Where There's Smoke, There's a Lawyer

Do you smoke? Well, you better be careful where. I don't smoke, and I don't like the smell, but what some people are doing to smokers makes me say give me a break.

For the last 12 years, Galila Huff has owned Caffé la Fenicé, a restaurant serving Italian food on the Upper West Side of New York City.

Smoking there is forbidden. New York state bans it in all restaurants and bars.

Huff's apartment is a few blocks away at The Ansonia, an ornate turn-of-the-century building that both Babe Ruth and Arturo Toscanini once called home.

Huff lives there alone except for her Chihuahua, and her cigarettes. For 40 years, she's smoked a pack or two a day.

But then in October, she got a letter from her neighbors. It said, "Dear Resident, immediately cease smoking in your apartment, unless and until you take adequate steps to properly ventilate your smoke out of your apartment such that none enters the common hallway."

Huff couldn't believe it. First she can't smoke in her own restaurant, now she can't smoke in her own apartment?

"I mean the cigarettes smell, yeah. But I'm not puffing into their faces," she said.

The complainants -- Jonathan and Jenny Selbin -- wouldn't agree to a television interview, but they did file a lawsuit against Huff, saying she is "willfully, intentionally, recklessly and/or negligently endangering the health of plaintiffs and their 4-year-old son. … As evidenced by her refusal to address the grave danger posed to the health of a small child, despite repeated requests and warnings, defendant's conduct is actuated by evil and/or reprehensible motives."

Huff's dog didn't escape mention in the lawsuit either. The lawsuit continued, "Such motives are also evidenced by the fact that after plaintiffs complained about the smoke, defendant encouraged her dog to urinate on plaintiffs' property and in front of their doorway."

When asked whether it's true that her dog urinated on her neighbor's property, Huff said, "I never saw that, but maybe. I don't know." The dog had no comment.

Legal System 'a Tool for Bullying'?

Huff took steps to insulate her apartment. The apartment building did construction work, sealed off air ducts and made sure no smoke could get from her apartment to the Selbins', but now the neighbors were complaining about smoke in the hallway.

And who are these neighbors? Surprise! They're lawyers. Jonathan Selbin is a partner in the big law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein. He made sure his special skills were clear to Huff in a letter: "We are both lawyers, and both litigators, for whom the usual barriers to litigation are minimal."

That's very true. Reading that drove me to write an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal (CLICK HERE to read).

"Without any question, the legal system has become a tool for bullying in this country," said Philip Howard, chair of the legal reform group Common Good. "And if you're a lawyer, and you don't have to go out and spend money for another lawyer, you can use it as a hammer."

"People think of lawsuits as kind of a neutral process … have your day in court," Howard said. "Being in a lawsuit is a traumatic event, and if someone sues you, for almost anything … it's just like a bludgeon. It changes your life. You can't sleep at night."

He's right. Remember the Chungs, the dry cleaners in suburban Washington, D.C., who were sued because they reportedly lost one pair of pants?

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