And the Award for Most-Recalled Vehicle of 2014 Goes to….

There will be no red carpets or teary acceptance speeches, but the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra have driven off with the Most Recalled Vehicle of 2014 award, according to CNN. The popular pickup trucks have been recalled six times so far in 2014. And with the leaves still on the trees, there’s plenty of time to pad the record.

The various equipment and safety issues that have spurred the recalls include steering problems, and floor mats that won’t stay put. Some recalls have affected just a few hundred vehicles. But as the CNNMoney article points out: “[J]ust because a recall is small doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. The steering problem flagged in May was so serious that GM called owners, sent overnight letters and used the OnStar in-vehicle communication system to warn them to stop driving the pickups immediately.”

Why would GM go to such extremes? When a vehicle recall is initiated, whether by the manufacturer or by a federal safety agency such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), federal law requires the manufacturer to take a number of steps to let vehicle owners know about the recall — including filing a public report, searching for affected owners, and sending out notification letters. Learn more about Vehicle Safety Recalls.

Want to know whether your vehicle, child safety seat, or other equipment has been the subject of a recall or safety alert? Check out the NHTSA Safety Database to do a little online research.

Stadium Security Lax in L.A.; Dodgers Liable for Fan Beating

A Los Angeles jury has returned an $18 million verdict in a civil case against the Los Angeles Dodgers and two men over the beating of a San Francisco Giants fan in the Dodger Stadium parking lot back in 2011.

Bryan Stow, a 45 year-old former paramedic from Santa Cruz, attended a Dodgers-Giants game on the night of March 31, 2011. Stow, who was wearing Giants gear, was attacked in the parking lot after the game. He suffered head injuries and was left with permanent brain injuries and lifelong physical disabilities.

The case against the Dodgers rested on allegations that the team didn’t do enough to provide adequate security in and around the stadium on the night of the assault. The jury heard testimony on under-staffed security and poor lighting around the facility, and after nine days of deliberations they agreed (by a 9 to 3 vote) with plaintiffs’ attorneys that the team was negligent and should be on the financial hook for some of the costs of Stow’s ongoing medical care and other losses.

Stow’s assailants, Louie Sanchez and Marvin Norwood, were convicted of criminal assault earlier this year. As part of yesterday’s verdict, the civil jury found the two of them liable, along with the team.

The jury determined that the Dodgers organization was only 25 percent liable for the harm suffered by Snow, but the team will be on the hook for $13.9 million of the $18 million verdict. Why the discrepancy between the fault finding and the dollar amount? It’s a good question, and the Los Angeles Times has the answer: Under California law, regardless of the fault apportionment, the team is responsible for the entirety of Stow’s compensatory damages, meaning his medical bills and lost earnings. But when it comes to non-compensatory damages like pain and suffering, the team is only required to pay its share (a quarter of the more than $5 million that jurors said Stow is entitled to).

Learn more about How Damages Work in a Personal Injury Case.

Airplane Turbulence Injuries: Liability is Up in the Air

Five people had to be hospitalized on Monday after their United Airlines flight encountered some rough turbulence on the flight path between Denver and Billings, Montana. (Get the full story from The Denver Post.)

While a particularly bumpy flight can lead to rows full of white knuckles and muttered prayers, the fact is that actual injuries caused by turbulence are pretty rare.  According to the Federal Aviation Administration, every year around 58 people in the U.S. are injured by turbulence on a commercial flight. Over an almost-20 year period (from 1980 through 2008), 298 airline passengers and flight attendants were seriously injured in a turbulence-related incident, and three people died.

But what if you are injured on a turbulent flight? It’s possible that the airline could be held legally responsible for your injuries, especially since airlines are considered “common carriers” and the law imposes a heightened duty of care on them. That means airlines must use the vigilance of a very cautious person in order to protect passengers from potential harm.

That heightened standard of care doesn’t guarantee that you will have an easy time proving your case, however. It’s not enough to show that your flight experienced turbulence and that you were injured as a result. You also need to prove that the airline or one of its employees was somehow negligent in connection with the incident.

So, did the captain and the flight crew take reasonable steps to avoid the turbulence and follow proper protocol for warning passengers — ordering everyone to return to their seats and fasten their seat belts, for example? Was the flight understaffed? You could also have a valid claim against the manufacturer of a seatbelt or other piece of equipment if it was defective or otherwise did not perform properly, and that played a role in your injury.

On the other side of the causation coin, if the plane’s captain warned passengers to stay in their seats with their seatbelts fastened because the aircraft was entering a particularly rough stretch of turbulent air, and you decided to stretch your legs in the aisle anyway, the airline is likely to argue that you share most or all of the blame for your own injuries.

For everything you need to know about these kinds of cases, check out Nolo’s popular article Airplane Turbulence and In-Flight Injuries.

It’s a Super Bowl Party! Who Brought the Lawsuit?

What’s more American than twelve-minute renditions of the National Anthem and sexually suggestive potato chip commercials? Lawsuits, that’s what.

Maybe your Seahawks fan buddy has an awesome recipe for German potato salad that involves leaving the dish in the trunk of his car for 24 hours. Perhaps that weird friend of a friend in the Peyton Manning jersey keeps doing a shot of Jagermeister every time number 18 calls “Omaha!” at the line of scrimmage.

With the Super Bowl only a few days away, before you open your home to friends and family (and show off your new billboard-sized flat screen for the big game), remember that you could also be opening yourself up to legal liability. If, for example:

  • someone is injured on your property
  • someone comes down with a bad case of food poisoning because of something they ate while they were at your party (whether you made the food or not), or
  • someone has too much to drink before they leave your place, they get behind the wheel, and they end up getting into a drunk driving accident.

The specifics of your potential liability as a homeowner depend on the laws that are in place in your state. And whether or not you’re sufficiently protected in case of a lawsuit depends on the coverage details you can find in your homeowner’s insurance policy.

All of this good advice is brought to you by the party poopers fine folks over at Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, Inc. Check out their Super Bowl Party Playbook for all the details.

FDA Lets Avandia Up Off the Mat

Harsh sales restrictions on the once-popular diabetes medication Avandia have been lifted by the FDA. Use of the drug will no longer be limited to certain patients, and new labeling will be pretty much in-line with other prescription diabetes meds. Maybe you’re reading this and asking yourself, “Hey, isn’t the FDA sort of doing a complete 180 on Avandia?” Not a bad question.

The restrictions have been in place since 2010, when, on the heels of a study that linked Avandia use to an increase in heart problems, the FDA ordered that Avandia only be prescribed to certain diabetes patients whose condition could not be adequately controlled with any other medication.

The FDA wasn’t done with Avandia in 2010. The following year, the agency announced that the drug would no longer be available through retail pharmacies, and that only a very limited number of patients would still be able to receive it. Those patients needed to be enrolled in a special program before receiving Avandia via mail order, from specially-certified pharmacies.

So, why the regulatory change of heart now? A recent clinical trial suggested that Avandia use actually comes with no elevated risk of heart attack or death when compared with other diabetes drugs. Not that the new study was without controversy — check out this Wall Street Journal article featuring a few barbs from critics of the trial and the way it was carried out.

It sounds like Avandia’s new labeling will be pretty standard, according to the FDA announcement: “The FDA anticipates that the new indication will state that the drug may be used along with diet and exercise to improve control of blood sugar in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus, an indication similar to other diabetes drugs currently available.”

Learn about Product Liability Claims Involving Pharmaceutical Drugs.

Tesla Model S Gets Federal Safety Probe After Fires

On the heels of three incidents in which Tesla Model S cars have caught fire after striking road debris, the federal government has announced that it is investigating a potential vehicle safety defect involving the popular electric car — specifically, the effect of “undercarriage strikes” on the vehicle’s battery compartment.

Here’s what the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation had to say in announcing the Tesla probe:

    The ODI is aware of two incidents occurring on US public highways in which the subject vehicles caught fire after an undercarriage strike with metallic roadway debris. The resulting impact damage to the propulsion battery tray (baseplate) initiated thermal runaway. In each incident, the vehicle’s battery monitoring system provided escalating visible and audible warnings, allowing the driver to execute a controlled stop and exit the vehicle before the battery emitted smoke and fire.
    Based on these incidents, NHTSA is opening this preliminary evaluation to examine the potential risks associated with undercarriage strikes on model year 2013 Tesla Model S vehicles.

According to the Washington Post, it’s not clear whether Tesla CEO Elon Musk asked the NHTSA to look into the issue — Musk claims he did, but the head of the agency said he was “not aware” of any such request.

In any case, Musk isn’t thrilled with the picture that the media is painting when it comes to the Model S and its propensity to catch fire, and he may have a fair point.

In a blog post on the Tesla website, Musk makes the argument that three incidents of fire involving the Model S does not add up to a safety problem, especially when you put that incident rate side-by-side with the one for gasoline-powered cars. Here is the numbers breakdown from Musk:

    There are now substantially more than the 19,000 Model S vehicles on the road, for an average of one fire per at least 6,333 cars, compared to the rate for gasoline vehicles of one fire per 1,350 cars. By this metric, you are more than four and a half times more likely to experience a fire in a gasoline car than a Model S! Considering the odds in the absolute, you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla.

J&J Pays $2.2 Billion Fine to Feds Over Risperdal

Drug giant Johnson & Johnson, makers of the anti-psychotic medication Risperdal, have agreed to pay $2.2 billion in fines over allegations that the prescription drug was inappropriately marketed to older dementia patients and to children with behavioral disabilities.

The agreement was announced yesterday by the U.S. Department of Justice, which called it “one of the largest health care fraud settlements in U.S. history, including criminal fines and forfeiture totaling $485 million and civil settlements with the federal government and states totaling $1.72 billion.” In legalese, that is what is known as a “whopping” amount of money.

Risperdal is part of a class of “atypical antipsychotic” medications used to treat mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and irritability associated with autistic disorder.

Johnson & Johnson and other makers of atypical antipsychotics have come under regulatory scrutiny for for illegally touting these drugs for unapproved uses, and in spite of clear health risks. The New York Times calls yesterday’s settlement “part of a decade-long effort by the federal government to hold the health care giant — and other pharmaceutical companies — accountable.” Learn more about Lawsuits Over Risperdal and Other Antipsychotic Drugs.

J&J actually lost its patent protection for Risperdal a few years back, but the company is still paying a hefty price for a questionable-slash-illegal marketing strategy over the once-popular drug.

The Sriracha Lawsuit: Is the Popular Hot Sauce Also a Public Nuisance?

Makers of the hot sauce Sriracha have been feeling the regulatory heat recently from the southern California city of Irwindale, ever since processing at the company’s plant led to complaints of burning eyes, sore throats, and headaches from a number of locals.

The city of Irwindale filed a lawsuit against Huy Fong Foods, manufacturers of Sriracha, alleging that odors emanating from the facility amount to a “public nuisance.” The city is seeking an injunction which would force the company to cease all chile processing operations that are causing the olfactory offense, and even asked a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to issue a temporary restraining order that would halt all such processing immediately. On October 31, the judge refused to issue the TRO and ruled that the factory can stay open for now. A hearing is set for November 22.

So, what is a “public nuisance”? For the most part, it’s just what it sounds like. It occurs when the defendant property owner (here, Huy Fong Foods) engages in some sort of conduct that is offensive or harmful to a large segment of the community. The conduct can produce sound, odor, even vibrations or some other disturbance that is offensive or obnoxious.

If a small number of local homeowners were suing the company directly, that would be a “private nuisance” action. Private nuisance cases are similar to personal injury cases in that you can get money damages when the defendant’s conduct interferes with your use and enjoyment of your property. But usually this kind of lawsuit also asks a court to force the defendant to stop doing the thing that is causing the alleged harm.

Learn more about Private Nuisance vs. Public Nuisance Cases and Remedies Available for Private Nuisance.

Since the judge in the Sriracha case denied Irwindale’s request for immediate closure of the plant, fans of the hot sauce can spice things up at their pleasure for now. But if the nation does face a “Rooster Sauce” crisis, the N.Y. Daily News offers these Sriracha alternatives in case there’s a shortage.

Salmonella Illnesses Linked to Foster Farms Chicken

At least 278 cases of salmonella illness have been linked to Foster Farms chicken products from processing facilities in California, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service has announced.

The specific affected products haven’t been pinpointed, but so far federal safety officials have identified raw Foster Farms chicken products that consumers should be on the lookout for. According to the Public Safety Alert from the FSIS, raw products that came from the three facilities in question will have one of these unique identifying numbers inside of a USDA mark of inspection or somewhere on the packaging:

  • “P6137”
  • “P6137A”
  • “P7632”

FSIS also says that the products were mainly distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington State. The majority of the 278 reported illnesses have been in California, but NBC News reports that people in 18 states have been sickened.

The strain linked to this outbreak is known as Salmonella Heidelberg. Salmonella-related illnesses are some of the most common foodborne illnesses, but infections can be serious and even life-threatening especially, for the very young and the elderly. According to the FSIS, “the most common symptoms of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within eight to 72 hours. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.”

On the legal side, lawsuits over food poisoning aren’t the easiest to win. If you get sick after consuming a certain product or dining in a certain restaurant, it is one thing to suspect that you ate something that was “bad.” Proving it is another story. It usually requires the preservation of evidence (i.e. a portion of what you ate) and authentication of the source (i.e. that it came from a certain manufacturer or restaurant). But when foodborne illness is tied to a public safety announcement (like this one) or to the recall of a certain product, it may make for easier sledding from a potential plaintiff’s perspective.

Study: More Kids at ER for Sports-Related Brain Injuries

A new study shows that almost twice as many kids are visiting emergency rooms with sports-related head injuries these days, compared with the number from 10 years ago. The study, titled Emergency Department Utilization Trends in Sports-Related Traumatic Brain Injury, was just released online in the journal “Pediatrics.” But while the numbers show a big uptick in visits to the ER, the trend for admissions to the hospital remains largely unchanged.

Here are some highlights from the study:

  • Data included kids up to 19 years of age who visited Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s emergency room or trauma center from 2002 to 2011.
  • Hospital registries were analyzed to determine how many of those children were admitted and given a primary or secondary diagnosis of traumatic brain injury.
  • Participation in a sports activity was found to have prompted 15.4 percent of these ER visits.
  • Just over 90 percent of kids were checked out and discharged, while just over nine percent were admitted.
  • ER visits for sports-related TBIs increased 92% over the study period, but there was no significant change in the percentage of children who were admitted.

It is highly unlikely that kids are actually suffering twice as many brain injuries as they did 10 years ago, or that the injuries they are sustaining are more serious all of a sudden. More than anything else, studies like this one probably illustrate the vastly increased amount of attention being paid to head injuries, especially concussions, everywhere from the playground to the NFL. (More: NFL and Players Reach $765M Concussion Settlement.)

10 years ago, parents may not have been all that in tune with the significant risks that could come if their child hit their head in gymnastics or had their “bell rung” colliding with a teammate on the soccer field. These days, a justifiable abundance of caution is being exercised when it comes to sports-related head injuries.