Articles Posted in Trial

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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.”

contract-signing-1474333It seems that the issue of forced arbitration clauses in contracts seems to be increasingly in the public conversation, given the debacle of Wells Fargo creating fake accounts by employees to achieve performance bonuses without their customers’s even knowing about it. Unbelievably, Wells Fargo is attempting to rely on forced arbitration clauses in the fake contracts for the fake bank accounts they fraudulently created to avoid being held accountable by a real jury.  It’s really hard to believe Wells Fargo’s lawyer would even agree to submit such a position to the court with a straight face and an unburdened conscience. But they are.  At least maybe the Wells Fargo fiasco is bringing to light this attempt by many corporations to take away a person’s Constitutional right to a jury trial to resolve a dispute before a dispute even arises and force the aggrieved person to have the dispute heard by a panel of arbiters (often picked by the corporation).  They know they stand to fare much better before an arbitration panel than a jury of 12 American citizens, the greatest dispenser of Justice ever conceived by man.

I have written before about the “gotcha” tactics of nursing homes in attempting to steal a resident’s right to a jury trial. I have fought off several attempts on behalf of clients in nursing home malpractice lawsuits.  An interesting opinion from the Georgia Court of Appeals recently was issued that deals with an embedded arbitration clause in nursing home admission papers, which, once the resident’s family members sued the nursing home for malpractice in causing the death of their family member, the nursing home asserted to the court as eliminating their right to have a jury hear their case. Gotcha!! This case is Kindred Nursing Centers v. Chrzanowski, 338 Ga.App. 708 (2016) and the facts of the case confirm the nursing home’s attempt at Gotcha!  The plaintiff’s mother was admitted on December 4, 2016 to Kindred Nursing Center in Marietta for rehabilitation following surgery for a broken ankle during a fall.  Ms. Chrzanowski’s medical records showed she suffered from several chronic medical conditions and also cognitive impairment.  According to the appellate record “[i]n the month before her fall, Jeanne went to the emergency room twice within a few days, and reported feeling “loopy” and out of sorts, with some memory loss. The second time she went, she had no recollection of her prior visit just 48 hours earlier. A neurological consult identified an altered mental state, with mild cognitive impairment, depression, and some amnesia. Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. P’ship v. Chrzanowski, 338 Ga. App. 708, 709, 791 S.E.2d 601, 602 (2016).   Two days before Jeanne signed the ADR Agreement, occupational therapy evaluated Jeanne and reported that she was confused, even though she was able to participate in establishing her plan of care. In weekly progress notes from December 5 through December 12, occupational therapy reported that Jeanne was very anxious and confused, commenting to staff, “look at the walls, they are coming out.” In addition, a speech pathologist evaluated Jeanne on December 7 and found that she was severely impaired in understanding yes and no questions; moderately impaired in concentration, understanding sentences, and conversation; and moderately to severely impaired in memory, reasoning, and judgment. That same day, a dietitian performed a nutrition therapy assessment and found Jeanne was very confused and could not remember if she had eaten breakfast. Another assessment determined that Jeanne was at risk for falls due to weakness, medications, confusion, and forgetfulness.  Ms. Chrzanowski signed the admission papers on December 7, 2011, which contained the embedded, hidden arbitration clause.  On April 25, 2012 Ms. Chrzanowski died in the nursing home after suffering several other falls and hospitalizations.  Her family then sued in court for malpractice.

In response to the suit, the nursing home filed a motion with the trial court to enforce the arbitration agreement that was in the admission papers signed by Ms. Chrzanowski while she was obviously suffering from dementia and cognitive impairment. Does that even sound fair to you? I hope not. The trial court denied the nursing home’s motion to compel arbitration and the nursing home appealed. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, not on the merits of the case but on the basis the trial court had applied the wrong standard in making its decision. So now the case is back in the breast of the trial court who must apply a different standard in making its decision on whether to compel arbitration and allow the nursing home to steal the Chrzanowski’s  Constitutional right to a jury trial.

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Can a County Police Officer be held liable for failing to prevent the suicide of an inmate under his custody?  That is the interesting question in the case below, which was argued before the Georgia Supreme Court this week. Below is the Court’s summary of the case. It gives you some of the pertinent facts and then a synopsis of the arguments and positions of both sides in the case. For court watchers and trial junkies this is a helpful tool provided by the Court (presumably written by one of the Court’s clerks;  I did not write it) to be able to follow along in oral argument.  By the way, the Georgia Supreme Court’s oral arguments all can be viewed through their livestreaming capability found on its website. 
And if you can’t catch them live, the arguments are taped and available for your leisure viewing on the website, as well.
Pearce v. Tucker will be a case I’ll be watching as it turns on the old “discretionary v. ministerial” argument trap that really needs to be abolished in favor of including all such claims against counties as part of the Georgia Tort Claims Act. This would give this area law the predictably it desperately needs.  Hopefully, the Georgia Legislature will address that one day. In the meantime, every time there is a case against a county employee, like the one below, the Court must go through this time-worn analysis  of whether the employee’s conduct was discretionary, for which the employee has immunity, or whether it was ministerial, for which the employee does not have immunity.  Stay tuned. Should be interesting.

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A police officer just took my cellphone:  Can he do that?  The answer is, as it is with all things legal, it depends.

Cell phones seem to be in the news every day now. They have become such a part of the everyday fabric of the lives of the majority of people that we consider them indispensable, as they often contain so much of our personal information and lives.  How could we possibly go for a day without them.  For example, do you know by heart the telephone number of your spouse or partner or child?  If you were arrested and your cellphone taken from you as part of the arrest, would you know by memory the cellphone number of your closest loved one to be able to call that person from the jail to be bailed out?  (That is NOT a hypothetical scenario, Friends!  It happens).  Think also about the hot car death of 22 month old Cooper Harris in Cobb County last year. A search of Dad Justin Ross Harris’s cellphone revealed internet searches for death in a hot car and also revealed Mr. Harris had been texting sexually explicit messages that day to a minor. What appeared to be a tragic honest mistake of forgetting the child was in the car and leaving him in a hot car where he died turned into an arrest for intentional murder of the child, all because of what was found on the dad’s cellphone.

Just last month our very own Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a pair of child pornography defendants abandoned their rights to a phone after they lost it at a store and gave up attempts to retrieve it. United States v. Johnson, No. 14-12143, and United States v. Sparks, No. 14-12075 (11th Cir. Dec. 1, 2015).

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To trial lawyers, arbitration is a dirty word. We have fought tooth and nail against any forced arbitration clauses as they take away your Constitutional right to a trial by jury for any dispute. Have you signed an arbitration clause and didn’t even know it? Most likely, yes. I would venture a guess that most American citizens have and you would never know it until a dispute arises. That’s when the wrongdoer throws the arbitration clause in your face and (figuratively) says “you can’t sue me (i.e., you can’t hold me responsible). Here are five things to know about arbitration clauses:

  1. “Mandatory” Arbitration clauses are not mandatory. An arbitration clause is nothing more than a waiver of the right to a jury trial to decide any dispute. But for a waiver to be valid it must be “knowing,” i.e., you must know what you are giving up or “waiving” at the time you give it up.  Arbitration clauses, by definition, are not “knowing” because you are required to sign or submit to them pre-dispute or pre-injury, before you even know what harm has or may be done. How can that possibly be a “knowing” waiver?  It can’t. Many courts have invalidated so-called “mandatory arbitration” clauses for his very reason.   Arbitration clauses often appear, for example, in the admission papers of a nursing home. The admitting family member must sign 20 pages or so to get their loved one admitted into the nursing home and the “mandatory arbitration” clause is hidden somewhere on page14 in fine print that no lay person could possibly read or understand.  The family member must sign these documents at what may very well be once of the worst times in his or her life, when the decision to place his or her spouse or partner, who perhaps they have lived with and loved for 40 years, into another living facility to be cared for by other people. The loved one’s health is probably failing. And yet nursing homes are slipping these “mandatory arbitration” provisions under the noses of their customers every day in America, without explaining what it is or what it means, during a life crisis for the consumer. What’s fair about that? Nothing.
  2. “Mandatory” arbitration clauses protect the institution not the consumer.  I have had some success in the nursing home scenario described above in getting Georgia judges to invalidate arbitration clauses because they are not a “knowing” waiver of a known right. One such arbitration clause I defeated stated that the arbitration must be conducted in “accordance with the American Health Lawyers Association (AHLA) Alternative Dispute Resolution Service Rules of Procedure for Arbitration….”  The American Health Lawyers Association is roughly 13,000 lawyers, which  “includes in-house counsel, compliance and privacy officers, finance officers, health care consultants, regulatory professionals, those employed in health care, public health, government, and academia.” This means the AHLA members are lawyers for the nursing homes. They are not lawyers for the patient or family member. Does that seem like a level playing field to you, conducting this forced arbitration according to the rules devised by the nursing home lawyers? Not hardly.

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What exactly is an “activist judge” and why should I care?  I often get this question at cocktail parties. In legal circles, the answer to the question “What is an activist judge” is usually answered “Any judge who rules against you.”  But the term is being heard frequently in the news these days, perhaps because of several rulings coming from the United States Supreme Court and perhaps because of the piecemeal change in marriage equality being played out in various’ states’ Probate Courts on a seemingly daily basis.

An “activist judge” is actually a judge who is seen as attempting to legislate from the bench, a judge who, through her or his judicial rulings, is reading into the law something that is not actually there, or who is trying to create law as she or he thinks it should be even if the statute at issue doesn’t actually say or permit such a ruling. It is a  judge or justice who makes rulings based on personal political views or considerations rather than on the law, or who issues rulings intended to have political effects.  The label of “activist judge” has become pejorative, usually said with a roll of the eye, or a slight snicker of disdain, as if such a judge has no credibility or they are inherently bad.  No judge, ostensibly, wants to be labeled an “activist judge.”  For example, in Wisconsin the election for the State Supreme Court is around the corner and a challenger to an incumbent justice claims the incumbent is “activist” and, therefore, should be summarily disposed of.  The name-calling also usually only applies to judges in appellate courts, who either correct error in the trial courts below or interpret the current law, whether statutory or common (case made) law, to determine how a case should turn out given its unique set of facts.  Whether you deem a judge to be an “activist” sometimes appears to be no more than a political question and sometimes seems to come down to your political beliefs. If the judge ruled in opposition to your political beliefs, you may tend to label that judge “activist.”  For example, the Conservative ThinkTank The Heritage Foundation, whose self-proclaimed mission “is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense,” has an entire page on its website devoted to calling out what it contends are rulings by activist judges or activist courts.  Last month, prompted largely by recent court rulings on gay marriage, an Idaho House committee voted Monday to introduce a resolution calling for the impeachment of federal judges who don’t follow the original intent of the U.S. Constitution.

“Judicial Restraint” is often considered the opposite of “Judicial Activism.”  “Judicial Restraint” is a theory of judicial interpretation that encourages judges to limit the exercise of their own power. It asserts that judges should hesitate to strike down laws unless they are obviously unconstitutional, though what counts as obviously unconstitutional is itself a matter of some debate.  In deciding questions of constitutional law, judicially restrained jurists go to great lengths to defer to the legislature. Judicially restrained judges respect stare decisis, the principle of upholding established precedent handed down by past judges.

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Did you know there is underway right now an effort in the Georgia Senate to eliminate your Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in medical malpractice cases?  That’s right.  A bill has been introduced (again), SB 86, that seeks to eliminate jury trials in medical malpractice claims.  This bill was introduced by Senator Brandon Beach from Alpharetta, and this is, at least, the second time around for the bill. Last year the same bill was introduced and a coalition made up of odd bedfellows, the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association (GTLA) and the  Medical Association of Georgia (MAG), opposed it and it died a slow death. Like Lazarus, it has now been resurrected.

Supporters of the bill make the wild claim that this bill would reduce so-called “defensive medicine” where doctors  supposedly order unnecessary medical tests.  I find such a claim outrageous and offensive.  Doctors should, likewise, be offended by this strategy.  I have talked with many doctors and taken many depositions of doctors.  I have never found them to order what they know are unnecessary medical tests.  For a doctor to order what he or she knows to be an unnecessary test (and get paid for it, by the way) would be fraudulent and would violate every ethical oath the physician has ever taken.  So that cannot be the real issue with this piece of legislation.

Who is behind it?  Not the doctors themselves, as evidenced by the opposition of MAG, the doctors’ professional association.  Not the citizens of Georgia.  There has been no rallying cry that doctors shouldn’t be held accountable as every other citizen may be with he or she commits negligence that results in injury to someone.  There have been no “runaway” verdicts in Georgia, either.  Statistics show that doctors and hospitals win almost 85%-90% of all medical malpractice trials in Georgia.