Monday, March 19, 2012

Finding a Lawyer Online – The Case of Shpoonkle

Increasingly, third party companies are creating websites offering their service in matching consumers with an attorney, often with the promise of finding the cheapest attorney available. The question becomes, are these online services good for the consumer, the potential client, and for the lawyer and the legal profession as a whole?
As opposed to a law firm’s website, which may offer information about the firm, the lawyers and the type of practices areas the firm handles and which may also allow individuals to submit information in confidence to the firm to be reviewed by an attorney, online services such as “Shpoonkle” work on the reverse auction model. Under this method, an individual seeking an attorney becomes a member of the website, posts information about his or her case, and the lawyers, who are also members of the website, review the facts of the case and “bid” against other lawyers to offer the lowest rates. The lowest bidding “winning” lawyer is then presented to the consumer.
Rather than meeting face to face as part of the traditional process of hiring a lawyer, websites such as Shpoonkle put the entire process online without allowing face to face meetings or talking on the telephone.  Additionally, Shpoonkle makes it so that lawyers reviewing the case are not given identifiable information about the individual and the individual is not given identifiable information about the lawyer or his or her firm. Unlike specifically contacting a firm to determine if you want them to be your lawyer, no one really knows who someone is until the deal is sealed and the attorney-client match is made.
Shpoonkle and similar lawyer-client matching services were recently discussed by Mark DuBois, the former chief disciplinary counsel for Connecticut, who raised several important ethical concerns for lawyers and practical concerns for clients. For instance, with anonymous bidding system, how can the attorney fulfill his or her duty to do a conflict check? What if an attorney begins an attorney-client relationship, only to find out the individual has interests adverse to an existing client? Similarly, from the individual’s perspective, what if you divulge sensitive information to the anonymous prospective lawyer, only to learn that he or she cannot keep you as a client because of a conflict?
Other commentary on Shpoonkle has ranged from complimentary, with blogger Susan Cartier Liebel calling Shpoonkle’s creator “innovative, entrepreneurial,” and well known blogger Jolie O’Dell of Venturebeat saying it is a “great idea,” to a more neutral review from the American Bar Association Journal, describing it as “no joke.” Amplifying DuBois’ concerns, however, criminal defense attorney Scott H. Greenfield wrote in his blog that “Any lawyer who signs up for this service should be immediately disbarred, then tarred and feathered, then publicly humiliated,” and he went on to express his concerns over the commoditization of the legal profession.

Questions or Comments? Contact Jared Cantor.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What Type of Automobile Insurance Coverage Should I Carry?

            There are many different variables to consider when purchasing automobile insurance.  The minimum insurance limits in the State of Connecticut for motor vehicle liability coverage is $20,000 per person and $40,000 per occurrence.  Essentially, this means that if you are responsible for causing an accident, the most any one person can collect from the bodily injury portion of your insurance coverage is $20,000 and the most any number of claimants could recover from one accident is $40,000.   Of course, how much insurance to carry is a personal choice and will be governed by financial considerations as well as recommendations from your insurance agent or broker.
            In terms of the amount of coverage, one has to consider what type of protection is needed to cover personal assets.  Also, some individuals feel more secure having a larger policy, with for example, a $300,000 or higher limit.  Surprisingly, an extra $100 or $200 in annual premiums may correlate to $200,000 in additional liability coverage.  Furthermore, limits for underinsured and uninsured motorist coverage may be crucial if a claim ever needs to be made.  Generally speaking, most insurance agents will write the same amount of coverage for this portion of your policy that is written for liability limits.  Nevertheless, you may ask for higher limits of uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) protection.  If you are injured in an accident that is the fault of an uninsured driver or one with low limits of coverage, it is important to have sufficient protection on your own policy. 
            Two other factors should be addressed when buying a policy.  First, one should consider conversion coverage.  This is an option that, in effect, “stacks” your policy onto that of a tortfeasor (another party who causes an accident) in which you or someone covered under your policy is injured.    In other words, if someone at fault has insurance coverage that is not inadequate to pay your fair just and reasonable damages for injuries which have been sustained, conversion coverage allows you to place your underinsured motorist coverage on top of the responsible party’s coverage regardless of what your limit of underinsured motorist coverage may be.  This is in contrast to the typical scenario whereby you would only be able to collect that amount of underinsured motorist coverage which is in excess of the tortfeasor’s policy.  Second, a decision should be made as to whether or not to purchase medical payments coverage.  Regardless of fault, medical payments coverage will pay for medical treatment necessarily incurred as a result of a motor vehicle accident.  This is generally an inexpensive add-on to your policy, but can be very useful if you do not otherwise have health insurance, or, alternatively, have high deductibles and co-pays for doctor’s visits.

Questions or comments?  Contact Attorney Bruce Newman at

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Fatal Impact of Statutes of Limitations

One Connecticut woman found out the hard way that legal time limitations can make or break a case.

In 2003, and again in 2008, Jennie Finkle sued the Town of Watertown and several police officers in connection with the death of her daughter, Barbara Eckert. On September 29, 2002, Barbara was murdered by Mark Tannenbaum, her estranged ex-boyfriend and father of one of her children. The murder came after a lengthy period of domestic violence and a series of run-ins with the Watertown police. After another violent disturbance on September 28, 2002, Tannenbaum was released from custody by the police and almost immediately returned to Barbara’s residence where he murdered her and then killed himself.   Barbara’s mother sued several police offers and the City of Waterbury in civil court for damages, but, because the wrong officers were sued, the original suit was withdrawn and the operative suit was not brought until November 6, 2008. 

The procedural miscalculation occurred when the original case was withdrawn rather than dismissed. This withdrawal made it so that the Eckert could not bring suit under Connecticut’s “wrong party” statute, Conn. Gen. Stat. 52-593, which would have enabled her to overcome the two year statute of limitation issue.

On September 17, 2010, the trial court ruled that even though Finkle’s original action, which was brought in 2003, well within the two year statute of limitations contained in Conn. Gen. Stat. 52-555, the operative case, which was brought in 2008, was barred by the statute of limitations. Finkle appealed the decision, and on Monday, March 12, 2008, the Connecticut Appellate court, in a 3-0 decision, upheld the trial court’s ruling that the suit was filed after the operative two year statute of limitation, and therefore, Finkle was not eligible to pursue negligence claims against the defendants. It is unclear whether Finkle and her attorneys will seek to have the case heard by the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Monday, March 5, 2012

As a Homeowner in Connecticut, You Have the Right to Deny Zoning Enforcement Officers Entry onto Your Property

Many Americans are aware of their right to refuse law enforcement officials’ request to enter onto their property or into their homes.  If you refuse them entry, the law requires law enforcement officers to seek a warrant from a judge based on “probable cause,” except in limited emergency circumstances.
Recently, the Connecticut Supreme Court was presented with the question of what happens when a town’s zoning enforcement officer demands to specifically search a homeowner’s property for evidence of zoning violations and the homeowner refuses.  In that case, released February 14, 2012, and discussed in the Connecticut Law Tribune, the homeowners had refused to allow onto their property the zoning enforcement officer for the Town of Bozrah, who had been specifically instructed to search their property for unregistered motor vehicles and “other junk.”
In reaching its decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court took the principles underlying the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution one step further, requiring that, when a homeowner denies a zoning enforcement official’s request to search their property, that official must then seek a court order (warrant) allowing them onto the property and the court, in reviewing such a request, must abide by a specific standard.  Specifically, the state Supreme Court held that “before a court may issue an order permitting a zoning enforcement officer to enter and search a particular property, there must be a preliminary showing of facts within the knowledge of the zoning officer and of which the officer has reasonably trustworthy information that are sufficient to cause a reasonable person to believe that conditions constituting a violation of the zoning ordinances are present on the subject property.”
In short, the zoning enforcement officer must respect a homeowner’s refusal to allow the officer onto their property and a court, before ordering a homeowner to allow the officer onto the property, must be certain that the officer has trustworthy and factually specific information that there is a zoning violation on the property, rather than a mere suspicion or a desire to conduct a ‘fishing expedition’ on a homeowner’s property.

Questions or Comments? Contact Jared Cantor.