Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

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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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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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In a series of blogs I wrote last summer on distracted driving, I laid out some of the problems with the advancing technology we have readily available to us at our fingertips. The use of social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram while driving has led to many fatal or injurious car wrecks, and texting while driving, which is known as a “combination distraction” – one that averts our attention manually, visually, and cognitively – has caused thousands of deaths and injuries in accidents in the last few years. Last summer, one of my distracted driving blogs was about a bill that the Governor of Washington was signing into law banning hand-held usage of cellular devices. I wrote that Georgia had yet to sign such a bill into its own laws, but one year later, this subject matter needs an update.

This legislative session, the Georgia Legislature worked to pass House Bill 673, which Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law a few months ago and will become effective July 1, 2018. The bill is known as the “Hands-Free” or “Distracted Driving” law, which by name alone may sound self-explanatory but with further inspection can be a little confusing. Allow me to lay out the need-to-knows of Georgia’s newest cell-phone driving law.

This bill, which has now become an Act, amends Title 40 “Motor Vehicles and Traffic” of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. The main change in the Code will be located in O.C.G.A. §40-6-241, which explains a driver’s responsibility to exercise due care, specifically regarding usage of a wireless telecommunications device. The first parts of the bill change the penalties within the license point system. First violation of Code Section 40-6-241 will result in 1 point added to the license; second violation results in 2 points added; and third results in 3 points. There are other – and potentially worse – penalties a driver could face if convicted of violating the Code section.

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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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What is the price of a life lost? Could you put a price tag on your own life or that of a family member, killed at the hands of a negligent defendant? How much would you want people to say your life would have been worth?

These are the questions that juries must face when evaluating “damages” to award in wrongful death cases. Plaintiffs’ attorneys must ask the jurors to award money to a family who has lost its loved one due to the negligence of someone else. It’s tough to ask and even tougher to answer, but when parents have lost their child because of someone’s negligence, there must be some sort of monetary justice for the family.

So how much is a life worth? The Georgia Code provides: “The amount of the recovery shall be the full value of the life of the decedent.” O.C.G.A. § 51-4-5. But what determines that full value of life? The judge may instruct the jury: “You should consider the gross sum that the deceased would have earned to the end of life had the deceased not been killed… in determining the amount of the full value of the life of the deceased. The full value of the life of the deceased is not limited to the amount of money that could have or would have been earned had the deceased not been killed.”

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In Washington last month, Governor Jay Inslee took a step towards improving the safety of his streets by signing a law prohibiting the holding of any electronic device (cell phones, tablets, etc) while driving or waiting at a stop light. The law will go in effect in July due to the Governor’s veto of a section that would have postponed the law’s implementation until 2019. The matter is just too important to wait.

As technology’s prevalence in our everyday lives increases, its capability of distraction from our other daily activities increases as well. This includes our activity within our car. The human’s false sense of ability to multitask often leads to problems behind the wheel. The driver only looks away for one second or only needs to pick up that napkin or only needs to change the radio station or only needs to send that last text. But those single and quick moments that the driver’s attention is diverted are the single and quick moments that can take the driver’s or someone else’s life.

The problem doesn’t only occur with drivers looking away. A driver can be very much so distracted while his or her eyes are fixed on the road. There are many different types of distractions: internal (items inside the car), external (objects outside the car), visual (eyes taken off the road), manual (hands taken off the wheel), and cognitive (distracting thoughts). It just so happens that the use of the cell phone is a combination distraction; it combines the dangerous aspects of the various types of distractions into one grand distraction. In the entire time that you go through the process of picking the phone up, looking down at it to find the contact you want to call, thinking about if the other person can answer your call, and physically dialing the call, your focus has been taken off driving long enough to have an accident.

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Many of you readers know I have often blogged, tweeted and spoken in public about suicide and what we as someone’s friends, family or colleagues can do to recognize a real suicidal threat and what we can do to get help to someone before he or she attempts to take his or her own life.  We know so much more about suicide today than we did just 20 years ago.  I would venture to say that what we thought about suicide and it’s causes 100 years ago would border on naivete, akin to treating leukemia with leeches.  For example, today we know that means restrictions, preventing access of the means or instruments to kill oneself, dramatically lowers the suicide rate, where 100 years ago we simply concluded if someone is suicidal it could not possibly be prevented. In a recent Harvard School of Public Health study, it was shown that if someone who is suicidal is simply prevented from having access to the means to commit suicide one time, 90% of those who had wanted to kill themselves but did not have access to the means or instrument (guns, drugs, rope) to kill themselves did not attempt suicide again.  Cyberbullying has become a leading cause of teen suicides. Social media has been at the root of numerous teenage suicides, especially where embarrassing photos or videos are posted online, which then go viral and are be seen by hundreds of classmates before the next day of school. This type of cyberbullying, using compromising or embarrassing images, has become so prevalent in our schools that many states are enacting legislation to criminalize it. This fact alone suggests suicide following cyberbullying is predictable.

Probably one of the most well-known and saddest cases of cyberbulling was the case of Tyler Clementi, an 18 year old freshman at Rutgers University, who jumped off the George Washington bridge into the Hudson River, killing himself. Tyler’s roommate had secretly filmed him having a private, sexual encounter with another male in Tyler’s dorm room. The roommate then live-streamed the intimate encounter on the internet. Would anyone doubt that Tyler would have been suicidal following a livestreaming of his most private, intimate moment in his own room? Studies have shown that cyberbullying, especially when it involves intimate photographs or videos, leads to an increased risk of depression and suicidal ideation.  Thus, it has become foreseeable and even highly likely that a young person may want to commit suicide after experiencing sexual or intimate cyberbullying.   Who could blame them?

Which brings me to City of Richmond Hill v. Maia, S16G1337, Supreme Court of Georgia, May 30, 2017.  You may remember I have written about this tragic case before, in my June 9, 2016 blogpost “Who Is Legally Responsible for a Suicide?”  I was writing about the decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals at that time.  To remind of you of the horrible facts in Maia, this is what I wrote then:

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