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Friends:

Many of you know that during my presidency of the State Bar of Georgia in 2012-2013, I  made mental health of attorneys, and their family members, a primary concern. I have taken every opportunity presented to make us more aware of the stresses that attorneys face just in their daily practices and the toll that has on them and their family. We created the “How to Save a Life” Suicide Prevention Program and we know we have been successful in preventing some attorney suicides. But we also know we need to continue to effort. Often, an attorney reaches out to me about a partner in the firm, or a partner reaches out to me about his son, or counselors reach out to me to see how they can help. I am also thankful and proud that Jonathan Ringel, the Editor of The Daily Report, graciously gives me and others space in the newspaper to write about suicide prevention and to keep the conversation going. This is the only way we will eliminate the stigma of mental illness that prevents so many from reaching out for help. And help is easily available, through our Lawyers Assistance Program (800-327-9631) and the State Bar’s Lawyers Living Well Initiative.  The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is  1-800-273-8255.

And so I was honored to be asked to participate in a podcast on the mental health of lawyers by Miles Mediation. Both Editor/Journalist Jonathan Ringel and Stacey Dougan, a lawyer turned therapist, joined in the discussion as moderated by Miles neutral, Bianca Motley Broom, and CMO, Marcie Dickson. I urge you to listen and to share with your family members, friends and colleagues. It will be worth your time. And just by listening, you may save a life.

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I was just put on a jury in a case that seems pretty clear cut.  So why am I here? Why is there a trial?

Many jurors may find themselves thinking this in a case in which the defendant is clearly at fault and the plaintiff is clearly injured. Most reasonable people, as jurors tend to be, would assume a clear liability case with clear injuries should be settled out of court. My concern is that when a juror is forced to sit on a jury in a case like this, the juror may very likely assume it must be because the plaintiff wanted too much money. But it seems to be a trend in many cases in Georgia that what actually has happened is that the insurance carrier for the at-fault defendant has refused to offer much, if anything, before trial, to try to resolve the case. This has been borne out many times in recent trials.

For example, in a case tried in Whitfield County, Georgia (Dalton) a jury entered a verdict in the amount of $21.6 million last month for a man who lost a leg after being struck by a pick-up truck as he walked toward a Whitfield County highway to stop traffic for a tractor-trailer.  The plaintiff’s medical bills were more than $411,000 and the insurance carrier didn’t even offer that much before the trial, according to plaintiff’s attorney. He said the insurance carriers never offered any meaningful settlement despite their client’s permanent, life-altering injuries and despite a court-ordered mediation.

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Recently, I was in a courtroom in Fulton County, Georgia watching a medical malpractice trial.  I was not involved in the trial; I was just a trialwatcher. When I have time, I still enjoy watching trials, both civil and criminal, for the real life drama on display. No movie or play can capture the sheer, raw emotion of a trial.  A jury’s decision can be life-altering. In a civil trial for money damages,  a verdict for the plaintiff can give the family of the injured person or decedent a sense of Justice and much needed closure. A verdict for the defendant can give a defendant a sense of vindication. The whole trial process is designed to find the truth. In fact, the word “verdict,” in Latin, means “to speak the truth.”

I have often seen normal laypeople who are testifying realize, on the stand, they have underestimated the emotional pressure that the formality of the courtroom imposes on them. There is something about the utter dignity and formality of the Courtroom, with the judge sitting high on the bench, with a court reporter taking down every word uttered, with 12 citizens sitting in judgment, with a Deputy Sheriff at the door, that brings the enormity of it all into crystallized focus. In this medical malpractice trial I was watching, there was a moment with one of the defendants on the witness stand when he simply broke down during his testimony. He began to tear up on the stand and the began to cry, and the plaintiff’s attorney quickly asked the judge for a break. But it was too late. The defendant began crying uncontrollably, and literally fell down on the floor from the weight of it all. His attorney had to go help get him off the floor and then out of the courtroom as the bailiff quickly took the jury back to the jury room. It was clear that the defendant had suffered something so strong emotionally that he could not go on. We were all worried about his mental well-being. I knew his attorney and knew he would make sure his client was supported emotionally and not left alone.  I believe his attorney was sincerely concerned about his client’s ability now to go on with the trial and meaningfully participate in the trial and assist his attorney. In speaking with several of the attorneys in the case, both plaintiff and defense, not one of us had ever seen something like that happen in a trial before.  Most of us had practiced for over 30 years. Meanwhile, the plaintiff’s attorney felt just as strongly that the defendant’s outburst of emotion directly in front of the jury was so overly prejudicial that the jury could not help but sympathize with the defendant, regardless of any instruction the judge might give to the contrary. Telling a jury they may have no sympathy for either side is easier said than done when a witness has just broken down in front of their eyes.  Discussion was had by all counsel with the judge in the judge’s chambers, and I was not privy to what they discussed and argued. Eventually, the defendant who had broken down on the stand reappeared in the courtroom. He looked shaken and seemed to be trembling. He was visibly trembling as he took sips out of a water bottle. There was no question in my mind that this was sincere and beyond his control. I felt empathy for him. After about an hour, though, the judge and all counsel came back into the courtroom and the jury was brought back into the courtroom. The judge declared a mistrial and thanked the jury for their work and instructed the jury they were no longer needed and that their jury duty had been fulfilled.

Wow.

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There have been two  recent appellate decisions in Georgia that address the morass that is apportionment:  FDIC v. Loudermilk, No. S18Q1233 (Ga. S. Ct. March 13, 2019) and Trabue v. Atlanta  Women’s Specialists, LLC, No. A18A1508 (Ga. Ct. App. March 7, 2019).   Since the Georgia Legislature passed a new scheme of how a plaintiff receives justice in our Civil Justice System some 14 years ago, called “apportionment,” there have been 1,328 Georgia appellate opinions that mention apportionment. This suggests that the law as passed was anything but a model of clarity.
The Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion in FDIC v. Loudermilk reminds me of Mark Twain’s quotation:  “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” I believe the rumors of the death of joint and several liability have been greatly exaggerated, ever since its passage in 2005.  Loudermilk makes it clear that joint and several liability is alive and kicking and coexists peacefully right next to apportionment.  Loudermilk, authored by Justice Sarah Warren,  involved a claim against a group of bank directors alleging that the former directors and officers were negligent and grossly negligent under Georgia law for their approval of ten commercial real-estate loans.  This case was tried to a jury in the Northern District of Georgia and the jury rendered a $5 Million verdict against the individual former bank officers. The bank officers appealed the verdict to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which certified the question of whether the Georgia law of apportionment applied to this scenario to the Georgia Supreme Court. The Georgia Supreme Court answered no, that the statute did not end joint and several liability for co-defendants determined to have acted “in concert.”  The Court held “Georgia historically has recognized this principle: “[i]t has always been true that where concert of action appears, a joint tortfeasor relation is presented and all joint tortfeasors are jointly and severally liable for the full amount of plaintiff’s damage.” Gilson v. Mitchell, 131 Ga. App. 321, 324, 205 S.E.2d 421 (1974), aff’d, 233 Ga. 453, 454, 211 S.E.2d 744 (1975) (“We conclude that the opinion of the Court of Appeals correctly states the law of Georgia on this subject and we adopt [its] opinion.”). Cf. City of Atlanta v. Cherry, 84 Ga. App. 728, 731-733, (67 S.E.2d 317) (1951) (rejecting joint-tortfeasor status although plaintiff alleged that defendants acted in concert because plaintiff failed to allege adequately that there was “concerted action in operating [an airport runway] in such a way as to injure plaintiff”).”  Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Loudermilk, S18Q1233, 2019 WL 1303652, at *8 (Ga. Mar. 13, 2019).
This rule supports what many plaintiff’s lawyers have been saying since 2005, i.e., that there is no apportionment until a jury says there is apportionment. Thus, not only apportionment but also joint and several liability charges must be given to a jury and counsel must be allowed to argue joint and several liability.

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You may have missed it, but last week a Fulton County, Georgia jury sent a message to the City of Atlanta to inspect their streets for dangers to the motoring public. The message came in the form of a $1.4 Million verdict against the City of Atlanta, for severe personal injuries to a woman who was injured when she drove over a manhole whose cover had become dislodged.  The plaintiff, Ms. Pamela Dale, suffered a compression fracture to her spine, multiple lacerations on her arm and permanent nerve damage to her arm and hand.  She accrued about $89,000 in medical bills and was unable to perform her job for several weeks, and she had to work part-time for several more weeks. Her car was a total loss.  She was represented by Attorney Michael Baskin.

For its defense, the City of Atlanta argued first that this was a state road so the Georgia Department of Transportation had responsibility for maintaining it. So the City of Atlanta attempted to blame someone else for its own negligence. Then the City argued it did not have to inspect its own streets to find problems that could injure someone driving on them. The City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management manager testified that the city did  not routinely inspect manholes and there was no evidence that it had advance notice of any defect in the manhole prior to the accident.  Apparently, the jurors didn’t like that. They told plaintiff’s counsel after the verdict that they were very concerned with the City of Atlanta not inspecting its own streets on a routine basis and, therefore, essentially waiting until a citizen was injured from a defect in the street to inform the City about the problem. The City of Atlanta literally argued they only received notice of a problem with a street once someone had been hurt by it. Does this strike you as crazy? Or at least surprising? That’s the way it struck the jurors. According to Attorney Baskin, the jurors were “absolutely appalled at the city’s lack of inspections.”

And it’s not just the City of Atlanta that takes this position. Many other governmental entities do the exact same thing, i.e., only inspect streets or sidewalks after they receive a complaint about it from someone. They do not routinely inspect their own roads. I recently took the deposition of the Director of Public Works for DeKalb County, Georgia, and, interestingly, he said the same thing about DeKalb County, i.e., that DeKalb County relies on reports from citizens of any problem with a street, road or sidewalk before they get involved. DeKalb County Public Works does not inspect its roads and sidewalks proactively so as to avoid injury to a citizen. Nor does it have anyone inspecting their sidewalks to make sure they are in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.  This means a disabled person has to get hurt first on a DeKalb County road or sidewalk before DeKalb County will do anything to fix the problem. DeKalb asserts that citizens can get in touch with them by phone, email, Facebook or Twitter, and that is, in their minds, sufficient.

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You may have read recently about a little problem with the school bus stopping laws that the Georgia General Assembly is now trying to fix. Last year the Georgia Legislature amended the school bus stopping laws with a dozen words that are, apparently, having bad, unintended consequences, one of which is car drivers no longer believing they have to stop every time for every school bus.  Those words were:    ““including, but not limited to, a highway divided by a turn lane.””  School transportation officials from at least 102 counties caught the problem before it was passed, and even wrote a letter to then Governor Nathan Deal in April of 2018 before it passed on July 1, 2018, to try to put a quash on it.  But to no avail.  It passed.  And with it came new concerns about children’s safety as they exit school buses.

Before this amendment, Georgia law required traffic in both directions to stop for a stopped school bus with it’s “STOP” sign out on any laned highway unless the directions were divided by a raised median. Here is the law on overtaking a stopped school bus:

(a) Except as provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, the driver of a vehicle meeting or overtaking from either direction any school bus stopped on the highway shall stop before reaching such school bus when there are in operation on the school bus the visual signals as specified in Code Sections 40-8-111 and 40-8-115, and such driver shall not proceed until the school bus resumes motion or the visual signals are no longer actuated.(b) The driver of a vehicle upon a highway with separate roadways or a divided highway, including, but not limited to, a highway divided by a turn lane, need not stop upon meeting or passing a school bus which is on a different roadway or on another half of a divided highway, or upon a controlled access highway when the school bus is stopped in a loading zone which is a part of or adjacent to such highway and where pedestrians are not permitted to cross the roadway.

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MY FIRST AND LAST MURDER TRIAL

It’s January 4, 2019 and I am in Division 5 of the DeKalb County Superior Court, otherwise known as Judge Gregory Adam’s courtroom. I let the Deputies know I am a lawyer representing an accused person in a case and am here for the motions calendar. They instruct me to sit in the jury box. I do. As soon as I step in the jury box, a friend of mine, Jan Hankins, a Georgia Public Defender, says “I know you. What are you doing here?”  She has that look on her face of seeing someone she knows but in the wrong setting. Things are out of context. She knows I am a plaintiff’s personal injury trial lawyer. She instantly computes that I have no Earthly business in a criminal motions hearing.  I explain that I will be trying a murder trial with Mike Maloof, Jr. because I have always wanted to try a criminal case and in my 30 years of practicing law, I have never handled a criminal case. A mutual friend put Mike and me together and Mike welcomed my help. Jan’s response: “If trying a murder case is on your bucket list, you need a new list.”

It is true that in 30 years of practicing law I have never handled a criminal matter. I watch a lot of criminal trial shows on TV, though. Shouldn’t that qualify me a little bit?  After all, I certainly know never to talk to the police or answer a single question they ask unless my lawyer is present. I know never to give the police consent to search my car. I know never to agree to take a sobriety test. I am armed with a lot of knowledge about the criminal justice system from this. So wouldn’t it be a neat chance to add to my plethora of TV criminal justice knowledge by trying a real murder case?

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We have survived the Holidays and so it is appropriate we review car crash records to see how we Georgians did in 2018. Were we any safer?  Have car collisions declined in any aspect?

Each year, the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety publishes a report that lists all collision statistics for our state for that year.  This includes any bicyclists and pedestrians who are involved in collisions. You may find a wealth of traffic statistics in that report. In 2017, Georgia traffic fatalities for the year were 1468, a 4% decrease compared to 1527 on the

same date in 2016. This change, however, was not statistically significant.  We do not yet have the official tally of Georgia highway fatalities for 2018 yet. As of Sept. 30, 2018, fatalities from traffic crashes in Georgia were down 11 percent year to date, which represents the largest decrease of Georgia’s traffic fatalities in 10 years.  As of September 2018, there had been 128 fewer fatalities in 2018 over 2017.  Although this sounds like progress, the decrease is still probably not statistically significant.

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Jury duty is often the last thing people want to do. It interferes with their jobs, their family schedules and essentially everything people do on a daily basis. No one has jury duty scheduled on their calendar.  So, it is often the case once citizens report for jury duty and are actually sitting in a courtroom going through jury selection, particularly in civil cases for money damages, that jurors want to know “Why is this case being tried?  Why am I here?” Some people might, wrongly, assume it is because the plaintiff is greedy. But that is almost never the case. Rather, so often, the answer is because the insurance company for the defendant, the party at fault, refuses to be reasonable and refuses to resolve the case before trial.  For some unknown reason, that seems to be more and more the answer to the jurors’ questions of “Why are we here?”

Several recent trials in Georgia demonstrate that completely. In a trial in Gwinnett County last month, a jury awarded $17.8 million to the widow of a man who plummeted three stories to his death after trying to close an improperly installed dormer window.  No offer of settlement by the insurance company who represented the company at fault was even made until six days before trial. Understand, the trial occurred only after years of depositions, hearings, document exchange…known as discovery. Yet the insurer didn’t even attempt to broach resolution until six days before trial. The plaintiff’s settlement demand had only been $1 Million. Now the insurer is looking at a judgment for $17.8 Million. The insurer could have saved $16.8 Million had it even attempted resolution.

In another case recently tried in Cobb County, the jury returned verdicts for two plaintiffs of $77,000.00 to one plaintiff and $80,000.00 to the other. They also awarded an additional $35,000.00 for property damage. Highest offers prior to trial were $4,000 and $5,000 respectively.  Yet the plaintiffs’ medical expenses alone, without even considering pain and suffering, were $12,000 and $9,000 respectively.  When an insurer offers half of a plaintiff’s medical expenses it is not really trying to reach a good faith resolution of the case.

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