Posts

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.

Use of “Shadow Docket” is undermining public trust in the Supreme Court

Attorney David BetrasThe inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court have been veiled in secrecy since Chief Justice John Jay gaveled the first meeting of the tribunal to order 1789. Aside from hearing oral arguments and issuing decisions, the nine justices function behind tightly closed doors. The conferences in which they debate cases are conducted in private and no notes or minutes are kept, memos and communications by and between the justices are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, each justice has the sole power to release or conceal their papers, and law clerks sign iron-clad confidentiality agreements. No other branch of government is so immune to public scrutiny.

In 1955 Justice Felix Frankfurter offered this explanation for why the Court’s work must be concealed from view:

“The secrecy that envelops the Court’s work is not due to love of secrecy or want of responsible regard for the claims of a democratic society to know how it is governed. That the Supreme Court should not be amenable to the forces of publicity to which the Executive and the Congress are subjected is essential to the effective functioning of the Court.”

The veil that shrouds the Court has occasionally been pierced. Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s “The Brethern: Inside the Supreme Court” published in 1979 provided the first in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the Court thanks to Justice Potter Stewart who was the primary source for the book. In 2004, Vanity Fair reporter David Margolis persuaded several clerks to reveal the political machinations that led to the Court’s controversial decision in Bush v Gore and last year CNN’s Joan Biskupic used confidential sources inside the court to produce a number of pieces about the term’s most-watched cases.

Entrance to US Supreme CourtDespite these notable breaches, respect for the Court’s need to operate clandestinely has remained largely intact because even though the sometimes-messy process of judicial sausage-making has been concealed behind what is commonly referred to as the “Purple Curtain,” the end product has always been prominently displayed in the form of majority and dissenting opinions that clearly reveal the justices’ reasoning and positions. Those opinions—millions of pages of them—are the foundation of the American legal system. They are also the reason why the Court has always been held in high esteem by the public.

Unfortunately, in recent years the Court has repeatedly abandoned the slow, deliberative process that produced well-argued landmark decisions and precedents in favor of what University of Chicago Law School professor William Baude refers to as the “Shadow Docket”—unsigned opinions issued hastily without detailed explanations, often before the cases in question have worked their way through the federal district and appellate courts. The 6-3 ruling that allowed Texas’ draconian anti-choice law to take effect is the most recent and troubling example of the Court’s increasing embrace of this tactic.

I am not raising the issue because I disagree with the majority in the Texas case and others that have been decided via the Shadow Docket, but because the justice’s refusal to share their rationale for their decisions threatens to undermine both the nation’s jurisprudence and public support for the Court which, according to Gallup, has fallen below 50% for only the third time in the past 20 years.

As an attorney, a legal scholar, and a citizen who believes our judicial system is both the heart and soul of our democracy, I fear what may happen if Americans lose faith in the Court. For the good of our nation, I pray that the justices abandon the Shadow Docket and once again share their wisdom, knowledge, and reasoning with us.

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.

Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted, but when criminal trials are fair

Attorney David BetrasIn 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.”

Man in handcuffsAlong 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.

Sunshine Laws enable citizens, media to expose government corruption, mismanagement, and malfeasance

Attorney David BetrasOhio’s Open Meetings Act enacted in 1954 and Public Records Act passed in 1963 known collectively as the state’s “Sunshine Laws,” are based on the belief that government belongs to the people. I couldn’t agree more, and, as a member of the Mahoning County Board of Elections a public body subject to those laws, I believe anyone and everyone should have access to our meetings and the documents we produce.

I’m in good company. The Founders including James Madison, one of the primary architects of our Constitution, clearly understood that public trust was critical to the survival of our democracy:

“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives”

Over the 66 years since their enactment, Ohio courts have repeatedly recognized the importance of open government when asked to arbitrate Sunshine Law disputes. In 1976 Justice William B. Brown writing for a unanimous Ohio Supreme Court in Dayton Newspapers, Inc. v. Dayton set the standard for record production that has also been applied to cases involving public meetings:

“The rule in Ohio is that public records are the people’s records, and that the officials in whose custody they happen to be are merely trustees for the people; therefore anyone may inspect such records at any time…”

Given the Dayton Newspapers decision and the fact that both laws empower “any person” to enforce their provisions, one could assume that obtaining records or forcing public bodies to actually meet in public would be a simple, straightforward process.

One would, of course, be wrong.

That’s because we’re dealing with government and the legal system which means these critically important acts are wrapped in miles of red tape. For example, the Sunshine Law Manual published by the Attorney General’s office contains 35 pages of exemptions to the open records law that have been enacted by the General Assembly—including the one that exempts the General Assembly itself from the law. In addition, the courts and the AG’s office have issued numerous opinions that shield records and officeholders from public scrutiny. As a result, forcing government officials to operate in the open can be an arduous, time-consuming endeavor.

But it’s an endeavor that is well worth the effort. In case after case, citizens and the media have used the Sunshine Laws to expose government corruption, mismanagement, and malfeasance and to ensure that bad actors are held accountable for their misdeeds. Ohio is a better state, our democracy is stronger because a concerned resident or inquisitive reporter exercised their right to examine what our elected leaders are doing and how they are doing it.

Because we believe transparency and accountability are essential to the efficient operation of government, you can access a readable/downloadable version of the Sunshine Law Manual here: 2020-Sunshine-Manual_WEB  It’s an A to Z guide that will enable “any person” in our community to utilize the Open Records and Public Meetings acts.

Take a look and then let the sunshine in…