Articles Posted in Civil Litigation

Any attorney who represents clients in cases that require experts will more than likely come across delivery issues involving those experts. Who is considered an expert and whether or not his or her identity must be disclosed? Specifically, what about consulting experts that will not be a witness at trial, must his or her identity be disclosed to the other parties? In cases involving product liability, this is especially common because of the oftentimes-complex nature of the device at issue. So, what about the discovery of the identification of non-witness consulting experts “attending” the examination of the subject defective product? This article seeks to address circumstances whereby the confidential nature of consulting experts might be removed.

IMG_0791-300x200For instance, in a product liability claim where expert inspections of the product will take place, do the inspections have to be jointly conducted? Can one party insist upon taking possession of the product and conduct an inspection outside the presence of other parties? If one party and the experts take possession of the product, does that party have to disclose the identity of the expert(s) who will be involved in the inspection and handling of the product, and what will they do at the inspection?

These discover issues are governed by Rule 26 of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure. However, it is arguable that the specific section of Rule 26 that applies is not at all clear. The party opposed to disclosing the identity of and the work of a consulting expert may argue that:

IMG_0821-300x200Most people know that a lawsuit begins with the filing of a complaint followed, in most cases, immediately by the filing of an answer. Universally referred to as “pleadings,” these legal documents serve as the parties’ first formal written statements setting out either the claims against or defense to another party’s claims in a civil action. What is not universal, however, is the requirements for parties and lawyers when bringing these actions. Depending on the court in which they are filed, claims being asserted, and available defenses, the pleading standard can vary tremendously. For example, for litigants bringing cases in United States Federal Districts Courts, the pleading standard requires that the complaint must set forth at least “enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.Ashcroft v Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). For litigants in Alabama State Courts, however, the pleading requirements are materially broader and far less scrutinized when compared to the federal standard. While Alabama’s liberal pleading standard simplifies the process for bringing actions, it can potentially create major problems on the back-end of a case for lawyers with their clients.

Often referred to as a “notice” or “no-set-of-facts” pleading standard, complaints in Alabama are merely required to include “a short and plain statement of the claim showing the pleader is entitled to relief.” Ala. R. Civ. P. 8 (a). Over time, this culture of pleading the bare minimum has, in many cases, lead to minimal review and response from the other party. Despite routine compliance with the minimal pleading standard, such a lackadaisical approach often results in the neglect of important requirements set out in other rules of civil procedure.

The standard and requirements for civil pleadings in Alabama are, in large part, governed by Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure Rules 8 and 12. Pursuant to Rule 12(a), once served with a summons and complaint, a defendant  has 30 days to file a responsive pleading. Under Rule 8, a party’s failure to respond to or deny any averment raised in the Complaint, other than those of damages, amounts to an admission of those claims. Given that the vast majority of answers are timely and amount to a blanket denial to everything raised in the complaint, these two requirements are largely inconsequential. Often overlooked by practitioners, however, are the requirements for raising certain defenses and, more importantly, the consequences for failing to do so.

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Any attorney that represents injured children has to consider the question of who has standing or the right to bring the claim on behalf of the injured child? Are the incurred medical expenses the parents’ claim or the minor child’s claim? And, what adult or person should serve as the representative for the minor child? These are just some of the many questions that arise in the context of an attorney’s representation of an injured child.

While the above questions will depend upon the state in which the injury occurred, this article focuses on Alabama law and how it views these issues. Essentially, Alabama allows the parent or the person representing the minor child to elect who makes the claim for medical bills, past and future, during the minority years. The parent, who likely incurred the medical bills, can bring the the claim in their individual capacity or, the parent can waive their right to bring the claim individually in favor of simply allowing the minor to pursue the claim through their representative.

The issue was first addressed in Cabaniss v. Cook, 353 So. 2d 784 (Ala. 1977); see also, Broughton v. Kilpatrick, 362 So. 2d 865 (Ala. 1978) (affirming the holding in Cabaniss one year later by reversing the trial court when it did not allow the introduction and admission of medical expenses on behalf of a minor suing by and through his mother as next friend). The Cabaniss Court directly addressed the issue of whether a minor child has the right to pursue medical expenses through a representative as opposed to the parent  pursuing said damages individually. In Cabaniss, Warren Cook, and unemancipated minor, sued by and through his father as next friend, for damages arising out of an automobile accident. Cabaniss at 785. In the Cabaniss opinion, the Court noted:

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Any attorney who has ever litigated a personal injury claim has heard the legal standards “reasonable degree of medical certainty” or “reasonable degree of medical probability.” Further, attorneys understand and appreciate that the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the claimed injuries were caused by the underlying events in compliance with these standards. However, what do the standards mean and what is required? In essence, the standards require that it is more probable than not, or more likely than not, that the claimed injuries were caused by the incident giving rise to the lawsuit. Typically, a qualified medical doctor or medical clinician will have to testify on this issue.

In many circumstances where medical causation is in dispute, the defendants may respond or defend the case by asserting that the claimed injuries were not caused by the underlying incident, or were in fact caused by some other, unrelated event. The question becomes: What legal standard applies to a defendant desiring to make this argument and admit evidence in furtherance of same. Can the defendant introduce “possible” alternative causes? Does the defendant have to present medical evidence or testimony within a reasonable degree of probability to be able to introduce the evidence before the jury?

These questions are often raised and debated in many personal injury cases throughout the State of Alabama and around the country. While the issue may be addressed or handled differently among the jurisdictions, the better practice should be to hold the defendants to the same standard of admissibility as the plaintiff. Under no circumstances would an Alabama trial judge allow a plaintiff to present medical testimony indicating that his injuries were only “possibly” caused by the incident. If this were the testimony in the case, the defendant would undoubtedly file a motion in limine to preclude the plaintiff from arguing that the claimed injury was caused by the accident. Alabama law is clear that “possible causes of an injury to a plaintiff represent nothing more than rank conjecture and speculation.” Western Ry. of Ala. v. Brown, 196 So. 2d 392 (Ala. 1967); see also Hooks v. Pettway, 142 So. 3d 1151 (Ala. Civ. App. 2013); Portis v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. 2008 WL 3929672 (S.D. Ala. 2008).

Placing a loved one in a nursing home or long-term care facility is one of the toughest decisions a family will face. Sadly, abuse and neglect occur far too often in nursing homes. The National Center on Elder Abuse puts the average number of yearly cases of elder abuse at more than 2-million. 60% of those are due to neglect, and the Center found that over 90% of nursing homes were not adequately staffed to take care of their patients. Unfortunately, most all of these elder abuse cases never see the inside of a courtroom because, until recently, most nursing homes required their residents to consent to binding arbitration, which would decide a claim if it arose. Arbitration is an alternative method of resolving disputes without court intervention. Parties to the dispute submit their claims to an arbitrator, who reviews the evidence submitted by both parties and issues a decision. Unlike the court system, a party to an arbitration dispute has little to no redress in the event they disagree with the arbitrator’s decision.

Recently, a move was taken that will make it easier for families to seek justice against elder abuse. The Department of Health and Human Services has issued a new rule to prevent long-term care facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid from forcing residents into arbitration. The changes on arbitration were thrust to the forefront after officials in 16 states and the District of Columbia insisted the government eliminate funding to nursing homes that use arbitration clauses. The primary allegation was that arbitration kept patterns of wrongdoing hidden from would-be residents and their families because arbitration proceedings and decisions are confidential and do not take place in a public forum like a courtroom. The changes are part of an overhaul by the by the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) of consumer protections at long-term care facilities.

“We are requiring that facilities must not enter into an agreement for binding arbitration with a resident or their representative until after a dispute arises between the parties,” reads the rule. “Thus, we are prohibiting the use of pre-dispute binding arbitration agreements.”

Evidence is the foundation of any successful lawsuit – a single piece of evidence can make or break an entire case. Not all evidence, however, can be presented to the jury. There are strict rules that the courts use to determine whether a specific piece of evidence will be admitted. Given the effect a single piece of evidence can have, these rules attempt to provide the appropriate balance in as many cases as possible. Courts may therefore allow a piece of evidence in one trial, but disallow that same piece of evidence in another based upon the individual factual scenarios of each trial. One area of evidence which highlights this dichotomy is the use and application of “absence evidence.”

“Absence evidence” is evidence that there are no prior documented occurrences of a certain event. Attorneys use “absence evidence” to argue that because there are no prior documented occurrences of said event, it is not likely that said event would have occurred on this occasion. One of the primary uses of absence evidence is in products liability cases. For example, manufacturers of an older product might want to show the jury that their product has not caused any accidents over the last twenty-years and thus it is less likely that their product is defective in the current lawsuit. When a party wishes to use absence evidence, particularly in these kinds of cases, the court must determine whether evidence that a prior event has not occurred is accurate and if so, is it fair to present such evidence to the jury.

1.  Does the lack of a prior occurrence accurately reflect the prior history of the occurrence?

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Everyone has seen the advertising campaigns geared against texting and driving. Moreover, numerous states have enacted legislation which makes it illegal to text on your phone while you drive. While those ads and laws have certainly helped curb distracted driving on our roads, is their focus too limited? Should we consider not only the conduct of the person receiving the text, but also the conduct of the person sending the text?

The Ruling

In a recent opinion from the New Jersey Court of Appeals, three judges agreed with the general proposition that you can be liable if you text someone who you know is driving a vehicle and that person is subsequently distracted and gets into a wreck. In September 2009 a young man was driving down the road as he and his girlfriend were exchanging text messages. The plaintiffs, a married couple, were driving in the opposite direction on their motorcycle. As the young man drove down the road, he became distracted from the flurry of text messages and he allowed his truck to drift across the double center line and hit the plaintiffs’ motorcycle head-on. Seventeen seconds elapsed from when the young man received the last text message until he dialed 911 to report the incident.

After hearing thirty-seven days of trial testimony and deliberating for four days, a Texas jury determined that Johnson & Johnson was liable for defectively designing their metal-on-metal hip implants. The lawsuit alleged that Johnson & Johnson aggressively marketed their Pinnacle metal-on-metal hip implants for use by younger, more active patients because the metal-on-metal implants were long-lasting, durable and safe despite being aware of the design flaws in the implants, which caused them to fail more frequently and quickly than expected, leading to injuries including tissue death, bone erosion and high levels of metal in their blood. The five Plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit collectively received a $502 million judgment which was comprised of $142 million in compensatory damages and $360 million in punitive damages. The verdict will be split amongst the Plaintiffs based on the severity and impact that each Plaintiff suffered as a result of their individual injuries.

Unfortunately, Johnson & Johnson has vigorously stated since the massive verdict was returned that they will appeal the result. One of the many issues that will certainly be raised on appeal is Texas’ law which caps punitive damages. This means that on appeal the $360 million punitive damage award could be reduced to as low as $10 million.

However, despite a pending appeal and a possible overall reduction in punitive damages, the recent verdict is still an overwhelming triumph for Plaintiffs who suffer from defective metal-on-metal hip implants. Most notably, the recent verdict marks Johnson & Johnson’s first trial loss regarding the use of metal on metal artificial hips. In a prior trial in the same multi-district litigation (“MDL”), Johnson & Johnson was successful in defending a single Plaintiff suit based on its argument that it was the surgeon who installed the implant’s fault instead of the defective implant itself. However, based on this most recent verdict it appears the tide has begun to change in favor of the Plaintiffs, and Johnson & Johnson will no longer be able to overlook its defective product and place blame on the implanting surgeons.

If someone were to walk up to you and offer you $1,000 today, with the expectation that you pay them $3,000 in a month or a year you would likely look at them with shock and dismay. Why should I pay 200% in interest on my original loan, you might ask. However, you might take a second look at this offer if you are under the duress and financial hardship that many plaintiffs find themselves in when they are out of work and unable to pay their medical bills and living expenses after an accident. Your tune may change if you are faced with default notices and collection creditors are calling your house non-stop. This is exactly what the lawsuit lending industry is betting on, that you will overlook their astronomical interest rates and fees based on your dire financial situation. The lawsuit lending industry has been able to skirt federal and state regulations in this area by labeling their lending practice as “nonrecourse financing.” Essentially, lawsuit lenders bet on the final outcome of a case by loaning money to plaintiffs and as a result are able to operate within Alabama without a license, and without regulation or oversight by the Alabama Banking Department.

The lawsuit lending scheme is relatively simple. Lawsuit lenders give cash advances to individual plaintiffs that are facing financial hardships in order for the plaintiffs to cover medical and living expenses while their case is being litigated. It sounds like a pretty great deal when you’re down on your luck. However, lawsuit lenders are anything but a plaintiff’s white knight. These lawsuit loans typically come with sky-high interest rates, fees, and charges which can amount to as much as 200 percent of the original loan value. By attaching these massive fees and interest rates to the original lawsuit loan, plaintiffs are often left with little to no recovery from the personal injury claim. In fact, in some situations, plaintiffs actually lose money in an effort to resolve their personal injury claims.

In addition to adversely affecting the individual plaintiff, lawsuit loans also distort the litigation process. A lawsuit loan plaintiff faced with a settlement offer must not only consider the amount they will have to re-pay to their health insurance for any medical treatments the plaintiff may have received as a result of the accident, but they must also factor in the cost of paying off their high-interest lawsuit loan. The result is that the plaintiff may reject a reasonable settlement offer on the off chance that they may obtain a higher verdict in court in hopes that they can pay off their medical expenses and high-interest loan and possibly break even. This choice can jeopardize the chance of any recovery and put the plaintiff’s attorney in a precarious situation, because litigating their case may result in a verdict that is lower than the pre-verdict settlement offer or a judgment in favor of the defendant. Therefore, by injecting a third party into the litigation process, plaintiffs often forgo reasonable compensation in an effort to get out from under their impending lawsuit loans.

Johnson & Johnson has faced several lawsuits over the past year alleging that Johnson & Johnson knew there was a link between their antipsychotic drug, Risperdal, and abnormal breast growth. Risperdal is a very powerful antipsychotic drug that Johnson & Johnson peddled to pediatric doctors for use by children even though the drug lacked certain approvals from federal regulators. Thus far, Johnson & Johnson has been hit with four separate jury trials all alleging that Johnson & Johnson not only knew that children prescribed Risperdal could develop a condition known as gynecomastia, but also that Johnson & Johnson failed to properly warn and/or disclose the risks of abnormal breast growth in adolescent boys prescribed Risperdal.

The Previous Three Jury Trials

In February 2015 the first Risperdal case was taken to a trial by jury. The jury returned a $2.5 million verdict in favor of the plaintiffs determining that Risperdal did in fact cause the plaintiffs injuries and that Johnson & Johnson failed to provide proper warnings. In the second case, the jury was less convinced as to the causal link between the drug and the plaintiff’s adverse condition. While the jury did agree that Johnson & Johnson failed to provide adequate warnings, the jury was not convinced that Risperdal caused the plaintiffs to develop abnormal breast growth. As such, the second jury awarded no damages against Johnson & Johnson. The third case began October 15, 2015 and the trial is still ongoing. Lead counsel for the young man who developed female breasts after taking Risperdal as a child stated recently that “Risperdal [is] a powerful antipsychotic drug which was promoted and marketed even though it wasn’t indicated for children.”