The Law Court issued a potential important decision on the "continuing negligent treatment" doctrine, but first, before I get to that topic in my next entry, I read a First Circuit decision last week that cries out for note. Vasquez-Rijos v. Anhang, http://www.ca1.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/getopn.pl?OPINION=09-1928P.01A I expect it to show up on one of those 48 hours tv shows (unless it has already).
Here are the facts:
In our opening segment, on September 22, 2005, Adam Anhang Uster leaves a restaurant in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with Vázquez, his wife of six months, when a man attacks the pair, stabbing Adam and fracturing his skull. Vázquez was seriously wounded; Adam died that evening.
In our next segment, prosecutors secure the conviction of a man who, several months later, is exonerated by an FBI investigation. While this would be the whole story in most tales, here we have barely begun.
The same investigation that led to the exoneration of the first defendant leads to a federal indictment of Vázquez and one Alex Pabón Colón (federal under 18 U.S.C. § 1958(a), which criminalizes the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire.) According to the indictment, Vázquez offered Pabón three million dollars to murder her husband and, quoting the decision, "on the fatal night, [she] lured her husband to an agreed-upon spot in Old San Juan, where Pabón killed him." Pabón pled guilty shortly after his arrest but has not yet been sentenced.
But no, there's more – we're not yet at the issue on appeal.
Six months after her husband's death, Vázquez sued Adam's parents, Abraham and Barbara Anhang, in Puerto Rico Superior Court, alleging that the Anhangs had assumed control of Adam's estate and had prevented her from accessing the assets therein. (Maybe they had suspicions? Maybe she needed $3 million?) Vázquez claimed that she was entitled to a portion of the estate under her prenuptial agreement and Puerto Rican law on a widow's usufructuary interest and community property. (But yes, under Puerto Rican law you forfeit those rights if you murder your spouse). Vázquez also sought damages from both defendants to compensate her for the harm caused by their "obstinate attitude and disregard of [her] physical and emotional condition and financial situation."
I think we can safely say that Vázquez's own character shows a certain obstinacy to it, as the ensuing facts bear out.
Abraham Anhang was served, removed the action and answered the complaint. The decision goes on to explain how Vázquez fluffed serving Barbara and fulflling various other discovery and procedural requirements, resulting in dismissal of the case as a sanction, upheld by the Court of Appeals. But this is the least interesting part of the decision.
As discovery proceeded in the case, Vázquez's deposition began, but could not be completed because – surprise! – she hotfooted it to Italy. "Her counsel stated that she could not return because she was studying." Hmm. Maybe she was studying extradition laws (she also cited "the Italian government's policy of not extraditing defendants in potential capital cases" as preventing her from returning to Puerto Rico).
But there's more! "Vázquez also stated that she was pregnant with twins and was advised not totravel to Puerto Rico until after her children were born." Studying, an indictment and twins will keep you pretty busy.
To support the argument about the pregnancy and medical advice, Vázquez filed two documents in Italian which were not translated. In denying her request, the district court, among other things, "noted that Vázquez's repeated postponements of her deposition led the court to question the credibility and reliability of the Italian medical certificate."
Vázquez , unsurprisingly, does not appear and Abraham moves to dismiss. Still undeterred, Vázquez opposes dismissal, this time submitting "a handwritten note in Italian that she claimed was a statement from her doctor explaining her medical condition and confirming that the condition prevented Vázquez from returning to Puerto Rico. Once again, no translation was filed." (Well come on, aren't there free programs on the internet for translation?)
The district court dismissed the action. There was a flurry of more pleadings, including on in which "Vázquez's counsel cited 'problems out of our control' as ground for an extension" of time. In the kitchen sink school of pleading, "another request for an extension was based on the argument that counsel had been at a federal jury trial, which consumed his working time." In another pleading, she argued again that she should not be blamed for avoiding a deposition because she had already been deposed for two days, and because her appearance in Puerto Rico was precluded by the murder-for-hire indictment, her health and that of her twin daughters (I guess that pregnancy assertion had been true — although "[o]nce more, she only attached untranslated Italian documents that she claimed were 'medical certificates' regarding her twins.)" Vázquez also suggested that her deposition be taken by "telephone or other remote means."
The district court was unmoved, as was the First Circuit.
A relevant legal point affirmed in this decision is "while she certainly had a right to refuse to answer questions on the basis of her privilege against self-incrimination …, it was improper to refuse to appear for any deposition whatsoever on that basis, rather than refuse to answer specific questions."
In short, she had to show up, and take the Fifth. Because she had failed to meet other deadlines and the way she argued her case didn't highlight this point, buried in here is the question whether she really could have finished the deposition via video. While I'm thinking that staying on the lam isn't the best legal excuse in general, the point she threw in about Italian policy against capital murder would throw an interesting twist into the argument. That the chutzpah-based civil claim was linked to the murder indictment of course didn't help her position. But what if a fugitive on crime X becomes a defendant or plaintiff in civil suit Y unrelated to X? Is that fugitive stuck losing because she has to show up physically? Even if she faces death? If so, maybe suit Y is the least of her worries.
I guess the outcome here is that Vázquez stays in Rome with her unauthenticated twins, and doesn't get any of the estate. And if the indictment is correct, then the shooter doesn't get his $3 million (unless he required pre-payment, probably a wise move in these kinds of transactions). Maybe he'll sue her.
In the end, while one can make fun of these kinds of cases, what happened to the husband was a tragedy, and I can only imagine the extra pain inflicted on the parents by this suit from the person accused of killing their son. Vázquez's persistence in pursuing the suit, even on appeal, also says something not pleasant about our litigious society. I leave further musing on this subject to the reader – or the next 20/20 episode.