Divine Intervention in Litigation

The Supreme Being, or Beings, or their Earthly Agents (Angels) rarely intervene in mundane matters such as litigation. Earlier this month, however, there may have been an unsuccessful divine intervention in the workings of a Comal County, Texas, jury, which was deliberating whether or not to convict Gloria Romero Perez of human trafficking.

After the jury reached a verdict, and rang the bell to signal its verdict, the trial judge, the Hon. Jack Robison, waltzed in and proclaimed that that God had told him that Perez was not guilty. According to jury foreperson Mark A. House, Judge Robison told them that he had prayed on the case and that God told him that he had to tell the jury. The state’s attorney was not present to object to the hearsay. House reported that the jury signaled again that it had reached a verdict, and again Judge Robison appeared to proclaim the defendant’s innocence.

Judge Robison’s pronouncements apparently anguished the jurors, some of who were “physically sick, crying and distraught” from the appearance of a putative prophet in the courthouse. Nonetheless, guilty is guilty, and the jury returned its verdict unmoved by Judge Robison. According to news reports, Judge Robison later apologized to the jury, but added something like “if God tells me to do something, I have to do it.” Zeke MacCormack, “Judge facing complaints over trying to sway jury,” San Antonio Express-News (Jan. 20, 2018); Ryan Autullo, “Texas judge interrupts jury, says God told him defendant is not guilty,” American-Statesman (Jan. 19, 2018). Foreperson House filed a complaint against Judge Robison with the judicial conduct commission, but told a local newspaper that “You’ve got to respect him for what he did. He went with his conscience.” Debra Cassens Weiss, “Judge informs jurors that God told him accused sex trafficker isn’t guilty,” A.B.A.J. online (Jan. 22, 2018).Or he was having a stroke. Somewhere, Henry Mencken is laughing and crying uncontrollably.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

For better or worse, I have not experienced divine intervention in my cases. At least, I think not. In one of my cases, the jury foreman and several jurors were in the elevator with my adversary and me, at the end of the trial. The situation was awkward, and punctuated by the foreman’s simple statement that God had directed them to their verdict. No one questioned the gentlemen. I thanked the jurors for their service, but I have never been able to verify the source of the direction or inspiration given to the jury. To this day, I prefer to believe the verdict resulted from my advocacy and marshaling of the evidence.

The case was Edward and Carmelita O’Donnell v. Celotex Corp., et al., Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, July Term 1982, No. 1619. My adversary was a very capable African American lawyer, Sandy L.V. Byrd, then of the Brookman, Rosenberg, Brown & Sandler firm in Philadelphia, now a sitting judge in Philadelphia County. As you will see, race was an important ingredient in this case, and perhaps the reason it was tried.

Sandy and I had pulled Judge Levan Gordon1, for the trial, which was noteworthy because Judge Gordon was one of the few trial judges who stood up to the wishes of the coordinating judge (Hon. Sandra Mazer Moss) that all cases be tried “reverse bifurcated,” that is, with medical causation and damages in a first phase, and liability in the second phase.

This unnatural way of trying asbestos personal injury cases had been first advocated by counsel for Johns Manville, which had a huge market share, a distinctive lack of liability defenses, and a susceptibility to punitive damages. In May 1989, when Sandy and defense counsel announced “ready” before Judge Gordon, Johns Manville was in bankruptcy. Reverse bifurcated had long outlasted its usefulness, and had become a way of abridging defendants’ due process rights to a trial on liability. If a jury returned a verdict with damages in phase One, plaintiffs would argue (illegitimately but often with court approval) that it was bad enough that defendants caused their illness, how much worse is it now that they are arguing to take away their compensation.

Worse yet, in trying cases backwards, with reverse bifurcation, plaintiffs quickly learned that they could, in Phase One, sneak evidence of liability, or hint that the defendants were as liable as sin, and thus suggest that the odd procedure of skipping over liability was desirable because liability was well-nigh conceded. The plaintiffs’ direct examination typically went something like:

Q. How did you feel emotionally when you received your diagnosis of asbestos-related _[fill in the blank]____?

A. I was devastated; I cried; I was depressed. I had never heard that asbestos could cause this disease..…

So clearly there was a failure to warn, at least on that colloquy, and that was all juries needed to hear on the matter, from the plaintiffs’ perspective. If the defendants lost in the first phase, and refused to settle, juries were annoyed that they were being kept from their lives by recalcitrant, liable defendants. Liability was a done deal.

At the time, most of the asbestos case trials in Philadelphia were brought by government employees at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The government was an extremely knowledgeable purchaser of asbestos-containing insulation products, and was as, or more, aware of the hazards of asbestos use than any vendor. At the time, 1989, the sophisticated intermediary defense was disallowed under Pennsylvania strict liability law, and so defendants rarely got a chance to deploy it.

In a case that went “all issues,” with negligence and even potential punitive damages, however, the sophisticated intermediary defense was valid under Pennsylvania law. Judge Gordon’s practice of trying all cases, all issues, opened the door to defending the case by showing that there was no failure to warn at all, because the Navy, at its shipyards, was knowledgeable about asbestos hazards. If plaintiff’s testimony were true about lack of protections, then the Navy itself had been grossly negligent in its maintenance and supervision of the shipyard workplace.

Before trial began, on May 8, 1989, the Brookman firm had signaled that the O’Donnell case was on track to settle in a dollar range that was typical for cases involving the age, medical condition, and work history of the plaintiff, Mr. O’Donnell. The settlement posture of the case changed, abruptly however, after jury selection. When the jury was sworn, we had 12 Philadelphians, 11 of whom were African American, and one of whom was Latina. When I asked Sandy whether we were settled at the number we had discussed the previous day, he looked at me and asked why he would want to settle now, with the jury we had. He now insisted that this trial must be tried. Racism works in curious ways and directions.

So we tried the O’Donnell case, the old-fashioned way, from front to back. Both sides called “state of the art” expert witnesses, to address the history of medical knowledge about asbestos-related diseases. We called product identification lay witnesses, as well as several physicians to testify about Mr. O’Donnell’s disputed asbestosis. The lovely thing about the O’Donnell trial, however, was that I had the opportunity to present testimony from the Philadelphia Navy Yard’s industrial hygienist, Dr. Victor Kindsvatter, who had given a deposition many years before. Kindsvatter, who had a Ph.D. in industrial hygiene, was extraordinarily knowledgeable about asbestos, permissible exposure limits, asbestos hazards, and methods of asbestos control on board ships and in the shops.

The result of Judge Gordon’s all issue trial was a fuller, fairer presentation of the case. Plaintiffs could argue that the defendants were horribly negligent given what experts knew in the medical community. Defendants could present evidence that experts at the relevant time believed that asbestos-containing insulation products could be used safely, and that the U.S. Navy was especially eager to use asbestos products on board ships, and had extensive regulations and procedures for doing so. The testimony that probably tipped the balance came from a former shipyard worker, George Rabuck. Mr. Rabuck had been a client of the Brookman firm, and he was their go-to guy to testify on product identification. In the O’Donnell case, as in many others, Rabuck dutifully and cheerfully identified the products of the non-settling defendants, and less cheerfully, the products of the settled and bankrupt defendants. In O’Donnell, I was able to elicit additional testimony from Mr. Rabuck about a shakedown cruise of a new Navy ship, in which someone had failed to insulate a hot line in the boiler room. When an oil valve broke, diesel fuel sprayed the room, and ignited upon hitting the uninsulated pipe. A ship fire ensued, in which several sailors were seriously injured and one died. In my closing argument, I was able to remind the jury of the sailor who died because asbestos insulation was not used on the Navy ship.

On May 18, 1989, the jury came back with a general verdict for the defense in O’Donnell. Judge Gordon entered judgment, from which there was no appeal. Ignoring the plaintiffs’ lawyers intransigence on settlement, Judge Moss was angry at the defense lawyers, as she typically was, for tying up one of her court rooms for Judge Gordon’s rotation in her trial program. Judge Moss stopped asking Judge Gordon to help with the asbestos docket after the O’Donnell case. Without all-issue trials that included negligence claims, sophisticated intermediary defenses went pretty much unexercised in asbestos personal injury cases for the next 25 years.

My real question though, in view of Texas Judge Robison’s epiphany, is whether the defense won in O’Donnell because of the equities and the evidence, or whether an angel had put her finger on the scales of justice. It’s a mystery.


1 Ryanne Persinger, “Levan Gordon, retired judge,” Tribune Staff (Oct. 6, 2016). Judge Gordon was one of the most respected judges in Philadelphia County. He had graduated from Lincoln University in 1958, and from Howard University School of Law in 1961. Gordon was elected to Philadelphia Municipal Court in 1974, and to the Court of Common Pleas in 1979. He died on October 4, 2016.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.