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Articles Tagged with evidence

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You may remember I wrote recently about the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion in Nuckles v. State, 853 S.E.2d 81 (December 2020) in which the Supreme Court made it crystal clear that a loved one has the absolute right to place a hidden camera in a loved one’s room in an assisted living facility or long-term care home and that video from such a camera is admissible in court. And, of course, it should be. The resident or patient is considered an “occupier” of that property, i.e., his or her room, and may videotape what occurs on his “property.” Nuckles is a well-reasoned, common sense opinion authored by Judge Carla Wong McMillian and concurred in by all the other members of the Georgia Supreme Court, except Justice Warren who simply didn’t participate in the opinion for some reason.

That you should be able to videotape what treatment your loved one is getting in a long-term care home, and then when that videotape shows abuse by a caregiver, that you should be able to admit such videotape into evidence at trial does not seem to be a partisan or political position at all, does it?  Don’t both Republicans and Democrats alike want the very best care for their aging loved ones and don’t Republicans and Democrats alike want to hold someone who would abuse their loved one accountable? That only makes sense, doesn’t it?

Well, not so fast. Enter the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Georgia Senate with the help of the nursing home lobby. The Georgia Legislature decides it’s not such a good idea to be able to hold abusers accountable through hidden camera videotape, taken in the resident’s own room (their “castle” so to speak) and file a bill to undo Nuckles.  This march to overturn Nuckles legislatively only two months later  started with HB 605.  This bill actually provided for criminal prosecution of anyone who set up a “nanny cam” in their loved one’s long-term care room. So imagine this:  your parent suffers from dementia and lives in an assisted living home. You suspect he is being abused both physically and emotionally by the staff, so you set up a hidden camera to see how they treat him while you are not present. Sure enough, your “nannycam” video shows a staff member slapping your parent. You want to bring criminal charges against the person for abusing your parent.  But HB 605 would have actually authorized criminal charges against you! That bill passed the House. So on to the Senate. It was placed on the calendar to be voted on on the last night of the General Assembly session. There, Senator Jen Jordan, and several other open-minded Senators, successfully amended the bill to eliminate the criminal prosecution provision in the scenario I laid out above. So the Senate passed that bill as amended. Now back to the House, during the final hours on the final day of the 2021 session.  But once the piece in the bill making it illegal to have hidden cameras was no longer in the bill, the bill lost its only reason to exist in the first place! No need to pass a bill that essentially says nothing. The folks behind this bill wanted a law against hidden cameras because they can be used to hold these homes and “caregivers” liable for harming their residents.  The House refuses to agree (by the narrowest of margins) to the Senate Substitute and so no law passes. The vote on this was 88 against and 77 in favor, so only an 11 vote margin. This law now is still out there to be picked up again by the Legislature when they begin their 2022 General Assembly Session.

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Recently, there have been a couple of criminal cases heard by the Georgia Supreme Court which have involved the trial judge’s inherent duty to be the final arbiter of fairness and justice in the courtroom. Sometime this is referred to as the “13th Juror,” because the trial judge sometimes must base her or his ultimate decision on the facts, testimony and documentary evidence presented at trial…things an appellate court would not be in a position to know.  A recent  discussion about the notion of the trial judge as 13th juror came in an appeal of a criminal case, State v. Hamilton, 832 S.E.2d 836  (Ga. Sup. Ct. September 3, 2019) in which the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral argument on the issue of whether the trial judge was authorized to  toss out three counts of assault when that the jury had convicted the defendant on, in the judge’s opinion, there was no way factually or legally for those three counts to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Court affirmed the trial court’s granting of a new trial.  “Having reviewed the entire record, and considering that the trial court was authorized, as the thirteenth juror, to discount Taylor’s and Hewatt’s testimony and to credit Hamilton’s story, and bearing in mind the standard of review set forth in OCGA § 5-5-50, we cannot say that the trial court’s conclusion was an abuse of its substantial discretion to grant Hamilton a new trial. See Hamilton, 299 Ga. at 670-671, 791 S.E.2d 51 (“An appellate court will not disturb the first grant of a new trial based on the general grounds unless the trial court abused its discretion in granting it and the law and the facts demand the verdict rendered.”).”

In another case recently argued before the Georgia Supreme Court, the Court told the Fulton County D.A., who was appealing a trial judge’s granting of a new trial, that the D.A. was “wasting the Court’s time” with such an appeal when the trial judge clearly has the power, right and, arguably, the duty, to grant a new trial. In that case, State v. Beard, NO. S19A0535 (Ga. Sup. Ct. October 31, 2019) quoted below, the Supreme Court’s opinion called the D.A.’s position “bizarre.”  “Contrary to the State’s bizarre argument, the jury’s verdict was not demanded by the “great physical laws of the universe.” (“An appellate court will not disturb the first grant of a new trial based on the general grounds unless the trial court abused its discretion in granting it and the law and the facts demand the verdict rendered.”).’

State v. Beard, S19A0535, 2019 WL 5656338, at 4 (Ga. Oct. 31, 2019). Since then, the Fulton County D.A.  dismissed its appeal and has vowed to take his argument to the Georgia Legislature in an attempt to get legislation passed that will eliminate this inherent duty and power of the trial judge.

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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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