Would You Buy a Used Poll from These Men?

 | 

On Tuesday evening, June 5, two hours after voting closed in Wisconsin, the Los Angeles Times website was still headlining a story about how its exit polls projected an extremely close race — at a moment when the bulk of the vote was in, and Republican Governor Walker was running almost 20 points ahead of his opponent, Democratic Mayor Barrett of Milwaukee.

An hour before, CNN had somehow revised its exit-poll projections from 50–50 to a modest 52–48 for Walker. Even Fox News’ exit polls indicated a race that was “knife-edge” close. These polls were remarkably wrong. All the predictions were, including the predictions that brought 400 Democratic lawyers into Wisconsin, determined to contest a close election. (Wouldn’t you have loved to see those suits trooping off the plane in Milwaukee, cellphones and briefcases at the ready?) Walker won by a margin of about 7%, somewhat unusual in seriously contested American elections, but the same as President Obama’s national margin in 2008, sometimes hailed as a “landslide.”

Nevertheless, about an hour after CNN finally projected Walker as the winner, its hapless anchorman, John King, was still talking about the exit polls. While they were somewhat off, he said, they still indicated that Obama was way ahead of Romney in Wisconsin. Having said that, he turned to a map of the United States and changed Wisconsin from an expected Obama victory to a toss-up. Then, half an hour later, he opined, “Our exit polls clearly undercounted Walker” (yeah, do you think so?), but added that we shouldn’t project the Wisconsin results onto the national election in November. (Maybe — why not?)

Still later, with 80% of the votes in and Walker running 12 points ahead , King was prompted by his younger colleague, Erin Burnett (who, thank God for intelligence, kept harping on the disparity between polls and performance), to speculate about what had (obviously) gone wrong with the exit polls. Thereupon King babbled things about how you might overestimate something in an exit poll, or “guess” wrong, and that’s why you need to correct the exit polls when the actual votes come in. Huh? So what’s an exit poll? And what’s a poll? And why should we worship them? A commercial break; then King was asked another embarrassing question about the polls’ failure to predict what happened. He replied, “The exit polls were weighted anti-Walker, pro-Barrett.” Pardon me? What did he mean by that?




Share This


Tort Reform vs. “Loser Pays”

 | 

The concept of reforming the American legal system to adopt the “loser pays” system used in most foreign countries, by which the loser pays the winner’s attorney’s fees, is popular among libertarians. “Loser pays” is proposed as a means of deterring frivolous litigation and solving the problem of excessive lawsuits. When Texas recently adopted the system, it was championed as a victory for small business. I have seen John Stossel advocate it, and in Liberty I have seen Gary Jason endorse it in a comment on one of my essays. “Loser pays” is a policy that might seem reasonable to a non-lawyer layperson. To a lawyer like me, unfortunately, it looks like a policy with unintended and unfavorable consequences — and a policy that has little chance of accomplishing its purpose.

The idea that it will deter frivolous litigation hinges on the idea that the frivolous litigant will lose. Yet if frivolous litigants actually stand a good chance of winning, then “loser pays” deters nothing except poor people, who would find it riskier to access the justice system. In torts lawsuits, the laws are such that bad plaintiffs with bad suits often have a good chance of winning. For instance, Liebeck v.McDonald’s was a lawsuit in which a woman sued McDonald’s because she spilled hot coffee and burned herself, for which McDonald’s was held liable at trial for millions of dollars (mostly punitive damages) and ultimately settled the appeal. This is the quintessential bad lawsuit, and it was held up as a poster child for tort reform. Yet the plaintiff won at trial, on the argument that the coffee was excessively hot and the cup’s warning label was too small.

This lawsuit could have been stopped by reforming the law, that is, by creating a bar to punitive damages whenever there is a warning label. Because the case settled, it would have been unaffected by “loser pays.” Under “loser pays” the risk of having to pay McDonald’s’ legal defense fees if the plaintiff lost might have factored into her calculation of whether or not to sue. But she won the case at trial, and if cases like this happen, then who really expects plaintiffs with bad cases to be excessively afraid of losing? As I will explain below, you don't win a lawsuit because of the rationality of your claim but because of the emotions of the jury. So if a tort plaintiff can reach a jury, the jury trial system will be favorable to stupid lawsuits. The best solution is to reform the tort laws so that plaintiffs with ridiculous cases have no legal way to reach a jury.

You don't win a lawsuit because of the rationality of your claim but because of the emotions of the jury.

Meanwhile, “loser pays” is likely to scare poor people with valid claims away from court, by inspiring the fear not only of losing but also of paying the huge legal fees of a wealthier opponent’s high-powered law firm. The landmark civil rights litigation that helped to end Southern segregation might never have been filed in a “loser pays” system.

As for frivolous suits — There are already legal ethics rules and civil procedural rules that forbid and punish lawyers for bringing “frivolous”, “vexatious”, “abusive” suits, and there are provisions that enable judges quickly to dismiss baseless or groundless claims. “Loser pays” will add little to the tools that are already there to deal with the frivolous. In fact, the only way to prevent bad litigation is to eliminate the bad laws that form the legal basis of bad lawsuits.

Let me clear: I am an advocate of tort reform, just not of “loser pays” in particular. There are many tort reform policies to choose from that would reduce unnecessary or harmful litigation without toxic side effects. We could, for instance:

1. Reduce the percentage of the tort plaintiff’s contingent fees that are considered “reasonable.” Legal ethics rules ban lawyers from charging “unreasonable” fees, but a whopping 30% is considered reasonable, and 30% is the typical rate. I think a cap of 5% as “reasonable” would cut the amount of frivolous litigation in half. In this way, torts plaintiff lawyers would enter their practice with some other goal than becoming multimillionaires by exploiting the tragedies of their poor clients.

2. Eliminate class actions. The whole concept of class actions has always bothered me. To say that someone else has the right to litigate my claim without my consent or involvement, just because our claims are identical, is absurd, even if there are requirements of judicial consent and competent representation and the ability to opt out. Judicial efficiency, which is the valid motive of class actions, is not an excuse to let someone else litigate my case. Because class actions have millions of plaintiffs but only one law firm, the lawyers often make millions while the plaintiffs each get a few cents.

Now, there is already a rule in legal ethics codes that bans lawyers from representing multiple clients who have conflicts of interest with one another — something I believe most class action clients have, because each client’s claim is slightly different and might benefit from the case’s being tried differently. The conflict of interest rules are considered to be among the most important, yet class actions have a loophole. So instead of effecting a statutory ban, I propose simply to close the loophole and force class action lawyers to vet every member of the class for conflicts of interest. Any conflict would remove that class member. This would sharply reduce the volume of class action litigation.

3. Change the products liability tort standard from strict liability to negligence. Products liability cases are typically tried under a theory of “strict liability,” which means that fault (i.e. blame) need not be proven. Strict liability is an affront to logic, an abomination. While some see the purpose of tort law as deterrence, I see it as compensatory justice, which means that damages are supposed to restore a victim to the condition he or she would be in, had the defendant not made a bad decision. I view tort law and contract law as twin aspects of free will and personal responsibility, as recognized by law: contract law means that your choices will bind and control you, whereas tort law means that someone else’s choices will not be allowed to ruin you. If defendants have not made bad choices, there is no reason to make them pay.

If a tort plaintiff can reach a jury, the jury trial system will be favorable to stupid lawsuits.

Although a layperson might think of negligence as something that happened to cause an unintended accident, the better understanding is that it consists of the choice to be careless and risk-prone. The strict liability standard has been justified on the grounds that product defects are technologically complicated and it would be too difficult to prove negligence, but this is no excuse for bad law. We should force plaintiffs to prove negligence. Then everyone will benefit from cheaper prices, because manufacturers’ litigation costs will decrease.

4. Reform the standard of negligence for medical malpractice, so as to create a safe harbor. Medical fees skyrocket when doctors are forced to pay huge medical malpractice insurance premiums, and the practice of medicine is compromised when doctors based their decisions on fear of being sued, not the health needs of their patients. My safe harbor proposal is that if a medical practice or hospital had a written policy of procedures designed to prevent the type of malpractice that is at issue in a case, and the policy was implemented and regularly enforced and internally audited for compliance, then negligence cannot be proven. Similarly, if a surgeon or delivery obstetrician had a checklist of risks to prevent, a list that multiple doctors double-checked at the time of the surgery or childbirth, and the negligence at issue was on the list, then the doctor would have entered a safe harbor.

This is simply common sense: if the doctors were taking every possible systematic action to limit risk, then they were not negligent. Such precautionary policies would protect patients from accidents far more effectively than the tort lawsuits that drive up medical costs. Such a negligence test would cut frivolous lawsuits. State legislatures can codify my safe harbor rule, but clever judges could tacitly incorporate it into preexisting common law med mal negligence standards.

5. Put a statutory dollar limit cap on damages. My understanding is that a civil trial is really just a popularity contest in which the jury votes for the lawyer it liked the most. Instead of faithfully interpreting the judge’s instructions to the jury (which are often so technical that only a lawyer could properly apply them), the jury awards lots of money to the party it likes and punishes whichever parties it disliked, by making them pay huge damages. Usually poor old helpless plaintiff Mr. P, the janitor with a wife and five children who is suing because he broke his leg, is more sympathetic than the rich big business defendant Corporation D, especially when Mr. P’s lawyer slyly insinuates that D cut corners on safety in order to make a profit. This is the open secret, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, when people talk about tort lawsuits and tort reform. This is also one reason why “loser pays” is ridiculous: from a practical, pragmatic, no-nonsense point of view there is no reason to believe that the loser is the one who deserved to lose.

The right to a jury trial in cases that are “at law” (i.e. where the plaintiff seeks money) is constitutionally “inviolate,” and I leave for another essay the question of whether jury trials should be comprehensively reformed. However, at a bare minimum justice demands that we solve the problem of headstrong juries by removing jurors' discretion to award damages in excess of what the intent of the law indicates, simply because they happen to feel sympathy for one side or another. Activist judges who do not faithfully apply the law are a problem, but so too are activist juries. A legislative statutory solution to place reasonable, honest dollar value caps on each of the different types of damages, or to lower the caps that already exist, is one feasible fix.

In conclusion: “loser pays” is far inferior to the American Rule, in which each party pays his own attorney’s fees regardless of who wins or loses the trial;but there are tort reform solutions available if voters elect legislators and judges who will use them.




Share This


Beer Battle

 | 

Here in Alabama we beer drinkers are still warring with the state. We won our most recent engagement, however. On May 16, the governor signed a bill allowing our favorite elixir to be served in 25.4-ounce, rather than 16-ounce, containers.

Of course, the goal of the state had been to keep large quantities of beer out of the lower colons of our young people. This assumes a school system that doesn’t teach that 2 times 16 is 32 and 3 times 16 is 48 — both larger than 25.4.

A couple of years back, in 2009, we legalized beers with over 6% alcohol. So we’re definitely making progress.

The opposition filibustered the large-bottle bill, ranting that alcohol had “broken up many families.” Yeah, I guess. So has fried chicken.

“Dear, pass me that drumstick.”

“But you ate the first one, and I want that remaining plump piece of chicken. Here’s a nice, crispy neck for you.”

The drumstick consumer throws the bone of the first — now deceased — drumstick at his “dear” dinner partner. (Not the half-full beer bottle, which she served without a glass.) Obviously, a freshman sociology student could observe this tension brewing for weeks.

And remember, all you legislators, he threw the chicken bone — not the beer bottle. So what’s beer got to do with it? More importantly, what’s the state legislature got to do with it?




Share This


In the Land of Blind Men

 | 

I, like you, have become accustomed to the hypocrisies of collectivists established in politics and the popular culture. Examples are legion, but here are two that have stuck with me:

  • Sen. John Kerry, who once called Americans who avoid high taxes “traitors,” showed all the integrity you’d expect from a gigolo by docking his rich wife’s multi-million-dollar yacht in Rhode Island instead of his native Massachusetts to avoid paying some $500,000 in sales tax and other fees in the Bay State.
  • More recently, the past-his-expiration-date pop singer Bruce Springsteen grasped desperately at street credibility by claiming spiritual kinship with the Occupy Wall Street movement in between jaunts across the pond to watch his daughter jump horses in front of the Queen of England.

There’s a hardened cynicism to these charlatans that I can almost respect. They’re like the Soviet Union’s porcine apparatchiks, mumbling allegiance to the proletariat during the week before speeding off to their dachas for weekends of vodka, caviar, and ritzy mistresses. Decadent men, stewing in the karmic juices of false words and incoherent lives.

But I’m troubled by the paste-eating stupidity of younger collectivists. They’re too dumb to be cynical, too oblivious to be decadent. And they aren’t worthy adversaries.

Consider one Will Doig, a featured essayist for the online magazine Salon.com. The callow Mr. Doig’s beat is “Dream City,” which the mandarins of “progressive” politics at Salon.com describe as follows:

How should we build the cities of our dreams? How do we create the urban spaces which reflect our values and the ways we want to live? In cities around the world, the future is being created now — and Will Doig will chronicle the most exciting and innovative ideas.

Presumptuous use of pronouns. In the immortal words of Tonto: “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?” Or “our”? And these points keep coming up.

A recent Doig essay was titled and blurbed “When the 1 percent say no / Cities need public transit and affordable housing. But outdated laws make it easy for the wealthy to block progress.” I’m not going to fisk the entire thing — if you’re so inclined, you can read it yourself. But I do want to point out a few, instructive examples of its stupidity.

Both title and subtitle smack of search-engine optimization (SEO) — the Internet marketing discipline of writing in a way that increases a web page’s likely ranking on Google, Yahoo, etc. In a relatively short space come several phrases cherished by collectivists: “1%,” “public transit,” “affordable housing,” “outdated laws,” and, of course, “the wealthy.” These phrases have taken on totemic qualities — and have lost any real meaning to a broad audience. As George Orwell points out in “Politics and the English Language,” such clichés elicit emotional response in a few hearts but cease to mean any actual thing.

(A note: Doig probably did not write the title/subtitle himself. At most magazines, staff editors do that. That’s especially true when the titles are chock-full of SEO buzzwords.)

Mr. Dream City begins his essay by excoriating the burghers of Beverly Hills for using California’s environmental-impact laws to prevent a segment of subway from being burrowed under their homes.

Right off, Doig makes several lazy mistakes:

  • His characterization of Beverly Hills as an enclave of the wealthiest few is wrong. Most of the city’s residents are professionals, mid- to upper-level corporate managers, and small-business owners desperate enough for status to rent or buy homes in an overpriced — even by southern California standards — ZIP code. The 1% live closer to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Opposition to the subway in Los Angeles is not limited to the strivers in Beverly Hills. Property owners (both residential and commercial) in just about every affected neighborhood have objected to the nuisance of lengthy construction since the decades-old project’s earliest days. The focus on the latest stage of the fight shows considerable selection bias.
  • Doig shows a remarkable obliviousness to irony. The strivers of Beverly Hills are using the same tactics that environmentalist opponents of private-sector real estate development have been using in California for decades. As a man of the Left, Doig should recognize Alinsky tactics: the attorneys and VPs are making the state follow the same Kafkaesque rules that they have to follow.

This blindness to irony abounds in Doig’s essay. Some of his complaints sound more like Donald Trump or the owner of your local strip-mall than Le Corbusier:

The threat of lawsuits and endless public hearings have delayed the project. . . . public micromanagement has become such a problem that several cities are now trying to rein in the Not-In-My-Backyard crowd. “The current process does not work for anyone,” one urban design expert told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We want the Planning Commission to focus on big planning issues, not micro-design issues.”

Public micromanagement? Dude, who’s supposed to oversee public projects? Some urban design expert’s “we”? I, for one, don’t want Planning Commissions focusing on anything. In most situations, I’d like to see them abolished. Put all land in private hands and let the largest property-owners in an area decide among themselves whether they want to spend the millions — or billions — required to build a mass transit system.

Of course, Doig’s “we” is the same as Pauline Kael’s “anyone.” More a reflection of the limits of his worldview than a first-person, plural.

Dream City also fails to grok, or even acknowledge, the role of personal property rights in the social contract. You won’t find the word “property” anywhere in the essay. And, as Doig doesn’t understand personal property, he doesn’t understand takings — something that the founders of this country understood so well that they limited the government’s property-taking power in several ways.

Here’s as close as he comes to stumbling across the concept of takings:

. . . in 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act gave anyone in that state the power to stymie development by questioning its eco-friendliness, a right that’s routinely abused. These rules, designed to check the power of city officials, now perversely consolidate immense power in the hands of a few outspoken “concerned citizens.” . . . Worst of all, these rules have created a new norm in which individual residents just assume that their personal opinions should carry great weight in routine planning decisions.

A “new norm” where citizens assume their opinions carry weight? The stupidity of these sentences is so thick the passage reads like Swift satire. Sadly, it’s not. But it is an almost complete inversion of the reality of the last 40 years, when bogus public interest groups have stymied the plans of individuals and private entities to develop their own property.

To be clear, precious Will: the “personal opinions” of “individual residents” should carry great weight, especially when those residents own the land under which “we” would like to dig a massive subway tunnel. They are an important check against “our” taking or doing things that diminish the value of personal property.

The column ends up butchering the writings of several left-wing economists who study risk theory. The goal seems to be to set “anti-development activism” in the context of bad economic policy. But it fails because Doig doesn’t realize that most “development” is carried out not by some collectivist “we” but by individual private-sector entities. Even in Dream Cities.

I do like one of his conclusions, though: “if a proposed development’s impact is unclear, it’s crucial to take into account not just its unforeseen negative effects, but its unforeseen positive ones, too.” I’ll break out that quote the next time enviro-hipster carpetbaggers come to my county to protest the development of an empty lot into a golf course.

Salon.com isn’t a serious political magazine. Its business model seems to be to launch the TV careers of left-wing talking heads whose rising media profiles will result in clicks and advertising revenue. Bon chance. If its talking heads are as oblivious as Will Doig, we won’t have Salon.com to kick around for very much longer.




Share This

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.