Articles Posted in Appellate Law

Robert Benham and his 1984 appointment with Georgia history
On Thursday, Feb. 8, Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage will be presented to Retired Justice Robert Benham.  There is not a more worthy recipient. I have admired Justice Benham for my entire legal career, spanning 35 years now. I highly recommend you listen to an interview of Justice Benham by University of Georgia Professor Paul Kurtz on Youtube. It is fascinating.

Back in 2013, when I was President of the State Bar of Georgia, I had the distinct honor of giving remarks at the 14th Annual Justice Robert Benham Awards for Community Service.  That’s right. The State Bar of Georgia Community Service Awards are aptly named in honor of Justice Benham. In light of Georgia Tech’s wonderful announcement that he will be receiving its Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage, I wanted to share again my remarks from that special day in 2013.

 Remarks of President Robin Frazer Clark at the 2013 Justice Robert Benham Community Service Awards                                                                                         

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I am happy to see that the Cobb County, Georgia District Attorney has now made the decision not to retry Ross Harris for the murder of his child when he left his child, Cooper, in a hot car. You may recall that the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the conviction in a  strongly worded opinion.  The Cobb County District Attorney’s office waited for almost a year before making the decision not to retry Harris for murder. Tip of the cap to Mr. Harris’s attorneys, Max Kilgore, Carlos Rodriguez and Bryan Lumpkin, who never gave up even after their client was convicted back in 2016. They have always maintained that Harris was a loving father and the boy’s death was a tragic accident.“Ross has always accepted the moral responsibility for Cooper’s death,” they said in a statement after the charges were dismissed. “But after all these years of investigation and review, this dismissal of charges confirms that Cooper’s death was unintentional and therefore not a crime.”

You may recall that I wrote a blog post back in June 2022 when the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Ross Harris for killing his child by leaving him in a hot car. I thought then it was a prosecutorial overreach and that Mr. Harris never should have been tried on murder charges for the death of his son. My reasoning was based upon study after study showing how easy it is to forget you have a child in a car seat in the back seat, especially if your usual daily schedule is changed ever so slightly.  Now, there are numerous cellphone applications (“apps”) that tell you to check the backseat and make sure you don’t leave your child there in the car. Waze Child Reminder and Kars for Kids are a couple of examples. Also, some newer model cars include such reminder to check the back seat and there are now child seat alarms that will alert you if you accidentally leave your child in his or her car seat. One low-tech suggestion is to leave a stuffed animal in the front seat to remind you your child is in the back seat. When my husband and I were raising our children, who are now adults, we didn’t have anything like that to help and it was a constant worry for us. In fact, there was a news report yesterday that an 11 month old baby girl died in a hot car when her parents left her in their car while they attended church.

At trial, the Cobb County prosecutors admitted a lot of evidence regarding Mr. Harris’s communications through the internet with women he wanted to have sex with. Some of these people turned out to be minors. It seemed as if the prosecution was trying to prove that Harris was not a nice guy.  And they did that. But that evidence had nothing to do with leaving Cooper in a hot car in his car seat in the back. The Georgia Supreme Court  upheld Harris’ convictions on three sex crimes committed against a 16-year-old girl that Harris had not appealed. He received a total of 12 years in prison for those crimes, and he will continue to serve that sentence, the district attorney’s office said.

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I don’t often write about appellate opinions from appellate courts of states other than Georgia, but as I was reading some recent appellate opinions, the Virginia case of Morris v. Commonwealth of Virginia, No. 1194-21-2 (VA Ct. App. May 9, 2023) and not for good reasons.  Morris involves Virginia’s overdose reporting statute,  Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-251.03(B)(2)Georgia has a similar statute but ours is arguably not as restrictive as Virginia’s and hopefully, our Georgia Appellate Courts won’t interpret it as strictly.

In Morris, Henrico, Virgina police officers observed a white Ford Edge trying to turn onto the road next to an emergency room. The vehicle nearly struck a curb in the turn lane and then stopped in the middle of the road, blocking through-traffic. The officers approached the vehicle, driven by Morris, and asked him to park the car. Morris said that “he was there to get help,” telling the officers that he had smoked crack cocaine. The officers thought he appeared to be under the influence of drugs and escorted Morris into the emergency room. As medical personnel drew a blood sample, Morris “made suicidal statements.” In response to law enforcement questioning, Morris said that he worked at Food Lion; he was high while at work and asked to sit in his boss’s car to call his mother; he had called his mother “because he was thinking about committing suicide”; and he had driven away from the Food Lion and had driven around awhile before heading to the Short Pump emergency room. When asked whether his mother had told him to “go to the ER,” Morris said he “chose to do so himself” because “he was thinking about suicide.” When an officer asked why he was considering suicide, Morris responded, “drugs.” Morris said that he used heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine, that he had smoked crack cocaine in his boss’s car, and that he “came to the ER to get help for the suicidal thoughts and his drug problem.” Morris alerted the officers to a crack pipe in the vehicle, which they found tucked in the crevice of the passenger seat.  Morris v. Commonwealth, 1194-21-2, 2023 WL 3310315, at 1–2 (Va. Ct. App. May 9, 2023).

The Virginia overdose amnesty statute provides full immunity from “arrest or prosecution” for qualifying individuals (prior versions had characterized the immunity as an “affirmative defense”). It was amended to cover not only someone who helps another experiencing an overdose, but also the person who “is experiencing an overdose”—assuming other criteria in the statute are met. Before these expansions, we observed that the “clear purpose” of the law was to “encourage … prompt emergency medical treatment [for] those who have suffered an overdose as a result of ingesting a controlled substance.”  Georgia’s drug overdose amnesty statute is similar.  But the Virgina statute has a curious requirement that the statute does not apply unless the individual “remains at the scene of the overdose or at any alternative location to which he … has been transported until a law-enforcement officer responds to the report of an overdose.” 

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In what can only be described as a jaw-dropping, scorching opinion, issued on December 20, 2023, the Georgia Supreme Court soundly rebuked the Georgia Attorney General’s Office for lack of integrity in negotiations with the Federal Defender Program regarding when the AG’s office would resume executions of death-sentenced inmates.

In State v. Fed. Def. Program, Inc., S22A1099, 2022 WL 17813458 (Ga. Dec. 20, 2022) made the following agreement, in writing via email, with the Federal Defender Program:

“Our office will not pursue an execution warrant from the District Attorney in the below defined cases before: 1) the final COVID19 judicial emergency order entered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia expires; 2) the Georgia Department of Corrections lifts its suspension of legal visitation, and normal visitation resumes; and [3)] a vaccination against COVID19 is readily available to all members of the public.

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You have probably heard by now that the Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed the conviction of Ross Harris for murder for the death of his young child, Cooper Harris, who Ross Harris left in the back seat of a hot car for hours.  I think the Court got it exactly right.  Many people have some very strong opinions on both sides of this case. All you have to do is check the hashtag #RossHarris to see how polarized the public is on the case.  The reversal was certainly big news not only in Georgia, but Nationwide. This was a closely watched case.

This may be Justice Nahmias’s final opinion on the Georgia Supreme Court, and he is going out with a bang.  I never thought Mr. Harris should have been prosecuted for murder in the first place.  We know through neuroscience that it takes very little time or effort to distract our brains.  Just the slightest deviation in our typical routine can make you forget where you intended to go or that a baby is in the car with you. Season 2 of AJC’s podcast Breakdown makes this clear with even an example of an Arkansas judge, Judge Wade Naramore, who left his 19-month-old child in his car while he was in court, resulting in the child’s death. The judge’s 911 call is one of the most horrific calls you will ever hear. You’ll also hear about an elementary school principal who left her home early one morning with her baby in her car seat in the back seat. It was too early for her to drop the baby off at day care, so the school principal deviated from her typical, normal route to go pick up doughnuts. Then she drove to school. Hours later a teacher saw the baby in the back seat. They rushed to get her out but she was dead. That simple deviation to the doughnut shop made the elementary school principal forget her child was in the back in her carseat.  I urge you to listen to the AJC’s podcast. Season Two is called “Death in a Hot Car.”

Today, there are many tools a parent can use to help you remember your child is in the back seat, e.g., Baby in Car Seat Alarms, that sound an alarm and flash lights in your car if you forget your child in his car seat. There are phone apps, e.g., Kars 4 Kids Safety, or Backseat App, that alert you to check for you child in the backseat. Even the GPS app WAZE has added a Child Alert to remind you to check on your child before getting out of your car. This shows that anyone can make this mistake and now there are tools to help you not make it.  The National Safety Council has tracked children left in hot cars for over 20 years. It reported that in 2018, 52 children died being left in hot cars. Since 1998 over 800 kids were lost from vehicular heatstroke. Of these deaths, 24% occurred in employee parking lots, just like Cooper Harris.  This is telling.  For those who are adamant that “this would never happen to me,” we know through neuroscience that that belief is simply one created through a heuristic called “defense attribution.” “Defense Attribution” is defined as “bias or error in attributing cause for some event such that a perceived threat to oneself is minimized. For example, people might blame an automobile accident on the other driver’s mistake because this attribution lessens their perception that they themselves are responsible for the accident.” Our minds do this to us when there is something so horrific you can not imagine it ever happening to you.  We also know that the worse the event, the stronger the human mind insists it would never happen to me.  This is something personal injury attorneys often face with jurors in cases in which the injuries to the plaintiff are horrible.

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I recently had the honor of attending the dedication of the portrait of Justice Harris P. Hines and the portrait’s official installation at the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in the Georgia Supreme Court Courtroom. Justice Hines and I were good friends, and his beautiful wife, Helen Hines, remains my good friend. Helen spoke at the dedication and said this about her husband of 46 years:

“Harris will be remembered as a judge and as a justice who loved people, and served the citizens of Georgia. He will be remembered for how he touched the lives of others, traveling throughout the state for over four decades. He spoke to civic clubs and legal groups, delivered introductions and invocations, taught continuing legal education courses, judged mock trials and debates, moderated panel discussions, counseled anyone who sought his guidance or advice — greeting people with sincerity and warmth. He never seemed to tire of talking — I’m on stop right there. He never seemed to tire of talking — to them, and inquiring about their lives and their families. He cared about individuals and treated them all with respect and fairness. Hard work, courtesy, integrity and kindness are the real legacy Harris leaves,” she concluded.

Chief Justice David Nahmias spoke. Former Chief Justice Harold Melton (now private lawyer) spoke and said this about Justice Hines: “Everybody here knew and loved Justice Hines, and everybody has the same impression of him and of his kindness,” said Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders partner Harold Melton, who succeeded Hines as chief justice and was his close friend, though they were 23 years apart in age. But Melton said for this occasion he wanted to remember Hines as a lawyer.  “It’s appropriate that we also talk about his legal legacy and his commitment to the fidelity of the law, how painstakingly he pored over the law and how determined he was to get it right,” Melton said.

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You may recall that I wrote a blog about a case that occurred in here in Georgia in which a husband and wife sued Snapchat (now known as Snap, Inc.) for negligent design of their “app” because the app promoted using it while a driver was driving at a high rate of speed as it recorded your speed for you to share (brag) with all of your friends and followers. The speed filter allows a driver behind the wheel to document his or her speed by “snapping” a picture while the car is in motion. On this one particular night, a teenage driver allegedly opened her Snapchat app while driving as an attempt to snap a picture of her car reaching 100 mph. The driver allegedly, according to the Complaint, accelerated until reaching approximately 107 mph before she realized another driver had pulled onto the road. She crashed into him at full speed. Both cars were totaled, leaving multiple people with tremendous injuries – both physical and psychological – and thousands of dollars in expenses.

That happened in 2015. Somewhere along the last seven years Snapchat filed a Motion to Dismiss the lawsuit and the trial court granted it. The plaintiffs appealed and the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed. But now, in 2022, seven years after the original wreck, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled against Snapchat and in favor of the Plaintiffs to permit the lawsuit to proceed. Justice Verda Colvin wrote the opinion of the Supreme Court, which was not unanimous. There were three special concurrences and two dissents, and two justices did not participate in the opinion.  The issue presented here was whether Snapchat owed a legal duty to the Maynards on the basis that a manufacturer’s duty to design reasonably safe products  extends to people injured by a third party’s intentional and tortious misuse of the manufacturer’s product. Maynard v. Snapchat, Inc., S21G0555, 2022 WL 779733, at *1 (Ga. Mar. 15, 2022) The Georgia Court of Appeals said “no.” The Georgia Supreme Court said “yes.” And there you have it. The Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion carries the day. But the plaintiffs still have a long way to go. The Supreme Court remanded (sent back) the case to the Georgia Court of Appeals with the instruction “to address whether the trial court erred in dismissing the Maynards’ claims against Snap and in granting judgment on the pleadings to Snap for lack of proximate causation.” This means the lower appellate court must now analyze the case from the standpoint of whether the Snapchat speed filter actually caused the wreck or was it merely the negligent driving of the teenage driver that caused the wreck.  This is a 56 page opinion issued by the Supreme Court, so it is clear that the Court spent a great deal of time and thought on this matter. That is all you can ask for. But, with two dissents and three other special concurrences, you couldn’t call this a “ringing” endorsement of the cause of action. And, the Supreme Court may see the case a second time before a jury ever does, because depending on how the Georgia Court of Appeals rules, it is likely to go back up to the Supreme Court on the issue of proximate causation. I think, realistically, it will probably be 2025 (the 10 year anniversary of the wreck) before it may get in front of a jury.

That should show you a couple of things. First, the wheels of Justice often grind slowly. Recently, I had to testify in a deposition to authenticate a videotape of DeKalb Avenue for an attorney who has a case pending against the City of Atlanta regarding the reversible lane lights. I had taken that videotape in 2012, ten years ago. And that case was just getting to trial. Secondly, it should show you the tenacity of the lawyers representing the Maynards in this case.  You can also say that about the defense attorneys in the case, but they have been getting paid for their work for the last seven years; the plaintiffs’ attorneys have not. When a plaintiff’s attorney decides to take a case, she or he has to decide to see it to the end, knowing the life of the case may last years before resolution. This is the agreement we make with our clients when we accept a case. We must fight nonstop for our clients. So hats off to the Maynards’ attorneys.

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Oyez, Oyez! Oyez!  All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of Georgia, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God Bless the State of Georgia and this Honorable Court.  May it please the Court.

Yesterday, I was honored to speak in the Georgia Supreme Court as part of the Court’s 175th Anniversary Celebration. The Celebration began Wednesday evening with a lovely dinner at The Commerce Club.  Thursday was a full day of seminar on the history of the Supreme Court and biographies of various former Justices. I spoke about the creation of the State Bar of Georgia in 1964, which was approved by the Georgia Supreme Court and five years later held to be Constitutional in two separate cases. It was one of the highest honors of my career. I am sharing with you below my presentation.

We are very fortunate to have the Georgia Supreme Court and the State Bar of Georgia, which, together, protect your rights to live in a Just society, grounded in the Rule of Law, so that all may reap the benefits and rewards that our system of Justice provides.

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“Isn’t that a jury question?”  As a trial lawyer who has tried 75 jury trials in Georgia, that is my default position, i.e., a jury should decide each issue of fact. Not a trial judge and certainly not an appellate court. Juries perform this task of finding facts every day, in every courtroom in the United States. It’s what juries do…and it’s the very foundation our system of Justice is built upon.

Yet, too often, we see trial judges, and then even appellate judges, invade the province of the jury and decide the case for herself/himself. This, plain and simply, is not allowed. The Standard of Review of a denial of a motion for summary judgment, for example, requires [an appellate] Court to “view the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. And at the summary-judgment stage, we do not resolve disputed facts, reconcile the issues, weigh the evidence, or determine its credibility, as those matters must be submitted to a jury for resolution.” Orr v. SSC Atlanta Operating Co., 860 S.E.2d 217, 222 (Ga. Ct. App. 2021), reconsideration denied (July 14, 2021). It really can’t be any plainer than that.

The United States Supreme Court, the highest appellate Court in the country, rarely, if ever, even discusses issues of fact, much less decides them. You can imagine my surprise, then, when in today’s oral argument in United States v. Tsarnaev I heard Justice Sotomayor ask exactly that question:  “Isn’t that for a jury to decide?”   Whoa! Wait a minute! What just happened?!  A Supreme Court Justice never asks a question like that, does she? And yet I heard it with my own two ears! Interesting.

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You may remember I wrote recently about the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion in Nuckles v. State, 853 S.E.2d 81 (December 2020) in which the Supreme Court made it crystal clear that a loved one has the absolute right to place a hidden camera in a loved one’s room in an assisted living facility or long-term care home and that video from such a camera is admissible in court. And, of course, it should be. The resident or patient is considered an “occupier” of that property, i.e., his or her room, and may videotape what occurs on his “property.” Nuckles is a well-reasoned, common sense opinion authored by Judge Carla Wong McMillian and concurred in by all the other members of the Georgia Supreme Court, except Justice Warren who simply didn’t participate in the opinion for some reason.

That you should be able to videotape what treatment your loved one is getting in a long-term care home, and then when that videotape shows abuse by a caregiver, that you should be able to admit such videotape into evidence at trial does not seem to be a partisan or political position at all, does it?  Don’t both Republicans and Democrats alike want the very best care for their aging loved ones and don’t Republicans and Democrats alike want to hold someone who would abuse their loved one accountable? That only makes sense, doesn’t it?

Well, not so fast. Enter the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Georgia Senate with the help of the nursing home lobby. The Georgia Legislature decides it’s not such a good idea to be able to hold abusers accountable through hidden camera videotape, taken in the resident’s own room (their “castle” so to speak) and file a bill to undo Nuckles.  This march to overturn Nuckles legislatively only two months later  started with HB 605.  This bill actually provided for criminal prosecution of anyone who set up a “nanny cam” in their loved one’s long-term care room. So imagine this:  your parent suffers from dementia and lives in an assisted living home. You suspect he is being abused both physically and emotionally by the staff, so you set up a hidden camera to see how they treat him while you are not present. Sure enough, your “nannycam” video shows a staff member slapping your parent. You want to bring criminal charges against the person for abusing your parent.  But HB 605 would have actually authorized criminal charges against you! That bill passed the House. So on to the Senate. It was placed on the calendar to be voted on on the last night of the General Assembly session. There, Senator Jen Jordan, and several other open-minded Senators, successfully amended the bill to eliminate the criminal prosecution provision in the scenario I laid out above. So the Senate passed that bill as amended. Now back to the House, during the final hours on the final day of the 2021 session.  But once the piece in the bill making it illegal to have hidden cameras was no longer in the bill, the bill lost its only reason to exist in the first place! No need to pass a bill that essentially says nothing. The folks behind this bill wanted a law against hidden cameras because they can be used to hold these homes and “caregivers” liable for harming their residents.  The House refuses to agree (by the narrowest of margins) to the Senate Substitute and so no law passes. The vote on this was 88 against and 77 in favor, so only an 11 vote margin. This law now is still out there to be picked up again by the Legislature when they begin their 2022 General Assembly Session.

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