“Once Upon a Time . . . in Legal Ethics and Social Media.”

By: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

In a recent decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court looked back to a time before social media was ubiquitous, a time when Facebook was cutting edge and perhaps even – pause for collective gasp from anyone under 40 – cool.

The case – In the Matter of John Robertelli – involved an attorney who represented defendants in a personal injury case. He asked his paralegal to search the Internet for information about plaintiff. The paralegal did, first by searching plaintiff’s Facebook page — which was allegedly public for a time but later made private — and then by “friending” plaintiff. The paralegal obtained information from plaintiff’s Facebook page that could have been used to impeach plaintiff. In 2021, the question of whether this conduct violates RPC 4.2 – which prohibits attorneys from communicating with individuals represented by counsel – seems pretty straightforward. But the conduct in Robertelli took place in 2008, which made all the difference to the Supreme Court:

Our Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs) generally prohibit a lawyer from communicating with another lawyer’s client about the subject of the representation without the other lawyer’s consent. RPC 4.2. That ethical prohibition applies to any form of communication with a represented party by the adversary lawyer or that lawyer’s surrogate, whether in person, by telephone or email, or through social media. Although it is fair game for the adversary lawyer to gather information from the public realm, such as information that a party exposes to the public online, it is not ethical for the lawyer — through a communication — to coax, cajole, or charm an adverse represented party into revealing what that person has chosen to keep private.

The issue in this attorney disciplinary case is the application of that seemingly clear ethical rule to a time, more than a decade ago, when the workings of a newly established social media platform — Facebook.com — were not widely known. In 2008, Facebook — then in its infancy — had recently expanded its online constituency from university and high school students to the general public. A Facebook user could post information on a profile page open to the general public or, by adjusting the privacy settings, post information in a private domain accessible only to the universe of the user’s “friends.”

The novelty of Facebook in 2008 – to both the bar at large and Robertelli – saved the attorney from potential ethical consequences. But the Supreme Court cautioned, attorneys can no longer “take refuge in the defense of ignorance” when it comes to social media.

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Does the “rescue doctrine” apply to pets? (Warning: Dog lovers probably will not like the answer.)

By: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

In a case with facts that could have been ripped from a torts exam, the Appellate Division held that a woman who jumped into a canal to try to save a neighbor’s dog could not sue the neighbor under the rescue doctrine because the doctrine applies only to people trying to rescue other people, not people trying to rescue animals.

In Samolyk v. Berthe, plaintiff claimed that she heard someone calling out that their dog was in a canal near her property and needed help. She jumped in to try to help. Defendants tell a different story. They claim that they were having dinner with their son and some friends when they realized their dog was missing from their fenced-in yard. They claim they searched for the dog, determined that the dog had fallen or jumped into the canal, walked to a neighbor’s backyard, and pulled the dog out of the water. Defendants claim they never asked for help from plaintiff or anyone else.

Defendants called 911 some time later after their son told them that “a woman needed assistance.” When police arrived, plaintiff was unconscious on a floating dock and the fire department was on the scene performing CPR. Plaintiff regained consciousness, but allegedly suffered “debilitating brain damage” that led to her husband being appointed her guardian ad litem.

Continue reading “Does the “rescue doctrine” apply to pets? (Warning: Dog lovers probably will not like the answer.)”

Drinking + Dancing + Pools = Obvious Hazard?

By: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

As summer is about to (unofficially) begin, a timely post about mixing drinking, dancing, and pools. (Spoiler alert: It usually doesn’t turn out great.) As a side note, in the 1990’s I occasionally went to shows at Tradewinds in Sea Bright. It was a pool/beach club that held concerts on weekend nights (I was there when Bruce Springsteen showed up to play with Steve Earle.) There were pools not far from where the shows were held and I was always amazed that nobody fell in, at least not while I was there. But I digress . . .

In Antonio v. Harrah’s Atlantic City Propco, LLC, plaintiff attended a “Pool After Dark” party at Harrah’s in Atlantic City. At these events, which were held three-days a week, year round, from 10 pm to 4 am, “[a]ttendees drank, listened to music, and danced around a pool in the center of the venue.” Harrahs employed between 25 and 35 security guards during the events. A lifeguard was also on duty and two Atlantic City police officers were stationed outside the venue. “[I]ncidents of disorderly conduct” were “frequent” at the events, with police issuing about two summonses per night and ejecting patrons every week for fighting. And, in the ten weeks leading up to the night plaintiff was injured, there were eight instances of attendees being pushed into the pool, intentionally or otherwise.

Unfortunately, the night plaintiff attended, she was bumped or pushed into the pool – allegedly by third-party defendant whose boyfriend plaintiff had “chatted” with during the event – and severely injured her hand. She sued Harrah’s, alleging negligent maintenance of premises.

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Jump Back! Parent Lacks Apparent Authority to Bind Someone Else’s Child To Trampoline Park Waiver

By: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

When the history of arbitration agreements in New Jersey is written – OK, maybe that is an “if” more than a “when” – it will owe a great debt to trampoline parks. Over the past several years, New Jersey courts have issued numerous decisions regarding the enforceability of arbitration agreements at these parks. I have written about several of them – “Court Bounces Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision“, “Bounce Around the {Court}Room: Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable“, and “Arbitration Provision Bounced Again, Even After Kindred Nursing Decision“. (Note: These titles prove, if nothing else, that I am not very original.) In Gayles v. Sky Zone Trampoline Park, we have another entry on the list.

The plaintiff in Gayle was a child who attended a birthday party at the defendant trampoline park. The birthday boy invited several friends to the party, including plaintiff. The birthday boy’s parent told the other children’s parents that they could drop their children off and she would drive them to the party. Plaintiff’s parent took plaintiff’s mother up on the offer and dropped plaintiff off at the birthday boy’s house on the day of the party.

When the birthday boy’s mother arrived at the trampoline park with the children – her own and the other party-goers, including plaintiff – she was directed to a “waiver station,” where she completed and signed a waiver that included an arbitration provision. She testified at deposition that this process was “quick” and that she “completed the Agreement without reading it fully and without assistance from defendant’s staff.”

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Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! Only One Witness In The Room (For Remote Trial Testimony)

By: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

Just before the pandemic turned nearly all New Jersey courtrooms virtual, the Appellate Division issued its decision in Pathri v. Kakarlamath, which dealt with the standards trial courts should use to assess a party’s request to appear remotely for trial. I wrote about it here “Before Applying a 30-Year Old Decision to Modern Technology, A New Jersey Court References A Musical From the 1890’s.” Who knew at the time how timely that decision would become?

Now the Appellate Division has revisited the issue (minus theatrical references). In D.M.R. v. M.K.G., the Appellate Division acknowledged the issues courts have faced since Pathri , and addressed the challenge of ensuring that remote hearings are as fair as possible:

Little did we know that within two months our entire court system would begin to rapidly transform from in-person to virtual court proceedings, utilizing various remote video and telephonic platforms, in an effort to continue operations amid the social distancing measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since that time, New Jersey Courts have operated primarily remotely via platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and telephone conferences, with the goal of preserving the quality of justice our courts have traditionally striven to provide when court was conducted in-person. Trial courts and staff have undertaken a herculean effort in rising to this unprecedented challenge. However, despite their efforts, the formality of the courtroom can fall away. Everyone may not have the same access to technology. These proceedings often involve unrepresented litigants unfamiliar with court proceedings, which presents its own challenges now amplified by the virtual proceeding. Moreover, judges do not have the same mechanisms to control the proceeding that they would have in a live courtroom

It was “through this lens” that the Appellate Division addressed the issues in D.M.R.

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