The Week In Law
by Cameron Stracher
Nice Work, If You Can Get It
Pop quiz: You discover $700,000 that isn't
yours in your bank account. Do you: a) spend the money as fast as you can; b) invent an
implausible tale in case anybody asks; or, c) sue the people who accidentally deposited the
money in your account? If you're Susan Madakor, the answer is: (d) all of the above. Ms.
Madakor is the woman who accidentally received $701,998 in the form of 13 wire transfers from
six countries. The money was intended for deposit into a United Nations account that was
earmarked for a fund to rescue endangered plants and animals. But as Ms. Madakor saw it, the
deposits were no accident; she claimed she just thought she had won an international lottery.
(This, despite the fact that local TV news reports showed her averting her eyes and mumbling
when she said she couldn't remember whether she gave the lottery her bank account number).
With her lottery "winnings," Madakor bought a laundry business for $100,000, paid off $30,000
in credit card debt, furnished a new apartment, leased a minivan, and was in negotiations to
buy a liquor store when Chase Manhattan Bank froze her account at the request of the U.N. So of
course Ms. Madakor did what any self-respecting American would do. She sued.
Now I don't know about you, but if the bank
made an error in my favor, I'd make like you do in Monopoly and take the money and run. The
more liquid, the better. Vacations are good. So are expensive dinners. They can't make you
disgorge the seared yellowfin tuna at the Four Seasons (well, they can, but they don't want to;
trust me. I'm a lawyer.). When they finally catch you (because they always catch you, that's
what they use those little cameras in the ATM's for), you get to say, whoops, you got
me, and then giggle. So you have to wonder about a woman who buys a laundromat, furniture,
and a minivan, and then sues because her quality of life was disrupted. She's either really
stupid, or she genuinely believes she won an international lottery she can't remember entering,
Madakor's real mistake, however, was in
choosing the wrong entity to sue. It's the U.N. who traumatized her by putting that money into
her account, and it's the U.N. she should go after if they won't give her the rest. After all,
she earned it. And the U.N. would only waste it trying to save endangered species when we all
know the world is going to end in about five minutes anyway.
Burn, baby, burn. Live it up
Speaking of brain damage, I find myself
agreeing with the Wall Street Journal more frequently these days. (I also find myself
saying, "That's not music; it's noise," a lot, too).
Take the Journal's description of attorney
Michael Hausfeld, the lawyer who is spearheading the class action against Monsanto for
allegedly failing to adequately test the safety of genetically modified corn and soybean
plants. According to the Journal's editorial page, he's a "corporate shakedown artist." In a
separate news profile of Mr. Hausfeld on January 4, Journal reporter Paul M. Barrett asks: "Is
there a hot social issue that attorney Michael Hausfeld hasn't turned into a lawsuit
lately?" In addition to the Monsanto lawsuit, Hausfeld is involved in suits against managed
healthcare companies, handgun manufacturers, Microsoft, the vitamin industry, and, just for
good measure -- Nazis.
Now I don't know about the vitamin industry, but Nazis are definitely bad guys in my book. And
I don't like handguns, Microsoft, or my friendly neighborhood healthcare monopolist either. But
last time I looked, we had these guys we've elected who are supposed to make laws to protect us
from vitamins. Putting the power of social change in the hands of an unelected smarty-pants
like Mr. Hausfeld is downright un-democratic. In fact, it heralds the troubling rise of a
dangerous phenomenon: the tort aristocrat.
You don't have to be Clarence Thomas to
believe that the assault on our country's social ills by plaintiffs' lawyers has gone too far.
Now that our best and brightest have seen that they can actually have fun, wreak social change,
and make money all at the same time, who's left to defend toxic multinationals, Nazi-owned
vitamin companies, and genetically altered corn? An American way of life, premised on the
exploitation of the many by the few, has been inverted. Suddenly, the courthouses are filled
with clamoring multitudes seeking their pound of flesh from the out-litigated husks that used
to be America's proudest corporations.
It's enough to make you weep, then run
out and sue the U.N.
January 10, 2000
Cameron Stracher is the author of Double
Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair. He
has written about legal issues for Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, among
other publications. He lives in New York City, where he practices media law. He can be reached