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I’ve got jury duty and I can’t wait!  Said no one ever (except maybe lawyers who almost never get to serve on a jury).  You have just received your jury summons, making an already bad day worse. Now what do you do?

  1.  Show up at court.  When you receive a juror’s summons, it is an actual summons for you to appear in court. Failure to appear in court at the correct time can place you in contempt of court. Don’t make matters worse by failing to appear.  I have seen different courts handle this in different ways, ranging from a mere scolding by the trial court judge to payment of a fine. The trial judge can even hold you in contempt and threaten you with jail (although I have never seen this happen, and state court judges are elected so I doubt it ever will happen).  A trial judge in 

    Virginia recently gave 200 people who had been summoned for jury duty but who had failed to appear a lecture on the importance of the role of the jury in our judicial systems. “Jurors perform a vital role in the American system of justice,” Circuit Judge Jerrauld Jones told him at Friday’s court hearing, noting that the Founding Fathers thought they were so important, they put jury trials in the Bill of Rights.  “Jury trials prevent tyranny,” Jones said.  Judge Jones was, apparently, in a generous mood as he forgave their $100 fine and several people exclaimed “Thank you!” and “Bless the Lord!” when Jones told them he was dismissing the cases against them.

 

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As I work in my office, I often have livestreaming a trial or appellate arguments occurring in the Georgia Court of Appeals or the Georgia Supreme Court.  I have previously blogged about the meaning of open courts and the value in being able to watch our judicial branch at work. It is your government in action and every citizen has the right to watch it and should be able to watch it.  I firmly believe in it. Today I am glad to see others get on my bandwagon.  CNN published an article today online that essentially agrees with my position. Given the current state of affairs with the attempted ban on Muslims by Executive Order and given the President’s attempt to “blame” the Courts for simply upholding the United States Constitution, there has never been a more important time in our Country’s history than for the people to have total access to the courts through livestreaming or video.   Interestingly, oral arguments Washington v. Trump were broadcast on youtube.com although there was no video portion to watch, just audio.  When our own President is attacking the independence of the judiciary, livestreaming oral arguments would be the very proof needed to show he simply does not know what he is talking about.  Livestreaming oral arguments dealing with unconstitutional executive orders would dispel any absurd suggestion that courts or judges are political and are making decisions based on political pressures. It is ridiculous that our President would even suggest such a thing, when it is absolutely not true, but for any American who might for a minute believe it, they could simply watch for themselves and realize that our judges are making their decisions based on the facts, the law and the Constitution. Increased transparency promotes public participation, open government, access to information, efficiency, higher quality decision- making, and accountability. Further, transparency  reduces the opportunity for corruption.

 

Robin Frazer Clark pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured in motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, premises safety, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others.  Ms. Clark is the 50th President of the State Bar of Georgia and a Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and has practiced law in Georgia for 26 years.  Mrs. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia and is a Georgia Super Lawyer.  Robin Frazer Clark~Dedicated to the Constitution’s Promise of Justice for All.

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As many of you know, I often watch oral arguments in the Georgia Supreme Court via its livestreaming capability on its website.   I encourage you to watch, as well. If you are reading my blog it means you must be interested in Georgia law, and what better way to gain some insight than to watch arguments before the State’s highest court? Having available online the live streaming of oral arguments really is a public service to Georgia citizens and a nod to open and transparent government from the Judicial Branch of Georgia government.

I wanted to let you know that tomorrow, February 7, 2016, an interesting and very sad case will be argued before the Georgia Supreme Court, City of Richmond, GA v. Maia.  I blogged about the Maia case when it was before the Georgia Court of Appeals.  My blog then asked “Who is legally responsible for suicide?”  Suicide and suicide prevention has been an interest of mine since one of my dear friends committed suicide in 2012, when I was President of the State Bar of Georgia. His suicide led me to form the State Bar’s Suicide Prevention Campaign “How To Save a Life.”  The issue of who is to blame for suicide is squarely before the Georgia Supreme Court now.  The City of Richmond argues you can never blame a third party for someone’s suicide because suicide is also an independent, intervening act.  This is based on years of rather old Georgia case law.  But we know now, after suicide prevention has become more of the public conversation and as open discussion about suicide is helping to remove the stigma associated with suicide, that sometimes it seems suicide can often be traced directly back to bullying of the victim by third parties.  It will be an interesting case to watch. My good friend Carl Varnedoe will be arguing for the Plaintiff and my good friend Pat O’Connor will be arguing for the City of Richmond.  Below is the Supreme Court’s case summary. I’ll keep you posted, as promised.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 10:00 A.M. Session

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Today, a DeKalb County jury returned a verdict against two nurses who are employees of DeKalb Medical Center in the amount of $3.012 Million.  The case is  Edwards v. Nicome, et al., 11A36121. filed in the DeKalb County State Court.  The case  centered around the May 2009 death of Shari Edwards, age 31, who died of heart failure three days after being admitted to DeKalb Medical for preeclampsia and ultimately giving birth to her daughter.  A third defendant, a physician, was not held liable by the jury.  Congratulations go out to Plaintiff’s attorneys Bill Atkins, Rod Edmund and Keith Lindsay for what was obviously a valiant fight for justice in a three week trial.  The case was defended by a trial attorney who I have tried a case against before, Tim Bendin.  Bendin and his law firm often represents DeKalb Medical Center in personal injury cases.  Because the nurses who were found to be at fault are employees of DeKalb Medical Center, DeKalb Medical Center is responsible for the verdict.

The plaintiffs, the parents of the deceased Ms. Edwards, argued their daughter died because of peripartum cardiomyopathy, or heart failure, and the failure of her healthcare team, including Defendant physician Nicome and nurses Cox and Huber-Smith, to detect or treat her deteriorating condition.  The evidence showed Edwards’ blood pressure problems had initially been treated, but in the hours before her death her condition became more precarious with low oxygen levels and blood-gas levels joining her complaints that she was short of breath. Despite this, Edmond said medical records showed staff did not take Edwards’ vital signs for three hours before she went into the cardiac arrest that proved fatal.  The defense, however, argued Edwards’ condition was stable in the hours before her cardiac arrest, and her healthcare team treated her appropriately throughout her stay, including ordering tests and intervention where necessary.  Bendin, the nurses’s attorney, seemingly attempted to cast blame on the attending physician, arguing they were just trying to follow doctor’s orders. This simply didn’t work. No word on whether DeKalb Medical Center will appeal the verdict. They have 30 days from the entry of judgment to do so.

I have often had defense attorneys tell me that doctors and hospitals win 95% of their trials in Georgia. If that is true, to say the odds were against this family and this team of trial lawyers would be an understatement. And $3 Million for the value of the life of a 31 year old  could never be characterized of being a “runaway” verdict by any of those who think the Georgia Civil Justice System is out of whack and needs reform.  In my opinion, $3 Million for the full value of the life of this mother is probably even slightly conservative.  This verdict was a unanimous verdict by 12 DeKalb County citizens who all saw the evidence of negligence the same way, demanding justice in favor of the deceased patient’s family. There is nothing about it that could be labeled “runaway.”

iphone   This week in Georgia a Georgia State trial court ruled in favor of the social media application Snapchat in a personal injury case and granted Snapchat judgment as a matter of law based on immunity.  The case is Maynard v. Snapchat and is pending in the Spalding County State Court. The plaintiff, who suffered severe brain damage in a wreck when he was hit by a teen who was using Snapchat at the time of the wreck is ably represented by several of my friends, including Mike Terry and Michael Neff, both wonderful lawyers. The suit asserted that Snapchat’s speed filter—a feature which allows a user to photograph how fast a user is going—”motivated” McGee to “drive at an excessive speed to obtain recognition and to share her experiences through Snapchat.”  Apparently, young drivers who use Snapchat are now often driving recklessly fast so they can snap a photo of the speed of the car they are driving to share it with all of their Snapchat followers, and then I guess the reckless driver gets to brag to all of her friends, “Hey! Look at me!!  Me! Me! Me!  Look how fast I am driving!!  Whoopeeee!”  But the Snapchat app encourages the driver to break the law, drive way too fast, illegally fast, and then requires an action by the speeding driver to capture the not-to-be-missed moment.  Those few seconds of distraction force the young driver to take her eyes off the road and they often lose control of their car or fail to stay in their lane, resulting in a horrible car wreck and causing untold devastation to an innocent person minding his own business driving on the road that night.  In the Spalding County case the evidence showed the teen driver reached speeds of 113 m.p.h. AWFUL!

The defense attorneys argued successfully that Snapchat was entitled to complete immunity under the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, and whose Section 230 states, “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  This provision seems to grant immunity for written communications published on the social media application, not for creating an app that encourages someone to break the law in the first place.  Simply reading the literal words of the immunity provision, they would seem to be inapplicable to the facts of this case.  But I’m not a judge and the only opinion that counts is the trial judge’s and he disagreed with me.  Plaintiff’s counsel, I would assume, are considering an appeal.

This case shows a horrifying trend with the Snapchat “speed filter.”  In November of last year in Tampa, Florida, a teen driver who reached speeds of 115 m.p.h. lost control of her car, crossed a median and hit a minivan carrying a family. The wreck killed five people. Snapchat says it actively discourages “their community” to use the speed filter while driving.  If that is true, what is the point of it?  Can Snapchat claim, with a straight face, argue that the speed filter is not designed to be used while driving when it’s entire purpose is to measure a vehicle’s speed?  There is also currently pending in Texas another lawsuit against Apple with essentially the same facts and allegations as the Maynard case here in Georgia but involving Apple’s application Facetime. In that case, a   “driver rear-ended the Modisettes with his Toyota 4Runner at 65 miles per hour — killing five-year-old Moriah Modisette. The driver, Garret Wilhem, told police he was on FaceTime at the time of the crash, and officers found his phone in the car with FaceTime still engaged.”

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I constantly hear, even from jurors, that we are a “litigious society,”  that everyone sues over everything these days. Assuming this is true, who is to blame?  Critics immediately place the blame at the feet of the injured plaintiffs who must bring the lawsuit for compensation for the injuries they have suffered that were caused by someone’s carelessness. If those darn hurt people who can’t work any longer because of their injuries would just not file a lawsuit we wouldn’t be a litigious society!!  The nerve of these people!  Getting injured through no fault of their own and then expecting compensation for the medical bills, lost wages, pain, inconvenience, inability to work, permanent scarring, loss of their normal quality of life, etc., from the person who caused it all.  The gall! Can you believe these people?

Yes.  Yes, I can. I believe these people because these are the people I represent every single day. These are the people who began their day with their normal routine like every other person but who, unfortunately, came into the path of someone who was careless, someone who wasn’t paying attention to the road, someone who was texting while driving, someone who was reckless and causes an upheaval in the life of someone else due to their negligence and carelessness.

But don’t blame these injured folks. Blame the insurance companies of the careless individuals, because it is the car insurance companies who take the stance “so sue me” and invite litigation that easily could have been avoided had they simply been reasonable in negotiating an insurance claim for personal injury.

contract-signing-1474333It seems that the issue of forced arbitration clauses in contracts seems to be increasingly in the public conversation, given the debacle of Wells Fargo creating fake accounts by employees to achieve performance bonuses without their customers’s even knowing about it. Unbelievably, Wells Fargo is attempting to rely on forced arbitration clauses in the fake contracts for the fake bank accounts they fraudulently created to avoid being held accountable by a real jury.  It’s really hard to believe Wells Fargo’s lawyer would even agree to submit such a position to the court with a straight face and an unburdened conscience. But they are.  At least maybe the Wells Fargo fiasco is bringing to light this attempt by many corporations to take away a person’s Constitutional right to a jury trial to resolve a dispute before a dispute even arises and force the aggrieved person to have the dispute heard by a panel of arbiters (often picked by the corporation).  They know they stand to fare much better before an arbitration panel than a jury of 12 American citizens, the greatest dispenser of Justice ever conceived by man.

I have written before about the “gotcha” tactics of nursing homes in attempting to steal a resident’s right to a jury trial. I have fought off several attempts on behalf of clients in nursing home malpractice lawsuits.  An interesting opinion from the Georgia Court of Appeals recently was issued that deals with an embedded arbitration clause in nursing home admission papers, which, once the resident’s family members sued the nursing home for malpractice in causing the death of their family member, the nursing home asserted to the court as eliminating their right to have a jury hear their case. Gotcha!! This case is Kindred Nursing Centers v. Chrzanowski, 338 Ga.App. 708 (2016) and the facts of the case confirm the nursing home’s attempt at Gotcha!  The plaintiff’s mother was admitted on December 4, 2016 to Kindred Nursing Center in Marietta for rehabilitation following surgery for a broken ankle during a fall.  Ms. Chrzanowski’s medical records showed she suffered from several chronic medical conditions and also cognitive impairment.  According to the appellate record “[i]n the month before her fall, Jeanne went to the emergency room twice within a few days, and reported feeling “loopy” and out of sorts, with some memory loss. The second time she went, she had no recollection of her prior visit just 48 hours earlier. A neurological consult identified an altered mental state, with mild cognitive impairment, depression, and some amnesia. Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. P’ship v. Chrzanowski, 338 Ga. App. 708, 709, 791 S.E.2d 601, 602 (2016).   Two days before Jeanne signed the ADR Agreement, occupational therapy evaluated Jeanne and reported that she was confused, even though she was able to participate in establishing her plan of care. In weekly progress notes from December 5 through December 12, occupational therapy reported that Jeanne was very anxious and confused, commenting to staff, “look at the walls, they are coming out.” In addition, a speech pathologist evaluated Jeanne on December 7 and found that she was severely impaired in understanding yes and no questions; moderately impaired in concentration, understanding sentences, and conversation; and moderately to severely impaired in memory, reasoning, and judgment. That same day, a dietitian performed a nutrition therapy assessment and found Jeanne was very confused and could not remember if she had eaten breakfast. Another assessment determined that Jeanne was at risk for falls due to weakness, medications, confusion, and forgetfulness.  Ms. Chrzanowski signed the admission papers on December 7, 2011, which contained the embedded, hidden arbitration clause.  On April 25, 2012 Ms. Chrzanowski died in the nursing home after suffering several other falls and hospitalizations.  Her family then sued in court for malpractice.

In response to the suit, the nursing home filed a motion with the trial court to enforce the arbitration agreement that was in the admission papers signed by Ms. Chrzanowski while she was obviously suffering from dementia and cognitive impairment. Does that even sound fair to you? I hope not. The trial court denied the nursing home’s motion to compel arbitration and the nursing home appealed. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, not on the merits of the case but on the basis the trial court had applied the wrong standard in making its decision. So now the case is back in the breast of the trial court who must apply a different standard in making its decision on whether to compel arbitration and allow the nursing home to steal the Chrzanowski’s  Constitutional right to a jury trial.

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Two fairly interesting court opinions were issued this week, one by a trial court judge in a bench trial, and the other from the Georgia Court of Appeals, both of which place a dollar value on the life of someone and both of which are, strikingly, very close to each other in amounts. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at them, as the value of a life is something I ponder quite often as a trial lawyer, and it is something I often have to ask juries to do in wrongful death trials. I am currently gearing up for the trial involving the wrongful death of a 23 year old young woman who was a kindergarten teacher in Gwinnett County. The trial will be taking place in Fulton State Court. So the value of a life is at the forefront of my thought these days. Let’s take a look at the wrongful death cases from this week.

The first case involves the wrongful death of Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of Bobbi Brown and Whitney Houston.  I am sure you are familiar with the incident surrounding her death. It was a tragic case.  This week, Judge Jackson Bedford of the Superior Court of Fulton County, issued an award of $36 Million for the full value of the life of Bobbi Kristina. You may recall that, like her mother, Bobbi Kristina was found face down in a bathtub full of water. She survived on life support systems in a hospital for several months. The award was made against her life-partner, Nick Gordon.  Mr. Gordon was not present at the trial of this case and it appears he may have been in default in the civil suit, meaning he never filed an answer to the lawsuit which would entitle the plaintiff to a trial on damages only, which is, apparently, what occurred. The young woman’s family blamed Gordon, accusing him in the lawsuit of giving Brown a “toxic cocktail” before putting her face-down in the water. Gordon, an orphan three years older whom Houston had raised as her own, has not been charged with a crime. Brown had referred to Gordon as her husband. Investigators with the medical examiner’s office were unable to determine exactly how Brown had died. An autopsy showed she had morphine, cocaine, alcohol and prescription drugs in her body. But the medical examiner couldn’t determine if she killed herself, if someone else killed her or if her death was accidental. Regardless of the amount of the award, it is unlikely that the Brown Family will ever collect a penny of it from Mr. Gordon. It is my understanding that he has no personal assets and could always file bankruptcy against the award.  It is important, however, to note that a very seasoned trial judge, Judge Bedford, when faced with placing a dollar value on the life of a person, deemed $36 Million an appropriate number.   Judge Bedford has presided over many wrongful death trials and is well versed in the law of wrongful death and what factors go into that decision of what is the value of life from the deceased’s point of view.  Interestingly, under Georgia law, when determining the value of a life for wrongful death purposes, the jury is instructed they must value the life from the deceased’s point of view, meaning did the person who died value his or her life?  The only “tool” the jury is to use to help them with this endeavor is their “enlightened conscience.” What was his life worth to him? What was her life worth to her?  Judge Bedford decided $36 Million was the value of the life of Bobbi Kristini Bown.   That may seem like a lot of money, but ask yourself this:  If it was your daughter who had died, have they printed enough money to compensate for the loss of her? Name a dollar figure you believe adequately reflects the full value of the life of one of your children.  It’s hard to think about, isn’t it.  Now put yourself in the jurors’ shoes.

The second case this week involves the wrongful death of a little boy, Remington Walden, who burned to death in a fiery car crash  when he was a passenger in a 1999 Chrysler Jeep Grand Cherokee.  Two amazing trial lawyers, a father and son team, Jim Butler and his son, Jeb Butler, tried this wrongful death back in April 2015 in Decatur County (Bainbridge) Georgia.  The plaintiffs alleged the 1999 Chrysler Jeep was defective due to the placement of its fuel tank in the rear of the Jeep, making a fuel-fed fire highly likely in a rear-end collision, which is what happened in this case. Unlike the Bobbi Kristina trial, which was a trial in front of a judge who decided the case, this was a good old-fashioned jury trial. The Decatur County jury found for the plaintiffs in the amount of $120 Million.  That’s right…$120 Million.  The trial judge then reduced or “remitted” the verdict, which is a power the trial court has, in lieu of a new trial. The trial judge reduced the $120 Million verdict to $40 Million , which the plaintiffs’ accepted. Chrysler did not, however, and appealed even the reduced verdict to the Georgia Court of Appeals.  Well, the Georgia Court of Appeals this week affirmed the trial court, meaning it agreed with the trial court’s decision to reduce the verdict to $40 Million. Chrysler lost their appeal but has vowed to consider its options to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. I’ll be watching for that appeal.  There was evidence in the trial that Remy, the little boy, burned alive for 60 seconds.  It may seem that the jury thought $2 Million for every second of burning alive was appropriate. Who could argue with that? Who could even argue with $40 Million for that kind of death? Chrysler, I suppose. Chrysler still refuses to accept any responsibility for their defective product and refuses to accept any responsibility for the death of Remy Walden.   Contrary to the Bobbi Kristina verdict, the plaintiffs stand to collect every penny of this verdict, plus interest, assuming it is affirmed on appeal by the Georgia Supreme Court.

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Friends:  I have to confess, I back slid recently and agreed to mediation of a client’s case.  I had not agreed to a mediation of my clients’s cases in several years, primarily because of a sense that mediation  generally was not successful and perhaps was even counterproductive, pushing the opposing parties even further into their corners as positions became entrenched due to ridiculous positions taken during mediation, all through the implicit stamp of approval of a rather expensive mediator (who, by the way, gets paid regardless of whether he or she is successful in resolving the case).  I regret allowing my client to agree to mediate his case. And again, I have made my pact with myself  not to make that mistake again. Here is a short list (certainly not exhaustive) of reasons why I have fallen out with mediation of personal injury cases.

  1.  Defense counsel get away with childish, immature positions and remarks.  I had a case once in which the insurance carrier wanted to try to settle prior to my filing a lawsuit. I gave them a dollar amount to do just that. They refused. They took the “so sue me” attitude. So I accommodated them and sued their insured.  After two years of litigation, when the insurance carrier is in the corner because of the egregious facts that I have now exposed during discovery, I make a new demand reflecting the increase in value of the case in the last two years.  Defense lawyers and the insurance adjuster say they “are hurt” by the increase and take away their initial offer in bad faith at medication.  Did I not tell them that their best opportunity to settle the case was before I filed suit and litigated the case for years, and that in so doing, their case would only get worse?
  2. Defense counsel approach me to mediate, saying “they really want to get the case resolved.”  So I agree to mediation. My clients take a day off from their jobs. We are paying a mediator. Insurance adjuster offers at mediation only what was already on the table BEFORE mediation and says that’s it, take it or leave it.  That’s one of the most UNprofessional things I can even imagine, yet it happens. A simple phone call to me would have sufficed. Yet they put my client through the stress and expectation that maybe finally, after two years of duking it out, they have come to their senses and want to resolve the case for what is only fair. Nope.