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

Articles Posted in Judiciary

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I hope many of you read my last blog post “Whoever Wants To Serve on a Civil Jury Trial During a Pandemic Raise Your Hand.”    I received some wonderful comments about it, which led me to want to add a bit more to my thoughts on the subject and, hence, this is Part Two of that blog post.  I want to add to the list of why it would not be a good thing to start back up civil jury trials right now when only a small percentage of the Georgia population has been vaccinated. That reason is that Covid-19, without dispute, has disproportionately affected African Americans and people of color (BIPOC) than other citizens. Even the CDC admits this.  The CDC states:

“There is increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. [2], [3], [4], [5], [6] Inequities in the social determinants of health, such as poverty and healthcare access, affecting these groups are interrelated and influence a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.[1] To achieve health equity, barriers must be removed so that everyone has a fair opportunity to be as healthy as possible.”

And yesterday (February 16, 2021) Georgia tied its highest reported daily deaths of 180 from Covid-19, so that hospitalizations may be going down but the death rate is not.

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We are now one year into the Covid-19 Pandemic. And I can’t even believe I just wrote that sentence.  One entire year. I confess that when we first went into lockdown back in March 2020 (remember that?) I foolishly thought maybe the entire thing would be over in a month or two. Boy, was I wrong! I have been able to adjust to virtual everything to keep my cases moving. Zoom depositions, Zoom hearings, Zoom mediations, Zoom podcast taping (See You In Court), Zoom everything but a Zoom jury trial. And that’s where I draw the line. The Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court just extended (for the 11th time)  the suspension of jury trials (both civil and criminal) for another month by Declaration of Statewide Judicial Emergency. Many judges and lawyers haven been working to find a way forward to get out jury trials started back. The consensus is that backlogged criminal trials will be first in line, followed by civil jury trials. One of my friends and fellow trial lawyers makes a good point: why should criminal trials go ahead of civil trials as long as the accused person is out on bond awaiting trial? Justice for our civil case clients if just as important as Justice for crime victims and society. But I haven’t really heard anyone explain to me yet why criminal trials will go first once we get jury trials back up and running. Today I was in a meeting with a judge who said she didn’t think civil jury trials would be back until 2022.  That would be two whole years without civil jury trials. Fortunately, in many of my cases I have been able to move the ball forward, resolving numerous cases through Zoom mediations and some through just good old-fashioned settlement negotiations. But for those cases I cannot resolve, the only hope for resolution is a jury trial.

In that same conversation with a Fulton State Court judge, she mentioned there may come some point that parties will be ordered to conduct a trial before everyone is vaccinated and while we are still required to wear a mask and social distance. I haven’t seen that yet and, hopefully, won’t be faced with that, but, for now, if I am ordered by a trial judge to do so I would have to object. There are numerous reasons why that have convinced me it is not in my clients’ best interests to move forward with their one and only jury trial in their one and only case until the Pandemic is completely over, finished and done with. For good. I have been asked about this not only by other lawyers, but also by numerous non-lawyer friends (yes, I have some of those) as well. It seems to be an interesting conversation starter.

So why do I think it is not in my clients’ best interests to have a jury trial now during the Pandemic?  Without going into too much detail, here are just a few:

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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.

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The global pandemic has caused many state legal systems to declare a judicial state of emergency. The state of Georgia is currently under state of emergency protocols that are set to last through August 11, 2020.  When jury trials will restart in Georgia is any one’s guess. I just received a new Order from the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Georgia, Hon. Thomas Thrash, dated July 10, 2020, extending the Federal Judicial Order through August 30, 2020. In his Order, Chief Judge Thrash stated:

Data from the Georgia Department of Public Health reflects that the average number

of new COVID-19 cases per day in the State of Georgia has increased and remains higher

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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.

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A neat thing happened last week in DeKalb County State Court as I was striking a jury. I’m not sure if anyone else noticed it or appreciated it, but I certainly did. The judge had called in 60 potential jurors to go through “voir dire,” or jury selection, in my case. DeKalb jurors are some of the most diverse citizens of any county in Georgia, and that wonderful diversity was in full display during jury selection. What really caught my attention was there was an interpreter for one of the jurors. This juror could not speak English, at least not fluently enough to be able to understand detailed questions about her thoughts and feelings about money damages in civil cases, medical malpractice cases in particular.

It was apparently arranged in advance, because by this woman’s side was an interpreter. The trial court judge needed to swear in the interpreter first, before swearing in the actual juror. The oath an interpreter must take states that she will truthfully and accurately translate from English to whatever language that juror spoke and back again. The trial court, before swearing in the interpreter, asked “It is Amharic? Is that correct?” The answer was yes. And so the judge swore in the interpreter with the oath that she would truly and accurately translate English into Amharic and Amharic into English. That being accomplished, the interpreter then translated not only the juror’s oath to the woman, but also every question asked of the panel.

I was fascinated by the fact that the subject language was Amharic, with which I was not at all familiar.  It is spoken principally in the central highlands of the country. Amharic is an Afro-Asiatic language of the Southwest Semitic group and is related to Geʿez, or Ethiopic, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox church; it also has affinities with Tigré, Tigrinya, and the South Arabic dialects.  This doesn’t surprise me at all, as DeKalb County is Georgia’s most diverse county. DeKalb is primarily a suburban county, and is the second-most-affluent county with an African-American majority in the United States, behind Prince George’s County, Maryland, in suburban Washington, D.C.  As of the 2010 United States Census, there were 691,893 people, 271,809 households, and 161,453 families residing in the county. The population density was 2,585.7 inhabitants per square mile (998.3/km2). There were 304,968 housing units at an average density of 1,139.7 per square mile (440.0/km2).The racial makeup of the county was 54.3% black or African American, 33.26% white, 5.12% Asian, 0.4% American Indian, 4.5% from other races, and 2.39% from two or more races. Those of Hispanic or Latino origin made up 9.8% of the population. In terms of ancestry, 5.9% were English, 5.2% were German, and 3.5% were American.

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I have been following the talc trials against Johnson & Johnson regarding the claims that their powder product gives women ovarian cancer and lung cancer. I hope you have been, too.  They are, obviously, very interesting.  I can’t look at the Johnson & Johnson powder of bottle sitting on the vanity of the locker room where I work out without thinking about the cases and the many women who have died of these cancers allegedly from years and years of use of Johnson & Johnson powder.  The most recent trial in California was just recently declared a mistrial by the trial judge, Judge Margaret Oldendorf.  The case is Weirick v. Brenntag North America, BC656425, California Superior Court for Los Angeles County (Pasadena).  It involved a claim that use of Johnson & Johnson powder had caused the plaintiff’s mesothelioma, a specific type of lung cancer. The Plaintiff, Weirick, 59, is a school counselor who said she’s been using J&J’s talc products, such as baby powder and the company’s former Shower-to-Shower line, for more than 40 years. She was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2017 and said her only exposure to asbestos came from use of talc products. Previous juries had come out with verdicts of $25.75 million and $117 million for the plaintiffs, a defense verdict and two mistrials.

This latest trial in California was particularly interesting due to the alleged misconduct of one juror, now scandalously known as “Juror No. 7.”  (By the way, if you are ever on a jury and in the course of the trial become known by your Number, it is never a good thing).  Juror No. 7, apparently, refused to deliberate with the other 11 jurors, to the point that the foreman asked the judge to replace the juror with an alternate.  The defense objected and asked for a mistrial.  The plaintiff’s counsel agreed to the substitution.  This is interesting because it was never disclosed what side Juror No. 7 was holding out for;  Juror No. 7 could have been a juror favorable for the defense and yet defense counsel objected and moved for a mistrial. In fact, it was never disclosed which side the entire jury was leaning in favor of, only that at the time a mistrial was called by the trial judge, the vote was 8-4. At that time, neither side knew which side had the 8 jurors. Since then, it has come to light that the 8 jurors favored the Plaintiff.  George Chen, a 30-year old computer analyst and one of the eight who favored a plaintiff verdict, said he was “a little frustrated” and “really wanted to push this through.” He said the four members who voted for the defense seemed to have ”the mindset of … business people” concerning what a responsible company should do.

Even if there were mere traces of asbestos, J&J should have provided warnings, Chen said, because “people have a right to know.” Moreover, he noted, J&J for decades has offered a baby powder made with corn starch, and could have retired the talc version to eliminate any risk.

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It seems to be in vogue with some trial judges currently to allow jurors to ask questions of witnesses after both sides of the litigation are finished asking their questions. This is currently a hot topic due to the Tex McIver trial, currently being tried in the Fulton County Superior Court in front of Judge Robert McBurney. Judge McBurney, rather famously, permits jurors to ask questions of witnesses after questioning by the prosecution and the defense counsel.  Presumably, Judge McBurney allows this practice in civil cases as well as criminal cases, although Superior Court doesn’t see as many civil cases as criminal.  All felonies in Georgia must be tried in Superior Court.  The practice of Judge McBurney allowing witnesses to ask their own questions was discussed extensively before the trial in a podcast produced by the AJC called Breakdown. It is hosted by veteran legal affairs journalist Bill Rankin and I highly recommend it.  In that podcast, defense counsel Bruce Harvey gives his opinion on why it is not only a bad practice to allow jurors to ask questions, but, also, why it is probably unconstitutional.  For example, we all know that the 5th Amendment of the Constitution gives a criminal defendant the right to remain silent, even throughout the trial, so that the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt without any assistance from the defendant. Harvey, rightfully, preposes the hypothetical of a juror asking “Why didn’t the defendant take the stand to tell us what happened?”  Of course, the judge is not going to permit that question to be answered, but the jurors (or at least the one juror who asked that question) will know the judge didn’t approve it and wouldn’t permit it to be answered, and the bias that answers “why” is naturally because the defendant must be guilty. So simply by denying that juror’s question, the 5th amendment constitutional right is implicated and violated because it was allowed even to be raised in court.

There has lately been alot of discussion in social media about this among lawyers, too.  You can find some of this discussion on Twitter at #texmciver and in the comments on Facebook where WSBTV is livestreaming the trial.  If I were to take a poll, I think the vast majority of trial lawyers is against the practice for the reasons stated above. Also, other websites are livestreaming the same WSBTV feed, like wildabouttrial and lawandcrime.   Both of these websites have a comments section where viewers can post their comments about the trial. It is pretty fascinating, especially for court enthusiasts like me.  On Facebook, there have been some thought-provoking comments about allowing jurors to ask questions of witnesses.  Below are just some of the comments I have seen:

“I think there are two questions that judges should ask themselves before considering this. 1). Why would I allow jurors to ask questions? Whatever the answer is (to help the jurors clarify any issues that the holder of the burden of proof has not clarified, etc). 2). If I am am being a neutral, unbiased referee, should that matter to me?”

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Yesterday I was in the Chicago O’Hare airport after taking the deposition of a defense expert anesthesiologist at the University of Chicago and sat down for lunch next to a nice couple from the Boston area.  We started talking and I, of course, told them I am a plaintiff’s personal injury trial lawyer from Atlanta in Chicago for the purpose of taking an adverse expert witness’s deposition. They were mesmerized. We talked a bit about the case which led, predictably, to their telling me about their personal experiences with both the Criminal and Civil Justice Systems.

The husband of the nice couple told me about  his experience in serving on a criminal jury as the foreperson. Like most folks facing jury duty, at first he was upset about missing work, resented being herded around the courtroom like cattle and being kept in the dark about what was happening, and was overall just unhappy about being forced to take part in the entire process.  Yet, as the testimony came in and the trial moved on,things, including his attitude, changed.  The case was about a man, the defendant, who allegedly had abused his three year old son.  The man had taken his son away from the child’s mother’s home but the mother wasn’t even aware of it. The evidence against the father was, apparently, overwhelming.  My new buddy, who was telling me about his experience, was picked to be the foreperson of the jury. He immediately felt an enormous weight on his shoulders to do the right thing. Not all of the jurors at first wanted to convict, even though he felt the evidence to do so was overwhelming.  Some of the jurors wanted to hear some of the testimony again, some of them wanted to see pieces of evidence again. They wanted to be sure.  In the end, the jury voted unanimously to convict. My new friend said that when he read the verdict out loud in the courtroom, he felt an enormous sense of duty and pride. He felt moved to tears. The jurors, to a person, took their duty very seriously and followed the court’s instructions unwaveringly.  He felt like he was the little boy’s hero.  Now, looking back, he hopes he’ll get the chance to serve on a jury again.  Both he and his wife said that if they were ever the parties in a trial, they would want people like themselves serving on their jury.

Fascinating story, but I’m not surprised. This is often the story I hear from people who have served on juries, criminal or civil.   The sense of duty is extremely strong. By serving on a jury, you are breathing life into the United States Constitution and doing your part as a citizen to make our judicial system work. Without jurors, the system would collapse and we would cease to be a democratic nation.  Jurors ensure that a person’s constitutional rights to a fair trial by a jury of his or her peers is protected.  That is not overstating things. And something about being in the formal courtroom, where lives are at stake, where injured plaintiffs seek to have the harms done to them balanced by damages from the wrongdoer, makes that sense of honor and duty to your nation come alive. Jurors are the heroes of victims of crime and of those citizens who are personally injured through no fault of their own. The courtroom is the great Equalizer, where the son of the richest man in America is the equal of a homeless person, and where the smartest graduate of Harvard University is the equal of a high-school drop-out. All persons are treated equally in a court of law.

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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?

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