Category: Expert Witness

Computer SecurityExpert WitnessInformation & Communication TechnologySecurity

Is New Hampshire the Next Iowa Voting Disaster? Information Technology Expert Analysis

A hastily-developed app and combined with a lack of user testing caused a ruckus in Iowa Caucus voting this week. What’s in store for New Hampshire, Super Tuesday, and beyond?

It has been an exciting week in US politics. We had a State of the Union address and an impeachment vote. A whirlwind week by any standard! Before we could even get to those two events, we started the week with an outrageous technology failure in the Iowa Democratic Caucus. For purposes of this blog post, I’m not going into the differences between a caucus and a primary. Let’s just assume they accomplish the same result: selecting a candidate for political office.

For the Iowa Democratic Party, Monday night was a disaster and then it continued into Tuesday, Wednesday… you get the idea. As I write this blog post on Friday morning, I’m not even sure if they have an official determination of who won. The news stories seem to be conflicting.

So here is what we know about the app (IowaRecorder) failure based on available reports. The Iowa Democratic Party hired a marketing technology company to build an app which would be used, statewide, to report results of local caucus votes (I’m simplifying for purposes of brevity). The app was going to be used to submit voting results. Nobody was actually voting through the app.

This first really good article I read that outlined the technology implementation failure, came from Slate. Here was a good summary from a couple of days ago:

“It’s still unclear what exactly went wrong with the app, but all of these issues appear to have something in common: The Iowa Democratic Party clearly wasn’t prepared for any possible issues with the app and a more involved method of vote reporting introduced this year—and sure enough, it reportedly turns out that the app was never tested on a statewide scale. Shadow, which is run by alumni of the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns as well as Google, was paid $60,000 to develop the app, but it had just two months after party officials decided to abandon plans to report results over the phone.”

There’s some updated information on the failure from Motherboard, which was released yesterday (along with the app code). Below, you’ll see that they released an app that was still in beta format:

“And Instead of going through proper app store review processes conducted by Apple and Google, Shadow used beta testing platforms like Apple’s TestFlight to distribute the software so it could meet the Monday deadline. So when it came time for the app to do its most critical role — letting Democratic precinct leaders report results from Iowa on Monday — it failed in every way imaginable.”

Expert Analysis:

As I do when these major stories break, I turn to Experts.com members to get insights. You may recall Dr. Stephen Castell. Dr. Castell, Chartered Information Systems Practitioner and Member of the Expert Witness Institute, is Chairman of CASTELL Consulting. He is an internationally acknowledged Independent Computer Expert who has been involved in a wide range of computer litigation over many years.

Dr. Castell and I wrote a blog post back in 2018, regarding West Virginia’s Blockchain voting program. They are actually expanding this plan, which may necessitate a separate blog post.

Below, please find my questions and Dr. Castell’s answers (Disclaimer: these questions and answers provided on February 5th, 2020):

Nick: From available reporting, it appears the Iowa Democratic Party failed to do a statewide testing of this vote reporting application. What type of tests would have been necessary to identify errors in the system before statewide roll-out?

Dr. Castell: As other ICT professionals comment in the reports, there should be thorough systems testing and QA procedures, including User Acceptance Testing and Pilot Trials, plus scaled-up ‘soak testing’, before contemplating any real-world launch, such as this statewide roll-out. You expect to get errors in systems testing – its main purpose is to identify faults and fix them. Sadly, software systems and Apps these days do seem often to be launched publicly without adequate systems testing, let alone with adequate prior User Testing and Pilot Trials. If such standard professional QA processes were omitted, or truncated, for something as high-profile and important as an App to collect and relay voter data in the Iowa Caucus, that does appear rather astonishing.

Nick: It doesn’t appear that all of the fault lies with the app developer. It seems the Iowa Democratic Party only gave the app developer 2 months to develop and deploy this application. What sort of time-frame would you anticipate to develop, test, and implement a software of this scale?

Dr. Castell: That is difficult to estimate without more knowledge of the actual detailed Customer Requirements Specification that the developer’s App was contracted to meet. On the face of it, an App simply to in-gather voting data, aggregate and transfer it, sounds in principle like fairly straightforward functionality to code, test (at scale) and implement, and 2 months may not have been an unrealistic timescale for development, testing and deployment.

Nick: Would you expect there to be a certain level of user sophistication for those using the app on this scale? Should there have been company representatives available at caucus sites?

Dr. Castell: Reports suggest that there was little prior familiarity, let alone ‘training’, or ‘user sophistication’, with the App on the part of those expected to employ it for real, in the high-pressure, real-time Iowa Caucus conditions. Whatever the state of compliance of the App with its contractual specification – perhaps reasonably well delivered to time, budget, specification, and of suitable quality, ‘fit for purpose’ – if there was no program for adequate user familiarity and training, plus some sort of support and trouble-shooting team from the developer company at caucus sites, that alone could account for the problems encountered in statewide roll-out operation.

Nick: From what I’ve read, it looks like the company was paid $60,000 to build this application. Is there any way to gauge whether this is too little or too much for this type of application development?

Dr. Castell: Again, that is difficult to gauge without more knowledge of the actual detailed Customer Requirements Specification, and thus the likely complexity of the functionality needed, and its associated software design and coding; also, there may have been a tight budget to which the developer company was obliged to work. It is not unusual for software developers to invest in a ‘plum’ assignment such as this high-profile Iowa Caucus project, for the promotional and marketing impact that gives them in securing hopefully more lucrative and profitable development jobs later. In this case, the $60,000 could have been much less than the true cost to the developer company of the analyst, designer, coder, tester, deployer and trainer man-days expended in building and launching the App with a statewide roll-out, against a tough deadline.

Nick: What sort of testing, trials, and quality assurance requirements would you have employed prior to such an implementation?

Dr. Castell: There should ideally have been thorough systems testing and QA procedures, including User Acceptance Testing and Pilot Trials, plus scaled-up ‘soak testing’, well understood by ICT professionals, before the real-world launch of this statewide roll-out. Relevantly, I teach a Course Avoiding IT Disasters – the Expert Way, the principles of which are also covered in my seminal paper “Forensic Systems Analysis: A Methodology for Assessment and Avoidance of IT Disasters and Disputes”, issued as a Cutter Consortium Executive Report, Enterprise Risk Management & Governance Advisory Service series (Vol. 3, No. 2, March 8, 2006).


 

We cannot say that New Hampshire is next. All available information tells us that New Hampshire is not using the same company/app used in the Iowa Caucuses. Furthermore, there was talk of Nevada using the app, but they have claimed they will not move forward with the application.

That’s the end of this particular blog post. Though, we’re already in talks about another post related to voting systems.

Criminal JusticeExpert WitnessForensic PsychiatryUncategorized

Coerced Suicide: Forensic Psychiatry Expert Witness Details Murder by Proxy

Last week the news exploded with the story of Alexander Urtula’s suicide. The story garnered attention because of the allegedly outrageous actions of Mr. Urtula’s ex-girlfriend, Inyoung You, who is accused of psychologically manipulating Urtula and pushing him to kill himself.

Reports from the Boston Globe outlined the accusations against Inyoung You, a 21-year old former Boston College student and South Korean national, who badgered her ex-boyfriend into committing suicide.

In an editorial article calling for a coerced-suicide law in Massachusetts, the Boston Globe stated “According to prosecutors, You psychologically and physically abused her boyfriend, Alexander Urtula, over an 18-month relationship, and repeatedly urged him to kill himself. The two exchanged 75,000 text messages, which Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said showed You’s ‘complete and total control over Mr. Urtula both mentally and emotionally.’”

Readers may recall a similar incident, out of Massachusetts, which made headlines back in 2017 when Michelle Carter was tried for involuntary manslaughter for the death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy. You can read more about that case in this Washington Post piece.

These two cases from the same state, with strikingly similar fact patterns, ending in the suicide death of two young men has made the state consider a law about coerced-suicide. An issue, I might add, my lay mind never would have considered necessary.

The reason Massachusetts is considered a coerced-suicide law is pretty straight-forward. Michelle Carter was prosecuted and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Inyoung You, is now being charged with the same crime. However, the punishment for involuntary manslaughter in Massachusetts, carries a punishment of up to 20 years. Whereas a proposed law, Conrad’s Law (named after Michelle Carter’s victim), would make punishment for coerced-suicide a 5 year maximum sentence.

To me this makes sense. If you do not actually cause the death (i.e. pull the trigger or pilot the automobile) then you should not face the same criminal liability as someone who did cause loss of life. With that said, you need to be punished for being a truly terrible person and manipulating someone to take their own life.

Now, I do have difficulty with words being used to convict someone of a crime. The ACLU had difficulty with this too when they criticized the Michelle Carter case. They felt it would chill free speech. I understand that concern, so I needed to dig into the psychological manipulation and coercion aspect a bit deeper.

Lucky for me, I have access to an incredible database filled with expert witnesses and consultants. Turns out I didn’t have to look far, because one of my members, Dr. Sanjay Adhia was already sharing about the subject matter on social media. So we coordinated a little question and answer on the topic.

Forensic Psychiatry Expert Witness Dr. Sanjay Adhia:

Dr. Sanjay Adhia is triple-Board-Certified in Psychiatry Forensic Psychiatry and Brain Injury Medicine. In addition to forensic/expert witness practice, Dr. Adhia serves as the Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at University of Texas Health and Science Center and a Psychiatry Consultant at The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) Memorial Hermann in Houston. He treats those with brain and spinal cord injury who have complicating psychiatric disorders along with general psychiatry and addiction psychiatry patients.

His forensic practice focuses on the psychiatric impact of personal injury, abuse, competency, violence, intoxication and complicating mental illness. He is experienced at assisting attorneys in medical malpractice and wrongful death claims. He also performs occupational and other Independent Medical Exams. In addition, Dr. Adhia works with Physicians for Human Rights and DAYA Houston to assess victims of kidnapping and false imprisonment, human trafficking, undue influence, physical and sexual abuse and rape. Learn more about Dr. Adhia’s practice by visiting his webiste: www.forensicpsychiatrynow.com.

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. I provided questions and Dr. Adhia provided some outstanding answers regarding coercion.

NR: According to the article from the Boston Globe, coerced-suicide has not been defined by law. Does forensic psychiatry have a definition? If not, can you describe how you would define “coerced suicide?”

Dr. Adhia: As far as I know, there is no formalized definition of “coerced suicide” for forensic psychiatrists. With coerced suicide, there could be an element of undue influence which is defined as “influence by which a person is induced to act otherwise than by their own free will or without adequate attention to the consequences”[1]. I believe “coerced suicide” should be distinguished from “assisted suicide”.

NR: Can you describe what one may be going through when considering suicide?

Dr. Adhia: Suicidal ideations are generally accompanied by severe distress.  Suicide is seen as a solution to the distress and may be perceived as the best if not only solution. It may start with fleeting thoughts without intent to more frequent thoughts with intent. One may then consider various methods of suicide and develop a plan. There could be several suicide attempts before a completed suicide.  Of course, there are instances when a catastrophic stressor or coercion may lead to an impulsive suicide without a preceding history.

From the media account, Mr. Urtula was described as having depression. One of the potential symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) are suicidal ideations.  Additionally, victims of abuse can have suicidal ideations without necessarily having depression.

With additional information, we may be able to determine if Mr. Urtula had suicidality brewing for months or if he was suddenly coerced to jump without any preceding suicidal intent.

NR: This is now the second high-profile case involving young women encouraging a boyfriend to end his own life. Would this qualify as a form of domestic abuse according to psychiatrists?

Yes. However, I would expect there be other forms of abuse present preceding the coerced suicide. The literature often refers to domestic abuse as Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[2], there are four types of IPV:

  1. Physical violence
  2. Sexual violence
  3. Stalking
  4. Psychological aggression

Coerced Suicide would be consistent with psychological aggression which is defined by the CDC as “use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally or emotionally and/or to exert control over another person”. According to prosecutors, Mr. Urtula endured both physical and psychological abuse. The fact that he was located at the parking garage may represent stalking.

Of note, Intimate Partner Violence in of itself, absent suicide coercion, can lead to unintended suicide.[3]

NR: Would coercion in a suicide case (involuntary manslaughter) be similar to the coercion involved in an “undue influence” matter? Are the power dynamics similar?

Dr. Adhia: Coercion is one of the tactics involved in undue influence. Undue influence constitutes controlling others by utilizing the dominance or authority in a relationship, taking advantage of a vulnerability and by employing certain tactics.[4] These tactics include controlling necessaries in life, using or withholding affection, intimidation and coercion. Coercion is the act of threatening to compel an act.

It is worth referring to the proposed “Conrad’s Law” which indicates coerced suicide involves “substantial control or undue influence over the victim, or to have manipulated their behavior through fraud or deceit”.[5]

NR: Some stories I’ve read, indicate Inyoung You had “complete and total control” over Mr. Urtula. How would a person find themselves under complete and total control of a significant other?

Dr. Adhia: To understand how Ms. You would achieve such control; one can look at the cycle of IPV[6] which consists of:

  1. Tension Building Phase
  2. Acute Battering Episode
  3. The Honeymoon Phase

In the first phase, the victim attempts to appease the perpetrator in hopes of avoiding abuse. It may feel as if the victim is walking on eggshells. Eventually the tension will build and phase two will occur with the abuse. Afterwards, there will be a honeymoon phase where the abuser will convince the victim to stay in the relationship. The abuser could promise an end to the abuse. Many of the victims have been are conditioned to be highly dependent on the abuser. They may be convinced they will be unable to obtain love and happiness without the abuser. This may help explain why Mr. Urtula did not leave Ms. You and how she was able to gain control of him.

According to the CNN article, Ms. You threatened self-harm to manipulate Mr. Urtula in order to control and isolate him. She sent him over 47,000 texts and commanded him to end his life.  The abuse escalated just prior to the suicide. She tracked the location of Mr. You and was at the scene of the parking garage where he jumped to his death.

In Mr. Urtula’s case, it is likely he was rendered particularly vulnerable due to depression. Some of the symptoms of depression include fatigue, indecisiveness, decreased concentration along with feelings of worthlessness, helplessness and hopelessness.

With the interplay of Depression accompanied by the tactics and dynamics of IPV, one can get a sense of how Ms. You could achieve “complete and total control” over Mr. Urtula.

NR: Anything additional you feel like you need to add to this story… Please do so.

Dr. Adhia: The hope is someone with suicidal ideations in a relationship would have a supportive partner who will encourage their loved one to seek help. In extreme cases, a partner can call 911 and involuntary treatment in a psychiatric hospital can be sought. There are unfortunate instances when the partner does not recognize the signs of suicide or does not know help is available.  In Mr. Urtula’s case, it appears his partner literally pushed him off the parking garage.

The mass suicide in Jonestown by devotees of Jim Jones could be considered a mass coercion. Jim Jones had his followers practice drinking the Kool Aid. Having the children drink the Kool Aid first served to coerce the parents to follow course.

The Urtula and the Conrad case reminds us both males and females can be victims of Intimate Partner Violence. It is worth noting that the dynamics could be more complicated if there are children involved and the victim is financially dependent on the perpetrator.

If a victim is danger of imminent violence or suicide, call 911 to obtain immediate assistance. Other phone numbers can be found https://ncadv.org/resources.


Special thanks to Dr. Sanjay Adhia for taking the time to help educate us about this unfortunate matter of coerced-suicide. Please share this article with those who need to read it. Please take care of those around you. Let’s all try to be a little nicer to each other.

[1] Lexico Definition https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/undue_influence

[2] Preventing Intimate Partner Violence https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/fastfact.html

[3] Intimate Partner Violence – A Pathway to Suicide By Tony Salvatore https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/intimate-partner-violence-a-pathway-to-suicide

[4] Defining Undue Influence Mary Joy Quinn (October 15, 2018) https://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_aging/publications/bifocal/vol_35/issue_3_feb2014/defining_undue_influence/

[5] Bill calls for coercion to be a crime https://www.sentinelandenterprise.com/2019/07/25/bill-calls-for-coercion-to-be-a-crime/

[6] The Cycle of Domestic Abuse https://www.domesticviolenceroundtable.org/domestic-violence-cycle.html

addiction medicineExpert WitnessPharmaceutical

Landmark Oklahoma Opioid Ruling Due Monday – Expert Witness Recap

The last two years have been a whirlwind for those of us following the litigation response to the opioid crisis. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed throughout the country. Most notably, the National Prescription Opiate Litigation (a multi-district litigation).

So what is happening on next week? Well, one of the first major opioid trials took place in Oklahoma earlier this summer. When I say “opioid trial,” I mean the legal trial, not “clinical trial.” Forgive me, I had to make the joke. The trial took place and the judge is expected to deliver his ruling on Monday. Berkeley Lovelace, Jr., of CNBC, provides an in-depth analysis of the trial here.

The case was brought by the State of Oklahoma against Johnson & Johnson, et al. The Oklahoma attorney general is seeking damages in excess of $17 billion dollars. The state sued Johnson & Johnson claiming their sales and marketing practices fueled the opioid epidemic and created a public nuisance, resulting in approximately 6,000 overdose deaths. Any damages awarded, assuming there is not a settlement before the ruling, would be used for addiction treatment and preventative measures for the next few decades.

We, at Experts.com, have been following pharmaceutical litigation for a long time. In the last two years, we’ve been laser-focused on opioid litigation. We started to pay strict attention to the matter when we realized it was similar in magnitude as the civil lawsuits involving tobacco, in the 1990s. It meant we were going to see significant litigation for years to come.

With a database of expert witnesses, we set out to write multiple articles on the matter, in the form of question-and-answer-style blog posts. In addition, I’ve written a couple of guest blogs on the topic for other legal companies. This blog post is to recap these resources we’ve published over the last two years.

Two Years of Opioid Crisis Publications:

  1. Opioid Crisis – An increase in addiction medicine and pain management expert witnesses – November 6, 2017
  2. Kentucky AG files lawsuit against opioid distributor McKesson – January 22, 2018
  3. Pain and Addiction Expert Witness Comments on 72,000 Opioid Deaths in 2017 – August 22, 2018
  4. Judicial Analytics in California Opioid Litigation – January 23, 2019
  5. Legal and Expert Witness Staffing for Opioid Litigation – June 18, 2019

We Expect More Stories in the Future:

Unfortunately for our country, we expect to be writing about these lawsuits for years to come. What happens next week, may pave the way for more lawsuits and major settlements? We don’t know how it might end, but we’re pretty sure the pharmaceutical companies will end up paying a lot of money. If not in Oklahoma, in other lawsuits still to come.

UPDATE: 08/26/2019

Today, Cleveland County District Court Judge Thad Balkman ruled against Purdue Pharma LLP, Johnson & Johnson and others. He ruled the defendant’s in the first civil opioid trial are responsible for causing a public nuisance, and held them liable for abatement of the nuisance, in the amount of $572+ million.

You can read the verdict here.

Criminal LawEducationExpert Witness

Celebrity, Ivy League, College Cheating Scandal: Education Expert Witness Insights

When the news hands you a juicy story about wealthy celebrities, elite universities, college admissions, cheating, corruption, federal crimes, racketeering and conspiracy, it is really difficult to choose a title for the article.

If you are at all like me, when the news broke yesterday about wealthy celebrities bribing college officials to help get their children into elite schools, you were probably immediately angry with your parents for not doing the same! I kid. Sometimes, you just have to make light of these situations.

If you’re not up-to-date on “Operation Varsity Blues,” there is some good coverage here.

More likely, you were angry to read that one of the alleged criminals paid to have someone take an SAT for their daughter, scoring approximately 400 points higher than the child could score on their own merit.

Then you probably scrolled through the indictment to see another wealthy family is accused of bribing a crew coach (spending approximately $500,000 in bribes), to help their child be admitted as an athlete, when the child had no history of rowing competitively.

Those of us who have had to work hard to achieve our educational credentials, as a result of learning disabilities, were further angered by parents helping their children to fake disabilities to get more time on a test. This author struggled with school his whole life because of undiagnosed learning disabilities that were discovered only as an adult. I survived. I worked harder to excel. Needless to say, trying to cheat the system and fake a disability really bothered me because accommodations are meant to level the playing field, not give someone unnecessary an edge.

Most of us are aware students receive special benefits if parents or family members have previously gone to the university. We also know that the donating of a building or program often provides family members with special influence. We know this and we sort of accept it as part of society. Successful people work to help their families achieve success. Most of us have accepted this idea. However, when those efforts break the law, corrupt the education system, and displace truly qualified students, we cannot accept it and we should not accept it.

As a result of yesterday’s news, I reached out to one of our members’ to get some early insights on this matter. It is important to remember this story is still developing and what we learned yesterday, may change tomorrow or the next day.

Education Management Expert Witness Dr. Edward Dragan:

Dr. Edward Dragan, has over 40 years experience in education. He has been a special-education teacher, served as a public school principal and a superintendent, founded an alternative school with a group of disenchanted parents and students, and much more. After consulting with an attorney and testifying in court as an expert witness, Dr. Dragan decided he would best be able to help schools, children, and families by developing a practice where he could use his experience to review cases involving schools, education, and the supervision of children and provide expert opinions. Further, he has obtained a law degree with a specialty in education law and has consultation to plaintiff and defendant attorneys around the country and Canada more than 800 times on cases involving wrongful death, sexual harassment, negligent supervision, Title IX, and Section 1983 matters. Dr. Dragan has testified around the country over 125 times. You can learn more about his practice here: http://education-expert.com.

Below, you’ll find my questions and Dr. Dragan’s responses, related to the college cheating scandal.

Nick: It seems some of the allegations in the college racketeering conspiracy involve bribing entrance exam administrators. Are there procedures for qualifying entrance exam administrators?

Dr. Dragan: There are no procedures for qualifying entrance exam administrators that would guard against the bribery charges. Unfortunately, even if there were procedures or license for such administrators this type of scam can still occur. When parents, especially privileged parents, want something for their child they usually find a way – and it can involve paying a gatekeeper to a college. It takes two dishonest individuals to engage in this conspiracy and, unfortunately, the honest parents and kids lose out.

Nick: Many of us have long heard the stories of someone posing as a student for the entrance exams. I always took it as “lore.” What policies and procedures are in place to prevent test-taking fraud?

Dr. Dragan: Test-taking fraud is controlled on site by monitoring identification including pictures on license, school identification, passports, etc. Even this method can be circumvented. But careful screening can help deter fraud. Off-site or computer initiated test taking presents unique problems.

Nick: Admittedly, it is early in the publicly available information, but what policy and procedure changes would you suggest to limit test-taking fraud in the future?

Dr. Dragan: I am not an expert in electronic fraud but I imagine that for those off-site test-taking experiences software design might be helpful.

Nick: Do you expect universities to take action against coaches and other school officials who allegedly accepted bribes?

Dr. Dragan: Yes, I do expect universities to take action against coaches and other school officials who are convicted of taking bribes. They should immediately be placed on leave – no work at the university – pending investigation. If there are criminal charges made and they are convicted they should be fired. Of course, employment contracts and other elements will need to be taken into account.

Nick: Is there anything else you wish to add. Comments, concerns, or otherwise…

Dr. Dragan: The education system, and the honest pursuit of education, is a privilege enjoyed by those who are eligible to “get into” the club. When parents circumvent honest endeavors of their children they are teaching their children, by example, how to be cheaters and how to lie to get what they want. This is shameful – and especially for those who fit high-profile status.


 

It should be noted that USC has already taken action against at least one coach and one school administrator for their alleged wrongful conduct. They fired two employees yesterday, according to the LA Times, while Dr. Dragan and I were communicating about this article. As the story develops, Dr. Dragan and I may return with a Part 2 on this topic!

 

Expert WitnessInsuranceWildfires

Camp Fire Disaster Causes Insurance Company Liquidation – Expert Witness

Now that the fire is out, I expected to be done writing about this topic for the year. Alas, there has been another casualty of the fire, it is the Merced Property & Casualty Company.

Insurance companies receive premiums from their customers (policyholders) to insure against property loss, damage and other risks. Some victims of the Camp Fire, the worst wildfire in California history, will not have those claims fulfilled by Merced Property & Casualty Company.

According to the LA Times, as of December 3, 2018, a Merced County court, “gave California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones permission to seize and liquidate the company’s assets. Now, the company is in the process of handing over policy and customer information to the California Insurance Guarantee Assn., or CIGA, which processes and pays claims on behalf of insolvent insurers.”

My understanding of the liquidation process is as follows: Merced Property & Casualty Company realizes they are in deep trouble, decide to skip bankruptcy, and ask the court to hand their operation over to the California Insurance Commissioner to clean up their mess. Per the LA Times, they have assets of roughly $23 million, but are expecting to pay out nearly three times that amount.

After policyholders fulfill their duty of paying premiums, they should expect to be insured against covered losses. As is often the case in mass disasters, insurance companies are ill-prepared and lack capital to fulfill their part of the bargain. Luckily for Californians, the taxpayers protect against such insurance company failures.

I reached out to one of our California insurance expert witnesses to get a better understanding of this insurance company liquidation.

Insurance Expert Witness Richard Masters

Richard Masters, CPCU, CIC, ARM, AAI, has more than 40 years of experience in the insurance industry. He is an expert on all aspects of property and casualty insurance and has testified in more than 200 trials in state and federal courts.

If you have a policy with Merced Property & Casualty Company, we hope this helps put your mind at ease. As I commonly do, I asked Mr. Masters several questions about the liquidation and he provided responses.

Nick: What happens when California regulators take over an insurance company?

Mr. Masters: They can either liquidate it or try to rehabilitate it. Rehabilitation usually involves getting another insurer to assume the book of business with the backing and help of CIGA. In the case of Merced I do not think it will be rehabilitated. First, I urge all customers of Merced to contact their insurance broker and immediately get a new insurance policy with a different carrier going forward.

Nick: Merced Property & Casualty Company didn’t even file bankruptcy. They claimed insolvency and are liquidating the company. What happens to the claimants?

Mr. Masters: The claimants will continue to make their claims with Merced and they should also contact CIGA to make a claim for benefits. CIGA can be contacted at 818-844-4300 or assistance@ciga.org. Make sure you have your homeowners or dwelling policy available. If you need to, contact your insurance broker to get copies of your policies.

Nick: There is some information that the California Insurance Guarantee Association. Is this like an FDIC for insurance companies?

Mr. Masters: Yes, that is a reasonable analogy. CIGA has three separate funds that they operate. The Merced collapse would involve the Homeowners Personal Lines fund. A liquidator will be assigned by CIGA and will administer the funds.

Nick: Will the claimants receive fractions of their claims as a result of this regulatory takeover?

Mr. Masters: Generally, CIGA will pay up to $500,000 for each claim but this depends on the terms of the policy and other factors determined by CIGA.

Nick: Any other information to provide to the public about the claims process through CIGA?

Mr. Masters: The claim process through CIGA is cumbersome and takes a LOT more time to complete. Claimants will need a lot of patience when dealing with CIGA.


In related news:

The ABA Journal reported today, “two law firms known for their class action practices have filed a new lawsuit that blames Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for the November fire that killed at least 88 people in Northern California and destroyed the town of Paradise.” Seven plaintiffs are jointly represented by The Edelson Law Firm and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.

This is just one of several suits blaming PG&E for negligently maintaining equipment which resulted in wildfires. It appears the plaintiffs have hit PG&E with a variety of claims including inverse condemnation, trespass, negligence, nuisance and more. One of the plaintiffs claims to be suffering from PTSD as a result of being stuck in traffic, while trying to flee the fire, and embers from fire-engulfed trees were hitting his car. He feared he “would be burned alive.” I might be suffering serious emotional distress as well.

Let us not forget, PG&E has already publicly stated that they may have to declare bankruptcy if it is determined they were responsible for the Camp Fire.


This is the last I will be writing about the Camp Fire for this year. However, given the continuing legal implications of this catastrophe, I expect issues of import will develop in the New Year.

ElectronicsEngineeringExpert Witness

eScooters Recalled Due to Battery Fire Risk: Expert Witness Analysis

In the last week, we learned of a recall involving eScooters. This recall came from Lime, an eScooter and eBike manufacturer. However, this is not the first concern about the safety of eScooters and Lime is not the only manufacturer facing consumer safety concerns.

In big cities throughout the world, transportation is being rapidly impacted by more advanced options than those we typically think about: cars, bikes, and public transportation.

Technologies’ rapid advancement combined with the nightmare of slow-moving automobiles and fighting for parking spaces has made Segways and other eScooters an efficient, environmentally friendly, and fun alternative to normal modes of transportation.

San Francisco is 90 miles from our office. On a good day it takes about 2 hours to make it to the city. Upon arriving, I typically want to find a parking place and avoid getting in the car for the remainder of my time in the city. From my interactions, I am not alone in this feeling. In fact, eScooters are a nice alternative to walking around the city and one I plan on trying in the not too distant future. It will allow me to go greater distances in the city, while being fun (because scooters are fun), and I won’t have to fight the traffic in San Francisco.

As with all consumer products and consumer electronics, especially those new to the market, we start to hear stories about the injuries caused and the safety concerns about the new products. eScooter solutions do not appear to be free from these concerns.

Powered by electronics and lithium-ion batteries, we have learned of the potential for fires related to these scooters. You may recall the “hoverboard” fires from a year or two ago. The hoverboards (self-balancing scooters) were a “hot” purchase at Christmastime and then they experienced recalls as a result of battery failures and battery fires.

Again, these recalls are pretty common for consumer products and from my perspective, companies seem to have drastically improved their response to safety issues and rapidly deploy recalls. I seem to see a recall announcement weekly. It is wise to recall a product and prove your company is proactive regarding customer safety. The alternative today, is suffering the Internet-based attacks for failure to do so. Those attacks are likely to be followed by product liability litigation if your customers are injured.

Lime eScooter Recall:

Last week, I read that Lime had recalled some of their scooters from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Lake Tahoe. TechCrunch, among other news outlets, covered the story. The pertinent part of the story is below, some of which was pulled directly from Lime’s blog:

“‘In several isolated instances, a manufacturing defect could result in the battery smoldering or, in some cases, catching fire,’ Lime wrote on its blog. ‘We took this issue very seriously. Immediately upon learning of the defect, we worked with Segway Ninebot to create a software program to detect the potentially affected batteries. We then worked independently to create an even more thorough software program to ensure that no potentially faulty scooters remained in circulation. When an affected battery was identified — with a red code — we promptly deactivated the scooter so that no members of the public could ride or charge it.’

Lime says it then removed those scooters from circulation and ‘at no time were riders or members of the public put at risk.’ But fast-forward to more ‘recently,’ and Lime has received another report that one of its Segway Ninebot scooters may be vulnerable to battery failure. In total, Lime says less than 0.01 percent of its scooter fleet is affected.”

Given the issues with the hoverboards and now eScooters, I wanted to get a better understanding of the issues impacting electronic scooters and the batteries, as the thread that seems to hold all these stories together, is the lithium-ion batteries.

As such, I reached out to one of our experts for his insights on the matter.

Mechanical Engineering, Medical Device and Consumer Product Expert Witness Dr. T. Kim Parnell:

T. Kim Parnell, PhD, PE, is a Professional Mechanical Engineering consultant with strong experience in a number of technology areas. He holds PhD and MSME degrees from Stanford University in Mechanical Engineering and a BES from Georgia Tech. He specializes in the mechanical engineering design and behavior of Biomedical Devices, Superelastic and Shape Memory Metals (Nitinol), Bioabsorbable Polymers, Composites, Fiber-Reinforced Materials, Electronics, and Consumer Products. Dr. Parnell consults actively in these areas using finite element analysis and other advanced technologies to improve designs, to perform failure analysis, and to improve reliability. To learn more about Dr. Parnell, please visit his website: http://parnell-eng.com/.

Nick: In consumer electronics-based batteries, are their common battery defects that may result in smoldering or the battery catching fire?

Dr. Parnell: Yes, there are several failure modes that can ultimately lead to smoke or fire.

External damage is one mechanism that can lead to failure and smoke or fire. By breaching the external battery package, the reactive internal contents will be exposed to air and moisture.

The failure modes generally involve heat and overheating of the battery in some way.

Some of the heating mechanisms are:

  • External Short Circuit
  • Internal Short Circuit
  • Overcharge
  • Overdischarge
  • External Heating
  • Overheating (self-heating)

Each of these heating mechanisms may ultimately result in battery temperature becoming too high.

The elevated temperature leads to gas generation and additional generation of heat internal to the battery.

If this heat generation exceeds the ability to dissipate the heat, a thermal runaway may occur.

If a thermal runaway occurs, then it may be followed by

  • venting,
  • rupture of the battery container, and then potential
  • fire and explosion.

Nick: The article from TechCrunch explains one battery failed and another caught fire. Does a battery have to catch fire to fail?

Dr. Parnell: No.  Fire is basically an end failure mode.

Nick: Not just in the instance of these scooters, but more generally, is it possible for a battery to be damaged by the charging process rather than a manufacturing defect?

Dr. Parnell: Yes. The battery may be damaged by the charging process.  In particular if the battery is overcharged and if the charge rate remains high after the battery reaches full charge.

Nick: In the article, it seems Lime is able to monitor batteries and detect faulty batteries via software. Can you tell us, in general, how batteries are remotely monitored by consumer electronic companies?

Dr. Parnell: Battery internal temperature is one key parameter that can identify problems.  A temperature sensor from each battery cell can provide data that can be remotely monitored and also can be used locally to isolate a cell.

Nick: Can a battery truly be fixed with a software patch? Or, should the defective battery be removed from operation altogether?

Dr. Parnell: A mechanical battery problem cannot be “fixed” with a software patch.  A problem battery cell in a battery pack may be identified and electrically isolated.

That is what I’ve got for you this week. Although, it has been brought to my attention (thanks to Kevin Gillespie of TextALawyer), that another blog post about the safety issues in and around eScooter use may be necessary. Stay tuned, as there may be a Part 2.

 

EvidenceExpert WitnessExpert Witness Testimony

Expert Witness Liability, According to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals

Recently, we have received some questions from expert witnesses regarding potential liability for expert witness testimony. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decided this issue last Friday.

Last week, on October 26th, 2018, the United States, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal common law “witness litigation privilege” protects an expert witness for civil claims stemming from their testimony.

The best summary of the decision that I found comes from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP’s, Gravel2Gavel Blog. You can find the blog post here.

The matter involved a coal miner who was claiming benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act. According to the expert witness the evidence did not support the plaintiff’s claim and the claim was denied. Thereafter, a report from the Center for Public Integrity alleged the “Johns Hopkins radiology unit and its expert witnesses were much less likely to find evidence of black lung disease than other doctors.”

The report from the Center for Public Integrity led to a lawsuit against Johns Hopkins and their doctors claiming liability for fraud, tortious interference, misrepresentation and more. The trial court dismissed the claim citing the federal common law “witness litigation privilege.” According to Gravel2Gavel, the appeals court was divided on the issue, but agreed with the trial court decision.

The Fourth Circuit stated “absolute immunity” applies to the expert witness testimony. They went further to state, “‘when a witness takes the oath, submitting his own testimony to cross-examination, the common law does not allow his participation to be deterred or undermined by subsequent collateral actions for damages.’” This is a really wordy way for the court to say an expert witness cannot later be sued for their testimony.

We also went ahead and summarized the ruling in this video:

EvidenceExpert WitnessExpert Witness Testimony

Florida Supreme Court Says ‘No’ to Daubert Expert Witness Standard

Since 2013, Florida has been the center of a battle over admissibility standards for expert witness testimony.

Prior to a move by the legislature in 2013, Florida followed the Frye Standard (i.e. general acceptance test). This test is considered a more lenient in allowing for expert witness testimony.

Normally, this standard is preferred by plaintiff’s counsel and disliked by defense counsel. Much like the “general acceptance test,” my last statement is a generalization.

In 2013, the Florida Legislature passed a law changing the admissibility standard from Frye, to the federal standard commonly referred to as Daubert StandardRather than the general acceptance test, the judge as the gatekeeper, would apply a multi-pronged test to analyze the admissibility of expert evidence. Here are the prongs per Cornell Law:

  1. whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested;
  2. whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication;
  3. its known or potential error rate;
  4. the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation;
  5. whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.

Most of our members are familiar with the Daubert Standard because it is the standard used by federal courts and more than three-quarters of US states. Naturally, my home state of California still uses Frye because we always want to do things a little differently. Well, according to the Florida Supreme Court ruling this week, Florida likes to do things differently as well.

To summarize, the Florida Supreme Court found the law implementing the Daubert Standard to be an unconstitutional infringement on the court’s authority by the legislature.

The decision was covered by CBS Miami, and the most pertinent part is as follows:

“We recognize that Frye and Daubert are competing methods for a trial judge to determine the reliability of expert testimony before allowing it to be admitted into evidence,” Justice Peggy Quince wrote in the majority decision, joined by justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Jorge Labarga. “Both purport to provide a trial judge with the tools necessary to ensure that only reliable evidence is presented to the jury. Frye relies on the scientific community to determine reliability whereas Daubert relies on the scientific savvy of trial judges to determine the significance of the methodology used. With our decision today, we reaffirm that Frye, not Daubert, is the appropriate test in Florida courts.”

It was a 4-3 decision by the Florida Supreme Court and the Chief Justice offered an impassioned dissent. For our members practicing in Florida, the law is clear, the Supreme Court has decided Frye is the appropriate standard for Florida.

EngineeringExpert WitnessWeather

Hurricane Floodwater & Wastewater: Sanitary Engineer Expert Witness Analysis

Five days after Hurricane Florence made landfall and pounded parts of the East Coast with winds and torrential rains, many areas are still inundated with flood water.

The floods have been devastating. Not only are the waters causing extreme property damage and personal injuries (in some instances death), they are also carrying contaminants and pollutants which have severe public health concerns.

Yesterday I read about some of the pollutants entering the floodwaters. Some of the items include: dead animals (turkeys, pigs, chickens), chemicals, manure, and untreated raw sewage. In fact, Bloomberg reported farm lagoons (storing feces and urine) had given way and sewer treatment plants have been overwhelmed by the rains.

Specifically, there are a variety of issues caused by these contaminants being washed away and transported via floodwaters. Bloomberg points out some of these concerns:

“Hog waste contains E. coli and bacteria, Rumpler said. Sewage overflows, combined with high floodwaters, bring the prospect of ecological impacts including fish kills. Humans coming into contact with fecal matter risk viruses, parasitic infections and rashes.”

So, there are some things our citizen brothers and sisters should avoid in North Carolina. Try to avoid swimming and wading through floodwaters. Remember the water is NOT just rain water. It is NOT clean. Those floodwaters include wastewater. Citizens should probably continue drinking bottled water until local authorities tell them otherwise.

That is enough of my non-expert suggestions. I’ve reached out to a sanitary engineering expert witness for some insights.

Sanitary Engineering Expert Witness Bonneau Dickson

Bonneau Dickson, PE, is a Sanitary Engineer with over 35 years of experience in all aspects of studying, designing, and constructing water, wastewater, and stormwater facilities, both in the United States and abroad. Mr. Dickson has designed approximately 300 water, wastewater, and stormwater projects. Has been resident engineer or otherwise participated in the construction phase of approximately 20 water and wastewater projects. Mr. Dickson has both project management and general management experience as project manager on approximately 175 projects.  You can learn more about his practice here: bonneaudickson.com.

Nick: With the post-Hurricane Florence flooding, we are reading about heavily polluted waters (pig excrement and raw sewage). What can North Carolina authorities do to address these sewage overflows and treat the wastewater?

Mr. Dickson: Very little. The pollution has escaped and there are few or no practical means of recapturing it.

The good news is that the torrential rains are likely to flush most of the pollution out to sea where it will decompose and be diluted down to insignificant concentrations.

Nick: At least one municipal sewer authority experienced catastrophic failure. Is there anything that can be done to limit or prevent such catastrophic failures when faced with heavy rains and severe flooding?

Mr. Dickson: Proper design of wastewater treatment facilities includes protection against flooding up to some level. Often, the protection includes levees and stormwater pumping facilities to prevent the wastewater treatment facilities from flooding.

The design storm often is a 100-year storm. I have not seen an analysis of the return period for a storm like Hurricane Florence but it could be on the order of a 500-year storm or a 1,000-year storm. Some areas were reported to have received up to 40-inches of rain in a few days. Typical annual rainfall in the Carolina’s is approximately 40-inches.

Nick: What are the major public health risks associated with untreated wastewater flooding parts of North Carolina?

Mr. Dickson: Probably diarrheal diseases from drinking or coming in contact with polluted water.

Nick: What can individuals and authorities do to limit public health risks associated with wastewater?

Mr. Dickson: Get the potable water systems operating again so people have clean water to drink and bathe in.


 

Until the floodwaters recede, please be safe. Listen to local authorities and remember to help your neighbors!

 

 

addiction medicineExpert Witnesspain management

Pain and Addiction Expert Witness Comments on 72,000 Opioid Deaths in 2017

Last week, the New York Times reported CDC estimates of 72,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States, in 2017. Unfortunately, a record breaking number, beating the number of deaths caused by guns, HIV, or car accidents.

Well, I wish the last time I wrote about the opioid crisis could have been the final time. It appears we are far from the end of this crisis. In fact, I began writing about this topic because it will go on for years and the litigation surrounding pharmaceutical opioids is just beginning.

Normally, I am not one to follow entertainment news. In fact, I view it is a distraction from far more important topics. Yet there I sat, just a few weeks ago, reading about the overdose of pop singer Demi Lovato. She has struggled with addiction from a young age and recently experienced a heroin induced overdose. Then last week the CDC released preliminary estimates of approximately 72,000 deaths caused by opioid overdoses, in 2017. This is a horrific plight on our nation. Chances are we all know someone impacted by this epidemic.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Experts.com has seen an incredible increase in the number of addiction medicine, substance abuse, and pain management experts marketing their services with us over the years. I started in 2010 and I’ve witnessed at least a five-fold increase in these types of experts.

The litigation against major pharmaceutical companies has also skyrocketed. In the last year we’ve seen cities, states, and counties bringing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The litigation against the manufacturers and distributors is encouraging if it helps stem the flow of opioid overdoses and death.

Based on this article in the New York Times, there are two reasons for the increase in opioid-related deaths: “A growing number of Americans are using opioids, and drugs are becoming more deadly. It is the second factor that most likely explains the bulk of the increased number of overdoses last year.” The article goes on to explain synthetic opioids, such as Fentanyl, is a major contributing factor to the rise in overdoses. The Times further elaborates:

“Strong synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its analogues have become mixed into black-market supplies of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and the class of anti-anxiety medicines known as benzodiazepines. Unlike heroin, which is derived from poppy plants, fentanyl can be manufactured in a laboratory, and it is often easier to transport because it is more concentrated. Unexpected combinations of those drugs can overwhelm even experienced drug users. In some places, the type of synthetic drugs mixed into heroin changes often, increasing the risk for users…”

High profile news stories followed by the shocking statistics from the CDC compelled me to reach out for insights from those on the front lines. Those who are treating patients with legitimate and often chronic pain, while also addressing substance abuse disorders. Dr. Adam Carinci is one such professional.

Addiction and Pain Management Expert Witness – Dr. Adam Carinci

Dr. Adam J Carinci, M.D. is a nationally recognized clinician, speaker and expert witness with over a decade of pain medicine experience. He is double-board certified in both anesthesiology and in pain medicine and maintains an active, full-time medical practice. Dr. Carinci is Chief of the Pain Management Division and Director of the Pain Treatment Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center and an Associate Professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.

As with previous articles, I posed a series of questions to Dr. Carinci and asked for his insights. Below are my questions and his answers.

Nick: For our readers, can you explain what constitutes a synthetic opioid?

Dr. Carinci: Synthetic opioids are man-made drugs that mimic the effects of natural opioids such as opium or heroin. Synthetic opioids act at the same opioid receptor in the body as naturally occurring opioids to induce pain relief, sedation and respiratory depression among other effects. Synthetic opioids are many times as potent as naturally occurring opioids. For example, Fentanyl is 100 times as potent as morphine (derived from opium).

Nick: Fentanyl is one of the synthetic opioids I’ve read about more in recent years. It’s mixture with heroin seems to be responsible for the increased deaths according to the New York Times. What are some legitimate medical uses for Fentanyl?

Dr. Carinci: The synthetic opioid agonist fentanyl is approximately 100 times as potent as morphine and is characterized by a rapid onset and short duration of action after a single dose. It is most commonly administered intravenously but may be given intramuscularly, transmucosally or transdermally. Fentanyl’s high lipid solubility contributes to its rapid onset because it readily crosses the blood–brain barrier. Fentanyl is used medically as a component of general anesthesia for surgery, as a sedative for procedural sedation and for chronic pain management.

Nick: Is there any data on how addiction begins?

Dr. Carinci: Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences. Addiction is a biopsychosocial disorder. It is a susceptibility that is a confluence of a person’s genetics, neurobiology, psychological and social factors. Activity substances increase levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the molecular messenger of the brain’s reward center. It is what gives people the feeling of pleasure and reinforces behaviors critical for survival, such as eating, drinking and having sex. Different drugs tap into the dopamine reward system in different ways, some more potent generators of dopamine than others. There are a variety of factors that determine how addictive a drug can be, however, how rapidly each drug can get into the brain, and how powerfully it activates neural reward circuits are two critical factors. Thus, the combination of the person’s susceptibility and the potency of the drug combine to create addiction.

Nick: In your experience, what factors have led to the “opioid crisis” as we know it today? I realize this is very general, so a summary will suffice.

Dr. Carinci: The current opioid crisis has its roots in the late 1990s, where the use of prescription opioid pain relievers began to be prescribed at much greater rates. This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive. Opioid overdose rates began to increase. In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose, including prescription opioids, heroin, and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. That same year, an estimated 2 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders. In 2016, synthetic opioids (primarily illegal fentanyl) passed prescription opioids as the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths in the United States. In 2016, over 42,000 drug overdose deaths involved opioids. Of those, 45.9% involved synthetic opioids.

Nick: What treatment options are available for opioid addiction?

Dr. Carinci: Medications, including buprenorphine (Suboxone®, Subutex®), methadone, and extended release naltrexone (Vivitrol®), are effective for the treatment of opioid use disorders. The most comprehensive approach should be combined medications with behavioral counseling known as Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). Studies have shown that MAT Increases social functioning and retention in treatment.


 

There will certainly be more to come in regards to this crisis. If there are any experts you’d like me to consult regarding this topic? Any other expertise you’d like covered? If so, please leave a comment and we will continue to cover this story, both from medical and litigation perspectives.