Articles Posted in Trial

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As I write this, many of the headlines in the news are about the so-called “shocking” suicide of alleged child sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein, who, allegedly, hanged himself while incarcerated in a Federal New York prison.  What is so shocking? The only thing shocking to me about this event is how the news media and on-lookers, including United States Attorney Bill Barr, think it is shocking for someone, who was known to be suicidal, predictably, takes their life by suicide.  I suppose it is only Mr. Epstein’s wealth and his ties to well-known, rich, influential people, including many politicians, that makes U. S. Attorney Barr suddenly express surprise and concern that incarcerated people are attempting suicide, many successfully, when many of them should have been on suicide watch in a Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) or an Acute Care Unit (ACU). We can do without the mock concern on the part of the U.S. Attorney.  This is happening right under his nose in  prisons every day and he only expresses concern when it is a wealthy person who does it?

Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide was foreseeable and predictable. Now it is being reported that he was not on a suicide watch, even though he had previously attempted suicide less than two weeks earlier. The prior suicide attempt placed him in the high-risk category for attempting again. Coupled with the fact that he was in prison for the first time awaiting trial with an indictment list that, if proven, would keep him in prison for the rest of his life (another risk factor for attempting suicide), Mr. Epstein was high risk for suicide attempt and should have been on suicide watch.

Unfortunately, this blatant disregard for the lives of inmates who are either mentally ill or acutely psychotic ( or both) and the risk it creates for them to take their own life, is prevalent in our nation’s jails and prisons.  It is particularly alarming in Georgia prisons.  As recently as just last week, the Macon Telegraph issued the results of its study into prison suicides and announced that Georgia’s rate has reached crisis proportions. Between 2014 and 2016, state records show that 20 state prisoners had taken their own lives. In the nearly three years since, 46 prison deaths were deemed suicides. Georgia’s prison suicide rate — at 35 suicides per 100,000 — is nearly double the national average. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, U.S. state prison suicide rates rose by nearly a third. And Southern states including Georgia, Alabama and Texas saw even larger increases in their rates. Georgia correctional officials believe one in five people incarcerated in state prisons have a documented mental health need.

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I was just put on a jury in a case that seems pretty clear cut.  So why am I here? Why is there a trial?

Many jurors may find themselves thinking this in a case in which the defendant is clearly at fault and the plaintiff is clearly injured. Most reasonable people, as jurors tend to be, would assume a clear liability case with clear injuries should be settled out of court. My concern is that when a juror is forced to sit on a jury in a case like this, the juror may very likely assume it must be because the plaintiff wanted too much money. But it seems to be a trend in many cases in Georgia that what actually has happened is that the insurance carrier for the at-fault defendant has refused to offer much, if anything, before trial, to try to resolve the case. This has been borne out many times in recent trials.

For example, in a case tried in Whitfield County, Georgia (Dalton) a jury entered a verdict in the amount of $21.6 million last month for a man who lost a leg after being struck by a pick-up truck as he walked toward a Whitfield County highway to stop traffic for a tractor-trailer.  The plaintiff’s medical bills were more than $411,000 and the insurance carrier didn’t even offer that much before the trial, according to plaintiff’s attorney. He said the insurance carriers never offered any meaningful settlement despite their client’s permanent, life-altering injuries and despite a court-ordered mediation.

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There have been two  recent appellate decisions in Georgia that address the morass that is apportionment:  FDIC v. Loudermilk, No. S18Q1233 (Ga. S. Ct. March 13, 2019) and Trabue v. Atlanta  Women’s Specialists, LLC, No. A18A1508 (Ga. Ct. App. March 7, 2019).   Since the Georgia Legislature passed a new scheme of how a plaintiff receives justice in our Civil Justice System some 14 years ago, called “apportionment,” there have been 1,328 Georgia appellate opinions that mention apportionment. This suggests that the law as passed was anything but a model of clarity.
The Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion in FDIC v. Loudermilk reminds me of Mark Twain’s quotation:  “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” I believe the rumors of the death of joint and several liability have been greatly exaggerated, ever since its passage in 2005.  Loudermilk makes it clear that joint and several liability is alive and kicking and coexists peacefully right next to apportionment.  Loudermilk, authored by Justice Sarah Warren,  involved a claim against a group of bank directors alleging that the former directors and officers were negligent and grossly negligent under Georgia law for their approval of ten commercial real-estate loans.  This case was tried to a jury in the Northern District of Georgia and the jury rendered a $5 Million verdict against the individual former bank officers. The bank officers appealed the verdict to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which certified the question of whether the Georgia law of apportionment applied to this scenario to the Georgia Supreme Court. The Georgia Supreme Court answered no, that the statute did not end joint and several liability for co-defendants determined to have acted “in concert.”  The Court held “Georgia historically has recognized this principle: “[i]t has always been true that where concert of action appears, a joint tortfeasor relation is presented and all joint tortfeasors are jointly and severally liable for the full amount of plaintiff’s damage.” Gilson v. Mitchell, 131 Ga. App. 321, 324, 205 S.E.2d 421 (1974), aff’d, 233 Ga. 453, 454, 211 S.E.2d 744 (1975) (“We conclude that the opinion of the Court of Appeals correctly states the law of Georgia on this subject and we adopt [its] opinion.”). Cf. City of Atlanta v. Cherry, 84 Ga. App. 728, 731-733, (67 S.E.2d 317) (1951) (rejecting joint-tortfeasor status although plaintiff alleged that defendants acted in concert because plaintiff failed to allege adequately that there was “concerted action in operating [an airport runway] in such a way as to injure plaintiff”).”  Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Loudermilk, S18Q1233, 2019 WL 1303652, at *8 (Ga. Mar. 13, 2019).
This rule supports what many plaintiff’s lawyers have been saying since 2005, i.e., that there is no apportionment until a jury says there is apportionment. Thus, not only apportionment but also joint and several liability charges must be given to a jury and counsel must be allowed to argue joint and several liability.

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You may have missed it, but last week a Fulton County, Georgia jury sent a message to the City of Atlanta to inspect their streets for dangers to the motoring public. The message came in the form of a $1.4 Million verdict against the City of Atlanta, for severe personal injuries to a woman who was injured when she drove over a manhole whose cover had become dislodged.  The plaintiff, Ms. Pamela Dale, suffered a compression fracture to her spine, multiple lacerations on her arm and permanent nerve damage to her arm and hand.  She accrued about $89,000 in medical bills and was unable to perform her job for several weeks, and she had to work part-time for several more weeks. Her car was a total loss.  She was represented by Attorney Michael Baskin.

For its defense, the City of Atlanta argued first that this was a state road so the Georgia Department of Transportation had responsibility for maintaining it. So the City of Atlanta attempted to blame someone else for its own negligence. Then the City argued it did not have to inspect its own streets to find problems that could injure someone driving on them. The City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management manager testified that the city did  not routinely inspect manholes and there was no evidence that it had advance notice of any defect in the manhole prior to the accident.  Apparently, the jurors didn’t like that. They told plaintiff’s counsel after the verdict that they were very concerned with the City of Atlanta not inspecting its own streets on a routine basis and, therefore, essentially waiting until a citizen was injured from a defect in the street to inform the City about the problem. The City of Atlanta literally argued they only received notice of a problem with a street once someone had been hurt by it. Does this strike you as crazy? Or at least surprising? That’s the way it struck the jurors. According to Attorney Baskin, the jurors were “absolutely appalled at the city’s lack of inspections.”

And it’s not just the City of Atlanta that takes this position. Many other governmental entities do the exact same thing, i.e., only inspect streets or sidewalks after they receive a complaint about it from someone. They do not routinely inspect their own roads. I recently took the deposition of the Director of Public Works for DeKalb County, Georgia, and, interestingly, he said the same thing about DeKalb County, i.e., that DeKalb County relies on reports from citizens of any problem with a street, road or sidewalk before they get involved. DeKalb County Public Works does not inspect its roads and sidewalks proactively so as to avoid injury to a citizen. Nor does it have anyone inspecting their sidewalks to make sure they are in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.  This means a disabled person has to get hurt first on a DeKalb County road or sidewalk before DeKalb County will do anything to fix the problem. DeKalb asserts that citizens can get in touch with them by phone, email, Facebook or Twitter, and that is, in their minds, sufficient.

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MY FIRST AND LAST MURDER TRIAL

It’s January 4, 2019 and I am in Division 5 of the DeKalb County Superior Court, otherwise known as Judge Gregory Adam’s courtroom. I let the Deputies know I am a lawyer representing an accused person in a case and am here for the motions calendar. They instruct me to sit in the jury box. I do. As soon as I step in the jury box, a friend of mine, Jan Hankins, a Georgia Public Defender, says “I know you. What are you doing here?”  She has that look on her face of seeing someone she knows but in the wrong setting. Things are out of context. She knows I am a plaintiff’s personal injury trial lawyer. She instantly computes that I have no Earthly business in a criminal motions hearing.  I explain that I will be trying a murder trial with Mike Maloof, Jr. because I have always wanted to try a criminal case and in my 30 years of practicing law, I have never handled a criminal case. A mutual friend put Mike and me together and Mike welcomed my help. Jan’s response: “If trying a murder case is on your bucket list, you need a new list.”

It is true that in 30 years of practicing law I have never handled a criminal matter. I watch a lot of criminal trial shows on TV, though. Shouldn’t that qualify me a little bit?  After all, I certainly know never to talk to the police or answer a single question they ask unless my lawyer is present. I know never to give the police consent to search my car. I know never to agree to take a sobriety test. I am armed with a lot of knowledge about the criminal justice system from this. So wouldn’t it be a neat chance to add to my plethora of TV criminal justice knowledge by trying a real murder case?

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Jury duty is often the last thing people want to do. It interferes with their jobs, their family schedules and essentially everything people do on a daily basis. No one has jury duty scheduled on their calendar.  So, it is often the case once citizens report for jury duty and are actually sitting in a courtroom going through jury selection, particularly in civil cases for money damages, that jurors want to know “Why is this case being tried?  Why am I here?” Some people might, wrongly, assume it is because the plaintiff is greedy. But that is almost never the case. Rather, so often, the answer is because the insurance company for the defendant, the party at fault, refuses to be reasonable and refuses to resolve the case before trial.  For some unknown reason, that seems to be more and more the answer to the jurors’ questions of “Why are we here?”

Several recent trials in Georgia demonstrate that completely. In a trial in Gwinnett County last month, a jury awarded $17.8 million to the widow of a man who plummeted three stories to his death after trying to close an improperly installed dormer window.  No offer of settlement by the insurance company who represented the company at fault was even made until six days before trial. Understand, the trial occurred only after years of depositions, hearings, document exchange…known as discovery. Yet the insurer didn’t even attempt to broach resolution until six days before trial. The plaintiff’s settlement demand had only been $1 Million. Now the insurer is looking at a judgment for $17.8 Million. The insurer could have saved $16.8 Million had it even attempted resolution.

In another case recently tried in Cobb County, the jury returned verdicts for two plaintiffs of $77,000.00 to one plaintiff and $80,000.00 to the other. They also awarded an additional $35,000.00 for property damage. Highest offers prior to trial were $4,000 and $5,000 respectively.  Yet the plaintiffs’ medical expenses alone, without even considering pain and suffering, were $12,000 and $9,000 respectively.  When an insurer offers half of a plaintiff’s medical expenses it is not really trying to reach a good faith resolution of the case.

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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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