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Courtroom Weekly: Kids and the courts

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December 19, 2013

by: the State Court Staff

Courts rule on sleepovers, guns on campus, a "wrongful birth," child abuse and other topics

Courtroom Weekly

The latest and greatest in court cases around the nation
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In this issue...

Featured case
News from Florida
News from Maine
News from Tennessee
News from Oklahoma
News from Illinois
News from Arkansas

Featured case

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Parents win $50M 'wrongful birth' lawsuit after child is born disabled

  Court: King County Superior Court, Washington
When Brock and Rhea Wuth got pregnant, they had some concerns. Their family medical records suggested that the child had a 50 percent chance of being born with a debilitating genetic disorder called "unbalanced chromosome translocation". The Wuth's did extensive genetic tests at Valley Medical Center in Renton, Washington and Laboratory Corporation of America (LabCorp), based in North Carolina. Despite the doctors' and scientists' claims that the baby would be fine, Oliver Wuth, who was born on July 12, 2008, clearly suffers from a disability. The child, now five years old, can't run, walk up stairs and only knows a few words.


The Wuths decided to take this issue to the courts, arguing that if Valley Medical and LabCorp had been accurate with the tests, they would have opted for abortion. Lawyer Todd Gardner argued that Oliver will now "need 24/7 care for the rest of his life."[1]


Gardner pointed to various mistakes on the part of the medical centers. Valley didn't send necessary information to LabCorp and LabCorp didn't follow up regarding the missing information, he explained. Both companies deny that they did anything wrong.


On December 10, 2013, a King County Superior Court jury agreed with the "wrongful birth" argument and awarded the largest individual award in the state's history--$50 million, split evenly between Valley Medical and LabCorp. The medical companies may seek appeal.[1]


Though uncommon, this is not the first time parents have sued after their kids were born with disabilities. In 2011, a Florida couple was awarded $4.5 million in a lawsuit against an obstetrician and an ultrasound technician after their child was born with missing limbs.[2] In 2012, an Oregon couple won $3 million after doctors failed to diagnose their daughter with Down syndrome.[3]

News from Florida

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Florida Showdown: College gun ban struck

  Court: Florida First District Court of Appeal
The University of North Florida (UNF) ban on guns has taken a hit after a First District Court of Appeal ruling.


The university has a prohibition on firearms that reaches beyond the typical limitations imposed by Florida statute. Florida law allows weapons to be maintained in an individual’s car if it is secured, and prohibits most local units of government from regulating firearms through statutes known nationwide as “preemption.”[4] Schools, however, maintain the right to regulate weapons under the state constitution. UNF’s comprehensive ban authorized suspension or expulsion for the carrying of a gun, even if left in a car, on the university’s campus.[5]


Earlier this year, Alexandria Lainez filed suit with the university, arguing that the university is prevented from creating gun regulations under preemption. Among the questions before the court was whether a university was intended to be included in the term “school” under the Florida constitution. The circuit court judge L. Page Haddock tossed out the lawsuit filed by Lainez and Florida Carry, Inc., activists who helped Lainez, on the grounds that Florida’s 12 major universities were covered in the constitution, and that the presence of a gun in a UNF parking lot is akin to its presence on UNF property. Haddock also refused to grant a temporary injunction allowing Lainez to keep a firearm in her car until the case was decided.[5]


Lainez and Florida Carry appealed the circuit court’s opinion. In a 12-3 decision handed down mid December, the Florida Court of Appeal overturned Haddock’s ruling. The majority opinion, issued by Justice L. Clayton Roberts, determines that universities can regulate weapons carry to sporting events and class, but cannot prohibit the maintenance of a weapon in one’s own vehicle.[5]


Recent events have spurred legislation nationwide regarding the right to carry on college campuses. Few states fully recognize the right, including states with constitutional carry protections. The fight often goes beyond the Second Amendment and into the question of academic institutional sovereignty. Where universities fit in the range of state school and independent institution has at many times caused contention in the courts.


The tension produced by the issue attracted a stinging dissent by some appeal court judges. Justice Philip Padovano claimed that the ruling “defies common sense.”[6] The case fell into the murky waters between university self-rule, state constitutionalism, and the bill of rights. A host of concurring opinions have produced a plethora of reasoning that add to the impact of the case, which remains difficult to determine.


The university has not stated whether it will appeal the ruling. For now, Lainez and others interested in bearing a weapon between class and home shall be able to do so.

News from Tennessee

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Tennessee grand jury will determine separation of church and snake

  Court: Campbell County General Sessions Court, Tennessee
A case regarding a Tennessee preacher’s right to handle poisonous snakes during religious ceremonies will go before a grand jury in January.


Andrew Hamblin, the 22-year-old pastor of the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tennessee who famously handles venomous snakes as a part of his services, was cited in November for possession of dangerous wildlife after officials found nearly 50 venomous snakes in his church. Judge Joseph M. Ayers of the Campbell County General Sessions Court determined that there was enough evidence to proceed with the prosecution.[7] Hamblin has pleaded not guilty, and plans to frame the case as a struggle for religious freedom against state-instigated discrimination.[8]


“I feel the Lord is going to intervene in this,” stated Hamblin on Tuesday. He and his supporters are hoping that the case provokes a groundswell of support for their cause, and that a Tennessee law prohibiting snake handling will be changed. If he’s found guilty, however, Hamblin could face fines and potential jail time.[9]


Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Sgt. Joe Durnin testified at the hearing that he went to Hamblin’s residence in November and asked about “his possession of his level one reptiles,” and that Hamblin agreed to take him to the church and let him see the snakes. Durnin informed Hamblin that he was in violation of the law and seized all 53 venomous snakes, many of which were cottonmouths and copperheads. Hamblin explained:

They walked into a church house and took the church's snakes right away from us, no different if they took our oil bottle...I don't think no kind of authority should walk into a Christian church and do that. (sic)[10][11]


Hamblin has sought to put himself in the national spotlight through his reality television show on the National Geographic Channel called “Snake Salvation.” This is new territory for what has traditionally been a reclusive, old-time religion-style group, which has been performing similar rituals in East Tennessee for more than a hundred years.[8] 


Regardless of the historical presence of the practice throughout the United States—there are reportedly 125 snake-handling congregations nationwide—Tennessee wildlife officials maintain that the ban on handling poisonous snakes is simply a matter of public safety. As wildlife agency spokesman Matthew Cameron explained,

We don’t allow anybody other than a permitted individual to possess venomous snakes...We don’t view him as any different from anyone else in the general public who has a king cobra in his room.[8][11]


The case will be heard by a grand jury on January 6th.[10]

News from Illinois

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Illinois Supreme Court closes tax loophole for Chicago businesses

  Court: Illinois Supreme Court
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled on November 21 that state law does not allow businesses to create “sales offices” in towns with lower tax rates in order to avoid higher local tax rates in Chicago.[12] Since faulty tax-collection regulations established by the Department of Revenue allowed the practice, businesses who had spotted and utilized this loophole did not violate tax laws.[13] This supreme court ruling, in regards to a dispute between Hartney Fuel Oil Co. and the Department of Revenue, will have wide-reaching consequences for businesses using similar tax strategies.


Starting in 2003, Hartney Fuel Oil Co. began renting an office and phone line in the small town of Mark, Illinois. This move enabled Hartney to claim Mark as the point of sale for fuel purchases.[13] Since local sales tax rates vary in Illinois, towns often compete with tax incentives to bring in business.[14] Putnam County, where the town of Mark is located, has no local sales tax. This makes Mark’s tax rate the same as the state’s 6.25 percent. Chicago’s tax rate by comparison is 9.25 percent.[13] With this arrangement, Hartney avoided paying sales taxes to the village of Forest View, Cook County and the Regional Transportation Authority.


The dispute with the state began in 2008, when the Department of Revenue billed Hartney $23 million for tax, interest and penalty after conducting an audit of January 1, 2005 through June 30, 2007. The audit determined that the company’s operations were subject to the tax rates of the Chicago suburb Forest View rather than Mark. The state accused Hartney of benefitting from the Chicago-area business incentives while avoiding the high taxes by paying the cheaper rates downstate.[15] Hartney paid the assessment and in 2011 sued for a refund in Tenth Circuit Court.[14]


In court, the Department of Revenue argued that determining the location of taxation is based on "a totality of the circumstances."[16] Since Hartney maintained inventory, marketed, set pricing and cultivated sales relationships in Forest View, the company should have to pay taxes to that locality.[12]In turn, Hartney argued that tax agents had pulled their analysis “out of thin air” and had ignored previous audits showing Hartney’s sales were in Mark. Unfortunately for the state, some past audits were lost or destroyed and therefore unavailable to the court.[15] Tenth Circuit Court Judge Scott A. Shore sided with Hartney and Mark in his decision.[14] In 2012, the Department of Revenue appealed the ruling in the Illinois Third District Appellate Court in Ottawa, where the justices upheld Shore’s ruling 2-1. The Department of Revenue then took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court for appeal.


On November 21, 2013, the Illinois Supreme Court partially affirmed the lower court rulings. Chief Justice Rita Garman noted in her opinion that Hartney’s tax scheme was debatable, but it was consistent with state law and policy in effect at that time.[15][13] The justices noted that the General Assembly did not intend for the legislation to function in that way, since the purpose of collecting taxes is to pay for government services provided to those who live or do business within the taxing venue.[12][16]


In light of this, the supreme court ordered the Department of Revenue to refund Hartney the $23 million as well as rewrite the regulations to close the loophole.[12] The court noted that tax collection, according to the legislation, is based on multiple factors rather than just the location of the purchase order.[13] The court did not specify what the tax policy should be, as Garman wrote, “these are arguments well suited for the General Assembly.”[16]


Both parties appeared to welcome the judgment. Mark Village President Frank Niewinski stated, “Everything appears to have gone in favor of the Village of Mark, Putnam County and Hartney Fuel Oil. We’re pleased with the decision to uphold Judge Shore’s ruling and the appellate court ruling”[15] The Department of Revenue also viewed the ruling as a win, stating, “The Illinois Supreme Court’s decision (Thursday) gets to the result that the Department of Revenue has been trying to achieve for years: It clarifies that sales taxes must be paid in the community where the bulk of the business activities occur and that the Department of Revenue complies with state law by allocating sales tax revenues to the communities housing core business functions,"[15]


This court case will likely affect dozens of businesses with similar tax strategies.

News from Maine

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Maine high court rules kids not required to sleep at sleepover parties

  Court: Maine Supreme Judicial Court
In a decision issued on December 10, 2013, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court determined it would be unreasonable to hold parents responsible for the amount of sleep guests get while attending a sleepover party. The court noted that even with proper supervision, kids might not get enough sleep at a sleepover, and there is no way to actually determine what might constitute a sufficient amount of sleep for a particular child. The ruling protects parents from being sued if their overnight guests later get hurt because they did not get enough sleep.[5]


This case stems from a 2009 incident in which a boy, Timothy Bell, was seriously hurt after he rode his skateboard down a driveway, into the road, and was hit by a car. Prior to the incident, Bell had spent time with Randall Dawson. The two spent time at the home Dawson shared with his wife, Rose Dawson. On May 9, 2009, Timothy, and some other boys were at the Dawson's home. The boys left, but returned in the evening. By that time, the Dawsons were drinking.[17]


The Dawsons invited the boys to spend the night. Timothy's parents did not know who the Dawsons were, so when Timothy called his mother he lied and told her he was sleeping over at another friend’s home. Rose Dawson later called Timothy’s mother and pretended to be the mother of his friend, so Timothy’s mother never knew he was sleeping at the Dawsons. The Dawsons went to bed at 10:30 p.m. and were unaware of what the boys did after that time.[17]


Another boy who was at the Dawson’s home claimed Timothy left the Dawsons at about 1:00 a.m. and came back at 4:00 a.m. Timothy returned home to his parents’ house at about 7:00 a.m. and stayed there for approximately 20 minutes before he went back to the Dawsons. He later rode his skateboard down their driveway and into the road where he was hit by a car and seriously injured. At the time of the accident, the Dawsons were asleep and did not know Timothy had left their home or returned.[17]


Bell’s mother, Teresa Bell, sued the Dawsons. She claimed her son's judgment was impaired because he did not get any sleep and was not supervised while he was at the Dawson’s home. She believed the Dawsons were responsible for the accident because they did not provide appropriate supervision. Judge Paul Fritzsche of the York County Superior Court ruled the Dawsons had no responsibility to take care of Timothy and were not responsible for the incident. Teresa Bell appealed the court’s ruling to the Supreme Court. According to Timothy’s mother, the Dawsons were responsible for Timothy’s injuries because they should have seen he was too tired to exercise the judgment needed to skateboard safely.


However, the court determined that once Timothy left the Dawson’s home, they were no longer responsible for him. In fact, since he returned to his parents’ home, they were the ones who were responsible for him at the time of the incident. However, Timothy’s mother argued that as adults supervising a teenage sleepover, the Dawsons had a legal responsibility to make sure Timothy got enough sleep. Since they didn’t, they were the ones to blame for his accident. The court disagreed, stating:

We decline to impose such a duty to monitor sleep patterns at a teenage sleepover.[17][11]


Although the Supreme Court determined the Dawsons were not the legal cause of Timothy’s injuries. The court's decision noted:

The manner in which the Dawsons conducted themselves on the evening of May 9, 2009, and the extremely poor judgement they demonstrated throughout their interactions with Timothy, is unconscionable...[17][11]

News from Oklahoma

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Workers' compensation law upheld by OK Supreme Court

  Court: Oklahoma Supreme Court
On December 16, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state's new workers' compensation law, allowing the new plan to go into effect starting in February of 2014. The law will change the system that handles disputes about workers' compensation. Although the high court upheld the law, it was pointed out that certain aspects of the system may be challenged again once it's been fully implemented.[18]


The most important aspect of the law is changing the state's court-based workers' compensation system into an administrative system. This is designed to lower the cost of workers' compensation claims for employers. According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, these reforms will cut costs by 14.2%, or $138 million each year.[19] Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John D. Doak applauded the Supreme Court's ruling:

Oklahoma currently has one of the highest average costs of workers' compensation benefits in the nation, which has had an enormous impact on our state economy. The new law has already shown significant workers' compensation insurance rate decreases across the state and will continue to bring positive change to our state by ensuring Oklahoma is one of the best places to do business.[18][11]


The lawsuit was brought forth by the Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma. They claimed that the law uses log-rolling, a practice that is prohibited by the constitution of Oklahoma and involves covering multiple subjects in one law. The supreme court denied this claim, saying that "all sections of the new law are interrelated and refer to a single subject, workers' compensation or the manner in which employees may ensure protection against work-related injuries." The lawsuit also challenged other aspects of the law, including its provision that allows employers to opt out of the administrative system and implement their own workers' compensation benefit plan. Although three justices also took concern with that provision, it was decided that "until such time as a case or controversy or a justiciable issue is presented to this court, we are without jurisdiction to rule further with regard to this act."[18][20]


Although many Oklahoma businesses and law makers are excited about the decision and the implementation of the new system, opponents are worried that the new savings will be at the expense of injured workers. Wil Rijksen of the American Insurance Association says "the decision creates instability in the workers’ compensation system for the foreseeable future as the justices left open the question of whether the new law might be unconstitutional as applied, but decided that determination cannot be made until after it has taken effect, and a particular set of facts has been presented."[19]

News from Arkansas

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Son with cerebral palsy was sexually abused, appellate court rules

  Court: Arkansas Court of Appeals
An appeals judge ruled that an Arkansas father sexually abused his 15-year-old son when he forced him to watch pornography. His son, identified in court documents as “R.R.F.,” has autism and cerebral palsy.[21]


The charge was rooted in an investigation launched by the Arkansas State Police Crimes against Children Division in February 2010. The Arkansas Department of Human Services had received an anonymous tip that the boy was sexually abused and forced to watch porn on three occasions. While the investigators found no evidence of sexual abuse, they did find the father, “R.F.,” had shown R.F.F. porn when he was seven or eight and confined to a wheelchair, and recommended he should be placed on the Child Mistreatment Registry.[21] Arkansas law includes forced watching of pornography by a person 18 or younger under its definition of sexual abuse.[21]


After R.F. challenged the findings of the investigation, an administrative law judge found there was enough evidence to support them. R.F. then appealed to the circuit court, which reversed this decision on the grounds there was not enough substantial evidence.[21] The DHS then appealed the circuit court’s ruling, upon which Judge Phillip Whiteaker of the Arkansas Court of Appeals reviewed and reversed the circuit court’s decision.[21]

R.F. argued that the decision to place him on the registry was at a time when his wife, “W.F.,” “held a grudge against him” and they were getting divorced. She had also said she no longer wanted to pursue the allegations.[21] Whiteaker found, however, that “While W.F. did express her desire that the matter be dropped by DHS, she fell far short from recanting her testimony.”[21] He further wrote, “Rather, she clearly testified that R.F. forced R.R.F. to watch pornographic videos.”[21]

He continued that the administrative law judge (ALJ) found W.F. to be credible. He continued:

We find that substantial evidence supports the agency decision and that the appellant has failed to demonstrate that the proof before the administrative tribunal was so nearly undisputed that fair-minded persons could not reach its conclusion. Additional, these findings, as stated by the ALJ, fall squarely under the definition of sexual abuse under the child-maltreatment statute.[21][11]
The circuit court had previously cited, in its decision to void R.F.’s placement on the Child Mistreatment Registry, two concerns: how long it took to submit the complaint, along with the circumstances of divorce.[21]



See also

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 The Seattle Times, "$50M awarded over birth defect; test said baby would be OK," December 11, 2013
  2. LifeSiteNews, "Couple who would have aborted disabled son awarded $4.5 million for ‘wrongful birth’," September 19, 2011
  3. LifeSiteNews, "Couple wins $3 million in ‘wrongful birth’ suit: would have aborted daughter with Down syndrome," March 14, 2012
  4. Florida Carry about: Premption, Date accessed: 12/16/2013
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Florida Times-Union, "Court of Appeal rules UNF cannot prohibit guns on campus," by Larry Hannan, December 10, 2013
  6. WPTV, "Florida universities can't regulate guns on campus, court says," by Gary Fineout, December 11, 2013
  7. WLAF.com, "Andrew Hamblin speaks at the Campbell County Courthouse," November 17, 2013
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 NY Times.com, "Tennessee Pastor Disputes Wildlife Possession Charge by State," November 15, 2013
  9. WBIR.com, "Grand jury will hear case of snake-handling pastor," December 17, 2013
  10. 10.0 10.1 WATE.com, "Campbell Co. pastor's snake handling case to go to grand jury," December 17, 2013
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 The Chicago Tribune, "Court shuts down sales tax havens," November 28, 2013
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 The Chicago Tribune, "Illinois Supreme Court tosses Department of Revenue's tax-collection rules," November 22, 2013
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Mondaq, "Illinois Local Sales Tax Sourcing Uncertainty Is Over…Replaced By Chaos: Hartney Wins Tax Situs Suit, But Governing Regulations Are Invalidated," November 26 2013
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 The News Tribune, "Hartney Fuel wins high court ruling," November 22, 2013
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 The Supreme Court of Illinois, "Opinion," November 21, 2013
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Maine Supreme Judicial Court, "'Timothy Bell, et al.' v. 'Randall Dawson, et al.' Decision No. 2013 ME 108," December 10, 2013 (timed out)
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 News OK, "Oklahoma Supreme Court upholds new workers' compensation law," December 17, 2013
  19. 19.0 19.1 Property Casualty 360, "Okla. Supreme Court Clears Workers' Comp Law, but Future Remains Unclear," December 17, 2013
  20. Enid News, "Okla. high court upholds workers’ compensation law," December 16, 2013 (dead link)
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 21.5 21.6 21.7 21.8 21.9 ‘’Courthouse News Service,’’ “Father abused son by making him watch porn,” December 13, 2013