All Your Case Are Belong To Us (Jury Duty, Part III)
(Note: This was long enough to break into two, but I wanted to finish. Please pick a comfy seat…)
After 2.5 days of Constitutional voyeurism, it was finally time to make them sit around while we do mysterious crap for awhile. Finally, we’re important!
In fact, during the closing arguments, the plaintiff”s attorney let us know how important. He was hoping for at least $2 million. Until that moment, I didn’t realize that we not only had to pick who was at fault, but if we sided with the plaintiff, we had to pick how much money it was fair for her to get. How do you put a price on that kind of thing? They gave us a chart from 1949 that gave us average life spans for someone of a given age, but that’s hardly enough information.
Our primary responsibility is to determine who was most responsible for the accident. Since she brought the suit, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant has at least 51% of the blame. In the case of a tie, the defendant wins. Pretty heavy.
Before we go deliberate, the judge reads us a lot of pieces of law that pertain to the case. These laws include:
- the responsibilities of a pedestrian when crossing away from an intersection (as it turns out, the plaintiff did not cross at an intersection — she actually walked away from an intersection to the place where she crossed)
- the responsibilities of a driver (just because you have right of way does not mean you can mow down jaywalkers — you are still expected to do everything possible to avoid an accident)
Essentially, from our point of view, the question was whether or not the defendant had enough time to see the plaintiff and make a reasonable attempt to stop or swerve. Seems straightforward enough, but there were several things about the plaintiff’s actions we had to consider:
- She chose an extremely dark patch to cross — there is no street light in the ~200 yards between the intersection and the convenience store, and it was overcast, so there was no moonlight
- This was the first night she’d ever made this crossing after dark (although this was her third crossing of the night — she had been to the store once but had forgotten the phone number and had to go back for it)
- She was carrying one child and had another in tow, so she wasn’t moving fast. She’s not a large person anyway.
- When she stepped off the median to cross the last lanes, she never checked the traffic again. This is important, because she was holding a baby against her right shoulder, so her peripheral vision was blocked in the direction of oncoming traffic.
And one thing we were never told: what color were her clothes? If she was dressed in dark clothes, she would have been invisible under those conditions. We knew what the 3-year-old was wearing, thanks to those damn pictures, but he was on hidden on the other side of his mother. Frustrating to not know that, and inconceivable that a policeman didn’t think to note it at the time.
Once we picked a foreperson, we went around the table expressing our views. First guy up said the entire case was bullshit, and it was clear to him that they made it all the way across, then the three-year-old broke free and ran back into the road, and the mom chased after him instinctively, then made up the story so she could have a better chance in a lawsuit. Possible, I guess, but we can’t really start assuming new scenarios. (“I think they got to the far sidewalk and Bigfoot kicked them back into traffic!”)
It looks like sentiment is leaning in one direction, so we take a vote: 11-1 for the defendant. This is a classic moment of what lawyers call Es vos defecio mihi (or “are you shitting me?”). The dissenter responds with a classic Ego defece vos non (“I shit you not”) and that’s where we break for the evening.
This gives me time to think things through without distraction. The plaintiff is maintaining that the defendant was driving negligently, and should have seen her and the kids in plenty of time to stop, even after dark. Since she didn’t stop, it is logical that she wasn’t paying attention to the road.
This is when all the math and physics and all the emotional appeals and the debate about whether it was rainy or drizzly or misty or foggy and 75% of the rest of the points they made all week drop out of the picture for me. Yes, it’s possible that the defendant was digging through her glove compartment or turned and talking to her sister or something.
But there are lots of places a driver can be looking without being negligent, like glancing at the speedometer or clock, or looking in a rearview mirror. Or a sneeze, or a cough. Just about anything at the wrong second would be enough.
The main thing is: I can’t think of a reason other than neligence to step in front of a moving car. If she had turned to look before she walked into that last lane, she could have stopped, the defendant would have sped on by, and that kid might be a healthy six-year-old right now.
By the next morning, the holdout had come to a similar conclusion. 12-0 for the defendant.
While you’re in the rarefied air of a jury box, you get used to not being allowed contact with anyone involved with the case. You don’t think about what can happen the minute your verdict is delivered: you are normal citizens again and can be harassed by anyone. Sure enough, as soon as we leave the jury assembly room, the entire defense team, the defendant, and her parents are waiting for us. They are all smiles, and want to hear whatever we feel like telling them. This is what I tried to convey:
- The emotional appeals can backfire. We felt terrible for both parties, and didn’t need help to get emotionally involved in the outcome. The only way we can resolve it is to look at the law and the evidence dispassionately.
- Questioning the plaintiff’s motives in bringing the suit is unnecessary. She has the right, which is enough. Plus, in her shoes, I would do anything to convince myself that it’s not my fault my kid is dead. When my dog died, we didn’t do a necropsy, partly because I didn’t want to know if I could have done something for him but didn’t.
- In this case — and I would bet most cases — the parties involved are not trained observers. Quizzing them about mundane details (like distance from a curb) or obscure measurements (like feet per second) in the dark at the instance of a life-changing event three years ago is nitpicky at best, but when they don’t know or give an answer that doesn’t fit the evidence, it doesn’t automatically weaken their case. (“My boy got hit! He was only three! Plus he was 5 feet 8 inches from the curb and moving at 3.2 feet per second!”)
Despite that, I don’t have a serious problem with how either lawyer conducted themselves. They were professional and courteous and laid out their cases clearly. I really just think they spent a lot of time trying to obfuscate the other guy, and I can even understand why they would intentionally do that. Our jury seemed able to cut to the heart of the matter, but maybe we were atypical.
What sunk the plaintiff’s case was that it was too steep an uphill climb to offload a majority of the blame to the defendant. Maybe for the next one they can use my Bigfoot theory.
Speaking of whom, when I turned away from the lawyer, she and her parents were standing there. Her parents were all smiles and bowing, but she just looked exhausted. She thanked me, I told her I was sorry for all she’d gone through and wished her luck, and they left. I imagine she is glad to not have to come up with a giant pile of money, but I also bet that thump she heard still echoes in her head.
Overall, I’m glad I had the experience. I understand more clearly how important having a jury is, and I’m glad I was involved with an interesting case, even if it was a horrible story. Beats listening to a tenant sue his landlord because of water damage from a faulty dishwasher.
As I left, I heard that same juror tell the defense lawyer that he knows the kid turned and ran back into the road. One of the other people sitting at the defense table turned and said “Remember when I asked you that two months ago?”
Jerk probably caused a mistrial. Anyone out there know a sure-fire way to get out of jury duty? Just in case…