Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Jury Duty

Recently, a discussion began among a small group of friends, of which I was one. The topic was jury duty, who did it and who avoided it. Those that had enjoyed their time in service (perhaps endured is the better word) had plenty of stories to share. The following was mine, and there is no exaggeration involved. (Okay, maybe slightly so. But only slightly).

Back in the early 70s and still living in my hometown of Los Angeles, CA, I was served notice to appear two weeks later at the Superior Court of Los Angeles. Thankfully, it was only for jury duty. Call me crazy, but I looked forward to the opportunity. I thought it would be a good one-month-long first-hand learning experience. The fact that my current job was fairly routine and sometimes rather dull probably made the prospect more enticing than it otherwise might have been.

As I recall, the city repaid all of the jurors so much for every mile they drove to get there. So, I wasn’t out-of-pocket in any way. After all, my employer was obligated to pay my regular salary during this period. Before it was over, I had "worked" as a juror on two cases, both of which I found to fluctuate between engrossing and boring. While each of them was a civil trial, this was the real deal, not a TV recreation.

And wouldn’t you know it? The first case concluded with a moment of high drama that exceeded anything I’d ever seen out of Hollywood. It had to do with a man who had been a corporal in the Army, stationed somewhere in Texas, not too far from the Louisiana border. For several months, he had been taking pills the Army hospital had prescribed for a condition he had. These tablets contained at least one narcotic, maybe more, which made him very drowsy.

Late one evening, his sergeant (or some other military authority) instructed him to make an overnight run. His mission was to deliver some equipment to a base in Louisiana. The guy explained that he was taking medication and shouldn't be put in a potentially perilous position for obvious reasons. It didn’t matter. He was still ordered to go.

Quite alone, the soldier drove all through the night for something like a couple of hundred miles. Sure enough, he fell asleep and crashed his vehicle, rolling it two or three times. (I seem to recall it was a jeep). The worst of the injuries he suffered was that he lost the ability to turn his right arm and hand from a palm up to a palm down position and vice versa (the act of supination).

So, several years after the event, we all congregated in a Los Angeles courtroom. The former soldier was suing the manufacturer of the seat belt he’d been wearing. The reason the case was being heard such a long distance from where the accident had occurred was simply because the seat belt manufacturer was located in Southern California. Therefore, the luckless ex-corporal had filed a lawsuit in the region where the company was located. Plain and simple, the victim argued that his injuries came about because the belt had been faulty. His claim was that it had opened and released him very much on its own at the moment of impact, and that's what caused the damage, both minor and major.

The trial went on for something like five or six court days. In his opening statement, the plaintiff’s lawyer strongly stated his client’s disability was a direct result of shoddy workmanship, having been caused by the manufacturer's negligence. Experts for both sides were called to the stand. There was also plenty of personal testimony on how the plaintiff's life had been drastically affected by the poor quality of the belt in question.

About three-quarters of the way through the trial, I found myself in sympathy with the soldier's plight. But I also thought the fact that the Army had insisted he go on the excursion when he was not fit to drive also gave them a certain amount of culpability. My thinking was that the plaintiff deserved something along the lines of 70 percent of what he was asking.

I still leaned in that direction when it came time for the final summations. When it was the defendant's turn, the lawyer (a strikingly handsome man), reiterated that his client had never faced a lawsuit in all of the years he’d been in business. The accident was not the firm’s fault, but the soldier's. Perhaps he hadn't been wearing the seat belt properly. Maybe he wasn't wearing it at all! The attorney went on to remind the jury that each one of us had inspected the actual seat belt as much as we’d wanted. At no time had there been any sign that the belt was opening prematurely.

The lawyer for the defense approached the wind-up of his presentation with an air of self-assured cockiness. He had indeed built up the drama of his argument skillfully. As he prepared to make his final and completely convincing wrap-up, he held the belt-in-question by the end strap, swinging it in full arm-circles to emphasize how secure it was.

And ... I swear this happened ... as he continued to build up momentum in both his physical movement and recitation, just as he hit the very peak of emotion … the damn belt released, half of it flying across the room and hitting a wall.

There followed a deathly silence. The lawyer opened up his mouth to say something, but quickly clamped it shut. Instead, he turned beet red, then quickly changed his course to one of contrition, as he weakly finished his argument. But it was too late ... everybody in that courtroom knew it. The question of how much would be fair compensation to award the corporal was no longer in doubt.

When we went back to the Jury Room to discuss it, most everybody chimed in, saying, "Did you see how that belt came apart?" and other similar comments. A few acknowledged that they'd been favoring the manufacturer for the same reason I'd been planning to vote for giving the plaintiff a reduced award.

It only took a few hours before we came to a unanimous decision. The soldier was given everything he sought, and we all felt perfectly justified in rendering that group opinion.

I have no idea whatever became of the defendant’s lawyer, the man that had been embarrassed to the point of abject humiliation. Afterwards, everybody involved in the case, including the jury, met in the hallway just outside of the courtroom. It was not hard to comprehend why the only person not in attendance was the one lawyer that had made the biggest impression.

From time-to-time, I’ve reflected on this unforgettable moment in jurisprudence. Perry Mason had never been so dramatic. And I, for one, was sincerely grateful that this experience had dropped into my lap, whether or not I was wearing a seat belt.

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