TV Review: USA’s “Benched,” Starring Eliza Coupe

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This past Tuesday night, the USA network aired the premiere episode of “Benched,” a new legally themed sitcom starring Eliza Coupe (“Happy Endings,” “Scrubs”) as an ex-corporate lawyer experiencing the trials and tribulations of life as a public defender. Created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones, “Benched” brings the fun back to the legal sitcom in ways many of its recent predecessors have failed.  While “Benched” is not a perfect depiction of the legal profession, lawyers, particularly those engaged in a criminal practice, will relate to the challenges faced by its PD protagonist.

Coupe plays Nina Whitley whose life as a prominent corporate attorney is derailed by a comedic in-office blow-up following her discovery that she failed to make partner.  Now plagued by the gossip surrounding her breakdown, Whitley finds herself with few employment options despite her impressive pedigree.  Reluctantly, she takes a job with the public defender’s office in an attempt to revamp her career, but in the process, rediscovers herself.

At least in the pilot, the focus is exclusively on Whitley and set primarily within the confines of the courtroom and the public defender’s office.  We assume, however, that the show may dive deeper into Whitley’s personal life in future episodes based on the groundwork set forth in the pilot.  Rounding out the cast are Jay Harrington as fellow public defender Phil Quinlan, Fred Melamed as Judge Don Nelson, Jolene Purdy as legal intern Micah, and Carter MacIntyre as Whitley’s ex-fiancé turned prosecutor Trent Barber.

The pilot sets the stage for Whitley’s career path.  Waiting to become the next partner at her law firm, Whitley discovers that the position has been given to her attractive yet less legally-qualified colleague.  Enraged by the news, Whitley unleashes an epic rant on her firm and co-workers which ends with her smashing a vase given to the firm by Sir Elton John himself.  Preceded by exaggerated rumors of her blow-up, Whitley emerges in the public defender’s office and immediately learns she is scheduled to be in court for numerous arraignment hearings five minutes later.  As if walking into court completely unprepared wasn’t bad enough, Whitley discovers that the prosecutor is none other than her ex-fiancé, now legal nemesis.  Frustrated after “losing” multiple requests for bail, Whitley finally uses her legal moxie to achieve having bail set at $1 for an alleged diaper thief, much to the chagrin of her nemesis.

We here at Abnormal Use are not criminal lawyers, and we certainly do not pretend to know the internal machinations of a public defender’s office.  ”Benched” goes out of its way to create a stark contrast between the work environment of those in the public sector from the cozy confines of a big law firm.  Just as many shows exaggerate the perceived “luxuries” of the firm life, we assume “Benched” took similar liberties with the PD’s office.  We seriously doubt the typical PD’s office mirrors the chaotic confines of a debt collection call center.  Nonetheless, many of the portrayals of the difficulties faced by lawyers in the public sector are well-founded.  Too many files without the time or opportunity to work them up as much as the lawyer would prefer is not just a story made for Hollywood.  Yet, like Whitley, lawyers make it work.

At its roots, “Benched” is a comedy and Coupe will certainly make you laugh.  For lawyers, the show is more than just a half hour of comedic relief.  Whether or not the message was intended, “Benched” serves as an excellent reminder of what makes this profession so great. Regardless of a lawyer’s practice area, there will always be more work that can conceivably be addressed.  Yet, when the lights come on in the courtroom, the skills take over and lawyers find a way to make each case look like it is the only one on his or her radar.  Like any great lawyer, Whitley finds a way to thrive in the face of insurmountable odds.  While the general public will love Coupe as an actor, lawyers will love Whitley as an attorney.  Sure, “Benched” takes some artistic liberties with the legal profession, but lawyers will certainly be able to relate to its shenanigans.

“Benched” airs on USA Tuesday nights at 10:30 pm EST.

Denny’s Settles Hot Coffee Case Following Child’s Injury

According to a report from The Buffalo News, G.B. Restaurants, the parent company of Denny’s, recently paid $500,000 to settle yet another hot coffee-related lawsuit.  While this settlement is not so far removed from the 20th anniversary of the infamous Stella Liebeck-McDonald’s hot coffee case, the underlying theory of liability couldn’t be more different.  In this case, Jose Adams and Sally Irizarry of Puerto Rico sued the restaurant chain after their 14-month old daughter was burned by hot coffee in a Buffalo, New York Denny’s.  The daughter sustained those burns after she grabbed a cup of coffee off of the table and spilled it on herself.  The crux of the lawsuit is whether the waitress was negligent in placing the coffee within arm’s reach of the child – not that the coffee was unreasonably dangerous as alleged in the Liebeck suit.

With every new hot coffee case that hits the news, the media can’t help itself but to make comparisons to the now 20-year old Liebeck case. (We tend to do a bit of the same ourselves, but that’s why you love this blog, right?) In fact, The Buffalo News began and ended its report with references to the Liebeck case even though the only link those cases share is the presence of hot coffee.  Without the Liebeck case coming before it, we doubt this case would have garnered its own headline (or be the source of blog fodder).

Liebeck comparisons aside, this case has its own liability issues.  We do not know much about the facts of the case, but we have to wonder how long the cup sat on the table prior to the child pulling it off.  As former patrons of Denny’s, we know that table space can be limited depending on the size of the food orders.  Also, as parents, we certainly can empathize with the perils of having young children in restaurants.  However, we are also cognizant of a child’s reaching hands and plan accordingly.  Should a waitress be responsible for placing the coffee too near the child?  Maybe, but these other factors should also be considered when analyzing how the coffee got onto the child in the first place. We’ll keep you posted on this case if circumstances warrant.

Pink Panties v. Colonoscopy: Office Prank Gone Awry

According to a report from The Huffington Post, a Delaware man has filed suit after waking up from a medical procedure wearing women’s underwear.  The plaintiff, Andrew Walls, claims that surgeons from the Delaware Surgery Center dressed him in pink panties while he was under anesthesia to have a colonoscopy.  According to the complaint filed the the New Hanover (DE) Superior Court:

When the plaintiff recovered from the effects of the anesthesia administered by defendants, he awoke to realize that while he was unconscious pink women’s underwear had been placed on his body.  . . . When the plaintiff initially presented for his colonoscopy he had not been wearing pink women’s underwear and at no time did the plaintiff voluntarily, knowingly or intentionally place the pink women’s underwear upon himself.

Walls was apparently an employee of the medical facility and the underwear switch was a part of an office prank.  Nonetheless, Walls claims that he suffered from severe emotional distress as a result of the 2012 incident which ultimately cost him his job.

We here at Abnormal Use understand how Walls might be angry by the office prank gone wrong.  Even good natured fun can cross the line at times.  However, is waking up in pink panties really lawsuit worthy and, if so, what are his damages?  It would certainly be unnerving to undergo surgery and wake up wearing someone else’s underwear, men’s or women’s.  But, in the context of an office prank, it loses some of its bite. In this case, Wall already subjected himself to having his co-workers conduct the colonoscopy – probably the most humiliating procedure in the book.  How emotionally traumatized can one be over some lacy underwear after that?  We can appreciate the anger, but mental anguish to the point he can’t function on the job is going to be difficult to prove.

With that said, we appreciate the fact that no one wants to be on the wrong end of a prank – particularly during a medical procedure.  Walls has every right to be miffed.  Somewhere in the Hippocratic Oath it states that, co-workers or not, people should trust a medical staff not to dress them up in pink panties during a medical procedure.  However, the legal standard states that it is hard to recover with no damages.

No Wings for Red Bull? Company Settles False Advertising Suit In New York

According to a report from BevNet, energy drink manufacturer Red Bull has settled a proposed class action lawsuit filed against it for $13 million.  The suit, filed last year by Benjamin Careathers in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleged that Red Bull’s signature “It gives you wings” slogan is false and misleads customers about the drink’s superiority.  While the company’s advertisements may in fact show Red Bull drinkers growing wings, the plaintiff alleges that Red Bull offers no increased performance, concentration, or reaction speed.  As you might expect, Red Bull has denied any liability.

We assume – and hope – that the plaintiff didn’t actually believe Red Bull would give him actual wings.  (We doubt New York recognizes the “negligent failure to bestow wings” cause of action.). In fact, we seriously doubt that Red Bull would have paid out millions on such claims even if it was concerned about litigation costs. As such, we will refrain, mostly, from commenting on the absurdity of such a lawsuit and focus on the more plausible allegations.

This lawsuit was never about wings, but rather, it centered upon whether Red Bull actually delivers that energy fix we all crave.  After all, that energy boost is why people spend $3 on an 8-ounce drink in the first place, right?  Or, $2 for a cup of Starbucks coffee, for that matter.  The suit, however, alleges that Red Bull’s primary active ingredient (caffeine) is the same as that of coffee and, thus, it is not worthy of the premium price.  Maybe so, but the suit fails to take into account the cognitive effects that come along with drinking an “energy drink.”  Even if it offers a mere placebo effect, the energy drink didn’t become a multi-billion dollar industry without repeat customers.

The truth is that the energy drink is not some new phenomenon.  For centuries, people have been looking for ways to give themselves an extra burst of energy.  Coffee has been, and continues to be, the drink of choice for many across the globe.  However, in the 1960′s, Japanese manufacturer Taisho upped the ante when it released Lipovitan D – an energizing tonic sold in mini-bottles.  Thereafter, other beverage companies joined in the game.  Pop culture legend Jolt Cola was once marketed to the masses as having “all the sugar and twice the caffeine.”  Those were the days. Even the soft drink giants, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have tried their hand at distributing coffee replacements over the years.  Today, the game has evolved into the billion dollar “energy drink” industry featuring companies like Red Bull and Monster.

Our guess is that this lawsuit will have little, if any, impact on the energy drink industry.  For those angry about Red Bull’s alleged false advertising, Red Bull has placed $6.5 million of the $13 million settlement into a fund for consumers.  If you have purchased a Red Bull in the last 10 years, you can go here for a $10 refund or two free Red Bull products.   No word on whether the free products give you wings.

Outrage! Walmart Asserts Affirmative Defenses in Tracy Morgan Case

Several months ago, actor/comedian Tracy Morgan and several others filed suit against Walmart in a New Jersey federal court after he was involved in an accident with a Walmart truck on the New Jersey Turnpike which left one person dead and several others seriously injured.  The suit alleges that Walmart driver Kevin Roper had been awake for more than 24 consecutive hours when he crashed into the side of the limousine van carrying Morgan and several others.  Further, Roper was allegedly so fatigued that he fell asleep at the wheel prior to impact.  According to the investigation conducted by the NTSB, Roper was travelling 65 mph in a 45 mph zone.  He has pleaded not guilty  to death by auto and assault by auto charges.

Last week, Walmart filed its answer to Morgan’s complaint and, needless to say, it caused a bit of an uproar.  According to a report from the Hollywood Reporter, Walmart’s answer contains nine affirmative defenses – most of which are fairly typical in personal injury lawsuits (i.e. failure to mitigate damages, punitive damages are unconstitutional, et cetera).  One of those affirmative defenses, however, prompted much criticism.  Specifically, Walmart alleged that the plaintiffs’ injuries “were caused, in whole or in part, by plaintiffs’ failure to properly wear an appropriate available seatbelt restraint device.”  The media focused upon this defense and accused Walmart of a blatant “blame the victim” campaign.

Likewise, Morgan himself responded in a statement, “I can’t believe Walmart is blaming me for an accident that they caused.”

We here at Abnormal Use do not know the merits of either side of this case; however, we question the national lynching of Walmart at this early stage of the litigation.  Is Walmart attempting to shift all or some of the blame to the plaintiffs?  Certainly.  That is the very nature of an affirmative defense.  Should Walmart be publicly criticized for it?  Absolutely not.  Under New Jersey law, all passengers of a motor vehicle are required to wear a seat belt.  N.J.S. 39:3-76.2f. Unlike some jurisdictions wear the use of a seat belt is inadmissible in a civil action, in New Jersey, evidence of nonusage of a seat belt is a comparative negligence issue and is admissible on issues of whether the nonuse increased extent and severity of injuries.  As such, Walmart is raising a defense which it is entitled to raise by law.

We can certainly appreciate the sentiment that pleading the failure to use a seat belt “looks” bad when compared to the alleged negligence of the truck in this case.  However, Walmart is acting fully within the laws set forth by the State of New Jersey in its pleadings.  If the plaintiffs’ injuries could have been lessened or avoided altogether by using a seat belt, then Walmart is entitled to have that matter decided by a jury.  This isn’t a matter of Walmart claiming that Morgan and the other plaintiffs caused the accident itself but, rather, that perhaps some of the injuries could have been avoided if the plaintiffs had also followed the law.  Again, if the case goes to trial, a jury may determine that the defense is not applicable and award the plaintiffs sizable damages. But, it is completely unfair to chastise Walmart for raising the matter as an affirmative defense in its initial pleading.   As with any affirmative defense, if Walmart didn’t plead the seat belt usage defense, then it would be forever waived.  If discovery reveals that the defense is groundless, then Walmart can always withdraw it.

We wonder if the media would report on that development.

TV Review: NBC’s “Bad Judge,” Starring Kate Walsh

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Tonight, NBC airs the premiere episode of “Bad Judge,” a new legally themed sitcom starring television and film veteran Kate Walsh as a municipal court judge with a chaotic personal life. Created by Anne Heche and produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, “Bad Judge” looks and feels like the legal version of the similarly named Cameron Diaz movie, “Bad Teacher.” As you might imagine, “Bad Judge” does not go out of its way to accurately depict the legal profession or the daily working lives of judges. Nonetheless, “Bad Judge” is certainly amusing if not believable once the aspirations for legal realism are set aside.  Warning: Spoilers abound in the review below.

Walsh plays Rebecca Wright, whose life as a hard living, sexually charged woman intermingles with her career as a criminal court judge.  Aided by stashed away liquor and sexual flings with the State’s expert witness in her chambers, she is somehow able to manage her judicial responsibilities despite her battles with hangovers and pregnancy scares.  Through unorthodox sentencing methods (i.e. in the pilot episode, she orders a defendant to enroll in a college feminism class and to attend wearing an “I Am a Convicted Bigamist” t-shirt), she takes seriously the idea that the criminal code is a mechanism of rehabilitation rather than punishment.  Despite the flaws in her personal life, Wright goes out of her way to aid the families of defendants while their loved ones are locked away.

At least in the first two episodes, the focus is exclusively on Wright and set primarily within the courthouse.  Rounding out the cast are John Ducey as prosecutor Tom Barlow, Mather Zickel as Wright’s aforementioned expert witness love interest Dr. Gary Boyd, and Tone Bell as the awkwardly ever present bailiff Tedward Mulray.

The pilot primarily sets the stage for Wright’s life and career path.  While fighting a hangover and after making a pit stop for a pregnancy test, Wright presides over a bail hearing for an alleged bigamist.  Announced as one of the most prominent psychologists in all of California, Dr. Boyd testifies that the bigamist is a flight risk and, thus, Wright denies bail.  Shortly thereafter, Wright and Boyd retire to chambers to continue what is apparently an on-again, off-again sexual relationship.  Wright then leaves the courthouse to serve as “counsel” for Robby Shoemaker (Theodore Barnes), the child of persons previously sentenced by Wright, as he awaits punishment at his elementary school for drawing derogatory pictures of his teacher.  Later, she returns to the courthouse in order to convict and sentence the aforementioned bigamist.

The second episode, “Meteor Shower,” is much of the same.  Rather than stopping for a pregnancy test, Wright’s pilgrimage to the courthouse is interrupted in order for her to place a fireman’s axe into the front tire of an angry motorist’s convertible.  Wright presides over the “trial” of a teen actress and welcomes the paparazzi with a double-fisted, middle finger salute.  After getting stood up by Dr. Boyd, Wright gets a little too high and has to call EMS after eating two pot brownies stolen from the evidence locker.  Not to be deterred, Wright gets back on her feet, returns to the courthouse, and sentences the teen actress to four weeks of seclusion at a convent so that she can “find herself.”

From a legal perspective, “Bad Judge” has it all wrong.  The show is so legally inaccurate, one has to wonder if the writers intentionally made it so.  From the timing of the legal proceedings to the courtroom candor and unethical conduct of Wright and the attorneys alike, it seems implausible that the writers engaged in any research whatsoever.  If “Bad Judge” is the product of legal research, then that research is the equivalent of writing a doctoral thesis with Wikipedia as a primary source.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, we will assume that the writers intentionally made no attempt to create an accurate portrayal of the legal system.  And, that is okay.  There is nothing worse than a show that contains just enough realism to make it believable while butchering key components and leaving the general public with absurd ideas about the legal system.  No one will come away from watching “Bad Judge” thinking they have gained some insight into the inner workings of a courtroom.  Clearly, that is not the purpose of the show.  ”Bad Judge” is a comedy centered around Wright’s disheveled life.  While the character is a polar opposite of her previous roles in “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” Walsh plays the role brilliantly. And, in this, “Bad Judge” certainly delivers.

The pilot episode airs tonight at 9:00 EST on NBC.

Frozen: Not Just Another Disney Princess Story?

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A princess born with cryokinetic powers, locked away from the outside world for years, unleashes a deep freeze on the community when she is unveiled as queen.  If you thought this was the CliffsNotes plot summary of Disney’s Frozen, you would be partially mistaken.  Apparently, it is also the tale of a New Jersey woman.  According to a report from the New York Daily News, Isabella Tanikumi a/k/a Amy Gonzalez, has filed suit against Disney in a New Jersey federal court alleging that the entertainment giant lifted the story straight from her life. Specifically, Tanikumi alleges that the makers of Frozen stole the story, characters, plots and subplots from her two memoirs, Living My Truth and Yearnings of the Heart, which chronicle her upbringing in the Andean mountains of Peru.  Disney, however, has previously claimed that Frozen is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” Tanikumi obviously isn’t buying it, as she is seeking $250 million in damages.

We here at Abnormal Use have admittedly never read either of Tanikumi’s memoirs.  Nonetheless, our guess is that this lawsuit falls more into the realm of absurd than it does Queen v. Vanilla Ice.  Anyone who has viewed the film would certainly question how the story of an ice princess and a talking snowman could possibly have ripped off a Peruvian memoir.  As reported by NJ.com, the suit alleges the following as parallels between the films:

— Both the memoirs and “Frozen” feature two sisters, one of whom causes the other to be injured and then hides herself away because she feels shame.

— Both live in a village or town at the foot of snow-covered mountains, the suit alleges.

— The sisters are brought closer by a terrible accident — an earthquake in the memoirs and a storm in “Frozen.”

— The above-mentioned accidents result in the deaths of loved ones.

— In the memoirs, one of the sisters has suitors named Hans and Cristoff and in “Frozen” Anna develops romantic attachments to men named Hans and Kristoff.

These allegations appear to be more coincidental rather than deliberate attempt at a rip-off.  Even the most specific example, the names of the male characters, loses traction when you consider the adaptation from Hans Christian Anderson and the film’s Scandinavian setting.  While Disney is obviously a huge outfit with tons of resources, we highly doubt that its writers were scouring through self-published memoirs for their next big idea. Looking into our crystal ball, our guess is that this lawsuit will melt quicker than Olaf on a summer’s beach. Tanikumi may finally have someone purchase her memoirs off of Amazon due to the publicity, but she won’t see a dime from Disney.  And, then, when all is said and done, Tanikumi releases a Peruvian version of “Let It Go” only to be sued by Disney for copyright infringement.  We can only dream.

CPSC Continues The Flogging of Desktop Magnets

Over the last several years, we here at Abnormal Use have documented the controversial saga of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) and its battle against the manufacturers of desktop magnets.  The witch hunt against those spherical magnets has now taken a new turn, and as chroniclers of this epic tale, we must pause to take note. Last week, the CPSC voted to pass a final rule addressing the alleged dangers of desktop magnets.  You can read the 207-page rule here.  Essentially, the rule establishes a new standard: If a magnet set contains a magnet that fits within the CPSC’s small parts cylinder, each magnet in the magnet set must have a flux index of 50 kG2 mm2 or less.  Magnetic flux is the average magnetic field times the perpendicular area that it penetrates.  In other words, flux is how “strong” the magnet is.  With the new CPSC ruling, magnet sets with small magnets must have less flux.  Sounds good, we suppose.

We don’t have any problems with the CPSC attempting to protect consumers.  After all, it is its job.  We are shocked, however, that desktop magnets have been the Ace of Spades on the CPSC’s hit list for the last several years.  The CPSC has apparently received reports of 1 death and 2,900 incidents of magnet ingestion.  Certainly not numbers to ignore, but cause for a public spectacle of this magnitude? Presumably, far more dangerous products have entered the stream of commerce without catching the gaze of the CPSC.  Maybe the CPSC really did see desktop magnets as a matter of upmost importance.  Or, maybe it was Buckyballs CEO Mark Zucker’s public mockery of the CPSC’s logic that fueled the fire.  We will let you be the judge. Whatever the case, we urge you to read the CPSC’s 207-page order the next time you are looking for a little light reading.  It traces the CPSC’s plight and gives you the rare opportunity to probe the motives of a powerful federal agency.  Of particular note, play close attention to what the CPSC says about product warnings (you know, the very thing Zucker mocked).  Specifically, the CPSC states:

A possible alternative to the rule would be to require warnings with or on magnet sets. As discussed in the NPR preamble and in response to comments set forth in section E of this preamble, it is unlikely that warnings on the packages of magnet sets would significantly reduce the ingestion-related injuries caused by high-powered magnets. Safety and warnings literature consistently identifies warnings as a less effective hazard- control measure than eliminating the hazard through design or guarding the consumer from a hazard. Warnings do not prevent consumer exposure to the hazard but rely on persuading consumers to alter their behavior in some way to avoid the hazard. . . .

Even if warnings could effectively communicate the ingestion hazard, the consequences of ingesting magnets, and appropriate hazard-avoidance measures, warnings still may not be effective if consumers do not concur with the content of the warning. . . .

So, let’s get this straight.  According to the CPSC, warnings don’t work.  Even if they could, the consumer may not agree with the warned-about hazard.  As such, we should just take an alleged hazardous product out of the marketplace rather than use them.  Huh?  Tell that to all of those product manufacturers who have been found liable in civil suits due to a failure to warn.  The modicum of the CPSC’s logic is that even the best warnings may be ignored by consumers.  We get that.  But, it ignores the whole concept of common sense and self-policing.  It is true that young children may be unable to read and appreciate a product warning, but where do the parents come into play?  Don’t have Buckyballs at the house if you have small children.  Problem solved.  No reason to resort to the multi-year draconian campaign.

While this latest development is a final ruling of the CPSC, we doubt that this is the last chapter in the saga. Even when new desktop magnets emerge in compliance with the rule, the CPSC will undoubtedly find something to complain about.  And, we will be right here to write about it.

Lessons Learned in Small Claims Court – Where Real Lawyers are Made

We here at Abnormal Use handle a variety of cases, big and small. While it may be the “bet the company” cases that grab the headlines, we have found that small claims court litigation creates the most memorable experiences. With no discovery, no court is less predictable. As you might recall, we have previously offered some helpful observations during our tireless days in the world of small claims. Always at your service, we would like to share a few more of those maxims with you.

1. Check your motion practice at the door. No explanation needed.

2. When the court begins explaining legal principles to a pro se litigant, just go with the flow. If the court addresses the litigant directly, things are going in your favor. Don’t mess it up.

3. Don’t make light of the experience. While some may argue that the appellate level is where “real” lawyering takes place, those people clearly have never stepped foot in a small claims court. The informality of the process can certainly be challenging, but in no other court can a lawyer learn to think on his or her feet in quite such a fashion. Often times, we get so caught up in the rigid rules of litigation that we lose sight of those skills that drove us into the legal field in the first place – creativity, logical thinking, analytics, public speaking. In small claims court, those core skills are your best friend.

Regardless of your number of years of practice, cherish each of your experience in small claims court. At the end of your career, you will find that those experiences are the ones that developed your skills as a lawyer. And, gave you the stories you will remember.

Iowa Federal Court Issues Sanctions For Unnecessary Deposition Objections

One of the most difficult deposition and trial skills to learn as a young lawyer is the art of the objection. While some may posit the old maxim, “You’ll know it when you hear it,” in practice, knowing the proper time to object to opposing counsel’s question is much more difficult. Over time, every lawyer develops his or her own method of practice. Some lawyers can sit all day through a tiresome deposition without the hint of an objection. Others choose to object, usually to the form of the question, every time opposing counsel opens his or her mouth. Neither approach is sound as not every question is perfect or objectionable. Nonetheless, many lawyers seem to use the objection as a means to prove one’s worth.

Recently, a lawyer appearing before U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett in the Northern District of Iowa learned the perils of abusing the objection. In fact, the lawyer in question was sanctioned in a most unusual way. During trial in the matter of Security National Bank v. Abbott Laboratories, No. 11-cv-4017 (N.D. Iowa 2014), a product liability case arising out of an allegedly defective infant formula, Judge Bennett issued a sua sponte order for defense counsel to show cause as to why she should not be sanctioned for the “serious pattern of obstructive conduct” she displayed in defending depositions. Specifically, Judge Bennett questioned the lawyer’s use of hundreds of form objections with no apparent basis. Following trial, a supplemental order was entered, directing counsel to address three issues: 1) the excessive use of “form” objections; 2) numerous attempts to coach witnesses via objection; and 3) ubiquitous interruptions and attempts to clarify questions posed by opposing counsel. In reviewing the depositions at issue, Judge Bennett found that the lawyer’s form objections – often with no stated basis – were found on 50 percent of the transcript pages. While he did not favor form objections with no stated basis, it was the result of the objections – witness coaching and excessive interruption – that drew Judge Bennett’s ire. The objections were said to be used to induce clarification from the deponent, and in many instances, actually coached the witness to give a particular, substantive answer. The attorney objected so many times that her name was found, on average, three times per page of deposition transcript. Based on the record, Judge Bennett found that:

By interposing many unnecessary comments, clarifications, and objections, Counsel impeded, delayed, and frustrated the fair examination of witnesses during the depositions Counsel defended.

Rather than fine the lawyer, Judge Nelson ordered her to create and write a training video explaining the basis of the sanctions and demonstrating how to comply with the rules during depositions in state and federal court. Now, there’s a video sure to be a must-see for all young lawyers. This opinion shouldn’t scare all who may appear in an Iowa federal court in the near future. Judge Bennett was quick to note that a handful of improper objections or comments wouldn’t lead to this type of judicial intervention. However, lawyers should think twice before talking more than their clients at their depositions. If an objection really needs to be made, then you will in fact “know it when you hear it.” Otherwise, the objection is too often just filler.