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Three Martini Lunch:
The Week In Law and Media

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, or both.

         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

Tort Aristocrats

         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

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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 at cstracher@findlaw.com.
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