(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

get ready!
Get ready -- you, and all other members of the news-consuming public, are about to get hit with lots of outraged but ill-informed commentary about a judicial ruling. It may come from people whose job it is to shout on cable tv, or it may come from people who watch those people. But it's coming.

And here is what you will be able to say: "The decision was only about Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8, as applied to the element of 'causation' under a New York consumer-protection law. Did you know that? If not, what are you yelling for?"

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today reversed (pdf) the dismissal of a suit against McDonalds, brought by people alleging that McDonalds deceived them about the nutritional value (or anti-value) of its products, and they ate a lot of McDonalds and it gave them various medical problems. "Reversed the dismissal" means that the lawsuit gets to go forward. You can write the script now, for the cable shouters. You can already hear what they are going to say.

What you will understand, and they will not (or will pretend not to), is that the thing about lawsuits is that there are various stages. They begin with a complaint. Some lawsuits are dismissed -- that is, won by the defendant -- at the "complaint" stage, but very very few. This is because, at the complaint stage, the facts have not been developed. At this stage, it's not time for anybody to put in their evidence, or even to say with any particular specificity what their evidence is. That all comes later, when (through the process known as discovery) each side pokes at the other's witnesses, documents, and evidence, and figures out what cards the other side is holding. After that, comes summary judgment. Many lawsuits are won by defendants on summary judgment, which is the stage at which the judge decides whether there is enough evidence in support of the plaintiff's claim to warrant a trial. This lawsuit might well not survive summary judgment. Nobody knows yet.

This decision today was, again, at the "complaint" stage. The trial court had dismissed the case because the plaintiffs had failed to allege such-and-such particular things about how much McDonalds they ate, what their medical history was, and so forth, with specificity in their complaint, and the appellate court said, "But you can't dismiss a case at the complaint stage for that reason. Under Rule 8, which is the rule that governs what you've got to put in your complaint, you don't have to plead that such-and-such with specificity. Wait for discovery and then for summary judgment and then maybe (or maybe not) a trial."

And you know what? It's good that the rule is that lawsuits generally can't be dismissed at the complaint stage. Would you really want judges ruling on the merits of lawsuits based on their supposition as to what they guess the evidence probably will and won't show, before they've seen any evidence? I wouldn't!

Now you know. And you can watch people on TV pretending that the court did something different from that.

(news of the decision thanks to Howard Bashman).

posted by sam 4:25 PM 0 comments


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