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Property case could have widespread legal implications

ATLANTA — A hearing began Monday in an eminent domain battle that involves one of rural Georgia's poorest areas but could have implications for property law across the state and nation. At stake is determining whether a railroad can legally condemn property to build a rail line 4½ miles long that would serve a rock quarry and possibly other industries. A hearing officer will take up to three days of testimony before making a recommendation to the Georgia Public Service Commission's five elected members, who will ultimately decide. The line would be built by the Sandersville Railroad, which is owned by an influential Georgia family. It would connect to the CSX railroad at Sparta, allowing products to be shipped widely. Sparta is about 85 miles southeast of Atlanta. People in the rural neighborhood don't want a train track passing through or near their property, in part because they think it would enable expansion at a quarry owned by Heidelberg Materials, a publicly traded German firm. Some residents already dislike the quarry because it generates noise, dust and truck traffic. Supporters say if the railroad is built, the quarry will move its operation farther from houses, trains will reduce trucks on roads and the railroad will build berms to shield residents. But owners say losing a 200-foot wide strip of property to the railroad would spoil land they treasure for its peace and quiet, hunting, fishing and family heritage. "Sandersville Railroad does not care about the destruction of my family's property or our way of life," Donald Garret Sr., one of the owners, said in written testimony in August. "They just care about their own plans for my property, which won't serve the public, but will just help them expand their business and the quarry's business." Opponents have high-powered allies, including the Institute for Justice, which hopes to use the case to chip away at eminent domain, the government power to legally take private land while paying fair compensation. The libertarian-leaning legal group was on the losing side of a landmark 2005 case allowing the city of New London, Connecticut, to take land from one private owner and transfer it to another private owner in the name of economic development. The decision set off a widespread reaction, including more than 20 states passing laws to restrict eminent domain. Railroads have long had the power of eminent domain, but Georgia law says such land seizures must be for "public use." Opponents targeted the project by saying it would only benefit the quarry. "This is not a taking of necessity from private property owners to serve truly public interests and the public as a whole. Rather, this is a naked wealth transfer," Daniel Kochan, a law professor at Virginia's George Mason University, testified for opponents. The Sandersville Railroad says there are other users, including a company co-located with the quarry that blends gravel and asphalt for paving. Several companies have said they would truck products from the Sandersville area and load them onto the short line, noting they want access to CSX, but opponents question whether that business will materialize. The case matters because private entities need to condemn private land not only to build railroads, but also to build other facilities such as pipelines and electric transmission lines. There's a particular need to build additional electric transmission lines in Georgia and other states to transmit electricity from new solar and wind generation. "Railroads in America are private companies operating in the public interest," Sandersville Railroad President Ben Tarbutton III testified Monday. He said in earlier testimony that the Institute for Justice is engaged in "transparent efforts to change federal and state constitutional law regarding condemnation." Tarbutton is a past chair of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and University System of Georgia Board of Regents. His family has owned the railroad for more than a century. Others who live nearby, organized as the No Railroad in Our Community Coalition, are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Janet Paige Smith, a leader of the group, testified that the railroad would further burden a neighborhood with many Black retirees on fixed incomes. "We already suffer from traffic, air pollution, noise, debris, trash, and more from the Heidelberg Quarry, but this project would make everything worse," Smith testified.

Celebs, politicians face Adult Survivors Act lawsuits

NEW YORK — For a year, New York's Adult Survivors Act suspended the usual legal deadlines to give sexual assault victims one last chance to file lawsuits over misconduct that occurred years or decades ago. By the time the law expired last week, more than 3,700 legal claims had been filed, with many of the last few coming against big-name celebrities and a handful of politicians. The list of the accused contained many familiar names from past #MeToo scandals and a few new ones. A huge number of claims were also made by former prisoners over alleged assaults in jails and prisons. Among those facing lawsuits are: Donald Trump Former president Donald Trump was one of the first to be sued under the law when it took effect last November, by a writer who said he had raped her in a department store dressing room. Jean Carroll, a columnist, had written of the alleged assault in a 2019 book. He rebuffed the accusation, saying it never happened. She initially sued Trump only for defamation because the allegations dated back to the mid-90s and the deadline for filing a legal claim had long since passed. But the Adult Survivors Act cleared the way for a suit claiming sexual assault. In May, a jury found Trump liable of sexually abusing Carroll, but not raping her. She was awarded $5 million, including damages for defamation. Sean "Diddy" Combs Sean "Diddy" Combs, the hip-hop music mogul, was sued this month by three women. The first case was filed in federal court by R&B singer Cassie. She accused Combs of beatings and rape in a long-term relationship, which he denied. They announced a settlement the next day. Two more women came forward with lawsuits last week, just before the law's expiration. They accuse Combs of sexual abuse in separate incidents dating back to the early 1990s. A spokesperson for Combs denied the allegations. Harvey Weinstein Harvey Weinstein, already convicted of rape in New York and Los Angeles, was sued in October by Julia Ormond, who accused the movie producer of bringing down her movie career after a sexual assault in 1995. Weinstein, who is in prison in New York, "categorically" denied the accusations through his attorney. Jamie Foxx Among the rush of lawsuits filed in the last days of the law was one against performer Jamie Foxx. A woman who says she asked him for a photo at a New York City rooftop bar in 2015 accuses him of groping her under her clothes. A representative for the actor said the alleged incident never happened. Steven Tyler In an accusation dating back to the 1970s, a woman has accused Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler of forcibly kissing and groping her. The woman says she was 17 when she met Tyler in Manhattan in the summer of 1975, and that he assaulted her twice during that day. Tyler has made no public comment on the accusation. Bill Cosby Bill Cosby was sued by Joan Tarshis, who said she was a young comedy writer when Cosby drugged and assaulted her on two occasions in the years around 1970. She had first made the accusations in 2014, but her ability to sue him was previously limited due to the statute of limitations. A representative for Cosby didn't respond to questions about the claim, instead citing the number of well-known figures named in lawsuits filed under the act and asking, "When is it going to stop?" Russell Brand The British comedian and actor was sued under the law by a woman who said she was an extra on the set of the movie "Arthur" in 2010, in which Brand was starring. The woman accused Brand of exposing himself and assaulting her in a bathroom. He has not commented on the suit, but in connection to claims in British media outlets in September by four women who said he assaulted them, he said his relationships were "always consensual." L.A. Reid Antonio "L.A." Reid was sued by a woman who worked for the Grammy-winning music executive when he was the head of Arista Records. The woman, Drew Dixon, said Reid sexually assaulted her twice in 2001, and derailed what had been a promising career in the music industry. He hasn't commented on the lawsuit, but denied Dixon's claims when she first made them in 2017. Axl Rose Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose was accused by a former model of raping her in 1989 in a New York City hotel room. Sheila Kennedy said she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression because of the attack, which she has referenced before. An attorney for Rose said it was a false allegation and never happened. Mike Tyson Boxer Mike Tyson was sued by a woman who said he raped her in Albany, New York, in the early 1990s after she met him at a club and was in his limousine. There was no comment from representatives for Tyson. The heavyweight boxer spent three years in prison after being convicted of rape in 1992. Andrew Cuomo Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in 2021 after being accused of sexual misconduct, was sued by his former executive assistant. Brittany Commisso said she faced sexual harassment and unwanted touching from Cuomo and was punished when she reported the incidents. Cuomo's attorney called the suit a "cash grab." Cuomo has denied the sexual misconduct allegations. He initially faced a criminal charge but it was dropped by a prosecutor, who cited lack of proof. Neil Portnow Former Grammy Awards CEO Neil Portnow faces a lawsuit filed by a woman who said he sexually assaulted her in 2018. His accuser, a musician who wasn't named in the suit, accused Portnow of drugging her in a hotel room and assaulting her. A representative for Portnow, who stepped down in 2019, called the accusations "completely false." Rudy Giuliani Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and personal attorney for Trump, is being sued by a woman who says he coerced her into sexual activity while she did work off the books for him. The woman, Noelle Dunphy, said Giuliani made suggestive comments and demanded sex while she worked for him as a business development director and public relations consultant between 2019 to 2021. His spokesperson strongly denied the allegations. The Associated Press does not typically name alleged victims of sexual assault in stories unless they decide to tell their stories publicly.

Agreement struck in fatal carbon monoxide poisoning; $2 million settlement

Action: Civil rights Injuries alleged: Case name: Danielle Washington as personal representative of the estate of Calvin Witherspoon, Jr. v. Housing Authority of the city of Columbia (aka Columbia Housing Authority) Court/case no.: U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina / 3:21-cv-00148-JFA Judge: Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr.; mediator William B. “Kip” Darwin Jr. Amount: $2 million Date: Oct. 30, 2023 Most helpful expert: Attorneys: Richard A. Hricik of The Law Offices of Richard A. Hricik, Mount Pleasant, and Amanda C. Duré of Pangia Law Group, Washington D.C. (for the plaintiff)   This was a 42 USC 1983 civil rights lawsuit brought against the Columbia Housing Authority on behalf of the family of Calvin J. Witherspoon, Jr. who died from carbon monoxide poisoning on Jan. 17, 2019, at the Allen Benedict Court Apartments in Columbia. The poisoning was caused by a fuel-fired furnace in the Columbia Housing Authority complex. The Columbia fire chief’s investigation noted that there were no carbon monoxide detectors in any unit as was required by the city and state fire codes and that the death was entirely preventable through regular furnace maintenance. The investigation also revealed more than 869 code violations, including faulty and missing smoke detectors, exposed wires, stoves leaking natural gas and expired fire extinguishers. The conditions resulted in the fire chief ordering the evacuation of all tenants as the conditions, “constituted a clear and imminent threat to human life, safety, or health.” The housing authority subsequently razed the property. Plaintiff alleged that the authority acted with “deliberate indifference to the risk of harm” in its maintenance of the complex, including failing to install carbon monoxide alarms as required by law, resulting in Witherspoon’s death. The District Court dismissed the case in August 2021 on grounds that included the authority didn’t have actual knowledge of a prior carbon monoxide leak and found no constitutional rights violation. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit on an appeal, stating: “At bottom, the facts alleged in this case shock the conscience: a public housing authority’s deliberate indifference to a risk of harm that threatened numerous families living in low-income housing. What is more, two men died because of that indifference, several more were hospitalized, and an entire community was evacuated. Substantive due process exists as the ‘last line of defense’ against such official abuses of power that are so arbitrary as to shock the conscience of the court.” After the Appeals Court’s decision, the parties entered settlement negotiations. An agreement was reached that the authority’s insurer would pay the remainder of its policy of $400,000 and the authority would pay $1.6 million.

Prisoner denied treatment for infectious abscess; $950,000 verdict

Action: Jail neglect Injuries alleged: Large hole in skull, headaches, short-term memory loss and mild aphasia; noneconomic damages include past pain Case name: Rhoads vs. Aiken County Detention Center Court/case no.: Aiken County Court of Common Pleas / 2020-CP-02-02238 Judge: Eugene Griffith Demand: $50,000 early in the case; $125,000 by time of trial Highest offer: $20,000 Amount: $950,000 Date: Oct. 13, 2023 Attorneys: Francis "Brink" Hinson of HHP Law Group, Columbia, and Patrick McLaughlin of Wukela Law Firm, Florence (for the plaintiff); Andrew Lindemann of Lindemann Law Firm, Columbia (for the defendant)   Plaintiff was 28 when she was held at the Aiken County Detention Center as a repeat offender for relatively minor crimes (shoplifting and bad checks) and more serious ones (burglary and drug distribution). A few days into her detention, she complained of a growing “bump” on the side of her head. For the next three weeks, plaintiff repeatedly complained about the bump and reported that it had grown larger and become very painful. Several witnesses (both detainees and guards) testified that the swollen area on the side of plaintiff’s head eventually grew to be as large as grapefruit. Although plaintiff was seen numerous times by the jail’s medical staff, the health care professionals simply prescribed pain medications and treated the swollen place as if it was related to a minor trauma. Not receiving medical care, plaintiff lodged a “peaceful protest” during recreation time and said that she would not return to her cell and would only go to a hospital. The jail’s staff responded by treating this peaceful protest as barricading and placed her in solitary confinement. About 26 days after the “bump” on her head was first noticed and about 14 days after it had become shockingly large, plaintiff lost consciousness and was finally taken to a local hospital where a tremendous infectious abscess on the side of her head was diagnosed. The abscess was so large and had been there so long that it had destroyed a large section of plaintiff's skull, invaded her brain and caused a right-to-left shift of the brain. Claims against the medical staff were settled before trial. The sheriff’s office primary defense position was essentially, “The correctional officers have the right to rely on our third-party medical staff.” Plaintiff’s response was that a prisoner with an obviously serious, worsening medical condition should be taken to the hospital regardless of what medical staff members say.