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Justices Weigh Statute Toll In 'Honor Killing'
By Kathleen Baydala Joyner 
Daily Report
July 5, 2013

Photo of Fredric Chaiken and Donna Krusbe
Fredric Chaiken and Donna Krusbe argued for the child whose mother was the victim of an "honor killing." 
Rebecca Breye
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The convicted man's lawyer, William "Gere" Quinn III, argued before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday that the trial court erred in allowing the suit to go to a jury because the two-year statute of limitations for the wrongful death and pain and suffering claims had expired.


Lawyer's for the deceased woman's family argued that the statute of limitations were tolled because the wrongful death claim was made on behalf of a minor child who was abandoned by her father and because the killer's efforts to conceal his identity constituted fraud, which deterred the family from a timely filing for the pain and suffering claim.
"My client does not get a lot of sympathy, and I don't expect a lot of sympathy," Quinn told the justices during oral arguments. "But when you start bending the rules, as done in this case, you create a judicial debt that some other litigant someday is going to have to answer to."


The facts in the case before the Supreme Court read like a soap opera. Sparkle Reid-Rai, 22, was found dead in her home on April 26, 2000, having been strangled with a vacuum cleaner cord and stabbed. Her infant daughter, Analla, was found near her body. Only a month earlier she had married her child's father, Rajeeve "Ricky" Rai, who was at work at the time of her murder.


The case went cold for several years until a witness came forward and identified the killers, two brothers from Mississippi. Investigators tied the brothers to two other men, one of whom worked for Rajeeve Rai's father, Chiman Rai.
Chiman Rai was charged with the murder-for-hire plot, and at trial, prosecutors argued that the Indian-born hotelier ordered the killing of his daughter-in-law because he disapproved of his son's marriage to an African-American. He was convicted in June 2008 and sentenced to life in prison.


Following Sparkle Reid-Rai's death, her father, Bennet Reid Jr., adopted her child and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Chiman Rai in September 2008—eight years after the murder. Reid later amended the suit to claim wrongful death on behalf of the Reid-Rai's daughter and added the pain and suffering claim. The suit was tried before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Doris Downs. In May 2011, a jury ordered Chiman Rai to pay $2.6 million to the Reid family—$2.5 million for a wrongful death and $100,000 for pain and suffering.


The case was kicked up to the high court this spring after the state Court of Appeals failed to reach a majority consensus on whether to uphold the trial court's judgment. The appellate court issued a 6-6 decision in late March that indicated the central point of disagreement rested on whether the act of hiring hit men constituted a separate and distinct fraud required to pause the statute of limitations clock on the pain and suffering claim. The Court of Appeals seemed to agree that the tolling on the wrongful death claim was proper.


However, Quinn wants the high court to also examine the wrongful death finding because "it is way off base."
"It threatens a legal chaos in a wide variety of situations in which a representative, such as an estate trustee, makes a decision not to pursue litigation," Quinn said. "The case becomes time-barred and then, later, somebody says, 'Wait a minute. There was a minor who was not well represented by the parent, and under equity, we're going to transfer the cause of action to the minor and we're going to retroactively apply tolling to reinstate a dead case.'


Quinn's hypothetical prompted Justice David Nahmias to ask, "How do you know [tolling] was applied retroactively?" He continued, "It seems like the evidence supported the idea that the minor was basically abandoned by [her] father before the statute ran and so the trial court was entitled to find the equitable transfer happened before the statute ran out."


Quinn replied that Nahmias' logic was "an easy trap to fall into." The abandonment of the child, he said, "has nothing to do with tolling the statute of limitations whatsoever."


According to Quinn's argument, abandonment may justify the eventual equitable transfer of a cause of action from parent to child, but the statute of limitations clock runs while the initial decision whether to file a claim rests with the parent.


"This court and the Court of Appeals has held that if the statute of limitations runs in the hands of a parent, it runs. The only tolling is when the cause of action is directly vested in the minor," he said. "In this case, the cause of action is not directly invested in the minor, it is invested by statute, by law in the surviving spouse."


Donna Krusbe, partner at Billing, Cochran, Lyles, Mauro & Ramsey in West Palm Beach, Fla., who represents the Reid family, began her argument questioning whether the high court had jurisdiction over the case, citing case law that indicates the high court automatically receives cases only when the lower appellate court is evenly split on all issues of the case. Here, she argued, the Court of Appeals was split on only one issue and there are no other dispositive issues the Court of Appeals could decide upon to tip the balance.


"My position is: If this court does have jurisdiction or deem that you do have jurisdiction, that it would be to address only the issue on which the Court of Appeals was divided," Krusbe said.


Justice P. Harris Hines indicated he might agree. "Some of those cases would say if you only have one issue where you're divided, then the Court of Appeals is the proper entity to keep the case," Hines said.
Despite Krusbe's initial focus on jurisdiction, the bulk of the arguments on Tuesday centered on the issue of fraud, which Krusbe acknowledged was essential to her clients' claims.


Quinn argued that per the Court of Appeals' 2002 decision in Stewart v. Warner, 257 Ga. App. 322, concealment of the identity of a perpetrator—even if it is fraudulent concealment—does not toll the statute of limitations.


"In order to toll the statute of limitations, you have to have concealment of the crime itself. They [Reid's family] knew immediately that she had been murdered," Quinn explained later outside the courtroom.


Krusbe argued that Chiman Rai purposefully took steps to conceal his identity behind layers of conspiracy, such as not paying the hit men directly, and therefore the nature of the crime did constitute a fraud for the purposes of tolling the statute of limitations.


"Is it safe to say that any concealment [of identity] would be fraudulent concealment?" Justice Harold Melton asked.
"I don't know that I would go that far," replied Krusbe.


Nahmias then asserted that most criminals try to conceal their identities in order to evade law enforcement and prosecution. "Did he [Rai] have a duty to disclose his identity?" Nahmias continued, implying that simply not coming forward to confess to the crime right away wasn't enough to constitute fraud. Case law seems to say there has to be an affirmative effort, he said, such as threatening someone not to talk to police.


Krusbe later said there was a video tape shown to jurors in the civil trial that showed Chiman Rai directing one of the conspirators not to talk to police, but the tape was not admitted into the appellate record. Neither side said it knew why the tape was omitted.


After the arguments, Quinn told the Daily Report he wasn't sure whether the jury award could actually be recovered from his client.


As Quinn was speaking, another attorney for the Reid family, Frederic Chaiken, approached Quinn and told him that if his client would just agree to pay the $2.5 million for wrongful death both sides could have avoided further litigation.
The case is Rai v. Reid, S13A1073.


A Mississippibusinessman convicted of hiring hit men to kill his daughter-in-law is challenging the 2011 jury verdict in a related civil suit that ordered him to pay the woman's family $2.6 million.

 

 

 

 

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