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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Having spent several days at home for the Holidays, I was struck (and not in a good way) about how many commercials there are on TV for personal injury lawyers. It is NON-stop. And the same goes for social media, where plaintiff’s lawyer after plaintiff’s lawyer is shown in a video bragging about themselves. It’s sickening, and I don’t think these commercial appearances enhance our reputation at all. Just the opposite. So I thought I would take a moment to list a few things that a person like you who has recently been injured due to someone else’s negligence should consider before hiring one.
- How many cases has the lawyer actually tried for a plaintiff in front of a jury? I have seen some young lawyers bragging online about their one awesome verdict, which begs the question: How many cases have they actually tried? Have they tried only one case and it came out well for the plaintiff? Potential clients should ask this question. In 32 years of practicing law, I have tried over 75 jury trials to verdict, some lasting 2-3 weeks. This is critical information. Hopefully, as a plaintiff, this is the only case you will ever have in your life. If it were surgery, would you want a doctor who had performed only one surgery before yours? Or would you want one who had done 100 of them?
- Is the lawyer on TV even licensed to practice law in Georgia? I am constantly amazed by the fact that some of the TV advertising lawyers are not even licensed to practice law in the State of Georgia. This means they haven’t studied and worked with the laws of our state and they certainly haven’t tried a case in a state court of Georgia. You have a right to know this and you can easily find this out by going to the website of the State Bar of Georgia at https://www.gabar.org/. On the home page there is a search box titled “Member Directory.” This is a resource available to the public and you can put a lawyer’s name in it and see whether they have a Georgia law license. You can also see where the lawyer went to law school and see what year he or she graduated from law school, which tells you how much real world experience the lawyer has. It also tells you whether there is any “discipline” on record for that particular lawyer, which means whether that lawyer was ever found to have violated the ethical or professional rules of conduct. This is crucial information everyone should have before hiring a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer.
I was checking the newly released opinions from the United States Supreme Court and Taylor v. Riojas (11/2/2020) caught my eye. I’m not sure why. I must have seen “qualified immunity” somewhere in the summary. Taylor v. Riojas was one of the bunch of qualified immunity cases coming up at the same time before the Supreme Court and on which there was much speculation over whether the Supreme Court might overturn the qualified immunity doctrine. “Qualified Immunity” is a judicially-created doctrine that gives police officers and correctional officers the benefit of the doubt when someone under their control has suffered injury. This Judge-made doctrine shields an officer from suit when she/he makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she/her confronted. Excuse the pun, but it is a get-out-of-jail-free card to officers.
I call the Taylor v. Riojas opinion a Loch Ness Monster because it denied correctional officers in Texas the usual qualified immunity. Thus, like the Loch Ness Monster, you have heard of cases in which (hypothetically) qualified immunity was denied but you have never actually seen one. Well, now you have. The United States Supreme Court reversed the 5th Circuit and remanded the case for trial. Before we take stock of that, you need to know the facts of the case. I am quoting directly from the 2 and 1/4 page opinion, perhaps the shortest in Supreme Court history.
We received some sad news this Thanksgiving weekend about a dear friend. Justice George Carley had died.
Many tributes are now coming in about Justice Carley. One, from Judge William Ray, (U.S.D.C.,Northern District of Georgia) touched me and let me know we had similar relationships with Justice Carley. The Georgia Supreme Court, from which he retired, also paid tribute to him and I urge you to watch it. These tributes reminded me of my relationship with Justice Carley that I now share with you in memory of him.
Justice Carley was a proud “Double Dawg,” meaning he graduated from both undergraduate school and law school at The University of Georgia, often referred to as just “The University,” as if there were no others. He is the only person to have served as both Presiding Judge and Chief Judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals, and the Presiding Judge and Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of Georgia.