Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The reason I love tort law.

A few years back the Southern Poverty Law Center won a tort case that had the effect of bankrupting the Aryan Nation in northern Idaho.

The case stemmed from a July 1998 attack when security guards at the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho shot at Victoria Keenan and her son after their car backfired nearby. The Keenans were returning from a wedding and stopped briefly near the compound to look for a wallet that had fallen out the car. Bullets struck their car several times before the car crashed and Aryan members held the Keenans at gunpoint.

As a result of the judgement, Richard Butler, the Aryan Nation leader, turned over the 20-acre compound to the Keenans who then sold the property to a philanthropist that subsequently donated it to North Idaho College, which designated the land as a "peace park."

Ever since that case, I have been completely inspired by the difference that can be made by using normal avenues of law to achieve extraordinary results. A normal tort case caused the Aryan Nation in Northern Idaho to disband. Beautiful. Simple and beautiful.

Today in the news, there was a story about another tort claim verdict that hopefully will cause another hate group to go out of existence. Today is a good day.

Marine’s Dad Gets $11M for Funeral Picketing

Posted 2 hours, 50 minutes ago By Martha Neil

In a verdict that is sure to catch the attention of First Amendment advocates, a federal jury in Baltimore has awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages to a father of a fallen Marine whose funeral was picketed by members of a fringe Kansas church.

The jury found that the Westboro Baptist Church and three leaders invaded the father's privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress by picketing the March 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq, reports the Associated Press.

"The church members testified they are following their religious beliefs by spreading the message that the deaths of soldiers are due to the nation's tolerance of homosexuality," the news agency explains. Their protest of Snyder's funeral included a sign stating "Thank God for dead soldiers," according to the Baltimore Sun.

The amount of damages awarded "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants," says U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, who presided at the trial.

It is also "an awful lot of money for compensatory damages," Mark Graber, a University of Maryland law professor, tells the newspaper. "This was in a public space. While the actions are reprehensible, the First Amendment protects a lot that's reprehensible."

Nearly half of the states in the country, at least, have enacted or proposed laws to limit funeral protests, in reaction to such shock tactics. Although they raise obvious First Amendment issues, it appears that their content-neutral restrictions limiting protests within, for example, 100 to 500 feet of the entrance to a cemetery may pass constitutional muster, according to a New York Times article published last year.

A funeral home, for instance, "seems high on the list of places where people legitimately could be or should be protected from unwanted messages," Michael Dorf, a Columbia Law School professor, told the Times.

As the judge saw it in this case, the conflict between the First Amendment rights of free speech and religious expression and the family's right to privacy is decided by a balancing test, the Sun reports. "You must balance the defendants' expression of religious belief with another citizen's right to privacy," he instructed jurors yesterday.

No comments: