Case Update - Supreme Court Edition
May's the busy month for SCOTUS: oral arguments are over, and there's nothing left to do but write and exchange the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions in the forty-two cases still left to be decided. Future generations will probably not be debating the consequences of the two decisions handed down this past week. In Hui v. Castaneda, Public Health Service officials refused to authorize medical treatment for a lesion discovered on Castaneda's penis; when he died a year later, his family sued under what's known as a Bivens claim, based on a 1971 decision which held that violation of a constitutional right could serve as the basis of civil claim against the government. Not so here, the Court ruled unanimously; the Federal Tort Claims Act specifically provided the sole basis for bringing a claim, and specifically granted the medical personnel immunity. In Renico v. Lett, the the lower courts had granted habeas relief, finding that a Michigan judge's decision to declare a hung jury and grant a mistrial after only two hours of deliberations violated the defendant's double jeopardy rights because it wasn't a "manifest necessity." Maybe so, maybe not, the Court ruled, but reversed, finding that the decision wasn't sufficiently erroneous under "clearly established Federal law" to warrant relief.
The Ohio Supreme Court emerged from its dormant state after a three-week hiatus following the death of Chief Justice Moyer, issuing several decisions, the most notable of which was State v. Prade, discussed here Friday. There were several other criminal cases of note. In State v. Malien, the defendant, a nurse, had been caught stealing drugs from the hospital where she was employed. She had applied for treatment in lieu of conviction, but the state had argued she was ineligible under the statutory provision which prohibited granting such treatment to those who occupied "a position of trust." Appellate court decisions have been all over the lot on this issue, with some holding that any position of trust -- a college student entrusted with school property, a parent obligated to pay child support to his offspring -- fell within the meaning of the statute, and others holding that only those who held office or a position of trust with regard to the public were within its ambit. The court took a middle road, deciding that the statute applied only to a person in a fidicuiary relationship to another. A nurse wasn't a fiduciary of either the hospital or her patients, and so the court upheld the lower court's rulings, which will allow Malien to avoid conviction if she completes treatment.
The bigger action was in the civil arena. Jacques v. Manton was a personal injury case in which the plaintiff had incurred over $21,000 in medical expenses, and her providers had agreed to accept some $7,000 from her insurance company in full payment. Can defendant introduce evidence of the write-off? The court said yes four years ago in Robinson v. Bates, but didn't consider the effect of RC 2315.20 because that statute was enacted after the plaintiff's injury in Robinson. Jacques comes to the conclusion that the statute doesn't affect the result, for reasons I can't explain because my head started to hurt while reading the opinion. Suffice it to say that if you've got a PI case going to trial, the defense is going to be able to introduce the fact that your client's insurance company paid less for medical expenses than the doctors and hospitals billed him.
In Pratte v. Stewart, the plaintiff claimed to have been sexually abused by her father. The problem was that the abuse allegedly occurred in 1984, and Pratte didn't file suit until 2008, when she was 33 years old, claiming that she had repressed the memories of the abuse until just the year before. Precedent was involved here, too; back in 1994 in Ault v. Jasko, the court had developed a discovery rule with regard to sexual abuse suits based on recovered memories: the suit could be filed within a year after the memories were recovered.
The Ault decision largely looked to other jurisdictions which had developed such a discovery rule, but that came at a time when "recovered memories" was the flavor of the day in psychological circles. The evidence supporting it has turned out to be rather flimsy, and even in Ault, the dissenters argued that the legislature should be the body to sort through it and come up with a rule on a statute of limitation. The legislature did, and in Pratte the court rightly concludes that the statute clearly provides for a 12-year statute of limitations on such cases after the plaintiff reaches more majority, with no exceptions.
In Neil-Pettit v. Lahman, the defendant, while driving drunk and fleeing the scene of an earlier accident, doubled the damage total by hitting Niel-Pettit's vehicle and injuring her. The jury awarded $113,800 in compensatory damages, $75,000 in punitive damages, and attorney fees, later determined by the judge to be $46,825. Lahman's insurer, Allstate -- which, in the plaintiff trial bar's Pantheon of Evil ranks just a notch below Satan -- argued that it shouldn't be liable for the attorney fees, on the somewhat understandable argument that such fees depended upon an award of punitive damages, and public policy prevents an insurer for being responsible for punitives. Not so, said the court; attorney fees are intended as compensation, punitive damages as punishment, and so Allstate is forced to open its wallet.
Finally, do you remember the "fitness examinations" we had to go through in order to sit for the bar exam? I have some vague recollection of going over to a room in the old courthouse where three lawyers who were older than God asked me a few questions and then sent me on my way, convinced I wasn't a threat to the Republic. It's a bit more serious now, as evidenced by In re Brown, in which the court concurs that the applicant doesn't yet quite have what it takes to sit for the bar examination, because he neglected to report on his application that he had been sued for copyright infringement by Disney for buying 300 to 500 fake DVD's from China and then selling them on E-Bay. When he claimed ignorance of the questionable provenance of his purchase -- China is notorious for violations of intellectual property law, and the DVD's cost $6 to $10 a copy -- he was treated to this bit of avuncular advice from the chairman of the committee: "You know, my daddy always told me, you buy a diamond ring for 10 cents, you got exactly that, a 10 cent ring."