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Articles Posted in right to jury trial

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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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“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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Have you received something like this lately from any corporation?  It is a “forced arbitration” clause in which a corporation unilaterally revokes your right to a jury trial should it cause you harm or damages in any way. This forced arbitration clause is AT & T’s version. Rather than telling you “Hey, Customer, we have taken away your right to trial without your consent,” they say “We have updated your contract terms.”  Further, rather than simply telling you that AT & T is taking away your right to a jury trial regarding any dispute you may have with it, AT & T ridiculously states “We have simplified and updated the contract terms….”  Then the unilateral notice says:

                                                                        “we will resolve any disputes by individual arbitration and not by jury trial or class action. 

                                                                        Your continued use of AT & T service tells us you accept and agree to be bound by the Consumer

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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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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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

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Friends:

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.

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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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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.

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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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