Budget Cuts, Trial Courts and Insurance Companies

July 21st, 2011

The effects of California’s budget cuts are having dramatic effects on many Californians, often the most vulnerable. Slashes to health care services and education tend to hit the poorest in our community the hardest. One effect of the cuts which probably won’t get as much news is the effect on the civil justice system. The Presiding Judge of the San Francisco Superior Court just announced that 200 of 480 court employees will be laid off in 60 days, which means that 25 of 63 courtrooms will be closed!! ABC San Francisco News. 12 of 15 civil court rooms will be closing.

This is because under our legal system, criminal and juvenile courts take priority (a person charged with criminal conduct has a right to a speedy trial), which means that civil disputes will bear the brunt of all the cuts. This makes insurance companies ecstatic. Why? A typical civil dispute involves a negligent person or company who causes harm and injury to someone. For example, let’s take the classic case of a driver who is going too fast who fails to yield to a pedistrian in a crosswalk, hitting the pedestrian and causing injury, medical expenses, wage loss, pain and inconvenience. The driver is legally responsible for all losses and harms he caused the pedestrian. The driver usually has car insurance, and the insurance company now is responsible for the pedestrian’s damages. The pedestrian sues the driver for his damages, and the insurance company can deny and delay the pedestrian’s claim for years. Ultimately, the only thing that will hold the driver (and his insurance company) responsible for the pedestrian’s damages is a jury (the community) ordering the driver to pay the pedestrian what he is owed. However, if there are no civil court rooms available, that means no jury trials, which means the insurance company does not have to pay the bill for years (perhaps as many as five). So, the pedestrian is out of pocket for years waiting to get justice from the jury, while the insurance company holds on to the money for years. I suppose the insurance company could offer to pay the pedestrian’s bills, but why do that when nothing is forcing them to do so? There is nothing holding their feet to the fire. One thing I learned after 18 years of representing people in injury claims is that jury trials settle cases, since trials (or the prospect of an imminent trial) forces insurance companies to get real.

These draconian cuts will make innocent victims wait years for civil justice, perhaps causing them to accept pennies on the dollar just to get something now. Insurance companies will save a bundle since they know that a jury will not order them to pay money for years. As Judge Katherine Feinstein said ” the civil justice system in San Francisco is collapsing.” This is incredibly depressing news for all of us who work to obtain justice for our clients.

Trucking Safety

July 6th, 2011

I was listening to talk radio on a drive up to Lake Tahoe last week, and the host of this particular program was discussing the June 24th tragedy in Nevada when a truck driver struck an Amtrak train, killing 6 (including the truck driver). The show was discussing (and speculating about) the possible causes of the crash, and a panelist on the program was a trucking safety director. The host of the show mentioned that the truck driver, Lawrence Valli, had at least 3 speeding tickets in California while driving a commercial vehicle the last 4 years, as well as using a cell phone, not wearing a seat belt, and carrying too long a load. Article: No More Deaths From Amtrak Crash Nevada Expected. The truck company who paid Mr. Valli to drive was also cited for a number of safety violations.

On the radio program, the response from the trucking company’s safety director (not the company who employed Mr. Valli) was basically “everyone gets speeding tickets….who knows, it could have been 2 miles an hour over the speed limit.” He went on to basically complain there was too much regulation of the trucking industry.

Now, I don’t know why the truck driver crashed into the Amtrak train, but I was shocked at the cavalier attitude of a guy who is supposedly charged with safety responsbilities at a truck company. Not everyone gets speeding tickets, and speeding is especially deadly when done by big rigs. Trucks often weigh over 25 times what a passenger car does, and the damage they can cause when speeding is often catastrophic and fatal. A recent study showed that 12% of all traffic fatalaties were caused by big rigs. Trucks cause over 4000 deaths and 80,000 serious injuries. See Truck Report.

Driving a truck professionally is a serious job, and must be done with the utmost care for the safety of both the truck driver and all the motorists who he encounters. Speeding is deadly, especially when done by big rigs, and a lackadaisical attitude by truck companies who ratify this irresponsible driving should not be accepted by the public. I don’t know what caused the horrible crash in Nevada last month, but do know that truck companies should not continue to employ unsafe and irresponsible truck drivers.

Tort Reform, McDonald’s Hot Coffee, and Reality

June 29th, 2011

As an attorney who specializes in personal injury work, inevitably, whether I’m picking a jury or talking to someone at a barbeque, the infamous McDonald’s “hot coffee” case comes up. And it is used as an example of our legal system run amok, juries handing out millions to people who pour coffee over themselves. “This is why we need tort reform” goes the conversation, and “McDonalds hot coffee” becomes a code word, or shortcut, for the argument for limiting people’s right to sue. However, as is the case with many “urban legends,” the “facts” of the case as people think they know them are simply not accurate. It is impossible to win that argument though, since people know what they know (or at least think they do). So, in jury selection, and in many social conversations, I simply don’t try to present the actual facts of the case to try to persuade folks that perhaps their views are based on inaccurate information.

The good news is that a great new documentary has just come out which covers the case. Check out the movie’s website at: hotcoffeethemovie.com . It is a fascinating and well done documentary on the actual facts of the case, and anyone who has an open mind viewing it will surely come to a different conclusion.

I urge you to see the movie, and let’s have a real discussion about “tort reform” based on facts, not urban legend.