Sunday, September 14, 2014

Civil Insurance Fraud Case: Win in FLA for John Colvin (Sept '11)



I’ve never before tried a civil insurance fraud case where the trial is about insurance coverage, money, and the reputation of an honest citizen. I’ve also never represented a client who believed more in her case and me than anyone I’ve worked for in 21 years, who happened to own her own business, worked the program, and was a part-time psychic.  And I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in the lead-up to a trial.

I work for Christine.  So one Monday morning in a mildew-smelling Florida courtroom with no space and no d├ęcor and no soul, we start her insurance fraud trial. 

We start voir dire.  The panel sits both inside the jury box and outside it.  The court room is small. For those outside the box in the front row, there’s nothing between me and them.  We talk about the proof you need to declare someone a fraud.  We talk about honesty and how much we all hate defrauders.  We’re forming a tribe.  A retired military intelligence man relishes telling me about his career. I touch him while we talk.  I barely remember doing it.  No one says anything.  Later, the judge tells me to back away from them.  I hear nothing the defense lawyer says.

Our opening is a story about consistent truth over time.  Our story is how truth is fidelity to facts.  Christine is real.  She knows how to share emotionally and honestly.  She tells me her life is about rigorous honesty, and it shows.  The judge dislikes the case.    She doesn’t know what to do with me, and I set her off without meaning to.  Maybe she’s scared, too.

I softly cross the defense expert about the scope of his paid-for opinions.  He is an author of a forensic engineering book.  We talk about the importance of ethics and fairness in his work, as he writes in his book.   I ask him if he feels he has treated Christine ethically and fairly and honestly, which sets the judge off again.  The judge’s body language is strongly against us, or me, I can’t tell which.  But it’s killing us, and our jury sees all of it.  On break, I reverse roles with the judge.  That teaches me to not resent and judge her but to use a soft voice and to not say any of it on the record. I just need her understand why her body language speaks to the jury.  She’s offended and mad.  She explains it’s hot in the court room, and that I’ve misunderstood her.  We start up the evidence again.  She sits like a statue for the rest of the trial.

We close.   We’ve brought our jury everything there is, and it’s truth and real and authentic.  Christine is not a fraud, and she’s not a witch in Salem.  I tell the jury we’re scared and we don’t know what else to say.  There is so much evidence proving she’s real and honest that I climb up on top of counsel table.  It’s just in the moment for me, and it isn’t planned.  I say, ‘if you could physically stack our evidence it would reach higher than my hand.’  Not an objection, and not a sound from the judge.  
 
Two hours into their deliberations, the jury is deadlocked.   I’m beating myself up alone in a hallway going over what I could do different in the second trial.  The judge reads the deadlocked instruction, and they go back in.  More time passes.  The jury wants my cross of the insurance company’s expert re-read.  I cringe, thinking they want this to convince each other that the insurance company is right, that Christine is a fraud.  I had an expert to counter their paid-for expert, but chose not to bring him.  We don’t need him to show the jury the truth in our story, I thought.  Was I wrong?  Will we lose because of my decision?

No.  We win.   We win everything, coverage, fees, and we win the insurance company’s counterclaim they brought against Christine. 
Christine is not a fraud, of course.  My voice through the trial is indeed my true voice.   I am real.  We brought our jury the truth and they brought Christine into their tribe.

While the jury deliberated, Christine drew angels on sticky notes which she arranged on the same table I had stood on. A week later she explained them to me.  She drew the jury as angels who were there to save her.  The judge was God.   Her many supporters who came during the trial were her guardian angels.

She drew me on a sticky. 

“John, you were my Warrior Angel.” 

Her words.

All of the TLC tribe was there with Christine and me and our jury in that small, tense, smelly Florida court room where the client saw angels on her jury and put wings on her Warrior Angel.  How beautiful it is to be in those moments.

Excessive Force win by Sept '10 grad Hank Sherrod



HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- The Madison County Sheriff's Department has settled for $625,000 with Robert Bryant, the Tennessee mechanic who claimed he was savagely beaten by several deputies and falsely arrested in retaliation for a barfight over a woman.
"We're pleased with the settlement, but the insurance company paying is not the equivalent of accountability for the officers who did this," said Hank Sherrod, Bryant's attorney, this morning.
Bryant has claimed he got in a dispute in a pool hall with Deputy Justin Watson. He said he was later followed by deputies, pulled over without cause, asked to step out of the vehicle, and assaulted.
He said that night in August of 2012 several deputies joined in stomping him while he was handcuffed at the side of the road. He said they knocked his teeth out, beat him unconscious, used a stun gun on him, hit him with a collapsible baton and charged him with assaulting an officer.
The sheriff's three-paragraph statement today did not confirm the amount. Instead, the press release from Madison County Sheriff Blake Dorning denies all wrongdoing and claims the insurance company settled the case to save money on litigation.
"The Madison County Sheriff's Office admits no liability or responsibility with regard the alleged allegations..."
"The County's insurance company settled this case out of court to minimize expected attorney's fees and other legal expenses that would have been expended if all eight of the defendants and the five law firms representing them were to have litigated this case to a conclusion – a process that likely would have taken several years," reads the sheriff's statement.  " All seven of the Madison County Deputies and the Sheriff were represented through legal counsel paid for by Madison County's insurance company under the County's insurance policy."
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court on March 10 named Dorning and eight of his deputies. They were Watson, Stan Bice, Chad Brooks, Jake Church, Ryan Countess, Drew Lane, Jermaine Nettles and Mike Salamonski.
Police reports from the incident say Watson pulled over Bryant for an illegal lane change. In one police account, Bryant leapt from his truck to attack Watson. In another, Bryant attacked Watson during a field sobriety check. Both police accounts say Watson fought for his life until backup arrived.
The lawsuit instead alleged Deputy Church "in order to assist defendant Watson in getting revenge against plaintiff" pulled over Bryant and initiated the beating.
Bryant's suit reads: "During the incident, Church, without provocation, among other things, punched plaintiff in the mouth, struck him with a baton, rendered him unconscious using a choke hold, and then, after cuffing plaintiff, beat him, mostly in the face," reads the federal suit.
"Other deputies arrived and participated in beating plaintiff or watched as other officers beat the unconscious plaintiff, doing nothing."
Deputies reported no contraband in the truck and Bryant was not found to be intoxicated.
Bryant was taken to Huntsville Hospital that night and placed under arrest. Madison County in November of 2013 dropped the charges, just days after Bryant's vocal financial backer, Jason Klonowski, was found shot dead at his home just outside Huntsville. Klonowski's murder remains unsolved.
Bryant sued  in  March of this year. The case quickly moved into mediation. The court on May 2 granted 90 days to attempt to reach a settlement, meaning neither side has filed substantive documents in a few months and the case was largely handled away from public view. The legal timeout was just about up and the civil case stood to resume in the next few days.
Dorning alone had asked to be dismissed from the case, as the only allegations against him were that he later learned of the wrongful arrest and did nothing to correct it. Dorning's attorneys wrote in court earlier this year: "The complaint does not plausibly allege that Sheriff Dorning obtained knowledge of the malicious prosecution at a time when he could have intervened to prevent criminal charges from being filed against Bryant."
Dorning today denied any wrongdoing by his deputies. His statement said: "The Madison County Sheriff's Office admits no liability or responsibility with regard the alleged allegations made by Robert Bryant against any of the Madison County Deputies named in the lawsuit in connection with this settlement."