Appellate Practice

By Cary J. Hansel

We lawyers still cite cases on behalf of our clients that were decided in the 1800s
 - which means that in 200 years the work we do today will still be changing lives.

At trial, lawyers and even judges are bound by what the law is, but appellate lawyers have the luxury of considering what the law should be.  Every appeal is an opportunity to legislate by force, changing public policy without political compromise.  A careful lawyer with a little skill and the right clients by his side can reshape the law and leave the world a better place.

My Appellate Work

I have had the honor of receiving more than 20 reported decisions and arguing many other appeals.  That experience has included the opportunity to represent a number of public interest groups in filing pro bono amicus curiae briefs in high-impact appeals.

For the last ten years, I’ve written "Appellate Watch," my column for Trial Reporter magazine. This column keeps me up to date on appeals throughout Maryland, as each quarter I review every brief filed in the Court of Special Appeals in order to select a handful of issues worthy of sharing with trial lawyers across our state.  

I also serve on the Appellate Practices Committee of the Maryland State Bar Association.

A partial list of my reported cases can be found on the "About Us" page.  Collected below are a few war stories from my appellate work.

A Unique Opportunity to See Video of Your Lawyer in the Courtroom

In Maryland, appellate arguments before our highest court are webcast by the Court of Appeals.  This means that you have the unique opportunity to see your lawyer in action before hiring him or her.  We encourage our clients to review our work and compare it to others when choosing a lawyer.  We have enough confidence in our approach to provide you with the links to video of our arguments.  The link below will take you to video of two cases argued by Mr. Hansel, one from 2010 and another from 2015:

Accidently on purpose...

I argued my first appeal before Maryland's highest court within months of being sworn in to the Bar.  I hadn't been a lawyer long enough to have demonstrated any particular worthiness for such an honor. But I soon realized that I got the assignment because no one else wanted to argue what they thought was an obvious loser.  Three different judges had already ruled against us.

Worse still, the argument to be made seemed nearly hopeless: I was asked to persuade the high court to permit my client to recover under an automobile accident insurance policy for a woman who was intentionally shot and killed by an assailant while she sat alone in the passenger seat of a parked car.

While preparing, I thought it was odd that the key term in the policy – accident – was left undefined by the insurance company.  On a hunch, I tracked down briefs the company had filed in courts across the country to see how their own lawyers had defined accident in other cases.  The pattern I was hoping to find soon emerged.

The company left its own terms undefined so they could apply different, often conflicting, definitions in different circumstances.  The one thing that wasn’t different was their goal: denying coverage.

It wasn't long before I found a brief filed by the insurer in which the insurance company had argued that the key term meant the exact opposite of what the company was now suggesting to the Maryland court.  In a prior case, the company had asserted that an "accident" was an unforeseen occurrence from the perspective of the insured.

All I had to do then was ask the Maryland court to adopt the insurance company’s own definition – from the prior case.  The shooting was clearly an unforeseen occurrence from the perspective of the insured victim.  Applying this definition – from the insurance company's own out-of-state brief – the intentional murder was an "accident."

After the inconsistency came to light, the insurance company was rebuked in the court's opinion for its "interpretation du jour" and the court ruled for us.

A colleague who read the case once mistakenly congratulated me for winning it through what he supposed was some combination of intuition and creativity.  I was quick to tell him that I didn't win the case, the insurance company lost it due to its own hubris.
You can read the opinion of the Court of Appeals here:
Read a media article about the case here:
Type your new text here.

Revolutionizing Civil Rights Law...

I had the privilege of handling the case in which the Court of Appeals first allowed recovery for a pattern or practice of unconstitutional misconduct. We were also able to defeat the $200,000 cap ordinarily applicable to civil rights claims.

Our client ultimately collected more than $7.5 million, a figure the Washington Post called the highest civil rights award ever against Prince George's County.  Those familiar with the county's abysmal civil rights record will appreciate the significance of this claim.

The case involved an innocent man deprived of sleep and sufficient food for almost two days, periodically chained to a wall and threatened by police – all because he wouldn't confess to the murder of his wife, a crime he did not commit.  Despite recording in his police log that my client had continued to maintain his innocence, an officer falsely swore that he had obtained a confession.

The resulting charges cost my client 8 months in jail.  During this time, the falsely accused man missed his wife's funeral and was evicted from his apartment.  All of his belongings were strewn out on the curb and taken by looters.

The jury found that the officers acted with malice when, three months into the incarceration, they ignored DNA evidence clearing the accused of the crime.  Only when another detective insisted on testing the DNA against a serial rapist she had helped apprehend were the officers forced to slowly admit their mistake.

The long-toiling, 48-year-old iron worker they had wrongly imprisoned was released, but had lost literally every possession except for the clothes on his back despite half a lifetime of hard labor.

To make matters even worse, there was evidence that the officers ignored early in the investigation that should have led them to the true killer.  When police stopped investigating based on the false claim that they had their man, the real killer went on, while no one was watching, to rape six other women for which he was convicted.  This case shows the true victims of police misconduct are not just those immediately suffering the abuse, but all of us.

The court's willingness to adopt the new cause of action we urged changed the practice of civil rights law in Maryland.  For the first time, victims of systemic abuses can bring prior examples of the unconstitutional treatment of others to light in Maryland courts.  This raises the stakes significantly for jurisdictions with historic problems.  Our goal is to make civil rights violations so costly for the government that they no longer occur.  This case is a powerful tool for exacting a high price from the most abusive agencies.
A copy of the Court of Appeals decision can be linked here:
Read newspaper articles about the case here:

Protecting our pets...

Another of my cases received national attention for modernizing the legal status of pets.  Until recently, pets were viewed as mere "chattel" under the law – the equivalent of any inanimate object one might own.  Under this outdated approach, even malicious and grossly negligent harm done to pets did not give rise to emotional damages.  To make matters worse, until our case, it was widely believed that a statute in Maryland capped all economic damages, even for intentional harm to pets, at a mere $7,500.  Of course, these legal concepts were far out of touch with the modern reality of pets as members of the family.  So we set out to change the law.

The case involved deputies trying to serve a warrant and a cooperative family.  The homeowner answered the door early one morning to find two police officers.  Willing to let the officers enter, he asked for a moment to put his dogs away. In the process of doing so, his chocolate Labrador – Brandi – bounded toward one of the officers with her tail wagging.  Brandi never touched the officer and never got closer than three feet.

Despite the fact that he had other implements like a flashlight and mace, the officer went directly for his gun. Without warning, he shot Brandi.  When he did so, he was shooting in the direction of the occupied house.  Brandi was not even barking at the time.

After a trial that began with a juror weeping during my opening argument, we achieved the highest verdict in US history for the shooting of a dog.  In the opinion linked below, we persuaded the court not to apply the egregious $7,500 cap on injuries to pets to the majority of the claim and to allow for emotional damages for injury to pets.  This progressive modernization of Maryland law was lauded in a Daily Record editorial.

Here is the police video of the shooting: 
It may be distrubing for some to watch.
A copy of the opinion of the Court of Special Appeals can be found here:
Read media articles about the case here:
In the first article, from the Frederick News Post, the Sheriff whose deputy was found liable is quoted as saying that Cary Hansel is "a good salesman."