Monthly Archives: October 2008

I Am In Favor Of Justice

Last night I attended the final membership meeting of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association. Following the lead of our national association, the membership voted to change our name to the Maryland Association for Justice.

The rationale for this decision is that our organization is better served with a name that describes our mission and what we do. And that is advocate for justice for our clients.
There is also an element of branding in this decision. Apparently nobody likes trial lawyers, but everyone is in favor of justice. I guess there’s a reason the Patriot Act wasn’t named the Civil Rights Deprivation Act of 2001.

I am and always have been proud to be called a trial lawyer. I think convincing the six people in the box is more than enough of a check on so-called “frivolous lawsuits”. Anyone who disagrees should try it sometime- its harder than you think it is.

But on balance, I think anything that makes the public more receptive to our message is a good thing for us, for our clients, and for the civil justice system.

Thoughts on Legal Writing

For the last two weeks I’ve been working on several written projects involved in different stages of personal injury cases. I’m working on a Motion for New Trial, a Response to Motion to Dismiss, and an Amicus Curiae brief to the Court of Appeals of Maryland. Because this has occupied a big chunk of my time lately, I have a few thoughts on legal writing in general. Beware, these aren’t presented in any organized form.

First remember that punctuation marks generally go inside the quotation marks. I am constantly messing this one up. Not because I don’t know the rule, but through a combination of habit and poor proofreading skills. It doesn’t help the every time I miss one of these, Ron Miller makes fun of me.

Don’t use the phrases “the case at bar”, “the instant case” or the like. It’s “this case.” This one comes to you straight from Justice Scalia’s book, once again filtered through our friend “call me Ron” Miller.

One book you should have is the hated Bluebook. I think the concept of a several hundred page manual on citation is ludicrous, but it’s really useful for citation forms you may not use every day. For example, I last used it to figure out the rule on the capitalization of court names. I don’t know how much trial and appellate courts in Maryland care about this stuff as opposed to the content of the argument, but I am convinced getting it right makes you look better than getting it wrong.

The Motion for New Trial I am working on centers on the application of a few of the Maryland Rules. A fantastic resource on this topic is the book Maryland Rules Commentary, by Paul V. Neimayer and Linda M. Schuett. Both of the authors were heavily involved in the drafting of the Maryland Rules, so their commentary and practice tips carry great weight with the Maryland courts.

Courts value brevity. Trial and appellate courts are required to digest a staggering volume of paper. Oftentimes a compelling argument can be made concisely. There’s no value in repetition, particularly if the court gets annoyed that you didn’t think they understood your argument the first three times you made it.

An amicus brief isn’t just a chance to regurgitate the arguments already made by the party whose viewpoint you favor. The value of an amicus brief is that you aren’t limited to the facts of the case in the way the actual parties are. This is a great chance to tell the court all of the public policy reasons behind the position you advance, and to run out the parade of horribles that will happen if the opposite position is accepted. I like to use the amicus brief to show the court in real terms what possible effect its decision can have. This is also a good chance to try and limit a prospective decision to its own facts, if you can show that slightly different facts would mandate a much different result. I also like using these to show how the particular area of law has developed historically, especially where its a concept with long historical roots. I like the phrase “since 1854 (or whatever) it has been the law in this state that….” Then follow it up with something like “Appellants are asking this Court to depart from one hundred and fifty years of settled law and countenance a new exception which would result in (very bad things).”

I also am not a fan of the shotgun approach where every argument that can theoretically apply is made. I like to pick the best two or three arguments and put all my weight behind them.

Personal Injury Trial Report

I just finished a trial in a car accident injury case in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. This was a case involving a really nice lady who had suffered a soft tissue injury in a car accident. She was (I swear) just leaving church with her daughter when she was in a car crash.

There were two sides to this story, however. The defendant alleged that the accident was my client’s fault, claiming she deprived him of his right of way. He retained his own personal injury lawyer and countersued, claiming his own injuries of comparable severity.

Well, the upshot is that I lost this case. The jury just thought the other side of the case seemed more likely. I’m not sure what I could have done differently that might have affected the outcome. I am going to keep thinking though. I think the property damage pictures influenced the jury’s view of the mechanics of the accident.

Because of the counterclaims, there were four lawyers if this case- a plaintiff’s lawyer and a defense attorney representing each side. A lot of people would say the likelihood of an experience being disagreeable is proportional to the number of lawyers involved. Actually, all counsel were people I like and found enjoyable to work with, and were experienced, competent attorneys. Everyone was civil and respectful, and did their best to do their job.

Nobody likes to lose. I hate it. I have a hard time getting past a bad result, turning it over in my mind trying to assess what went wrong, or what I could have done differently to change the outcome. But, at the same time you’ll never win a fight if you’re scared to take a punch.

In the end, I think I’d rather be the kind of lawyer who takes a hard loss too seriously than the kind who doesn’t care.
My colleague Rod Gaston always says that only the tough cases get tried, but I can’t help feeling like Reese Bobby– “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Lawyers Behaving Badly (Or How to Handle Deposition Disputes)

Every personal injury lawyer I know has a pile of stories about the outrageous things that happen at depositions. This is the part of the pre-trial discovery process that is most subject to abuse. I think this is because it happens face to face, often in front of the client, and without a judge to play referee.

I was in a deposition in a car accident injury case this morning. The case is pending in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. My client is a nice 25 year-old woman who was in a pretty serious accident with a gasoline tanker truck. Her right leg was more or less destroyed in the acccident.
The female defense attorney for some reason found the following questions appropriate:
“You had an abortion 2 weeks before your accident?”
“Did that upset you?”
“How far along were you?”
“Who was the father?”
Needless to say, I instructed my sobbing client not to answer these questions. The ostensible reason these were proper questions was that if my client were upset from the abortion two weeks prior, perhaps that emotional upset caused her to run the red light. What a pile of garbage.

I am confident that there isn’t a judge in the state that would order my client to answer those questions.

I believe I was justified in instructing the client not to answer. In Maryland, the Discovery Guidelines of the State Bar are reprinted just before the section of the Maryland Rules pertaining to discovery. They are not part of the Maryland Rules, but are generally given the force of law by trial court judges.

Guideline Eight addresses instructions not to answer at depositions. It states that an attorney should not question a deponent in a manner “he knows or should know would serve merely to harass or annoy the deponent.” Guideline Eight also says instructions not to answer are presumptively improper unless “the question is completely irrelevant or intended to embarrass the witness.” I think the line of questioning I described is exactly what I am supposed to be preventing by instructing the witness not to answer.

I hope this results in the filing of a motion to compel. I want to see defense counsel try to justify this to a judge.

What Happens When A Car Accident Defendant Goes Bankrupt?

I was thinking about this topic because Monday morning I found myself in a very unusual place for a personal injury lawyer- United States Bankruptcy Court. How did I end up there?

I have an auto accident injury case pending in the Circuit Court for Charles County. I represent a plaintiff who was injured when another driver rear-ended her. During the course of that litigation, it came out that the defendant had a pending bankruptcy claim.

Defense counsel filed a Suggestion of Bankruptcy in the state court case. Pursuant to federal law, that case was stayed until resolution of the bankruptcy. This would be a bad thing, because it would mean that my injured plaintiff would be waiting more or less indefinitely to get her case moving.

There’s a way around this problem. Upon proper motion, the bankruptcy court may lift the stay, where the loss is covered by insurance, up to the limit of the policy. This is because under those circumstances, the claim has no potential impact of the bankrupt estate. Once the bankruptcy court enters an order lifting the stay, the thing to do is file a motion in the state court asking that the action no longer be stayed, and that if needed, the court amend the scheduling order to account of all the time that went by due to the bankruptcy stay. Hopefully that will get my case moving again.

The experience got me thinking about appearing in unfamiliar courts in general. I’m no bankruptcy lawyer. Over my career, I’ve set foot in a bankruptcy court precisely one other time. So what I did Monday is what I do every time I have to appear in a court I don’t know very well.

First, I got there early. This lets me get the lay of the land, and allows for a trip to the clerk’s office if I need help figuring out what room the hearing is in (which in this case, I did). Second, I get into the courtroom as early as possible and check in with the clerk. I do this for two reasons. It lets me tell the clerk that I am there, and inform them as to the nature of my appearance before the court. This matters, because in terms of docket efficiency, the court will often take uncontested or preliminary matters at the beginning of the docket. Most importantly, this is my chance to ask the clerk how the court is run. What does this judge need? Where am I to stand? Are there any procedures particular to this court?

Court clerks always seem happy to help polite and respectful attorneys with this sort of “scouting report”. It really does help, as I was able to get my matter called second on the docket, I knew the court’s preferred procedure, and I found out that in the future, if the motion was uncontested, I could call ahead and the matter would be handled with no need for me to appear. It ended up being a very useful five minutes talking with the clerk. I recommend doing this any time you have to appear in a court you don’t know very well.