Sunday, January 24, 2016

Driverless Cars: Litigation of the Future?

The other day, a prominent legal show featured a storyline that involved a driverless car lawsuit against a large tech company. Plaintiff's attorney held a deposition and questioned the designer on artificial intelligence ("AI"), potential bugs, and knowledge regarding the risks of a collision. It was exciting, full of conflict, and made for a good episode.

Issues surrounding driverless technology are not new. Recent news articles have documented accidents that have occurred with driverless vehicles. Creators of the self-automated vehicle were quick to blame humans, instead of the AI. According to automobile insurance data, the tech gurus were right; the humans were found to be at fault.

But, conclusions also showed that driverless cars may be too cautious. Pedantically, driverless cars follow the rules of the road. They do not drive as humans do. And that may be one reason why accidents have occurred. When we drive, intentionally or not, humans have a way of adapting to the situation and bending the rules. Other drivers are aware of this phenomena and respond accordingly. AI vehicles are not programmed, at least not yet, for dealing with slight infractions (although some driverless companies have taken steps to tweak rule-following).

Regardless, accidents do occur. People get injured. With respect to personal injury law, driverless cars will lead to dramatic changes in how cases will proceed forward. Why? Our current system allows for human actors to open a claim (or sue) the other driver responsible for the accident. When there is no other driver, whom does the injured party seek redress? It will likely be the driverless car manufacturer. Suing car manufacturers falls under the umbrella of product liability. While it shares similarities with negligence cases, it is distinct.

The standard modus operandi for personal injury attorneys will be affected by technology. Ultimately, however, legislators will be responsible for creating the new laws/rules regarding self-automated vehicles. Until then, one can only speculate how this technological development will specifically impact injury accident cases.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

New 2016 Law Will Require a Database for Police Stops

In the wake of tragic police stories around the country, California took a step in transparency and accountability. Governor Brown has mandated that law enforcement agencies develop a program by 2018 that would allow them to collect and report data on the people they stop. Data will include perceived race and ethnicity, and the cause for the stop.

Similar to other actions taken, Governor Brown cited the phenomenon of "jail and prison populations [exploding]." He also discussed the byzantine California Penal Code, which "[covers] every conceivable form of human misbehavior." Since his day first day in office, he has been serious about criminal justice reform. He believes that this database will result in more justice and more fiscal savings.

Police are not allowed to stop individuals at whim. There must be probable cause for an investigatory stop. "Driving while black or brown" will not suffice. A reported stop that lacks probable cause will face scrutiny from law enforcement, attorneys, and judges. This is a step in the right direction. Far too often cases will be based off an illegal stop.

A separate 2016 law will require protocol to be established for the handling of body cameras worn by police officers. The law intends to ensure that recordings are not mishandled or damaged. Again, criminal litigation relies heavily on recorded evidence. A video may contradict a witness statement, or result in exculpatory evidence for the defendant.

Like stated in previous blog posts, California has a problem with over-incarceration but steps are being taken to address them. These laws will address issues that begin at the outset of a criminal case: the initial police stop and evidentiary support for an arrest. A person cannot be convicted, most of the time, if an arrest was unconstitutional.

If you, or someone that you care about, is arrested for a crime, it is important to seek the advice of experienced counsel. Laws are ever changing and complex. It is essential to consult with someone who may be familiar with new laws that could impact your case.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Plaintiff's Motions in Limine Prior to an Injury Accident Trial

The purpose of a lawsuit is to afford parties an opportunity to resolve disputes before a tribunal. Litigation has its benefits. For one, the force of law controls. A party cannot ignore procedural rules without facing sanctions. Two, the result will be binding. A judgement from a court of law will be enforced. Finally, three, parties can have their day in court.

Lawsuits rarely result in a trial by jury, however. Most cases are resolved short of trial -- by way of mediation, or by settlement negotiated by the attorneys. Nevertheless, a trial attorney should treat every case as if it is going to trial. This mindset will help maximize the case value.

Part of preparing for trial lies in procedural strategies. One such strategy is controlling the evidence admitted during the trial. Motions, or requests to the judge, can be made before the jury is impaneled. Motions in limine are made to exclude certain evidence from being heard by the jury. There are a few motions in limine that should be considered in every case.

"Character evidence," or evidence of a person's past conduct unrelated to the case, is not allowed. Thus, if a plaintiff has been involved in prior lawsuits, or had been found at fault in another case, a motion should be made to protect the plaintiff. A jury may consider "character evidence" as evidence to prove conduct in the relevant case. The law prohibits that line of thinking. The present evidence should be considered alone without the information of what may or may not have happened in a separate case.

Another popular motion limits the ability of the defendant to introduce evidence not already disclosed to the plaintiff. During pre-trial litigation, discovery is completed by both sides. When a party responds to discovery, they should be held to their responses. New or contradictory evidence can be excluded with a motion in limine. For example, a defendant will assert his defense contentions during discovery. Let's say Danny the Defendant stated in his response to an interrogatory that he was not negligent because the plaintiff ran a red light. During trial though, Danny the Defendant tries to testify that he was not negligent because the signal was defective. His testimony can be excluded because it is inconsistent with his discovery response.

Motions in limine regarding experts are common as well. Medical experts are utilized in almost every motor vehicle accident case. In order for the plaintiff to prove damages, it is helpful to have a doctor discuss the plaintiff's medical treatment, and future medical treatment that may be necessary. It gives the jury information about the extent of money that has been spent or will have to be spent.

A plaintiff attorney should anticipate the content of the defendant's medical expert's opinions. An expert must disclose all of his opinions during a deposition when asked. If an expert tries to give a new or different opinion during trial, it could be devastating to the plaintiff's case. Thus, a motion in limine should be filed so that the defendant's expert's opinions are limited to the opinions given during deposition.

Trial results are unpredictable. Juries have been known to surprise attorneys. It is important, then, for attorneys to do everything in their power to control the process. Motions in limine are one way of giving the plaintiff an opportunity to win.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

What is Discovery in a Criminal Case?

A defendant in a criminal case will naturally be afraid of what could happen to him or her. Misdemeanor and felony charges carry the potential for jail and prison time. In addition, defendants face the possibility of future scrutiny in their employment prospects and personal reputation.

The first two questions usually asked by a defendant are: "What did I do? What evidence does the prosecution have?" The process by which a defense attorney obtains the evidence is called "discovery." Discovery is the opportunity for the defendant to find out what kind of case the prosecution will present against the defendant.

During the pre-trial stage of a case, discovery is undertaken by both the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney. Both sides are required to discuss their case. There are not supposed to be surprises at trial. Legal dramas on television and movies are not representative of a majority of real cases.

Discovery is done informally, at first. Sometimes the Judge presiding over the case will have to be involved to handle disputes. Common disputes arise when a defense attorney has reason to believe that the prosecution has not handed over particular evidence. The prosecution must turn over certain evidence, such as:
  • witness names and the content of their testimony
  • "real evidence," or physical evidence
  • evidence that is favorable to the defendant, i.e. "exculpatory"
  • felony history of any witnesses for purposes of impeachment
  • any "relevant" recorded or written statements
Sometimes attorneys disagree as to what is relevant. A judge will rule once a motion is made by one of the parties. Defense attorneys should be aggressive in pursuing disclosure.

Certain legal principles are supposed to protect a defendant as well. For example, "Brady" violations occur when a prosecutor intentionally withholds exculpatory evidence. Recently, the United States Chief Judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski, criticized California state judges for allowing prosecutorial misconduct. He said that there is an "epidemic of Brady violations..."

Regardless of misconduct or not, it is important for defendants to be aware of their rights. Discovery is important to a case. Sometimes it will lead to a defense verdict. Other times it can help facilitate a favorable plea deal. If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to consult with an attorney. Evidence and its impact on your case can be discussed.