When Technology Outpaces the Law: The Driverless Car Problem

Fact: Technology is moving faster than many of us can fathom. This is, of course, news to no one. The laptop I bought just one year ago is now a “dinosaur,” and I could probably buy a brand new one with the same specs for roughly half of what I paid last year.

Fact: The law has not kept up with the quick pace of technology. This is also news to no one. Privacy concepts have been turned on their heads by the Facebook/MySpace/Twitter social media explosion. Entirely new concepts of law have also developed over the past few years; “e-discovery” has raised the stakes – and the cost – of litigation dramatically.

The ABA Journal provided another example of technology outpacing law in its newsletter last week: the driverless car, citing a recent New York Times article on the same subject. Apparently, Google has developed technology that can drive a car with minimal human input. In fact, the only accident that occurred during testing of the vehicle was caused by human, not car, error. This is a huge jump even from the Lexus LS460 that can park itself.

As both the ABA Journal and the New York Times point out, the obvious question is this: Who is liable for an accident caused by a car that is driving itself – the person sitting in the driver’s seat of the car who isn’t actually driving, or the manufacturer of the driverless car itself?

We don’t have an answer yet, because it’s all hypothetical at this point, and “the law” hates hypotheticals. But my point is this: Do we really want “the law” to keep pace with technology?

Technology always asks “Can we?”, but in my experience, sometimes fails to consider the better question of “Should we?” For my part, I’m not sure a driverless car is a good idea. Thus, I disagree with Kenneth Anderson of The Volokh Conspiracy, who recently opined that “[t]he idea of robotic cars that drive themselves is a good one, I think, and one whose time is rapidly coming.” But the law is different. It must always ask, what “should” the law be? And if that means that it moves slowly, even glacially, while it considers the answer to that question in a new situation, then that’s okay. Or maybe I’m just old [fashioned].

For my part, I’m still waiting for someone to sell me my own personal Rosie.


"Made in China" References May Have Been Prejudicial to Jury

An important reminder: When Plaintiff’s counsel attempts to inject prejudicial statements into litigation, object. A failure to do so can be perilous indeed. In Wicklund v. Pacific Cycle, L.L.C., No. 08-CV-486-GKF-FHM, 2010 WL 3368924 (N.D. Okla. August 23, 2010), Judge Frizzell of the Northern District of Oklahoma considered whether repeated references by the plaintiffs’ attorney to the Chinese origin of the alleged defective product, a bicycle, was grounds for a new trial or relief from judgment. Counsel for the defendant, Pacific Cycle, argued that the plaintiffs’ attorney “repeatedly, deliberately and impermissibly played to the perceived anti-Chinese prejudice of the jurors, thereby irrevocably tainting the verdict.”

For instance, the plaintiffs’ attorney said, “Pacific Cycle has elected to buy cheap Chinese products rather than buying products made in the U.S.” In his closing, the attorney said that “‘Made in China’ are the three words that unfortunately have become somewhat of a concern in this country. Finally, he said:

You know, businesses that have chosen to export jobs to China for cheap labor, for cheap goods, I mean from a business side it’s understandable, but when you choose to do that, if you get quality control issues you have to pay when people get harmed from those. And that’s all that this case is basically about.

The jury awarded the plaintiffs $1,100,107.06 in damages, which did not include any punitive damages but represented $1 million over and above the actual damages, ostensibly for pain and suffering.
The court ruled that it could not award a new trial or relief from judgment because defense counsel had not preserved the issue by objecting at the appropriate times. Nevertheless, we find it a helpful reminder as to what is and is not permissible to state to a jury. A new trial may be granted when, as the court noted, “remarks about a case are made which the court believes may have influenced the jury to the prejudice of either party.” The test is “whether or not improper remarks made it reasonably probable that the verdict was influenced by prejudicial statements.”
The design and manufacture of products continues to become a more international endeavor; the “Japanese” car could be made in the next state, with parts from Germany, the United States, and France. When trying a products case, listen carefully for arguments and remarks which may play to perceived prejudices by members of the jury, and object at the appropriate times to call the court’s attention to the tactic and to preserve the issue on appeal.

Plaintiffs’ Conspiracy Action Against Expert Witness who Allegedly Designed and Marketed Improved Product to Defendants Survives Motion to Strike

Arguably, a benefit of product liability litigation is that lawsuits demand that companies design products with greater safety measures and provide consumers with more pronounced, descriptive warnings. A guest speaker at my law school once told my class that engineers and automakers didn’t design many parts of the automobile — lawyers did. What he meant, of course, was that attorneys have filed suits against automakers when parts of a vehicle were allegedly unsafe or could have been designed with even greater safety measures in mind. This had, in turn, dictated the way that automakers designed that product from that point forward. The same guest speaker probably would not, however, have envisioned the alleged actions one California product liability attorney and his expert witness recently took in helping inspire this design process.

The California Court of Appeals recently refused to strike the plaintiffs’ complaint, where they filed suit against their attorneys and a consultant hired by their attorneys as an expert witness for negligence and conspiracy to commit fraud. Robles v. Chalilpoyil, —Cal.Rptr.3d—, (Cal. App. Jan. 27, 2010). The underlying action in Robles was a product liability claim initiated by the family of a man who burned to death when his wheelchair, which presumably was electric, ignited while he was occupying it. The family retained an attorney named Wills to represent them in their wrongful death action against the makers of the wheelchair.

According to the complaint, when the underlying case came up for trial, the family’s attorney requested a continuance on the basis that the plaintiffs’ expert witness had testified falsely in his deposition. The trial court thereby continued the trial to allow the attorneys to procure another expert witness. Before the new trial date, however, the attorney allegedly requested that each of the plaintiffs sign a waiver of any interest in a device that attorney Wills wanted to market to address the safety defects in the decedent’s wheelchair. Wills allegedly told the family members that the device would be designed and manufactured together with their former expert witness, based on research and information the expert witness had gathered in preparing for his expert testimony for trial.

After procuring each of the plaintiffs’ signatures and without retaining a new expert, the attorney “wrongfully pressured” the plaintiffs to settle the claim for $1 million. When several of the plaintiffs thereafter refused to accept the settlement proceeds, the Wills firm withdrew from the case and filed notice of lien for attorney fees.

The present case deals only with the issues of liability of the expert witness, as it was he who moved to strike allegations of the complaint as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). According to the court, a SLAPP is a “meritless suit filed primarily to chill the defendant’s exercise of First Amendment rights.” The expert witness argued that his discussions with the attorney, during which the attorney solicited his agreement to allow his work product to be provided to the underlying defendants in the event of settlement, fell “comfortably” within the express terms of the anti-SLAPP statute. The California Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that such alleged discussions and agreements was not protected activity. It would not strike the plaintiffs’ complaint insofar as it alleged negligence and conspiracy to commit fraud against the former expert witness.

As noted, the court’s opinion deals with allegations of the complaint as alleged only against the expert witness. The attorney Wills, who represented the family in the underlying action, reportedly is the same person who was subsequently appointed to serve as a California Superior Court judge.

Abnormal Interviews: Law Professor Michael J. Virzi

Today, Abnormal Use continues its new series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct brief interviews with law professors, practitioners and other commentators in the field. For the second installment, we turn to law professor Michael J. Virzi of the University of South Carolina School of Law. Virzi, a former prosecutor with the South Carolina Office of Disciplinary counsel, now teaches legal writing and chairs the South Carolina Bar’s Ethics Advisory Committee. He also practices in the areas of ethics and malpractice defense. The interview is as follows:

1. What recent developments in ethics law would you recommend that litigators be aware of in 2010?

Subpoena practice. Abuse of subpoena rules has been rampant for decades and, although there have been no rule changes, there has been increased awareness by the bench and attention to the limitations. The problem stems from the jurisdictional limits on a court’s subpoena power. A subpoena is essentially a court order. It is issued by the court; lawyers are merely granted the privilege of issuing them on behalf of the court. The abuse has been in issuing subpoenas outside the court’s jurisdiction. A lawyer cannot issue a subpoena that the court itself would have no jurisdiction to issue. The jurisdictional limit of the Circuit Courts is the State of South Carolina. Nevertheless, many lawyers will subpoena an out-of-state non-party entity (e.g., a bank) rather than an in-state representative. For Magistrate’s Court, the jurisdictional limit is the county in which the court sits. Nevertheless, lawyers often improperly subpoena out-of-county witnesses in Magistrate’s Court cases. The problem is particularly pronounced in City Courts—like Columbia, West Columbia, and Cayce—that neighbor county lines, but it has been reported in remote, rural areas as well. Finally, both Magistrate’s Courts and Family Courts have more limited subpoena power than Circuit Courts, as both courts lack extensive discovery procedures.

Specific Magistrate’s Court procedures were recently promulgated to clarify the appropriate way to reach out-of-county parties. Significantly, however, the rules and limitations did not change; they were merely clarified. A Magistrate’s Court’s jurisdiction—and therefore its subpoena power—has always been limited to the county in which the court sits. The disciplinary authorities have been aware of this for years, and the bar is starting to catch on.

2. What is the most significant ethics opinion to come out in the last year? Why is it significant?

The December 21, 2009, In the Matter of an Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar opinion by the South Carolina Supreme Court involved a lawyer issuing discount coupons through the lenders and real estate agents who referred business to him. The agents were soliciting clients in-person for the lawyer, something the lawyer himself is prohibited from doing under Rule 7.3(a). In 2007, Ethics Advisory Opinion 07-09 had advised that such conduct would be impermissible under 7.3(a), even though the lawyer personally does not conduct the in-person solicitation, because Rule 8.4(a) prohibits a lawyer from violating any of the Rules of Professional conduct “through the acts of another” and from “assisting or inducing another to do so.” The Ethics Advisory Committee believed that 8.4(a) prohibited a lawyer from having a surrogate solicit clients in person where the lawyer may not do so according to Rule 7.3(a).

The Court in In the Matter of an Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar expressly overruled 07-09, stating that the policies underlying the in-person solicitation prohibition are not compromised where the lawyer is not personally present. Because there is no “insistence upon immediate retention or importuning of the trained advocate,” in-person solicitation through a surrogate is not prohibited. The reasoning is simple, but the consequences are profound. The court essentially held that the “vicarious misconduct” prohibition of 8.4(a) does not apply to 7.3(a). The court has never previously held any of the Rules exempt from 8.4(a), nor am I aware of any other jurisdiction having done so. The court’s reasoning applies equally to ambulance drivers, triage nurses, police officers, jailers, and any other party a lawyer might use to personally solicit clients by handing out business cards or coupons in the lawyer’s stead. The court held that whether the recipient is in need of legal services is irrelevant. Because the practice is “similar in fashion to the common practice of leaving business cards for distribution” and the agents are not under the lawyer’s control (they “could have thrown away the coupons”), the court found the agent-solicitations permissible.

3. What do you think is the most overlooked ethical rule? Why is it overlooked?

Probably 7.2(b), or at least its applicability to electronic media. 7.2(b) includes the filing and record-keeping requirements for all lawyer advertising. Too many lawyers fail to realize that their web sites constitute advertising under the Rules and therefore fail to conform their sites to the specific prohibitions regarding advertising. Even when the content of online information is in conformity with the remainder of Rule 7.2, too many lawyers fail to file the materials with the Commission on Lawyer Conduct and keep copies for two years “along with a record of where and when it was disseminated” as required by 7.2(b).

4. As the general public increasingly uses the Internet and social media to communicate, how do you predict that state bars will react to the popularity of this new technology among attorneys?

Despite all the hype about how the Rules of Professional Conduct need to “catch up” with technology, I think the rules are adequate and state disciplinary authorities will simply apply them as written to online communication. I think lawyers, one by one, will continue to be shocked and amazed that their online conduct is measured against Rules 7.1 (communication), 7.2 (advertising), and 7.3 (solicitation), but regardless of the forum or medium, communicating is communicating, advertising is advertising, and soliciting is soliciting. The rules make no distinctions between print, radio, or television, and they need no special provisions for the Internet or other media. The rules distinguish only between that which is “disseminated via public media” and that which is not. If your use of Facebook is kept private among your friends, it’s not publicly disseminated. If you allow it to be viewed publicly, then it’s disseminated. Anything searchable by public search engines like Google and Yahoo! is disseminated under the rules. Linked-In and Twitter are likewise publicly disseminated. That doesn’t mean lawyers can’t use these services; it just means they are regulated when used in relation to the lawyer’s practice, as opposed to being used solely in a lawyer’s personal life.

5. If you could offer young lawyers beginning their careers one piece of advice, what would it be?

To paraphrase Polonius (Hamlet, Act I, Scene III), “Above all else, to thine own self be true.” Never let any partner, associate, client, opposing counsel, judge, or anyone else talk you into doing something you think is wrong. Never be afraid to walk away. Your fears and your needs can quickly and easily become someone else’s power over you, and those who would wield that kind of power would never wield it in your best interest.

BONUS QUESTION: What do you think is the best depiction in popular culture of an attorney facing an ethical issue?

I really enjoyed Jim Carrey’s performance as Fletcher Reede in Liar Liar. Fletcher’s son cast a spell on him, prohibiting him from lying just before Fletcher was to represent a client in her divorce hearing. He knew his client was having an affair, which would trigger a clause in her prenuptial agreement prohibiting her from receiving any of her husband’s multi-million-dollar estate. The spell prevented Fletcher from examining her or the paramour without disclosing the affair. (Ignore for a moment that he was perfectly willing to allow his client to lie on the stand — arguably, he never “faced” that issue). At one point he objected to certain testimony, the judge asked why, and Fletcher responded, “Because it’s devastating to my case!” But his best effort was at getting a continuance until after the spell was broken, which he could not truthfully tell the judge he needed. To get the continuance without lying, he went into the bathroom and beat himself up. When the judge asked who had done it, Fletcher replied, “A madman, your honor, a desperate fool at the end of his rope.” Nevertheless, the ploy failed. The best part was watching Fletcher struggle to find an honest, truthful path to victory in the case. Ultimately, he discovered that his client had lied about her age in order to get married early, a revelation that also voided her prenuptial agreement for incapacity and entitled her to half of her husband’s estate despite the infidelity.

BIOGRAPHY: Mr. Virzi teaches Legal Writing at the University of South Carolina School of Law and practices in Columbia in the areas of ethics and malpractice defense. He formerly worked as Assistant Disciplinary Counsel for the Supreme Court of South Carolina. He graduated cum laude from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 2000. He is a member of the North and South Carolina Bars and is currently the Chairman of the South Carolina Bar’s Ethics Advisory Committee. In 2009, he served on the South Carolina Bar Young Lawyers Division Social Media Task Force.