Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jury Duty

About a month ago I got a jury summons in the mail, filled it out and dutifully returned it, all the while thinking, how do I get out of this? Isn't that what most people think? How can I get out of this?
I sent back the questionnaire attached to the summons, and I heard nothing back that would excuse me, so I called in the night before and was informed that everyone was required to be there. I don't like getting up early, especially when there was a party the night before and I found myself feeling sick in the chest. I wondered if you could call in sick to jury duty. But by the time I was awake and showered, I started to feel well enough to go, so I went.
I was a little late but turns out nothing had happened yet anyway. I had prepared by bringing a book and a water bottle. I forgot to bring extra money for the vending machine. It was a freezing cold morning and I had trouble finding the right parking garage to park in and after I had walked the block to the courthouse, I realized I had left my book in the car. As I was really cold, and late, I thought, I'll go check in and then go back for the book. Turns out that was a really bad idea because once I checked in, they didn't want me to leave.
I looked around. It's a very large room with several hundred seats, I thought, maybe I can sneak away to the bathroom. No, that was in the room. I thought- I can pretend to be a smoker and they will let me outside- wait, are you kidding me? They have an outdoor patio attached? I sank back in my seat. I was going nowhere. The jury police had thought of everything. Dammit. I was not going to have a chance to leave before lunch.
I was trapped. I really wanted to read my book, too. Instead I opened up Facebook on my IPhone and complained about my dilemma. Several people chimed in and I was momentarily entertained. I wondered how long my battery was going to last. I was also given a pamphlet when I arrived, so I read it. After a while, a judge went up to the microphone and explained what was going to happen, what we should expect and all.
After another hour, another man came and called twenty five names. My name was not called. I was starting to get hungry, and sleepy and began to look forward to lunch. I checked facebook. I checked my email. I looked at a couple websites. I put my coat on and scrunched down in my chair and closed my eyes.
Then a Bailiff stepped up to the microphone and started calling more names. He may as well have said "Everyone that is left in this room, go stand in the hall!" but we all said "here" when he called our names and went and stood in the hall. There were 32 of us and that emptied the room.
When he called our names, he gave us a number to remember. I was so surprised to hear my name, I immediately forgot my number for a minute. We all went down the stairs two floors and stood around in that hallway until he told us to line up by our numbers. I was number 18. We all went in to the courtroom and began the questioning process. I think we learned pretty much what the case was going to be about right there. It was a civil case about a car accident.
If you've never done the questioning process, it is super boring. The first question was "Tell us about yourself. Your education, your occupation." The first five people in the row had Master's degrees. Whoa. What kind of jury pool was this. The higher education continued. All in all, I counted three people out of 32 who said "high school education", everyone else said Bachelors or above, and most of those Masters degrees were women. Was this normal? I had no idea.
After the trial was over, I asked the lawyers, one who had been practicing law for 38 years and said he had never questioned a jury pool with that much higher education. A fluke, I suppose.
After that, we had to say whether or not we knew anyone who had sued someone or been involved in personal injury case- it went on and on. Finally the plaintiffs lawyer was at her last question and this woman on the end said "Why didn't you ask us if we personally have been involved in a car accident?" So for real, then we had to go around the room and list every car accident we could remember and whether we got hurt. If there could have been a collective groan at the woman, there would have been. More of the same from the defense. I might say that this was cutting in to our lunch hour. It was already pushing one pm when the judge called a recess in questioning.
There was a part of me that just wanted to go home but a part of me that knew I was going to get picked. After all, I hadn't done anything to prevent myself from getting picked. Like the guy in the front row who immediately said "I can't be fair in this trial because of my religious beliefs."
Later we all agreed that was kind of lousy of him.
None of us specifically wanted to be there but this is part of our civic duty. I was torn, wanting to be picked, because I knew I could be fair and reasonable and that I would be a good juror and being tired and not feeling my best. I decided I would just be honest and let the lawyers decide what they would.
The defense lawyer asked if any of us were Libertarians because it might mean we did not feel we should follow that law. That question made me unhappy, but I am not and never have been a libertarian and I wasn't going to start lying about it even though it isn't exactly something you can prove.
I think if you can elect a Libertarian to office and swear said person in and expect said person to uphold the law- then said person should get to serve on a jury. Wondered if the lawyer was going to ask if there were any anarchists in the jury pool-
At 1:30, the lawyers were given ten minutes to decide on a jury. We all thought we should have just been sent to lunch but apparently this doesn't take very long. We got called back in and I was the tenth juror picked. Again, a little surprised to hear my name.
So, we are all sitting there, stomachs growling away and the judge, thankfully sends us all to lunch after telling us not to discuss anything with anyone. Okay, I'm going to admit this up front. That is the hardest part for me- not talking about it. Not because I can't keep a secret. I absolutely can and have- it's the being told not to do something by an authority figure. Because I want to rebel. But my higher self realized the importance of this instruction lay in the way it could sway me, so I didn't discuss it at all, not even that night with my family. And I really wanted to tell my husband- because I tell him most things.
I went to lunch with three other women, really nice people. And we discussed all kinds of things other than the trial. We talked about the food, the weather. The elephant kept peeking out at us. We found it safe to talk about the people who had not been chosen- because we were all curious about the process.
When we returned, we heard over an hour of videotaped medical testimony and it was super boring but I paid attention and took notes. It was going to be important later. Then, the judge sent us home and told us to come back at 9:30 AM the next day.
Part of this was exciting to me and part of me was disappointed. It wasn't a very good trial, a very interesting trial, a trial with any kind of fascinating or brilliant details. It was a trial about a car accident and a whiplash injury- and the defendant claimed she couldn't have hit her hard enough to have caused any injury.
And the thing was, I sympathized and could see both sides of this issue- and as disappointed as I was with not getting a really juicy, thought provoking trial, I knew inherently that the outcome of this trial was going to affect people's lives- and my part in it should be taken very seriously.
The next morning, I reported to the jury room and there was coffee and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. I liked the other jurors in general. It was a group of intelligent and interesting people- and I couldn't even remember who had a Master's degree in what, not that it matters, but because they all seemed like generally fair people who had interesting thoughts and lives. They were telling stories about themselves. We were careful not to discuss politics or religion or anything controversial. We complained about work, discussed our children, discussed the jury system in general and what was expected of us- and stayed in the safe zone. No one dared to piss anyone else off. We all knew that we had to agree and work together.
In a criminal trial, the verdict has to be unanimous. In a civil trial, nine out of twelve has to agree and we were not burdened with reasonable doubt but asked to decide three questions and if it leaned towards more reasonable than not reasonable we should decide that way.
So, it's funny how this works. I heard the same trial everyone else heard- and all of us varied wildly on what we thought should happen. It seemed obvious to me that both of the women lied on the stand. Little lies. Lies of exaggeration. Lies of omission. Lies of not really remembering what had happened three years ago in this car accident and whether or not they had pulled over to the shoulder and waited for the police or stayed where they were the whole time.
It didn't help that there was no police report. The officer had completely failed to do one.
So I had to filter past the fact that we were being lied to and stick with the facts of what we knew. That it was unlikely but not impossible that this woman had been injured in a minor fender bender bump at a yield sign. That the medical evidence was fairly compelling and the fact that this woman had pursued treatment for three months made it likely that she was hurt in some way.
And, so for me, this part was easy.
Did the defendant cause the accident? Yes, she admitted it.
Was she negligent in doing so? Yes, she admitted not looking.
Was there injury?
Ah, this we were not sure of. The medical evidence was there but it was shaky, even the doctor admitted it is possible to fake this kind of injury but highly unlikely.
And it boiled down in the jury room to the fact that people didn't like the plaintiff, didn't believe anything she said, and half of them were convinced she was out for some big payday. Which seemed kind of laughable to me, as her medical bills were not even that high and she wasn't even asking for much over her medical bills. I think that was the biggest problem. The plaintiff's lawyer did not give us good guidelines on what to give her as compensation.
All of us eventually agreed that there was injury, as unlikely as it seemed to be, that the medical evidence was there.
Once we decided that, it was a fight to award her the medical bills. Part of the jury room had a problem with where she sought treatment, part of her treatment was chiropractic and they had issues with it.
There were some nasty things said about this woman in that jury room. Nine women and three men were on that jury- and two of those men were joking "I think she falls down a lot." implying she is a drinker.
I heard the comment "Are you going to ask her out after this is over?"
Also, "She's kind of old, maybe her bones break easier, but is that the other woman's fault?"
"She's kind of rough, probably rode it hard that night before and hurt herself."
In the end, this is what bothered me the most. In the end, I feel like half the room punished her because they judged things about her personality based on the way she looked. I can't begin to figure it out but I think the pre-judgment started before we even got there. They had already decided she was a lowlife looking for a pay day.
In the end, I wish I had asked them "Are you making this decision on the facts or because you don't like her?"
Because I really feel she was not given the compensation she should have been given- but that was the fault of a number of issues. I thought she should have been compensated for pain, travel and time spent seeking treatment, because that is what any other person would have been awarded. Instead, the best we could agree on was her full medical bills, and I realized that is the best we were going to do on that jury.
In all, we deliberated for about an hour and a half- and in the end she was given the exact amount of her medical bills. In the end, it cost that woman to be injured in a car accident and it shouldn't have. In my opinion. But that was as fair minded as I could be. I knew she was exaggerating, I knew she was laying it on thick, but I couldn't hold it against her because she was doing what she had to do. I knew the other woman was incredulous that such a small bump could have caused any injury. I would have been as well. All of us found the defendant's testimony far more credible than the plaintiff. But it was about following the facts and the rule of law. Funny how half that room wanted to decide on the fact that they didn't like one of the women.
Afterward, one of the other jurors and I had a thirty minute conversation with the plaintiff's lawyer, fascinated about what had been excluded, what we weren't allowed to know- how we were picked and what went on behind the scenes.
We went upstairs and turned in our jury badges and were allowed to go home. I felt in some small way that some kind of justice had been done. This trial has weighed on my conscience more than it should have. I was invited into the lives of strangers and asked to settle a dispute fairly and I'm not sure we completely did that. But it most definitely was a learning experience.

6 comments:

Julie W said...

Oh, man. I took someone to court for this very thing, and also got extended chiropractic treatment (it was the only thing that worked). I won (that's how I paid for Paris; I was compensated for lost wages, not just medical bills). But for some reason, it was just small claims and the judge had to decide. It was under a certain amount, so I suppose that's why.
At any rate, I wouldn't let it weigh on you too much. It is very hard to decide if an injury like that (which was almost identical to mine) is really is as severe as depicted. Even the judge at my hearing said so; he said, "This is very hard, it's a soft-tissue issue, and a soft impact." (In other words, not a full-on smash-em-up deal). If he, who worked that court every day and was not a young man, could say that, I'd say you all did pretty well.

Anonymous said...

Hello, thank you for your service as a juror and also for your thoughtful comments. Having tried many cases just like the one you have described, it is enlightening to hear your thoughts about your experience. As I'm sure you know by now, it is generally very expensive and stressful for a plaintiff to take a case like this to trial. As a rule, you only do it when you must. (i.e. the insurance company offer is far too low) For me, even if the verdict is less than I hope for, if I know that the jury, or even an individual juror was thoughtful and considerate and did her very best to render justice, it is easier to accept and far more satisfying than if that weren't the case. Anyway, I could blather on for hours about this since it is what I do for a living, so I'll stop now. I just wanted to you know that as a plaintiff's attorney, I appreciate hearing what you have to say.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested to hear what it was that the judge wouldn't let you hear during the trial. What was it?

VanessaMRR said...

We weren't allowed to know that there was no police report, that even though the police had been called and had showed up and taken a report, the officer had failed to file a report- and the other interesting thing was that the plaintiff was asked if she had ever filed a lawsuit before for injury and she said no but the defense objected, it was sustained and we were told to disregard, but you know, it's out there!

VanessaMRR said...

Thanks for your comments, anonymous attorney, I really learned a lot from this experience. I think that having this way to resolve a dispute is important. I am sure taking it to trial is a last resort- I wish that I had felt more qualified to hear the case, there is so much as jurors we don't know.

Anonymous said...

Since this hit a Missouri lawyer list serv you are probably going to get a lot of comments. Here's a very short one: Thank You!