Jury Duty

Tuesday of this week I was to appear at the Travis County Court House for possible jury selection. Along with 45 others, I was number 28, I filed into the court room for voir dire from the attorneys representing the plaintiff and defendants. I had already filled out a basic questionnaire on-line. The judge explained that this was a civil trial and twelve of us would be selected.

The questions from the plaintiff’s attorney were convoluted and regarded punitive damages and mental anguish. Many of the potential jurors had problems giving money for mental anguish but, in general, I would have no problem with an award for mental anguish if the facts justified it.

After a few hours, it was selection time and I was chosen, number nine of twelve. We were seated in the jury box  and sworn in. By now it was 1:00 PM and we broke for lunch. Upon our return the plaintiff’s lawyer gave his opening statement relaying the facts of the case. His client was a truck driver that had delivered a flat-bed loaded with palettes of stone for the construction of new homes. As the last palette was being off-loaded by the fork lift  operator (one of the defendants), the truck driver was crushed as the rear of the fork lift (see photo) pinned him against his truck. He suffered multiple broken ribs and other injuries. This was in 2007. He is suing the fork lift operator and the owner of the stone company, the other defendant. He’s asking for $650,000 to $900,000 in damages for lost wages and pain and suffering.

The defense attorney then gave his opening statement. He cast doubt on the plaintiff’s current injuries citing affidavits, from subsequent employers of the plaintiff, of him performing heavy lifting without any problems. He also mentioned that the plaintiff’s doctor, whom the plaintiff’s attorney had mentioned in his opening statement, lived in Las Vegas. This sounded to me like a pay-for-pay doctor and I was immediately suspicious of any report from this doctor.

Then the plaintiff’s attorney called his first witness, the fork lift operator. Interestingly, he called one the defendants as a witness for the plaintiff’s case. The fork lift operator was a good witness for himself, probably had been through these questions during depositions. He seemed extremely competent at operating the fork lift. He was then cross-examined by his own attorney, who was also representing the owner of the stone company.

It was after 5:00 so we broke for the day. The next morning we filed into the jury box and the judge announced that the parties had reached a settlement, thanked us for our service, and we filed back into the jury room. Shortly afterwards the judge came into the jury room and talked with us and answered questions. I asked about the plaintiff’s attorney calling the defendant and he thought that was a shrewd move. I asked him if he thought the fork lift operator was negligent and he said no, which I also thought. The judge also explained that punitive damages require “clear and convincing” evidence rather than the “preponderance of evidence” of non-punitive damages. While talking about the jury system, the judge stated that of the hundreds of jury trials he has presided over and went to jury, he disagreed with the jury’s verdict only twice. He said the attorneys were in the hallway and wanted to talk with us but we were under no obligation to speak with them.

Only the defense attorney was in the hallway. He told some of us that the plaintiff’s attorney had called him the previous night and accepted a previously rejected offer of $75,000. Of that money, $45,000 will go to repay the truck driver’s workman’s comp claim.

Like most of the other jurors, I donated my $40/day jury pay to charity to avoid having to list it on my tax return.

I’d like to hear about your jury duty experiences.

-David Drumm (Nal)

20 thoughts on “Jury Duty”

  1. Sam D. 1, December 5, 2010 at 9:06 am

    I was selected in a civil trial for reckless driving leading to an auto accident resulting in injuries to the plaintiffs. The defendant was a Chicago police officer, the CPD and the City of Chicago.
    —————————————-

    Payouts to people harmed by CPD officers is a major budget line item every year for the City of Chicago. Those millions of dollars annually don’t seem to effect much change, though.

    Strangely, while I was away for university (including overseas) I got several jury summons. Since I’ve been back (about 15 years) I’ve only received 1 or 2 summons. Last time, we sat around for hours (luckily I got a chair next to an outlet for my laptop – no wifi, though). We were called late in the day, and they seated a jury before getting to me. So, a full day of waiting around and not even one question. All part of doing our civic duty.

  2. @Sam D: I think police officers abuse their siren and lack of speed limits all the time. It is only anecdotal, but several years ago on our way to lunch I saw a police officer turn on his siren, run a red light and literally drive on the sidewalk to get around a traffic jam caused by road work, after which the siren was turned off and he proceeded normally for as far as I could see him. It is very irritating to me when law enforcement concludes it must be above the law whenever it is an inconvenience. I think this same dynamic has played out in the Taser-induced deaths of innocent citizens; it is a crime to resist arrest, but civil disobedience when given an unconstitutional order by police is NOT a crime, and certainly does not deserve a potential death penalty. This idea that law enforcement is above the law is producing a police state in this country.

  3. I was selected in a civil trial for reckless driving leading to an auto accident resulting in injuries to the plaintiffs. The defendant was a Chicago police officer, the CPD and the City of Chicago.

    The facts of the case were a mess, and clearly there had been a lot of pretrial motions on what evidence would be presented to the jury, giving us a murky picture of the events.

    The defense called several other police officers; the defendant’s partner, an officer who was coincidentally at the scene of the accident when it occurred (and who’s presence may have in fact caused it, but that’s neither here nor there). She came across as a blatant liar; the very model of an officer willing to bend or break the truth to cover her friends ass.
    Another officer who responded to the scene also testified but he came off as such a flake that we more or less discounted his testimony (and he hadn’t really seen anything anyway). The defense’s best witness was the defendant himself who came across as candid and serious about his job, but also acted like someone who knew he’d screwed up and was scared of what that would mean.

    The plaintiffs had a couple witnesses, one of whom came off as a total nutbag. The defense later insinuated this witness was never at the scene, but provided no evidence backing up this claim (yet the plaintiff didn’t object). In the end, the defense witnesses, despite their credibility problems provided most of the facts the jury would use.

    Ultimately, our deliberations came down to the issue of recklessness. We all agreed that the defendant had more probably than not caused the accident, but we needed to find that he had done so through recklessness. This took more careful examination, but ultimately we decided the defendant had been reckless. However, for a variety of reasons we came to a quick agreement to award only half the damages sought by the plaintiffs (and they were only seeking a fairly small amount, about $25,000 each). The defense was clearly taken aback by our verdict, but I think the plaintiff’s attorney was surprised that we’d cut his recommended award in half.

    The big take aways from the experience: it was good to see that our jury had no hesitation holding a police officer and the government responsible for the officer’s on-duty conduct after careful deliberation (there was no reflexive anti-police sentiment among the jury either). However, the knowledge that there were facts being withheld from us and the inability to clarify pieces of testimony that were inconsistent lead to a lot of doubts in my mind if we were in fact making the right decision.

    My hope is that despite these shortcomings we were able to delivery something approximating justice, as imperfect as the final product might have been.

  4. Nal,

    I have only been at the Plaintiff’s table and defense….Most people do not want to talk with the defense in a criminal case…especially after a conviction….that has been my experience…but hey, what can I say….

  5. I was a foreman on a drug possession case. The prosecution’s case was that the defendant obtained the drugs from an unknown person, and that an unknown informant had for reasons unknown snitched him out before the traffic stop in which the drugs were found. No witness ever saw the defendant look in the bag where the drugs were found, and no witness saw him in possession of the bag until the traffic stop. The defense presented an alternate theory that a person the defendant had been having trouble with at work planted the drugs and snitched him out. Defense provided testimony to the animosity at work. Prosecution presented no evidence that the defendant had ever seen a drug in his life. We decided there was no case almost at once, but we took an hour so we could say we’d done our duty. I wished there was a box we could check that said “WTF?” or “Lock up the stupid prosecutor.”

  6. During the questioning before the jury was selected, all potential jurors were asked the same question by the defence attorney. Did we believe in ‘throwing the book’ at a defendant as a warning to others. Most of the people said no, they didn’t think that would be fair. I said it would depend. If this was a first offense than defintely not. But if the defendant had a long history of criminal wrong doing, then yes. I thought it would be fair.

    I was dismissed. As I was leaving the courtroom, a sheriffs’ deputy was standing at the door. He could barely stifle his laughter. When I got out in the hallway he told me the defendent had been locked up so many time they named a wing of the jail for him.

  7. I’ve only been chosen as one of the twelve once, and during the process I answered “yes” to the question of “have you ever been a victim of a similar crime?”

    From there I was walked through the details of my case (painful recollections in front of large audience) but ultimately my seating hinged on my answer to: “has your experience affected your ability to render a fair verdict in this case?” My answer, in numerous permutations over the course of about a half hour was: “I have no way of knowing, because the person I am today reflects all of my life experiences, good and bad.”

    I think the prosecutor was willing to let me stay, but the defense attorney tried very hard to make me say something for which he could disqualify me for cause. In the end, I was one of his quota that he could toss of for no reason.

    It was an interesting, but emotionally grueling, experience. If I am ever in that situation again, I will ask for the court to be cleared before I describe my own experience as a victim, or I will risk contempt of court by refusing to answer. I will not go through that retelling ever again.

  8. I’ve been on 3 of juries and hated it. The first was an eye-opener. Two men, co-workers, accused of stealing in total $115.00 worth of manufactured goods from the employer off of the company loading dock. The prosecution had a good case, eyewitness testimony etc. That it was over $100.00 made it a felony.

    When we were given the jury instructions we could find innocence or guilt on one of two degrees of charge though I forget what they were. I do remember the sentence because the sentence was integral to the degree of guilt and had to be disclosed. A guilty verdict at the higher degree was 2 years in the state pen. (OMG!) The lesser degree was 3 1/2 years in a minimum to medium security facility. (OMG!)

    We found them not guilty. It was the sentences I’m sure for everyone because while we talked about everything else in the case and instructions we didn’t actually talk about the sentences. One man did start a sentence with ‘I don’t know … 2 years… and mumbled something else. In discussion people were obviously looking for reasons to cast a not guilty vote.

  9. My case was criminal … drug possession with intent to sell. Prison term was mandatory 15 years but we, the jurors, did not know and were not allowed to know the punishment … we found out after the verdict.

    When we entered the jury room everybody started talking at once and one man asked everybody what they thought the verdict should be. He started with “not guilty” and then pointed to the person on his right and said, “you next”. I was to the man’s left so knew I would be last. Everybody said “not guilty” in turn and then it finally came to me. I said, “First I believe we should elect a foreman, then I believe we should each discuss why we have voted not guilty for I am not ready to say either way until discussion has taken place.”

    The man to my right … the guy who had started the vote said, “Well damn, we’re going to be here all day!”

    He was wrong. We were there for five days, hung once and sent back, and eventually found the defendant guilty.

    Afterwards we found out that this was the defendant’s second trial. That the first trial resulted in a hung jury. The Judge told us that in his opinion the defendant was guilty and that he had a very, very good defense lawyer. We then learned all the facts, including those which were not allowed to be introduced during the trial. No one felt bad about the verdict.

  10. I was foreman of a jury, a car injury lawsuit. The story: A retired teacher (RT) (late 70’s) was suing a doctor’s wife (DW) (late 30’s). The RT was turning right at a red light, and pulled in front of the DW; the DW slammed on her brakes and screeched hard into the teacher’s car, crunching it pretty good around the front driver’s side tire. The RT didn’t have any cuts or broken bones, but was knocked unconscious and woke up several minutes after the crash, and because of that had been removed by ambulance. She was complaining of headaches and nausea still going on a year after the accident and wanted damages.

    On the stand the RT honestly did not seem to remember a single thing about the accident; not surprising to me at least after being knocked out (short term memory is often lost). However she assured us she had been a good driver for 50 years and would never turn right on red into oncoming traffic!

    By videotape testimony the guy in the car behind her said that their light was red and maybe halfway through its cycle, that the view was unobstructed and there were cars moving on the main road, and that he saw the other car coming when the RT suddenly started to pull out and he “just knew” she was going to get hit. A CPS worker on the street (also by videotaped testimony) said he heard the brakes of the DW car and was startled and looked up, he saw the crash, and the DW light was definitely green. He attended the crash and was worried the RT (who was unconscious and slumped in her seat) had broken her neck or something. He is the one that called 911.

    We didnt’ get selected until 3:30 PM, so we didn’t do anything that day, the next two days we listened. They had closing arguments after lunch the second day, we got instructions from the judge and led to the jury room.

    I was a front-row juror and 3rd or 4th into the room, the bailiff handed the 12th juror a packet and told him, “Okay first thing is you elect a foreman,” and gave us some instruction on how to call for questions or when we were done.

    As soon as the door closed everybody started talking, even before taking their seats. I grabbed the seat on the far left corner of the table; I am a lefty and don’t like people sitting on my left. Everybody thinks the DW is innocent.

    So the beginning of it goes like this:

    Guy with packet: He says [bailiff] we have to elect a foreman.

    Girl in business suit: He gave you the thing, I say you do it.

    Guy with packet: I don’t know how to do that. How do you do that?

    Me: Don’t worry, just make sure everybody gets a chance to say what they think, and then call a vote.

    Guy with packet looks at me, then pushes the packet at me: “You do it.”

    Me: Does anybody else want to be foreman?

    (No answer)

    Me: I’ve been nominated as foreman; all in favor?

    (no answer)

    Me (sotto voce): You guys have to vote, raise your hand or object or something. All in favor?

    (all hands raised).

    Me: All right, lets see what they gave us here…

    I actually didn’t get to voice much opinion. I said I thought what was fair was to give every single person a few minutes to vent whatever they have been holding about the case without interruption (as long as they don’t go on forever), and I would go clockwise around the table and we’d figure out that way if we had any differences. I took notes. I figured I’d go last, and integrate and summarize the disagreements.

    I didn’t get to say much, twelve jurors (including me) had already concluded the teacher was confused, and had been talked into the lawsuit by her ambulance-chasing lawyer. The DW was on a main road with a 45 mph limit and there had been police testimony the damages caused were consistent with her going the speed limit. The driver behind the RT had testified the DW car did not notice anything unusual about her speed on the road, relative to a few other cars that had gone before her. So the DW wasn’t speeding and the RT, after coming to a full stop at a red light, with her turn signal on, halfway through the light just inexplicably decided to
    pull out into oncoming traffic, and got hit. She didn’t know why she did that and no witnesses saw any reason for her to do that, but she did. Just inattention or distraction or thinking of something else, whatever it was, she did it.

    The only problem was one juror, despite agreeing with all of this, felt sorry for the RT and thought we should give her some money. I didn’t have to argue that either, three female jurors took it upon themselves to gang up on him (argumentatively) and he changed his vote. We awarded zero damages on something like nine counts.

    I felt more sorry for the DW, like the CPS guy, the doctor’s wife thought she might have killed someone. She was the only person bleeding at the scene, her air bag gave her a bloody nose, and the CPS guy said she was crying hysterically.

    Anyway, we finished up our votes and paperwork in about 30 minutes, called the bailiff, and went back. The judge read our decisions quite formally: It was a list of $0.00, but he read like, “On the issue of [X] after deliberation the jury awards the plaintiff zero dollars and zero cents. On the issue of [Y] after deliberation the jury awards the plaintiff zero dollars and zero cents. On the issue of …”

    The RT attorney is writing down on paper the awards, after about four of these he turns beet red and puts down his pencil until the judge finishes. The judge says some other formal stuff for the record, thanks us for our service, and I forget the details of getting out but the last thing we did was file past the doctor’s wife with her attorney standing besire her, and some of us (including me) shook her hand and she thanked us.

  11. I ended up on an employment discrimination suit. In my heart I really wanted to be sympathetic to the plaintiff but the facts just didn’t even leave a reasonable doubt.

    The saddest/funniest part was the plaintiffs lawyer playing a tape of a conversation between the company owner and the plaintiff that highlighted the companies claims while make his client look terrible.

    I have heard that lawyers usually know what sort of settlement they can get/will pay & most often agree to something close to that just before the beginning of the trial. Its a form of brinkmanship I guess.

  12. Nal:

    “As the judge explained it, you don’t want to end the case with a strong defense witness. Also, the plaintiff’s attorney was looking for a difference between the defendant’s testimony and testimony he gave in depositions.”

    ****************
    You don’t have to end with a strong defense witness, plaintiff has a constitutional right to call rebuttal witnesses after the defendant closes his case.

    On the second point, I think it’s objectionable to set up a straw-man that way, and, if the defendant doesn’t vary his testimony, you’ve told the jury his side, validated it, and made yourself look foolish. I think the better course is the tried and true impeachment on cross-exam after the defendant has said something at variance from his deposition testimony.

  13. Nal: I got myself disqualified from being picked for the jury two weeks ago in a criminal trial. The sentencing guideline for robbery ran from 2 to 20 years. I told them I could not give 20 years for robbery. It was kind of interesting how it turned out. There was a group of us that left because we thought the sentencing could potentially be too harsh. Another group that was disqualified was the group that wanted to give him the chair no matter what he did. The people that were picked were kind of middle of the road which probably was the right jury.

  14. As the judge explained it, you don’t want to end the case with a strong defense witness. Also, the plaintiff’s attorney was looking for a difference between the defendant’s testimony and testimony he gave in depositions.

    I think the plaintiff’s attorney saw the reaction he was getting from the jury and decided to cut his losses. To illustrate the difference between broken ribs and crushed ribs during his opening statement, he snapped a pencil. I couldn’t help myself, I smiled at this ridiculous use of props. During judge’s questions, one of the other jurors mentioned the incident, she agreed that it was silly, and the judge wondered how many pencils he went through as he practiced in front of a mirror.

  15. culheath:

    “I’m afraid I need someone to explain the shrewdness of the plaintiff’s attorney calling the defendant to testify.”

    ***************************

    Typically, defendants are called by plaintiff to prove some point only they can establish. Since you can lead them it’s occasionally works but is fraught with pitfalls. It is common practice in medical malpractice cases to establish facts only the physician can verify, for example, his signature on a medical record or his confirmation that he ordered a round of medication. I don’t recommend it though. The better practice is a request for admission during discovery. Some lawyers I know do it in some effort to “rattle” the defendant into an admission but I think this is more “Perry Mason” than good trial strategy.

  16. I think I would make a great Juror, very trustworthy.

    Every time I’ve been to jail they made me a trustee 🙂

  17. culheath

    I’m equally perplexed. The plantiff called one of the defendants as a witness and then over night accepted the defendants’ original offer? That sounds more like an “oops” leading the plantiff to realize his case was too weak to get a six figure award.

  18. Well written…but as a commoner, ie , non-legal person having their first tea of the day, I’m afraid I need someone to explain the shrewdness of the plaintiff’s attorney calling the defendant to testify.

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