Impossible Cases with Josh Koskoff Part 1
By: Bell Law Firm
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Impossible Cases with Josh Koskoff Part 1
“Face the Jury” is a podcast dedicated to all issues involving medical malpractice – what it is, how to spot it and how to prevent it while protecting yourself and your family.
In this episode, we’re joined by Josh Koskoff, fellow Inner Circle member and plaintiff attorney known for taking on seemingly impossible cases with a strong moral core. Josh has two cases to share with us today – one against Harvard and one representing the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (more on that here).
Lloyd: Josh Koskoff is known for taking on what seem to be impossible cases that have a strong moral core at his firm Koskoff Koskoff and Bieder.
One of the most interesting and poignant cases that Josh and his firm undertook is a case against Harvard University for their continued use and profit from slavery images that one Connecticut woman says belong to her. The woman was able to show that she is a direct descendant of the enslaved people in the famous Harvard held photographs.
Josh comes from a long line of trial lawyers beginning with Ted Koskoff, who was one of seven children of immigrants who settled in America. Josh’s grandfather worked hard, was smart as a whip and started his firm, which he built and then brought along his son, Josh’s father.
Your father ran the firm for how many years?
Josh: Probably for about 30 to 35 years after my grandfather died.
Lloyd: Your dad, Michael Koskoff, passed away recently. I never had the pleasure of getting to know him. I did have the pleasure of reading the books he’s written, including his leading book on trying medical malpractice cases, and I always regret not meeting him.
Your dad picked up the baton from your grandfather and ran the firm for many years. When your father passed, you took over the helm and now you are leading the ship of Koskoff Koskoff and Bieder.
Josh: Thank you, Lloyd. It always brings a smile to my face when I hear people reference my dad and my grandfather, who are great heroes of mine.
Lloyd: I should let the audience know how we met. We met a few years ago when we had the privilege of being invited to the Inner Circle of Advocates in Ireland. We got a chance to know each other, and you were working on a case in which you were suing Harvard University. Tell us about this case.
Josh: I’d probably be lying if I said this was our regular garden variety case that we handled. It’s a fascinating case where Harvard had elevated a scientist in the mid-1800s to lead its science department – a man named Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was as famous in his day as Charles Darwin.
Harvard knew or should have known that Agassiz was a racist. He was from Switzerland and came to America around the mid-1800s. Here he was exposed to his first Black person and slammed onto the theory of polygenism, which is a theory that holds that Blacks and whites descended from different species and that whites are superior.
Harvard made him head of the department of science because they were the recipient of a lot of grifts from cotton tycoons who built their fortunes off the backs of slavery. They wanted somebody in a seat of power that could influence policy after what was going to be the inevitable end of slavery so that they could ensure an enslaved person like wages going forward. So, they planted Agassiz and Harvard got a lot of money for it.
For Agassiz to prove his scientific theory that Blacks were inferior and whites were superior, he decided that the sine qua non of a study would be photographs of enslaved people. He figured out he could point to the different features of African human beings and say that they were indicative of a subordinate species. Agassiz went to Columbia, South Carolina and worked with a plantation owned by B.F. Taylor. He curated and hand-selected these enslaved human beings for what was going to be his scientific study.
Two of those individuals, those enslaved people, were Renty and Delia. Renty, who was around a 50 or so year old man from the Congo, was stolen from freedom the opposite way most people come to this country, and his daughter Delia was probably born in America. Agassiz’s men took Renty and Delia into a studio, stripped them, forced them into poses with no choice of their own to be part of a study.
These images have been around and used now for over a century. The long story short is that they ended up in Harvard’s possession. The descendants’ great great great granddaughter lives in Connecticut and was interested in her lineage. The destruction of the family was one of slavery’s most enduring legacies, so tracing your lineages was very difficult. She managed to trace her ancestry back to Renty and Delia. She didn’t even know about these images that Harvard was holding onto, and when she approached Harvard, they weren’t exactly excited about breaking bread with this descendant.
After many opportunities, Harvard refused to return the images to the family and refused to tell the origin story of these images. It is an eye-opening case. You know, up here in the north, we get a particular worldview of history that is very northern-centric. We view the north as the “good guys” and the South as the “bad guys.” The truth is much messier.
One of the things that Harvard did in defending this case was they published a book and used the images of Renty and Delia again. We don’t know if Delia was even of the age of maturity, although her pictures show her bare breast, disrobed. Harvard publishes these in the guise of education and tries to say they are bringing light to the rigors of slavery.
Lloyd: The irony to me is that exploiting these images of real people taken against their will and taking away their humanity, Harvard kind of perpetuated a little bit of the attitude of the 19th century and earlier.
When you first told me about this case, I remember asking you about the statute of limitations because this happened more than 100 years ago.
Josh: My father got this case because of Benjamin Crump, a leading civil rights lawyer. The descendant, Tamara Lanier, went to Benjamin Crump because she met him at an NAACP conference. She told him I have this case, and do you know anybody crazy enough to take it? He thought, Mike Koskoff, so my dad brought this case on and told us the story. The first thing I said was, this is an incredible story but is it possible the statute of limitations ran 170 years ago.
It works out because the fulcrum of the case pivots around is the idea of replevin, which is an old property clause of action. Since property is a physical thing that exists in perpetuity and property rights change hands over time, replevin is a friendly reminder to laws of the statute of limitations. Renty and Delia had no rights themselves at the time, so the case is seen from the standpoint of the descendant. When did she learn of her decadency? Has she brought this case within a reasonable time?
Lloyd: You sent me a copy of the lawsuit, and it may have been 150 or 200 pages. I got into the facts, and you impressed me with the storytelling in the suit. It was probably the first time that Renty and Delia received the respect that was due to them as human beings.
It brought home that our complaints are not mere pleading outlines. They are opportunities to tell compelling, meaningful stories. We’ve adopted a similar approach with all our lawsuits because of you. We tell detailed stories with pictures of the family, and we go through the medicine with images and illustrations to tell a compelling story.
You and your firm have also taken on the honorable cause of representing the families of the victims of Sandy Hook. You took on the families and have represented them both against the gun manufacturer and, more recently, against the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Tell us about the Alex Jones case and how you came to it, a bit of the background, and the recent victory you and your firm had.
Josh: The Alex Jones case had its soil in our representation of the families against Remington, the manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR15 used in the shooting. When something like this event happens, it brings out the absolute best in humanity. But it and it also brings out the worst. I thought this guy was just going to disappear to try to take him on is just giving him the attention and enlarging his profile. I kept waiting for that to happen, and it didn’t happen, so it was time to hold him accountable.
Lloyd: What did he do that you found offensive and legally actionable?
Josh: The families were trying to cope with picking up the pieces of their lives, which will never be the same, but at least trying to move forward. Many of these families have other children, have jobs, have responsibilities, and are just trying to put one foot in front of another. Alex Jones repeatedly maligned themes directly or through his acolytes or followers. They were getting harassed in the streets and online. People accused them of being fraudulent actors and posted their names and photographs of their surviving children, their deceased children. The big-ticket item was that actors staged the whole Sandy Hook shooting. This conspiracy was a big problem for those trying to recover and manage their grief.
Lloyd: It’s denying their experience, their pain and grief.
We have more to discuss with Josh Koskoff, and we will continue this conversation on the next episode. We look forward to seeing everybody back here on Face the Jury for Season 2, Episode 8.