Using the civil justice system to hold perpetrators accountable for criminal acts

Attorney David BetrasAs many of you know, I am representing Cameron Morgan, the 23-year-old woman who was punched in the face and then dragged into the street by Andrew Walls in Akron on Feb. 26. The incident garnered nationwide media attention hours after video of the racially motivated attack went viral.

Since then, Walls has admitted to being a member of the Proud Boys, an organization identified as an extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and as a terrorist entity by the Canadian government. In what I can only characterize as a sad commentary on the current state of our society, Cameron and her father David, who is a Youngstown native, have been attacked by the Proud Boys and their supporters.

Despite being the targets of threats, intimidation tactics and racial slurs, Cameron and David remain resolute: Walls, along with anyone and everyone who aided and abetted him, must be held accountable for their actions.  In addition to the criminal offenses, Walls already faces the possibility that he will be charged under state and/or federal hate crime statutes — as he should be. Part of that accountability will include me keeping my promise to sue everyone who is any way responsible for the assault “into oblivion.”

Fortunately, a little-known and seldom-used provision of Ohio law empowers me to do exactly that. Section 2307.60 of the Ohio Revised Code enables “Anyone injured in person or property by a criminal act… [to] recover full damages in a civil action … ” including punitive damages, exemplary damages and attorney’s fees. For those of you who did not go to law school and are wondering: Exemplary damages are awarded when a defendant’s conduct is found to be willfully malicious, violent, oppressive, wanton or grossly reckless. Anyone who has seen the disturbing video will agree that Walls’ actions certainly check all those boxes. Here is one of the best features of the law: According to the Ohio Supreme Court decision in Buddenberg v. Weisdack, a civil cause of action for injuries based on a “criminal act” may be brought under this provision, even if the offender has not been convicted criminally.

In other words, I do not have to wait for Walls’ case to move through the criminal courts. I may sue him now — and believe me, I will. The other important thing to know about the provision is that I can also use it to sue others who may have committed criminal acts and are in some way related to the incident, even if they are never charged with or convicted of a crime. All I need to do to prevail in a civil proceeding is prove that the defendant committed a criminal offense that harmed my client.

I have in the past written about the many ways trial lawyers have made our nation and world safer by filing lawsuits that forced corporations to remove dangerous cars, drugs, medical devices and other products from the marketplace. Now, thanks to a courageous young woman and her father, I will have the opportunity to use the civil justice system to punish racism, hate and violence. The prospect makes me proud to be an attorney and a citizen of the greatest country in the world.

PREP Act Liability Protections worked, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and life-saving

Attorney David BetrasAs Brad Pitt and J-Lo know only too well, being a celebrity, a status I achieved thanks in no small part to this column and the quite fetching full-color headshot that runs with it, can sometimes be a pain in the gluteus maximus. That pain has become excruciating in recent weeks as a growing number of incredibly intense people have accosted me in public because I believe everyone should receive the COVID-19 vaccine and I support vaccination mandates.

Look, I am more than willing to engage in a fact-based debate about the pandemic and the measures being taken to end it. But I run out of patience when someone shoves their smartphone in my face while I am sitting in a restaurant eating and screams DAVID, DAVID, look at this Facebook post—thanks for that Mark Zuckerberg—and then proceeds to tell me at the top of their lungs that the vaccines contain computer chips, are made from dead babies, will alter my DNA, and render me infertile.

Well, okay, none of those things are true, a detail that has exactly zero impact on the wild-eyed disbelievers who hover around me like buzzards circling roadkill until I give up and run for the door.

A couple of days ago, however, one of the vaccine resisters who has dedicated his life to disrupting my dinner made a relatively cogent point, albeit in a belligerent manner. “Hey, Mr. Big Shot Trial Lawyer, if the vaccines are so safe, how come the government passed a law that says vaccine makers and those who dispense it can’t be sued when their poison kills and maims people? Why did they leave victims out in the cold? They did it because they know the death toll is going to be in the millions, that’s why.”

COVID Vaccination Rates, U.S. and OhioSo, my tormenter is right about one thing: the federal government has extended nearly total liability immunity to manufacturers, distributors, prescribers, and dispensers of products developed to treat, diagnose, or prevent the onset of COVID-19.

But it is important to remember that the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP) which provides the immunity was not enacted specifically to protect the makers of COVID-19 vaccines. It was enacted by Congress and signed into law by George W. Bush in 2005 in the wake of a serious bird flu outbreak. The rationale for the law was simple: the liability shield would give drug makers the protection they needed to respond quickly and effectively to a public health crisis.

When Coronavirus hit, the law worked exactly as planned. On February 4, 2020, the Trump Administration declared COVID-19 to be a public health emergency and invoked PREP. Within months the first vaccines were ready for use. Today, 191 million Americans have been vaccinated, and due in large part to vaccine mandates imposed by employers, the spread of the Delta variant is easing rapidly.

While my anti-vax buddy was right about the existence of the liability shield, he was wrong when he said those hurt or killed by the vaccine would be left out in the cold. Anyone who believes they have suffered serious side effects from a COVID-19 vaccine is eligible to file for benefits from the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program (CIPC), a special fund established to provide payments to anyone who was injured by any drug or treatment related to a PREP emergency declaration. To date, while 416 million doses of the vaccine have been administered only 296 COVID-19 related claims have been filed.

Now that is a statistic that should be all over Facebook.

From exploding Pintos to out of control Teslas, trial lawyers fight to make cars safer

Attorney David BetrasOn 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.

Picture of Tesla that rear ended a fire truck.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.

David Betras: I’ve never filed a frivolous lawsuit…

Medical MalpracticeFrivolous, adjective: not having any serious purpose or value.

My decades-long legal career has been filled with interesting cases, challenging litigation, and high-stakes trials. But in all my years as a member of the bar, there is one thing I have never done: file a frivolous lawsuit.

That makes me an anomaly in the eyes of the insurance industry, the American Medical Association, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, and others who claim frivolous lawsuits filed by ambulance-chasing attorneys clog our courts, are responsible for skyrocketing insurance premiums and health care costs, force doctors to practice “defensive medicine” and generally make the world a horrible place to live.

At least that is what they say when they are pushing the passage of tort “reform” legislation that slams the courthouse door in the face of Americans seriously injured or killed because someone else was negligent or reckless.

Along with venting my resentment at having my life’s work denigrated and dismissed as frivolous, a number of things motivated me to once again note that restricting access to the civil justice system makes the world a more dangerous place for our families: The drive to enact tort reform laws is continuing unabated in state legislatures across the nation.

Iowa, Missouri, Texas and Florida, where I will soon be licensed to practice, are among the states attacking victim’s rights. Here in Ohio, an effort to reverse a Draconian cap on non-economic damages is being blocked by the special interest groups and Republicans who imposed the limit in 2004.

A new report issued by the Center for Law and Justice at New York Law School thoroughly debunks many of the myths obscuring the truth about medical malpractice in the U.S. This free-to-download, 172-page publication provides a comprehensive review of the latest statistics about litigation, cost, access to doctors, insurance and patient safety.

I found the following facts to be especially compelling:

  • Experts agree that when cases are filed, they are not “frivolous.” Among the experts is Victor Schwartz, General Counsel of the American Tort Reform Association who admitted in 2011 that “It is ‘rare or unusual’ for a plaintiff lawyer to bring a frivolous malpractice suit…”
  • Litigation and settlements enhance patient safety. Tort reform laws put patients at risk.
  • Neither “tort reforms” nor “caps on damages” lower insurance premiums for doctors.
  • Stripping away patients’ legal rights will not reduce health care costs and may actually increase them.

Finally, a case being litigated by our office underscores how serious and difficult our work is.

While I am unable to discuss the matter in detail, it involves a client who was horribly injured during a medical procedure some time ago. Since agreeing to represent the victim, we have devoted hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to trial prep and gone toe-to-toe and face-to-face with insurers, defense attorneys and health care providers determined to trivialize our client’s life-altering, lifelong injuries.

Whenever I look at the photos of this client or the hundreds of others we have represented over the years I am reminded of the fact that “frivolous” is the last word that can be used to describe what we do.

Mahoning Matters shines spotlight on area nursing homes, abuse and neglect of seniors

We would like to applaud Mahoning Matters for its in-depth series on area nursing homes. According to the report, conditions at two area nursing homes, Warren’s White Oak Manor and the Oasis Center for Rehabilitation and Healing are especially troubling. Reporters also found that 11 of the 46 nursing facilities located in Mahoning and Trumbull counties were rated below or far below average by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMMS). You can view inspection reports for facilities in Mahoning County here. Info on Trumbull County nursing homes may be found here. You can access a list of ratings for every nursing home in Ohio and across the U.S. here. We urge you to review the ratings and reports before selecting a nursing home or assisted living facility for someone you love.

Along with its reports CMMS’ Your Guide to Choosing a Nursing Home or Other Long-Term Service and Supports is an incredibly valuable resource for families and seniors. We recommend that you study the booklet and use its Nursing Home Checklist to help you evaluate and select a nursing home or assisted living facility. You can view and download the publication here. 02174-nursing-home-other-long-term-services

Here are some important factors to consider when you visit a facility during the selection process:
Facility layout, ambiance, residents

  • Is the facility clean and well-lit? Do you detect any odors? Is it attractive to you? Is it warm and enticing?
  • How is the temperature in the building?
  • How are the noise levels?
  • How is the layout of the various floors? Is it easy to get from your room to a common area?
  • Are there handrails in the hallways, rooms, and bathrooms?
  • Are the furnishings comfortable?
  • How do the residents look? Are they well-groomed and dressed?
  • How many residents to one room?
  • What are you allowed to bring when moving in?
  • Is there closet or storage space available? Do they have locks on them?
  • Do the residents have access to a telephone and a television? Is there an extra charge for these services?
  • Is there a secure outdoor area?
  • What are the demographics like? Will your loved one feel like they fit in? Will the staff be sensitive to any non-traditional family arrangements?

Staff

  • What kind of certification does the staff have?
  • What kind of staff are available on a 24-hour-basis?
  • How many registered nurses work there on each shift?
  • How the staff speak to and interact with the residents? Are they friendly and kind? Is the staff respectful of residents’ privacy?
  • How does the staff enter a resident’s room? Do they knock? Do they close the door when helping residents bathe and get dressed?

If a family member or loved one is already in a facility, be on the lookout for these signs of abuse and neglect:

  • Weight Loss
  • Bruises or Welts
  • Frequent Swelling
  • Dehydration
  • Bedsores
  • Soiled Clothing or Bed Sheets
  • Changes In Attitude or Mood

If your loved one appears withdrawn, fearful, or depressed you should be concerned. And if they complain about the treatment they are receiving or say they feel threatened by staff or other residents, listen and then bring the situation to the attention of the home’s administration at once. Then contact us right away by calling 330-746-8484 or 800-877-2889. We’ll listen to your concerns, evaluate the situation, give you our best advice, help protect your loved one, and fight for the justice and just compensation you and your family member need and deserve.