I’m still thinking about the jury I sat on in a recent trial, and comparing the experience to legal thrillers where good and evil fight it out in high-stakes cases, the good guys win, and readers/viewers feel justice has been served.
In this civil case, two ordinary people were involved in a car accident; the driver of one accepted responsibility. The victim sued for damages beyond car repair. It was not a high-profile case, the attorneys didn’t wear expensive suits or throw smug looks to the jury, and we sat in the jury box in jeans.
I came away from the trial thinking that it wasn’t only about other people. It could have been about any of us sitting in the courtroom.
In fact, this case concerned two traffic accidents. The plaintiff sued the driver in the second accident and the jury had to decide which accident was responsible for the damage to the plaintiff’s shoulder and how much money he should receive for past and future medical expenses, and past and future emotional damage. (As an aside, based on the evidence, the jury concluded that the first accident shouldered — pun intended –most of the blame and, therefore, the driver in the second accident didn’t owe him as much as his attorney was asking for.)
Most of us have been in at least minor auto accidents. In my most serious one, on everyone’s advice, I saw a doctor the same day. I had X-rays, the doc said I’d be sore for a few days, and sent me away. In the trial, medical reports were key to the case’s outcome. A certain date on one report was incorrect, which opened the door for arguments about the accuracy of other statements. Furthermore, witnesses had forgotten details, and had to rely on written reports often produced by people who weren’t in court to testify.
One of the attorneys appeared to have had little trial experience. His questions meandered, he brought in witnesses who were not qualified to give certain kinds of evidence, and he caused delays by having to search through his notes before coming up with questions. The other attorney was clear, focused, and to the point. Which lawyer prevailed was no surprise.
We all know that things happen, which are out of our control, but this was a frightening reminder. My car was totaled when a teenager ran a red light and I rammed his vehicle in the intersection. A witness saw it and gave me her name and number. At first, the teen denied he was responsible, said I was to blame. I was so thankful that the witness had come forward. In the trial I sat through, the lawsuit was filed a year after the accident and the trial took place two years later. There was no police report. The woman being sued had taken responsibility for the accident, had no idea the lawsuit was coming, lived an entire year thinking the issues around her rear-ending another car had been taken care of, end of story. Suddenly the accident loomed over her again.
Nothing about this trial lived up to the drama of criminal cases in novels and film. Yet it had more lessons for most of us than fiction normally does.