Now that we are approaching the end of summer and the beginning of a new term for the Law Court, let’s peruse some recent rulings. While you may have been frolicking in the ocean’s surf or skimming your jet ski across a lake this month, our SJC justices were cranking out decisions.
UM Insurance – Allocca v. York Insurance Company of Maine, 2017 ME 186. This one brought out a gaggle of veteran insurance defense counsel – John Whitman, Martica Douglas, and James Poliquin. They prevailed. The question was whether UM insurance covered an event in which an assailant, operating another vehicle, forced the insured’s car onto a median, rammed the car, and shot the insured dead. By contract and statute, the Court said, the UM insurance covered accidents, and not intentional torts.
Distracted driving – State v. Palmer, 2017 ME 183. The defendant crashed his truck into the rear end of a car. The driver of the latter car had turned on its signal and slowed down to turn left. When the defendant’s car came at him, it swerved toward the yellow center line, then back at the last second and the crash ensued, pushing the driver’s car into the opposite traffic lane, where it collided with a van, the van spun into the other lane and collided with an SUV, and a passenger in the van died. The weather had been dry, there was nothing to obscure the defendant’s view, and he didn’t apply his brakes before the crash. The defendant said he “looked up” saw a car right in front of him, and tried to swerve away. He was charged with civil violations, failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle, 29-A M.R.S. § 2118, 29-A M.R.S. § 103, then motor vehicle violation resulting in death, 17-A M.R.S. § 4-B, 29-A § 2413-A. The issue before the court was whether the State had to prove the activity he was engaged with that distracted him. The answer was no. Interestingly, Lauri Boxer-Macomber and Stephen Koerting filed an amicus brief for The Bicycle Coalition of Maine. It should go without saying, but keep alert and your eye on the road!
Legal representation – State v. Rupert, 2017 ME 181 – This one holds, unsurprisingly, that a defendant has no right to be represented by someone not licensed to practice law in Maine. (The defendant wanted his father to represent him in a traffic case.) Interestingly, the Court notes that at one time “any citizen of good moral character” was permitted to “represent his principal,” but that this statutory language was deleted in 1931 at the same time the Legislature made it a crime to engage in the unauthorized practice of law. Also, I learned that a court, in its discretion, may allow an unrepresented party to be accompanied in court by a “personal support person” who does not act as an advocate. See State v. Murphy, 2017 ME 165, P 10.
Voir Dire – State v. Simons, 2017 ME 180. In this OUI appeal, among other things, the State and defense counsel had agreed to a voir dire question that asked whether the prospective juror agreed with the proposition that “A person accused of a crime should be required to present at least some evidence to prove their innocence.” A couple of people who had said “yes” on the questionnaire later said they were confused by the question and meant no, and were empaneled, and on appeal (he didn’t object at the time) the defendant said this was wrong. The conviction was affirmed and, in doing so, the Court said: “we note with disapproval the use of a voir dire question that presents an utterly incorrect statement of law and asks jurors to agree or disagree with the policy pronouncement contained therein. Regardless of whether an individual juror may disagree with an aspect of law, the true objective of voir dire is to determine whether jurors are able to be impartial and follow the court’s instructions on the law, even if the juror may disagree with the particular law”; and “asking a juror to agree or disagree with a legal tenet injects unnecessary confusion into an already intrusive process.” I don’t think we’ll be seeing this question again.
Res judicata – Estate of Treworgy v. Commissioner, DHHS, 2017 ME 179 – This case involves a suit against the Commissioner of DHHS, among others, in their individual capacities, after a federal court dismissed an action with prejudice based on the same incident against the Commissioner, among others, in her official capacity. Claim preclusion applied despite the switching from official to individual capacity, as the Court previously ruled in Brown v. Osier, 628 A.2d 125 (Me. 1993). The addition of other defendants didn’t materially distinguish this precedent, the Court said, because the claims were based on their roles as an arm of the State, giving the new defendants a sufficiently close relationship to the Commission to satisfy the requirement for claim preclusion of sufficient identicality between the parties in the two actions.