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What if the Wicked Witch Had Just Hired a Lawyer Instead . . .

July 8th, 2016 Comments off

Almira Gulch a/k/a the Wicked Witch of the West, as Executor of the Estate of the Wicked Witch of the East, deceased v. Dorothy Gale

United States District Court of Kansas

Index No.: 20154-1939

Hon. L. Frank Baum, U.S.D.C. Senior Judge Presiding

Plaintiff counsel: Margaret Hamilton, Esq., Hamilton, Walshe & Lewis, LLP

Defense counsel: Raymond Bulger, Esq., Bulger, Haley & Lahr, Esqs.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

History


The plaintiff, who was the decedent’s sister, qualified and was appointed as Executor for the decedent’s estate pursuant to the decedent’s Last Will and Testament.  Thereafter she brought an action for conversion of property and wrongful death in the Supreme Court of the Magical Land of Oz.  Defendant answered and made a motion to remove the case to this court, the District Court of the United States for the State of Kansas.  Removal was granted based upon federal diversity jurisdiction as enumerated in 28 U.S. Code § 1441, titled “Removal of Civil Actions.”

The case comes before the court on two motions.   The first, by the plaintiff, is to dismiss the action based upon a claim of  forum non conveniens.  The second, by the defendant, is for summary judgment on the wrongful death claim on the grounds that, as a matter of law, she is not civilly liable for the death of the decedent.

Facts

On July 23, 1939, the defendant, Gale, finding herself suddenly engulfed by a tornado and unable to reach the safety of her family’s storm cellar, sought safety with her dog, Toto, in their residence.  Thereafter, the storm became one of such great magnitude and extraordinary power, that it lifted the residence off its foundation and propelled it into the air and thus into the eye of the storm.  The residence came to rest in Munchkinland in the Magical Land of Oz with great force and struck the plaintiff’s decedent causing her to sustain serious personal injuries and to die.  The defendant (and her little dog, too) survived the crash.

The defendant may have been disoriented by the crash, as her description of its locale, its inhabitants, and her recitation of the subsequent course of events is fanciful and less than credible.  There is evidence that she may have suffered a concussion upon landing.  Alternatively, she may have been under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, as she testified that at one point she fell asleep in a field of poppies.

Although the defendant’s tale is farcical, her counsel contends that it is supported by an independent witness.   The plaintiff alleged that the man was brainless.  Nevertheless he very articulately and intelligently testified at deposition that the defendant’s description of the location was accurate and that Munchkinland is a real place in the land of Oz.  Furthermore, he testified that it is the beginning of a Yellow Brick Road that he and the defendant later traveled intending to meet someone named “the Wizard.”

Plaintiff’s counsel claims that the witness’ testimony is irrelevant and that defendant’s  counsel offers it as a “straw man argument” which has no relevance to the issue of whether the defendant was  negligent or committed an intentional tort.   In other words, counsel claims that the witness’confirmation of the defendant’s description actually refutes an argument that is not germane to the plaintiff’s claims.

Two other witnesses were subpoenaed to appear at deposition.  One, a recent heart transplant recipient, was excused for medical reasons.  The other apparently fled the jurisdiction rather than testify – a cowardly act, by any measure.

By the wrongful death claim, the plaintiff pled liability based upon alternative theories of intentional tort and negligence.  Upon information and belief, the Munchinland  District Attorney investigated the accident but refused to prosecute for manslaughter,  as there was no evidence that the defendant intended to crash the house in which she was flying.  The defendant had no prior contact with the decedent nor is she known to be a member of any extremist terrorist organization.   The plaintiff subsequently amended her pleading to withdraw the allegation of an intentional tort and, now, relies soley upon the negligence claim.  The defendant has denied all allegations of negligence and it is this issue that lies before the court.

The plaintiff seeks compensation for (1) the decedent’s conscious pain and suffering, (2) the value of support and services the deceased provided to her family, and (3) burial expenses.

In her defense, the defendant argues that the decedent died upon impact, or, alternatively, was immediately rendered unconscious.  Therefore, she did not suffer conscious pain.  Although there were no emergency medical personnel who attended to the decedent at the scene of the accident, there were several witnesses including members of a candy merchant’s guild and employees of a local sleep clinic.  All of these testified that the decedent did not appear to be breathing after she was struck by the house.  Their opinions were confirmed by the local coroner who quoted, “As coroner I must aver, I thoroughly examined her.  And she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.”   To date, the plaintiff has offered no competent medical evidence that the decedent survived the crash for any length of time, but that issue is yet to be resolved and the court reserves judgment.

The decedent was unmarried and childless.  The plaintiff alleges that her sister supported her, but the defendant disputes this and claims that the plaintiff is independently wealthy.  She asserts that the plaintiff lives in a castle and employs a fleet of Flying Monkeys and Winkie Guards.  The source of the plaintiff’s wealth is under investigation by Ozian Federal Authorities  who suspect that the Witch, the Monkeys and the Guards have derived income, directly or indirectly, from a pattern of racketeering activity including kidnap for ransom, menacing and extortion.  Although formal charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, have not been brought against this group, the allegations, if accurate will likely disprove the plaintiff’s claim that she was supported by the decedent.

The defendant also challenges the plaintiff’s claim to have incurred burial costs.  After the coroner declared her dead, a torrential rainstorm prevented Munchkins from retrieving the body.  Later they recovered the decedent’s hat, dress and coat piled in a heap, but the  decedent’s body was not found and seemed to have melted away.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of this motion, I will presume the plaintiff’s damages under the wrongful death claim to be genuine.

The plaintiff also asserts that after the crash, the defendant absconded with the decedent’s personal property – to wit: a pair of Ruby Slippers, value unproven, but alleged to have magical powers.  The plaintiff claims that the defendant unlawfully appropriated the slippers.  The plaintiff claims that they were gifted to her by one of the decedent’s distant relatives who glued them to her feet.

In any event, the conversion claim is not the subject of the plaintiff’s summary judgment motion.

Legal Analysis

The common-law doctrine of forum non conveniens provides a federal district court with the discretion to decline to accept jurisdiction over an action in favor of a more convenient venue where the interests of justice indicate that the action should be tried in another forum. See, e.g., Sinochem Int’l. Co. Ltd. v. Malaysia Int’l. Shipping Corp., 549 U.S. 422, 429 (2007); Ford v. Brown, 319 F.3d 1302, 1306-07 (11th Cir. 2003).  Under the doctrine, a district court has the inherent power to decline to exercise jurisdiction even where venue is proper.  The defendant believes that, as a witch, she cannot get a fair trial inasmuch as Kansans are by reputation, conservative and bible-thumping Christians.  While the court is sympathetic to the defendant’s concerns, she is not likely to find a more sympathetic jury in any other jurisdiction.  The plaintiff’s motion is denied.

Previously, the plaintiff moved pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §144 demanding that this Court recuse itself.  She claimed that this Court was unable to perform its judicial duties impartially, competently and diligently because she is green and the Court is Caucasian.  The Court denied her motion.  As no sitting federal district court judge is green, the “rule of necessity” as enunciated by Chief Justice Burger in United States v. Will, 449 U.S. 200 (1980) Trumps the plaintiff’s objection.

Apparently, the Munchkins are not a litigious people and there is little or no case law regarding negligence claims in the history of Munchinland jurisprudence.  Citing an obscure choice of law clause in the purchase agreement for the Ruby Slippers, the defendant claims that the case should be decided under New York law.  This court agrees.

As previously stated, the plaintiff’s claim for wrongful death is predicated on a claim of  negligence.  Negligence involves the failure to exercise the degree of care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in the same situation.  See: Gray v Gouz, Inc., 204 A.D.2d 390, 611 N.Y.S.2d 637 (1994); It is not a fixed concept, but is shaped by “time, place and circumstance” (Sadowski v Long Island R.R. Co., 292 N.Y. 448, 455, (1944).

In her defense, the defendant has asserted a defense based upon the common-law emergency doctrines which recognizes that, faced with an emergency, even a reasonable person might choose a course of action which, in hindsight, proves to have been mistaken or ill-advised.  It holds that those faced with a sudden and unexpected circumstance, not of their own making, that leaves them with little or no time for reflection or reasonably causes them to be so disturbed that they are compelled to make a quick decision without weighing alternative courses of conduct, may not be negligent if their actions are reasonable and prudent in the context of the emergency.  See: Caristo v Sanzone, 96 N.Y.2d 172, 174 (2001); Rivera v New York City Tr. Auth., 77 N.Y.2d 322, 327 (1991).

The essence of the emergency doctrine is that, where a sudden and unexpected circumstance leaves a person without time to contemplate or weigh alternative courses of action, that person cannot reasonably be held to the standard of care required of one who has had a full opportunity to reflect, and therefore should not be found negligent unless the course chosen was unreasonable or imprudent in light of the emergent circumstances.  See: Amaro v City of New York, 40 N.Y.2d 30, 36 (1976).

Although the existence of an emergency and the reasonableness of a party’s response to it will ordinarily present questions of fact.  See: Morgan v Ski Roundtop, 290 A.D.2d 618 (2002), they may in appropriate circumstances be determined as a matter of law.  See:  Huggins v Figueroa, 305 A.D.2d 460 (2003).  Here, invoking the emergency doctrine, the defendant established its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by demonstrating that her emergency landing of the house in which she was traveling was made only when the tornado, an act of God, forced her to make an emergency landing.  Apparently, the defendant’s house was not equipped with any brakes or steering mechanism.  Given these circumstances, it is apparent that the defendant had no other course of action but to land the house emergently in the place where the accident occurred.

Although negligence actions are not normally the subject of summary judgment motions, the factual circumstances of this case will lead this Court to the conclusion that summary judgment is appropriate.  Summary judgment is proper to eliminate unnecessary expense to litigants where no issue of material fact is present to justify a trial.  See: Axelrod v. Armitstead, 36 A.D.2d 593 (1st Dept. 1971); Donlon v. Pugliese, 27 A.D.2d 786 (3d Dept. 1967).  In Morowitz v Norton, 150 A.D.2D 536, 51 N.Y.S.2d 122 (2d Dept. 1989), the Court ruled that, “although negligence cases do not generally lend themselves to resolution by a motion for summary judgment, the Court will grant such a motion where, as here, the facts clearly point to the negligence of one party without any culpable conduct from the other.”  While summary judgment is granted infrequently in negligence actions, the remedy should be granted where there is no triable issue of fact. The Court of Appeals in Hartford Acc. & Ind. v. Wesolowski, 33 N.Y.2d 169 (1973), indicated that “the test on a motion for summary judgment is whether there are issues of fact properly to be resolved by a jury (CPLR § 3232(b)).

Accordingly, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment is granted and the plaintiff’s cause of action for wrongful death and personal injury is dismissed. The plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the action based upon a claim of forum non conveniens is denied.  This is a non-final disposition of the case.  The plaintiff’s cause of action for conversion is not affected by this order.

Dated:  January 4, 1941

Hon. L. Frank Baum, U.S.D.C. Senior Judge

© 2016 Donald T. Kiley, Jr. –  dkiley@kileylawfirm.com All Rights Reserved

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You Deserve The Truth Today….

October 1st, 2015 Comments off

Recently, I received one of those “pass-it-on” emails about the 2015 Stella Awards presented for personal injury cases where plaintiffs are supposedly, the beneficiaries of outrageous verdicts and settlements.  See:  http://forum.cakewalk.com/2015-Stella-Awards-m3227858.aspx.  If you don’t wish to waste the time following the link, I’ll summarize.  The cases include a lady who was injured after placing her Winnebago on cruise control and leaving the wheel, and the woman who tripped over her son in a furniture store, and the teenager who was injured when his hand was run over as he tried to steal the car’s hubcaps.  All of these stories are apocryphal urban legends.  They never happened.  Someone(s) made them up. See:  http://www.snopes.com/autos/techno/cruise.asp.

The awards were so named in honor of Stella Liebeck, a plaintiff who was burned after buying McDonald’s coffee.  The “McDonald’s Case” as it is more commonly called, is one that all defense attorneys hope potential jurors have heard.  It’s a true case.  See Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, No. CV-93-02419, 1995 (N.M. Dist., Aug. 18, 1994).  Unfortunately, the story that is most widely circulated has the facts all wrong.  As it is told, Mrs. Liebeck bought a cup of McDonald’s coffee passing through the drive-thru.  She attempted to add sugar to the cup as it was on her lap and burned herself when it spilled.  In truth, McDonald’s knew that its coffee, which they intentionally served at 185 degrees, was likely to cause 3rd degree burns if spilled.  They had repeatedly been warned about the danger of serving its coffee at this temperature AND purposefully ignored these admonitions – because they make money selling really hot coffee to desperate caffeine addicts.  They also knew that customers buying coffee from a drive-thru had no alternative but to add sugar while sitting in their cars.  Mrs. Liebeck, who was 79 years-old, sustained full thickness third-degree burns over six (6%) percent of her body including her inner thighs and genitals.  After leaving the hospital, she asked McDonald’s to reimburse her for her medical bills,  about $11,000.00.   McDonald’s refused to be “extorted,” and offered to pay her $800.00 to go away.  Having no alternative, Mrs. Liebeck brought a lawsuit.  After lengthy discovery and a delayed trial, the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages for her injuries and medical bills, but reduced the award to $160,000 finding that she was also partially at fault for spilling the coffee in the first place. However, the jurors, infuriated by McDonald’s flagrant and callous disregard for the welfare of its customers decided that the company should pay $2.7 Mill. in punitive damages.

The purpose of a punitive damages award is to punish a defendant for purposeful cold-hearted actions and to deter future bad conduct.  Of course the justice system (which the Stella Award people love to malign) has appellate courts, which serve to sever emotion from justice.  The court drastically reduced the punitive damages award.  McDonald’s and Mrs. Liebeck finally settled out of court.  But only on McDonald’s insistence the final settlement was sealed so that it would never be disclosed.

Was Mrs. Liebeck a greedy money-grubbing plaintiff who hit the lottery.  I think not, as I’m sure this elderly woman would gladly have traded the money she was awarded in exchange for the severe pain and permanent damages she lived with for the rest of her life.

The Stella Award committee ignores the many, many cases involving plaintiffs who were terribly injured and appropriately aggrieved, but wrongly denied justice.  I’m sure that the wretched prevaricators (so much a nicer word than “liars”) who sit on the committee would happily resign their seats, hire a personal injury attorney and “sue the bastards” if they were seriously injured as a result of the negligent or purposeful acts of others.

Sir Winston Churchill once said that “democracy is the worst system in the world, except for all the others.” The same is true for our American civil justice system. But we have not yet devised  a better way to resolve these serious claims.

By the way, everybody hates lawyers until they need one.

If you find this blog informative, tell  your friends to have a nice day and pass THIS ONE on.”

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Out-Of-State May Be Out of Mind

April 21st, 2013 Comments off

Have you ever wondered why so many cars parked on a New York City street have out-of-state license plates?  It costs a fortune to own a car and pay for insurance, tolls, gasoline and repairs.  The lure to register and insure a car in a different state where insurance rates are low is strong because New York State’s automobile insurance rates are among the highest in the nation.  But paying less for your annual premium will get you into serious trouble if you have an accident and will likely cost you much more.

A study recently submitted to the New York Senate reported that automobile insurance companies lose approximately $16 billion in lost premiums because of “Insurance Rate Evasion.”  (http://www.nysenate.gov/files/pdfs/InsuranceRateEvasion_Report_PRESSER_0.pdf.).  The only reason the Senate knows about this is because it’s a hot topic with the insurance industry.  And the insurance companies are doing all they can to plug the leaks and recover their losses.

If you report that your car is in an accident, your insurance company will quickly check to see where the accident happened and where you live.  If the accident happened in Brooklyn and your car is registered in another state, don’t expect the insurance company to “fugetaboutit.”  The adjuster will suspect that you may have committed insurance fraud.  He or she will cross check the accident information against your home address and if there’s not a match, they’ll deny your claim.  The company won’t pay to fix your car because you would have deliberately provided false information on your application for insurance.  Check your policy.  Under the “General Provisions” section you’ll find boilerplate language which provides that the company will deny coverage to any insured who has made any material misrepresentation to the company.  And the company will be legally within its rights because your insurance policy is a contract and the company is only obligated to pay claims which are their contractual obligations.  If you breach the contract, the company need not pay for the loss.

Even worse, if you’re injured, you may quickly incur thousands of dollars in medical bills.  When you attempt to collect No-Fault benefits, the company will demand that you appear for an Examination Under Oath (EUO) and ask your questions under oath, swearing to the truth of your answers.  If the company can prove that you lied about your residence in New York, it will deny your claim and you will be responsible for the medical bills.  And don’t think that your health insurance carrier will pay the claim when they discover that you were injured in an auto accident.  You will have to foot the bill yourself.

Furthermore, lying under oath can make your problems much worse.  If you lie to your mother, she may send you to bed without dinner.  If you lie to your wife, she may send you to sleep in another bed.  If you lie to the insurance company’s lawyer after swearing to tell the truth, a judge might make you sleep on a bed inside a 6 ft. by 9 ft. cell because perjury is a crime under Article 210 of the New York State Penal Code.

So think hard before you try to save the cost on your insurance premium.  The money you save will be a fraction of the money you may lose.

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Finding a Guardian Angel

July 11th, 2012 Comments off

As a parent of a minor child, you may in your will designate a guardian for your children in the event that you die during their minority.  The New York State Domestic Relations Law (DRL) § 81 authorizes the appointment of guardians by parents.  The Surrogate, who is the judge who handles estate matters, will generally approve your designee, provided he or she is not a person of dubious character.

Of all the decisions parents make when preparing their wills, the most difficult will likely be the choice of a guardian.

Here are some issues to consider before you make your choice:

(1)        Geographical Proximity (“Something tells me we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”):  Your children will likely have to move in with their guardian.  If you prefer that they continue to live in your neighborhood, then your brother Travis who owns an Alpaca farm in Pocatello, Idaho may not be a good choice.

(2)        Your Children’s Choice (“You’re going to send me WHERE!?”):  This is not a consideration with young children, but once your children reach a certain age, the courts will give some “deference to their preference.”  Either way, it’s good to make sure that your children will be comfortable with your selection.

(3)        Your Spouse’s Preference (“Hey, they’re my kids, too!”):  If you die, the children will come under the care of their other “parent and natural guardian.”  But, if he or she dies first the court will likely confirm your choice.  Still it’s best if you confer and come to an agreement on the same person or persons.

(4)        Religious, Moral and Political Beliefs (Better Not Choose Uncle Buck!):  Your good friends and loving relatives may not share the same beliefs as you do.  Give this consideration, as your children will be under their guardian’s influence.  It’s not likely that your children will go to church if their guardian doesn’t.

(5)        Age and Inclination (“Been there; done that.”):  Make sure that the person you choose choice is young enough and willing to assume the awesome responsibility of raising your children.  No matter how wonderful your children may be, parenting is still a job.  Also, consider that your babies will be minors until they turn eighteen.  Grandma and Grandpa may not be up to the task in fifteen years.

(6)        The Guilt Factor (It’s not just reserved for Catholics and Jews): Your friend or relation may agree to be the guardian of your children because they love you and your child.  Make sure that they feel comfortable to say no, if they believe that the burden is too great.

(7)        The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe Problem (Or . . . never have more children than you have car windows.):  Consider whether your prospective guardian has too many other children.  They may always have room for your children in their hearts, but make sure they have enough rooms in their house.

(8)        Financial Stability: (“A Fool and Your Children’s Money Are Soon Parted”): Your children’s guardian need not be the same person as the trustee who will invest their assets and manage their money.  Nonetheless the guardian should be good with money.  At the very least, his or her responsibility in this regard will impart an important lesson to your children.

Too many people postpone making a will because they cannot agree or decide on a guardian.  Never fear.  There is likely no perfect choice, as you can’t expect that your friends or family will make all the same choices you might make.  Nevertheless, consider the pros and cons for each possible choice.  Make up your mind and don’t delay making your will.

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When is a Bank Check Monopoly Money?

July 2nd, 2012 Comments off

Americans have become accustomed to believing that the gold standard for banking transactions is a bank check.  The issuing bank guarantees that the check is as good as cash.  Right?  Wrong.

Let’s say that your Grandma died last week and you’re selling her wedding ring on e-bay.  A prospective buyer may offer to pay you with a bank check, which is a form of a cashier’s check.  Sounds great.  After all, it’s the BANK’s check.  Once you deposit the check in your account, the money will be yours the next day because your bank (the depositing bank),  must make the money available to you on the first business day after you deposit the check.  That’s the law, as the Expedited Funds Availability Act (12 CFR 229.10) assures next day availability.  What most people don’t know is that when your bank makes the money available, it is only making a “provisional settlement,” because the depository bank has not yet collected the funds from the drawee bank, from which the check was drawn.  Your bank acts as your agent to process the check and must wait for the issuing bank to transfer the funds, before the money is really yours.  If the check is fraudulent because it was printed by a Nigerian con artist, then the “drawee bank” either does not exist or the account is a fake.  When the check is dishonored your bank will charge you back and deduct the money from your account.  If you’ve spent the money or, God forbid, wired some of it back to the con artist to refund him for his overpayment, he’ll have the jewelry, your money and “your goat.”   He’ll sell the diamond on the black market, use your money to run another scam and give the goat to his family for milking.  Even worse, the bank will sue you to retrieve its money.

How is this possible? The check is no good, so the drawee bank won’t honor it.  But, you might say, “the teller told me that I could take the money the next day!”  Your bank won’t take the loss, because the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) gives the depository bank the right of “charge back” when the check is fraudulent, even if your bank screws up and the teller misled you.  Under the UCC, your bank still has the right of charge back even if it “fail(s) . . . to exercise ordinary care with respect to the item.”  (See U.C.C. § 4-214(d)(1)).

Bankers will argue that this is a fair process, as our monetary system demands speedy transactions.  If the public wants quick access to their money, there’s a price to be paid.  They will also argue that the great majority of check transactions are not fraudulent. Still, bank check fraud is a serious issue if you are the victim.

Unfortunately, there is a hierarchy in the legal pantheon which is best illustrated by analogy to a pyramid.  At the base of the pyramid are local ordinances and regulations.  On the next rung up the pyramid are the laws of the individual states.  On top of that you’ll find our system of Federal Constitutional Law.  Superimpose on top of the Constitution, God’s laws and commandments. Then at the very top of the pyramid are the banking rules and regulations.

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What’s In a Name?

May 17th, 2012 Comments off

When you leave the womb and greet the world your parents give you a name and put it on your birth certificate.  Nobody asks your opinion.  You get no chance to object.  As soon as they’ve determined whether your blanket should be blue or pink, they hang a name on you that you wear for the rest of your life.  So you don’t like the name Mabel?  Ignatz is not your preference?  Suck it up.  You can’t fight it.  Or can you?

You might be surprised to know that it’s relatively easy to change your name.  Article 6 of the Civil Rights Law of the State of New York outlines the procedure to make a change and the applicable rules.

People are most likely to change their surnames, rather than their given names.  But you may change either or both.  The most common scenario occurs when a wife assumes her husband’s surname at the altar.  But did you know that the marriage license application offers other options?  Under the Domestic Relations Law (D.R.L.) §15(b)(1) either or both spouses can change their names when they apply for a marriage license.  The application form prompts you to make the decision.  You can opt to change your name to:

(a)  your spouse’s surname,

(b)  your spouse’s former surname;

(c)  any name “combining into a single surname all or a segment of the premarriage surname or any former surname of each spouse”; or

(iv) a combination name separated by a hyphen, provided that each part of such combination surname is the premarriage surname,  or  any  former  surname, of each of the spouses.

Confused?  Not nearly as much as your wedding guests will be when they receive a thank you card from “Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz-O’Reilly-DiGiorgio-Slovinsky.”

Your surname, doesn’t automatically change when you get married, but if you do elect to change your name on your marriage license, the license will be proof of the change.  The procedure is relatively simple, as long as it’s done coincidentally with applying for a marriage license.

Suppose you’re not getting married, but want to change your name for another reason.  Did your parents give you a first name that makes you the subject of derision?  Maybe your last name is too difficult to spell or embarrassing to say.  Or perhaps your parents just didn’t consider that certain given names shouldn’t be matched with certain surnames.  Consider the case of poor Anita Hoare who lives in Bournemouth, United Kingdom:  http://www.linkedin.com/pub/anita-hoare/26/472/2b0

For every Constance Noring, Adam Zapel, Chris Coe or Crystal Ball there is hope.  A petition under Civil Rights Law §60 must be in “writing, signed by the petitioner and verified in a like manner as a pleading in a court of record, and shall specify the grounds of the application, the name, date of birth, place of birth, age and residence of the individual whose name is proposed to be changed and the name which he or she proposes to assume.”

The petition must be approved by a judge who will inquire if you’ve been convicted of a crime or adjudicated a bankrupt or owe back child support.  You are required to disclose any judgments or liens of record or actions or proceedings against you.  If any of these situations apply, you’ll need to explain why the change is justified and is not a surreptitious attempt to avoid your legal obligations.  Similarly, if you have been convicted of a violent felony, your application must be made on notice to the district attorney, division of parole or county probation department.

If you pay your fee, file your petition, get approval from the court and publish the judge’s order in the newspaper that he directs, you may legally change your name.  There’s also a provision in the statute that may exempt a petitioner from publishing the order if the court reasonably believes that his or her safety may be risk.

So there is hope.  If you can’t stand that your name is “Duane Pipe,” you don’t have to take it anymore.  Get up!  Be the Earl E. Bird, and file your petition.  Tell the judge you’ve been to Helen Back.  When you make the change you can celebrate by having a Hy Ball and proclaim “Ida Clair, that I’m not a Lou Zar, anymore!”

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UMmmm . . . SUM Auto Insurance Policies are Better Than Others

April 24th, 2012 Comments off

One of the least understood and, therefore, overlooked options for automobile insurance is the one that provides uninsured and underinsured liability coverage.  It is listed on the policy declarations page under the heading “UM/SUM.”

Uninsured Motorist coverage “UM” is mandated by New York State.  It protects the driver and passengers of a vehicle who are injured by uninsured negligent drivers.  Each car insured in New York State must have, at minimum, the basic “$25K/$50K” coverage.  That is, a maximum of $25,000.00 per injured person and a maximum of $50,000.00 to be divided among all injured persons.

Confused?  Here’s how it works.  If a thrice-convicted drunk driver forgets to pay his auto insurance premium and kills a forty-year-old father of four by rear ending him into a concrete divider, the man’s wife can recover $25,000.00 from his own insurance company under his basic UM coverage.

However, if one of his children is also in the car suffers a head injury and is permanently brain damaged, he too can recover $25,000.00.

But if a second child is in the backseat and sustains bilateral comminuted “tib/fib” fractures, his wife and the two children will split $50,000.00.  And not a dime more.

“Wow,” you might wonder, “how can this family be financially protected from such an unfathomable tragedy?”  That’s where “Supplemental Underinsured Motorist” coverage helps.  If Dad has a $300K/$500K liability policy with DoRight Insurance Company, he can purchase SUM coverage up to the same amount as his liability coverage.  Then if the driver has no insurance or a policy with lower liability coverage, his own insurance company will indemnify him for the difference between the two policies.  So, if Dad was alone in the car, his wife could recover $275,000.00 from DoRight.  And if two or more people were in the vehicle, they will split $450,000.00 between them.

Purchasing UM/SUM coverage for the same limits as your liability insurance makes sense.  It’s the only way to protect yourself against uninsured and underinsured drivers.  And who wouldn’t want to protect himself and his loved ones as much as he protects a stranger?  Besides UM/SUM coverage is cheaper than a ten-dollar whore at a French seaport and UM/SUM claims are not “charged against” the owner’s policy.

So . . . why doesn’t every owner buy the maximum coverage?  There are several reasons:

(1)        IGNORANCE.  Many people just don’t understand how automobile insurance works.

(2)        STUPIDITY.  Some drivers ignore the advice of well-informed and well-intentioned insurance brokers (most are in this category) who recommend that they purchase the maximum UM/SUM.

(3)        AVARICE.  A few sleazy insurance brokers know that there is little profit to be made selling UM/SUM coverage and try to lure customers by selling policies with the cheapest premiums.

(4)        SLOTH.  A few other brokers are too lazy to bother scrutinizing the policy or explaining to the customer how SUM works and why it is so important.

Don’t fall victim to one of these sins.  Examine your insurance policy.  If you have the maximum UM/SUM coverage, pat yourself on the back, praise your insurance broker or thank your lucky stars. If you don’t have the coverage, wake up, get smart and find a good broker.

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“Eeeney, Meeney, Miney, Moe”

February 13th, 2012 Comments off

                If you are ever called for jury duty, the lawyers will say that they are looking for jurors who will be impartial.  They’re lying.  Any trial lawyer worth his salt wants jurors who will favor his client.  The jury system works when each lawyer is able to “strike” the jurors who would seem to favor the other litigant.  Each lawyer can “challenge” and eliminate any and all jurors who admit that they are predisposed to favor the other side.  But what about the jurors who say they will be fair but harbor sympathies for one side or another?  Luckily, each lawyer has a certain number (usually three) of “peremptory challenges” which may be exercised to remove a juror who the lawyer believes may harbor secret or latent sympathies for the other litigant – or worse, hate your client.  Sorting the jurors who favor your client from the ones who won’t is a tricky business. 

                Historically, attorneys select jurors based on intuition and formulaic profile.  Some lawyers hire jury consultants to render expert insight into human behavior.  But looking for jurors who will “like” your client is more of an art form than a science project.  Most people harbor prejudices of one type or another.  These are not always nefarious and many come from innocent practical experience.  Juror “number one” might like cab drivers because she’s married to one.  Juror “number two” – who’s actually ridden in a cab – might think that cab drivers are inherently reckless.  Oops . . .  there I’ve divulged one of my biases.  The problem with jury selection is that the average person doesn’t like to admit that he or she may be prejudiced, especially when challenged by a lawyer in front of the other members of the jury panel.  “Mrs. Smith,” the lawyer might ask “I know that your son was killed by a cab driver driving on the sidewalk in Manhattan, but won’t you will be fair to my client?”  In truth, it’s not that Mrs. Smith won’t be fair; she can’t be fair.  And that’s understandable.  As far as I know there was only one Mother Theresa and she’s dead and won’t be in the jury pool.  The only way that a juror may truly be fair is to recognize and admit his or her inclinations.

                The challenge for the trial lawyer is to discern a candidate’s personal history and predispositions in the space of a few minutes.  This is why attorneys profile potential jurors based upon career, education, geographic origin, race and ethnicity.  By profiling, the lawyer may seem to be showing his own prejudices.  In fact, he’s trying to intuit the jurors’ prejudices and has to rely on stereotypes to do so.  Homeowners and shopkeepers typically don’t like people who bring lawsuits when they trip and fall.  Elderly white people from Douglaston Manor typically fear black rappers from Jamaica.  Kindergarten teachers typically cry when they hear that a little child was hurt in a car accident.  Bankers typically don’t like anyone who sues for money damages (unless, of course they themselves are injured.)         

                It’s illegal to racially profile jurors, as the United States Supreme Court outlawed this practice in the case of Batson v. Kentucky,476 U.S. 79 (1986).  Mr. Batson was a black man who was convicted of burglary.  During voire dire (jury selection), the prosecutor peremptorily challenged all four black people on the jury panel.  Batson’s conviction was overturned on appeal because his jury was exclusively composed of white people.  The stated reasoning behind the Court’s decision was that a man is entitled to be tried by a jury which represents a cross section of his community.  Of course, the Court’s unstated conclusion was that a black man charged with burglary in Kentucky doesn’t have a puncher’s chance to be acquitted by twelve white people.  In reality, the Batson jurors may have been fair-minded, color-blind people and Mr. Batson may have been caught red-handed.  It’s just that the case didn’t pass the “smell test.”  Yet in making its decision the Supreme Court Justices expressed their own prejudices against white southerners.  Why did they do so?  Because guaranteeing a fair trial for Batson was more important than offending the sensibilities of the jurors whose liberty was not in issue.  Since Batson, courts have extended the prohibition against profiling to include gender-based jury challenges but the courts have expressed no opinion about other types of profiling.    

                In fact, racial and sexual profiling continues to be an acknowledged, if sub rosa, jury selection technique.  An injured plaintiff typically wants a jury composed of liberal-minded, soft-hearted, generous, empathetic people.  Defendants typically prefer conservative, unemotional, and financially prudent people.  The risk in stereotyping is that people are not always who they seem to be.  So it’s important to get a feel for the person behind his or her job, race, color, address or educational background.  Therein lies the rub and it’s most important to ask questions of the juror which will provide insight as to their character, thought processes and personal experiences. 

Next: Picking a Jury in Queens County

“Eeeney, Meeney, Miney, Moe”

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Have Some Tricky Questions? We’ll Treat You to Some Answers.

October 31st, 2011 1 comment

Lately, we’ve been flooded with mail from readers with legal problems and questions. I thought it would be appropriate to use the Kiley Blog to post some of the better ones.

 

A desperate housewife posed question about divorce law:

Dear Blogger,

My husband doesn’t seem to understand me and won’t communicate. I try to engage him in conversation but he mostly just grunts in response. I try to put the spark back in our marriage but he only says, “Fire . . . bad.” He’s abusive, but usually focuses his anger on local villagers carrying pitchforks. Sometimes, I think he’s a real monster. Do I have grounds for divorce?

Signed,

The Bride of Frankenstein

Dear Bride,

You’re in luck. On October 13, 2010, the New York State legislature passed a no-fault divorce statute. You can now bring an irretrievable-breakdown divorce action under D.R.L. §170(7). Good luck finding a process server.

 

 A merchant wrote a question about the Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C):

Dear Blogger,

I wanted to order a supply of straight edge razors, but my office manager accidentally ordered a pallet of double blade Gillette Venus razors. They’re so safe. You can’t even nick someone with one. Do I have to take delivery of them?

Signed,

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Dear Barber,

§ 2-507 of the UCC regards Effect of Seller’s Tender; Delivery on Condition. Sub-section

(1) provides that “tender of delivery is a condition to the buyer’s duty to accept the goods and, unless otherwise agreed, to his duty to pay for them.” If I were you, I’d keep them, break them in half and sell them to the old lady at the end of the street who’ll stick them in apples and give them to trick-or-treaters.

 

Another reader asked a question about criminal law:

Dear Blogger,

I’ve been a very bad boy and committed mass murder. Well, to be truthful, I’ve committed several mass murders. You see, it’s a sequel thing and the movie-going public can’t seem to get enough. Now, I’m concerned that I may be caught and prosecuted. I’ve got two questions. First, I’ve got a contract for two more pictures. Can my director be convicted for aiding and abetting me? Second, what’s the difference between consecutive and concurrent sentencing.

Signed,

Freddy (Last name withheld upon request)

Dear Fred,

If your director is directly responsible for the actus reus (guilty act), he’ll be considered your joint principal and could be charged for the actual crime. But if he merely encourages you to “go with it” and be creative, he’d only be guilty of being an accessory to your crimes. As to your second question, New York State Penal Law § 70.25 (2) provides that concurrent sentences must be imposed “for two or more offenses committed through a single act or omission, or through an act or omission which in itself constituted one of the offenses and also was a material element of the other.” As for the applicability of your facts to the law, I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the genre. You’ll have to ask Roger Ebert.

 

This reader was named the as beneficiary in his probate a neighbor’s will but was frustrated by the probate process.

Dear Blogger,

I helped a neighbor write his biography and he named me as the sole beneficiary in his will. The man was pretty much a loner and only came out at night. I’d have to confess that he was a little batty. He was very old when he died and I can’t find his birth certificate. Also, he grew up in a remote section of Romania and I can’t seem to find his family. What should I do?

Signed,

Bram Stoker

Dear Bram,

You’ve got a problem. The New York State Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) requires you to locate his heirs at law. If he had no spouse or children, you’ll need to research his family tree all the way back to his grandparents on both sides. You’ve got to diligently do your research. If I were you, I’d spend the money to hire a genealogist. Why not go with him and make a vacation out of it. I’ve heard that Transylvania is beautiful this time of year.

Dear Readers,

Keep those questions coming in. I’ll be happy to answer them or not, depending on my moods.

Sincerely,

The Blogger

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Encroachment…Defense…5 Yard Penalty!

October 2nd, 2011 Comments off

In the 3rd Millennium, prehistoric man picked up his hunting and gathering tools and moved to Mesopotamia to live with his fellow former cavemen. Thus, began civilization. The dawn of the next day witnessed the first dispute between adjacent landowners. It probably started over something minor. Perhaps Uruku’s camel too frequently fertilized Ebarbar’s front lawn. An argument ensued over picayune matters and quickly escalated to a full-blown feud until Ebarbar finally settled the matter by burying the hatchet . . . in Uruku’s skull.

After Hammurabi codified the laws, the hatchet solution became passé. So was spawned the first lawyer. Five thousand years later people still fight with their neighbors and lawyers are still busy.

Not-so-neighborly disputes arise over boundary lines, shared driveways, noise complaints and innumerable other actual or perceived injuries. To solve these problems, I advise my clients of their five options:

You can sue the bastards, but civil litigation is costly.

You can do like Ebarbar did, but criminal defense attorneys are also expensive and felony murder can get you a long prison term.

You can try to work it out.

You can ignore it.

You can move.

If the offense is minor, I always advise the client to choose option three and fallback on option four. No matter how many times your neighbor puts his trash cans on your side of the driveway, it’s not worth it to sue him. If you do, it will cost you money, time and aggravation. And it won’t solve the problem. You’ll find yourself mired in the quagmire of trench warfare which will make you paranoid and anxious. You’ll never again feel that you are at “home sweet home.”

Some offenses cannot be ignored or excused. If your neighbor paves over your lawn to make a larger driveway for his boat and RV, his encroachment impairs the value of your land and clouds your title – perhaps making it unmarketable. What can you do in such a case?

First, you should research the title to your property to see who owns the land in question. Check for easements, which are recorded agreements permitting adjacent property owners to use or cross your land. It may be that a prior owner gave your neighbor the right to place his driveway next to your geraniums.

It is essential to know your property line. Where does your land end and his begin? Only a licensed land surveyor can make that determination. It’s expensive to obtain a new survey. But if your surveyor can locate an existing survey, he can compare it with the “meets and bounds” description in your deed. He will measure your property by reference to fixed points such as intersections. The surveyor researches available property records and compares adjoining properties. He then measures distances with references to compass points to identify your property lines. Ask the surveyor to “stake the property” so that you can see for yourself and show your neighbor.

If your inspection reveals that your neighbor’s driveway is less that one foot inside your property line, a title company will insure the property as such deviations are minor. However, if own a small lot, a one foot encroachment can be significant regardless that your ownership is insured. Then, it’s your call whether to make an issue of it.

If the surveyor confirms that your neighbor’s driveway extends more than one foot onto your land you must take action to remedy the problem and reclaim the land. Even if you don’t mind the intrusion, it may prevent you from selling the house if your buyer can’t get title insurance or his mortgage lender determines that the value of the “lost” property severely impairs their investment. In the worst case scenario, an obvious, obtrusive and offensive use of your land for more than ten years will allow your neighbor to take the property by “adverse possession.”

What then can you do? Machiavelli once said, “There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.” But he didn’t have to pay a lawyer or live next door to his mortal enemy. Decide if the encroachment really bothers you or significantly impairs your use of the property. If not, one solution is to negotiate and sign a Boundary Line Agreement, by which you may permit your neighbor to use the land with the understanding that he doesn’t own it. It’s a good compromise. He keeps his driveway and avoids the cost and inconvenience of relocating it. You keep good title to the property and avoid the cost of litigation. You both avoid conflict which is essential to your sanity and peace of mind. Remember. You live here. This is “home” where you should be safe and happy.

The Boundary Line Agreement can be drafted so that it will expire upon a future event, such as when your neighbor sells the property or needs to repave the driveway. That provides a permanent but bloodless solution.

If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to resolve the problem amicably, it will be easier to justify spending the time and money to sue him.

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