Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The case of Cho Seung-Hui: What became of his referral to counseling?

The Chicago Tribune advises this morning, in an editorial, "[W]hen we encounter another person whose inner voice seems to be screaming at him or her, we can take the uncomfortable step of notifying someone in authority at our school, or our workplace, or our community." That might do more to prevent a future Cho Seung-Hui from launching a murderous rampage than anything else, the paper suggests.

And I'd be inclined to agree IF "someone in authority" would act on this sort of notice.

Matt Apuzzo, in a story in this morning's Chicago Sun-Times, reports that one of Cho's professors, Carolyn Rude, thought "Cho's writing was so disturbing that he had been referred to the university's counseling service." But, Apuzzo reports, Professor Rude "did not know what the outcome of counseling was."

Did Cho ever go? Did the university ever follow up? Presumably the university could not force Cho to accept help; I don't know this for certain, but I assume this to be true. But did the university ever tell Cho that his future attendance at the school was contingent on his accepting help? The university was under no obligation to keep an increasingly dangerous and erratic young man as an enrolled student and resident in its dorms.

Nor was Professor Rude alone, apparently, in her concerns about Cho's pre-rampage behavior. An AP story by Adam Geller, also posted this morning at the Chicago Sun-Times, repeats Professor Rude's suspicions (Geller identifies her as the Chair of the university's English Department) and also quotes the concerns raised by a poetry professor, Nikki Giovanni. Geller reports, "Giovanni said her students were so unnerved by Cho's behavior that she had security check on her room and eventually had him taken out of her class."

Geller's AP story is now updated on Yahoo! News. In the latest article, Geller reports that Cho was reported to the police for stalking two female students and had once been taken to a mental health facility "in 2005 after an acquaintance worried he might be suicidal."

So one professor reported Cho to security, another recommended him for counseling. There were police contacts -- but no charges -- and he may have even been, briefly, in the mental health system.

The newspapers and radio this morning have seized upon the fact that Cho purchased his weapons legally -- and the usual suspects are bleating for increased gun control in the wake of this tragedy.

And that may or may not be a good idea.

But if I were a news editor the lines I'd want my reporters to follow would be this: Did Professor Rude really refer Cho for counseling? What became of that referral? Did he go? Did he refuse? Apuzzo's story indicates that Cho may have been taking medications for depression. Was this related to his counseling? Or did the doctor prescribing these medications even have an inkling about the warning signs Cho was flashing in the university community? What treatment was offered when Cho was brought to a mental health facility?

What did security do to follow up on Professor Giovanni's concerns? Did Professors Giovanni and Rude ever communicate with each other about this troubled student in their department? Who else 'notified someone in authority' at Virginia Tech? What happened?

There are 33 grieving families here -- and, yes, the shooter's family should be numbered among the grieving. Lockdowns and email or text alerts and all the other elaborate security plans that either were followed or weren't followed, or that will be imagined anew in the aftermath of this horror, would never have been necessary if Cho could have been helped. And the Virginia Tech community, at least, might not be in mourning today if Cho had been removed from their midst.

Why did people 'in authority' fail to act on the notices they were apparently given?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

My office will be closed on Good Friday; here's a secular reason why the Illinois courts should close, too

The Circuit Court of Cook County used to close on Good Friday. Some years back, however, it was decided that it was politically incorrect to suspend public business because of a religious observance.

This has always confused me. Even if the day has no religious significance to you, why should you object to an extra day off?

School districts in Illinois have wrestled with this problem, too, but most have found a way to fit Good Friday into a religiously neutral "Spring Break." That wouldn't work for the Circuit Court.

So allow me to offer this secular, legally-themed justification for the restoration of the Good Friday court holiday: The most famous lawyer Illinois ever produced was murdered on Good Friday.

Granted, we already commemorate Lincoln's Birthday with a court holiday -- but this additional recognition would be consistent with the extraordinary influence that Abraham Lincoln had on the legal system in this state. That this holiday would always coincide with a religious observance that many would observe anyway would only be a bonus.

What do you think?

Monday, April 02, 2007

More on damages for tainted dog food

This dog of a blog is not going to turn into the pet corner of the Blogosphere, but this story posted on Yahoo! News suggests that damages for pets lost to tainted dog food would be severely limited in most American jurisdictions, not just Illinois.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pet losses from tainted food unlikely to result in big recoveries, at least in Illinois

Image captured from Wonkette

There's been a lot of news about pet food recalls and there's always the chance that pet deaths associated with tainted food may prompt an inquiry from a grieving pet owner.

There's no question that our society cherishes pets. Recently, the Illinois legislature amended the Trusts and Trustees Act by adding §15.2 recognizing the validity of trusts set up for the benefit of "designated domestic or pet animals." (760 ILCS 5/15.2, eff. Jan. 1, 2005.)

But that does not mean that a pet owner can hope to have his grief assuaged by a large damage award against a pet food company that served up tainted kibbles.

The leading case on the value of an animal destroyed by tortious conduct of a third party is probably Jankoski v. Preiser Animal Hospital, 157 Ill.App.3d 818, 510 N.E.2d 1084 (1st Dist. 1987). The case concerned the death of a dog, but the court made the point that a dog is valued as any other item of personal property.

Where personal property is destroyed, the measure of damages is generally the difference "between the market value of the property before the injury and the value of the wreckage." Trailmobile Division of Pullman, Inc. v. Higgs, 12 Ill.App.3d 323, 297 N.E.2d 598, 600 (5th Dist. 1973). However, there is a special rule that applies in cases where the lost property has no market value.

Long v. Arthur Rubloff & Co., 27 Ill.App.3d 1013, 327 N.E.2d 346 (1st Dist. 1975), illustrates that rule that applies in this unusual circumstance.

When Rubloff fired Arthur Long, the firm kept a file that Long had accumulated over the years of 'leasing data.' Long testified at trial that the file was around six inches thick and contained leasing information on 40 or 50 buildings including "the names of tenants, their lease-expiration dates, the name of the contact, the number of square feet occupied, the amount paid per square foot, whether the tenant contemplated expanding, and similarly pertinent information." (27 Ill.App.3d at 1016-17). (Long had been compiling this information since 1960, long before he'd become associated with Rubloff; Rubloff insisted that this data became its property when Long became its employee. The Appellate Court, however, stated that it was "unaware of any rule which would deprive an employee of his personal property merely because its use during the employment relationship accrued to the benefit of the of the employer." 27 Ill.App.3d at 1025.) In any event, the relevant question on appeal was the measure of damages that Long could recover because of Rubloff's refusal to surrender the file to him upon termination.

The Long court stated that the proper way to measure damages in a case like this would be to determine the "actual value to plaintiff" of the purloined file.

However, the court reversed the damage award in Long's favor. Long's highly subjective opinion "was insufficient to establish damages." To recover, Long would have had to produce "testimony. . . to show what value the leasing data had been to the plaintiff in the past, what commissions, if any, were made by use of the data, or other testimony to show how possession of the book economically benefitted plaintiff." (27 Ill.App.3d at 1026.) The burden of proving value is on the plaintiff "and the evidence must afford some reasonable and proper basis for ascertaining value. At a minimum, it must rise to the dignity of proof, and supply such elements or standards for measuring value to enable the trier of fact to exercise its judgment." (27 Ill.App.3d at 1026.)

The dog owners in the Jankoski case admitted that their lost dog had no particular market value (they expressly stated at one point that the dog had no value as property), so the court found, citing Long, that the proper measure of damages for the dog's loss was the "actual value to [the] plaintiff." However, "damages must be ascertained in some rational way from such elements as are ascertainable." (157 Ill.App.3d at 820.) In the case of the lost dog, the court acknowledged the possibility that some element of sentimental value might be properly considered "in order to avoid limiting the plaintiff to merely nominal damages." The Jankoski case stands for the proposition that damages in a case "where the object destroyed has no market value. . . while not merely nominal, are severely circumscribed." (157 Ill.App.3d at 821.)

The law knows how to value the diamonds in your mother's engagement ring -- but it has no good way to evaluate the sentimental value of that ring. So it is also with dogs.

The fearless prediction here: There will be no boxcar numbers awarded by Illinois courts to Illinois pet owners... no matter how far the tainted pet food scandal spreads.