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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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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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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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Port Authority has governmental immunity for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing

September 22nd, 2011 Comments off

As reported in the New York Law Journal today, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has governmental immunity against liability for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center by terrorists who parked an explosive-laden truck in its underground parking lot, a narrowly divided state Court of Appeals ruled this morning.

Six people were killed in the attack and hundreds were hurt. Many of those injured and the survivors of those killed argued in suits that the Port Authority ignored repeated warnings by security experts about the vulnerability of the parking garages to bombers.

Today’s ruling overturns a decision by the Appellate Division, First Department, which found the Port Authority 68 percent responsible for the attacks and the terrorists 32 percent responsible. The Port Authority has argued for years that it makes no sense to hold the agency twice as responsible for the damages for an attack willfully launched by terrorists.Now a 4-3 majority of the state’s highest court has accepted the agency’s position.  The governmental immunity doctrine is “intended to afford deference to the exercise of discretion by the officials of municipalities and governmental entities,” especially with regard to the allocation of limited police resources, Judge Theodore T. Jones Jr. wrote for the majority.  “Governmental entities cannot be expected to be absolute, infallible guarantors of public safety, but in order to encourage them to engage in the affirmative conduct of diligently investigating security vulnerabilities and implementing appropriate safeguards, they must be provided with the latitude to render those critical decisions without threat of legal repercussions,” Judge Jones wrote in Matter of World Trade Center Bombing Litigation v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 217.

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Judging the Judges

June 16th, 2011 Comments off

It’s one of the lessons they don’t teach in law school or in any of the scholarly tomes on legal jurisprudence. Until you learn it, you are doomed to fail: there are three parties to every lawsuit: the plaintiff, the defendant and the judge. And the man* in the black dress trumps the other two every time.

Underneath the dress, judges are real people. Like all, they have strengths and weaknesses. But there are two prototypes – the “good judge” and the “bad judge.”

The good judge avoids the spotlight and is invisible until trouble brews. He has control at all times, but lets the lawyers try their own cases. He understands that real lawyers have more than one case. He knows that lawyers are real people with families and personal lives. He “moves” his caseload promptly. He also knows when a lawyer truly needs an adjournment and gives it to him. He can’t be walked over. He commands respect without having to demand it. He knows (or learns) the applicable law and all the proper rules of evidence and civil procedure. He makes prompt procedural decisions, but not until he first permits the lawyers to make their legal arguments. He doesn’t take offense easily or arbitrarily threaten to hold attorneys in contempt. He understands that expert witnesses have professional practices and tries to accommodate their busy schedules, knowing that the litigants will suffer if he precludes the expert’s testimony because he is not available at the judge’s “beck and call.” He is willing to work when the trial starts and not procrastinate. He doesn’t try to scare the parties or harass the lawyers. He makes the jurors comfortable. He is an honor to the sacred oath he takes to uphold the “public trust” and faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon them. In short, he channels the wisdom of King Solomon, who implored God to give him “an understanding heart to judge thy people and to know good and evil.”

The bad judge can hurt or kill your case.  He behaves like a tyrant. He interposes himself unnecessarily and tries the case for the lawyer, frequently losing it. He makes facial gestures to the jury, improperly and surrepticiously opining about the evidence in ways that won’t show on the record and, therefore, cannot be appealed. He doesn’t care whether justice is served, as long as he “moves” the case. He will pressure whichever side seems most pliable, regardless of the equities. He will “ice” the jurors by making them  wait  unnecessarily until they become so jaundiced by “the process” that the lawyers feel compelled to settle. He will unnecessarily berate an attorney, often threatening to hold him in contempt.  He relishes the chance to harangue inexperienced lawyers. He doesn’t know the law and doesn’t care to learn it. He forces the lawyers to produce expert witnesses at times when the witnesses have genuine scheduling conflicts, thereby creating unwarranted and untenable animosities between the witness and the lawyer. He makes attorneys sit and wait for days to pick a jury thereby creating office management problems. In short, he promotes the sale of Pepcid, Pepto Bismol, Xanax and Prozac.

Perry Mason, Boston Legal, L.A. Law, Law & Order miss the real action which frequently happens on the bench.  Judges rule their courtrooms like feudal lords. The great ones are like Solomon: wise and courteous. The bad ones are stupid, lazy and/or nasty. Once a client gave me a sweatshirt imprinted with the words, “A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.” The lawyer who can’t tell the difference between the good and bad judges, is doomed.

* Author’s Comment: the blogger takes literary license to use masculine pronouns so that the prose flows and does not cause the reader to doze.

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