TORTINI

For your delectation and delight, desultory dicta on the law of delicts.

Everything She Just Said Was Bullshit

September 26th, 2019

At this point, most products liability lawyers have read about the New Jersey verdicts returned earlier this month against Johnson & Johnson in four mesothelioma cases.[1] The Middlesex County jury found that the defendant’s talc and its supposed asbestos impurities were a cause of all four mesothelioma cases, and awarded compensatory damages of $37.3 million, in the cases.[2]

Johnson & Johnson was prejudiced by having to try four cases questionably consolidated together, and then hobbled by having its affirmative defense evidence stricken, and finally crucified when the trial judge instructed the jury at the end of the defense lawyer’s closing argument: “everything she just said was bullshit.”

Judge Ana C. Viscomi, who presided over the trial, struck the entire summation of defense lawyer Diane Sullivan. The action effectively deprived Johnson & Johnson of a defense, as can be seen from the verdicts. Judge Viscomi’s egregious ruling was given without explaining which parts of Sullivan’s closing were objectionable, and without giving Sullivan an opportunity to argue against the sanction.

During the course of Sullivan’s closing argument, Judge Viscomi criticized Sullivan for calling the plaintiffs’ lawyers “sinister,” and suggested that her argument was defaming the legal profession in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.[3] Sullivan did use the word “sinister” several times, but in each instance, she referred to the plaintiffs’ arguments, allegations, and innuendo about Johnson & Johnson’s action. Judge Viscomi curiously imputed unprofessional conduct to Sullivan for referring to plaintiffs’ counsel’s “shows and props,” as a suggestion that plaintiffs’ counsel had fabricated evidence.

Striking an entire closing argument is, as far as anyone has determined, unprecedented. Of course, Judge Haller is fondly remembered for having stricken the entirety of Vinny Gambini’s opening statement, but the good judge did allow Vinny’s “thank you” to stand:

Vinny Gambini: “Yeah, everything that guy just said is bullshit… Thank you.”

D.A. Jim Trotter: “Objection. Counsel’s entire opening statement is argument.”

Judge Chamberlain Haller: “Sustained. Counselor’s entire opening statement, with the exception of ‘Thank you’ will be stricken from the record.”

My Cousin Vinny (1992).

In the real world of a New Jersey courtroom, even Ms. Sullivan’s expression of gratitude for the jury’s attention and service succumbed to Judge Viscomi’s unprecedented ruling,[4] as did almost 40 pages of argument in which Sullivan carefully debunked and challenged the opinion testimony of plaintiffs’ highly paid expert witnesses. The trial court’s ruling undermined the defense’s detailed rebuttal of plaintiffs’ evidence, as well as the defense’s comment upon the plaintiffs’ witnesses’ lack of credibility.

Judge Viscomi’s sua sponte ruling appears even more curious given what took place in the aftermath of her instructing the jury to disregard Sullivan’s argument. First, the trial court gave very disparate treatment to plaintiffs’ counsel. The lawyers for the plaintiffs gave extensive closing arguments that were replete with assertions that Johnson & Johnson and Ms. Sullivan were liars, predators, manipulators, poisoners, baby killers, and then some. Sullivan’s objections were perfunctorily overruled. Second, Judge Viscomi permitted plaintiffs’ counsel to comment extensively upon Ms. Sullivan’s closing, even though it had been stricken. Third, despite the judicial admonition about the Rules of Professional Conduct, neither the trial judge nor plaintiffs’ counsel appear to have filed a disciplinary complaint against Ms. Sullivan. Of course, if Judge Viscomi or the plaintiffs’ counsel thought that Ms. Sullivan had violated the Rules, then they would be obligated to report Ms. Sullivan for misconduct.

Bottom line: these verdicts are unsafe.


[1]  The cases were tried in a questionable consolidation in the New Jersey Superior Court, for Middlesex County, before Judge Viscomi. Barden v. Brenntag North America, No. L-1809-17; Etheridge v. Brenntag North America, No. L-932-17; McNeill-George v. Brenntag North America, No. L-7049-16; and Ronning v. Brenntag North America, No. L-6040-17.

[2]  Bill Wichert, “J&J Hit With $37.3M Verdict In NJ Talc Case,” Law360 (Sept. 11, 2019).

[3]  Amanda Bronstad, “J&J Moves for Talc Mistrial After Judge Strikes Entire Closing Argument,” N.J.L.J. (Sept. 10, 2019) (describing Judge Viscomi as having admonished Ms. Sullivan to “[s]top denigrating the lawyers”; J&J’s motion for mistrial was made before the case was submitted to the jury).

[4]  See Peder B. Hong, “Summation at the Border: Serious Misconduct in Final Argument in Civil Trials,” 19 Hamline L. Rev. 179 (1995); Ty Tasker, “Stick and Stones: Judicial Handling of Invective in Advocacy,” 42 Judges J. 17 (2003); Janelle L. Davis, “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Names Could Get Me a Mistrial: An Examination of Name-Calling in Closing Argument in Civil Cases,” 42 Gonzaga L. Rev. 133 (2011).

Apportionment and Pennsylvania’s Fair Share Act

March 14th, 2019

In 2011, Pennsylvania enacted the Fair Share Act, which was remedial legislation designed to mitigate the unfairness of joint and several liability in mass, and other, tort litigation by abrogating joint and several liability in favor of apportionment of shares among multiple defendants, including settled defendants.1

Although the statute stated the general rule in terms of negligence,2 the Act was clearly intended to apply to actions for so-called strict liability:3

“(1) Where recovery is allowed against more than one person, including actions for strict liability, and where liability is attributed to more than one defendant, each defendant shall be liable for that proportion of the total dollar amount awarded as damages in the ratio of the amount of that defendant’s liability to the amount of liability attributed to all defendants and other persons to whom liability is apportioned under subsection.”

The intended result of the legislation was for courts to enter separate and several judgments against defendants held liable in the amount apportioned to each defendant’s liability.4 The Act created exceptions for for intentional torts and for cases in which a defendant receives 60% or greater share in the apportionment.5

In Pennsylvania, as in other states, judges sometimes fall prey to the superstition that the law, procedural and substantive, does not apply to asbestos cases. Roverano v. John Crane, Inc., is an asbestos case in which the plaintiff claimed his lung cancer was caused by exposure to multiple defendants’ products. The trial judge, falling under the sway of asbestos exceptionalism, refused to apply Fair Share Act, suggesting that “the jury was not presented with evidence that would permit an apportionment to be made by it.”

The Roverano trial judge’s suggestion is remarkable, given that any plaintiff is exposed to different asbestos products in distinguishable amounts, and for distinguishable durations. Furthermore, asbestos products have distinguishable, relative levels of friability, with different levels of respirable fiber exposure for the plaintiff. In some cases, the products contain different kinds of asbestos minerals, which have distinguishable and relative levels of potency to cause the plaintiff’s specific disease. Asbestos cases, whether involving asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma claims, are more amenable to apportionment of shares among co-defendants than are “red car / blue car” cases.

Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court reversed the trial court’s asbestos exceptionalism, and held that upon remand, the court must:

“[a]pply a non-per capita allocation to negligent joint tortfeasors and strict liability joint tortfeasors; and permit evidence of settlements reached between plaintiffs and bankrupt entities to be included in the calculation of allocation of liability.”

Roverano v. John Crane, 2017 Pa. Super. 415, 177 A.3d 892 (2017).

The Superior Court’s decision did not sit well with the litigation industry, which likes joint and several liability, with equal shares. Joint and several liability permits plaintiffs’ counsel to extort large settlements from minor defendants who face the prospect of out-sized pro rata shares after trial, without the benefit of reductions for the shares of settled bankrupt defendants. The Roverano plaintiff appealed from the Superior Court’s straightforward application of a remedial statute.

What should be a per curiam affirmance of the Superior Court, however, could result in another act of asbestos exceptionalism by Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Media reports of the oral argument in Roverano suggest that several of the justices invoked the specter of “junk science” in apportioning shares among asbestos co-defendants.6 Disrespectfully, Justice Max Baer commented:

“Respectfully, your theory is interjecting junk science. We’ve never held that duration of contact corresponds with culpability.”7

The Pennsylvania Justices’ muddle can be easily avoided. First, the legislature clearly expressed its intention that apportionment be permitted in strict liability cases.

Second, failure-to-warn strict liability cases are, as virtually all scholars and most courts recognize, essentially negligence cases, in any event.8

Third, apportionment is a well-recognized procedure in the law of Torts, including the Pennsylvania law of torts. Apportionment of damages among various causes was recognized in the Restatement of Torts (Second) Section 433A (Apportionment of Harm to Causes), which specifies that:

(1) Damages for harm are to be apportioned among two or more causes where

(a) there are distinct harms, or

(b) there is a reasonable basis for determining the contribution of each cause to a single harm.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 433A(1) (1965) [hereinafter cited as Section 433A].

The comments to Section 433A suggest a liberal application for apportionment. The rules set out in Section 433A apply “whenever two or more causes have combined to bring about harm to the plaintiff, and each has been a substantial factor in producing the harm … .”

Id., comment a. The independent causes may be tortious or innocent, “and it is immaterial whether all or any of such persons are joined as defendants in the particular action.” Id. Indeed, apportionment also applies when the defendant’s conduct combines “with the operation of a force of nature, or with a pre-existing condition which the defendant has not caused, to bring about the harm to the plaintiff.” Just as the law of grits applies in everyone’s kitchen, the law of apportionment applies in Pennsylvania courts.

Apportionment of damages is an accepted legal principle in Pennsylvania law. Martin v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 515 Pa. 377, 528 A.2d 947 (1987). Courts, applying Pennsylvania law, have permitted juries to apportion damages between asbestos and cigarette smoking as causal factors in plaintiffs’ lung cancers, based upon a reasonable basis for determining the contribution of each source of harm to a single harm.9

In Parker, none of the experts assigned exact mathematical percentages to the probability that asbestos rather than smoking caused the lung cancer. The Court of Appeals noted that on the record before it:

“we cannot say that no reasonable basis existed for determining the contribution of cigarette smoking to the cancer suffered by the decedent.”10

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has itself affirmed the proposition that “liability attaches to a negligent act only to the degree that the negligent act caused the employee’s injury.”11 Thus, even in straight-up negligence cases, causal apportionment must play in a role, even when the relative causal contributions are much harder to determine than in the quasi-quantitative setting of an asbestos exposure claim.

Let’s hope that Justice Baer and his colleagues read the statute and the case law before delivering judgment. The first word in the name of the legislation is Fair.


1 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102.

2 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(a)

3 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(a)(1) (emphasis added).

4 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(a)(2).

5 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102 (a)(3)(ii), (iii).

7 Id. (quoting Baer, J.).

8 See, e.g, Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 2, and comment I (1998); Fane v. Zimmer, Inc., 927 F.2d 124, 130 (2d Cir. 1991) (“Failure to warn claims purporting to sound in strict liability and those sounding in negligence are essentially the same.”).

9 Parker v. Bell Asbestos Mines, No. 86-1197, unpublished slip op. at 5 (3d Cir., Dec. 30, 1987) (per curiam) (citing Section 433A as Pennsylvania law, and Martin v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. , 515 Pa. 377, 528 A.2d 947, 949 (1987))

10 Id. at 7.

11 Dale v. Baltimore & Ohio RR., 520 Pa. 96, 106, 552 A.2d 1037, 1041 (1989). See also McAllister v. Pennsylvania RR., 324 Pa. 65, 69-70, 187 A. 415, 418 (1936) (holding that plaintiff’s impairment, and pain and suffering, can be apportioned between two tortious causes; plaintiff need not separate damages with exactitude); Shamey v. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co., 229 Pa. Super. 215, 223, 331 A.2d 498, 502 (1974) (citing, and relying upon, Section 433A; difficulties in proof do not constitute sufficient reason to hold a defendant liable for the damage inflicted by another person). Pennsylvania law is in accord with the law of other states as well, on apportionment. See Waterson v. General Motors Corp., 111 N.J. 238, 544 A.2d 357 (1988) (holding that a strict liability claim against General Motors for an unreasonably dangerous product defect was subject to apportionment for contribution from failing to wear a seat belt) (the jury’s right to apportion furthered the public policy of properly allocating the costs of accidents and injuries).

Alabama Justice and Fundamental Fairness

November 20th, 2017

Judges from Alabama get a bad rap. Like Job, Roy Moore cannot seem to catch a break, despite his professions of great faith. Still Moore ought to be more liberal, given that he, and all of us, are descended from a transgendered woman. After all, Eve was made from a male rib, the tissue of which carried a Y chromosome:

And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”

Genesis 2:22. Even if Eve magically ended up with two X chromosomes, certainly Judge Moore must accept that the result was part of a cosmic sex change operation. Moore might prefer Lillith, who was built female from the ground up, as his female progenitor.

But Alabama is not so bad, really. My Cousin Vinny got a fair trial for Bill Gambini and Stanley Rothenstein in Beechum County, Alabama. Vinny was surprised by the prosecutor’s generosity in turning over his file, based upon a casual oral request, but as his fiancée Mona Lisa Vito pointed out, the prosecutor had to do this; it’s the law. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), requires prosecutors to disclose to defense counsel any evidence that could reasonably be construed to favor the defendant.

Actually, Alabama law interpets Brady in the typical fashion to require the prosecutor to disclose only exculpatory evidence. Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 16. And Judge Chamberlain Haller, who presided over State v. Gambini, was a stickler for the rules.

And Beechum County prosecutor, Jim Trotter III, was a decent sort. Not only did he offer Vinny his hunting lodge as a quiet place to prepare for trial, Trotter turned over his entire case file upon a casual oral request, without delay. When the evidence appeared to exclupate Gambini and Rothenstein, Trotter withdrew the charges. Outside of Beechum County, that sort of thing happens mostly in movies; in the real world, it is dog eat dog.

The recently publicized case of Wilbert Jones is probably a more typical case. Jones was duly convicted on the testimony of the woman he supposedly raped. The identification, which was the only inculpatory evidence, was shaky, but it was sufficient for one Louisiana jury. What the jury did not hear, however, was that there was another man, who fit the description of the rapist, and who had committed similar crimes in the vicinity. The prosecutor did not think to share that information with Jones’s counsel. When later challenged about the prosecution’s failure to disclose the information, the prosecutors argued that the information was not exculpatory, and would not have made a difference in any event to the “hanging” jury that heard the case. A federal judge, hearing Jones’s petition for the writ of habeas corpus, disagreed, and vacated Jones’s conviction. Jacey Fortin, “Louisiana Man Freed After 45 Years as Conviction is Tossed Out,” N.Y. Times (Nov. 17, 2017). Despite having their conviction vacated, the Louisiana prosecutors have vowed to appeal the decision and retry the case.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, of the New York Court of Appeals, is also a stickler for the rules, much like Judge Haller of Beechum County, Alabama. Recently Her Honor issued a new rule that requires trial judges to order, in each case, the prosecution to review their files and disclose all favorable (exculpatory) evidence, at least 30 days before trial. Imagine that; New York prosecutors have to be ordered to comply with the constitutional requirement of disclosure, set out in Brady! See Alan Feuer & James C. McKinley, “Rule Would Push Prosecutors to Release Evidence Favorable to Defense,” N.Y. Times (Nov. 8, 2017); Emmet G. Sullivan, “How New York Courts Are Keeping Prosecutors in Line,” Wall St. J., at A11 (Nov. 18, 2017). See also Andrew Cohen, “Prosecutors Shouldn’t Be Hiding Evidence From Defendants,” The Atlantic (May 13, 2013).

The news media accounts of Chief Judge DiFiore’s newly promulgated rule quotes Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck as stating that the new New York rule is a “big deal.” The New York rule strikes me as a “raw deal,” which leaves to prosecutors to dole out what they think is exculpatory, on the eve of trial. Murder suspects in Beechum County, Alabama, get much better treatment from the likes of Prosecutor Jim Trotter.

The problem, even under the new New York rule, is that prosecutors are advocates and constitutionally incapable of looking at their files from the defense perspective to determine fairly what must be disclosed. Allowing prosecutors to decide what is exculpatory or not is bad policy, bad law, and bad human psychology. The better view would be to require prosecutors to turn over their complete file well in advance of trial, to permit defense counsel to prepare an effective defense.

Criminal trials, like civil trials, end with each side’s lawyer arguing that all the admitted evidence at trial favors his or her side. From the prosecutor’s perspective, none of the evidence exculpates the defendant, or even creates the slightest smidgeon of doubt. How schizophrenic must prosecutors be in order to step inside the psyche of the adversary, before trial, to see the potential inferences and potential for arguments that they will vehemently reject at trial, as utterly implausible and too farfetched to create reasonable doubt?

The entire system of permitting prosecutors to decide the disclosure issue, ex parte, and without supervision, violates the spirit and mandate of Brady. Whatever we may think of Alabama Judge Roy Moore, we could all use some of that Beechum County sense of fair play and due process.

Trial by Twitter

August 13th, 2017

Did you read Trump’s tweet from last night?

Time to take down the Statue of Liberty. Ugly dress, too French, heavy calves. Sad, must go.”

OK. I admit, I made that up, but it could have been true. Trumpovich has said more outrageous, stupider things, frequently and with wild abandon.

I don’t really understand this Twitter thing. What worse is that I do understand how it feeds uncritical thinking by people who prefer sound bite to argument and discourse. But we live in a democracy, and this is what people want; right? This is what the First Amendment requires?

So why not make American great again, and merge two great institutions together: the right to trial by jury with the right to express one’s self in mindless sound bites? Let us admit it: Twitter has blossomed because Americans have the attention span of crickets. And many have no more cognitive ability than crickets, to boot, but you go to trial with the jurors you have, not the jurors you want.

Here is how trial by twitter might work. A “fair and impartial,” but appropriately ignorant jury is selected for a trial that involves a scientific controversy, at least a controversy in the minds of the litigants and their hired expert witnesses. The jurors need not be inconvenienced by travel to the local court house; they need only have their smartphones available at all times. If they cannot afford a smartphone, one will be given to them. The lawyers will then start to tweet their opening statements, alternating tweets. Each side is allowed 100 tweets. In trials designated complex, each side gets 150 tweets.

Then come the witnesses. One at a time, first for plaintiff; then for defendant. Each witness is permitted to tweet his or her testimony, after first tweeting an oath to tweet the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me. The witness is permitted two tweets, after which the opposing counsel is permitted to cross-tweet once. Opposing counsel may interpose an objection tweet, with the trial judge tweeting his or her ruling. If the objection is sustained, then the offending tweet will be deleted. The 2:1 tweets are repeated until the witness has nothing left to tweet. After each witness, legal counsel are permitted interim argument of 25 tweets each, alternating. In an effort to promote early settlements, jurors are permitted to “like” tweets from witnesses or counsel, at every stage.

Final arguments are tweeted, of course, again with alternating tweets. The tweeter with the burden of proof gets the final tweet, followed by the judge’s instructions, delivered in tweets. A jury foreperson is appointed, and deliberations proceed by twitter, marked private. Verdicts are returned by the foreperson’s tweet, with the other jurors’ tweeting their agreement, or dissents. Post-verdict motions and appeals can easily be handled by twitter, as well.

Due process preserved, and the right to trial inviolate!

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