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Companies increasingly targeted in lucrative suits over expired patents (access required)

Are your numbers up to date? That's the question patent lawyers are asking corporate clients as plaintiffs nationwide continue to file dozens of lawsuits over mismarked patent numbers. The cases began piling up in 2009 after a lawsuit brought under a 1952 federal patent act tested a previously untried provision that bans companies from marking products with erroneous or expired patent numbers. The provision, at 35 U.S.C. § 292(b), gives anyone standing to sue, and violators are liable for up to $500 for each mismarked article in a product line.

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Upstate snack distributor faces harassment trial (access required)

When your biggest client is sexually harassing your employee, it's a tough situation to manage. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals hasn't officially looked at whether an employer can be liable for harassment by non-employees. But three members of the court tip their hand in a new unpublished opinion that lets an employee try his claim that he was harassed by the client's staff.

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With taxes in flux, estate planners try to make heads or tails (access required)

Nothing is certain but death and taxes - but right now, estate taxes are anything but certain. The Tax Relief Act of 2010, signed into law on Dec. 17, 2010, increased the estate and gift tax exemptions and reduced the tax rates, but the measure contains a sunset provision that will increase the rates and reduce the exemptions in 2013. That is, unless Congress changes it again.

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Strict requirements limit the number of certified specialists in SC (access required)

Surfside Beach attorney Kathryn DeAngelo still vividly remembers taking the written exam 17 years ago for her elder law certification. "I took my little portable typewriter with me for the test," she recalled, noting she had been a high school typing teacher for 12 years before getting her law degree in 1984. DeAngelo passed the National Elder Law Foundation exam. Today, she is one of only five certified elder law attorneys in South Carolina, records show. The total number of certified specialists in the state is small: As of Jan. 25, there were 277 attorneys with the designation, according to the S.C. Commission on Continuing Legal Education and Specialization.

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Are health courts coming to a state near you? (access required)

Buried in the White House's federal budget plan is a proposal to encourage states to reform their medical-malpractice laws. The budget proposes a total of $250 million in Department of Justice grants to "provide incentives for state medical malpractice reforms," $100 million for 2012 and $50 million for each of the next three years. It's not the first time President Barack Obama has mentioned med-mal tort reform.

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Lawyer must be careful when bringing pro se case with spouse (access required)

If you're an attorney and you and your spouse file a lawsuit pro se, you may have to take some extra precautions to avoid running afoul of ethics rules, especially when it comes to communicating with opposing parties. So said the S.C. Bar's Ethic Advisory Committee in response to an inquiry based on a fact pattern in which a lawyer and his non-lawyer wife represented themselves in a suit against a country club. "Situations in which a lawyer is representing himself and/or his or her spouse do arise but are not that frequent," Professor Nathan Crystal of the Charleston School of Law told Lawyers Weekly in an e-mail.

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Senator on tort reform bill: ‘We’ve got a problem’ (access required)

An amendment tacked onto a legislative proposal that would limit punitive damages in civil cases threatens to derail the bill on the Senate floor, said state Sen. Larry Martin, a key supporter of the proposed cap. The amendment would turn South Carolina away from the state Supreme Court's 2010 designation of the risk-utility analysis as the sole test for defective design in many products liability cases. In Branham v. Ford Motor Co., a split court reversed a $31 million verdict against the automaker last August and said state courts no longer would charge juries with the venerable consumer-expectations test except in manufacturing-defect cases.

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Value billing arrangements depend on lawyers and clients agreeing ‘We’re in this together’ (access required)

The much-maligned billable hour is back under scrutiny. As attorneys continue to bounce back from the blows dealt by the recession, a client-driven fee structure known as value billing is beginning to gain traction across the country. It was a "standing room only" topic of discussion among lawyers at the American Bar Association's meeting earlier this month in Atlanta, according to ABA President Stephen Zack (pictured). "When I started practicing law 40 years ago, you sent out a bill for services rendered, and then all of a sudden we got into the Holy Grail of the hourly bill, which was never intended to be the perfect solution to all issues," Zack told Lawyers Weekly.

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Justices drop inadvertence prong from plain-view exception (access required)

Deputies who broke up a dog-fighting operation after spotting dogs, spectators and a fight pit at a Clarendon County home in 2006 didn't have to discover the site inadvertently to legally seize evidence without a warrant. So said the state Supreme Court in a groundbreaking decision that did away with one of three criteria that police previously had to satisfy under the "plain view" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. "In Horton, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the first prong of the plain-view doctrine, which is that the police officers are in a place where they have a legal right to be, and then the last prong, which is that the incriminating nature of the evidence is readily apparent. Those two prongs were sufficient to restrict the likelihood of police misconduct," said Assistant Attorney General Deborah R.J. Shupe (pictured) of Columbia.

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Senate Judiciary Committee gives nod to punitives cap (access required)

A bill capping punitive damages in civil actions was set to go before the S.C. Senate after the Senate Judiciary Committee gave it a thumbs-up. The committee voted to send H. 3375, named the Fairness in Civil Justice Act of 2011, to the full Senate with a favorable review and amendments. The proposal would limit a plaintiff's punitive damages to $350,000 or three times the amount of his compensatory damages, whichever is greater.

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