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Matthew D. Kaplan

Last week the retired sheriff of Norfolk, Virginia was arrested and charged with numerous counts of bribery, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper reports Robert McCabe is accused “of taking cash, a loan, travel, gifts and campaign contributions from contractors providing food and medical care at the city jail” over the course nearly a quarter-century as the county’s chief law enforcement officer.

Along with the former sheriff, the founder of a Tennessee company that is part of the private prison and prison services industry was also arrested. The Post reports the Norfolk contract for prison medical services “was worth more than $3 million a year” and the company in question, Correct Care Solutions (now known as Wellpath), “continues to provide medical care at the Norfolk jail.” In exchange for the bribes the sheriff allegedly negotiated with Correct Care’s founder outside normal channels “and instructed employees to give his company inside information on potential contracts, including confidential bids from competitors”

This case caught my eye for two reasons. First, it is yet another example of what is wrong with our system of contracting prison management out to private corporations. Prisons are an unpleasant part of life, but they are also a public trust. It is essential that they be run in both a humane and accountable way, something that is fundamentally at odds with placing management or essential services – such as medical care – in the hands of companies primarily interested in making profits.

A recent article in the Salem Statesman-Journal draws attention to infant deaths, an area where decades of government and private education efforts have both shown dramatic progress and encountered stubborn resistance.

The paper notes that “every year, about 40 babies in Oregon go to sleep and never wake up… deaths can be traced to negligence, substance abuse and unsafe sleep practices. But deaths from dangerous sleeping arrangements – one of the leading causes of infant mortality in Oregon – are preventable.”

The good news is that compared to the rest of the nation Oregon’s infant death rate is relatively low. A chart on the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) website (see link below) places both Oregon and Washington in the second-lowest tier for infant deaths nationwide, between 72.1 and 86.8 per 100,000 live births from 2013 to 2017. That puts both states below the national average of 100.5 per 100,000 (the lowest rates are in Vermont and Washington DC, both at 37.4; Alabama had the highest rate at 189.2)

An incident in Colorado, recently recounted by The Oregonian, offers striking insight into the culture of neglect in our prisons and the important role our courts must play in ensuring justice is done.

On the night of July 31, 2018, the newspaper reports, an inmate at a county jail in Denver “gave birth to her son alone in her cell without medical supervision or treatment, despite repeatedly telling the jail’s staff that she was having contractions, according to a federal lawsuit.” The paper reports that the entire incident was “captured on surveillance video.” Yet, astonishingly, “an internal investigation by the Denver Sheriff’s Department cleared its deputies of wrongdoing.”

To call this appalling is an understatement. As I noted in a blog last March, an 8-1 Supreme court ruling dating all the way back to 1976 (Estelle v Gamble) clearly established the right of prisoners to adequate medical care. The court wrote that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” falls under the constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The horrific death of a cyclist in New York City earlier this month – a moment captured on video – has brought attention to the way police there and in many other parts of the country treat fatalities brought about by reckless driving.

The New York Times reports that an 18-year-old man has been arrested and charged with manslaughter in the death of a 52-year-old cyclist in Brooklyn earlier this month. Barreling through a red light at high speed, the driver slammed into an SUV that was passing legally through the intersection. The force of the impact flung the SUV caddy-corner across the intersection directly into a cyclist who was patiently waiting for the red light to change on the opposite corner. The entire incident was captured on a dashcam video by another car waiting at the corner where the bike rider died. (Note: the first paragraph of The New York Times story below includes a link to the video. Be warned that it is extremely graphic and unsettling)

The newspaper reports that “bicycle advocates want stronger laws, as well as a cultural change similar to the one around drunken driving.” The question, at its root, is when reckless or negligent behavior crosses the line into criminality. The paper notes that “drivers who cause fatalities are almost never criminally charged, unless there are aggravating circumstances… running a red light is almost never considered reckless driving” even in a case like this where doing so leads to someone’s death.

I first used this space to talk about the importance of life jackets and water safety back in 2016. That’s when a charity I actively support – the Aaron Peters Water Safety fund – set up a free life jacket kiosk in Gresham’s Oxbow Park, near the Sandy River. The fund is named for a 13-year-old boy who drowned in the Sandy River in 2015. It seeks to prevent similar tragedies by making life vests easily available for free to anyone wanting or needing to borrow one.

Sadly, The Oregonian, this week, brings word of another tragedy on the river. The newspaper reports that “the body of a 15-year-old boy who disappeared while wading… in the Sandy River at Oxbow Regional Park was recovered” on Monday. The paper quotes a spokesman for the Gresham fire department who “said the teen was wading in about knee-deep water when he went under at a drop-off in the river.”

This tragedy is a reminder on several levels of just how easily and how quickly something can go wrong around the water. The fact that the victim was not a small child but, rather a teenager, and that the fatal accident began in water that was only knee-deep are troubling reminders that even situations that seem simple and safe can quickly turn deadly. It is especially tragic that the accident took place close to an Aaron Peters Fund safety kiosk. As the TV station KGW noted in a report (see link below) the kiosk is still in place and is being properly maintained and stocked.

A tragedy and a near-tragedy on the other side of the country offer important reminders of a problem that recurs every summer: hot car deaths.

According to The New York Times twin one-year-olds died in the Bronx late last month after their father forgot to drop them off at day care. They were left in the backseat of his car while he worked an entire eight hour shift at a VA hospital. A few days later an off-duty firefighter in the neighboring New York City borough of Queens saved a four-year-old boy by smashing the window of a car in a shopping center parking lot.

According to the website Gothamist, the father in the latter incident later told police that he had only been inside the store for fifteen minutes. That highlights one of the key issues with hot car deaths – something that we all cannot be reminded about too many times: “A car can heat up 19 degrees in just 10 minutes. And cracking a window doesn’t help,” as the website SafeKids notes. Younger children, such as the twins in the Bronx, are at particular risk because “their bodies heat up three to five times faster than an adult’s.”

Two articles published last month in The Oregonian should be drawing our attention to safety issues for pedestrians on Portland’s streets.

Earlier this week the newspaper reported that “more than one-quarter of the pedestrians killed on Portland streets during the last five years were 65 years or older, according to city figures.” It notes that this represents “a dramatic increase from levels seen in recent years.” This followed an article earlier in the month that detailed a rise in traffic deaths in the city even as numbers are falling statewide.

The data related to deaths among elderly pedestrians is particularly alarming. The newspaper writes that roughly 12 percent of Portland’s population is age 65 or older, yet people in this age group account for 16 percent of overall traffic deaths and a shocking 26 percent of pedestrian fatalities. Critically, this is not a short-term anomaly. Those numbers cover the four-and-a-half year period beginning in January 2015, a time-frame during which the city says it has been actively working to reduce traffic fatalities, especially among pedestrians and cyclists. The article also notes that since 2010 more elderly Portlanders “died walking (28) than while driving or in a motor vehicle (23).”

One might have thought that buses – some of the largest vehicles navigating Portland’s streets on a day-to-day basis – are fairly hard to miss. TriMet, however, is experimenting with bright rooftop lights designed to make them easier to see, according to The Oregonian. “The transit agency quietly rolled out the ‘amber safety lights’ in April and, so far, 30 buses are equipped with the light bar. It’s considering installing the devices on all its buses,” the newspaper reports.

The Oregonian, citing TriMet data, writes that “buses log roughly 73,300 miles on a daily basis. In April, TriMet registered 49 collisions involving buses, 25 of which were non-injury crashes involving cars or trucks.” Put another way, that means that TriMet is averaging almost one injury crash per day systemwide. Portland is a large city and there is always going to be a human element involved, but a system in which someone gets hurt every day clearly has more safety work to do.

So, at a basic level, we should all welcome any effort by TriMet to cut its accident rate. The newspaper’s article reports that the lights on the busses are extremely hard to miss, and notes that the cost of installing then is relatively slight – less than $500 per vehicle. Considering the number of bus accidents I have reported on in this blog over the years we can probably all agree that anything which improves safety is a good thing.

An annual report compiled by Allstate insurance on driving safety across the nation has good and bad news for Portland, according to The Oregonian. The good news is that Portland jumped nine spots in the company’s ranking of driving safety in 200 American cities. The bad news is that still left us in 181stplace.

The newspaper notes that this also puts Portland “dead last among the largest cities in the Pacific Northwest based on the insurance agency’s analysis of crash frequency based on claims submitted. According to the rankings, the average Portland driver is involved in a crash every seven years, the average Seattle driver experiences a crash every 7.7 years. The average driver in Boise, which ranked second overall in the nation for safest drivers, was involved in a crash every 13.7 years. The national average is one crash every 10.6 years.” The survey identified Brownsville, Texas as the safest American city for drivers. Baltimore occupied last-place on the Allstate table.

The two other cities in the survey received notably better rankings than Portland. Eugene is number 34 on the list. Salem is number 102. Interestingly, Vancouver, Washington – just across the river from Portland – has a substantially better, if still less than stellar, ranking of 114.

As many of us prepared for this July 4 holiday week the Oregon legislature passed a key bike safety measure and sent it to Governor Kate Brown. As outlined by The Oregonian, Senate Bill 998 will “allow bicyclists to legally treat stop signs or intersections with flashing red signals as a yield sign, meaning they would not be required to come to a complete stop.”

The paper notes that similar legislation has been effect in Idaho for more than three decades and that that the measure has long been pushed by bike advocates in our state. By allowing cyclists to maintain momentum in situations where it is safe to do so it will improve the general flow of traffic on our roads and bike paths, and reduce the risk of falls at intersections for riders using clip-in pedals.

Crucially, SB 998 is not a license for riders to ignore stop signs. As The Oregonian reports, the bill says cyclists need not come to a complete stop only “as long as they slow to a safe speed, yield the right of way to pedestrians, and yield to traffic that is already in the intersection or approaching so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.”

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email: matthew@mdkaplanlaw.com
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