Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Products Liability
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Law firm Petway Olsen, LLC, petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Jefferson Circuit Court to set aside its order granting the motion filed by Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC ("MBUSA"), seeking to disqualify the firm from representing the plaintiffs in the underlying case and to enter an order allowing the firm to represent the plaintiffs. In 2017, Valisha Cartwell was driving a 1998 Mercedes ML320. As she was pulling into a parking space in front a dental office operated by Vital Smiles Alabama, P.C., the vehicle suddenly accelerated and crashed into the front of the dental office, killing a six-year-old child and injuring others. Grelinda Lee, as personal representative of the child's estate, sued Cartwell and the owner of the Mercedes ML320 (and other fictitiously named defendants) for wrongful death. An amended complaint added Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC. The second amended complaint was signed by D. Bruce Petway of Petway Olsen and included the names of other attorneys with different law firms who were also representing the plaintiffs. Both Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. ("MBUSI") and MBUSA asserted as a defense that Petway Olsen was "disqualified [from representing the plaintiffs] because one of its members [was] a former in-house attorney and general counsel for MBUSI." After review, the Supreme Court determined the trial court erred when it granted MBUSA's motion to disqualify Petway Olsen from representing the plaintiffs. The petition for mandamus relief was granted and the trial court directed to vacate its previous order granting MBUSA's motion. View "Ex parte Petway Olsen, LLC." on Justia Law

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A wine bottle shattered in Rolfe Godfrey's hand while he was working as a bartender, injuring him. He filed a products liability suit against the winery, St. Michelle Wine Estates, Ltd. and the bottle manufacturer, Saint-Gobain Containers, Inc. (collectively, Ste. Michelle). The case was assigned to Pierce County, Washington Superior Court Judge Garold Johnson, who set the initial case schedule, including discovery deadlines. The case was later reassigned to Judge Katherine Stolz, who, upon a stipulated and jointly proposed order, extended the parties' deadlines to disclose their witnesses. This case turned on the nature of that stipulated order. Two months later, and before Judge Stolz made any other rulings in the case, Godfrey filed an affidavit of prejudice and a motion for Judge Stolz's recusal under former RCW 4.12.040 and .050. Judge Stolz denied the motion, concluding that the earlier stipulated order to extend witness disclosure deadlines involved discretion and, thus, the affidavit of prejudice was not timely. Judge Stolz presided over the bench trial. Ste. Michelle prevailed, and Godfrey appealed. The Washington Supreme Court concluded that under Washington law, a party does not lose the right to remove a judge when the judge takes certain categories of actions, including arranging the calendar. The Court held that a stipulated order extending discovery deadlines that did not delay the trial or otherwise affect the court's schedule was an order arranging the calendar under the former RCW 4.12.050. Accordingly, the affidavit of prejudice was timely, and the case should have been reassigned to a different judge. View "Godfrey v. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Ltd." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs-appellants Jamie and Kelly Etcheson brought an action under the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (commonly known as the "lemon law") against defendant and respondent FCA US LLC (FCA) after experiencing problems with a vehicle they had purchased new for about $40,000. After admitting the vehicle qualified for repurchase under the Act, FCA made two offers to compromise under Code of Civil Procedure section 998: one in March 2015, to which plaintiffs objected and the trial court found was impermissibly vague, and a second in June 2016, offering to pay plaintiffs $65,000 in exchange for the vehicle's return. Following the second offer, the parties negotiated a settlement in which FCA agreed to pay plaintiffs $76,000 and deem them the prevailing parties for purposes of seeking an award of attorney fees. Plaintiffs moved for an award of $89,445 in lodestar attorney fees with a 1.5 enhancement of $44,722.50 for a total of $134,167.50 in fees, plus $5,059.05 in costs. Finding the hourly rates and amount of counsels' time spent on services on plaintiffs' behalf to be reasonable, the trial court tentatively ruled plaintiffs were entitled to recover $81,745 in attorney fees and $5,059.05 in costs. However, in its final order the court substantially reduced its award, concluding plaintiffs should not have continued to litigate the matter at all after FCA's March 2015 section 998 offer. It found their sought-after attorney fees after the March 2015 offer were not "reasonably incurred," and cut off fees from that point, awarding plaintiffs a total of $2,636.90 in attorney fees and costs. Pointing out their ultimate recovery was double the estimated value of FCA's invalid March 2015 section 998 offer, which they had no duty to counter or accept, plaintiffs contended the trial court abused its discretion by cutting off all attorney fees and costs incurred after that offer. The Court of Appeal agreed and reversed the order and remanded back to the trial court with directions to award plaintiffs reasonable attorney fees for their counsels' services, including those performed after FCA's March 2015 offer, as well as reasonable fees for services in pursuing their motion for fees and costs. View "Etcheson v. FCA US LLC" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's order limiting the scope of plaintiff's general causation phase discovery in this products liability suit alleging that plaintiff's husband's use of Enbrel caused his myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) which resulted in his death. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in limiting the scope of plaintiff's general causation discovery; the district court's basis for weighing proportionality was based on common sense and the search conducted by plaintiff's counsel during the discovery hearing; the district court did not rely on misrepresented facts by Amgen in issuing its discovery orders; any error in failing to provide plaintiff an opportunity to cross-examine Amgen's expert was harmless; the district court was under no obligation to order Amgen to provide plaintiff with materials the FDA requests—but does not require—from pharmaceutical companies when the agency evaluates safety risks; and plaintiff's assertion that the district court's order limiting the scope of her discovery prejudiced her case was rejected.The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by imposing sanctions under Rule 11 and by imposing sanctions under 28 U.S.C. 1927. Finally, the district court properly exercised its inherent power to sanction plaintiff's counsel, and here was no abuse of discretion View "Vallejo v. Amgen, Inc." on Justia Law

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These consolidated appeals concern the ongoing tobacco litigation that began as a class action in Florida courts more than two decades ago. At issue is the fate of 588 personal injury cases filed on behalf of purportedly living cigarette smokers who, as it turns out, were dead at the time of filing (predeceased plaintiffs), 160 loss of consortium cases filed on behalf of spouses and children of these predeceased plaintiffs, and two wrongful death cases filed more than two years after the decedent-smoker's death. Plaintiffs' counsel sought leave to amend the complaints, but the district court denied those requests and dismissed the cases. The root of the problem occurred back in 2008 when these cases were originally filed where the law firm that brought the cases did not have the time or resources required to fully investigate all the complaints. Consequently, problem after problem cropped up once the district court started going through the inventory of cases. The defects that led to these consolidated appeals stemmed from counsel's failure to obtain accurate information regarding whether or when certain smokers died. The court affirmed the district court's dismissal of these cases where, among other reasons, the problems could have been avoided if counsel had properly investigated the claims, and even if that lack of diligence were somehow excusable, counsel failed to inform the court that so many complaints were defective. View "4432 Ind. Tobacco Plaintiffs v. Various Tobacco Companies, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against Wyeth, alleging that she developed breast cancer after using Wyeth's's hormone therapy medication, Prempro. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred the case to the the Eastern District of Arkansas as part of the ongoing In re Prempro Products Liability Litigation. After the district court subsequently dismissed plaintiff's case for failure to respond to discovery orders, her attorney filed a Rule 60(b)(1) motion to set aside the dismissal. Plaintiff's attorney had failed to register for the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM-ECF) system and, consequently, did not receive electronic notices of the filings in plaintiff's case. The court affirmed the district court's denial of the Rule 60(b)(1) motion because the district court did not abuse its discretion where, on more than one occasion, the district court instructed all attorneys to register for the CM-ECF system and warned that those who did not would not receive electronic filing notices or hard copies of orders. View "Freeman v. Wyeth, et al." on Justia Law

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In 1975, a pistol manufactured by MKEK malfunctioned, firing a bullet through Ohntrup’s hand while he loaded the gun. The court held the seller, Firearms Center and MKEK, which is wholly owned by the Republic of Turkey, jointly liable for $847,173.97 and required MKEK to indemnify Firearms Center. The Morgan law firm represented MKEK, but after appeal, sought to withdraw. The court permitted the individual lawyers to withdraw but required the firm to remain as counsel of record until MKEK hired substitute counsel. The Third Circuit affirmed, characterizing MKEK as an intractable litigant and stating that a communication gap would hamper post-judgment proceedings. The Ohntrups tried to collect their judgment; MKEK disregarded the Ohntrups’ discovery requests. The Ohntrups sought assistance from the State Department and pursued MKEK in Turkish courts, to no avail. In 2007, Ohntrup’s widow obtained a $16 million civil contempt judgment against MKEK that grows by $10,000 annually. Ohntrup’s judgments against MKEK are now worth about $25 million. In 2011, Ohntrup’s lawyers learned of a $16.2 million transaction in which a Minneapolis-based company. (Alliant), agreed to sell munitions manufacturing components to MKEK. Ohntrup obtained some discovery from Alliant, but the district court denied subsequent discovery requests. When Ohntrup renewed her post-judgment discovery efforts, Morgan was granted leave to withdraw. The Third Circuit affirmed the order granting leave to withdraw, but remanded the discovery order. The court erred when it relied upon the uncertainty surrounding the judgment creditor’s ability to attach the targeted property.View "Ohntrup v. Makina Ve Kimya Endustrisi Kur" on Justia Law