A recent article penned by Josh Moon, a very good reporter with the Montgomery Advertiser, made some interesting observations about the Alabama Supreme Court. His article has received a great deal of attention around the state. I understand Mr. Moon has even been criticized in some quarters because of his observations concerning the court. I am including the complete text of the article for your edification and comments.
Alabama Supreme Court Serving As Safety Net For Big Business
Have you ever dreamed of being untouchable, of simply doing whatever you’d like and never having to worry about consequences? If you’re a big business operating in Alabama, that dream is apparently a reality, thanks to the Alabama Supreme Court. No matter the screwup, no matter the negligent, borderline criminal acts committed by big business, the state’s highest court has acted as quite the magician’s top hat the last few years — making big problems and big verdicts simply vanish. And it’s using some awfully flimsy excuses to pull off its tricks.
The most infuriating example came a few weeks ago, when the justices voted 4-3 to overturn a $3.2 million verdict against Baptist Health — damages originally levied because of the hospital’s alleged negligence in the death of Lauree Ellison, a 73-year-old woman from Wetumpka. Ellison had gone to Baptist Medical Center East in September 2005 after suffering a fall at work. While there she complained of a sore throat, so a throat culture was taken that came back negative. Ellison was later released, but the culture was allowed to continue growing. It revealed that Ellison had Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a deadly infection if not treated early. No one called Ellison. No one called her doctor.
Two months later, she was back in the hospital with MRSA pneumonia, and later died. Baptist appealed the judgment against it. One of the issues raised by Baptist’s attorneys in the appeal was an off-the-wall argument that the hospital can’t be sued because shortly before Ellison’s visit, facing financial struggles, it transferred its operations to the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System, thus making it a state entity and immune from lawsuits. The justices surprisingly agreed.
“It’s the most unprecedented decision I’ve ever heard of,” said Birmingham attorney Shay Samples, who represents the Ellison family. “Imagine that just because a business has a relationship with a state – not that it is a state entity, but just has a relationship with one – it can’t be held accountable for its actions. I’m still astounded.” He shouldn’t be. The Alabama Supreme Court has over the last few years overturned a number of big verdicts against big business.
Two weeks ago, the high court overturned an $8.5 million verdict against Ford Motor Co. in a rollover case in Etowah County because the presiding judge limited the jury pool by asking potential jurors if they would be able to serve for three to four weeks.
In 2009, the court tossed a $274 million verdict against 13 pharmaceutical companies for defrauding the state’s Medicaid system by overpricing prescription drugs, because, the justices said, the state didn’t have to rely on that erroneous information.
In 2007, the court overturned a $3.85 million medical malpractice suit awarded to a Jackson couple whose baby had suffered brain damage due to birthing problems, because the judge had erred in giving the family procedural information about the delivery.
Also in 2007, the court overturned a $3.5 billion verdict against oil giant Exxon Mobil, which was accused by the Alabama conservation department of intentionally underpaying royalties to the state, because the court didn’t believe the underpayments constituted fraud.
In 2003, the court overturned an $82 million verdict against GM for a defective design that resulted in a child being left with brain injuries following a crash, because five jurors were distant relatives or friends of an attorney who worked at the plaintiff’s law firm. Are you getting a picture?
It seems as if the common man (or woman) goes into court not only out-spent and out-lawyered by the companies he’s facing off against, but also facing a group of justices who are leaning the other way from the start. And that lean, many argue, could have something to do with the excess money in the pockets of their robes. In the last election cycle, pro-business PACs poured money into races for judicial seats, including more than $500,000 to Justice Mike Bolin, who wrote the majority opinion in the decision to overturn the Ellison case. Those donations continued a trend of pro-business groups and defense attorneys increasing spending on state judicial races.
How serious can those conflicts sometime be? Consider this: In the six years prior to the Exxon Mobil verdict being overturned, Harper’s reported Alabama justices received more than $5.5 million in donations from people and groups with direct ties to the oil company — that included donations from numerous attorneys defending the oil company in the suit. It’s absurd. And absolutely maddening. It’s time we demand the reappearance of some of that fairness and impartiality that’s supposed to protect us.
All any person, including victims of wrongdoing and business owners, who goes before a court either as a Plaintiff or Defendant should expect is a fair and impartial hearing for their claim or defense. That includes having judges in their case who will follow the existing law and apply that law to the facts. For that to happen, we must have a court system that is truly independent and fair to all litigants. Unfortunately, the perception today is that justice in Alabama is for sale and that’s not good for anybody. I don’t believe any judge wants that to be how justice is perceived in Alabama. What do you think?
Source: Josh Moon
The Montgomery Advertiser
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