Articles Posted in Trial

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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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What is the role of a trial judge?  This question may often be debated among lawyers and between lawyers and judges themselves and maybe even by law students in school, but rarely is it a hot topic discussed in the public by non-lawyers. Until now.  You may be following the Paul Manafort trial, in which the trial judge has been both criticized and congratulated for his conduct in presiding over that trial.  As I write this, the jury is out.  By most news accounts, that trial judge, Hon. T.S. Ellis, has often made known his likes and dislikes to the jurors and the prosecution seems to be taking the brunt of the abuse. So much so, that the prosecution has filed at least two motions requesting the trial judge apologize and make it clear to the jury that his remarks are not to be taken as commentary on the strength or weakness of the prosecution’s case. Things seem to have finally boiled over when, one morning, the trial judge did just that, he essentially admonished himself  to the jury for his comments and  said “Put aside any criticism. I was probably wrong in that,” and  Ellis said, concluding, “Any criticism of counsel should be put aside — it doesn’t have anything to do with this case.” “This robe doesn’t make me anything other than human.”

“This robe doesn’t make me anything other than human.” Think about that for a second. Who else wears a cape at work?  A Super Hero?  Every word that comes out of a trial judge’s mouth in front of a jury has some persuasion attached to it…some hidden meaning. Jurors often take their cues from the trial judge.  If the trial judge doesn’t seem to like a certain attorney, well, guess what?  The jury probably won’t like that attorney, either.  Jurors may be thinking:  “Who does the judge think should win? He’s the expert, he knows.  Does he like the defense attorney better than the plaintiff’s attorney?  Does she think the plaintiff is exaggerating?  He was rude to the female lawyer…maybe he thinks she is incompetent?  What will he think of us if we find for the plaintiff?  And return a large verdict?  Maybe he thinks that shouldn’t happen in his courtroom?”  As one trial lawyer said about Judge Ellis. “He can be very dominating,” said Jim Brosnahan, a California trial lawyer who defended John Walker Lindh in the American Taliban casebefore Judge Ellis. “The interesting question is: Is it aimed fairly at both sides, or is it particularly at one side?”  Also, keep in mind how extraordinary it is that Judge Ellis essentially apologized to the jury for his own comments, recognizing they may have sent the wrong signal to the jury. This is a very rare occurrence for a judge to do that.

First, let me say, that we are blessed with many wonderful trial judges in Georgia.  I have tried nearly 75 jury trials in the last  30 years of practicing law, all in Georgia, and with the very blatant exception of one Superior Court judge (she knows who she is), I have always been treated with the utmost respect and courtesy by our trial judges. Even when we may disagree, we do so with civility, not taking personal shots at one another. That is not to say that some aren’t demanding, or controlling, or picky, or even temperamental.  Many trial judges are all of those things, because they are human and sometimes the stress of a trial gets to them the way it gets to everyone involved or they simply see their role as being in command of their courtroom.  It has been my experience that our Georgia trial judges treat all those who come before them with the civility expected out of someone who wears a robe, has her name on a courtroom and has been given the authority by the State to preside over a trial, which is often one of the most important moments in a citizen’s life.

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The short answer is maybe.

One of the first questions many of my clients have after they have been in a car wreck is whether they can accept the insurance company’s pay-off for their totaled car.  Most people need the pay-off money to be able to buy substitute transportation as quickly as possible.  Some people accept the insurance company’s pay-off well before they even think about hiring a lawyer, and well before they have even spoken to a lawyer about representing them in a car wreck case. This is certainly understandable and normal human conduct when your car has been totaled in a wreck that isn’t your fault. But can there be a problem with accepting the insurance company’s pay-off for your car and, in return, releasing ownership of it to that insurance company for salvage value?

Typically, in a car wreck that has resulted in some personal injuries due to the negligence of the at-fault driver for say, running a stop sign, or rear-ending the car in front, the answer for at least 30 years has been no.  In the past, no insurance carrier ever really cared about preserving the car in a plain ordinary negligence car wreck case where there is no evidence of any mechanical failure of the car or any evidence that the car itself was, somehow, defective. In the last 5 years or so, however, that has changed. Now, in an increasingly scorched-earth tactic by defense lawyers, they often file a motion to dismiss even run-of-the-mill car wreck cases for the plaintiff’s failure to preserve or keep the car that was involved in the wreck, even if that car was totaled by the insurance carrier. This motion is referred to as a “spoliation motion” and they are becoming more and more popular as a “gotcha” tactic by defense attorneys who really have no defense for their insured’s actions in actually causing the wreck in the first place.  They have to admit their insured was negligent and caused the wreck, but maybe they can get out of the whole thing by arguing that without the car to be examined by an expert, hypothetically, we can never know whether something was wrong with the brakes or the windshield wipers (yes, I have really had that argued by defense counsel in a case) or the seat belts or any of a number of made-up potential problems, even if there exists no evidence that anything about the car caused or contributed to the wreck.  At a minimum it is frustrating…at the worst, it can cost a plaintiff her entire case.

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Every day as I travel down Edgewood Avenue in Downtown Atlanta in the middle of Georgia State University, some pedestrian, without fail, decides to take a risk and walk out in front of either my car or another car as I watch. The only time this doesn’t happen is when Georgia State is on Spring Break. It is a stressful trip, knowing that in addition to the numerous cars all around me that I have to be aware of, I have to be ready to slam my breaks in a nanosecond to avoid hitting a pedestrian walking out in front of my car when I have the right-of-way. I am aware of the plentiful crosswalks available for pedestrian use, but they are mostly ignored.  I am talking about students who ignore the crossing signals and walk across a street either not in a crosswalk at all, or in a crosswalk but cross when the signal is telling them to stop.  This typical daily occurrence with pedestrians has me thinking about just exactly what are the laws in Georgia pertaining to pedestrians? Is it just me or are the pedestrian signals getting more complicated?  What do they actually mean?  When does a pedestrian have the right-of-way to cross the street? Can a driver of a vehicle just mow down a pedestrian if the pedestrian is not in the crosswalk?  How about if the pedestrian is in the crosswalk but the flashing hand has started with a stopwatch ticking down, telling the pedstrian how many seconds he or she has to cross the street before the signal turns?  Is a pedestrian required to know how fast they can walk and how many seconds they typically take to cross a street?  Does it depend on how many lanes the street is?  And whether there is a headwind or tailwind? My drive today has me thinking about all of this.  Hmmm….

First, we can easily find the Georgia Rules of the Road as they pertain to pedestrians on the Georgia Highway Safety website. The Official Code of Georgia provides:  § 40-6-91. Right of Way in Crosswalks: 

(a) The driver of a vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross the roadway within a crosswalk when the pedestrian is upon the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling, or when the pedestrian is approaching and is within one lane of the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning. For the purposes of this subsection, “half of the roadway” means all traffic lanes carrying traffic in one direction of travel.

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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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You Supreme Court nerds out there (and you know who you are) are probably aware of the fact that the United States Supreme Court  recently heard oral arguments in  McWilliams v. Dunn. At issue in the case is whether James McWilliams, an indigent defendant whose mental health was a significant factor at his capital trial, was entitled to an independent psychological expert to testify on his behalf. The prosecution presented the expert testimony of one psychiatrist and argued the Defendant was not entitled to his “own” psychiatrist as the one offered by the prosecution was essentially neutral, even though he was retained and paid by the State.  Stephen Bright, longtime president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, represented McWilliams.  The issue presented to the Supreme Court in McWilliams was this:  “Whether, when this court held in Ake v. Oklahoma that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense,” it clearly established that the expert should be independent of the prosecution.” Amicus, the podcast by Slate that focuses on the Supreme Court, covered the McWilliams case in its latest episode, “The Myth of the Neutral Expert.”

This is a fascinating discussion, especially considering the very life of an inmate hinges on the opinion.  Some states have even placed a temporary halt on executions for inmates on death row until the McWilliams opinion is delivered.   As a personal injury trial lawyer, I mused how expert witnesses are treated differently in civil cases, you know, in cases where mere money is at issue and not someone’s life or liberty.  Of course, having one so-called “neutral” expert witness, to testify for both sides of a case, would never happen in civil cases.  I haven’t tried a case without the appearance of at least one expert witness at trial in well over 20 years now. My cases are complex and naturally either require or will benefit from expert testimony. At a minimum. I will present the testimony of a treating physician, who certainly is an expert in his or her medical specialty, even if not an expert “specially retained to testify at trial.”  In civil cases, especially medical malpractice cases, we often hear such testimony described as “The Battle of the Experts.”  Defense attorneys have gotten into the habit of hiring just one more expert than the plaintiff has so that they can argue they have “more” experts on their side and, therefore, naturally, you should side with the party who has more experts (regardless of how credible those experts are!).  What jurors may not be aware of is that the defense experts are being paid by the defendant doctor’s malpractice insurance carrier, not the doctor himself, so the sky’s the limit.  Not so for plaintiffs.  Plaintiff’s must front those expenses out of their own pockets, and because no individual plaintiff can afford to do so, this means the plaintiff’s attorney must pay for the experts in a case on his or her own dime. That may not make sense to you but that’s how it works.  As you can imagine, hiring numerous experts simply to have one more than the other side has can get expensive.  Where does this end? But defendants have unlimited sources of money for this and plaintiffs don’t.

Here is the law of Georgia that the trial judge will read to the jury regarding expert witnesses:

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Today, a DeKalb County jury returned a verdict against two nurses who are employees of DeKalb Medical Center in the amount of $3.012 Million.  The case is  Edwards v. Nicome, et al., 11A36121. filed in the DeKalb County State Court.  The case  centered around the May 2009 death of Shari Edwards, age 31, who died of heart failure three days after being admitted to DeKalb Medical for preeclampsia and ultimately giving birth to her daughter.  A third defendant, a physician, was not held liable by the jury.  Congratulations go out to Plaintiff’s attorneys Bill Atkins, Rod Edmund and Keith Lindsay for what was obviously a valiant fight for justice in a three week trial.  The case was defended by a trial attorney who I have tried a case against before, Tim Bendin.  Bendin and his law firm often represents DeKalb Medical Center in personal injury cases.  Because the nurses who were found to be at fault are employees of DeKalb Medical Center, DeKalb Medical Center is responsible for the verdict.

The plaintiffs, the parents of the deceased Ms. Edwards, argued their daughter died because of peripartum cardiomyopathy, or heart failure, and the failure of her healthcare team, including Defendant physician Nicome and nurses Cox and Huber-Smith, to detect or treat her deteriorating condition.  The evidence showed Edwards’ blood pressure problems had initially been treated, but in the hours before her death her condition became more precarious with low oxygen levels and blood-gas levels joining her complaints that she was short of breath. Despite this, Edmond said medical records showed staff did not take Edwards’ vital signs for three hours before she went into the cardiac arrest that proved fatal.  The defense, however, argued Edwards’ condition was stable in the hours before her cardiac arrest, and her healthcare team treated her appropriately throughout her stay, including ordering tests and intervention where necessary.  Bendin, the nurses’s attorney, seemingly attempted to cast blame on the attending physician, arguing they were just trying to follow doctor’s orders. This simply didn’t work. No word on whether DeKalb Medical Center will appeal the verdict. They have 30 days from the entry of judgment to do so.

I have often had defense attorneys tell me that doctors and hospitals win 95% of their trials in Georgia. If that is true, to say the odds were against this family and this team of trial lawyers would be an understatement. And $3 Million for the value of the life of a 31 year old  could never be characterized of being a “runaway” verdict by any of those who think the Georgia Civil Justice System is out of whack and needs reform.  In my opinion, $3 Million for the full value of the life of this mother is probably even slightly conservative.  This verdict was a unanimous verdict by 12 DeKalb County citizens who all saw the evidence of negligence the same way, demanding justice in favor of the deceased patient’s family. There is nothing about it that could be labeled “runaway.”

iphone   This week in Georgia a Georgia State trial court ruled in favor of the social media application Snapchat in a personal injury case and granted Snapchat judgment as a matter of law based on immunity.  The case is Maynard v. Snapchat and is pending in the Spalding County State Court. The plaintiff, who suffered severe brain damage in a wreck when he was hit by a teen who was using Snapchat at the time of the wreck is ably represented by several of my friends, including Mike Terry and Michael Neff, both wonderful lawyers. The suit asserted that Snapchat’s speed filter—a feature which allows a user to photograph how fast a user is going—”motivated” McGee to “drive at an excessive speed to obtain recognition and to share her experiences through Snapchat.”  Apparently, young drivers who use Snapchat are now often driving recklessly fast so they can snap a photo of the speed of the car they are driving to share it with all of their Snapchat followers, and then I guess the reckless driver gets to brag to all of her friends, “Hey! Look at me!!  Me! Me! Me!  Look how fast I am driving!!  Whoopeeee!”  But the Snapchat app encourages the driver to break the law, drive way too fast, illegally fast, and then requires an action by the speeding driver to capture the not-to-be-missed moment.  Those few seconds of distraction force the young driver to take her eyes off the road and they often lose control of their car or fail to stay in their lane, resulting in a horrible car wreck and causing untold devastation to an innocent person minding his own business driving on the road that night.  In the Spalding County case the evidence showed the teen driver reached speeds of 113 m.p.h. AWFUL!

The defense attorneys argued successfully that Snapchat was entitled to complete immunity under the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, and whose Section 230 states, “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  This provision seems to grant immunity for written communications published on the social media application, not for creating an app that encourages someone to break the law in the first place.  Simply reading the literal words of the immunity provision, they would seem to be inapplicable to the facts of this case.  But I’m not a judge and the only opinion that counts is the trial judge’s and he disagreed with me.  Plaintiff’s counsel, I would assume, are considering an appeal.

This case shows a horrifying trend with the Snapchat “speed filter.”  In November of last year in Tampa, Florida, a teen driver who reached speeds of 115 m.p.h. lost control of her car, crossed a median and hit a minivan carrying a family. The wreck killed five people. Snapchat says it actively discourages “their community” to use the speed filter while driving.  If that is true, what is the point of it?  Can Snapchat claim, with a straight face, argue that the speed filter is not designed to be used while driving when it’s entire purpose is to measure a vehicle’s speed?  There is also currently pending in Texas another lawsuit against Apple with essentially the same facts and allegations as the Maynard case here in Georgia but involving Apple’s application Facetime. In that case, a   “driver rear-ended the Modisettes with his Toyota 4Runner at 65 miles per hour — killing five-year-old Moriah Modisette. The driver, Garret Wilhem, told police he was on FaceTime at the time of the crash, and officers found his phone in the car with FaceTime still engaged.”

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