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.
Should a caller EVER be placed on hold when calling 911? Common sense tells us of course not, right? By the very nature of the call, that you are calling 911, you have an emergency that needs to be addressed, well, emergently. Unfortunately, many 911 calls in Metro Atlanta are being placed on hold, with the typical hold message of “Your call is very important to us.”
CBS46 News has investigated and reported on this new phenomenon in which the 911 Center places an emergency caller on hold. CBS46 uncovered a frightening trend in the numbers, showing an increase in 911 wait times. For the first four months of 2022, nearly 13%, which is over 40,433 people, sat on hold more than 40 seconds. That’s an increase from 2021 where it was at 9%, and 2020 at 5%. The majority of Atlanta’s 911 callers do not wait on hold for more than 10 seconds. In the first four months of 2022, roughly 75% of Atlanta’s 911 callers or 245,855 people called 911 and waited less than 10 seconds to talk to an actual person.
I experienced this personally recently when my husband called 911 to report a street racing incident occurring near a restaurant where we where having dinner out on its patio. We were enjoying dinner outside when we started smelling smoke and heard tires screeching. This occurred at the intersection of Briarcliff Road and LaVista Road in unincorporated DeKalb County on a beautiful Sunday early evening. Within seconds of the noise of the screeching tires, a crowd appeared, as if by magic. There were easily 80-100 people surrounding that intersection watching cars go round and round burning up their tires. I’m guessing some of those 80-100 folks were armed, thanks to our “concealed carry” law in Georgia. It wasn’t a leap in logic or imagination to believe someone might get hurt. My husband dialed 911 and was placed on hold with a message saying to him that his call “was important to them.” We later saw numerous posts on our NextDoor website that other folks attempted to call 911 for this same incident, also, and were placed on hold. Eventually, DeKalb County police cars arrived at the scene perhaps 10 minutes after we tried to call.
I have been enjoying seeing posts on social media of families taking their college-aged kids to their colleges and universities and helping them move in to their dorm rooms. This is a rite-of-passage for many young people as they begin their college careers and are perhaps living away from their home and their parents for the first time in their lives. The personal injury attorney in me can’t help but notice on the many dorm room photos online of how many of the high bunk beds have bedrails installed versus how many don’t. And this is the problem: no high bunk bed in any college dorm room should be without a bedrail installed. The photograph above makes me happy because it shows a high bunk bed with a bedrail installed. This student will be safe when sleeping in this high bunk bed.
This issue came to light several years ago when Clark Jacobs, then a Georgia Tech student, fell out of his lofted bed in his fraternity house. He fell 7 feet from his bed to the hard floor of his room. He was diagnosed with a fractured skull and a brain bleed which then led to a stroke. Five years and hundreds of hours of therapy later, including in-patient rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, Clark graduated from Georgia Tech in the summer of 2020. I blogged about this incident last year and about a similar incident that happened to a young woman who was a student at Valdosta State University. That woman sued the Georgia Board of Regents and lost her case in the Georgia Court of Appeals. Valdosta State Univ. v. Davis, A20A1036, 2020 WL 4745074 (Ga. Ct. App. Aug. 17, 2020). Her attorneys petitioned the Georgia Supreme Court for Certiorari, but the Supreme Court declined to hear this case earlier this year, which means the Georgia Court of Appeals’ opinion stands.
Following my September 2020 blog on college bedrails, Mariellen Jacobs, Clark Jacobs’s mother, reached out to me to discuss this ongoing problem. Given the fact that she had witnessed her son’s injury and recuperation first hand from an incident that, arguably, never should have happened in the first place, Mariellen Jacobs has become quite an expert on this subject matter. Her son endured a long recovery at Shepherd Center with medical bills totaling over $1 Million dollars. In Georgia, through the work of her foundation, Rail Against the Danger, Ms. Jacobs was able to convince the University System of Georgia (and all 26 state campuses) to become “rails ON” so that at residence hall check-in, every elevated bed has a safety rail in place to prevent injury. You can find information online that indicates that in at least a Georgia dorm room, a bedrail must be installed on the top bunk. You will find this language in the Georgia Tech Housing and Residence Life webpage:
July 1 always welcomes in the new laws passed by the Legislature in the last Legislative session. Tomorrow Georgia will have several new laws that go into effect, many of which you may not be aware.
The first you should know about is “Joshua’s Law,” codified at O.C.G.A. § 40-5-10. The genesis of this law is the untimely and unnecessary death of Joshua Brown, son of LuGina and Alan Brown back on July 1, 2003. It is ironic that the law in his name goes into effect on the 18th anniversary of Joshua’s death. I had the distinct honor of representing LuGina and Alan in a successful wrongful death lawsuit in Fulton County against the Georgia Department of Transportation. We tried that case to a jury and settled it on the last day of trial. Joshua then was 18 years old at the time of his death. He had been admitted to the Berklee School of Music and wanted to be a musician. I can remember when LuGina testified she talked about visiting Berklee with Joshua and when she saw the campus and all the students walking around she saw “a hundred little Joshuas.” I have never forgotten that moment in trial. It was so moving. Our lawsuit involved the negligent maintenance of the road Joshua was on when he lost control of his truck due to hydroplaning, ran off a steep, unprotected hillside and crashed into a tree. The Browns immediately threw their grief into action by creating “Joshua’s Law” and began lobbying the Georgia General Assembly for passage of the law that would mandate driver education in every high school in Georgia. The Browns were the recipients of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association’s Courageous Pursuit of Justice Award for their relentless pursuit of justice against the Georgia Department of Transportation and for the creation of the new law “Joshua’s Law.” The substance of the new law is as follows:
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.
I am happy to share with you that I have recently begun co-hosting a podcast called “See You In Court.” “See You In Court” is a podcast sponsored by the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation, on which I sit as a Board Member. My co-host is Lester Tate, partner and owner of the law firm Akin & Tate in Cartersville, Georgia. Lester is also, as I am, a Past President of the State Bar of Georgia and is also a Board Member of the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation.
“See You In Court” podcast is a joint project of the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation and the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Literature, Media and Communication. The Georgia Civil Justice System is a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to educate the public about the Georgia Civil Justice System and its value to the public in enforcing rights and holding negligent actors accountable for injuries they have caused. The Georgia Institute of Technology School of Literature, Media and Communication defines new models of intellectual inquiry and practice that bring diverse humanistic perspectives to bear on technological invention and innovation. The School’s mission is to lead the region, the nation, and the world in researching and teaching the ways the humanities shape and are shaped by science and technology. Understanding technologies in their cultural contexts is fundamental to invention and innovation. The School’s diverse faculty and students assess and inform technological and scientific change by creating, analyzing, and critiquing a broad range of media forms and cultural practices.
This has been some week. Our Georgia Community was in the grips of disbelief and shock due to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Glenn County, Georgia, hoping and praying that things could not get worse…and then they did. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has electrified the Nation to protest for Equal Justice Under Law for African-Americans, which is overdue by about 200 years. Because of these recent murders of African American males, the term of art “excessive force” has, unfortunately, wormed its way into our daily lexicon, heard as frequently now as “Facebook” or “Twitter” or “Coronavirus” (remember that?). So let’s look at what exactly is “excessive force,” how do you bring a lawsuit for “excessive force” and how difficult are they to be successful?
First, a civil action for “excessive force” by a police officer must be brought against the individual police officer, not the police department, pursuant to a Federal Statute, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. That statute states:
“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.”
There have been some stories on the news lately about a student who was burned during a chemistry experiment performed during class. Back in August of last year, a teacher in a DeKalb County School performed a demonstration of lighting a dollar bill on fire using ethanol and water. She apparently had performed the same demonstration using just alcohol with little success. When the teacher tried the demonstration using ethanol, the dollar bill, in a glass, caught on fire, broke the glass and traveled across a table onto the student, who had his head down on the table. It severely burned the student. The student hired counsel who has sued the teacher and the school. They are now reports in the news that the school system won’t pay for his reconstructive surgery.
This really is neither surprising or shocking. The DeKalb School system enjoys the benefit of “sovereign immunity,” which means it is immune from suit. County school systems, county agencies, county departments, really anything to do with counties, cannot be sued successfully for most causes of action. Sure, you can file suit against them, but 9.9 times out of 10 it will be dismissed on summary judgment based on sovereign immunity.
There are a few exceptions. One example would be a lawsuit for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title II of the ADA provides that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity, or be subject to discrimination by an such entity.” A disabled person who falls within the class of persons protected by the ADA may successfully sue a county for violation of the ADA, for things such as failure to maintain a sidewalk in the county that inhibits that person’s ability to move on the sidewalk. For example, if a person is confined to a wheelchair, she must be able to use the sidewalk as any capable-bodied person, so the sidewalk must have proper curb cuts to allow the wheelchair to gain access to the sidewalk and there must not be any holes in the sidewalk that would prevent the wheelchair from easily moving over the sidewalk. Sovereign immunity does not protect a county when it has violated the ADA and it grants the disabled citizen a private cause of action to enforce it. It is important for private citizens to be able to hold Georgia counties accountable for ADA violations as the number of people in the United States who are disabled in some form continues to rise. For example, it is estimated that one in 4 U.S. adults – 61 million Americans – have a disability that impacts major life activities, according to a report in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Of those disabled citizens, 13.7% have a mobility disability and an estimated 4.6% have a vision impairment. So you can why it is important that even counties not be immune for failure to comply with the ADA. Disability affects us all.
As I write this, many of the headlines in the news are about the so-called “shocking” suicide of alleged child sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein, who, allegedly, hanged himself while incarcerated in a Federal New York prison. What is so shocking? The only thing shocking to me about this event is how the news media and on-lookers, including United States Attorney Bill Barr, think it is shocking for someone, who was known to be suicidal, predictably, takes their life by suicide. I suppose it is only Mr. Epstein’s wealth and his ties to well-known, rich, influential people, including many politicians, that makes U. S. Attorney Barr suddenly express surprise and concern that incarcerated people are attempting suicide, many successfully, when many of them should have been on suicide watch in a Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) or an Acute Care Unit (ACU). We can do without the mock concern on the part of the U.S. Attorney. This is happening right under his nose in prisons every day and he only expresses concern when it is a wealthy person who does it?
Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide was foreseeable and predictable. Now it is being reported that he was not on a suicide watch, even though he had previously attempted suicide less than two weeks earlier. The prior suicide attempt placed him in the high-risk category for attempting again. Coupled with the fact that he was in prison for the first time awaiting trial with an indictment list that, if proven, would keep him in prison for the rest of his life (another risk factor for attempting suicide), Mr. Epstein was high risk for suicide attempt and should have been on suicide watch.
Unfortunately, this blatant disregard for the lives of inmates who are either mentally ill or acutely psychotic ( or both) and the risk it creates for them to take their own life, is prevalent in our nation’s jails and prisons. It is particularly alarming in Georgia prisons. As recently as just last week, the Macon Telegraph issued the results of its study into prison suicides and announced that Georgia’s rate has reached crisis proportions. Between 2014 and 2016, state records show that 20 state prisoners had taken their own lives. In the nearly three years since, 46 prison deaths were deemed suicides. Georgia’s prison suicide rate — at 35 suicides per 100,000 — is nearly double the national average. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, U.S. state prison suicide rates rose by nearly a third. And Southern states including Georgia, Alabama and Texas saw even larger increases in their rates. Georgia correctional officials believe one in five people incarcerated in state prisons have a documented mental health need.
Many of you readers know I have often blogged, tweeted and spoken in public about suicide and what we as someone’s friends, family or colleagues can do to recognize a real suicidal threat and what we can do to get help to someone before he or she attempts to take his or her own life. We know so much more about suicide today than we did just 20 years ago. I would venture to say that what we thought about suicide and it’s causes 100 years ago would border on naivete, akin to treating leukemia with leeches. For example, today we know that means restrictions, preventing access of the means or instruments to kill oneself, dramatically lowers the suicide rate, where 100 years ago we simply concluded if someone is suicidal it could not possibly be prevented. In a recent Harvard School of Public Health study, it was shown that if someone who is suicidal is simply prevented from having access to the means to commit suicide one time, 90% of those who had wanted to kill themselves but did not have access to the means or instrument (guns, drugs, rope) to kill themselves did not attempt suicide again. Cyberbullying has become a leading cause of teen suicides. Social media has been at the root of numerous teenage suicides, especially where embarrassing photos or videos are posted online, which then go viral and are be seen by hundreds of classmates before the next day of school. This type of cyberbullying, using compromising or embarrassing images, has become so prevalent in our schools that many states are enacting legislation to criminalize it. This fact alone suggests suicide following cyberbullying is predictable.
Probably one of the most well-known and saddest cases of cyberbulling was the case of Tyler Clementi, an 18 year old freshman at Rutgers University, who jumped off the George Washington bridge into the Hudson River, killing himself. Tyler’s roommate had secretly filmed him having a private, sexual encounter with another male in Tyler’s dorm room. The roommate then live-streamed the intimate encounter on the internet. Would anyone doubt that Tyler would have been suicidal following a livestreaming of his most private, intimate moment in his own room? Studies have shown that cyberbullying, especially when it involves intimate photographs or videos, leads to an increased risk of depression and suicidal ideation. Thus, it has become foreseeable and even highly likely that a young person may want to commit suicide after experiencing sexual or intimate cyberbullying. Who could blame them?
Which brings me to City of Richmond Hill v. Maia, S16G1337, Supreme Court of Georgia, May 30, 2017. You may remember I have written about this tragic case before, in my June 9, 2016 blogpost “Who Is Legally Responsible for a Suicide?” I was writing about the decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals at that time. To remind of you of the horrible facts in Maia, this is what I wrote then: