Archive for the ‘court rulings’ Category

Family Feud – Where’s Your Sense of Humor?

May 12, 2010

Everyone has, at one time or another, been offended by a relative’s hurtful comments. In the case of Sunda Croonquist’s family, however, the offended relatives were not content to let the offending comments pass without notice.  As reported by ABA Journal and other outlets, the family members actually sued her. Turns out that Ms. Croonquist is a comedienne, who takes advantage of her mixed ethnicity – she is half-black and half-Swedish and is married to a Jewish man – to poke fun at her family. Apparently, the family was not laughing, especially when Ms. Croonquist publicly joked that some of them were racist. Several of Ms. Croonquist’s in-laws, including her mother-in-law, filed suit in New Jersey alleging, among other counts, defamation and infliction of emotional distress.

Ms. Croonquist, however, got the last laugh. After Ms. Croonquist’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss (to add to the familial complexity, Ms. Croonquist was represented by her husband’s law firm), the trial court ruled that Ms. Croonquist’s comments, while perhaps hurtful, were protected by the First Amendment because they were merely her personal opinions. In order to prove a case of defamation, one has to prove that the speaker made a false statement. An opinion, being a subjective belief of the speaker, cannot be considered true or false, so it cannot support a claim for defamation. So Ms. Croonquist is free to continue insulting her relatives, and comedians around the country can continue making mother-in-law jokes.

No word yet on when the next family reunion is going to be held.

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Supreme Court closes its front doors to the public

May 8, 2010

Earlier this week, news broke from various media sources around the country, including The Washington Post, that the front doors of the United States Supreme Court would no longer be open to the public.  The Court, citing security concerns, stated that effective immediately, visitors will enter the historic building on the plaza level, which includes security checkpoints.

This decision,  like so many other decisions from the Court, includes dissenting opinions from more than one Justice.  A Washington Post article states:

The changes have been debated for years and came with a dissent from two justices who expressed  concern about altering the symbolic experience of visiting the 75-year-old building, designed by architect Cass Gilbert.

“The significance of the court’s front entrance extends beyond its design and function,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in a statement joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Writers and artists regularly use the steps to represent the ideal that anyone in this country may obtain meaningful justice through application to this Court. And the steps appear in countless photographs commemorating famous arguments or other moments of historical importance.

“In short, time has proven the success of Gilbert’s vision: To many members of the public, this court’s main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the court itself.”

Justice Breyer noted that he “knows of no other supreme court in the world that has closed its main entrance.”

I leave you with this to ponder….

Is it troubling to you that we are now barred from walking through the majestic doors of the highest court of this great country, where the above inscription reads “Equal Justice Under Law”?

Parental Pre-Injury Releases: A Victory for the Children of Florida!

April 29, 2010

Two years ago, when I was practicing law in Florida, the Florida Supreme Court decided the case of Kirton v. Fields.  As a consumer justice attorney, I was proud to be able to stand behind such a law and give it my support.  In Kirton, the Court held that public policy concerns negated the enforcement of pre-injury releases executed by parents on behalf of their minor children regarding participation in commercial activities.  Last week, the Florida House unanimously passed a Bill that supports the Florida High Court’s decision and limits the type of activities that may be included in such a release.  Senate Bill 2440 is the Bill that will help protect Florida’s children in this regard.

The Bill language relates to releasing parties of liability as it relates to “inherent risks” ONLY.  This risk is defined as:
[T]he dangers or conditions that are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of the activity; the failure of the activity provider to warn of the inherent risks; and the risk that the minor child or another participant may act negligently or intentionally and contribute to the injury of the minor child.
Yesterday, the governor of Florida, Governor Crist, signed this pro-consumer piece of legislation into law.  KUDOS to the Florida Justice Association for their hard work and effort in helping to make sure this Bill got to the governor’s desk.

Guidant’s Guilty Plea for Failure to Notify FDA of Defective Defibrillators Takes New Twist – Will Plea Agreement be Accepted by the Court?

April 24, 2010

Just over two weeks ago, the newswires were advising the public that Guidant LLC, a unit of Boston Scientific Corp, had been implicated in short circuiting failures of three models of their implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICD’s). At issue in the charges brought last November by the Department of Justice were 20,146 devices identified as the Ventak Prizm 2 and Contak Renewal 1 and 2 defibrillators. It was also reported that Guidant pleaded guilty to the criminal charges. Guidant’s defibrillators became available to the public in 2005.

Dr. Ananya Mandal, the author of one of the lead articles relating to the case at that time, provided the following information about the devices:

The implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is a life saving battery operated device much like a pacemaker that is placed near the heart in a minor surgical procedure. This device detects abnormal heart rates and rhythms in the patient and delivers an electric shock to make the heart beat normally again. These save millions of people in the US and all over the world from sudden death.

As a result of the proposed plea agreement, Guidant has agreed to pay a combined criminal penalty of more than $296 million, which, according to a report in Reuters, is “the largest criminal penalty against a medical device company.”  In essence, the charges stemmed from Guidant’s withholding information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regarding catastrophic failures in some of the devices. According to this same Reuters report, “Boston Scientific reached a settlement with defibrillator patients in 2007 covering the 2005 product issues and additional issues the following year. It agreed to pay up to $240 million to cover up to 8,550 claims, including ones collected in a multi-district litigation case.”

This plea agreement is currently being considered by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank, who announced at a hearing on April 5, 2010, that he would make his decision as to whether or not to approve the plea agreement within three weeks of that last hearing.  If he stays within the self-imposed time limit, his decision should be announced this coming week.

Photo of Ventak Prizm 2 by mindfully.org

Last week, however, a new twist to the case was reported by several news sources, including one posted by Reuters this past Thursday, April 22, 2010 – “two cardiologists who cared for a 21-year-old college student who died when his implantable defibrillator made by Guidant failed to deliver a life-saving shock are urging a federal judge to reject a plea agreement with the company.” These physicians are identified as Dr. Robert Hauser and Dr. Barry Maron.

The doctors’ comments in a letter to Judge Frank bear quoting:

“We are extremely dismayed by the U.S. Attorney General’s decision to enter into a plea agreement with Guidant LLC, rather than prosecute the company and the individuals responsible for this egregious act.

“On behalf of the patients who died or suffered pain and mental anguish as the direct result of Guidant’s illegal and unethical behavior, we urge you not to accept the plea agreement.

“To allow a repeat offender, like Guidant, to escape with a fine (that is entirely borne by the shareholders of Boston Scientific) does not hold the guilty parties fully accountable and inevitably undermines patient safety.”

Whether the judge heeds the words of these physicians or not remains to be seen. What is absolutely laudatory is the fact that these physicians have expressed their outrage as to this manufacturer’s conduct.  Are they not correct – the money paid both through civil settlements and, if approved, by virtue of the criminal charges will be “entirely borne” by the company’s shareholders? Where is the personal accountability for this outrageous conduct?  Our system of justice is one not only of compensation to the victims of such heinous conduct but also should serve to deter other individuals from taking the same life-threatening conduct in the future.  There is nothing like a good long jail sentence for those involved in this horrible scheme to deter other corporate executives from going down the same path of profit at all costs – even to human life.

Time nearly up on malpractice suit against missing doctor -Texas style

March 30, 2010

In an article recently published online through the Austin-American Statesman website, one of the many harsh realities of our legal system is exposed.  The significance of procedural deadlines, and what may ultimately happen if such a deadline is not met (despite best efforts) is highlighted in this tragic story.  The following is a very brief summary, as taken from the article:

Debbie Stockton didn’t know her obstetrician was a drug addict when her son William was born in 1989 with extensive nerve damage to his left arm.

But when the boy grew into a teenager and his atrophied arm didn’t improve, Stockton sought legal advice and learned that Dr. Howard Offenbach had checked himself into a drug treatment center within a week of William’s birth to kick a years-long Valium and hydrocodone habit.

So in 2007, Stockton sued for an unspecified amount, claiming that Offenbach caused William’s injury by failing to order emergency surgery when the boy’s shoulder became pinned beneath his mother’s pubic bone during a difficult delivery.    

The Stocktons, however, ran into a legal roadblock that derailed their lawsuit before it went to trial.

Texas malpractice law gave them 120 days after filing suit to serve Offenbach with their medical expert’s report and résumé, but Offenbach couldn’t be found. After losing his medical license in 2000 for drug abuse, Offenbach had moved from his Dallas house, been evicted from two apartments and disappeared from public records.

Even Offenbach’s lawyers — acting on behalf of the former doctor’s insurance company — have been unable to locate their client and say that Offenbach is “not findable.” Still, they asked the trial court to throw out the Stocktons’ lawsuit for blowing the 120-day deadline.

The case has traveled its way up through the Texas court system over the past several years, before ending up at oral argument last week before the Texas Supreme Court.  The article also details the extent to which the Stocktons’ lawyer went to attempt to serve Dr. Offenbach with the lawsuit.

Sadly, Debbie Stockton passed away last fall from cancer.  The injured victim, William Stockton, is fighting for his cause, as the case has been continued under his name.  The Court now has the case under review.  We do not know what the Court will hold.  The article leaves us with this:

Justice Dale Wainwright mused aloud about the court’s dilemma.

The language of the law clearly directs judges to dismiss any lawsuit that exceeds the 120-day deadline, he noted: “On one hand, we don’t want defendants dodging or hiding to let the 120 days lapse. On the other hand, we don’t want claimants to be lax in any way when the Legislature used this kind of strict rule.”

Georgia Supreme Court Overturns Malpractice Cap

March 22, 2010

In a unanimous decision, the Georgia Supreme Court has just declared non-economic damages caps unconstitutional in medical malpractice cases.  CBSAtlanta.com reports the following:  

Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a controversial law capping the amount of money an injured patient could recover from a negligent medical provider is unconstitutional. The 7-0 decision was written by Justice Hunstein. Senate Bill 3, enacted in 2005, stated that a victim of medical malpractice could be limited in the amount of damages they can receive from a jury verdict, even if the harm caused was catastrophic in nature.

Nestlehutt v. Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery, P.C, from Fulton County State Court, highlighted how caps on damages fundamentally restrict the constitutional rights of those who have been harmed by a healthcare provider. The malpractice case was brought by plaintiff Betty Nestlehutt, who is represented by attorneys Adam Malone and Frank Ilardi.

This case is one of horrific physical injuries and pain and suffering.  The tragic story of the victim, Betty Nestelhutt, is recounted in the article:

Betty Nestlehutt and her husband of more than 50 years worked together in their real estate business. Betty handled most of the client interaction for the firm, and she eventually noticed that many potential customers were going to younger agents. Concerned with the bags under her eyes and lines around her mouth, Betty Nestlehutt eventually decided to schedule a consultation with Dr. Harvey P. Cole of Atlanta Oculoplastic Surgery, P.C. Even though Betty was 71 at the time, Dr. Cole recommended a full facelift as well as a battery of other surgical procedures.

The combination of procedures was risky for someone of Betty’s age. The surgery severely impacted the blood flow to her face. After several weeks, the skin on Betty Nestlehutt’s face began to die and fall off.

“Betty Nestlehutt was the face of her real estate business,” Malone said. “Her face was so horrifically disfigured that she was no longer able to even leave her house. The pain she experienced over a long period of time is difficult to comprehend. Photographs of her disfigurement are too gruesome for public distribution. The damage is permanent.”

The case outcome has also just been announced on the website for GeorgiaWatch, a consumer advocacy organization:

The case was heard in Fulton State Court before a jury of 12 citizens. After hearing the testimony and seeing the evidence, they returned a verdict in favor of the Nestlehutts. The jury granted recovery for past and future medical expenses and concluded that the severe impact to Betty Nestlehutt’s quality of life warranted $900,000 in “non-economic” damages. However, this was more than the $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages in the 2005 law, which overrides the judgment of a jury that has been presented with the facts.

Judge Diane Bessen ruled that the statute capping a jury’s verdict was unconstitutional. The decision was appealed by the defendants to the Georgia Supreme Court. After hearing arguments in the fall of 2009, the Supreme Court agreed with Judge Bessen and ruled the statute unconstitutional.

We applaud Mr. Malone and Mr. Ilardi’s efforts in this case as well as the Court’s ruling.

UPDATE: In response to this ruling, Dr. J. James Rohack, AMA President, posted his reaction on the AMA’s website.

“The action puts Georgia’s patients at risk for the severe access problems suffered prior to 2005 when the state’s unrestrained legal system pushed premiums to record highs and forced physicians to limit services, retire early, or move to other states where liability premiums were more stable.”

“The AMA continues to vigorously support strong, proven medical liability reforms at the state and federal levels to keep physicians caring for patients, while still allowing patients their day in court.”

Who is he kidding?  By putting unreasonable ‘caps’ on damages and creating standards such as “gross negligence” for cases against emergency room healthcare providers, this goes to “allowing patients their day in court”?  I’m sure the AMA is driven by altruistic motives to make such a ridiculous statement.

Ga. Supreme Court Upholds Key Medical Malpractice Law Requiring Proof of Gross Negligence for Emergency Room Physicians

March 17, 2010

Another legal ruling in the ongoing debate over tort reform – this one from the State of Georgia. MSNBC is reporting (citing Associated Press) that the Georgia Supreme Court, in a divided 4-3 opinion, has upheld a 2005 state law that requires patients to prove “gross negligence,” rather than ordinary negligence, in order to prevail in a medical malpractice case against emergency room physicians.

A Georgia woman, who suffered a stroke after receiving allegedly negligent treatment at an emergency room, challenged the constitutionality of the 2005 law, claiming that it created an insurmountable hurdle at trial.  The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed.

The court’s majority opinion, penned by Justice George Carley, found that it was “entirely logical” for lawmakers to approve the legislation in hopes of stemming the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance.

Usually, the focus of tort reform legislation has been in either instituting a cap on damages, or restricting attorneys’ fees, or both. In 2005, however, the Georgia legislature implemented an additional mechanism that was designed not to limit the amount of recovery in successful lawsuits but was instead specifically designed to make it more difficult for injured patients to prove their case at trial.

Prior to the law enacted in 2005, in order for a patient to prevail in a medical malpractice action, the patient had to be able to prove that the defendant doctor was negligent – i.e. violated the standard of care, which has usually been held to mean that the doctor failed to do what a reasonably competent doctor would have done in the same or similar circumstances. Under the new law in 2005, however, patients were required to prove that the defendant doctor (at least in the emergency room setting) committed “gross negligence,” which is a much higher level of negligence, generally defined as near-total disregard for the rights of others, reckless disregard, or willful or wanton indifference to the consequences of one’s actions.

Clearly, forcing patients to meet this higher burden will make it more difficult for injured patients to sue emergency room physicians, which was the very intent of the Georgia legislature. The ruling also means that negligent doctors who would have been found liable under traditional law will now get off scot-free, leaving injured patients with no recovery.

The same court is expected to rule later this month on the constitutionality of Georgia’s cap of $350,000 on damages for pain and suffering.

No more ‘tweeting’ in Baltimore Circuit Court – The Baltimore Sun

February 10, 2010

I just read this on my TweetDeck and couldn’t get to my keyboard fast enough.  Twitter crackdown in Baltimore Circuit Court -Baltimoresun.com.  Social networking is banned from one of our local courthouses.  What gave rise to this ‘order’?  Answer:  former Mayor Dixon’s recent criminal trial and some juror conduct discovered in its aftermath.

Rather than recount the words of the Sun’s writer, let me quote some well put thoughts on this new edict:

  • The starting point for any conversation about what restrictions judges may place on courtroom behavior must be that our criminal justice system is predicated on the notion of openness.
  • [T]his order extends the scope of the restrictions from the courtroom to the entire courthouse, and at that point, any justification for them ends. It is impossible to imagine a situation in which posting information on Twitter from the hallway outside of a courtroom would be in the least bit disruptive, or that forcing someone to walk outside the courthouse before tweeting would do anything to enhance security.
  • The absurdity of the court’s order is underscored by the impossibility of enforcing it. Rather than tweeting from the hallway, a court observer could simply call someone outside and have him or her post the same information on a social networking site. The order doesn’t stop someone from posting information directly onto a blog, or a television or radio reporter from calling the station and providing updates from the hallway live on the air.

While President Obama and his administration are working hard for transparency and openness in the government, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City has taken a step backward in the twenty-first century.  Is making  ‘tweeting’ from the hallway in the courthouse more difficult really going to put a damper on the ever-growing function of social networking?  No – it may be a bit more cumbersome, but tweets, blogs and postings will continue to fill the internet airwaves.