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ARCHIVES: January 2015

What an Electric Arc Flash Does to a Hard Hat

What an Electric Arc Flash Does to a Hard Hat

Industrial accidents can be flatly horrifying. Electric arc flashes are some of the worst.

Even relatively small plants and factories require tremendous amounts of electricity to maintain production. This, in turn, necessitates large, complex equipment that can safely disburse thousands of volts from a substation to individual machines. Literally hundreds of pages of safety regulations have been written, and are constantly revised, to protect the safety of the men and women who work in close proximity to this equipment because when accidents happen with electricity, the results can be very, very bad.

Below is a picture of two hard hats taken from the scene of a catastrophic electrical arc flash accident. One hard hat was worn by a worker standing several feet away from the arc flash. The other, shriveled mess of plastic was all that remained of the hard hat of the worker who was mere inches away.

Hard Hat Exposed to Electrical Arc

Electric arc flashes last for mere milliseconds–far less than the time it takes to blink an eye. Their lethality stems from the tremendous heat generated by the electricity. A single arc flash can reach temperatures of 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit–three and one-half times the heat of the surface of the sun. This sudden blast of heat is enough to vaporize steel, plastic, and human flesh.

Workers who survive these types of accidents generally do so with third degree burns across large portions of their bodies. They face years of excruciating burn treatment and a lifetime of terrible scarring and disability. Medical bills alone can easily exceed one million dollars in a matter of months.

Seeking compensation for workers killed or maimed by arc flash explosions is a difficult task. Employers who may have failed to observe safety protocols are generally protected from liability by state workers’ compensation laws. These laws may enable a worker to have his medical bills satisfied and receive a small amount of compensation for disability, but workers’ compensation usually does not provide any recovery for the truly awful pain and suffering and loss of quality of life incurred by victims of electrical burns.

Achieving compensation for these individuals requires an extensive, multi-faceted legal approach that touches upon not only workers’ compensation laws, but also tort law, product liability, agency, and even appellate practice. As a result, very few law firms are equipped to handle such a responsibility. But without such a sweeping approach to the legal rights of the victims of a major industrial accident, achieving anything close to reasonable compensation for these terribly injured individuals is a near impossibility.

Mark Chappell and Graham Newman, with Chappell Smith, and Arden, P.A. are attorneys experienced in complex civil litigation, including catastrophic industrial accidents such as arc flash explosions.

CSA Attorney Graham Newman Argues Before SC Supreme Court

Graham Newman, an attorney with Chappell Smith & Arden, P.A., argued before the South Carolina Supreme Court on January 14, 2015 in a case that could alter the rules of admissibility of polygraph evidence.

The case, State v. Samuel, arises from charges of Homicide By Child Abuse stemming from allegations that a young woman caused the death of an infant by shaking. Newman previously tried the case alongside Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian in November of 2010. In pretrial motions, the two attorneys obtained an order from the trial court excluding a statement made by the defendant during the course of a polygraph examination conducted by the City of Columbia Police Department. Rather than proceeding with trial, the State immediately appealed the pretrial order.

The appeal centers upon a constitutional conundrum created by a conflict between state and federal law. South Carolina law holds that polygraph evidence is inadmissible due to its scientific unreliability and the prejudicial effect a polygraph being presented as a “lie detector” may have on a jury. Federal law stemming from the Fifth Amendment, meanwhile, holds that the “totality of the circumstances” of a criminal defendant’s statement to police must be presented to a jury so that the jury may determine if the statement was coerced in any way. Newman argued below that the inadmissibility of polygraph evidence in South Carolina necessarily prohibits the admission of any statements procured during the use of a polygraph. Otherwise, the trial court’s admission of such a statement–without evidence of the polygraph serving as the context in which it was given–would violate federal law’s “totality of the circumstances” requirement. The trial court agreed.

On appeal, both Newman and the State agreed that polygraph evidence might be admitted–as evidence going to an issue other than truth–if certain precautions are put in place to avoid jury prejudice. Without the creation of such an exception to the otherwise blanket rule of polygraph inadmissibility, Newman argued, the defendant’s statement in this case must remain excluded from evidence.

The Supreme Court’s opinion will decide whether to expand its body of law on the subject of polygraph evidence admissibility to address the facts of this case and others like it.

High Drama in Ferguson, Mo. as Juror Sues Prosecutor in Fed Court

An anonymous grand juror is suing the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney for the right to disclose publicly what he feels were notable aberrations in the manner prosecutors handled the grand jury investigation. But while the suit itself focuses upon the juror’s freedom of speech, the complaint’s substance implies the Prosecuting Attorney always intended the indictment to fail.

The federal lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of Missouri, has been brought by “Grand Juror Doe” who allegedly served on the grand jury that declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. The suit is somewhat hybrid in nature, having been brought as a declaratory judgment action seeking a ruling that Missouri’s laws pertaining to grand jury service—which prohibit grand jurors from speaking publicly about what they learned during such service—violates the First Amendment.

But there are two games afoot here. While the lines of the complaint set forth a potentially compelling case for invalidating Missouri’s laws prohibiting grand jurors from speaking about their service, the implications between the lines allege impropriety on behalf of the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney.

The complaint itself, the filed version of which may be read here, contains a fairly brief eleven pages of allegations. But the substance of the document gives us an inside view of the grand juror’s experience in a manner that suggests the Prosecuting Attorney never intended the Wilson prosecution to see the light of day.

Grand Juror Doe tells us that his service on the grand jury began in May of 2014 and was originally scheduled to end on September 10, 2014. This is typical of grand juries throughout the United States as such juries do not meet every day of the week (unlike regular, or “petit juries”), but rather only intermittently throughout a period of several months.

Doe explains that the grand jury was informed, several weeks before the end of their service that their term would be extended to no later than January of 2015. The Wilson-Brown shooting took place on August 9, 2014—suggesting that the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney made the decision to take the case to the grand jury very quickly.

Doe details within his complaint certain exchanges between the Prosecuting Attorney and the grand jury. Specifically, Doe alleges the Prosecuting Attorney made the following promises to the grand jury:

“If your determination is that there are no charges to be filed, then everything will be released immediately or as close to immediately as we can get, and that’s everything. Your deliberations aren’t, as I said, your deliberations are not recorded and never will be recorded, notes won’t be released, but every bit of evidence that you have, the testimony of the witnesses who come in, the statements of the witnesses, the physical evidence, the photographs, everything that you have seen and heard will be released to the public. That is as transparent as we can get short of putting a pool TV camera in here and that’s not going to happen.”

After these initial representations, Doe implies that the grand jury investigation began to unfold quite differently from the others in which he had been involved. First, Doe states that evidence jury presentation in the Wilson-Brown matter “differed markedly and in significant ways from how evidence was presented in the hundreds of matters presented to the grand jury earlier in its term.” This is an unsurprising observation, first, because of the sheer volume of cases the grand jury had considered in its previous deliberations (“hundreds”) compared to the number of cases considered in the final two months (one). Grand juries often consider well over one hundred cases in a matter of hours. As such, the instant the Wilson-Brown matter extended beyond a few minutes, the grand jury consideration of this case became a very unusual situation.

Beyond the length of the proceeding, however, Doe insists that “the investigation of Wilson had a stronger focus on the victim than in other cases presented to the grand jury.” Presumably Doe feels this way because the State called Officer Wilson, himself, to testify in the grand jury proceeding. A suspect testifying before a grand jury in opposition to his indictment is exceedingly rare primarily because a suspect has no right to defend himself against an allegation of probable cause. But calling a suspect-witness in a grand jury proceeding is not, however, unheard of.

The unstated implication of Grand Juror Doe’s lawsuit is that the grand jury investigation of the Wilson-Brown shooting was staged for the precise purpose of producing a “no bill.” Scuttling a prosecution via a staged grand jury investigation is an unspoken, but time-honored, tradition in the criminal bar where prosecutors—facing a politically heated case that, for one reason or another, they don’t wish to prosecute—instead impanel a grand jury, produce to the jury portions of evidence that suggest there is no probable cause, and allow the grand jury to decline to “true bill” the indictment in a manner that gives the prosecutor political cover for declining to push the case.

That is exactly what Grand Juror Doe is implying happened in the Wilson-Brown investigation. So why the lawsuit, and what will it accomplish?

Well, this brings us to the second reason Doe is upset with the Prosecuting Attorney. In his own words:

“Immediately after the grand jurors were discharged, Defendant gave a lengthy oral statement about the grand jury’s investigation of Wilson to the public at a press conference. … From Plaintiff’s perspective, Defendant’s statement characterizes the views of the grand jurors collectively toward the evidence, witnesses, and the law, in a manner that does not comport with Plaintiff’s own opinions. … From Plaintiff’s perspective, although the release of a large number of records provides an appearance of transparency, with heavy redactions and the absence of context, those records do not fully portray the proceedings before the grand jury.”

It appears that Grand Juror Doe wants to talk to the press about exactly what he saw during the grand jury investigation of the Wilson-Brown shooting and about why he doesn’t think the Prosecuting Attorney is telling the whole truth.

So why can’t Grand Juror Doe simply call the newspaper? Again from Doe, “Plaintiff and other grand jurors were provided a copy of three Missouri statutes at the conclusion of their service.” These statutes, Doe contends, threaten any grand juror with criminal prosecution and possible imprisonment if they publicize the substance of the investigations in which they took part. Doe alleges that this threat of prosecution via state statute violates his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Which brings us to the lawsuit itself. Is Grand Juror Doe correct? Can the state prohibit him from discussing what he learned in the grand jury’s investigation?

That’s an excellent topic for my next post…

Graham Newman has been practicing law in state and federal courts for ten years. He has tried numerous civil and criminal cases to a verdict and has argued before the South Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Graham began his legal career as a judicial law clerk and public defender, but now specializes in complex civil litigation.

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