Rick Friedman and co-counsel Michael Haddad and Julia Sherwin (Haddad and Sherwin, LLP) have settled a difficult case with the largest reported civil rights wrongful death settlement in California history after almost four years in litigation. The case settled for $8.3 million after the first week of a ten week trial. Trial Guides interviewed Rick Friedman to share his insights on the case.
Q: How did you apply the principles from your books and videos to this case?
A: This case was really two overlapping cases against two different defendants, based on two different theories of liability. Corizon is a for-profit corporation that provided medical care and services to the jail. Our strongest claim against Corizon was that it used Licensed Vocational Nurses to provide medical screening and assessment of inmates, when it should have been using RNs. We also claimed that under the contract, Corizon should have been providing training to the correctional officers on how to recognize and handle inmates with alcohol and drug withdrawal issues. Our client, Martin, was a fifty-year-old alcoholic. Our claim against Corizon was that the failure to correctly screen and handle the alcoholism caused him to go into delirium tremens.
The claim against the county was that its officers mishandled the delirium tremens, and essentially beat Martin to death.
There was a lot of complexity and many documents relating to these claims. My co-counsel, Julia Sherwin, and I worked for weeks constructing Rules of the Road to tighten and focus the case against Corizon. Mike Haddad, our other co-counsel, put together a very powerful set of Rules of the Road on the use of force for the case against the county.
We used these sets of Rules to provide the structure of the opening statement. We then called the Corizon medical director as our first witness, and the healthcare Rules provided the skeleton for his cross. He admitted every rule—although not without a fight. The case settled immediately after that.
Q: What approach did you use to build the argument for damages and compensation?
A: Martin was a good person. He only became an alcoholic, at about age forty-seven, when his mother died. At that point, he lost his job and started a downward spiral. We emphasized the loving relationship he had with his four adult children, as well as his statements about wanting to “detox.” We had a two-day psychodrama session with the children to prepare them to testify, and I think they would have done great.
Q: Were there any special challenges with this case?
A: One challenge was the myriad of standards, laws, and policies governing the actions of the defendants. Many of these appeared inconsistent or unintelligible. That is where Rules of the Road really helped. The other big challenge was that we were representing an unemployed alcoholic who was a minority.
Q: Was there anything unique or surprising that you learned from this case?
A: I don’t know if it is unique or surprising, but I was struck once again by what an advantage we have as plaintiff’s counsel in going first. We not only get to frame our story, but we get to frame the defense’s story as well. We get to say, “Here is what the defense is saying.” If we frame that right, the defense is in a hole throughout the trial. I talk about that a lot in Polarizing the Case, but I am still struck by it every time I try a case.
Q: In general, how do you work with an out-of-state co-counsel? What challenges did you overcome?
A: Our co-counsel arrangements vary widely. Sometimes, we are brought in before the case is even filed, other times, just before trial. Sometimes co-counsel wants us to take over everything, other times, they want to participate fully. In this case, Mike and Julia had been hitting home runs in civil rights cases for years. They certainly did not need my help for that. But they thought I could be helpful in getting a large punitive award against Corizon. We worked together very well, and I learned a lot from them.
Q: I have heard that this is the largest reported civil rights wrongful death settlement in California history, is that true?
A: I don’t know for sure, but that seems to be the case. Even more important, the defendants agreed to state wide injunctive relief, to be enforced by Federal Judge Tiger. I believe that will literally save hundreds of lives—maybe more. And with luck, this order will travel around the country and be used by other civil rights lawyers to get similar reforms enacted in their states.
Q: Do you feel satisfied with the settlement and your team’s accomplishment in reforming these California prison staffing and health care practices?
A: Very much so.
Q: Are there other TG products with techniques that you used in this case?
A: I read every Trial Guides book that comes out, and try to watch or listen to all the DVDs and CDs. What I learn from that gets absorbed into my bones. I am sure I used many of the techniques I learned from this type of study, but attribution is difficult at this point.
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