Articles Posted in Uncategorized

https://www.ajc.com/rf/image_lowres/Pub/p9/AJC/2018/06/14/Images/DfrMhkrVAAACafa.jpg_web.jpg

Attributed to Channel 2 News

A horrible news story came out today in Atlanta regarding a 5-month-old baby girl, Paige Bradley, who was killed in Forest Park, Georgia, by a German Shepherd dog. The back-story is that the dog had been around the baby for the baby’s entire short life.

The mother allowed the baby to go to a different home where a dog lived, ate, and slept. The male babysitter (and roommate to the mother) was asleep in a different room in the home at the time of the dog attack – the story does not indicate any details of barking, growling, noise or similar conduct at the time of the attack. The mother came to pick up the baby later that evening and noticed that the baby was not responsive – specific details of the particular attack were missing from the report.

school-bus-1527162-300x226
I field a good number of calls every year from concerned parents regarding injuries to their children at school.  The injuries usually occur on the playground or from other students (bullies) in the classroom.  The parents are upset as they claim that the injuries could have been prevented by proper supervision by the teachers and/or administrators. Typically, I tell the parent that it is quite difficult to pin liability on the teacher and the school for these harms.  A recent court case on this very issue was published today by the Georgia Supreme Court and is instructive for future student injuries at school.

In Barnett v. Caldwell, S17G0641, a high school student, Antoine Williams, was engaging in horseplay with another student at Benjamin E. Mays High School, a school in Southwest Atlanta.  The attending teacher, Phyllis Caldwell, left her classroom unattended around 2:45 p.m., and asked another teacher to “listen out” for her class.  Ms. Caldwell did not instruct the hall monitor to watch her class.

Antoine and another student were horsing around and Antoine fell to the ground with the other student on top of him.  The incident caused Antoine to lacerate a major blood vessel by a dislocated collarbone.  EMT took Antoine to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

textalyzer-300x235
The “Textalyzer” is a device that allows law enforcement officials to review an individual’s cell phone usage using a machine that was developed by forensic technology maker Cellebrite. When the Textalyzer is connected to a target’s cell phone, it reveals if and when a phone was active and lists the apps that were being viewed or used and the times at which the phone was active. The Textalyzer has not yet been deployed for use by law enforcement personnel, but proponents and opponents have raised justifiable concerns regarding how the technology will be used to reduce texting and driving while balancing Fourth Amendment privacy concerns.

The name Textalyzer is so-named because of the device’s similarity to the breathalyzer device as both are a means of subsequently collecting data following an accident or traffic stop. Thus, defense attorneys have raised concerns about the implications on regulating the effects of refusing to consent to a Textalyzer analysis. If an individual is pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, he may refuse consent to a breathalyzer, but withholding consent will result in an automatic one-year suspension of the driver’s driving privileges. So, if a similar requirement is imposed upon individuals stopped on a suspicion of texting and driving, individuals may be forced to choose between relinquishing control of their cell phone over to law enforcement officials or lose driving privileges for a year. However, proponents of the Textalyzer argue that the design of the technology itself prevents the infringement of citizens’ Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The device only reveals if the phone was being used and how it was being used. It does not display the content of a text message or email. But, while the device in its current state does not appear to have the capability or option of displaying the content of texts or emails, it is only a matter of time until prosecutors begin to ask for an expansion of the technology to afford them the opportunity to view the content of those messages as a means of solving more serious crimes.

Right now, because the Textalyzer is not in use, drivers can only be charged with texting and driving if they are caught “red-handed” in the act of texting while operating a motor vehicle. Thus, the deterrent effect of the statute in its current form is minimal, as the burden on law enforcement officials is great and the risk of enforcement as to each individual driver is low. The opponents of the Textalyzer technology admit that texting while driving is indeed a problem necessitating some action as an attempt to minimize the frequency of texting and driving. To be sure, texting and driving includes not only sending a text message while operating a motor vehicle, but also prohibits the use of a cell phone generally while operating a motor vehicle. Before enacting a statute authorizing the widespread implementation of the Textalyzer as a means of combatting texting and driving, legislators must weigh the importance of combatting the use of cell phones while individuals operate motor vehicles with privacy concerns and individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights.

Hernia_mesh_1-300x225
(photo attributed to Wikipedia)

The Boston Scientific Corporation manufactured a transvaginal mesh prescription medical device that was designed to prevent the pelvic organs from falling through the vagina. The mesh sheet is made from a type of plastic and is implanted surgically into the patient. The plaintiff, Amal Eghnayem, had the sheet implanted in February of 2008 to treat her pelvic organ prolapse, but began to experience severe negative reactions in the following months. Amal experienced bleeding and pain during intercourse, incontinence and pelvic pain and pressure, and during an examination it was revealed that she had exposed mesh that was causing her severe symptoms. After an unsuccessful attempt to alleviate her pain, Amal visited a second doctor who found another mesh exposure and performed a second mesh-removal surgery. Following the second surgery, Amal’s pain subsided but by that time she had lost vaginal sensitivity. Amal subsequently filed suit seeking compensatory and punitive damages based on claims for negligent design defect, negligent failure to warn, strict-liability design defect and strict-liability failure to warn. Additionally, three other plaintiffs filed lawsuits and the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia consolidated the suits.

At trial, the jury found for each of the plaintiffs on all four claims and awarded more than six million dollars to each plaintiff. The Boston Scientific Corporation appealed from the judgment on two separate grounds. First, the Boston Scientific Corporation argued that the district court abused its discretion by consolidating the plaintiff’s four suits and trying them together.  Second, the Corporation argued that the district court abused its discretion by excluding all evidence relating to the Food and Drug administration’s clearance of the mesh for sale through the FDA’s “substantial equivalence” process. The trial court excluded the evidence under two different Federal Rules of Evidence. The first, Rule 402, provides that irrelevant evidence is not admissible, and the second, Rule 403, provides that relevant evidence may be excluded, “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of . . . unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, or wasting time.”

u-s-supreme-court-washington-dc-1224318-300x226
Generally, a court must have proper jurisdiction over a case or controversy before that case may be heard in a given county or state. Proper jurisdiction requires that a court have both personal and subject matter jurisdiction over a case or controversy. As to personal jurisdiction, courts have recognized two categories: general and specific. Proper general jurisdiction depends on the nature of the party to the suit and that party’s geographic location, as general jurisdiction over an individual rests only in a defendant’s domiciled state or county, and general jurisdiction over a corporation rests in a place “in which the corporation is fairly regarded as home.” Conversely, specific jurisdiction requires the suit to “arise out of or relate to the defendant’s contacts with the forum.” The primary concern of an appellate court in assessing a grant of jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant is the burden on the defendant and the accompanying Due Process Clause concerns where a defendant is forced to submit to the “coercive power of a State that may have little legitimate interest in the claims in question.”

This case, which arose from allegations that Plavix had damaged the plaintiffs’ health, was heard by the California Court of Appeals where the Court found that California courts lacked general jurisdiction, but had specific jurisdiction over the claims brought by the nonresident plaintiffs. The California Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ ruling based on a “sliding scale approach” to specific jurisdiction. The California Supreme Court’s “sliding scale approach” conclusion was based on Bristol Myers Squibb’s “wide ranging contacts” with the State because the nonresident’s claims were similar enough with California resident’s claims and because Bristol Myers was engaged in other activities in the State. However, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected California’s “sliding scale approach” as it was unable to square the “loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction” with the U.S. Supreme Court’s existing precedents.

On June 19, 2017, Justice Alito, with whom seven other justices joined, delivered the opinion of the Court, requiring a narrow interpretation of specific jurisdiction. According to the holding in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, Et al., specific jurisdiction requires the existence of an “affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy, principally, an activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum state.” So, when no connection exists, specific jurisdiction is lacking regardless of the extent of a defendant’s activities within the State unconnected to the nonresident plaintiffs. The holding further asserted that the mere fact that other plaintiffs were prescribed Plavix in California was insufficient to assert specific jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims.  Moreover, even the fact that Bristol Myers conducted research in California unrelated to Plavix was insufficient to support a grant of specific jurisdiction. Thus, a grant of specific jurisdiction must rest on a connection between the forum and the specific claim at issue. Attenuated links or connections, without more, are insufficient to satisfy the jurisdictional requirements.

car-auto
The California Department of Motor Vehicles indicated this week that an updated set of proposed rules for self-driving cars would only require companies that test self-driving cars to notify local authorities about when the testing would occur, but need not ask for permission. Peter Sweatman, predicted that fully autonomous cars will probably be in use for ride-sharing and parcel delivery within 18 months, and according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, forty-two companies are already testing 285 autonomous vehicles with backup drivers on California roads. Current California rules require a human driver as backup on public roads; however, the updated set of proposed rules may not include a human driver requirement. This disclosure should concern interested parties from several different viewpoints.

(photo attributed to www.motorauthority.com)

First, safety concerns of pedestrians and other drivers on the road should be the primary focus of inquiry where autonomous vehicles are operated without human oversight. Not only does all technology inevitably malfunction, but the hacking of new technologies has become increasingly prevalent in today’s society. The hacking of consumer data and personal information has been the primary focus recently, but that could change if hackers are given a new target with no human fail-safe in place. For example, the malfunction of a navigation system of an eighteen-wheeler could result in numerous fatalities, particularly in California where the roads are consistently congested. The consequences are largely speculative at this point, but if commercial vehicles full of consumer goods are entirely autonomous, it is plausible to suggest that hackers could enter the vehicles navigation system and alter destinations, or cause the vehicle to crash and destroy the vehicles payload. Such an accident would be widely publicized and would likely have significant impacts on a company’s stock.

motorcycle-1449499-300x194
One of the leading international manufacturers of motorcycles has been sued by an injured motorcyclist following a crash allegedly resulting from Harley Davidson’s failure to warn Kenneth LaMountain about a defect in the cooling line system. More specifically, Mr. LaMountain, the plaintiff, crashed while operating his Harley Davidson motorcycle after the engine oil cool line line system malfunctioned, causing oil to leak onto the rear tire resulting in the motorcycle crashing and injuring the plaintiff.

There are several different legal doctrines upon which a products liability claim can be based. The first, a manufacturing defect, alleges that the motorcycle part in question was faulty or failed to conform with the specifications of how the part was normally designed and manufactured. Thus, when alleging a manufacturing defect, the plaintiff must prove that the product is more dangerous than a consumer would reasonably expect when using the product in its intended manner, or that the product is in a condition not intended by the manufacturer and the defect existed at the time it left the defendant’s hands. Moreover, the law imposes strict liability upon manufacturers where a product is in an unreasonably dangerous defective condition, meaning that any plaintiff who is a user, consumer or bystander injured while using a defective product may recover damages. Strict liability differs from a negligence action where a plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed plaintiff a duty, the defendant breached that duty, and the plaintiff suffered injuries as a proximate result of the defendant’s breach. Here, the complaint alleges that Harley Davidson should be held strictly liable for a manufacturing defect, as the oil clamps were in a flawed condition when it left the manufacturer’s control.

The second legal doctrine is failure to warn, where the plaintiff must show that the defendant breached its duty to warn about risks of which it knew or should have known. Typically, a plaintiff will show that the injury is attributable to the defendant by showing that the defect that injured the plaintiff was in existence at the time it left the defendant’s control. The general requirement that the plaintiff show that the defect was in existence at the time it left the defendant’s control is likely why the plaintiff brought the duty to warn claim in the suit against Cowboy Motorsports, the distributor, rather than the manufacturer. In this case, absent clear evidence, the plaintiff will likely be unable to prove that the manufacturer, Harley Davidson, knew or should have known about the risk. Thus, the plaintiff’s attorney brought this duty to warn against the party against whom he was more likely to prevail.

alarm-positron-2-1315968-300x239
Automobile body shops filed several complaints against insurance companies, including State Farm, alleging violations of state tort law as well as violations of the Sherman Act’s antitrust laws, which prohibit certain anti-competitive conduct. The claims were based upon allegations that that the insurance companies engaged in a two-tiered scheme designed to depress the shops’ rates for automobile repair. First, according to the allegations, the insurance companies scheme was designed to set an artificial price, or “market rate.” The second part of the scheme was designed to force the body shops into accepting the artificially set rate by steering the insureds who sought automotive repairs away from the non-compliant shops that charged more than the artificial rate. The lower court initially dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, based upon an assertion that the automobile body shops failed to plead facts that directly supported the existence of a violation of antitrust laws. The Court of Appeals reversal of the dismissal was due in part to the standard of review for dismissal for failure to state a claim, which requires the court to accept factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the claimant, and viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs.

The first part of the scheme was essentially a horizontal price fixing agreement, where competitors unlawfully came together to form an agreement to set a price at which all agreed to sell a good or service. The Sherman Act makes unlawful “any unreasonable contract, combination, or conspiracy in the restraint of interstate trade or commerce. As stated above, the body shops plead facts supporting the circumstances from which the shops infer the existence of an agreement, rather than facts that directly supported the existence of the agreement. The circumstances pled by the body shops demonstrated parallel conduct, adoption of a uniform price, and uniform practices. When pleading antitrust violations based upon a horizontal price fixing agreement, plaintiffs usually must demonstrate that such a contract or conspiracy is unreasonable and anticompetitive, otherwise known as the “rule of reason” test. However, especially egregious violations are often classified as “per se” violations which are “conclusively presumed to be unreasonable and therefore illegal without elaborate inquiry as to the precise harm they have caused or the business excuse for their use.” But, as was the case for the body shops, where no direct evidence of an agreement has been proffered, an antitrust claimant “must show parallel conduct” as well as “further factual enhancement.” Thus, because the body shops “readily and plausibly” established an inferred agreement, the Court of Appeals found that they pled facts sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

The second part of the scheme, which was essentially a boycott, also runs afoul of the Sherman Act. The Sherman Act’s prohibition against any unreasonable contract, combination or conspiracy in the restraint of trade extends to boycotting, which the court defined as “a method of pressuring a party with whom one has a dispute by withholding, or enlisting others to withhold, patronage or services from the target.” So, while boycotting is not a classical form indicative of a concerted effort amongst competitors, it is, by definition, an agreement to take action, or refrain from doing so. While the Court of Appeals only found that the first part of the scheme amounted to a facial violation, the Court found that the allegations regarding the boycotting scheme amounted claims sufficient to amount to a per se violation.

62565_white_semi-truckThe National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) recently released a report discussing its findings as to a fatal crash in May 2016 involving an automated vehicle manufactured by Tesla. The automobile was equipped with a quasi-experimental automated driver assistance system that failed to detect a semitrailer crossing an intersection in front of the car. However, the NTSB report concluded that the vehicle’s cruise control was set at 74 miles per hour, above the 65 miles per hour speed limit at the time of the accident. Like other “self-driving” vehicles that are being introduced on the roadways, the Tesla is also equipped with “torque sensors” on the steering wheel that monitor when and for how long the human operator’s hands are on the steering wheel. According to the report, the driver had Autopilot engaged for 37 of the total 41 minutes of the trip, and data removed from the vehicle following the crash indicates that the driver only had his hands on the wheel seven times when the system was engaged for a total of 25 seconds.

Skeptics of the autonomous vehicle movement have been warning that the automated driver assistance systems as currently designed do not sufficiently monitor driver engagement in the operation of the vehicle to an extent necessary to prevent the occurrence of similarly fatal wrecks. NTSB investigators suggested that the driver’s lack of engagement indicated an over-reliance on the autopilot system, meaning that the torque monitors are not effectively ensuring sufficient driver engagement. Moreover, the most important aspect of driving, visually observing the roadway and any obstructions that may exist, is not monitored by the torque monitors on the steering wheel. So, even where a driver has his hands on the wheel, the technology in its current form has no requirements that the driver be actually paying attention to the roadway. Moreover, as indicated in the NTSB report, the actual time that a driver is required to place his hands on the steering wheel while the autopilot function is engaged appears to be minimal.

The design and programming of the autopilot systems raises important legal considerations regarding who may be held liable for this sort of accident – where a vehicle operator is following the prompts set forth by the automated driver assistance system, but crashes anyways. If the manufacturer requires that a driver be vigilant and alert at all times, especially when autopilot is engaged, can the manufacturer still be held liable if the system designed to monitor the drivers engagement is defectively designed? In such a scenario, an injured party may argue that the manufacturer knew, or should have known, that the automated driver assistance system could not effectively ensure that the human operator was sufficiently engaged. After all, the fact that the manufacture installed a torque monitor on the steering wheel indicates that the design of the system was dependent upon a human fail-safe. If that human fail-safe was defective – the torque monitor failed to effectively monitor driver engagement – there is a strong argument that the entire design of the automated driver assistance system was defective.

sheriff-1257620-300x226
The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) generally protects the personal information of civilian citizens that is contained in government databases from access by government employees for reasons other than legitimate law enforcement purposes. Because of the special authority positions held by law enforcement personnel and the potential for abuse of that power, DPPA provides that the court may award actual damages, punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees and other reasonably incurred litigation costs. Such damages may be awarded for each instance that a person knowingly obtains, discloses, or uses personal information from a motor vehicle record with an improper purpose.

The facts of Ela v. Destefano represent the exact type of circumstances DPPA was enacted to protect. Kathleen Destefano was an Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy who was romantically involved with Dennis Ela while he was married to Theresa Ela. Using her access to law enforcement databases, Destefano searched for Mrs. Ela while sitting alone in her patrol car 101 times. According to the record, Destefano used Mrs. Ela’s name to review photographs, addresses, vehicle information, and the like without any legitimate law enforcement purpose. Destefano’s misuse was not discovered until Mrs. Ela requested access to public records and discovered Destefano’s misuse of the databases. Mrs. Ela subsequently complained to the Professional Standards Division of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and she filed a civil suit against Destefano seeking compensation for emotional distress, over $1,000,000 in compensatory damages and $153,787 in attorney’s fees. However, she was awarded only $15,379 in attorney’s fees and $2,500 in liquidated damages, which she appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Mrs. Ela argued that the statute’s plain language explicitly required $2,500 per violation, entitling her to over $1,000,000 in liquidated damages. The Court of Appeals, however, disagreed, holding that the award of any damages under DPPA was permissive and discretionary, “therefore, the district court, in its discretion, may fashion what it deems to be an appropriate award.” Thus, the Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s award of $2,500 in liquidated damages and rejected Mrs. Ela’s arguments for $2,500 in compensation per violation.