In the immediate aftermath of one of the worst disasters in Michigan’s history, evidence has emerged that the Edenville Dam failure could have been avoided. Long before the catastrophic event, both regulators and the dam’s owners knew the 96-year-old structure did not meet federal or state capacity standards, which are imposed to ensure dams can withstand major flooding. In fact, state regulators were actively investigating the dam’s capacity when record rainfall overwhelmed the structure. Flood waters washed out a 900-foot section of the dam’s eastern earthen dike, releasing the waters of Wixom Lake into the Tittabawassee River. The torrential surge flowed downstream to Sanford Lake, where it overwhelmed the Sanford Dam, inundating large swaths of Midland and Saginaw counties. Over 10,000 people were evacuated before the flood waters crested.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission identified the dam’s susceptibility to failure as early as 1993, urging the owner to increase spillway capacity. When the dam’s current owner, Boyce Hydro Power, LLC, acquired the dam, federal regulators brought the structural failings to its attention. However, in 2018 the federal government turned regulation of the dam over to the State of Michigan. Michigan’s regulatory scheme is far less stringent than the federal laws under which the dam formerly operated.
Despite knowledge of the dam’s weaknesses, the State of Michigan actively urged Boyce Hydro to keep Wixom Lake’s water level high, since shoreline residents and those who used the lake for recreation found higher water levels more appealing. Additionally, state regulators took more drastic action to ensure higher water levels in order to preserve habitat for certain freshwater mussels. In the falls of 2019, Boyce Hydro asked state regulators if it could lower the lake level, but the state denied the request, stating that a similar drawdown in 2018 killed a number of the endangered mussels. Boyce proceeded to draw the lake level down despite the state’s refusal. In response, the state filed a lawsuit against the company in April of 2020. Boyce claims it raised the lake level this spring because of pressure from shoreline residents and state regulators.
Tort law principles will ensure businesses and institutions place safety over efficiency and profits while the country begins to restart economic activity. America’s complex relationship with personal injury lawsuits stokes a collective cognitive dissonance, where our most treasured values are locked in conflict. We hold justice, accountability, and sympathy as individual and cultural ideals. When a community member is injured, whether physically, emotionally, or financially, societal norms dictate communal action, surrounding the suffering individual with comfort and support. On the other side of the same coin, society expects individuals responsible for another’s injury acknowledge their fault and expend proportionate resources to repair the damage done. Personal injury lawsuits advance these ideals, forcing compliance with our cultural values under the authority of the state.
At the same time, self-determination and self-reliance are both elemental components of our nation’s social fabric. For better or worse, we often credit an individual’s circumstances as a function of his or her integrity and fortitude. In the immortal words of Joseph P. Kennedy, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Since the 1970s, insurance companies and corporate interests have waged a war on personal injury law through a process labeled as “tort reform.” Although this article is not intended to dive into that complex subject, tort reform met with some success coloring personal injury lawsuits as the vehicle of the sneaky and weak to obtain untold sums of undeserved money.
In the tort reform era, the role personal injury lawsuits play in advancing public interests is sometimes overlooked. From reigning in overzealous pharmaceutical companies from prematurely introducing new, untested drugs, to holding manufacturers to account for profiting from dangerous consumer goods, tort law has saved Americans from countless injuries and deaths. It is critical for our safety that business interests operate under the threat of litigation to reign in risky commercial gambits.
A few weeks ago, the global economy rolled forward under its own immense inertia. While concerns of an economic downturn were growing, few suspected the preceding years of expansion would end overnight . . . yet here we are. It wasn’t the business cycle; it wasn’t an overheated housing market; it wasn’t irresponsible financial products. The behemoth was struck down where it stood because workers stopped working. Over the last five weeks, over 26 million people in the United States filed for unemployment assistance. In addition to those who lost their jobs, many employees were sent home to work or are temporarily laid off. What sort of protection do these employees have when restrictions are lifted and companies call them back to the workplace?
Lawmakers are debating when and how to reopen the larger economy—some arguing for a rapid reopening designed to minimize the length of time commerce remains stagnant, while others plea for a cautious reopening focused on minimizing infection rates. Although much depends on the way government loosens the current restrictions, tension between employee safety and the desire to resume normal operations is certain to grow.
Employees may feel powerless when their employers ask them to return to work. Can an employer fire employees who are reluctant to perform certain tasks? Should an employee that suffers from a medical condition that increases the danger of the virus be forced to return upon the employer’s demand? What if a worker has been exposed to the virus during the shutdown? Can employees be required to test in order to return to work?
Neumann Law Group has a proven track record challenging insurance coverage denials. Today, more and more businesses are suffering extensive losses, either directly from the corona virus, or from governmental action shutting down operations to mitigate the public health risk. Many businesses have paid insurance companies premiums for years to ensure protection in the event of a business stoppage by purchasing business interruption and civil authority policies or riders. Now, when small businesses need the most help, insurance companies are not providing much needed assistance.
Nationwide, almost all insurers offering business interruption coverage or civil authority coverage have denied claims related to COVID-19. The two types of policies are interrelated. Business interruption coverage allow companies to hedge against certain losses when the business suffers physical damage or loss that interferes with its ability to operate. Civil interruption coverage generally allows recovery when a civil authority issues an order closing a business or interfering with normal operations.
First and foremost, if you don’t know whether your business has such coverage, call your agent and find out. Most policies require the insured to submit claims promptly, so making a timely claim is critical. The types of injury upon which business have filed claims include lost income due to business closure, lost income due to public knowledge of infections on premises, costs of sanitization and employee testing, and a host of other claims specific to particular businesses.
Neumann Law Group is ready to assist small businesses and self-employed individuals prepare for the anticipated second round of funding to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, as well as helping our clients navigate the application process following Congressional action. Although the content of what is being called an “interim stimulus package” remains the subject of considerable debate, nearly all economists and business leaders agree the measure is crucial to mitigate the shocking unemployment crisis facing the United States.
On April 16, 2020, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s website notified businesses that the agency was no longer accepting new applications for the Paycheck Protection Program. The recently passed CARES Act, otherwise referred to as the third stimulus package, earmarked $349 billion dollars for the U.S. Small Business Administration to distribute to small businesses, defined as having less than 500 employees—calculated by the average number of employees over the preceding twelve months.
The Paycheck Protection Program offers businesses a loan up to $10,000,000. The principal amount of each applicant’s loan is calculated at 2.5 times the company’s average monthly payroll costs for the previous one year. The loans are subject to complete forgiveness if used for qualifying expenses, which include:
Neumann Law Group is accepting new clients who were sexually assaulted by Dr. Robert E. Anderson, university physician at the University of Michigan. Our firm successfully sued Michigan State University on behalf of survivors of the shockingly similar predator, Dr. Larry Nassar. Our firm is committed to advancing the rights of individuals who suffered because the two of the most vaunted educational institutions in America failed to protect the students charged to their care.
Dr. Robert E. Anderson (deceased, 2008), who worked as a physician for the University of Michigan from 1968 through 2003, is at the center of numerous allegations of sexual assault. The university is now the subject of a federal lawsuit, brought by a survivor of his abuse, alleging the school had knowledge of the doctor’s predilections, and rather than protecting the vulnerable students, U-M protected him. The university allowed him to continue his pattern of assaults for several decades.
Survivors describe Anderson’s behavior began during the draft era of the Vietnam War. The first step in being drafted was receiving a physical. Anderson offered to write students a letter stating that the potential draftee was homosexual, a declaration that at the time disqualified an otherwise suitable candidate for compelled military service. However, he demanded sexual favors in return—something that was well known in the Ann Arbor gay community at the time.
In the 1990s, the use of a neurovascular stent for a procedure call “stent-assisted coiling” was considered a breakthrough treatment for treating brain aneurysms. The medical device offered a non-surgical method to address weak spots in blood vessels in the brain. An aneurysm occurs when a weak point in a vessel allows blood to bulge out the vessel wall. If the aneurysm bursts, it can cause traumatic consequences, particularly when the aneurysm is located in the brain.
A non-stent assisted coiling treatment for an aneurysm involved running a stint from a patient’s leg up into the location of the aneurysm in the brain. The catheter would then inject a string of soft platinum into the aneurysm, which coils upon itself within the “bubble” of the aneurysm. After the platinum was fully deployed, the blood in the aneurysm clots along the coil and eventually fills the either aneurysm, such that is no longer poses the threat of rupture.
The procedure described above worked well, unless the aneurism had a “wide neck.” Where a normal aneurysm looks like a bubble stuck on the side of the vessel, a wide neck aneurysm looks more like a semi-circle. Instead of having a small weak spot in the vessel bulge out into a bubble, the wide neck variety involves a larger weak spot that expands the vessel in a distorted manner. Introducing the platinum coil into the aneurysm is not feasible, as the coil is too exposed to the blood flow and will not remain in place.
“Yeah, that’s going to be a problem. That’s going to be a problem for them.”
In so few words, Jackie Chiles, legendary consumer rights warrior, issued a battle cry, distilling public safety litigation into its most primal essence. Dangerous products impose a cost upon the consumer. Product liability lawsuits reallocate the cost where it belongs: the manufacturer. A dangerous product is a problem, but this time, it will be a problem for them.
This article is the first installment in a series that explores the evolution of personal jurisdiction as it relates to product liability litigation, concluding with a discussion of two personal jurisdiction cases pending before the Supreme Court. In those consolidated cases, Ford Motor Company is asking the Court to severely limit the number of courts that can hear a case against a company that serves a regional or national market.