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Articles Posted in 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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Have you seen the new commercial made by GMC for its new Sierra and Yukon Danali pick-up trucks that features hands free driving? It shows a person sitting in the driver’s seat of the truck (I hesitate to call this person a “driver” because he is really not driving at all) with no hands (and not even a knee) on the steering wheel while the pick-up truck appears to be moving at a high rate of speed. Then the person sitting in the driver’s seat begins to clap to the beat of Queen’s famous rock song “We Will Rock You.” And all the passengers in the vehicle start clapping in unison with the beat and with the person sitting in the driver’s seat of the speeding truck while he never touches the steering wheel with his hands. It is scary to watch on TV. It is even scarier to think that someone next to you or behind you on the highway is doing this in a vehicle while you attempt to drive as carefully as possible to arrive at your destination safely. Welcome to the world of hands free driving!

I ask whether you are willing to take the risk of hands free driving because using this “autopilot” feature on some new cars and trucks may result in some horrible consequences, including criminal charges for vehicular homicide.  This is what happened in Los Angeles recently when a person using a Tesla’s autopilot feature (notice I didn’t call him a “driver”) was charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence for the deaths of two people who were killed when the auto-driven Tesla slammed into their Honda Civic, killing them both.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed the auto-pilot feature was on at the time of the collision. The charges against the defendant appear to mark the first time a driver in the United States was prosecuted for a felony while using semi-automated driving technology. The families of the two decedents have filed wrongful death suits, but it is unclear whether Tesla was included as a defendant for products liability.

Michael Brooks, the chief operating officer at the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on the U.S. automotive industry, said he hopes Tesla drivers and owners see this case and understand that Autopilot has limitations. “It will not drive them from any point A to any point B always safely, and they need to be responsible for the actions of the vehicle,” Brooks said.

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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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July 1 always welcomes in the new laws passed by the Legislature in the last Legislative session. Tomorrow Georgia will have several new laws that go into effect, many of which you may not be aware.

The first you should know about is “Joshua’s Law,” codified at O.C.G.A. § 40-5-10.  The genesis of this law is the untimely and unnecessary death of Joshua Brown, son of LuGina and Alan Brown back on July 1, 2003. It is ironic that the law in his name goes into effect on the 18th anniversary of Joshua’s death.  I had the distinct honor of representing LuGina and Alan in a successful wrongful death lawsuit in Fulton County against the Georgia Department of Transportation.  We tried that case to a jury and settled it on the last day of trial. Joshua then was 18 years old at the time of his death. He had been admitted to the Berklee School of Music and wanted to be a musician. I can remember when LuGina testified she talked about visiting Berklee with Joshua and when she saw the campus and all the students walking around she saw “a hundred little Joshuas.” I have never forgotten that moment in trial. It was so moving. Our lawsuit involved the negligent maintenance of the road Joshua was on when he lost control of his truck due to hydroplaning, ran off a steep, unprotected hillside and crashed into a tree. The Browns immediately threw their grief into action by creating “Joshua’s Law” and began lobbying the Georgia General Assembly for passage of the law that would mandate driver education in every high school in Georgia.  The Browns were the recipients of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association’s Courageous Pursuit of Justice Award for their relentless pursuit of justice against the Georgia Department of Transportation and for the creation of the new law “Joshua’s Law.”  The substance of the new law is as follows:

Effective: July 1, 2021

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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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