Let's take a look at another lawsuit the government cited in its case against Mississippi Supreme Court justice Oliver Diaz.
The Paul Minor case involved an attorney and three judges from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, so it's not surprising that some of the underlying lawsuits involve oil rigs, ships, barges, and such.
Accu-Fab v. Richard Ladner, 778 So. 2d 766 (2001) was one such case. Keep in mind that the Accu-Fab case was central to the government's corruption case against Diaz.
One absurdity strikes even the casual observer right off the bat. Diaz did not participate in hearing the case. He recused himself, evidently because Paul Minor represented the heirs of Richard Ladner and Minor had helped secure loans for Diaz. Evidently thinking this could call his impartiality into question, Diaz did not participate. And apparently no evidence was presented that Diaz sought to influence the other justices.
So what was the government thinking by using Accu-Fab in an attempt to show that Diaz acted corruptly? One can only wonder. But even if Diaz had participated, it would be hard to see where the case was wrongly decided, and that's why it's worth our while to check out Accu-Fab. (Plus, I just find these sea-related cases fascinating; guess that comes from watching Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt as a kid.)
Ladner was working as a subcontractor's employee on the roof of a casino barge when he fell through a hole in the roof and later died from his injuries. A jury awarded his heirs $2 million in damages against the general contractor and another of its subcontractors. The Mississippi Court of Appeals first reversed and then affirmed the lower-court ruling. The contractors appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which also upheld the ruling.
Several contractors and subcontractors were involved, which makes things complicated. But here's the gist: A subcontractor was hired to construct the stairwells and stringers on the barge and had requested that the general contractor not install roof decking until the stairs had been installed. Due to time constraints, the general contractor denied the request and went ahead with the roof decking. The subcontractor received permission to cut a hole in the roof in order to facilitate installation of the stairway.
The hole was cut on a Saturday, and the job was supposed to be completed by the end of the weekend. But the prefabricated stairway did not fit properly, so the subcontractor could not complete installation and took the stairway back to its shop for refabrication. Neither the subcontrator nor the contractor placed any warning signs or barricades around the hole. They did nothing to cover the hole in the roof.
On the following Monday morning, Ladner (an iron worker) fell through the hole in the roof and later died of his injuries. Ladner's heirs sued, seeking compensation for his death.
There was little question of liability, and the case mostly involved the contractor and various subcontractors trying to blame one another. The jury wound up attributing 70 percent fault to the contractor, 25 percent to the subcontractor, and 5 percent to Ladner.
An interesting side note: When Ladner was taken to the hospital, a nurse mistakenly thought he was an employee of the contractor and ordered a drug test. It came back positive, and a marijuana cigarette was found in Ladner's pocket at the time of the fall. The trial court excluded the drug evidence because there was no foundation showing that Ladner was actually impaired at the time of the fall. The Supreme Court affirmed on this and all other counts.
Evidence of negligence in Accu-Fab was overwhelming, so even if Diaz had participated in the case, it's hard to imagine how the government hoped to prove corruption based on this case.
The weakness of the case against Diaz borders on the absurd. And we have shown that the cases against attorney Paul Minor and judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield also do not hold up well under scrutiny.
But those are not the only factors that raise questions about the government's prosecution in Mississippi. Was this a "political hit," similar to what appears to have happened with the Don Siegelman case in Alabama? Were the Minor defendants targeted by a Republican-led justice department not because they were corrupt but because they had Democratic leanings? Will Congress include this case in its investigation into selective prosecution by the Bush Justice Department?
We will turn our attention soon to some other interesting questions raised by the Paul Minor case.