Friday, April 29, 2005

News You Might Have Missed

A $1.35 billion settlement, a four-hour erection, and a $27 million pay package.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 29, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Juries can't understand complex cases, right? And juries make ridiculously large punitive awards in civil cases that are invariably reduced on appeal, right?

Both of these platitudes were put in doubt this week when Medtronic, the parent company of Memphis-based Sofamor-Danek, settled a lawsuit over patents on back-surgery products by paying a California doctor $1.35 billion.

Last summer and fall, the case of Dr. Gary Michelson against Medtronic was tried in U.S. District Court in Memphis. During the three-month trial, jurors sifted through scores of complex technical drawings and documents. After long deliberations, they awarded Michelson $110 million in compensatory awards and, following two more weeks of deliberations, another $400 million in punitive damages.

If you only read simplistic editorials and listened to talking-head rants about tort reform, you'd have thought this was yet another outrageous jury award. On Monday, however, it was reported that Medtronic settled for an amount more than double the jury award. As described in The Wall Street Journal this week, Michelson is a 56-year-old triathlete and weight lifter who holds more than 600 patents. The agreement gives Medtronic exclusive rights to those patents and any future spinal inventions by Michelson for the next 15 years. Medtronic acquired Sofamor-Danek in 1999.

• Things I never thought I would read in our daily newspaper: a front-page story on Viagra and erectile dysfunction including this quote from advertising and public relations expert John Malmo:

"In all of history there's probably never been a four-hour erection. It's the most incredible product claim without actually making a claim I've ever seen."

The reference, of course, was to Pfizer's cute, family-friendly television advertising disclaimer.

John Malmo, meet Bill Boner, former mayor of Nashville. In 1990, Boner dumped his third wife to marry country singer Traci Peel. As reported in newspapers from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., Peel told a reporter that Boner could perform nonstop for seven hours. The claim was later put in doubt by, among others, Peel herself, but who really knows? Does Malmo have any more evidence to back up his claim than Pfizer has to back up its claim? An amplification, if not an outright correction, would seem to be warranted.

Or at least investigative reporting and more front-page stories on this important issue.

• Speaking of incredible product claims: Albert Means wasn't drafted when the National Football League held its annual player draft last weekend. Means played for the University of Memphis after graduating from Trezevant High School and knocking the Southern college football scene into a tizzy.

According to local sportswriters, boosters, and high school football coach Lynn Lang, Means was the greatest defensive lineman since Mean Joe Green and Big Daddy Lipscomb. He was "slave auctioned" to the University of Alabama at the direction of Lang and booster Logan Young. Or so the story went. In a period of insanity, state and federal prosecutors were swayed by this nonsense and filed criminal charges against Lang and Young instead of letting the NCAA administer justice.

The rest was farce. Means was no better than average; if he makes the pros, it will be as a long-shot free agent. Lang was the federal government's star witness in Young's trial earlier this year. Lang got a no-prison sentence based partly on erroneous information about his job status in his probation report. Young was convicted and is to be sentenced in June. He should also get probation and a refund of the $120,000 he paid for Means.

• A Commercial Appeal story about potential Memphis mayoral candidates in 2007 (!) was a puzzler. It included former MLGW president Herman Morris, who has a political tin ear, avoids interviews, and lost his only political race when he ran for City Council against Tom Marshall several years ago. Marshall, on the other hand (who was not mentioned), is an often-quoted councilman, a political veteran, and a compromiser on the council.

It's probably too early, but consideration should be given to the Memphian who holds the same job that propelled Willie Herenton to the mayor's office: city schools superintendent Carol Johnson.

• Pay package of the year? Regions Financial CEO-to-be Jackson Moore received more than $27 million in tax reimbursement payments last year. Moore, a Memphian, was a top executive at Union Planters Bank which merged with Regions last year. The deal to pay his taxes was part of his employment agreement with UP between 1989 and 2004. A Regions spokesman was quoted as saying, "It's a large number, there's no doubt about it." •

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