now sit dark on the third floor of the Justice Department building,” the New York Times reported. “The staff of a dozen or so has dwindled and left the department over the past few months, the people said. Maha Jweied, the acting director of the department, left this month to start a consulting business, according to her LinkedIn profile.”

On Feb. 1, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law condemned the move.

“Once again, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is turning his back on the most vulnerable Americans and abdicating his responsibility as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “In shuttering the doors of the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Office, Attorney General Sessions is making crystal clear that his Justice Department has no interest in establishing justice for the poor.”

More lawsuits expected over J&J talcum powder in 2018

Photo credit: Alf van Beem via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Alf van Beem via Wikimedia Commons

Johnson & Johnson returned to the courtroom in January to face more litigation over allegations that its talcum products caused cancer.

The pharmaceutical company’s lawyers entered a Middlesex County, N.J. courtroom for opening statements in a lawsuit “alleging that the company’s talc products caused an Essex County man to develop cancer,” reported NJ.com, which provides content to New Jersey’s leading newspaper, The Star-Ledger.

“A Stephen Lanzo, III, 46, of Verona, alleges that his use of Johnson’s Baby Powder throughout his life exposed him to asbestos, which lead him to develop mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that affects tissue in the lungs and abdomen. … The plaintiff and defense said they plan to utilize many expert testimonies throughout the trial, which is slated to run through the end of February,” the site reported.

Bloomberg Bureau of National Affairs anticipated more litigation.

Distinguished Emeritus Professor Jean Eggen at Widener University Delaware Law School, Wilmington, Del., saw the potential for “large-scale litigation,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Eggen said that, “because of varying claims, sources of talc, and causation hurdles, this latest wave of talc cases against J&J will be both easier and harder to litigate than both traditional asbestos suits involving insulation materials, and the ovarian cancer cases the company is already fighting. And with several multimillion-dollar verdicts having been handed down against other makers of older talc products recently, the Johnson and Johnson asbestos-in-talc litigation is expected to be both protracted and contentious, drawing in many other plaintiffs. …”

Maryland ruling could open door to asbestos-related death cases

Tens of thousands of cases related to illness and death from asbestos exposure could be adjudicated in Maryland based on an appeal before the state’s highest court.

“Maryland’s highest court is weighing whether to give workers who were sickened by asbestos exposure more time to sue their employers,” the Baltimore Sun reported on Dec. 1, 2017. “State law now allows 20 years for workers or their families to make claims regarding illness or death from exposure to asbestos.”

The Maryland Court of Appeals in Annapolis heard an appeal involving a steamfitter, James F. Piper, “who worked at a Maryland power plant in the 1970s and died more than four decades later from mesothelioma.”

On May 31, 2017, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled against the estate of James F. Piper and in favor of CBS Corp., owner of the company previously known as Westinghouse Electric.

“Piper was diagnosed with mesothelioma on December 26, 2013,” the lower court’s ruling reads. “The primary issue in the instant case is whether Piper’s cause of action against CBS is barred by the statute of repose.”

The “statute of repose,” according to the lower court ruling, “bars Piper’s cause of action against CBS, because Piper’s cause of action accrued when his mesothelioma was diagnosed in December 2013, which was more than twenty years after the turbine generator installed by Westinghouse at Morgantown became operational in July of 1970.”

The Sun reports, “Advocates say that if Piper’s estate wins the case, it could potentially open the door to lawsuits from others in similar situations who did not get sick until after the deadline to sue had passed. A coalition of unions and trade associations says the number could be in the tens of thousands of cases. …”

“The Maryland Defense Counsel, an organization of civil defense attorneys, filed a ‘friend of the court’ brief in support of CBS. The brief states that if the rules for the deadline to file cases are changed, businesses would lose ‘vital’ protections that were put into place ‘to protect businesses from facing construction-related claims like these years after the fact.”

Immigration Court Backlog Tops 650,000 in U.S. with California Leading Nation

Judge Dana Marks, President National Assoc. of Immigration Judges (PHOTO: National Association of Federal Immigration Judges)

Judge Dana Marks, President National Assoc. of Immigration Judges (PHOTO: National Association of Federal Immigration Judges)

According to the latest case-by-case court records, the backlog at the end of November 2017 had reached 658,728, up from 629,051 at the end of September 2017. That number is expected to continue to grow, with the Immigration Court number of pending cases anticipated to climb by an additional 30,000 in the first two months of 2018, outpacing 2017 increases.

California leads the country with the largest Immigration Court backlog of 123,217 cases. Texas is second with 103,384 pending cases as of the end of November 2017, followed by New York with 89,489 cases, reports TRAC. 

“There is no single explanation,” said Susan B. Long, TRAC’s co-director in a recent Newsday report. “These are people before immigration court. These are considered deportation cases, but they could very well be seeking asylum and various forms of relief” to stay in the country legally.

Newsday also reported, “‘The immigration judges feel like we’ve been the canaries in the coal mines, saying that the immigration courts would be overwhelmed with caseloads and backlogs for more than a decade,’ said Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco who is a spokeswoman for the National Association of Immigration Judges.”

The immigration backlog findings are based upon current case-by-case court records that were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

For further highlights see: http://trac.syr.edu/ phptools/immigration/court_ backlog/apprep_backlog.php.
For full details, go to TRAC’s online backlog tool at: http://trac.syr.edu/ phptools/immigration/court_ backlog/

Opioid makers face lawsuits

Image from a report in The Atlantic, 6/2/17, "Are Pharmaceutical Companies to Blame for the Opioid Epidemic?"

Image from a report in The Atlantic, 6/2/17, “Are Pharmaceutical Companies to Blame for the Opioid Epidemic?

Gripped by the tragic toll of prescription drug overdoses, states, municipalities and labor unions are suing opioid manufacturers.

“Philadelphia-area union workers are joining a wave of litigation against opioid manufacturers after losing eight members to addiction in 11 months,” Policy and Medicine reported in an Oct. 18, 2017 update.

“In addition to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 98 (IBEW) said it is preparing to file a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that have contributed to the growing opioid crisis.” Other local and national unions may join a class action suit, the site reported.

A coalition of 41 states’ attorneys general also served five major opioid manufacturers with subpoenas “seeking information about how these companies marketed and sold prescription opioids,” according to the update. “The coalition is also demanding documents and information related to distribution practices from three drug distributors.”

Many point to the tobacco industry as precedent for these lawsuits, when, in 1998, tobacco manufacturers, 46 states and six other jurisdictions entered into the largest civil-litigation settlement agreement in U.S. history.

“Some attorneys general and advocates are now asking in court whether the pharmaceutical companies who marketed the drugs and downplayed their addictive nature can be held legally responsible for—and made to pay for the consequences of—the crisis,” reports the Atlantic.

However, some legal experts say that the courts may not see it that way. According to that report, “With the tobacco-industry lawsuits, customers were using the product as instructed and got sick. With opioids it’s a different story: Customers are not using the pills as directed, and so it is harder to blame the pharmaceutical companies for the effects of that misuse, according to Lars Noah, a professor of law at the University of Florida. In addition, doctors, not consumers, were the ones targeted by the aggressive marketing campaigns undertaken by pharmaceutical companies, so it can be difficult to link consumer deaths with aggressive marketing.”

 

California ICE detention center faces class-action lawsuit

Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego County is at the center of a class-action lawsuit for its treatment of detainees. Photo Credit: Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune as reported in the LA Times on 12/30/17.

Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego County is at the center of a class-action lawsuit for its treatment of detainees. Photo Credit: Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune as reported in the
LA Times
on 12/30/17.

An immigrant detention center in San Diego that’s the focus of a class-action lawsuit over detainee treatment could be poised to expand.

“Otay Mesa Detention Center holds detainees in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for those with pending cases in immigration court,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

Now, a class-action lawsuit alleges that immigrants at the center are forced to labor despite the civil status of their adjudications.

“Although work programs that pay little are common in prisons, the complaint argues that there is a legal difference for those in the immigration system,” the LA Times article notes.

Immigration court is a civil court system, not a criminal one, so people going through the immigration court system cannot be detained as punishment. And that is the crux of the legal complaint.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in late December, comes as the center seeks to expand.

On Jan. 12, Voice of San Diego reported, “The private detention center in San Diego County is looking to grow its population of detainees, despite recent California laws that halt the expansion of for-profit detention centers in the state. The Otay Mesa Detention Center, owned by the private company CoreCivic, is able to do that thanks to a deal it struck years ago.

Sara Corcoran, Founding Publisher of the California Courts Monitor

Sara Corcoran, Founding Publisher of the California Courts Monitor

Courts Monitor Publisher and national correspondent, Sara Corcoran, provides insight on what we can expect in 2018 around the controversial asbestos litigation arena. Here’s an excerpt from her recent Huffington Post article, 2018: Trump-era Justice Asked to Turn The Tables in Asbestos Litigation:

“As 2018 gains full speed, it’s time for my annual look at trends in the nation’s longest-running personal injury litigation – asbestos. You may have peripheral awareness of it due to those “if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma” ads, but its reach is beyond those sound bites playing on loop.
Actually, asbestos lawsuits are the nation’s longest-running personal injury litigation and have driven nearly 100 companies into a special form of banktruptcy, where trust funds are set up to pay future liabilities. Those funds have become controversial and, in 2017, more than a dozen state attorneys general launched an investigation into whether asbestos trusts were skipping required payments to Medicaid or other agencies providing health care to asbestos victims. (When victims receive compensation for asbestos injuries, some of the money may be owed to repay agencies that provided health care, like Medicaid and veteran’s hospitals.)

Likely even more ominous for the plaintiff’s bar in 2018, the state AGs are asking President Trump’s Justice Department to join their investigations of the repayment issue. The letter making that ask was even noted during a U.S. Senate committee hearing.”

Read more: https://www. huffingtonpost.com/entry/2018- trump-era-justice-asked-to- turn-the-tables-in_us_ 5a4f819be4b0cd114bdb323b]

Apple iPhone slowdown spurs lawsuits

Photo image credit www.apple.com

Photo credit www.apple.com

Apple rejected claims that the company slowed down older iPhones to drive sales of newer models, even as a flurry of lawsuits hit the courts.

“Apple Inc (AAPL.O) defrauded iPhone users by slowing devices without warning to compensate for poor battery performance, according to eight lawsuits filed in various federal courts in the week since the company opened up about the year-old software change,” Reuters reported on Dec. 26.

According to the Reuters report, “All the lawsuits – filed in U.S. District Courts in California, New York and Illinois – seek class-action to represent potentially millions of iPhone owners nationwide.”

Apple wrote in a letter on its website, “First and foremost, we have never — and would never — do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades. Our goal has always been to create products that our customers love, and making iPhones last as long as possible is an important part of that.”

But Apple began offering a discount on battery replacements to customers with an iPhone 6 or later. “A battery replacement will cost $29 instead of $79 starting in late January,” the Washington Post reported on Dec. 28.

According to the Post, “Critics’ arguments largely have rested on two claims — that Apple hurt the performance of the phones in secret and that doing so made it more likely that someone would buy a new iPhone rather than fix their old one.”

Apple has rejected these accusations, however, the company subsequently stated it will be a bit more transparent with future upgrades: “Early in 2018, we will issue an iOS software update with new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone’s battery, so they can see for themselves if its condition is affecting performance.”

RICO law used to target marijuana businesses

herb-2915337_640An anti-mobster law, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, has emerged as a tool to fight marijuana-related businesses, including a case in Massachusetts citing “pungent odors” caused by consumption of the substance, among other negative effects.

Bloomberg reports, “While pot remains illegal under federal law, Massachusetts voters approved medical marijuana consumption in 2012 and recreational use in 2016; the latter will kick in next year. The drug is legal for at least one of the two purposes in 29 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam. But that doesn’t mean everybody wants a weed business next door. That’s why the burgeoning $6 billion marijuana business in the U.S. should view the RICO suits as serious threats, says Sean O’Connor, faculty director of the Cannabis Law and Policy Project at the University of Washington School of Law. Even if all the litigation fails, he says, ‘it could have its intended impact.’

“A lawsuit against Healthy Pharms in Cambridge, Mass., argues the company “would operate in flagrant disregard of the federal law that categorizes cannabis as a controlled substance every bit as illegal as heroin or cocaine.”

A similar lawsuit, a nearly 3-year-old suit in Colorado, is scheduled to go to trial in July, reports Marijuana Business Daily.

“This is an existential threat to the industry,” said Brian Barnes, an attorney with Cooper & Kirk law firm, according to the MBD.

Valerio Romano, an attorney for one of the Massachusetts defendants, said “the real impact of RICO suits could be to simply scare entrepreneurs into quitting the marijuana business.”