Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label proof. Show all posts
Showing posts with label proof. Show all posts

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Chair collapse provides textbook 'res ipsa' facts

plastic chair by Chris CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
A textbook res ipsa loquitur case is headed back to the trial court since the Massachusetts Appeals Court in March reversed dismissal.

Res ipsa loquitur is a beautiful doctrine for all kinds of reasons. I like that it's a mouthful of high-dollar words, because that keeps lawyers' hourly rates high and justifies the high cost of law school, translating into more money for professors like me. It's also fun to teach, because of its odd position at the intersection of fundamental tort elements—is it a rule of causation? duty? breach?; its location in negligence law while bearing a striking resemblance to strict liability; and its double-life in doctrines of tort and evidence law render it theoretically instructive.

At the same time, res ipsa is a straightforward and commonsense rule, and this case before the Appeals Court demonstrates its utility. "The plaintiff ... was having lunch on the outdoor deck of Sundancers restaurant in Dennis when his plastic chair collapsed beneath him," the court recounted the facts. The trial court dismissed for want of evidence of negligence by the defendant restaurant owners.

Res ipsa says simply, plastic chairs fairly may be depended on not to collapse. So when they do, it might be someone's fault. And of everyone who might be at fault, it's not the plaintiff's fault. So even if the plaintiff can't show by evidence the precise mechanism of the accident, the plaintiff still deserves a chance to persuade a jury to infer the defendant's responsibility. 

You can find my more formal discussion of the rule in the no-longer-updated Straightforward Torts, to be incorporated into Tortz: A Study of American Tort Law in the coming year.

My 2006 torts casebook with Professor Marshall Shapo uses a case with a similar fact pattern to teach res ipsa loquitur. In O'Connor v. Chandris Lines, Inc. (D. Mass. 1983), the plaintiff was injured when the bunk-beds in which she slept on a cruise ship collapsed. Like Step Brothers (2008) if someone else had put the beds together, and not as funny.

The plaintiff from Sundancers sued years later, if within the statutory limitations period, so both he and the restaurant struggled to locate relevant evidence. There might yet be insufficient implication of negligence on the part of the restaurant to persuade the jury to make the res ipsa inference. But plaintiff deserves better than summary dismissal, the court decided.

Because the record presents a number of material, disputed factual issues—including whether Sundancers provided the plaintiff with a defective and unsafe chair, whether the defect could have been detected with reasonable inspection, whether reasonable inspection was made, and whether factors other than the defendants' negligence more likely caused the accident—summary judgment should not have entered. Were this case to go to trial on the record before us, the jury would be permitted, but not required, to infer that Sundancers was negligent under the principles of res ipsa loquitur.

The case is Kennedy v. Abramson, No. 21-P-224 (Mass. App. Ct. Mar. 17, 2022). Justice Gregory I. Massing wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mass. App. upholds $2.9m 'actual malice' verdict over 'bitter feud' in local politics

The Range Feud (Columbia Pictures 1931)
The Massachusetts Appeals Court today rejected appeal of a defamation verdict.  The case is Van Liew v. Eliopoulos, no. 16-P-567 (soon available from the Reporter of Decisions), per Justice Blake.

The case arose amid what the court described as "a bitter feud ... between Chelmsford residents," focusing on the redevelopment of a historic property.  Plaintiff Eliopoulos was a selectman, real estate attorney, and project developer; defendant Van Liew was a business owner and project opponent.  The latter's vigorous opposition included a newsletter titled, "Why Perjury Matters."  The jury found, and the trial court entered judgment, against the defendant for 29 defamatory statements, to the tune of $2.9m.  The Appeals Court affirmed upon 26 statements.

Because the plaintiff was a public official and public figure, the case occasioned review of some First Amendment basics, namely, the Sullivan (FindLaw) "actual malice" standard and the Bose Corp. (FindLaw) standard of independent appellate review, besides the common law fact-opinion dichotomy.  Actual malice was supported, inter alia, by evidence that the defendant had reiterated charges of unethical conduct knowing that an ethics commission had exonerated the plaintiff.

The jury's damages award comprised $2.5m for reputational injury, $250,000 for emotional distress, and $150,000 in other compensatory damages.  Refusing remittitur, the Appeals Court held the damages sufficiently supported and neither excessive nor punitive.  A real estate broker had "testified that potential real estate buyers and sellers do not want to work with [plaintiff] because 'a lot of folks think that he is a—a corrupt, unethical person, because it's been said hundreds ... of times, over the past few years, in mailings and e-mails to their homes.'"  The Appeals Court opined, "The jury well could have found that the defamation turned [plaintiff] into a pariah in his own community, a status for him that has no end in sight."

Not many years ago, a politician-plaintiff's favorable verdict on actual malice was about as likely as, well not quite a unicorn, but maybe a California condor.  I advised more than one public-figure colleague not to pursue a cause because of cost, emotional toll, and mainly the overwhelming probability of loss under prophylactic free speech rules, all notwithstanding merits.  The "actual malice" standard on its face suggests no more rigor than a thoughtful recklessness analysis, but trial courts seemed to find it, to borrow the sometimes critique of strict scrutiny, "fatal in fact."

The efficacy of that conventional wisdom has been on the wane in recent years, and I welcome the return to fairness.  The $3m defamation verdict against Rolling Stone and its reporter in November  for "Rape on Campus" (NYT) and the Hulk Hogan (Bollea) privacy win against Gawker (settlement in NYT; new Netflix docko in The Atlantic) are high-profile instances of what might be a sea change underway to balance the scales.  Much hand-wringing has attended the President's "open up our libel laws" statement (NYT), and rightly so.  But that doesn't mean that the frustration that propelled Trump into office is wholly ill derived, on this point any less than on jobs and the economy.

The Appeals Court's application of "actual malice" was workaday and workmanlike.  That's the kind of cool rationality we need in our courts, now more than ever.