COVID-19 Update: How We are Serving and Protecting Our Clients.

Articles Posted in Appellate Law

sars-cov-19-300x140
desktop-225x300
Friends:

To say we are experiencing unprecedented times with the global pandemic of Coronavirus-COVID-19 would be a massive understatement. I hope you and your family are well, staying safe and healthy and weathering this storm. I am continuing working on all of my cases to the maximum extent I can at my home. With remote work capability, super high-speed internet and my case management system “in the Cloud,” I can work on any case from any location. I want to let you know how our Georgia Civil and Criminal Justice Systems are adapting to this season we find ourselves in and keep you up to date on all things legal in Georgia right now.

First, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Harold Melton has issued a Statewide Judicial Emergency Order through 11:59 a.m April 13, 2020.  I believe Chief Justice Melton has shown great leadership with the issuance of this Order and through it, is doing the Court’s part in not spreading the virus in our courtrooms and alleviating much anxiety among litigants and lawyers.

benham
Today marked the last day on the job for Justice Robert Benham. That “job” being no less than serving on the state’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Georgia. A true pioneer, he was the second African-American graduate of UGA law school and the first to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court. He is retiring after 36 years on the appellate Courts (5 on Georgia Court of Appeals and 31 on Supreme Court). Appointed by Gov. Joe Frank Harris in December 1989, he was the first African-American ever appointed to the Supreme Court in its more than 140 years.  He  served in the United States Army Reserve attaining the rank of captain, and served as a trial attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid among many other professional accomplishments.  A lifelong resident of Georgia, Justice Benham was born to Jesse Knox Benham and Clarence Benham in Cartersville, Georgia. He obtained a B.S. in Political Science from Tuskegee University in 1967 and also attended Harvard University. In 1970 he obtained his Juris Doctor from the University of Georgia, Lumpkin School of Law. He obtained Master of Laws degree from the University of Virginia in 1989.

As a tribute to Justice Benham, I am sharing my remarks from the 2013 Justice Robert Benham Community Service Awards.  Prompted by concerns about the decreasing number of lawyers in leadership positions in public and community service, then Chief Justice Robert Benham in 1996 created a Community Service Task Force under the auspices of the Commission on Professionalism.  Composed of leaders of the bench and bar in Georgia, the Task Force determined to encourage, support, and recognize within the profession the tradition that all lawyers perform community service and measure their success in ways other than just financial gain.  To accomplish its purpose, the Task Force created the Justice Robert Benham Annual Awards for Community Service in partnership with the State Bar to honor lawyers and judges from the ten judicial districts of Georgia who have made outstanding contributions in the area of community service.  Since 1998, the Commission has coordinated the selection and presentation of these Awards.

Justice Benham, to say you will be missed on the bench is an understatement. I will always think of you with great love and admiration.  You are the ultimate role model for any lawyer.  The hallmarks of your career and life are integrity, kindness, compassion for others and  wisdom. You deserve only the best in your retirement. Godspeed!

LadyJusticeImage-300x200
I was struck this week with an opinion of the Georgia Court of Appeals in what is probably a very rare scenario:  where the defendant has already served his entire sentence but the Court exercises jurisdiction to hear the appeal anyway. I would be curious to know how often that happens. My guess is almost never. So the scenario grabbed my attention since it is probably so rare.  And you might be asking “What’s the point?” if the defendant is already out of prison anyway. Well, the Court answers “what’s the point” succinctly by saying Justice is the point. Justice is the point.

The case I am talking about is Denson v. State, A19A2307, 2020 WL 255433 (Ga. Ct. App. Jan. 17, 2020), authored by Judge Yvette Miller and concurred by Judge Rickman and Judge Reese.  I commend it to your reading. It is a doozy.  In this criminal appeal, the trial court did not hear the convicted defendant’s motion for new trial (that had ben timely filed in 2007) until 9 years after it had been filed, and the Georgia Court of Appeals did not resolve the defendant’s direct appeal until 13 years after the original conviction of defendant and after the defendant had served his entire sentence.  Wait. What?

That’s right. And the Georgia Court of Appeals made it clear it would ignore the mootness of the their review, since the Defendant had already served his unjustly imposed sentence, to issue a warning to Georgia trial courts of the grave injusctice they may be doing to otherwise innocent criminal defendants.  Whew.  Like I said, it’s a doozy.

Image result for trial judge
Recently, there have been a couple of criminal cases heard by the Georgia Supreme Court which have involved the trial judge’s inherent duty to be the final arbiter of fairness and justice in the courtroom. Sometime this is referred to as the “13th Juror,” because the trial judge sometimes must base her or his ultimate decision on the facts, testimony and documentary evidence presented at trial…things an appellate court would not be in a position to know.  A recent  discussion about the notion of the trial judge as 13th juror came in an appeal of a criminal case, State v. Hamilton, 832 S.E.2d 836  (Ga. Sup. Ct. September 3, 2019) in which the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral argument on the issue of whether the trial judge was authorized to  toss out three counts of assault when that the jury had convicted the defendant on, in the judge’s opinion, there was no way factually or legally for those three counts to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Court affirmed the trial court’s granting of a new trial.  “Having reviewed the entire record, and considering that the trial court was authorized, as the thirteenth juror, to discount Taylor’s and Hewatt’s testimony and to credit Hamilton’s story, and bearing in mind the standard of review set forth in OCGA § 5-5-50, we cannot say that the trial court’s conclusion was an abuse of its substantial discretion to grant Hamilton a new trial. See Hamilton, 299 Ga. at 670-671, 791 S.E.2d 51 (“An appellate court will not disturb the first grant of a new trial based on the general grounds unless the trial court abused its discretion in granting it and the law and the facts demand the verdict rendered.”).”

In another case recently argued before the Georgia Supreme Court, the Court told the Fulton County D.A., who was appealing a trial judge’s granting of a new trial, that the D.A. was “wasting the Court’s time” with such an appeal when the trial judge clearly has the power, right and, arguably, the duty, to grant a new trial. In that case, State v. Beard, NO. S19A0535 (Ga. Sup. Ct. October 31, 2019) quoted below, the Supreme Court’s opinion called the D.A.’s position “bizarre.”  “Contrary to the State’s bizarre argument, the jury’s verdict was not demanded by the “great physical laws of the universe.” (“An appellate court will not disturb the first grant of a new trial based on the general grounds unless the trial court abused its discretion in granting it and the law and the facts demand the verdict rendered.”).’

State v. Beard, S19A0535, 2019 WL 5656338, at 4 (Ga. Oct. 31, 2019). Since then, the Fulton County D.A.  dismissed its appeal and has vowed to take his argument to the Georgia Legislature in an attempt to get legislation passed that will eliminate this inherent duty and power of the trial judge.

Blame2-300x300
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.

IMG_2708-e1510598114612-225x300
Some recent headlines about trial judges behaving badly and a recent bad experience I personally experienced at trial last week have me thinking about this:  what should you expect from a trial judge?  Competency?  Fairness?  Mercy?  Understanding? Knowledge of the rules of evidence? Impartiality? Experience? Ability to stay awake during the trial? Maybe all of the above?

I only half-jokingly included in the desired traits list above the ability to stay awake on the bench.  Just this week an Illinois appellate court ruled that the fact that the trial judge slept through some of a murder trial did not automatically result in a reversal of the conviction or warrant a new trial.  That sleeping jurist claimed he had not actually fallen asleep but was simply resting his eyes. “If I was not looking at the video, that does not mean that I was not listening and hearing everything that was being said,” said O’Connor, who called the motion “disgusting,” according to a transcript cited in the appellate ruling.  So Justice may be blind but it doesn’t have to be awake?

The question of what should we expect in a trial judge also has been hotly debated this week when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a judicial appointee of POTUS for a Federal trial bench opening in Alabama. The reason for the outrage among lawyers about the judicial nominee is the fact that he is only 36 years old, has never tried a case and has practiced law for only 3 years. Many have called him “clearly unqualified” to take the trial bench and that his appointment is “laughable”. He has literally never tried a case!  Can’t we all agree that to be able to preside competently over a trial by jury, make life-changing decisions of what evidence gets in and what evidence doesn’t, decide whether a litigant receives a constitutionally protected fair trial, that the trial judge should at least have tried a case before?

juryboxdrawing
As I work at my desk in my office today, I have the voir dire (jury selection) in the retrial of Ray Tensing livestreaming on one of my monitors. Some folks have called jury selection the most boring part of any trial, but it may very well be the most important, because from jury selection comes the group of local citizens who will decide the fate of the parties in the case and really decide what the conscience of the community is regarding the issue being tried. The Ray Tensing case is an excessive force case being tried in Cincinnati, Ohio this week. Tensing is the former University of Cincinnati police officer charged with one count of murder and one count of voluntary manslaughter in connection with the 2015 shooting death of Sam DuBose. The deadly encounter happened during an off-campus traffic stop. Tensing has said he fired his service weapon in self defense. The incident was captured by Tensing’s police-issued body-worn camera. A am watching the criminal trial of Mr. Tensing, who is being tried for on one count of murder and one count of voluntary manslaughter.  There has already been a civil case that settled for money damages against the University of Cincinnati, Mr. Tensing’s employer at the time of the killing.  It is being tried for a second time because the first trial ended in a mistrial.  Watching voir dire or jury selection is helpful to me as a trial lawyer, not only in ideas of potential bias to explore but in hearing how a certain cross-section of our nation feels about jury trials in general. It is interesting that in Ohio, if a lawyer asks the Court to strike a juror for cause, meaning the juror has expressed so much bias about the issues and has stated he doesn’t think he could be fair on the case, the lawyer moves to strike the juror out loud in front of all the other jurors.  For example, one juror who the judge struck for cause said in jury selection that he thought Mr. Tensing “deserved a medal” for shooting Mr. Dubose.  No wonder why he was struck for cause.  In Georgia, we don’t do it that way because of the fear that once the judge strikes one juror for cause, in front of all the other jurors, the rest of the jurors will figure out what to say to get off the jury and then pretty soon all the jurors are gone. So in Georgia we approach the bench and make these sort of motions to the judge at her bench.

Many of the folks in the Tensing jury panel have mentioned the concern and anxiety they had simply upon receiving a juror summons requiring them to be present in court for the jury selection of this case.  They have expressed their bewilderment about whey they of all people in Cincinnati received a juror summons, why they have to be there, why they have to take time out of their jobs and lives to be there…in short, why them?  Why me?

Interesting question, and with a recent opinion issued by the Supreme Court of Georgia, Ricks v. State, infra, regarding how a jury panel is composed, I thought it merited looking into the issue of jury composition a bit deeper.  Georgia has a fairly new Jury Composition Rule that controls the manner in which Georgia citizens will be summoned for jury duty. For use in compiling official lists of potential jurors, the Jury Composition Act directs the Clerks Council to obtain voter registration records from the Secretary of State and driver’s license and identification card records from the Department of Driver Services (“DDS”); the Act also directs the Clerks Council to obtain records on individuals who are ineligible for jury service, including certain records regarding mentally incompetent persons and convicted felons who have not had their civil rights restored. See id. § 1-16 (codified as amended as OCGA § 15-12-40.1 (b), (c)).  Ricks v. State, S17A0465, 2017 WL 2061675,  (Ga. May 15, 2017)

pitbull
The Georgia Supreme Court today issued an opinion that makes it clear the age-old rule of “one free bite” for a dog before an owner can be held responsible is no longer Georgia law.  The Court’s opinion in Steagald v. Eason, S16G0293 (Ga. Sup. Ct. March 6, 2017) overturned prior case law that held the opposite. (“To the extent that the Court of Appeals held otherwise in Hamilton v. Walker, 235 Ga. App. 635 (510 SE2d 120) (1998) (a 4-3 decision), when it said that “the dog must have, on a prior occasion, done the same act which resulted in the injury comprising the tort action,” id. at 635 (citations omitted), the Court of Appeals misconstrued its own precedent, and that decision is disapproved.”). In Steagald, the dog at issue, “Rocks,”  had twice before “snapped” at neighbors, without actually biting them. Then, in a third incident, when the neighbor  approached the dog and extended her arm, Rocks jumped at her, bit her arm, and latched onto it. The neighbor attempted to run away, and when she did, she slipped and fell. At that point, Rocks bit and latched onto her right leg. The woman sustained serious injuries as a result of the attack.

The time-worn “one bite rule” refers to this:  A rule that says that the owner of a domesticated animal (e.g., a dog) will be held strictly liable for injuries caused by the animal only if the owner knew or should have known about the animal’s dangerous or vicious propensities, which have been manifested in the past. The burden of proof is on the injured party to show that the animal owner possessed this knowledge. The “one-bite” rule originated in common law and has been rejected or modified by most states, either by statute or by case law, with regard to dogs.  Many states, including Georgia, have long followed this rule, holding that a dog owner has no liability as a matter of law to a person who his dog bites and injures unless the owner was aware of a previous bite by his dog. But today the Georgia Supreme Court acknowledged that the two prior “snaps” by Rocks at the neighbors were really just “unsuccessful bites.”  The two prior “unsuccessful bites” were enough to put the owner on notice that his dog may have a vicious propensity, which is part of what a plaintiff must prove to prevail in a dog bit case. Justice Keith Blackwell authored the opinion of the Court. Known for his sense of humor, Justice Blackwell apparently found the serious injuries of the Plaintiff no laughing matter and wrote:  “An attempt to bite in the absence of provocation most certainly may be proof of a propensity to bite without provocation. And as the Court of Appeals correctly recognized in earlier decisions, when the evidence shows that an owner or keeper knows of such an attempted bite — that a dog has snapped at someone, nicked someone with its teeth, or otherwise used its mouth to attack someone without injuring her — it may well be sufficient to establish knowledge of a propensity to bite.”  The opinion was unanimous by the Court.

I think the Georgia Supreme Court has fashioned a fair and common sense rule here. The “one free bite” rule let the owners of vicious dogs off the hook, or off the “leash” so to speak, too easily.  We all know a pit bull who barks at someone and snaps and jumps at someone but doesn’t actually bite, is just one leash-break away from a horrific mauling. Dogsbite.org reports in the 12-year period of 2005 through 2016, canines killed 392 Americans. Pit bulls contributed to 65% (254) of these deaths. Combined, pit bulls and rottweilers contributed to 76% of the total recorded deaths. Family dogs inflicted 45% (14) of all deaths in 2016; family pit bulls accounted for 86% (12) of these deaths, up from an 11-year average of 63%. Of the 22 fatal pit bull attacks, 55% (12) involved a family or household member vs. 45% (10) non-family. Many Georgia counties and cities have in place specific ordinances about dogs with vicious propensities, especially pit bulls.  And who can  forget the tragedy of the death of a little boy and mauling of a little girl this January as they walked to their bus stop in Southwest Atlanta by pit bull?  These ordinances are created with the policy in mind of encouraging owners to have better control over their dogs.  And the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion in Steagald will help hold negligent dog owners responsible for the havoc created by their vicious dogs.  Dog owners should take notice and act accordingly.

 

gajudicialbldg-300x166

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.

Awards
American Association for Justice Badge
Georgia Trend Legal Elite Badge
State Bar of Georgia Badge
Georgia Trial Lawyers Association Badge
ABOTA Badge
LCA Badge
Top 50 Women attorneys in Georgia Badge
Super Lawyers Badge
Civil Justice Badge
International Society of Barristers Badge