On August 10, 1978, three teenage girls, sisters Lyn and Judy Ulrich and their cousin Donna traveling to volley practice on Route 33 in Goshen, Indiana were incinerated when the gas tank in their 1973 Ford Pinto exploded after the vehicle was rear-ended by a van. Technically speaking, they were killed in an auto accident. In reality, however, they were murdered by corporate greed.
That is because Ford executives, including President Lee Iacocca, knew the Pinto was a four-wheeled death trap. Rushed into production in 1970 after only two years of development and testing, the Pinto was Ford’s response to the influx of foreign-made subcompact cars into the American market that began in the late ‘60s. During the design process company engineers sounded alarms about the gas tank which was, for a number of reasons, vulnerable to rupture in low-speed rear-end collisions. They were also concerned because a large empty space behind the backseat allowed the entire back third of the car to crumple, wedging the body and frame tightly against the car doors, making them virtually impossible to open.
Fixing the lethal combination of an exploding gas tank and jammed doors would have cost the company $15 per Pinto. Iacocca’s response: “Safety doesn’t sell.” Not surprisingly, the boss’ attitude permeated the company when attorneys representing people injured and killed in the exploding cars unearthed what became known as the “Pinto Memo.” Prepared to help Ford block new fuel system safety standards being proposed by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the memo’s authors estimated it would cost Ford $11 per vehicle or $137 million to comply with the new regulations. They weighed that against the $50 million in litigation and settlements costs the company would incur if the cars were not made safer. Their conclusion: “…the implementation costs far outweigh the expected benefits.“
And so the company continued to manufacture and sell the deadly vehicles for more than a decade. During that time between 500 and 900 people were burned to death. The Pinto was not pulled from the market until the cost of settling lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims and the attendant negative publicity made the car unprofitable.
I was reminded of the Pinto debacle when I read a New York Times article about a series of accidents caused by Tesla’s autopilot system. The story focused on the death of 22-year-old Naibel Benavides who was killed when a Model S in autopilot mode traveling 66 MPH on a city street ran a stop sign and slammed into the parked Chevy Tahoe in which she was sitting. The car’s brakes were never applied.
While a Tesla is as different from a Pinto as the Wright Brothers’ plane is from an F-16, the cause of the crashes that killed the Ulrich’s and Ms. Benavides are the same: placing pursuit of profit ahead of people. Unlike Ford, GM, and other carmakers who use technology to restrict their systems to divided highways where there are no stop signs, traffic lights or pedestrians, Tesla allows drivers to use autopilot anywhere and everywhere. The results are predictable and tragic: the number of accidents involving Tesla’s system is skyrocketing.
And I suspect that lawsuits filed by victims are the only thing that will stop the carnage.
Every time I think of the victims we represent or read reports about companies who place no value on human life, I am reminded of why I went to law school, why I go to work every day, and why we should all fight to preserve the civil justice system that makes our world a safer place to live.
If you have viewed Law and Order, Law and Order SVU, Law and Order Organized Crime, Law and Order LA, Law and Order Def Comedy Jam or one of the dozen or so other iterations of the franchise, you have undoubtedly heard a cop recite the following to a suspect as they slap on the cuffs:
You have the right to remain silent.
Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law
You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him or her present while you are being questioned.
If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning if you wish.
You can decide at any time to exercise these rights and not answer any questions or make any statements.
Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you? Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us now?
Just a hint: the answer to the last question is always “no.” I will expand on this point shortly.
After watching Lenny Briscoe “Mirandize” a couple thousand criminals, people think they understand what the warning means. Believe me, they do not because this area of the law, like most, is extremely complicated. And that explains why 90% of criminal cases are solved when people who think they know their rights tell on themselves.
For starters, according to the Supreme Court’s 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, law enforcement officers do not have to issue a Miranda warning unless they are conducting a custodial interrogation. In plain English, that means suspects do not have to be advised of their right to keep their yap shut unless and until they have been deprived of their freedom of action in a significant way.
In light of this fact, police officers often delay placing a suspect in custody and tell them they are free to go. They then begin asking questions that can lead to an arrest. For example, a police officer stops a driver who is swerving and asks, “Have you had anything to drink tonight?” More often than I care to remember, the driver, who I am almost invariably standing next to in front of a judge, will answer, “Well, I’ve had a couple of beers,” as if the officer will be satisfied by the qualifier “couple of beers” and happily send the driver on his or her way with a friendly wave.
Uhm, not so much. At that point, the officer, who was not required to issue a Miranda warning when he posed what amounts to the $10,000 dollar or so question, will ask the driver to exit the car, submit to a field sobriety test, and then a breathalyzer exam. At the end of the process, the driver will be arrested and Mirandized—which does not mean much at that point.
So, here are the takeaways from this week’s column:
First, if you are stopped by law enforcement and questioned you are under no obligation to do anything other than provide your name and ID.
Second, remember, the police will delay placing you in custody so they can use what you say to establish probable cause for arrest.
Third, your pre-arrest statements are admissible in court.
Fourth: Shut up. What you do not say cannot be used against you.
I am the managing partner of this law firm which means I am a businessman, which means I am an advertiser. I understand that some people are appalled and offended by attorneys who market their services and are fond of referring to personal injury attorneys as ambulance chasers.”
That is ironic for two reasons: first, because the term was coined in the days when attorneys were forced to contact potential clients and their families directly because the bar was barred from advertising and, second because the pejorative is used regularly by the folks who run or work for mammoth insurance companies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on marketing.
Talk about hypocrites. I guess it is ok for Allstate to spend $500 million annually to convince accident victims that they are in good hands, but I am a ghoul for spending less than one-two thousandth of that to tell them the company is using those hands to pick their pockets.
But I digress. What I really want to discuss in this column is the way marketing in my profession has evolved since 1977, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lawyer advertising was commercial speech entitled to protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Immediately after the decision in Bates v. Arizona was announced law firms began using every available advertising medium to contact clients including television, radio, billboards, direct mail, and the Yellow Pages. For readers too young to remember, the Yellow Pages were the business directory section of something known as a phone book—a thick printed directory that listed every phone number and address in a community. Think of it as a printed version of Google, only much more difficult to use.
Anyway, because the phone book was the way most people obtained phone numbers for businesses, competition for the highly visible and easily accessible parts of the directory including the covers was fierce. Attorneys often paid tens of thousands of dollars for the coveted spots which explains why every Yellow Pages sales rep back in the day drove a Porsche, Cadillac, or Corvette.
Today, the Yellow Pages have been replaced by Google, Yahoo, Bing, and YouTube. The bidding wars for frequently searched keywords like “accident attorney” are every bit as fierce as the battles that raged for prime placement in the phone book with one major difference: the competitors cheat by doing things like purchasing the names of other law firms.
Here is how it works: a person who has been injured wants to contact my firm. They search for Betras, Kopp & Harshman. The result comes back in a millisecond, but the phone number and website that pops up belong to the law firm that is paying the most for our name on that day. So instead of calling us, the potential client calls one of our competitors.
I think the practice is dishonest. The Ohio Supreme Court agrees and recently issued an opinion that said using another firm’s name to drive traffic to a law firm’s own site “may constitute conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation,” and is an act “…designed to deceive an Internet user.”
I applaud the Court’s ruling. Now, if we could just get the justices to force Nationwide to admit they are not on our side…
Attorney Arturo Uzdavinis is the newest addition to Betras, Kopp & Harshman’s impressive, multi-talented legal team. A native of Tampa, Florida, Attorney Uzdavinis graduated from Tampa Jesuit High School before attending Tulane University where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Management Degree. He received his Juris Doctorate from Barry University’s Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law, graduating Cum Laude in December 2020.
A standout football player at Tulane where he appeared in 48 games and was named to the schools 3.0 Club and the 2014-15 American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team, Arturo was signed as a free agent by the NFL’s Houston Texans in 2016. He spent time with five other NFL squads over the next two years before being encouraged by Atty. Brian Kopp to pursue a legal career. He clerked at BKH while attending law school and joined the firm after passing the Florida Bar Exam in February 2021.
Arturo brings a distinguished legal pedigree to BKH. His great grandfather, Hector Reichard Zamora, was the oldest practicing attorney in Puerto Rico when he passed away in 2008. His grandfather, Hector Reichard de Cardona, served as Attorney General of Puerto Rico from 1981 through 1983 and is now senior partner at Reichard & Escalera, LLC, a multi-disciplinary law firm headquartered in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“Identifying, recruiting, and mentoring young, talented attorneys who have a zeal for the law is one of BKH’s primary goals,” Atty. Brian Kopp, leader of BKH Complex Litigation Practice Group said. “In addition to those attributes, Arturo’s deep roots in, devotion to, and understanding of our community are incredibly valuable assets that will strengthen our firm and benefit our clients. Chris Knopik, Doug Titus, David Betras, and I are all pleased that he accepted a position with us and we look forward to practicing with him for many, many years.”
“I could not have found a better place to begin my career,” Arturo remarked. “Because BKH is a ‘boutique’ rather than a large, tall-building firm I will have the opportunity to observe and learn from attorneys who possess an extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge and experience in multiple fields each and every day. Working with Chris, Doug and Brian will enable me to hone my skills and become the type of lawyer my great-grandfather and grandfather would want and expect me to be.”
Arturo is a member of the Florida Bar Association, National Football Players Association, and Knights of Colombus. He and his wife, Sydney were married in February 2020 and reside in Tampa, Florida with their six-month-old daughter, Ruth Beatriz.
In his most recent MahoningMatters column, BKH managing partner David Betras, one of the area’s leading criminal defense attorneys, discusses prosecutorial misconduct and the threat overzealous prosecutors pose to every American’s freedom…
Prosecutors in the United States wield awesome power and have access to immense resources that dwarf what is available to criminal defendants and defense counsel. The lawyers who represent the people of the United States or the people of Ohio have near-total discretion to decide who is charged and with what—the old saying that a prosecutor can convince a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich is basically true, they are funded by taxpayer dollars, work hand-in-hand with the law enforcement officers who investigate crimes and have unlimited access to state-of-the-art forensic science.
To balance the legal playing field and protect society, the rules of criminal procedure, the law, and codes of conduct administered by the courts and bar associations have established strict guidelines and boundaries designed to prevent prosecutors from abusing their authority. Chief among them is the admonition that a prosecutor’s job is to secure justice, not convictions. This principle is embodied in Ohio’s Code of Professional Conduct which states:
“A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate.”
It is also included in the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Criminal Justice Standards (CJS):
“The primary duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to convict… The prosecutor should seek to protect the innocent and convict the guilty, consider the interests of victims and witnesses, and respect the constitutional and legal rights of all persons, including suspects and defendants.”
Along with defining prosecutors’ role, the rules, laws, and Supreme Court decisions also set forth their responsibilities, which, according to the ABA’s CJS include the duty to “…make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense…”
This standard encapsulates the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v Maryland, In that case, a 7-2 majority held that “…the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment… Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted, but when criminal trials are fair.” The Court has revisited Brady numerous times over the years, including in 1985 when the justices ruled in United States v. Bagley that a prosecutor’s duty to disclose material favorable evidence exists regardless of whether the defendant makes a specific request.
Despite the guardrails that have been erected, some prosecutors misuse their power and abuse their discretion. They place more value in securing convictions than preserving justice. They commit what are known as “Brady Violations” by refusing to turn over or concealing exculpatory evidence to the defense and violate defendants’ due process rights in other disturbing ways.
This matters for two reasons. First, because when prosecutors violate the rules, innocent people go to jail for decades or are executed. Some of the wrongful conviction cases have penetrated the national consciousness: the Central Park 5, Walter McMillan, the Brown brothers, and Anthony Ray Hinton. Thousands of others, however, suffer in silence outside the spotlight, hoping that justice will be done.
Second, each case of prosecutorial misconduct, each Brady violation, each wrongful conviction weakens the criminal justice system and puts every American’s freedom at risk.