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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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You may have heard of the recent death of a Milton high school teacher due to carbon monoxide poisoning while she was in her town home.  At least seven people in the connected town homes were injured, some seriously, by this carbon monoxide poisoning episode. It was so tragic and unexpected. The situation is still under investigation, but officials say they believe the exposure at the town homes was caused by an unoccupied vehicle left accidentally running in one of the town home’s garages. Investigators have since determined someone left their car running in their garage, sending the carbon monoxide through the adjoining homes.

Although this tragedy invoked the call for more people to have carbon monoxide detectors in their homes, I was surprised it didn’t also create an outcry that automobile manufacturers change their faulty design of ignition buttons.  This is referred to as “keyless ignitions.”  It has been well known for some time now that ignition buttons like the ones shown above have a faulty design that doesn’t allow the driver to know easily whether they have successfully turned off their car. There have been numerous instances of people dying from carbon monoxide poisoning in their homes due to their car still running in their garage that is attached to their home. It is no secret that these ignition “buttons” are defective in design and utilization.

The photographs above are from a rental car I drove recently.  The only visible difference from these two buttons is that one has the very small “OFF” that appears to be illuminated in yellow and the other one has a very small “RUN” that appears to be illuminated in yellow. The one on the right is when the car engine is running. The one on the left is when the car engine is off.  Do you see how hard it is to tell the difference?  Sometimes these engines are so quiet the driver cannot tell whether he or she has correctly pressed the button all the way in to turn off the car. And because these cars have “fobs” now rather than actual keys, you may be carrying the fob in your pocket or in your purse and you may be still close enough to the car even when you are in your home that the car “thinks” the fob is still in the car and it will continue to run. When the garage is attached to the house, carbon monoxide fumes can quickly and easily travel into the home, sickening anyone inside. This is even more likely and foreseeable when the garage is attached to a town home, as it was in the recent tragedy in Milton. Not only did the carbon monoxide travel into the first town home where the running car was garaged, it continued to leak into the attached town homes, sickening others.

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This has been some week. Our Georgia Community was in the grips of disbelief and shock due to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Glenn County, Georgia, hoping and praying that things could not get worse…and then they did. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has electrified the Nation to protest for Equal Justice Under Law for African-Americans, which is overdue by about 200 years. Because of these recent murders of African American males, the term of art “excessive force” has, unfortunately, wormed its way into our daily lexicon, heard as frequently now as “Facebook” or “Twitter” or “Coronavirus” (remember that?).  So let’s look at what exactly is “excessive force,” how do you bring a lawsuit for “excessive force” and how difficult are they to be successful?

First, a civil action for “excessive force” by a police officer must be brought against the individual police officer, not the police department, pursuant to a Federal Statute, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. That statute states:

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.”

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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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