The Dumbest Lawsuit Ever

Forget tort reform. The real abuse comes from suits like Channel 19's.

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Channel 19 screwed the very taxpayers it claims to - protect. - Walter  Novak
Channel 19 screwed the very taxpayers it claims to protect.
Every legislature is talking about tort reform. Never mind that such suits constitute but a small fraction of America's Litigation Hell, or that large jury awards are rarer still. Legislators have the same migration patterns as hookers: They go where the money is. And in this case, the guys being sued, like manufacturers and doctors, rain gallons of loot on campaigns. There is no opposition lobby of People Who Are About to Get Mangled.

Far more common are nuisance suits, polite society's version of extortion. These are delivered by the pound every day, filed to harass, to force negotiations, to pick up a check in return for making yourself scarce. All you need is a lawyer willing to check his soul with the courthouse guard. And though they burn away billions in wasted time and expense from the economy, you won't hear legislators yapping about this. That's because their biggest sugar daddies -- corporations -- are among the worst offenders.

Exhibit A: Channel 19's suit against the City of Cleveland.

It all began when the station pounded Mayor Campbell for excessive security expenses. She responded by prohibiting city workers from speaking to 19's reporters.

Unfortunately, the station was in the midst of the ratings sweeps. Since it didn't have any other big hits in the pipeline, it had to milk this one for all it was worth. Anchors repeatedly announced they'd been "banned from City Hall." Reporters were filmed pulling on locked doors after hours to prove the point.

Of course, Channel 19 still had run of the place. It's just that Campbell, believing she'd been screwed, refused to let her people talk to the station. Call it dumb politics, but it was also her right: One of the beautiful things about America is that you get to shut up whenever you want. Besides, as 19 well knew, politicians do this all the time. (So many state agencies refuse to speak to Scene that we've lost track.)

Still, it was all rather harmless. This is TV news, where people are hired to play the role of Trusted Middle-Aged Guy or Babelicious Yet Earnest Girl Next Door. Think of it as community theater, only the acting's not as good.

What wasn't so harmless was 19's performance in federal court. It filed suit using the plot of Brave TV Station vs. Wicked Mayor. It should have hired better screenwriters. First, Clevelanders don't consider it particularly brave to hire some pointy-head to hurl paperwork at your enemies. Second, it may have been the dumbest lawsuit ever filed.

When all the babble's stripped away, it boiled down to this: Raycom, 19's Alabama parent company, was claiming a First Amendment right to make people talk to its reporters. Never mind that the Constitution says nothing about forcing people to speak. If this were true, your obnoxious neighbor could sue you to sit down for tea. But 19 smelled a way to keep its mayoral-bodyguard story alive. And since it had money to spend, Weston Hurd and the New York blue-blood firm of Covington & Burling were willing to do its bidding.

As you might expect, it didn't go well. Even the finest lawyers have difficulty framing arguments from raw bullshit. City Law Director Subodh Chandra called it "another ploy for tabloid ratings masquerading as a legal claim." The judge seemed to agree. He refused the station's request for a temporary restraining order, noting that the suit "is not likely to succeed." It was a polite, judicial way of saying, "You boys are about to get your ass kicked."

Of course, none of this was covered by Channel 19. Instead of reporting that its blue bloods had just been stomped by some low-wage government lawyers, or that its suit was yelping like a wounded dog, 19 announced that the judge had allowed the case to go forward, as if it were a triumph. "It's like watching Pravda," says one city worker. The suit would soon be dropped.

Eric Hellerman, the station's lead attorney, speaks in that labored, lawyer sort of way. His is the gift of using many words to say nothing. He insists that his suit was "meritorious," but he won't talk about much else -- like why, of all the times sources refused to speak, Channel 19 decided to sue on this one. "I can't comment." Or why it just happened to coincide with sweeps. "I'm not going to comment on that."

Scene considered invoking its First Amendment rights to make him talk, but decided that it would be funner to go to the bar.

Besides, the real travesty here isn't lawyers talking out of their ass, or a TV station blowing $250,000 -- as one legal source estimates -- on a New York firm. It's that 19 screwed the very taxpayers it claims to protect.

The station brayed loud and hard about the $84,000 in overtime Campbell burned to have cops escort her family. Though stalking schoolkids with cameras is a bit on the creepy side, it was a righteous hit. A mayor can't be torching money while throwing people out of jobs.

But when 19 sued, it cost the city a helluva lot more than $84,000 -- just so that one underperforming station could look brave.

You won't hear legislators talking about any of this. They're quick to cut off Grandma from winning big over the doctor who killed her husband. But when big companies abuse the system, they're like children afraid of losing their candy supplier.

Say this for Campbell: When she blew that money on cops, at least it got spent in Cleveland. Channel 19 sent its money to New York. Waiters in the Hamptons are grateful.

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