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Choisnet v. The State

The Supreme Court of Georgia has unanimously upheld the life prison sentence given to a Chatham County man found guilty but mentally ill of stabbing to death his 83-year-old father.

On March 5, 2007, 57-year-old Fredrick Choisnet, Jr. stabbed his elderly father multiple times, using steak knives, carving forks and broken coffee mugs. Police found Fredrick Choisnet, Sr. in a fetal position in the blood-spattered kitchen of his home on Leeds Gate Road. The elder Choisnet told police, "the boy tried to kill me." He later died at Memorial University Medical Center from more than 200 sharp and blunt force injuries that caused him to bleed to death. He had also been strangled.

Choisnet, Jr. had a history of mental illness dating back to when he was 20 years old and hospitalized in a psychiatric institution in Long Island, NY. Over the years, he was in and out of mental hospitals. At one time he made a threat against President Bill Clinton, and he was diagnosed at different times with bipolar disorder with psychotic features, major depression, schizophrenia, and alcohol dependency. Six weeks before the murder, Choisnet, Jr. was involuntarily committed for being a danger to others after expressing thoughts about killing his father and experiencing paranoia and auditory hallucinations.

The younger Choisnet's sister, Jheri Galbreath, was a registered nurse and testified she suspected her brother had recently quit taking his medications based on his bizarre behavior. Choisnet's father told her that Choisnet had been drinking his own urine. (Family members later found nearly 50 prescription pills hidden in a bed.) The day before the murder, Galbreath went to the family's home out of concern for her father. She testified that her brother was wearing his shirt inside out and his underwear over his pants, and he was dragging the dog around the house by a rope around its neck. That night, after trying unsuccessfully to convince her brother to go to the hospital, Galbreath called 911. But the responding officer did not deem Choisnet's strange behavior an immediate threat that qualified for involuntary commitment.

The next day, after stabbing his father, Choisnet, Jr. called 911 and said his father had attacked him with a kitchen knife. When police arrived, Choisnet was acting "extremely erratic" and said, "I think he may have killed my real father." Later that day at the hospital, he told a police officer his father had attacked him with the phone. However, his only injury appeared to be a bloodied hand he had wrapped in a rag, officers testified, and there were no indications he had been hit with a phone.

Choisnet, Jr. pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His lawyers claimed he suffered from mental illness that made him unable to distinguish between right and wrong and that caused him to believe his father was planning to kill him and his mother. At trial, while the defense presented a clinical psychologist who testified Choisnet may have experienced a psychotic break and could have been delusional, the State presented the expert testimony of a forensic psychologist who said Choisnet was aware of his actions, was not delusional, and knew right from wrong. As a result, that expert reasoned, Choisnet, Jr. did not meet the criteria for not guilty by reason of insanity, but he did meet the criteria for guilty but mentally ill.

On Sept. 2, 2010, the jury found Choisnet guilty but mentally ill of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, elder abuse and possession of a knife in the commission of the crime. He was sentenced to life in prison plus five years on probation. The state Supreme Court had earlier remanded his case to the trial court when the case first came up on appeal, due to an error by the trial court in denying Choisnet's motion requesting a new trial. On remand, the trial court used the correct legal standard but again denied Choisnet's motion for new trial, and for a second time, Choisnet appealed his convictions and sentence to the Supreme Court, arguing the trial court made several errors in instructing the jury, including in its instructions on the insanity defense.

In today's unanimous opinion, written by Justice Carol Hunstein, the state Supreme Court has rejected all his contentions. Under Georgia law, the defense of insanity may be established if shown that at the time of the crime, the defendant either could not tell the difference between right and wrong, or he had a mental disease that caused "a delusional compulsion as to such act which overmastered his will to resist committing the crime."

In this case, "the evidence is far from clear as to whether Choisnet acted as the result of any delusional compulsion," the opinion says. "Though there is no dispute that Choisnet suffers from serious mental illness and there was some evidence indicating that Choisnet feared his father would kill him and his mother, not even Choisnet's own expert was willing to testify to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that he was actually delusional at the time he stabbed, beat, and strangled his father."

"Thus, even with proper instruction as to what type of delusional belief would constitute sufficient legal justification to commit murder, it is unlikely the jury would have reached a different verdict."

Attorney for Appellant (Choisnet): Steven Sparger

Attorneys for Appellee (State): Margaret Ellen Heap, District Attorney, Shalena Jones, Asst. D.A., Isabel Pauley, Asst. D.A., Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Beth Burton, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Andrew Sims, Asst. A.G.



In a 5-to-2 ruling, the Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed the decisions of two lower courts and ruled that homeowners in Effingham County are not entitled to bring a class-action lawsuit against a company they claim continues to release harmful hydrogen sulfide gas.

With today's majority opinion, the high court has reversed a ruling by the Georgia Court of Appeals and found that the homeowners failed to meet the requirements under state law to qualify as a class.

"We conclude that the trial court abused its discretion when it certified the class, and we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals," Justice Keith Blackwell writes for the majority.

For nearly 30 years, Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products LP has operated the Savannah River Mill which includes more than 100 acres of sludge fields into which Georgia Pacific puts the solid waste generated by the Mill. On Dec. 10, 2010, four homeowners – Kirbi and Aaron Ratner, and David and Kathy McDonald – who lived in a residential neighborhood known as Mallard Pointe, sued Georgia-Pacific for nuisance, trespass, and negligence over the natural release of hydrogen sulfide gas from the Mill's sludge fields. They alleged that due to contamination caused by the gas, they have been exposed to noxious odors, their use of their property has been impaired, and the value of their property has diminished. The homeowners sought permission to make theirs a class-action lawsuit, and asked the court to certify a class consisting of the owners of 65 additional properties neighboring the plant. Following a hearing, the trial court certified the class, finding that it met the requirements of Official Code of Georgia § 9-11-23. According to the statute, people may sue as representative parties on behalf of a larger group only if: (1) the class is so numerous that including all members in the suit would be impractical; (2) there are common questions of law or fact among the members; (3) the claims of the representative parties are typical of the claims of the class; and (4) the representative parties will fairly protect the interests of the class. Georgia-Pacific appealed the lower court's ruling, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by certifying the class. The Court of Appeals, however, upheld the ruling, finding that the trial court's definition of the class "is unambiguous and the members of the class are readily identifiable from public records." Under the statute, "a class action is authorized if the members of the class share a common right and common questions of law or fact predominate over individual questions of law or fact," the appellate court ruled. Georgia-Pacific then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Under today's opinion, the high court finds the Court of Appeals was wrong because the homeowners failed to meet the second requirement under the law, which requires proof of common questions of law or fact.

"Upon our review of the record, we conclude that the plaintiffs failed to come forward with evidence sufficient to show the commonality of the particular class that was certified," the majority opinion says. "Because commonality is lacking, the trial court abused its discretion when it certified the class, and the Court of Appeals should have reversed the certification."

To show commonality, "not just any ‘common' questions will do," the opinion says. "Commonality depends on the presence of a particular sort of ‘common' question, and simply reciting a list of questions that are ‘common' in another sense contributes nothing to the commonality inquiry." To establish the sort of commonality that Official Code of Georgia § 9-11-23 requires, the homeowners had to show "that the class members have suffered the same injury," the majority states. "To do so, the plaintiffs had to point to a ‘common contention' that each member of the class had suffered the same instance or course of wrongful conduct, and the plaintiffs had to show that this ‘common contention' ‘is capable of class-wide resolution – which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.'"

In this case, the opinion states, the homeowners pointed to a "common contention" that "might properly form the basis for a finding of commonality, namely that their properties were contaminated with hydrogen sulfide gas released from the sludge fields at the Mill. But pointing to a ‘common contention' is only the first step," the majority opinion says. "The plaintiffs also had to show that this ‘common contention' is ‘capable of class-wide resolution' with respect to the particular class that the trial court certified. And that is where they came up short."

"We do not find in the record evidence by which the plaintiffs might be able to prove on a class-wide basis that the entire area by which the class was defined, in fact, was contaminated with hydrogen sulfide gas from the sludge fields," the opinion says. "There is, for instance, no scientific evidence of the amounts of gas released from the sludge fields, no evidence of the rate of release, no evidence of the extent to which the amounts released and rates of release varied over time, and no evidence of exactly how the gas would be expected to move through the air upon its release." And while the record contains some anecdotal evidence of hydrogen sulfide gas in some areas around the Mill, "this anecdotal evidence is not enough to satisfy a rigorous analysis with respect to the commonality of the particular class that the trial court satisfied."

Nevertheless, today's opinion says, "[n]o one should misunderstand us to say that commonality never can be shown in the context of environmental mass torts, that it cannot be shown in this case, or even that it cannot be shown in this case as to the class as the trial court defined it. It certainly is conceivable that the plaintiffs might show the requisite commonality of that class or another. But if the plaintiffs are to satisfy the commonality requirement, they have some more work to do."

In a brief concurrence, Justice Harold Melton writes that in addition to failing to meet the commonality requirement, "certification of the class in this case would be inappropriate due to a lack of typicality." "The named plaintiffs in this case have not been shown to be typical of the claims or defense of the proposed class, as its members own different tracts of land subjected to varying uses and located at different distances and directions from the sludge fields in question."

In a dissent, Justice Carol Hunstein writes the majority has failed to sufficiently defer to the trial court's determination in certifying the class. "As this Court has noted, ‘trial judges have broad discretion in deciding whether to certify a class.'" Here, the trial court conducted a "rigorous analysis" and concluded "that common issues, typical of those faced across the class, would predominate over issues of an individualized nature." The trial court was "well within its discretion in finding the commonality requirement to have been satisfied," says the dissent, which is joined by Justice Robert Benham. "The plaintiffs have raised a number of common issues with regard to establishing Georgia-Pacific's liability, including Georgia-Pacific's operations at the Savannah River Mill, its waste disposal practices, and its safety program; the type and concentration of chemicals emitted from the Mill and sludge fields; and the properties and toxicity of hydrogen sulfide and its capacity to cause property damage and ill health effects. The resolution of all of these issues will depend on the same evidence, no matter the class member." Similarly, the dissent says, "the trial court appropriately found that the typicality requirement has been satisfied." "In short, the evidence supported the plaintiffs' proposed class definition, and the majority is wrong to conclude otherwise." The dissent points out, however, "that the majority's opinion expressly contemplates the possibility that the plaintiffs here could still, with additional evidence, establish the existence of a sustainable class. It thus remains to be seen whether this case will move forward as a class action."

Attorneys for Appellant (Georgia-Pacific): David Hudson, William Keogh, III, R. Clay Raterree, Tracy Ann O'Connell

Attorneys for Appellee (Ratner): John Bell, Jr., Benjamin Perkins, Timothy Roberts, Melissa Bailey

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