More civil lawsuits in wake of deadly fires in Oakland, Calif.

Surviving tenants and families of victims sue Oakland, Calif. for inspection flaws at a San Pablo Avenue halfway house. Photo Credit: Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group as reported by The Mercury News,2/9/18

Oakland is facing a lawsuit stemming from a fatal fire that killed four people in a halfway house at 2551 San Pablo Avenue in March 2017, The Mercury News reported.

“Surviving tenants and families of victims who lived at 2551 San Pablo Ave. originally filed suit in April 2017 against building owner Keith Kim and a nonprofit agency that provided services there,” explained The Mercury News. “The city was added to the list of defendants in a master complaint filed last month in Alameda County Superior Court.”

Oakland is already facing a suit for a Dec. 2, 2016 fire in which 36 people perished at an electronic dance party at the “Ghost Ship” warehouse. The Ghost Ship lawsuit helped open the door for the San Pablo fire suit: “In November, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled Oakland had a ‘mandatory duty’ to ensure safety at the Ghost Ship warehouse. The tentative ruling pierced through broad immunities protecting California cities from civil lawsuits to protect workers who either botched inspections of a building or failed to perform the inspection at all,” the report stated.

Both the San Pablo and Ghost Ship fires exposed deep flaws in Oakland’s fire inspection system. According to the San Pablo lawsuit, “These people were plunged into darkness and thick, black smoke and tried to exit the unsafe structure. The interior of the three-story, 43-unit building was a known fire hazard which was cluttered with storage, debris, discarded furniture and open piles of garbage.”

Closure of Office for Access to Justice

Photo Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times as reported on 2/1/18.

The ability of the poor to access civil courts suffered a setback with the effective closure of the federal Office for Access to Justice, critics of the move say.

“The Justice Department has effectively shuttered an Obama-era office dedicated to making legal aid accessible to all citizens, according to two people familiar with the situation,” the New York Times reported.

The Office for Access to Justice began in 2010 under former Attorney General Eric Holder. “Its offices now sit dark on the third floor of the Justice Department building,” the New York Times reported. “The staff of a dozen or so has dwindled and left the department over the past few months, the people said. Maha Jweied, the acting director of the department, left this month to start a consulting business, according to her LinkedIn profile.”

On Feb. 1, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law condemned the move.

“Once again, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is turning his back on the most vulnerable Americans and abdicating his responsibility as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “In shuttering the doors of the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Office, Attorney General Sessions is making crystal clear that his Justice Department has no interest in establishing justice for the poor.”

More lawsuits expected over J&J talcum powder in 2018

Photo credit: Alf van Beem via Wikimedia Commons

Johnson & Johnson returned to the courtroom in January to face more litigation over allegations that its talcum products caused cancer.

The pharmaceutical company’s lawyers entered a Middlesex County, N.J. courtroom for opening statements in a lawsuit “alleging that the company’s talc products caused an Essex County man to develop cancer,” reported NJ.com, which provides content to New Jersey’s leading newspaper, The Star-Ledger.

“A Stephen Lanzo, III, 46, of Verona, alleges that his use of Johnson’s Baby Powder throughout his life exposed him to asbestos, which lead him to develop mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that affects tissue in the lungs and abdomen. … The plaintiff and defense said they plan to utilize many expert testimonies throughout the trial, which is slated to run through the end of February,” the site reported.

Bloomberg Bureau of National Affairs anticipated more litigation.

Distinguished Emeritus Professor Jean Eggen at Widener University Delaware Law School, Wilmington, Del., saw the potential for “large-scale litigation,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Eggen said that, “because of varying claims, sources of talc, and causation hurdles, this latest wave of talc cases against J&J will be both easier and harder to litigate than both traditional asbestos suits involving insulation materials, and the ovarian cancer cases the company is already fighting. And with several multimillion-dollar verdicts having been handed down against other makers of older talc products recently, the Johnson and Johnson asbestos-in-talc litigation is expected to be both protracted and contentious, drawing in many other plaintiffs. …”

Maryland ruling could open door to asbestos-related death cases

Tens of thousands of cases related to illness and death from asbestos exposure could be adjudicated in Maryland based on an appeal before the state’s highest court.

“Maryland’s highest court is weighing whether to give workers who were sickened by asbestos exposure more time to sue their employers,” the Baltimore Sun reported on Dec. 1, 2017. “State law now allows 20 years for workers or their families to make claims regarding illness or death from exposure to asbestos.”

The Maryland Court of Appeals in Annapolis heard an appeal involving a steamfitter, James F. Piper, “who worked at a Maryland power plant in the 1970s and died more than four decades later from mesothelioma.”

On May 31, 2017, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled against the estate of James F. Piper and in favor of CBS Corp., owner of the company previously known as Westinghouse Electric.

“Piper was diagnosed with mesothelioma on December 26, 2013,” the lower court’s ruling reads. “The primary issue in the instant case is whether Piper’s cause of action against CBS is barred by the statute of repose.”

The “statute of repose,” according to the lower court ruling, “bars Piper’s cause of action against CBS, because Piper’s cause of action accrued when his mesothelioma was diagnosed in December 2013, which was more than twenty years after the turbine generator installed by Westinghouse at Morgantown became operational in July of 1970.”

The Sun reports, “Advocates say that if Piper’s estate wins the case, it could potentially open the door to lawsuits from others in similar situations who did not get sick until after the deadline to sue had passed. A coalition of unions and trade associations says the number could be in the tens of thousands of cases. …”

“The Maryland Defense Counsel, an organization of civil defense attorneys, filed a ‘friend of the court’ brief in support of CBS. The brief states that if the rules for the deadline to file cases are changed, businesses would lose ‘vital’ protections that were put into place ‘to protect businesses from facing construction-related claims like these years after the fact.’”

Immigration Court Backlog Tops 650,000 in U.S. with California Leading Nation

Judge Dana Marks, President National Assoc. of Immigration Judges (PHOTO: National Association of Federal Immigration Judges)

According to the latest case-by-case court records, the backlog at the end of November 2017 had reached 658,728, up from 629,051 at the end of September 2017. That number is expected to continue to grow, with the Immigration Court number of pending cases anticipated to climb by an additional 30,000 in the first two months of 2018, outpacing 2017 increases.

California leads the country with the largest Immigration Court backlog of 123,217 cases. Texas is second with 103,384 pending cases as of the end of November 2017, followed by New York with 89,489 cases, reports TRAC.

“There is no single explanation,” said Susan B. Long, TRAC’s co-director in a recent Newsday report. “These are people before immigration court. These are considered deportation cases, but they could very well be seeking asylum and various forms of relief” to stay in the country legally.

Newsday also reported, “‘The immigration judges feel like we’ve been the canaries in the coal mines, saying that the immigration courts would be overwhelmed with caseloads and backlogs for more than a decade,’ said Dana Leigh Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco who is a spokeswoman for the National Association of Immigration Judges.”

The immigration backlog findings are based upon current case-by-case court records that were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

For further highlights see: http://trac.syr.edu/ phptools/immigration/court_ backlog/apprep_backlog.php.
For full details, go to TRAC’s online backlog tool at: http://trac.syr.edu/ phptools/immigration/court_ backlog/