Articles Posted in Civil Litigation

IMG_3255-200x300by HWC Partner Carter Clay

To establish the existence of a safer design, a plaintiff, typically through an expert must provide substantial evidence to show (1) that the injuries caused by the product would have been less severe or eliminated by the use of an alternative design and (2) that the utility of the alternative design outweighed the utility of the design actually used. General Motors Corp. v. Jernigan, 883 So. 2d 646, 662 (Ala. 2003). There is no rule of Alabama law that states that the expert must test the safer alternative design to meet the substantial evidence threshold. In fact, “[no] one denies that an expert might draw a conclusion from a set of observations based on extensive and specialized experience.” Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. V. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 156 (1999).

I. Examples of Substantial Evidence

1josh-approved-1-212x300by HWC Managing Partner Josh Wright

Managing Partner Josh Wright has developed a specialty over the last 25 years in the litigation of toxicology admissibility. Long a regionally-recognized drunk driving victim’s lawyer, the issue of biologic sample admissibility has developed in the law, and Josh has been on the forefront of the topic–litigating alcohol and drug-related cases in State and Federal courts in multiple states, and constantly writing and lecturing on the topic. In fact, part of the current Alabama Beverage Control regulations were written by Josh in 2011-2012.

“Admissibility of biologic samples, including urine and blood results, has become a complicated legal issue over the last 20 years in Alabama and our surrounding states,” Josh stated. “It’s not as simple as saying ‘because that driver had alcohol in his system, the jury gets to hear that evidence against him,’ or ‘because that industrial worker had drugs in his system when he caused the injury, the jury will hear that evidence.'” “If you don’t know and understand the ever-changing science of toxicology admissibility, critical evidence may never be heard by your jury in your case.”

1josh-approved-1-212x300by Josh Wright

Post-COVID verdict averages in personal injury claims are up close to 50% from that of pre-COVID verdicts, according to recent statistics.¹ Verdicts in 2022 alone for Alabama injury victims have topped $97,000,000 in cases involving a wide array of wrongful conduct, including contract disputes, auto, medical malpractice, co-employee, fraud, discrimination, and uninsured motorists. See some of those recent verdicts below (based on lawyer-disclosed data):

Juries appear to listen carefully, consider all the evidence and thoroughly asses josh-graphic-1-copy-192x300fundamental fairness in cases post-COVID. Insurance companies are also getting the message that juries are ready and willing to put aside politics and division in a courtroom, and award fair results in legitimate and real injury cases. Our firm alone has resolved (both at trial and pre-trial), a substantial number of lawsuits for unprecedented money in the last 12 months, which in no small part is because insurance companies have heard the message and listened to recent jury verdicts across the Country.

IMG_3255-200x300by Carter Clay

Prior to any trial, the attorneys will assess the need to file motions in limine to try to keep out damaging or prejudicial testimony and evidence. Typically, the court will hold a hearing on these motions before commencing the trial and will issue rulings on most, if not all, of the motions. When the court rules adversely to a party, the lawyer must ask himself or herself whether the ruling is sufficient to preserve the issue for appeal. The answer to this question is often “no,” but it depends on whether the court expressly and unequivocally indicated that the party does not need to make another objection during the trial itself.

Alabama Rule of Evidence 103 and applicable case law make it clear that in order to preserve an evidentiary issue for “post judgment and appellate review,” a party must object in a timely manner to the admissibility of the evidence during trial. Ala. R. Evid. 103. Rule 103 states, in pertinent part, that:

IMG_3308-200x300by Michael Eldridge, HWC Attorney

Over the past two decades, the cell phone has evolved into a vital extension of our daily lives. The smartphone is now how we respond to emails, listen to music, surf the Internet, take photographs, buy groceries, make dinner reservations, and much, much more. All this use creates an enormous amount of data about us. What most of us might not realize, however, is that all of this forensic evidence is stored right inside our device.

In recent years, parties in litigation regarding motor vehicle collisions have battled over the discoverability of this forensic evidence. The battle centers on two competing interests. The need to uncover relevant evidence versus a person’s right to privacy. As it relates to the former, it is unquestionable that cell phone evidence could lead to the discovery of important evidence. According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, as of early 2018, 95% of adults in the United States owned a cell phone,1 77% of which owned a smartphone.2 What has grown alongside these astonishing ownership rates is device capabilities. Smartphones today have what seems like infinite capabilities, which creates an infinite number of distractions. According to the National Safety Council, 25% of highway crashes in the United States are caused by distractions from the use of cellular phones and/or smart devices.3

by HWCV Partner Carter Clay

Any attorney who represents clients in cases that require experts will more than likely come across discovery 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?

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.”

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