The Insurance Journal reports a rise in legal malpractice claims. Incredibly, there has been no hand wringing about increased malpractice rates for lawyers or fears that lawyers will no longer be able to keep their practices open as their insurance rates rise. We have

One of the big issues that’s been floating around the personal injury / wrongful death world over the past few years is the extent to which states can recoup the money they spent on an injured person’s care if that person later sues the person who caused the injury and obtains a settlement.

The Supreme

The producers of the Oscar-nominated The Hurt Locker, which Roger Ebert* deemed the second best film of the decade, were just sued by Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver, a former explosive ordinance disposal technician with the 788th Ordinance Company, with whom journalist Mark Boal — the writer of The Hurt Locker — was “embedded” on assignment for Playboy Magazine.

The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (where Sgt. Sarver lived during the relevant times), gives some examples of the similarities:

The title “The Hurt Locker” – Plaintiff originated this term and said it often around colleagues while in Iraq. Defendant BOAL took interest in this phrase and asked Plaintiff what the phrase meant. Because Plaintiff was told Defendant BOAL was collecting information for the sake of documenting a factual report about Army EOD in general, Plaintiff acquiesced with BOAL’s request, which he said often while during his deployment in Iraq;

“War is a Drug” – Another phrase Plaintiff used when talking to Defendant BOAL;

“Will James”, played by Jeremy Renner” – Mr. Renner is essentially the same age and height; to personate Sgt. Sarver, Renner’s hair was dyed blonde, and Renner impersonated Sgt. Sarver’s persona down to the smallest detail, including the replication of Sgt. Sarver’s West Virginia accent, dialect, expressions, mannerisms, personality, and even dress habits (i.e. rolling his sleeves in the exact same manner as Sarver); succinctly stated, Renner acts and behaves just like Plaintiff5 throughout the movie;

Same Military & Family Background – Just like Plaintiff, character “Will James” is a former Army Ranger who has a young son who lives with his ex-wife back home; Renner is also referenced as a “red neck” and “trailer trash”;

Same EOD Missions – Most of the EOD missions depicted in the movie are identical to Plaintiff’s, including the same camps where the EOD team was based (ie Camp Victory), and the same manner in which they were handled – as documented in the Playboy Article;

[…]

Renner struggles with personal, family relationships just like, and in the same manner as, Plaintiff;

Renner drinking alcohol after successful missions;

Renner setting the record for the most IEDs disarmed by any single soldier;

As THR, Esq. notes,

According to legal experts on this topic, Sarver will need to overcome First Amendment protections that give broad protections on speech. Just putting someone’s life story up on screen may not be enough.

Sarver’s claims may be stronger if he, himself, had written about his experience in Iraq. Had Sarver written about his war stories, he might have been able to pursue a copyright claim that producers of “Hurt Locker” had violated his expression.

Sarver’s best case may actually be if producers of “Hurt Locker” got things wrong. Potentially, Sarver could claim that “Will James” is just a thinly veiled depiction of him, but that they had put him in false light and defamed him with dishonest treatment about his character. We have seen these types of “libel-in-fiction” claims come up recently.

Hence, the complaint continues:

Though the movie clings to the plaintiff’s likeness and personal circumstances throughout the movie, Plaintiff is also defamed in placed in a false light in several scenes, such as (1) the scene where Plaintiff explains to his young son that he essentially does not love him, and that the only thing plaintiff loves now is “war”. The movie ends by showing Plaintiff back in Iraq, starting another deployment mission; and (2) the portrayal of Plaintiff as a reckless, gung-ho war addict who has a morbid fascination with death which causes him to carelessly risk both his and his colleagues’ lives in the theater of war, simply to feel the thrill of cheating death.

The Complaint alleges seven counts:

  • Misappropriation of Name & Likeness
  • False Light Invasion of Privacy
  • Defamation
  • Breach of Contract
  • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
  • Fraud
  • Negligent Misrepresentation

As far as I can tell, Sgt. Sarver will have little trouble meeting most of the elements of misappropriation, with one exception:

In order that there may be liability under the rule stated in this Section, the defendant must have appropriated to his own use or benefit the reputation, prestige, social or commercial standing, public interest or other values of the plaintiff’s name or likeness. It is not enough that the defendant has adopted for himself a name that is the same as that of the plaintiff, so long as he does not pass himself off as the plaintiff or otherwise seek to obtain for himself the values or benefits of the plaintiff’s name or identity. Unless there is such an appropriation, the defendant is free to call himself by any name he likes, whether there is only one person or a thousand others of the same name. Until the value of the name has in some way been appropriated, there is no tort.

Restatement of the Law, Second, Torts, § 652, cmt c (emphases added); see Jeffries v. Whitney E. Houston Acad. P.T.A., 2009 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1895, at *9 (App. Div. Jul. 20, 2009)(“the purpose of an appropriation of likeness claim is to vindicate the property interest the plaintiff has in his or her name or likeness.”). Misappropriation claims typically arise from false endorsements; here, however, Sarver certainly was not represented as directly endorsing the film. The challenge for his lawyers will be arguing that the use of his life story is sufficient “likeness” that it constitutes a de facto endorsement of the story.

False light and defamation are highly similar claims, and often analyzed together. As THR, Esq. said, there’s precedent out there for “libel-in-fiction,” and Sgt. Sarver’s case seems similar to the The Red Hat Club case linked above: taking an already incredible, but nonetheless real, story and scandalizing it some more. It’s a little bit harder for Sgt. Sarver here, though, since it seems that anyone who recognized him from the film would also know the differences between him and the character, and the complaint admits that he already had substantial family troubles and that he broke military regulations, such as drinking after missions. Those issues, however, are typically issues for a jury, not a judge, to decide.

The remaining claims are intriguing, though none are a good fit to the facts. Regarding breach of contract, it doesn’t appear that Sgt. Sarver was an intended third-party beneficiary to Boal’s “embedding” agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense, though he might be an implied third-party beneficiary. Without the contract in hand, it’s hard to say what will happen here. (One of the commentators at THR, Esq., linked to some of the Department of Defense embedding guidelines, which don’t seem to be as strict as the complaint implies.)

The intentional infliction of emotional distress claim will likely go nowhere. The complaint essentially admits there’s no evidence the producers of the film intended to cause Sgt. Sarver harm. See Ortiz v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29274, at *15–16 (D.N.J. Nov. 22, 2005)(“To sustain such a claim, the conduct at issue must be ‘so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”).

Similarly, the fraud and negligent misrepresentations claims will likely be dismissed. Most courts require some degree of explicit economic loss for these claims. McClellan v. Feit, 376 N.J. Super. 305, 313, 870 A.2d 644, 648 (App. Div. 2005)(“Negligent misrepresentation constitutes an incorrect statement, negligently made and justifiably relied on, which results in economic loss.”). It might be morally wrong to trick someone into revealing their personal story, but it’s not legally compensable as fraud or misrepresentation unless they’re also tricked out of some money.

An interesting case to watch. Depending on Sgt. Sarver’s goals / demands, I’d expect a somewhat prompt settlement, though perhaps not until after the inevitable motion to dismiss is decided.


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At the Fulton County Daily Report:

For $95, plaintiffs lawyers can buy a book that teaches them how to appeal to jurors’ basic survival instincts, those that emanate from humans’ “Reptilian” brains. …

But in a DeKalb County wrongful death trial last month, [Plaintiffs lawyer Don] Keenan found that defense lawyers will also buy the book, “Reptile: The 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution” — and use it against him.

Representing a movie theater and a security company accused of not doing enough to prevent a fatal gang shooting in the theater parking lot, W. Winston Briggs and Matthew G. Moffett read from the book and referred to it during closing arguments.

One of their PowerPoint slides read, “Let’s see if we can scare them/It could have been anyone killed out there … because it’s a public danger there … but if you give us $ that will somehow eliminate this danger/They call this their ‘reptile’ strategy.”

The jury rendered a defense verdict.

Here’s what I don’t understand: how is a book written by the plaintiff’s lawyer relevant to the facts of the case?

The Georgia Rules of Evidence provide:

Evidence must relate to the questions being tried by the jury and bear upon them either directly or indirectly. Irrelevant matter should be excluded.

The jury wasn’t asked their thoughts and feelings about Mr. Keenan’s advocacy methods. They weren’t compelled, by force of the state, to leave their work and their families to render a verdict on the Reptile book. They were there because, as the article says, “21-year-old Jesus Silencio was shot to death in the parking lot of the Regal Hollywood 24 movie theater on Interstate 85” and his father, on Mr. Silencio’s behalf, brought suit against the theater and its security company.

Reptile has nothing to do with those facts. If the book suggests lawyers do anything inappropriate, that, too, is irrelevant: if a lawyer uses improper advocacy methods at trial, the judge will give corrective instructions to the jury or, if need be, declare a mistrial.

The case was about, and should have remained about, Mr. Sliencio’s claims against the theater. Somehow, it became a referendum on Mr. Keenan, and an unfair one at that. Was Mr. Keenan allowed to show the jury how many times the defense lawyers have been threatened with sanctions for spoliating evidence? Could he have copies of all the seminars at the Defense Research Institute that the defense lawyers attended? Was he allowed to introduce evidence establishing how insurance companies — including the Defendants’ insurer, the real party at interest — spend millions every year on propaganda to taint juror’s perceptions of the civil justice system?

Or were the defense lawyers allowed to cast stones from their glass houses?


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Sometimes, a police officer’s hunch is right:

Columbia [Missouri] Police Officer Jessica McNabb pulled over then-19-year-old Daniel Sanders at Stadium Boulevard and Audubon Drive for running a red light and failing to use his headlights at night. Sanders didn’t have a license. He asked for an attorney almost immediately.

After a search of the trunk, McNabb found the body of Sanders’ mother beneath a tire — next to a new shovel with the price tag still on it.

Sometimes not:

Jordan Miles, who is black, thought his life was in jeopardy when three white men jumped out of a car on the night of January 11 as he walked not far from his home.

"My son tried to run thinking his life was in jeopardy," Terez Miles said. "He made three steps before he slipped and fell." After that, she said, the [Pittsburgh] police used a stun gun and beat him, pulling out a chunk of his hair.

The criminal complaint says the officers, considering Jordan Miles’ appearance suspicious, got out of the car and identified themselves as police. He tried to flee, fell, and then struggled to escape.

The officers "delivered 2-3 closed fist strikes to Miles’ head/face with still no effect," and then a "knee strike to Miles’ head causing him to momentarily stop resisting," so that he could be handcuffed, the document says.

Miles’ mother said the officers did not identify themselves as police to her son, a viola player and student at the city’s Creative and Performing Arts High School.

The complaint says the police officers believed Miles was engaged in criminal activity and possibly armed with a "large heavy object." The object turned out to be a bottle of Mountain Dew.

There’s a law for both:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Ironically, Daniel Sanders might have a better chance of avoiding a conviction for his mother’s murder than Jordan Miles has of recovering compensation for his injuries.

Last year, the Supreme Court held in Arizona v. Gant that the Fourth Amendment prohibits "a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle," with a limited exception for such searches "when it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle."

Sanders was not pulled over or arrested for his mother’s murder, so the exception doesn’t apply. There’s no doubt that he was "secured" — he didn’t even put up a fight, he just asked for his lawyer.

His lawyer has moved to exclude from the trial all evidence found from the search of Sanders’ car, including, of course, his mother’s body:

In that motion, [Sanders’ lawyer] Slusher said McNabb continued to question Sanders after he asked for an attorney and that the search of the car was conducted without a warrant or probable cause. Slusher characterized the search and the continued questioning as unconstitutional and thus inadmissible in trial.

He might win it. I’m sure the district attorney’s office is burning the midnight oil to find some daylight in Arizona v. Gant.*

Returning to Miles, it’s quite possible that the officers identified themselves as police and that Miles didn’t hear them. Police confrontations are often fraught with confusion. Consider this instance:

Defendant Murphy approached the driver’s side window and asked Plaintiff to produce his identification and credentials for inspection. (Frohner Dep. at 39.) Plaintiff, who kept his credentials in the door pocket of the driver’s side door when driving, (Pl.’s Br. Ex. C at 4), began to reach down to retrieve his credentials. (Frohner Dep. at 39.) As Plaintiff was reaching down, Defendant Murphy shouted at Plaintiff, "keep your hands where I can see them." (Id. at 39-40.) Plaintiff, "[n]ot immediately understanding what was transpiring," continued to reach for his credentials in the door pocket, which prompted Defendant Murphy, who by this time had drawn his firearm, to again shout to Plaintiff to keep his hands in view. (Id. at 39-42.) Plaintiff complied with Defendant Murphy’s second order and ceased reaching down to the door pocket. (Id. at 40.)

Frohner v. City of Wildwood, 07-1174 (D.N.J. 2008).

Plaintiff there — who was almost shot — was an on-duty undercover FBI agent. He was approached by a uniformed police officer who had pulled him over in a marked police car. Yet, even he didn’t "immediately understand what was transpiring."

Consider what Miles would have "immediately understood" when three men in plainclothes jumped out of a car and started chasing him.

To win in a civil lawsuit, though, Miles has to show more than that the officers made a mistake.

First, he has to show his constitutional rights were violated. Then, he must overcome qualified immunity by showing "it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Curley v. Klem, 499 F.3d 199, 206-07 (3d Cir. 2007). Neither is easy to prove; most plaintiffs alleging violations of their constitutional rights lose their cases.

Miles has two constitutional rights that were potentially violated: the right to be free from false arrest and the right not to be subjected to excessive force during an arrest. I don’t know what about his "appearance" was "suspicious," but the article reports "the police officers believed Miles was engaged in criminal activity and possibly armed with a large heavy object." From that, we can presume their nominal purpose was to perform a Terry v. Ohio stop and frisk to see if the Mountain Dew was an illegal weapon. If either the judge or the jury believes that, then the officers (really, the City of Pittsburgh, which will indemnify them) are free from liability for the false arrest claim.

When it comes to the excessive force claim:

In deciding whether challenged conduct constitutes excessive force, a court must determine the objective reasonableness of the challenged conduct, considering the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. Other factors include the duration of the officer’s action, whether the action takes place in the context of effecting an arrest, the possibility that the suspect may be armed, and the number of persons with whom the police officers must contend at one time.

Couden v. Duffy, 446 F.3d 483, 496-97 (3d Cir. 2006). 

Hence the emphasis on the Mountain Dew: the officers want to justify their conduct by arguing "the possibility that the suspect may be armed." It also likely that, at some point, Miles was "actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight," given that he thought he was being assaulted. Such resistance, under excessive force precedent, makes the officers’ punching and kicking less "objectively unreasonable."

After showing all of the above, Miles must also show the judge "it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted" to overcome qualified immunity. Miles can’t just show what the officers did was wrong; he has to show it was so wrong that the officers had to know it was illegal.

Can Miles do that? Maybe so. Then again, a lot of constitutional rights / qualified immunity cases — like Curley v. Klem, in which a police officer was accidentally shot — end with a jury verdict for the defendant and a speech from the appellate court like so:

The mistake Klem made has undoubtedly been terrible in its long-term consequences for Officer Curley and his family, and we do not for a moment discount the pain, sorrow, expense, and frustration that it has visited on them in their innocence. But a mistake, though it may be terrible in its effects, is not always the equivalent of a constitutional violation. … "[P]olice officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation." Graham, 490 U.S. at 397, 109 S.Ct. 1865. Those were the circumstances facing both Trooper Klem and Officer Curley at the George Washington Bridge toll plaza. Viewed from that perspective, Saucier, 533 U.S. at 205, 121 S.Ct. 2151, the seizure effected by the mistaken shooting was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. It therefore was not a constitutional violation.

Courts of law, not of justice.


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JURIST Paper Chase reports:

US security firm Blackwater [JURIST news archive] on Wednesday reached a settlement agreement in seven federal lawsuits filed by Iraqi citizens. The suits claimed that Blackwater, now known as Xe, created a reckless culture [AP report] that resulted in numerous deaths, including the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians [JURIST reports]

"Removal" is the process by which a defendant in a state court case "removes" the case to federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b) makes it sound so simple:

Any civil action of which the district courts have original jurisdiction founded on a claim or right arising under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United