Thursday, December 31, 2020

Federal court rules that parents of a third grader who committed suicide have a cause of action against school board and school principal

 In a case that has a number of interesting implications the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has affirmed the denial of a motion to dismiss in a case involving the suicide of a young boy due to bullying in school.

The case involves a third grader who committed suicide after allegedly being the victim of multiple bullying incidents over a couple of years.  According to the complaint, school officials either downplayed the severity of incidents or flat out refused to notify them. Also, despite surveillance footage of the most recent incident, the school's principal and vice principal misrepresented the nature of Taye’s injuries to the boys parents.  

The parents sued the school board, and the principal and vice principal in their personal capacities.  The defendants filed a motion to dismiss which was denied by the lower court, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The case is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, there is the question of whether state immunity should protect the defendants.  

Second, there is the question of proximate cause.  Most often courts find that suicide is an unforeseeable intervening cause that severs the chain of causation preventing plaintiffs from supporting proximate cause.  However, in this case the court found that the boy’s suicide was plainly foreseeable, especially considering the school’s guidelines on bullying include suicide as a risk.

As I am sure you remember the prevailing test for proximate cause is to ask whether the injury is a foreseeable consequence of the risk created by the negligent conduct.  If the school guidelines actually mention suicide as a risk, it will be very difficult for the defendants to say that it was an unforeseeable consequence.

The case is called Myers v. Cincinnati Board of Education and you can find a copy here.

For more information on the case you can read stories in Law & Crime, and Courthouse News.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Louisiana Supreme Court holds that plaintiffs do not need to show that they would have been able to collect the judgment in the "case within the case" to support malpractice claim

As you know, when a plaintiff sues a lawyer for malpractice in a litigation matter alleging that the defendant's representation caused the plaintiff to lose a claim, the plaintiff has to show that they would have won the case had it not been for the negligence of the defendant (the lawyer).  In torts terms, this is what the plaintiff has to argue and prove in order to establish the element of cause in fact.  Typically, however, courts hold that showing that the plaintiff would have won the original case (sometimes referred to as "the case within the case") is not enough because if the plaintiff would not have been able to recover anything in that case then the plaintiff can't establish an actual "loss" (the element of injury, in torts terms).

This means that typically, the plaintiff has to show not only that the plaintiff would have won the original case but for the negligence of the lawyer, but also that the plaintiff would have been able to collect the judgment (or at least part of it) as a result.

I am writing about this today because the Legal Profession blog reported a few days ago that the Louisiana Supreme Court recently decided a case that appears to be the first time a court has held that the plaintiff in a legal malpractice suit need not prove that the underlying lost judgment was collectible.

The case is called Ewing v. Westport Insurance and you can read it here

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Article on a way to argue cases to avoid qualified immunity issues

I just read an interesting article on an alternative way to argue cases seeking compensation against the government.  The article begins, 

Recent officer-involved shootings and public allegations of police misconduct have sparked legal discussion around accountability for law enforcement. Much of this discussion has come to focus on reforming qualified immunity, a complicated legal doctrine that can shield officers from liability in police misconduct lawsuits. However, plaintiffs may have another option for recourse that does not require grappling with qualified immunity . . .  


Monday, October 26, 2020

Torts and time travel

Ever wonder how the notion of time travel, and the concepts of proximate cause and the (no) duty to help relate to each other?  Here is the answer.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Cause of action for second hand Covid?

Back in 2016, there were a number of multi-million dollar verdicts in cases involving second hand exposure to asbestos that addressed the issue of whether an employer should be liable to the family members of an employee who brought home asbestos on their clothes.  See here, here, here and here.

The same issue is now back in the news thanks to a a couple of lawsuits filed by the spouses of people who contracted COVID-19 at work and then infected the plaintiffs' at home.

As I explained back then, in the asbestos cases, defendants typically would argue that liability should be limited to the injury to the person who was exposed directly.  Otherwise, any bystander who came in contact with this person could sue.   

It is not a frivolous argument, but courts in the asbestos cases were able to avoid it by limiting possible liability to the spouses of the workers who had been directly exposed to asbestos.

According to this story in the ABA Journal, two complaints arguing COVID related injuries have been filed already and more are expected. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Third Circuit issues opinion on whether prosecutor can be sued for conduct that resulted in wrongful conviction

Prosecutors are usually protected from possible civil liability because they can claim immunity.  However, immunity only applies to their conduct as litigators, not as investigators and defining the line between one and the other is a matter of much debate.  

There are many cases out there that discuss the issue and now the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has added a new one.  In a case Weimer v. County of Fayette, Pennsylvania, the court examines the claim of plaintiff Crystal Dawn Weimer who spent more than eleven years in prison, and then, after her convictions were vacated, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the County of Fayette, Pennsylvania; its former District Attorney, Nancy Vernon; the City of Connellsville; and several city and state police officers violated her rights under the U.S. Constitution and Pennsylvania law. 

The Court found that certain aspects of the prosecutors conduct were protected by immunity, but many others were not and remanded the case for further  proceedings.

You can read more about the case here, where you can also find an embedded copy of the opinion. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Recent law review article compares cost-benefit analysis and consumer expectation as the tests for determining design defects

In his article An Essay on the Quieting of Products Liability Law, 105 Cornell Law Review 101 (2020), Aaron D Twerski, one of the reporters of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, compares the difference between the risk-utility test applied in most states (which relies on having the plaintiff prove a "reasonable alternative design (RAD)") and the consumer expectations test followed in 17 jurisdictions to determine if a product has a design defect.   He concludes that, regardless of the approach used, the vast majority of cases include proof of a RAD.

Twerski theorizes that using proof of a RAD: 1) tells “a far more compelling story” than consumer expectations; 2) relates to fault which, in turn, leads to higher damage awards; 3) may be needed as a substitute if a judge denies a “consumer expectations” instruction, and 4) supports the claim that a product disappoints consumer expectations.  

For a summary of the article go here.

California appellate court finds that Amazon can be sued for products liability

In an important new decision, a California state appellate court recently held that Amazon is subject to product liability claims for defective goods sold on its website by third-party vendors. The case is called Bolger v. Amazon and you can read the opinion here.

The key to why this is important is that last phrase: "third party vendors."  Amazon did not manufacture or retail the product.  It merely provided a space for the retailer to "connect" with its buyers.  For that reason, Amazon argued that it was not part of the chain of distribution, as that concept is typically used in products liability cases.  But the court held that “Whatever term we use to describe Amazon’s role, be it ‘retailer,’ ‘distributor,’ or merely ‘facilitator,’ it was pivotal in bringing the product here to the consumer.”

This case follows the first successful product liability case against Amazon (in Pennsylvania) which was then appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded to Pennsylvania Supreme Court this past June.  That case is now pending.

For more on Bolger v. Amazon, go to Courthouse News Service, LawStreet, and the ABA Journal.

USA Today publishes op-ed on why blanket COVID-19 liability immunity is not a good idea.

USA Today publishes Op-Ed on why blanket COVID-19 liability immunity is not a good idea. You can read the article here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

More on the issue of whether businesses and other institutions should be immune for liability related to Covid-19

During the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion on whether it would be a good idea to grant immunity or to make it more difficult for plaintiffs to recover for injuries suffered when the defendant's negligence causes the plaintiff to catch the Covid-19 virus.  I have posted articles about it here, here, here and here.

NPR has the latest here.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Louisiana approves tort reform bill -- UPDATED

About two weeks ago, the Louisiana legislature passed a tort reform bill that the Governor said he would sign, (after he had vetoed an earlier version).

The bill, which appears to be explicitly designed to favor the auto insurance industry adopts a limitation of the collateral source rule, removes the ban on mentioning whether a plaintiff was wearing a seat belt, limits when an insurance company's name can be mentioned in court, and reduces the threshold for jury trials from $50,000 to $10,000.

The first two measures are common in tort reform bills, but the measure related to the jury is strange because usually juries are thought of being more generous that judges when calculating damages.  It is not clear, why a tort reform bill designed to favor defendants tries to expand the number of cases that will be tried by juries.

Like most, if not all, tort reform bills, this one fails to address the real issue.  The bill is supposed to help lower car insurance rates, but  instead of drafting a bill that regulates those rates, the legislature drafted a bill to help insurance companies make more money while doing nothing to lower the bills.  I suppose it remains to be seen what will happen but more than likely, the consumers will get screwed twice: the insurance rates will remain the same (or continue to rise), and the injured victims will get lower compensation....  unless they miscalculated the gamble on whether juries will be less generous.

The TortsProf blog has more on the story here.

UPDATE 8/2/20: The Governor signed the bill....  Story here.

Missouri holds that public defenders are immune for discretionary functions

In a case called Laughlin v. Perry, decided on June 30, 2020, the Missouri Supreme Court found that public defenders are immune for legal malpractice liability under the doctrine of discretionary functions.   You can read the opinion here.   The court summarized its conclusion as follows:
As public defenders, Perry and Flottman are entitled to official immunity because they are public employees whose official statutory duties concern the performance of discretionary acts. . . . One need not be a public official engaged in the essence of governing to be entitled to official immunity; such immunity extends to protect public employees from liability for alleged acts of negligence committed during the course of performing discretionary acts requiring exercise of a degree of reason and judgment. There is no dispute Perry and Flottman were acting pursuant to their constitutionally and statutorily mandated duties in representing Laughlin, and . . .  choosing which defenses to raise and which arguments to pursue on appeal on behalf of indigent clients constitutes a discretionary act entitled to official immunity.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Liability waivers in the age of the novel coronavirus

The ABA Journal has published a short article on issues related to the use of liability waivers in the age of the novel coronavirus.  You can read it here.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Wisconsin reaffirms that criminal defendants must show actual innocence to support malpractice claim against former defense counsel

Long time readers of this blog may remember that I have posted many stories commenting on the fact that many (probably most) jurisdictions require former criminal defendants to prove actual innocence as a requirement to support malpractice claims against their criminal defense counsel.  In recent years, a number of jurisdictions have rejected this notion, but it still seems to be the majority approach.

I am writing about this again today to report that earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin reaffirmed its position on this in a case called Skindzelewski v. Smith, which you can read here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

New article refutes arguments regarding "defensive medicine"

In a new article entitled The Paradoxes of Defensive Medicine, authors Michael Saks & Stephan Landsman review the evidence behind the belief that medical malpractice claims lead to defensive medicine and find little support for it.  This is not surprising for those who follow the literature and history of the "tort reform" movement, of course, but it is always good to see new articles on the issue.  The abstract of the article states, in part:
For decades, “defensive medicine” has been the leading argument driving reforms of medical malpractice laws throughout the United States. Defensive medicine is the presumed practice of administering excessive tests and treatments as a stratagem for reducing healthcare providers’ risk of malpractice liability, despite the absence of any expected benefit for the patient. The practice is widely believed to exist throughout American healthcare as a response to fears of malpractice litigation, and thought to be enormously wasteful of healthcare dollars. In consequence, it has become a justification for law reforms insulating the healthcare industry from tort liability. These claims are promoted by the healthcare industry even though they imply that most providers routinely engage in healthcare fraud and violate their own ethical rules. 
If you subscribe to SSRN, you can download the article here.

Podcast: legal implications related to autonomous vehicles

Long time readers of this blog may recall I have posted a few comments and links related to legal and ethical implications related to the use of autonomous vehicles.  See here, here, here, here and here.

Adding to that list, here is a recent podcast on the subject.

Court allows former NFL player lawsuit against helmet manufacturer to proceed

The First District Appellate Court of Illinois held in Nakamura v. BRG Sports, LLC that a former NFL player’s personal injury suit against his helmet manufacturer stemming from a severe concussion the player suffered was allowed to proceed. 

The decision was based only on an issue of whether the case was barred by the statute of limitations, so it will be very interesting to see how far the case goes since it is rare for sports participants to succeed in claims for injuries suffered while participating in the sport.  And given what we now know about concussions in sports like football and hockey a successful claim against a helmet manufacturer for an injury related to a concussion in a football game could open the doors to a floodgate of litigation.

Go here for more on this story.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Interview about whether immunity for Covid-19 related injuries is a good idea

About a week ago I posted a comment about articles by Professor Tim Lytton on whether granting immunity for injuries related to Covid-19 is a good idea.  See here.

Here is an interview with Professor Lytton expanding on the subject:

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Immunity backlash

A couple of days ago I posted a comment on why granting blanket immunity to businesses for injuries caused related to the Covid-19 virus is a bad idea. See here. Today the Pop Tort published a comment on the same topic with lots of links to articles and editorials arguing against immunity.  Go here to read the article.

Here are some of the editorials arguing that granting immunity is a bad idea:

The Boston Globe.

The New York Times.

Orlando Sun Sentinel.

San Francisco Chronicle.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Granting blanket immunity related to COVID-19 injuries is a bad idea

As  I am sure you know by now, some business have been cleared to open for business in many states and this has generated some debate as to whether those businesses should be granted immunity from possible liability if their employees or customers contract COVID-19 as a result.  The issue as to whether an employer is liable to an employee relates to the state's workers compensation system, so I will not comment on that.  I am more interested in the possibility of tort liability to customers.

On this issue, I agree with Professor Timothy D. Lytton, of Law (Georgia State University) who has authored two very good and short articles on the matter.  See here and here.

The rhetoric often used by organizations like the Chamber of Commerce to claim protection from "frivolous lawsuits" is not new and it has been used for a long time in attempts to limit, or even eliminate, the rights of injured parties to seek recovery for their injuries.  Like all so-called "tort reform" efforts, it is all part of an effort to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for injured parties to get recovery, or, if they can get recovery to limit the amount of recovery they can get.

Unfortunately, calls for such limits have already been heeded in New York, where the legislature enacted broad immunity for health care workers from medical malpractice claims during the COVID-19 crisis; and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened that he will not allow another coronavirus bailout bill to pass the Senate unless it includes sweeping immunity from liability for businesses.  (For a comment on the issues before the Senate go here.)

Granting such immunity from civil liability is bad public policy and legislators should reject the idea.

I just recently read a report that some businesses in Wisconsin are refusing service to people who wear masks. Yes, you read that right.  Some business have signs that say masks are not allowed; others have threatened to call the police claiming the masked individuals are there to commit a robbery.

This attitude, fueled by ignorance and the insane idea that not wearing a mask is somehow an expression of resistance to government intrusion, is, in fact, purposely and with knowledge creating the possibility that customers will be exposed to a deadly virus.  Why should a business owner who purposely endangers the health of its customers be granted immunity?

The most basic principle upon which all of tort law is based is the notion of deterrence.  As we all know, the prospect of possible liability for our conduct is an incentive for us to act in ways that do not create unreasonable risks to others.

Why would it make sense to abandon this universally accepted principle now, at a time when it is clear that the conduct of businesses open to the public can create such high level of risks?  Add to that the fact that some of the more simple precautions that can be taken are simple and inexpensive and Learned Hand would be calling from his grave to remind us why it is that tort law works for the betterment of society.

As Prof. Lytton explains,
The prospect of lawsuits against businesses that fail to take proper precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is likely to focus business owners’ attention on exercising reasonable care to avoid liability for negligence. The various considerations that define the legal standard of reasonable care—cost-benefit analysis, emerging industry customs, public safety regulations, and common sense—applied in specific contexts by the people who know them best may make the reopening process more reflective and rational than if businesses rely solely on the changing or conflicting policy statements released by public officials.
In addition, as has been proven time and time again before the days of the pandemic in the debate related to tort reform, the fear that liability exposure will lead to a flood of litigation is unwarranted. The civil liability system places considerable obstacles on the prospect of frivolous litigation.

In addition, defendants will always have available defenses that can result in a reduction in the level of possible liability, or in the complete dismissal of the claims, including comparative negligence, assumption of the risk and, in a small handful of states, contributory negligence.

In the end, business owners should be encouraged to take reasonable precautions to protect their customers and their workers.   Liability insurers can play a part by making sure their customers (the business owners) know the need to take those precautions.

In contrast, granting blanket immunity to businesses will encourage them to be less mindful of taking reasonable precautions to prevent COVID-19 transmission as they face growing financial pressure to reopen.  Customers, workers, everyone who comes in contact with them, the economic system, and society in general will suffer as a result.

In response to arguments like the ones I have expressed here, some say that immunity should be granted only in cases of negligence, not in cases of "gross negligence."  Ok, that sounds reasonable...  until you consider the relevant law.

You see, "gross negligence" is not a theory of liability in tort law.  It is just a way to describe a high degree of negligence.  And, whether the conduct of a defendant will be considered "gross" is usually a matter of fact for the jury to decide.

In addition, at one point U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer Neil Bradley told National Public Radio that the Chamber is not asking for blanket immunity, but "a safe harbor ... against frivolous lawsuits."  This is nonsense.  If that is all they want, they don't need to do anything.  Filing frivolous lawsuits will subject the plaintiff's lawyer to sanctions both under the rules of civil procedure and the rules of professional responsibility.

For more on the debate on whether to grant immunity to businesses for injuries related to Covid-19 go herehere and here.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Texas Supreme Court reiterates that former criminal defendants suing their lawyers for negligence must prove actual innocence, even after exoneration

Long time readers of this blog may remember that I have posted many stories commenting on the fact that many (probably most) jurisdictions require former criminal defendants to prove actual innocence as a requirement to support malpractice claims against their criminal defense counsel. (Go here and scroll down for stories on this.)  In recent years, a number of jurisdictions have rejected this notion, but it still seems to be the majority approach. 

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Texas reaffirmed its position on this in a case called Gray v. Skelton, which you can read here.

What makes this case interesting is that it clarifies that merely getting a conviction reversed, or being "exonerated" is not, by itself, enough to show actual innocence.  As the court explains, 
...exoneration . . . requires not only that the underlying criminal conviction be vacated but also proof of innocence. Innocence, however, can be established in more than one way. It can be established in the underlying criminal proceeding when the conviction is vacated on an actual-innocence finding. . . .Or, if the conviction is vacated on other grounds, formerly convicted individuals may prove their innocence in their malpractice suit against their criminal-defense attorneys. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Should a plaintiff always need an expert witness in a malpractice case?

Because the practice of law is considered to be a profession, and a profession is defined, among other things by the fact that it requires special knowledge, education and training, courts usually require that plaintiffs in malpractice actions provide an expert witness to support their arguments as to duty and breach to the jury.  But what if there is no jury?  What if the case is going to be a bench trial?  Should a plaintiff be required to have an expert to explain to the judge what the standard of care of the profession is?  Or can we assume that the judge - obviously a lawyer himself or herself - knows the law that applies to the practice of the profession they belong to?

In a recent case in Delaware (Cannon v. Poliquin), the court decide no help from an expert is needed.  Go here for a short summary.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Article on possible negligence claims and liability for mishandling of matters related to the coronavirus

On March 9, 2020, a couple quarantined on the Grand Princess cruise ship, sued Princess Cruise Lines Ltd. after docking in Oakland, CA. This case marks the first negligence lawsuit filed in direct response to the rising coronavirus epidemic gripping the world. 

There are sure more claims to follow.  Here is a short comment that previews some of the issues.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Trump campaign sues CNN

A few days ago, I reported that the Trump campaign had filed lawsuits against the NY Times and the Washington Post (here and here).  Today, the news is that they have followed up with a case against CNN.  TechDirt, which has referred to the claims as "laughable SLAPP suits" has the story here.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Trump campaign sues Washington Post

Last week I commented on the fact that the Trump campaign had filed a claim against the New York Times for defamation based on an Op-Ed piece.  See here.

Today I am here to tell you that they are at it again, having filed another (essentially the same) lawsuit this time against the Washington Post.

Marking what he calls a "less than noble moment," one commentator concludes that "the lawsuit is weak and unlikely to succeed."  See here.

Courthouse News Service, Jurist and Reuters have more on the story.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Article on the use of public nuisance claims as product liability cases

Back in 2010 I posted a link to an article on the tort of "public nuisance" that stated:
The National Law Journal has published a short article on the tort of "public nuisance" interestingly called "The tort that refuses to die." Here is the first paragraph: "The tort of public nuisance has seen its fortunes rise and fall dramatically during the past several years. It was once hailed by the legal literati as the next big tort. More than one court described it as a monster threatening to devour tort law because of its propensity for reaching conduct that other tort theories could not. . . . Recent events confirm that analogy to a degree. Public nuisance resembles nothing so much as a zombie — a mindless creature perhaps not particularly dangerous at first glance but incredibly difficult to kill once and for all." The authors then discuss how the recent reversal of a case against former lead paint manufacturers alleging that lead paint was a public nuisance in Rhode Island, suggested public nuisance would not be an effective legal theory. But there have been many other cases that have challenged this conclusion. The article can be found here ..."
 I am bringing this up again today because I just read a new short article discussing the use of public nuisance claims related to opioid products, which starts as follows:  "Manufacturers are used to defending strict product liability actions when plaintiffs claim that their products are defective. But in the opioid litigation, plaintiffs have filed something else: more than 2,500 public nuisance cases so far."

The article is titled Trending in Tort Law: Transforming Product Liability Claims into Public Nuisance Actions and you can read it here.

Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of Damage Caps

Last week, in a 3-2 opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court declared that the state's statute that caps noneconomic damages to $750,000 (in most cases) is not unconstitutional. 

Day on Torts has links to all the opinions here.

Trump campaign sues New York Times for defamation

Donald J Trump for President, Inc. (the official name of Trump's reelection campaign) filed suit against the New York Times for libel last Wednesday claiming defamation by the author of an Op-ed piece.  According to the complaint, the plaintiff's reputation was damaged by statements in the opinion article that there was an “overreaching deal between the Putin Oligarchy and the Trump campaign to help the campaign against Hilary Clinton.”

The reaction I have seen to the complaint has been consistent in that it is almost certainly guaranteed to fail, for the most part, because the article represents an opinion rather than an assertion of fact.  It has also been criticized as mere political hyperbole, not a complaint based on actual facts.

I agree that the case is likely to fail, although I think it can be argued that some of the statements in the piece can be read to assert facts rather than opinion.

What is more interesting to me is something else.  I wonder if the plaintiff's lawyers realize that if the case is not dismissed on a motion to dismiss and proceeds to discovery, the newspaper could serve Trump with a subpoena to appear in a deposition as part of discovery.  That would be fun to watch.

For comments on the complaint, check out the following:

Jonathan Turley ("The selection of an opinion piece makes this case especially difficult. . . .  In my view, the column is protected speech under the First Amendment.")

New York Personal Injury Law Blog ("First off, the complaint doesn’t start well as it’s supposed to be written with actual facts. This one is chock full of political hyperbole. . . . And most folks with functioning neurons — and I think most of our judges have them — know that when that kind of nonsense appears in a complaint it’s to mask the emptiness of the complaint.")

Courthouse News Service


The Daily Beast

Louisiana Court of Appeal Rejects Collectability Defense In Legal Malpractice Case

To support the element of cause in fact in a legal malpractice case, the plaintiff has to argue (and later prove) that he or she would have been successful in the underlying representation; or, in other words, that had it not been for the negligence of the lawyer, the plaintiff would have won (or obtained a better result) in the underlying case.

In response to such a claim, some jurisdictions, however, allow the defendant to defeat the plaintiff's argument by showing that the plaintiff would not have been able to collect on the underlying claim.  It is not clear whether this argument is a defense or a part of the plaintiff's prima facie case, but, if applicable, it can defeat the cause of action.

I am writing about this today because The Chicago Legal Malpractice Lawyer Blog has a comment on a recent case in Louisiana addressing the issue here.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

States Will Investigate Juul’s Marketing to Teens

A coalition of 39 states will look into the marketing and sales of vaping products by Juul Labs, including whether the company targeted youths and made misleading claims about nicotine content in its devices, officials said Tuesday.  Go here for more details.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Supreme Court holds plaintiffs can't sue in American courts to recover damages caused by cross border shooting

In one of several cases related to cross-border shootings, a 5-4 majority of the justices of the Supreme Court recently held against the right of the plaintiffs to sue in American courts.

In 2010, an on-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent who was at the border in El Paso, Texas, shot a boy at least twice. At the time, the boy, a Mexican national, was on the southern side of the border in Ciudad Juarez.  The boy's parents, who are Mexican nationals, sued for damages raising the issue of whether the parents have a legal standing to sue for a death that occurred outside of U.S. territory.

The parents argued that the federal agent's unreasonable use of excessive force violated the teenager's Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, which protect a person from unreasonable search and seizure and assure due process protections.

On Tuesday the Supreme Court announced its decision holding that the plaintiffs do not have the right to sue.  You can read the opinion here.

The SCOTUS blog has analysis of the opinion here.

You can find articles and court documents on the case here.

NPR has some analysis of the opinion here.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Embassy Bomb Victims Ask Supreme Court to Reinstate Punitive Damages

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Enacted of 1976 was enacted to protect foreign countries from being hauled into U.S. courts as defendants in actions for damages. However, the law was amended to allow plaintiffs to sue in cases of alleged terrorist activity. 

Last Monday, the attorney for the plaintiffs in case based on the allegation that Sudan supported a pair of embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, argued that the 2008 amendments to the statute also opened so-called state sponsors of terrorism up to the possibility of punitive damages.

Courthouse News has details here.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Germany's highest court declares law banning assisted suicide is unconstitutional

Germany’s highest court on Wednesday ruled that a 2015 law banning professional assisted suicide was unconstitutional, as it robbed terminally ill patients of “the right to a self-determined death.”

Courthouse News Service has more details here.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Should animals have the right to sue?

If an animal is mistreated and suffers an injury, should the law recognize the animal the right to sue?

Over at Verdict, Professor Sherry F. Colb (Cornell) summarizes the argument in support of the position that animals should be allowed to sue. You can read her position here (it is a very short article).

Missouri tort reform advocates move toward creating limits for punitive damages

Fresh off major wins in the 2019 session, Missouri tort reform advocates are shifting their focus to a new target: punitive damages. Following a string of large punitive damages awards from St. Louis City courts, legislators in both chambers introduced bills to sharply curb such claims.  For more information go here.

Recent news about the debate on qualified immunity: the Institute for Justice joins the fight

As you know, the doctrine of qualified immunity recognizes a defense for certain government officials from liability for injuries caused by their conduct.  It applies, for example, to prosecutors when they engage in investigative or administrative tasks, which is often limited to conduct before an indictment.  And, of course, it applies to many other government officials when engaging in their official capacities.

The doctrine exists to provide protection to those officials so they can perform their duties without fear that their decisions will be later questioned or second-guessed by courts, a position that is justified by the principle of separation of powers.

The doctrine, however, is not particularly old and it is not universally accepted.  The Cato Institute has referred to it as "an atextual, ahistorical doctrine invented by the Supreme Court in the 1960s" and as "a court‐​confected doctrine that provides rights‐​violating police and other government officials with an unlawful shield against accountability for their misconduct."

To do something about this, the Cato institute launched a strategic campaign to challenge the doctrine on March 1, 2018, the centerpiece of which has been a series of targeted amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to reverse its precedents and eliminate the doctrine outright. In addition, the Institute has organized a massive cross‐​ideological alliance of public interest groups opposed to qualified immunity.  This "alliance" includes the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Second Amendment Foundation.

I am writing about this today because yet another group has officially announced it will join the campaign.  About two weeks ago (on Feb 15), The Wall Street Journal published an op‐​ed by Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Robert McNamara, in which he describes IJ’s decision to join the battle against qualified immunity.  You can read it here if you have a subscription.

For more on the CATO Institute's position on this issue go here.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Alabama Supreme Court to decide whether suicide is a superseding cause

Long time readers of this blog know that I have posted many stories on issues related to claims of injuries related to suicide; and one of the most common issues is the question of whether someone's decision to commit suicide should be considered to be a superseding cause that eliminates the possible cause of action against a defendant whose alleged conduct resulted in the suicide.  I recently wrote about this here (discussing Arizona law) and here (Tennessee law).

The issue is now back in the news because a federal court in Alabama recently ruled that a tort case brought by the parents of a woman who killed herself against the man she said sexually assaulted her should be stayed pending the Alabama Supreme Court’s answer of whether suicide is an intervening cause that breaks the chain of causation stemming from a defendant’s intentional tort.  The court's decision is available here.

For all my posts related to suicide cases, go here and scroll down.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Judge Determines Johnson & Johnson Should Be Required to Pay $6.8M in Punitive Damage For Failing to Warn About Risperdal Risks

In a ruling issued last week, the judge presiding over a product liability action against Johnson & Johnson, reduced the award of punitive damages granted by the jury to $6.8 million, which is 10 times the amount of compensatory damages which is generally held to be the upper threshold for punitive damage awards that are constitutionally permitted.  The jury had originally awarded $8 billion in punitive damages.  Go here for more details on this story.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Should a public defender be protected by a state torts immunity act?

Just a few days ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that should be called Chaparro Nieves v. Office of the Public Defender (but is being mistakenly identified as Nieves v. Office of the Public Defender)** in which the Court has been asked to decide whether the Office of the Public Defender should be covered by the state's Torts Claims Act.

In this case, the plaintiff had been incarcerated for twelve years on serious charges, including first-degree aggravated sexual assault, when the charges against him were dismissed on his petition for post-conviction relief.  At some point thereafter, he filed a legal malpractice complaint against the public defender's office and an individual lawyer.  The trial judge denied defendants' motion for summary judgment as to the legal malpractice claim but the Appellate Division reversed, holding, among other things, that it is clear that the office of the public defender is a public entity and public defenders are public employees that come within the Tort Claims Act’s immunities and defenses.  You can read that opinion here.

The case is now before the Supreme Court where Professor George W. Conk, of the Louis Stein Center for Law & Ethics at Fordham University School of Law, argued on behalf of the New Jersey State Bar Association urging the Court to affirm the Appellate Division’s decision to apply the TCA to legal malpractice claims.  The Bar Association's statement concludes that "[c]ompetent criminal defense lawyers should not be deterred from public service by the prospect of ruinous awards and defense costs. Without the defense and indemnification assured by the Tort Claims Act the interests of both PDs and those with just claims against them are ill served."

You can read the full statement of the Bar Association here.

** I say the case "should be called" that because I have seen it referred to everywhere as just Nieves v.  Office of the Public Defender, which shows ignorance about the use of two last names in the Latin American tradition.  The plaintiff's name is Antonio Chaparro, not Antonio Nieves.  But that is just a pet peeve of mine and I will leave it at that.