Happy July 2nd! (Let us celebrate Independence)

Declaration_of_Independence--John-Trumbull-780564-764699Each year I use July 2nd as a jury celebration day, as this is the day that the Continental Congress voted to liberate the Colonies from the Crown.

John Adams thought that this was the day that would be “solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

I see no compelling reason to re-invent the wheel and re-write prior posts about why the day is so important to the jury system. So here they are:

July 2nd: A Day to Declare Independence (And Celebrate Juries)

United States of America Declares Its Independence (Jury Trials Are One Reason)

Have a safe holiday one and all, but do take a few moments to read one of the greatest legal documents ever written, which sets forth the reasons our founders felt compelled to revolt against King George…

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Donald Trump Files Frivolous $500M Defamation Claim

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

I’ll try to do this post without the usual comments about Donald Trump’s desperate need for attention over the years, or his combover, bluster, birther issues, and paying people to attend his presidential announcement.

Or the shear delight of late night comics. Or comments about every village having its idiot, and since NYC is the biggest village…..

Crap. Couldn’t do it.

Anyway, as many folks know, Trump made a number of exceptionally nasty and derogatory comments about Mexicans during that announcement, calling them as a group rapists and drug dealers:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

If you don’t think that is bad, try substituting Jews, blacks, gays, etc.

Univision, a Spanish language station that carries Trump’s Miss USA and Miss Universe contests, dumped Trump over the comments. Then NBC fired him from a TV show called Celebrity Apprentice.

Trump sued Univision yesterday for breach of contact and defamation.  I haven’t see the contract, and have no opinion on it, but I do have an opinion on the defamation.

Having myself been the subject of two frivolous defamation suits for my comments on this blog, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to regular readers that I have opinions on the subject. (See Rakofsky and Katz)

As best I can glean from this, the defamation claim surrounds the publication of a picture of Trump next to alleged mass murderer Dylann Roof. The publication took place on Instagram by Univision’s President, Alberto Ciurana, and has since been taken down. You’ll find the reference to it in paragraph 29 of the Complaint.Trump Defamation Case

Roof and TrumpIs the photo nasty? You betcha. I publish it here so that you know what this part of the suit is about. And so you also understand why it represents constitutionally protected free speech under the First Amendment.

Because, ugly as the picture is, it does not represent fact, but opinion. And the First Amendment clearly protects opinion. You can’t bring a lawsuit (successfully) for hurt feelings because people were mean to you on the Internet.

Since Trump brings this case in Manhattan, New York’s First Department, the court will likely quote this type of language, that was used in the dismissal of the Katz case against me:

“‘[s]ince falsity is a sine qua non of a libel claim and since only assertions of fact are capable of being proven false…a libel action cannot be maintained unless it is premised on published assertions of fact,’ rather than on assertions of opinion.” Sandals Resort Intl. Ltd. v. Google, Inc., 86 A.D.3d 32, 38 (1st Dept 2011) (quoting Brian v. Richardson, 87

In 1986 New York’s Court of Appeals said in Steinhilber v. Alphonse that expressions of opinion, as opposed to assertions of fact, are privileged and, no matter how offensive, cannot be the subject of an action for defamation. Non-actionable opinion includes “rhetorical hyperbole, vigorous epithets, and lusty and imaginative expression,” as well as “loose, figurative, hyperbolic language.

Trump doesn’t even come close to asserting a false fact. That cause of action is destined to be dismissed.

By filing a $500M defamation claim (paragraph 61), Trump knows he will get headlines. And he is. Despite the fact that the suit is empty.

Trump, of course, freely admits that he is outrageous on purpose to garner press. In his book The Art of the Deal, he writes:

One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better. It’s in the nature of the job, and I understand that. The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you. I’ve always done things a little differently.

But that doesn’t mean a judge should tolerate the abuse of the courts for that purpose. The judicial culture of New York judges is to avoid sanctions for clearly frivolous claims, but that needs to change. We have provisions for sanctions for both a frivolous suit and for frivolous conduct. They should be used.

This is not the first time Trump will lose a defamation case. Trump was dumped back in 2011 when book author Timothy O’Brien questioned his claims of wealth, writing that Trump was worth $150M-$250M, and not the $7 billion he boasted about. Trump had testified, before he was dumped, that his net worth depends in part on his “own feelings.”

Two more quick points: New York prohibits making an ad damnum clause in a personal injury case, and defamation falls into that category. It was outlawed in 2003. Yet Trump does it anyway, for $500M.

I’ve written about this before. There are only two reasons to put the monetary claim in the complaint: The lawyer was ignorant or there was a deliberate attempt to garner headlines.

The usual response by judges is simply to strike the demand, but by then the damage has been done and the headlines written.

A far better avenue for the court is levy sanctions for having done it. And given Trump’s nature as a vexatious litigant, and his admitted conduct of being outrageous to get press, sanctions would be wholly appropriate.

This isn’t just my opinion, but that of the late guru on New York Practice, David Siegel. In his treatise on New York practice he wrote:

“Some cases have held that a violation of the CPLR 3017(c) pleading restriction can be cured with a mere amendment striking the reference to the demand, but the imposition of a money sanction in an appropriate sum might better implement this aspect of CPLR 301(c).”

Finally, the Legislature should finish its work with regard to the anti-SLAPP legislation that has passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate. Trump is clearly trying to stifle the public discussion of his outrageous conduct, and this should not be permitted.

 

NYPD Sending Screeching Amber Alerts By Text?

It came into my phone moments ago, a siren warning screeching in my pocket about an Amber Alert. It sounded like the Emergency Broadcast System that we were trained, as kids, would come in the event of some type of cataclysm. It sounded like this.

And my questions are, how many did this go out to?

How many were driving in their cars, and took there eyes off the road to see what the emergency was?

Has the NYPD never heard of distracted driving?

Did the NYPD just cause accidents because of this? Were any injured? Or killed?

I understand the need to catch bad guys who may have kidnapped kids. But there is a difference between using a system and abusing it.

The NYPD may well have caused more harm than good with this message. Somebody forgot to measure the pros and cons have sending out mass emergency texts.

According to the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, 800,000 kids are reported missing each year. Can you imagine how many Ambler Alerts that would result in? Broadcasting to radio stations and roadside signs are one thing, but sending all those screeching texts to cell phones?

Whoever made the decision to distract so many drivers by having them take their eyes off the road must have rocks in the head.

This is what the web version looks like for what appeared on my phone:

AmberAlert-NYPD

 

Yo Scalia! Play Nice!

Justice Antonin Scalia

It seems that my Brooklyn-born guest blogger today, Jay Breakstone, was none too pleased with the temperament of Queens-raised Antonin Scalia yesterday while dissenting in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same sex marriage in all states.

And Breakstone, an appellate wordsmith, has a few words to Justice Scalia, on minding his manners. From one city kid to another. And so, without further ado, a few comments on Nasty Nino…

———By Jay Breakstone———–

Comments about Justice Scalia’s dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, the gay marriage decision from the Supreme Court, have been grossly unfair. As one wag once said, even Hitler was a hell of a dancer. If we look hard enough, we can overlook the worst in anybody, even Justice Scalia.

Sure, Justice Scalia may have been unhappy with the rigors of real-live legal practice at Jones, Day before moving on to academia and “public service,” but that’s okay, isn’t it?  You don’t really expect Harvard magnas and editors of its law review to work for a living like the rest of us, do you?

Sure, he may be acerbic in his writing, but he’s really funny. Just before describing the majority opinion in Obergefell as the product of “hubris” amounting to a “judicial putsch,” Justice Scalia identified the actors in that putsch—his fellow justices— as follows:

“[T]his Court . . . Consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard of Yale Law School.  Four the nine are natives of New York City.  Eight of them grew up in east– and west-coast States. No one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination.”

See how funny that is?  Well, how about that this is being written by the first Italian-American justice?

What confuses me is that Italian-Americans only comprise only 5.6% of the American population. So under Justice Scalia’s theory, how are they entitled to two justices (Scalia and Alito) of their own?

How about if we join them with the Jews? After all, there are Italian Jews, such as Fiorello LaGuardia (descended from a great rabbi on his mother’s side.) That would give Justice Scalia another 1.4%, or 7% in total.

Still, in ScaliaMath, not a significant enough cultural/ethnic/religious group to warrant the appointment of two whole justices (fractional justices being ignored.)

Maybe Justice Scalia could he be the “short people’s justice?” After all, he is only 5’ 7” tall and is probably the shortest male on the Court. However, RBG is fully notorious at barely 5 feet tall.

If the anti-Scalia group is still less than comfortable with the absence of any Protestants on the present bench (Scalia is a Roman Catholic), then they can always be reminded that for its first 180 years, almost all the justices were Protestants – – and male at that.

No, Nino, we can’t choose our justices based on who they are, where they come from, or who they pray to. But we can surely choose them based on their courtesy to their colleagues and the ability to see beyond themselves.

We don’t think it’s particularly clever to refer to colleagues who don’t think the way you do as members of a “putsch,” knowing (and you know everything) that the term refers to the attempt by Hitler and his Nazi Party to seize control of Bavaria in 1923, especially when two of your colleagues are part of that over-represented group on the Court, the Jews.  At best, its self-centered and narrow beyond excuse.

In the final analysis, perhaps you’re just not a nice person.  Or maybe you’re this way only when you lose, twice (Obamacare on Thursday), in the same week. But even Evangelicals would only call that being a “sore-loser.”

Nasty, even in what one believes is a last-ditch defense of all that is good about American democracy, ill-becomes a Justice of the Supreme Court.

 

South Carolina: So Long and Farewell (Updated)

The Confederate flag flies at the South Carolina statehouse in the wake of mass murder by a racist. (photo by Sean Rayford for Getty Images, via the New York Times)

The Confederate flag flies at the South Carolina State House in the wake of mass murder by a racist. (photo by Sean Rayford for Getty Images, via the New York Times)

(I’m hijacking my law blog today to publish this letter I’m sending to Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and others as listed below.)

Dear Governor Haley:

I’ve come down to South Carolina the past 13 years with a group of old college friends for vacation. Hilton Head is nice.

But so long and farewell. We are taking our vacation dollars elsewhere.

The sight of the Confederate battle flag flying full staff at your State House in the wake of a racially based church massacre is just too much. That a symbol of slavery should still be flying at a state capitol, 150 years after the Civil War ended, is not just bizarre, but contemptible and vile.

A photo from a white supremacist website showing Dylann Storm Roof, the suspect in the Charleston, S.C., church shooting. (via New York Times)

A photo from a white supremacist website showing Dylann Storm Roof, the suspect in the Charleston, S.C., church shooting. (via New York Times)

I know that there are some who try to rationalize the use of the flag as some type of cultural antebellum throw-back to a simpler time. But that simpler time was abhorrent for those enslaved.

The empty rhetoric of cultural symbolism from flag supporters is highlighted by the fact that South Carolina had the highest percentage of it’s population in slavery, at a stunning 57%. I would think you might actually care about what their descendants see their government glorifying. There is no justification for waving the flag of slavery in their faces.

Your state will get our money no longer. There are plenty of other nice places we can go to the beach and play a little golf. We need not do it under the fluttering colors of racism.

I know that you think it’s perfectly OK to keep that flag flying, as long as CEOs don’t complain. I know this because you said so in a debate last year:

“What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” Haley said. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

So it isn’t about principle for you, it’s about money.

I saw that the victims’ families made a number of very forgiving comments about the killer:

“You took something very precious away from me,”  a family representative for Ethel Lance, the 70-year-old grandmother who died in Wednesday’s massacre, told Roof on behalf of Lance’s loved ones. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”

I can not even imagine that I would be so charitable. You are very lucky to have such people in your state. It’s a shame you don’t appreciate them.

confederate-flagSince it’s about money for you and not principle, I will send a copy of this letter to the Marriott, where we stay. I want them to know that they have lost our business because of you.

I will likewise send copies to the owners of many of the restaurants that we have enjoyed over our 13 years, letting them know why we will not return. And I will make it available on the web, for the few people that might find it on my blog.

All is not lost for you, of course, as there are likely a number of skinhead, neo-Nazi and white power hate groups that revel in what you are doing. Perhaps they will bring their business to Hilton Head instead, and stay in your fine hotels, eat in your nice restaurants and tee off on your many golf courses.  I’m sure the owners will welcome them with open arms.

–Eric Turkewitz and friends

Update, 6/23/15 — My post went up around 7 am, and at 4 pm Gov. Haley asked the Legislature to take down the flag.  But it still flies, as ⅔ of each legislative house must approve its removal.

So the burden is clearly now at the feet of South Carolina’s legislative branch.  Will the state continue to fly the flag of slavery, segregation and subjugation or not?

I have no intention of bringing my tourist dollars back to South Carolina while it flies.

The First Rule of Lawyering

Voldemort

Since Atilla the Hun lived before the age of photography, I went for the next best thing….

Over at Above the Law, Mark Herrmann was commenting yesterday on ways for associates to screw up. Hermann is a terrific writer, and author of the highly regarded Curmudgeons Guide to Practicing Law that I reviewed in 2008, as well as Inside Straight, a collection of his writings from Above the Law.

But he said one thing in yesterday’s piece that really jumped out at me, as he discussed an article from another site on that subject. And that had to do with a lawyer’s personal demeanor, which I’ve bolded for you since block quotes generally suck:

The folks in the Law360 article did okay. Their six ways for associates to disappoint were: Don’t (1) be visible enough, (2) take ownership of your work, (3) be thorough, (4) be pleasant, (5) know how to talk on the phone, and (6) sow the seeds of business development.

I’m deeming numbers 1 (visibility) and 6 (developing business) to be duplicative and 5 (talking on the phone) to be penny-ante. And, personally, I don’t much care about number 4 (being nice). Maybe I’m out of the mainstream here, but I’m the person who said: “Attila the Hun? Guy’s got a nasty mean streak, but at least he can do his job. Hire him.” I’ll accept an awful lot of personality quirks in exchange for the chance to work with someone who’s smarter than I am and writes and speaks better than I do.

Ugh. This violates my First Rule of Lawyering: Don’t be Attila the Hun.

But why?, I hear some of you cry!  We’re supposed to be tough as nails in litigation and doing everything possible (within the law) to win!

And here’s the issue: During the course of the litigation there will be a time when one side needs an extra day or week for something. And you don’t know if that someone will be your client or someone else.

If your client is scheduled for a court-ordered deposition on October 10, for example, and it happens to be the week she is taking her on a short vacation, or the day of her daughter’s 2nd grade play, you want to be able to pick up the phone and request common courtesies for a new day. So long as there is no genuine strategic issue, that serves the client well.

But if you have been acting like Attila the Hun and thought you were being a good lawyering by denying even small courtesies to the other side? Well, guess what?

The other lawyer might tell you to go jump in the lake when the shoe is on the other foot. What goes around comes around. Karma. And all that.

That courtesy might not be granted. To the detriment of your client. Because you thought you could act like Attila the Hun on something in a Take-No-Prisnors litigation strategy.

Keeping a good, working professional relationship with the adversary’s counsel, while still doing what you are retained to do, is often a tough thing. Tempers may flair if you aren’t careful in even the most routine deposition.

This doesn’t mean that the lawyer stops short of arguing his heart out just to be nice, only that there is an art to disagreeing without being disagreeable.

All of this comes home to roost, often, if one side or the other wishes to talk settlement. Sitting down for a cup of coffee with Attila to discuss why a settlement should be more/less may be beneficial to the client, but difficult if someone was acting like a jerk. Sitting down with  a human is much easier.

And that is what serves the client.

A story I’ve told before and I’ll tell again: When I was in law school I watched my father try a medical malpractice case in Brooklyn. He and the other lawyer would go head-to-head in the courtroom, acting within every meaning of the phrase “zealous advocacy.” Then they would grab a cup of coffee together after court.

Best lesson in the law I ever had.

NY Top Court: It’s Still OK To Be Negligent With Your Dog

Not the dog in the lawsuit, but mine. Does Tucker look like he would hurt anyone? Or obey a command to come?

Not the dog in the lawsuit, but mine. Does Tucker look like he would hurt anyone? Or even obey a command to come?

It wasn’t the dog’s fault. His owner called for him in Central Park, and he bolted across the road exactly as commanded. And into the path of a bicyclist. The animal was not dangerous, but rather, was directed to do something that was.

New York has had a long standing rule that held that, for pets, one could only bring a lawsuit under strict liability, if the pet had a known vicious propensity (see: Bard v. Jahnke). Hence the phrase, every dog gets one bite. We didn’t have a common law cause of action based on negligence.

It was all about whether or not that bite Fido took could have been reasonably anticipated. And if Fido had that propensity (either by bite or other aggressive behavior), the owner was responsible no matter what.

Would this case change things? Our high court had already ruled in Hastings v. Suave that the owner of a cow that innocently strays past a dilapidated fence into the road could be held liable. Why not a dog? This isn’t about the animal, but about the owner.

I discussed back in 2013 how this case — alleging only negligence and not strict liability — was headed to the Court of Appeals when a divided panel of our Appellate Division (First Department) ruled that the case could go forward. It was time, I guessed, for our archaic and unfair law to be updated.

At that time I ventured a prediction:

My prediction: New York’s long-held policy of granting immunity to animal owners for their own negligence (as opposed to the animal’s viciousness) will fall by the wayside as illogical.  Immunity for negligence makes no sense at all, and is something that only a legislature can grant.

I was wrong. New York’s Court of Appeals today re-affirmed in Doerr v. Goldsmith that owners were still free to be negligent with their pets; owners get immunity from negligence.

The opinion is quite short. But there is a lengthy concurrence and two separate dissents.

Judge Abdus-Salaam thought it necessary, in concurring, to discuss at length the two cases before the court (the other, Dubinsky v. Lockhart, also dealt with loose dogs hitting a bicyclist, and alleged both negligence and strict liability). She started with our jurisprudence going back 200 years, when bites were the only issue in a rural society where the fastest mode of travel was a horse.

But despite her lengthy analysis — which includes the history of our pets being able to roam free on the streets and the expectations of others that this would occur — her opinion did not speak for the majority. She argues, unconvincingly in my opinion, that:

“[t]he average New Yorker knows or ought to know that he or she will encounter insufficiently restrained pets, which are not confined to the owner’s premises and may harm others depending on the disposition of the pet and the degree of training it has received”

Frankly, if I were walking on the streets of the city, I would not expect an unrestrained pet. We have leash laws, you know.  It’s like saying you should expect drunk drivers on the road, and therefore there is no liability for the drunk running the light because you should expect drunk drivers.

And so we get argument for a one-size-fits-all rule regardless of whether you are in the nation’s biggest city or one of our many rural hamlets.

In arguing for the retention of the easy-to-follow rule of granting immunity that comes from our prior agrarian society, she writes:

In general, we do not cast aside precedent unless it has become unworkable, increasingly irrational and/or increasingly unjust over time.

Well, “unjust” would certainly seem to fit these circumstances, but I’m not on the bench.

Chief Judge Lippman, in dissent, notes this about the existing rule that he fought to change:

…application of the rule in this instance would serve only to immunize defendant from the consequences of her own negligent actions, for no reason other than that a dog happened to be involved in the accident.

Yep, that is it, immunity for tortfeasors. A concept that is generally foreign to our common law jurisprudence.

And this, regarding the defendant-owner deliberately setting in motion the chain of events:

…people expend significant amounts of time and effort, and sometimes go to great expense, in an effort to train their dogs to be obedient.  When those efforts are successful and the dog acts according to the owner’s command, that is not a vicious propensity, but should not necessarily result in the owner’s immunity from liability.

Judge Fahey also dissented, and noted that our common law jurisprudence is pretty good, that there is a long line of cases going back over 100 years to support a negligence cause of action against dogs, and that there doesn’t need to be this exception:

We should return to the basic principle that the owner of an animal may be liable for failure to exercise the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in a similar situation. I cannot join the Court’s memorandum opinion and I disagree with the analysis put forward in the concurring opinion

So this is the rule in New York: If a farm animal wanders off because of the negligence of the owner, the owner can be held negligent. But if the animal is a pet, the answer is the opposite.

Welcome to New York.

Jury Selection, Brooklyn Style

Brooklyn’s county courthouse, 2008. Photo credit: me.

Two recent articles in Reason by its Editor in Chief, Matt Welch, raised issues about New York’s jury selection process and are very much worth discussing. Welch, as you’ll see, didn’t find the experience as amusing as my screenwriter-brother, or get any of the hoped-for excitement that my niece Ellen wanted, and certainly didn’t appreciate it the way I did when I sat jury duty many moons ago (and was selected).

So on to the main event: Welch. When I first read the first of his two articles in his libertarian oriented magazine, I was ready to mock, parody and lampoon his never-ending stream of whines, complaints, grumbles and gripes. That was my gut reaction, and it was going to be fun.

But there was one big point he made and one big point that he botched, and both are deserving of attention.

First, his take on the selection process: He bitched, whined, moaned and complained about the Brooklyn courthouse architecture, the dirty plaza in front, the security, and the ever-so-slow orientation and waiting to be placed in a voir dire pool to be questioned by lawyers. (How Jury Duty Almost Turned Me into an Anarchist)

When he finally gets there, he sounds like Arlo Guthrie showing up to his draft board after a long night of drinking — prepared to be injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected. In meeting the lawyers for the case, what type of mind set do you think he started with?

Is this stuff important, or just superficial belly-aching by someone looking for material to write about, as he did in his book about similar issues?

Answer: It’s important!! You don’t shoot the messenger because you don’t like the message.  He made a valid point that some jurors may be poisoned by the process itself, even before actual selection started. Anyone who practices law in Brooklyn knows we need vastly more room and judges.

And court administrators should take note, to the extent that they have the capacity to actually do anything about it within the tight financial constraints that the Legislature imposes.

Subway art, Borough Hall station where the courthouses are. Photo credit: Me.

Wouldn’t everyone — jurors, lawyers, judges, clerks and officers — rather be inside that great, big, new, shiny federal courthouse down the block? You betcha. It’s vastly more civilized, and jurors don’t start the trial phase, if they get there, feeling abused. The building itself, and the federal administration of it, oozes competence and justice (much to the chagrin, likely, of criminal defendants).

And feeling abused is important, for then the aggravations and irritations of the process itself may simply confirm pre-existing biases to the detriment of one side or the other.

Confirmation bias is a huge issue to deal with in jury selection (and the issue Welch botched). Because many people instinctively look for facts to “prove” the thoughts they had before hearing evidence, or reading a news story. They want to know that their opinions were “right.” This is most commonly seen in politics, where everything  on “the other side” is wrong.

Welch states that he wants to do the right thing, claiming near the outset of his piece:

Jury duty is a chance to bond with fellow citizens you might not otherwise meet, peek under the hood of our flawed judicial system, and do our small part to advance the noble democratic ideal of participatory justice.

And he also writes, in his own defense that:

…I would also say that within libertarianism there’s a broad appreciation that the civil system provides the kind of redress unavailable in places like Western Europe, for example. And at any rate, I don’t have strongly held opinions about it; my strongly held opinions are about the criminal justice system.

But when I look under the hood of his writings, in just these two pieces, I see a pre-existing proclivity, and the concern any lawyer would have for potential confirmation bias if he were to sit in judgment. Describing the case as he first hears about it in the jury selection room, he writes:

It is, to my chagrin, a civil trial, not a criminal one, involving the category of incident one might see advertised in a subway car.

Ouch. OK, he is entitled to his opinion for sure, regardless of whether I like it or not. But it’s hard to miss the underlying bias.

In his second piece, entitled How Lawyers Pre-Try Cases During Jury Selection, he tries to claim the voir dire process (and the jurors) are abused by the lawyers trying their cases in the room without a judge or evidence.

And he continues his complaints by dropping another clue as to his underlying feelings, calling plaintiff’s counsel a “Court Street Lawyer” with a link to a derisive description.

Moses with the law, at the entrance to the Brooklyn courthouse. 2008. Photo credit, me.

Now the vast majority of people will say, and likely believe, that they can sit fairly and listen to evidence, if the question is put to them directly. But this is a very superficial question, and ignores the underlying biases a juror may have. And that, in turns ignores the very legitimate concerns that such jurors will engage in confirmation bias as they listen to the evidence. This is what the trial lawyer needs to worry about, regardless of who they represent.

Welch himself knows about confirmation bias. On just the 4th page of his book The Declaration of Independents, he writes with co-author Nick Gillespie:

You may have heard of confirmation bias, whereby people tend to notice and believe whatever rumors, news stories and quasi-academic studies confirm their world view.

But seeing it in others is altogether different than seeing it in the mirror.

It was during that second piece, that he argued that the lawyers were looking to get rid of all the potential jurors with expertise. But this is not what trial lawyers do. We look to get rid of those with deep-seated biases, because we worry that such people will simply look for evidence during a trial to confirm them.

One example of what Welch thinks is an attempt to argue the case in the jury selection room and condition the jurors is the common question trial lawyers ask when talking about money and damages, “If you thought the injuries were substantial would you hesitate to bring back a substantial verdict?” But I (and so many others) ask it because I want to know about a political bias — do they have any feelings about one-size-fits-all damage caps? I would consider that information to be pretty important. So would my adversary.

And the reverse is also true when discussing the issue of damages, and is also asked: If the plaintiff shows only minimal injuries would you have any problem bringing back a minimal verdict? I’ve yet to meet a defense lawyer that is a potted plant. (The wise plaintiff’s lawyer asks both questions – asking about both the substantial and the minimal.)

Another example of bias are potential jurors who work in the medical field, sitting in a medical malpractice case. Are these people automatically excused due to their expertise?

Some would be inappropriate due to subconscious concerns about what their co-workers would say if they brought back a plaintiff’s verdict. It’s the lawyers job to ask about that bluntly and make the juror ponder it.

Yet others might acknowledge that they have seen all manner of bad things happen in a hospital. So dumping medically educated jurors or keeping them could go either way.

And more important than the medical practitioner is the parent of one. For now emotion/bias is even more likely to be a factor as the lawyers fear this juror seeing their own kid as a defendant.

Thus, Matt Welch’s two Reason articles are useful: Useful in describing the oft-times miserable experience that some jurors have, so that court administrators and legislators that hold the purse strings can address them and so that lawyers can appreciate what these potential jurors have gone through before the first questions are even asked.

But it is also useful in ways Welch might not have appreciated, as a good example of seeking out the underlying biases that potential jurors might have, and addressing head-on the concerns about them engaging in confirmation bias as they listen to the evidence.

Addendum: As I re-read this piece this morning while sitting in that same courthouse, just after publishing, I remembered I had written back in 2008 about the highly scientific method that I use for jury selection: Who Sits Jury Duty? (The Turkewitz Beer Test)

 

Snarking at Others – A philosophy

Blogging-703621It may have occurred to some readers that I take others to task over various foibles or ethical issues a bit too often.  Maybe, but that snark has some pretty sharp limits and I want to briefly explain them.

If the story deals with someone acting or filing suit in such a way that indicates the person might not be in their right mind — like the recent suit by the an individual acting on behalf of God, and His Son, Jesus Christ against all homosexuals — then I don’t write about it. (Except just there, but without name, or link, because I need an example.)

You see this in pro se suits with some regularity. In a nation of 300 million people and a country that (usually) takes pride in keeping the courthouse door open to those who believe they’ve been aggrieved, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

While such stories may be amusing to many, I don’t see them serving any larger purpose. It isn’t just being politically correct regarding  someone that may well need a mental health professional, but that the anecdotes serve no broader purpose. There is no lesson to be learned.

On the other hand, if the targets of the stories are lawyers or other individuals who are capable of fending for themselves, I see no problem, so long as there is a point to be made.

That’s it, my philosophy as to who I think it’s fair to target and who not.

Chasing the Amtrak Crash

MyPhillyLawyer

Dean Weitzman from “My Philly Lawyer”

You have seen this act before, dear reader, but perhaps never so blatantly. It’s the lawyer who chases the mass disaster crash, a/k/a the ambulance chaser. It’s the lawyer that, by doing so, smears the names of all others in the lawyering profession.

Today’s story comes up because Dean Weitzman, managing partner of the Philadelphia firm Silvers, Langsam & Weitzman, decided it would be a swell idea to send out a press release to the local press letting everyone know that they would be accepting cases from the Amtrak crash. (Which is not an “accident” by the way).

He wrote, among much personal agrandizement, that is firm would be:

available to provide representation for victims and injured persons in last night’s Amtrak derailment in North Philadelphia.

Gee. Ya’ think?

And he also wrote that:

Dean Weitzman is also available to media outlets to give analysis and discuss what happens next.

The firm is, as I understand it, (in)famous for slathering Philly with its ads, using the moniker My Philly Lawyer.

It was exactly this type of grotesque chasing after cases that led New York to create its 30-day anti-solicitation rule (and I presume to a similar federal 45-day rule for airline disasters). In the immediate wake of the 2003 Staten Island Ferry disaster that killed 11, some lawyers ran to the Staten Island Advance to place ads for the next day.

But there were still bodies on the boat when many of them did that.

This type of wretched behavior has repercussions.  I see it when I step into the jury room to select, as do others in the profession.  Calling the jury pool cynicism deep would be an understatement.

If the cynicism came solely from insurance company propaganda, it would be one thing. But when the smear comes from your own ranks, then what? Then it becomes the obligation of others in the profession to express their contempt for the practice and issue a complete disavowal of the conduct.

Let there be no mistake about my position here: Dean Weitzman and the firm of Silvers, Langsam & Weitzman do a grave disservice to the cause of justice and to those who have been injured. By chasing ambulances in this fashion they perpetuate an ugly stereotype, whose ramifications are felt not only by members of the bar but more importantly by those we represent.

As I noted back in 2009 in a short analysis of anti-solicitation rules, they do work. In honor of the chasing that Weitzman is doing, it looks like time for Pennsylvania to follow suit with an amendment to its rules.

Since Dean Weitzman said he was “available to media outlets to give analysis and discuss what happens next,” I’ve sent him an email seeking comment about the appropriateness of sending out such an email within 24 hours of the crash, when all of the passengers aren’t even accounted for. If he elects to respond I may amend this post.

(Hat tip, Max Kennerly)

 

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