Archive for the 'Personal Injury' Category

Man Held in Jail for 5 Days Without Food or Water Sues Feds

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Well, this is embarrassing. A few weeks ago, a young man was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and held in a jail cell for five days, with no human contact, food, water, or even a toilet. And this was after he was told that he would be released without being charged, just as soon as the authorities finished up some paperwork on his case.

But when 23-year-old UC San Diego engineering student Daniel Chong sat alone for several hours, he started to get annoyed. As the hours turned into days, he began to fear for his life. After all, going just a few days without water can cause severe health problems, which could quickly become life-threatening.

When he was finally found in his cell, Chong was delirious and weak. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors said he was close to suffering kidney failure, and was so dehydrated that he was having trouble breathing. He had to spend 3 days in intensive care, and was hospitalized for a total of 5 days. I’m no doctor (obviously), but it sounds like he wouldn’t have survived another day or two in that cell.

Indeed, the article linked above indicates that, after a few days, the solitude, hunger, thirst, and fear truly got to him, and he began to lose his mind. He even tried to take his own life by breaking his glasses and cutting his wrist with the broken glass. Thankfully, he did not succeed in this attempt.

Well, he is now suing the federal government for $20 million, to compensate him for this ordeal.

While some people may argue that this is excessive (and if the federal government is smart, it will end up settling with him), and goes well beyond simply compensating the victim for his injuries. However, it’s impossible to put an exact dollar amount on the amount of mental and physical anguish that Mr. Chong must have suffered in his ordeal. What he went through is something I would never wish on my worst enemy.

And if this lawsuit ensures that such blunders never happen again, I’d say it would be worth every penny that the government has to pay out. Because, frankly, the fact that this happened is an absolute disgrace to the federal government, and an embarrassment to all of us.

Think about it: a person (who was ultimately never charged with a crime) almost died of thirst in federal custody, because everyone involved in his arrest and detention apparently just forgot about his existence. Some might say that he was a criminal, and we shouldn’t be shedding any tears for him.

To that I have two responses: first, he was never actually charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. Second, even if he had been convicted of a major drug-related crime, it would in no way excuse what was done to this man. After all, in this country we generally pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t engage in cruel and unusual punishment. And if starving/dehydrating somebody half to death doesn’t constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment, I’d love to know what does.

Incidents like this harm the legitimacy of law enforcement in the public’s eyes, as well as the legitimacy of government in general. And we seem to be going through a phase where the public’s faith in the government’s ability to (or interest in) doing its job is at a historic low. And these types of incidents certainly don’t help matters.

Now, I don’t think the individual DEA agents involved in this incident left the victim in the jail cell on purpose. It probably was an honest (albeit very serious) mistake. Chances are, they were overworked, and lacked some of the administrative and logistical support they needed in order to keep track of the people in their custody. Such a scenario, in this era of government austerity and across-the-board budget cuts, is easy to imagine.

I think this incident, and similar ones, are partially a symptom of our broken drug laws. The United States imprisons more people than any other country on Earth. A large plurality of the people in federal and state custody in the U.S. were convicted of drug charges – casualties of the “war on drugs” that the government initiated in the 1980s. The fact is, American drug policy has resulted in the incarceration of more people than the system was designed to handle, leading to overcrowding of prisons, skyrocketing costs, and, occasionally, tragic incidents like the one discussed in this article.

While I don’t pretend to have a perfect solution to the overlapping problems of drug abuse and over-incarceration, I think a few simple reforms could reduce these problems significantly. For example, it’s glaringly obvious that our mass-incarceration approach to the drug problem has failed. It has overcrowded the prisons, led to skyrocketing law enforcement costs, and it does not appear to have done much to curb illegal drug use.

A good first step would be to stop relying on prisons as the primary method for dealing with the illegal drug problem, and focusing instead on treatment and rehabilitation programs, which can cost far less than prison, and be far more effective in reducing drug use. Furthermore, I’d like to see possession of small amounts of recreational drugs such as marijuana decriminalized.

Of course, I’m not saying that reforming our drug laws would solve the very separate problem of government incompetence, but by arresting fewer people, the burden on a large number of government employees (such as DEA agents, for example) would be reduced, which would almost certainly reduce the occurrence of incidents like this one.

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13 Charged in Deadly Hazing Incident

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Most of us have heard of hazing. Some see it as an essential element of being admitted into a new social group, which could be anything from a college fraternity to a bridge club.

Some might claim that hazing – any type of ritual that involves putting a new initiate to a social group through some type of physical and/or psychological ordeal – is deeply ingrained into human psychology, and that we often engage in it at a subconscious level, without even being aware of it.

Indeed, most of the time, rituals or behaviors that could reasonably be classified as “hazing” are pretty harmless.

However, there are cases where hazing rituals, particularly when alcohol and testosterone are involved, can go way beyond simple pranks, and can become dangerous or even deadly. In one tragic case, a drum major in a marching band at a Florida university died during a hazing gone awry. 13 of his former band-mates are now being charged in his death, with crimes including both felony and misdemeanor hazing.

The exact details of the victim’s death are not entirely clear. It’s known that he collapsed on a bus while returning from a football game in Orlando, and that the coroner ruled his death a homicide. He died of internal bleeding caused by blunt-force trauma. The coroner also found that he had suffered multiple severe blows. From what it sounds like, he was essentially beaten to death.

Whatever the exact details of the incident might be, it’s clear that something went very, very wrong.

Hopefully, as more information leading up to the trial comes to light, we’ll learn more about exactly what happened.

Over the last decade or so, a few high-profile incidents of hazing involving high school and college students have brought the issue to national attention, and led to many states passing laws specifically targeting the practice.

While the general criminal law of almost every state would cover the conduct that can occur in the most extreme hazing incidents (including torture, battery, and sexual assault), anti-hazing laws are more targeted, and are designed to eliminate all violent hazing, and preventing instances where the conduct in a hazing ritual was clearly deplorable, but did not quite rise to the level of criminal conduct under a state’s existing criminal laws.

Additionally, these laws send a message that hazing of any type, even “harmless” hazing, is not something that society should tolerate anymore. After all, many hazing incidents that ended in death or serious injury probably did not start out with that as the intended result. But when you get a bunch of (usually) young men together, and mix in alcohol, machismo, and an atmosphere that at least tacitly encourages the group to violently gang up on an individual, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

This type of conduct goes far beyond “boys being boys.” Some might say that hazing is simply part of human nature, and that attempting to suppress it is pointless. It may be true that conduct such as hazing is a manifestation of the darkest, basest aspects of human nature, but part of it nonetheless. But the same can be said for crimes like rape and murder, and nobody will seriously argue that the law shouldn’t try to curb such behavior.

After all, one of the main reasons for the existence of a legal system is to elevate society above the baser impulses of its individual members. Laws against hazing, I think, are an example of one of the positive steps we can take to that end.

Obviously, these laws need to be sensible, and should probably only apply when a hazing incident actually results in somebody being harmed. I’m not advocating a “zero-tolerance” policy, in the traditional sense of the term. After all, we’ve all heard stories where laws that are intended to “get tough” on a given problem, whether it’s illegal drugs, weapons in schools, sex crime, etc. have been stretched to absurd lengths, sometimes ruining the lives of people that the laws could not possibly have been intended to affect.

I don’t want to see a situation where people are going to jail for drawing things on the face of a passed-out fraternity pledge, for example. But, if anti-hazing laws make it a little bit easier to prosecute the people involved in incidents that result in death or serious injury, I think they’re a good idea, on balance.

States that have not done so already should begin adopting anti-hazing laws as soon as possible.

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Will Personal Injury Lawsuits Eventually End Football?

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That’s a question that several legal bloggers have been positing over the last few weeks. The concerns largely stem from studies suggesting that the long-term effects of concussion injuries (which are quite common in football players, including those at the age level of high school and younger) may be far more severe than anybody thought. This is focused around the revelation that suffering large numbers of very minor concussions (which are extremely common in football) significantly increases the long-term risk of severe brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.

There have also been a few high-profile suicides committed by athletes, including a few very promising young football and hockey players. Autopsies revealed that some of these athletes suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disorder caused by sustaining multiple concussions over a long period of time. The symptoms of this disorder include severe depression and dementia, which would partially explain the suicides.

As one might expect, there is some fear that this new information might lead to tort lawsuits, which would cost the defendants a large amount of money in judgments and settlements. It’s conceivable that several years of this could become so costly that insurance companies would stop offering liability insurance to football organizations, which would effectively prevent them from operating.

And even if the NFL manages to deflect these lawsuits, or absorb their costs, high school and college football programs may not be so lucky. If a large majority of these programs were shut down, the NFL would have a much smaller pool of new talent, which could bleed it dry in the long run.

Personally, I think that these fears about lawsuits destroying football are pretty overblown. It’s currently the most popular sport in the United States, and generates billions of dollars in economic activity. Furthermore, football players (at least at the college and professional level, where they’re adults) can be said to have assumed the risk of injury by voluntarily playing football.

However, at the high school level, the legal and moral issues become far less clear. After all, most high school students are under the legal age of consent, so it’s hard to claim that they knowingly and intelligently assumed the risk of brain injury. In most situations, a child’s parents can give consent for them. But if you assume that a child cannot make decisions with enough maturity to legally give consent for something (and that’s the assumption that underlies laws that establish an age of majority), and the risk they incur in playing football is permanent brain injury that follows them for the rest of their lives, it’s not really fair for their parents to make that decision for them, either.

Generally, however, I don’t think that football fans have anything to worry about. In fact, a few successful and costly lawsuits against football programs may actually improve its long-term prospects, as counterintuitive as that sounds.

After all, if a few football organizations were sued because some players suffered long-term brain injuries, they would probably have a good incentive to invest in better safety equipment, especially improved helmets. If this equipment significantly reduces the risk of CTE, football clubs will have far less to worry about in the lawsuit department.

Some commentators, while remaining hopeful about the future of football, raise a rather unsettling possibility: the NFL will simply use its substantial lobbying clout to persuade state legislatures to either ban lawsuits against them for CTE, or make such lawsuits so difficult for the plaintiffs that they aren’t worth the effort.

This might save football, but it’s arguably the worst possible outcome – even worse than football being sued out of existence. If personal injury lawsuits against football organizations are effectively banned, they will have no incentive to invest in safer equipment, or improve their safety rules.

This will mean another generation of young people suffering from chronic brain injury.

Basically, that illustrates the problem with the arguments made by many advocates of “tort reform.” We don’t face a choice between lawsuits destroying a beloved sports institution (or the entire economy), and making it impossible for victims of negligence who have suffered real injuries from receiving compensation from those injuries. But that’s how tort “reformers” often frame the debate.

In a legal system that guards against frivolous lawsuits, the civil justice system and the litigation process can be a force for positive change. If football clubs face lawsuits over brain injures, and these lawsuits become too costly, it will be in their economic self-interest to take steps to make the sport safer, either through investments in better safety equipment, or modifying the rules of the game to minimize head injury, or both.

There is historical precedent for this, as well. In 1905, football had just established itself as a popular sport in America. As more people played the game, more players began dying from injuries sustained on the field. It got to the point that there were serious proposals in Congress and state legislatures to ban the sport altogether. President Roosevelt persuaded the NFL to change the rules to eliminate certain plays that were responsible for most of these injuries. And thus, the sport was saved.

I’m sure a lot of people complained back then that these changes destroyed the spirit of the game. But over 100 years later, the sport of football is doing just fine. I think this is simply an example of history repeating itself. Football will adapt. And, hopefully, they won’t find it necessary to make it impossible for people who have been injured to recover compensation for their injuries.

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Facebook Involved in an Unusual Lawsuit between Uncle and Nephew

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Family feuds have been a common form of entertainment on television.  Many of us have tuned in to watch shows like Family Feud, Modern Family, Growing Pains, etc.  In the legal realm, family feuds have comprised of a practice termed family law.  Attorneys who practice family law are considered to have a “tough heart” by many because it is not easy watching families endure events such as divorces and custody battles.  Speaking of families and lawsuits, a recent lawsuit of a nephew sewing his uncle for harassment over Facebook pictures gives new meaning to the term “family feud.”

A man from Minnesota named Aaron Olson sued his uncle because his uncle had posted childhood pictures of him, in front of a Christmas tree, in a rabbit costume.  Rather than untagging himself from the picture, or calling his uncle and politely asking him to remove the picture, Aaron sued his uncle for harassment in a Minnesota district court.

Olson’s claim was based on the fact that the pictures were “innocuous family photographs.”  Posting such photographs on Facebook establishes a platform for mean comments to be directed towards Olson.  The court dismissed this case, and the Court of Appeals of Minnesota denied Olson’s complaint.

The Judge in the Court of Appeals of Minnesota stated that harassment occurs when words have some sort of adverse effect on the safety, security, or privacy of another person.  Therefore, mean or disrespectful comments do not constitute harm to one’s safety, privacy or security. The court ruled that the district court was correct in stating that the evidence submitted by Olson (the Facebook pictures of him in a rabbit costume, in front of a Christmas tree) did not satisfy the requirements to prove harassment.

This lawsuit is probably the most ridiculous one I have heard of to date.  The obvious lesson to take away is that if you have a minor issue with a relative, talk to them.  The power of effective communication can do wonders, keep people out of court, and put the money spent on potential litigation back into your pocket!

More importantly, when frivolous suits are brought into court, it is a misuse of the judicial system and a waste of judicial resources.  People should realize that the judicial system is there to tend to complex matters that cannot be solved in the home or office environment, not minor family feuds over embarrassing photos.

So, a few tips to people out there.  Before thinking about going to court, evaluate the basis of your lawsuit.  If your lawyer explains things to you, you will be hit with a hefty legal bill.  Rather than depending on your lawyer, think about how much merit you have in your claim.  Next, think about solutions that do not involve litigation.  Often, litigation complicates matters before reaching a resolution.  If there is a quicker way to achieve some closure out of court, go for it.  Lastly, confide in a close confidant to see if your potential claim passes the “straight face test.”  Specifically, after conveying your claim to your confidant, examine their expression.  If it is not of a straight face, and rather is one of disgust, surprise, or awkwardness, it is likely that your lawsuit is frivolous.  Avoid filing it and resolve matters in the comfort of your own home!

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Will Whitney Houston’s Doctors Face the Same Fate as Conrad Murray?

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After Whitney Houston’s tragic death last week, questions about the circumstances and cause of her death began to swirl almost immediately. For years, Ms. Houston had fought a very public battle with alcoholism and drug addiction, including addiction to drugs that were legally prescribed to her. And now, the doctors who prescribed these medications are beginning to face scrutiny.

And it’s pretty much impossible to escape the superficial parallels between the death of Michael Jackson and Houston’s case.

And as you probably remember, Michael Jackson’s personal doctor, Conrad Murray, was convicted of manslaughter charges, on the theory that he prescribed and administered sedatives to Jackson, on which he overdosed, which caused his death.

So, with Houston’s very public struggles with drug addiction being public knowledge, do the doctors who prescribed her the drugs to which she was addicted bear any moral or legal responsibility for her death?

That’s a tricky question, and as her death is investigated, and more details emerge, the answer may become clearer. However, if any of her doctors face criminal charges or civil lawsuits in connection with her death, it’s likely that the issues will remain far from perfectly clear, either from a moral or legal standpoint.

However, there are a few starting points to look at while speculating on this subject, which might provide some guidance about what’s likely to happen. First of all, we’ll have to await toxicology reports from Houston’s autopsy, which will show what type of drugs she was taking when she died, and the quantities in which she took them.

If it is shown that she overdosed on legal pain medications, combined with alcohol, there will be some serious questions that her doctors will have to answer. This doesn’t mean that any of them are guilty of a crime in connection with Houston’s death, but any thorough investigation will have to look at them.

Because it takes a huge amount of education and training to become a doctor, and because doctors are responsible for the lives of their patients, the medical profession is subject to very tight scrutiny. Doctors owe what is known as a “fiduciary duty” to their patients, which is one of the highest legal duties that one person can have to another. So, if a doctor makes a serious error (and should have known better) in treating a patient, they may be subject to civil liability in the form of a medical malpractice lawsuit, and in the most egregious cases, criminal charges for manslaughter.

This is what happened with Conrad Murray, who is now serving a 4-year sentence in a California prison for manslaughter in connection with the death of Michael Jackson.

So, if it’s shown that Whitney Houston overdosed on medication that her doctors had prescribed to her, should they face criminal charges? Maybe, but definitely not necessarily. After all, it may be shown that Ms. Houston took far more than the prescribed dose, or that she got medication from multiple doctors, each of whom did not know that the others were also prescribing drugs to her. Either of these findings would definitely militate against a finding of criminal liability for either of the doctors – in our criminal justice system, conduct typically has to be very egregious to result in a criminal conviction.

However, her family may still be able to sue the doctors for medical malpractice in a civil claim for medical malpractice. In order to succeed in a medical malpractice claim, they will have to show that her doctor(s) fell below the relevant “standard of care” governing the medical profession. Basically, if it can be shown that one or more of her doctors engaged in conduct that no reasonable doctor with a similar level of education, skill, and experience would have engaged in, under similar circumstances, the doctor would be liable to Ms. Houston’s family for wrongful death and medical malpractice.

I would guess that if she overdosed on drugs the doctors prescribed to her, and they knew that she was abusing these drugs, a judge or jury wouldn’t have much trouble finding liability for medical malpractice.

Obviously, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m trivializing Ms. Houston’s death by speculating about the potential legal issues that surround it. However, the law is involved in nearly every aspect of society – almost every event has some legal consequences. Generally, in order to discuss any event fully, you have to consider the legal angles.

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