2014 Southern California Law Trends

Concern over pedestrian fatalities keeps the City of Angels on alert, while debate rages over a new minimum wage and a defamation lawsuit over ‘American Hustle,’ and a surrogacy divorce nightmare fuel gossip fires.

Halloween Pedestrian Tragedies Spur Change

On Halloween weekend, Los Angeles received yet another devastating reminder of how dangerous it is to walk or bike in the city. 

Three 13-year-old girls — a pair of twins and their friend — were struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while trick-or-treating. The girls had just left the Fairhaven Apartment complex, where they lived. The twins wore face paint and carried plastic pumpkin baskets. Their friend was dressed as a skeleton and carried a pillowcase to fill with candy. They were passing through the crosswalk on four-laned Fairhaven Avenue, when they were hit by a speeding Honda CR-V that fled the scene. All three girls died instantly.

About 30 minutes later, 10 miles away in Irvine, a 65-year-old man was trick-or-treating with his 4-year-old son when they were hit by a woman driving a Mazda. The man died from his injuries; his son remained, at the time of this reporting, in critical condition. The woman stayed at the scene and has cooperated with police while they continue to investigate the accident.

The day after Halloween, in Anaheim, a 44-year-old woman riding a bicycle was struck by a driver in a white pick-up truck in another hit-and-run incident. The woman later died of her injuries at the hospital.

These accidents highlight the lethal car-centric culture that has kept Los Angeles at or near the top of nationwide pedestrian death statistics for years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s most recent report, the city ranked second to New York City for the most pedestrian deaths in the country in 2012. The state of California counted the highest number of pedestrian deaths that year, with a total of 612. Texas ranked a distant second with 478 deaths.

During the last decade, Los Angeles has made an effort to make its streets more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. Parking spaces have become small parks, street corners have become plazas, and bike lanes have appeared on many streets.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is also considering a controversial diagonal crosswalk design that would further curb motorists. The crosswalks, also known as “pedestrian scrambles,” let people cross intersections on the diagonal. They are considered much safer than traditional crosswalks because all cars at an intersection must be stopped while people cross. For motorists, however, it means longer wait times at already-crowded intersections. Pedestrians can currently use diagonal crosswalks in Beverly Hills and Pasadena. Since the 1950s, LA has occasionally installed diagonal crosswalks at intersections only to remove them later, after extensive complaints from drivers.

For some neighborhoods, Halloween marks one of the only nights during which people walk down their streets and sidewalks. While diagonal crosswalks could bring more safety to areas with many pedestrians, the question of what measures would best ensure pedestrian safety at intersections like the one on Fairhaven Avenue remains unanswered. 

A New Minimum Wage?

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed gradually raising the Los Angeles minimum wage from $9 an hour to $13.25 an hour by 2017. On the same October day that Vice President Joe Biden put his support behind Garcetti’s plan, a committee of LA lawmakers proposed going a step further: raising the minimum wage to $15.25 by 2019. 

City Council members Curren Price, Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo, Mike Bonin, Paul Koretz and Paul Krekorian are requesting a study about how to accomplish the proposed wage hike.

“The 13.25 figure gets most families that are living underneath the poverty line just over the poverty line, but that’s still a precarious position,” City Council member Mike Bonin told the Los Angeles Times. “That is one parking ticket or moving violation away from economic catastrophe for some families. So we wanted to give an added boost.”

Garcetti later said that he supported the study to reach the higher wage. Yet some businessmen and industry groups contend that the wage hike will put small business owners out of business and lead to job loss. Some have argued that it will push businesses to move just outside the city limits and even lead to price increases.

Research by University of California-Berkeley economist Michael Reich — commissioned by Mayor Garcetti — in response to the $13.25 wage increase found that minimum wage increases had little effect on overall employment rates. Those who favor the increase have argued it will boost the local economy. “The economic cost of having so many low-wage workers is untenable for our city,” Garcetti has said. “We don’t have the spending and buying power that we need to see here.”

UC Berkeley research indicates that a minimum wage hike in Los Angeles would profoundly impact the city because of its significant number of low wage: A wage increase would affect about 567,000 LA residents. City council members aim to complete the study early in 2015 and hope to vote on the issue soon thereafter.

Writer Brings Defamation Suit Against “American Hustle”

It was one subtle line in a scene about a microwave in David O. Russell’s comedic drama, “American Hustle”. Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is defending her innocence after starting a fire in the new “science oven” that her husband, Irving (portrayed by Christian Bale) brought home. 

“I read that it takes all of the nutrition out of our food,” says Rosalyn, who has already been established as a compulsive liar. When Irving dismisses her comment, she continues: “I read it in an article. Look, by Paul Brodeur.” Reviewers raved over the scene, which exaggerates the characters’ confusion over 1970s cutting-edge microwave technology for a contemporary audience’s delight. 

Paul Brodeur, however, did not find it funny. Brodeur, a former staff writer and investigative reporter for The New Yorker wrote about the dangers of microwave radiation during his career. However he never wrote or said anything about a microwave taking nutrition out of food. He filed a defamation suit against the producers of the movie in October.

The movie, which is loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, never purports to be true. Before the opening scene, the film displays the message: “Some of this actually happened” — a wry twist on the traditional “based on a true story.”

In the lawsuit, Brodeur, now 82 and living in Tavernier, Fla., claims that he has been subject to ridicule in the scientific community as a result of the movie and that his reputation has suffered. In addition to $1 million in damages, he also seeks a court order to have his name removed from all copies of the film.

A Child Born Through Surrogacy Caught Up In Divorce

Sherri Shepherd, the actor, writer, and comedian who spent seven seasons as a host on The View, is involved in a bitter, complicated divorce with her husband, Lamar Sally. The twist: The couple had a baby born via a surrogate mother after the divorce was filed. Shepherd claims that Sally is using the child to blackmail her for money.

Shepherd and Sally both filed for divorce separately last May, citing irreconcilable differences after being married for three years. At the time, a surrogate mother was carrying their son, who was born in August in Pennsylvania. The child was Sally’s biological son — but not Shepherd’s — because they used an egg donor. Shepherd was not present for the boy’s birth.

When Sally filed for divorce, he requested full custody of the child. Shepherd claims that Sally only wanted the child in order to file for divorce, take custody, and receive child support payments from her. Sally, a TV writer, has been unemployed; meantime, Shepherd’s net worth is reported to be $10 million. 

Sally filed for divorce in California, a state that recognizes surrogacy-birth agreements. Shepherd filed for divorce in New Jersey, which doesn’t generally recognize such agreements. Questions arose over whether or not Shepherd would legally be considered a parent of the child.

In September, Sally rejected a $100,000 divorce settlement and $3,000 a month in child support. According to the gossip website Radar Online, Sally is requesting $10,000 a month in child support, and the couple is likely to go to trial. 

Shepherd already has a 9-year-old son with special needs from a previous marriage. After a lengthy legal battle with the child’s father, she finally won custody in July. 

New Laws Target Human Traffickers

In late September, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law three bills that aim to target child sex-trafficking. The bills are part of Los Angeles County’s “War on Child Sex Trafficking” legislative package. 

One bill proposed increased fines and penalties for anyone convicted of pimping or purchasing a child. The second bill authorizes the use of wiretapping to catch human traffickers. And a third bill allows victims to testify against traffickers in only one courtroom so they don’t have to face those that exploited them multiple times.

 “I am absolutely thrilled that Governor Brown has heard the voices of sex trafficking victims and signed these major bills into law,” Don Knabe, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman, said in a press release. “These new laws attach the economy of the child sex trade, on both the supply side as well as the demand side.”

According to the United Nations, human trafficking generates an estimated $9.5 billion in the United States. Los Angeles is one of three California cities (along with San Diego and San Francisco) that appear on the FBI’s list of the nation’s highest child sex trafficking locations.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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