Thursday, September 23, 2010

Juror No. 3: The Verdict

(To catch up on the first two posts in this series, check out these links: jury selection and trial)

When I left off yesterday, the jury had just received our instructions and retired to the jury room for deliberations. Here comes the fun part! This will be a long one, but in my opinion, it's the most interesting. Jury dynamics! Argument! Strong opinions! Debate! What's not to like?

We selected our foreperson by default. The judge told us in her instructions that normally Juror 1 is the foreperson by default unless we elect differently. We decided to just stick with Juror 1, a man in his 50s who worked in PR/advertising. 

The verdict form contained nine questions in total, so we started going through it in order. We only needed five of the six jurors to agree to any given question, and all in agreement had to sign their names below each question. The first question was: "Was the Defendant negligent?" We quickly all agreed that yes, they were. The missing plank was clearly a hazard that the zoo should have been aware of and repaired. We all signed our names under Question 1.

The second question was: "Was the Defendant's negligence a substantial factor in causing the accident?" Again, we quickly answered yes, because the Plaintiff clearly tripped over the missing plank. We all signed in agreement.

The third question was: "Was the Plaintiff negligent?" This was where we got hung up. There were three jurors - Juror 1 (our foreperson), Juror 3 (myself) and Juror 5 (a girl in her late-20s who worked in some sort of bank management position) - who felt that yes, he was negligent. He clearly testified that when he went to retrieve his daughter, he did not watch where he was going. He was focused on his daughter and did not look anywhere else as he walked - not up, not down, not left, not right. While his reason for distraction was sympathetic, we (the pro-Defense jurors) all felt that you cannot expect to walk 30 feet in any crowded, unfamiliar area (especially in New York) without tripping over something or someone. Regardless of the reason for distraction (be it going after a kid, checking your Blackberry, reading a map, or even just looking at the pretty birds in the trees), if you are distracted while walking, you can't expect not to put yourself at risk. Simply put, you must watch where you are walking!

However, there were two jurors - Juror 4 (a man in his late 30s, and a father to young kids) and Juror 6 (a 21-year-old Hispanic girl who worked as a receptionist for a real estate company) who felt adamantly that the Plaintiff was not negligent. They felt that he should be entitled to walk 30 feet through the Bronx Zoo without having to watch his step without tripping on anything. The last juror - Juror 2 (a 50-year-old former construction worker) - was undecided and kept flip-flopping between the two positions.

We were stuck on this point for the rest of the afternoon. We asked twice to have the definition of negligence read back to us, and we had to return to the courtroom to have the judge do so. We ended Thursday still stuck on this point. This really highlighted something from my work for me - on all the death penalty case juror questionnaires I work with, we always include the question "could you sign your name to a death penalty verdict?" I never really realized how big a deal signing your name to something is. As we debated this point in deliberations, I realized that I would not and could not sign my name to say that I agreed the Plaintiff was not negligent. I just couldn't do it. That really is a very big thing, and it really means something. It was very interesting to be in that position.

Friday we returned to continue our deliberations and again had the judge re-read the definition of negligence. We returned to the jury room and finally, one of the pro-Plaintiff jurors broke. Juror 6 agreed that she could see the Plaintiff being a tiny bit at fault for not watching where he was going, and we finally had the five signatures we needed to move on. Juror 4 held his ground and refused to sign in agreement on this question.

The next question was: "Was the Plaintiff's negligence a substantial factor in causing the accident?" We debated this question for a bit again. Once again, Jurors 1, 2, 5 and myself felt that yes, it was. He should have watched where he was going. Juror 4 was not involved in this question because he had not signed for the previous one, and Juror 6 did not want to say Plaintiff's negligence was a substantial factor. We soon realized we were getting held up on the definition of "substantial," and asked the judge to re-read it for us. Our problem was that "substantial" was not defined as we tend to think of it in everyday language (we usually think it means "considerable," "major" or "significant"). Rather, the Plaintiff's negligence could be considered "substantial" if it played any role in the accident, regardless of how large or small a role it played. After hearing the definition again, Juror 6 agreed with the majority and we had our five signatures.

The next question asked us to assign percentages of blame to the Plaintiff and Defendant. I was aiming for a 70-30% split (70% going to the zoo), but we settled on 90% for the zoo and 10% for the Plaintiff.

We then moved on to damages. We were asked to award damages for 1) past pain and suffering since the time of the accident; 2) future pain and suffering for the remainder of the Plaintiff's expected life; 3) past medical expenses since the accident; and 4) future medical expenses for the remainder of his expected life. We sort of hit a wall here, because how on earth do you assign monetary amounts for pain and suffering? We didn't even know where to begin.

I suggested that we start with future medical expenses, because that seemed easy to quantify. We knew generally what Plaintiff would need in the future, and the doctors had testified to what those procedures would cost (although there was a discrepancy in the Plaintiff's doctor's estimations - in his written report he said a total knee replacement would cost $25,000, but in court he testified it would cost $100,000. This was "explained away" by the PA as a "typographical error."). We settled on $125,000 to cover medical expenses for a duration of 31 years, just slightly lower than the $150,000 the PA had suggested in his closing statements. All six signed to the agreed-upon $125,000.

We then moved on to past medical expenses. We knew what the Plaintiff had done to this point, and through our own past experiences we tried to estimate what each procedure/visit/medication/etc. would cost. We settled on $45,000 for past medical expenses. All six signed.

We then moved on to past pain and suffering. We took into account all that Plaintiff had endured - the pain, the stress of not knowing what was going on with his knee, the countless doctors' visits and two surgeries, the recovery, the inability to do various activities with his family, the stress of the court proceedings, etc. We settled on $200,000 for this category, which again was much lower than the $375,000-$475,000 the PA suggested during closing statements. All six signed for this amount.

The last and most troublesome category was future pain and suffering. Again, Jurors, 1, 5 and I were like-minded and were leaning towards a much lower number than pro-Plaintiff Jurors 4 and 6. We felt that the stress of uncertainty had dissipated, and Plaintiff now knew what to expect and when as far as future care. He also was still able to work, still able to have a relationship with his kids, etc. Jurors 2, 4 and 6 felt strongly that he still faced much uncertainty and loss of enjoyment of life and he should be awarded a much higher amount. The lowest number thrown out was $300,000 (by me, and quickly rejected by Juror 6 with a "never!"), and the highest was upwards of $700,000. The PA had suggested we award $575,000-$675,000 for this category. We finally settled on $500,000, but Juror 5 and I spent a good while wrestling with that. We both considered refusing to sign but in the end, we agreed. We had our verdict.

Of course, we finally reached our verdict at 1:30, while the judge and attorneys were out at lunch. Our lunch was delivered to us from a local deli (as it was the day before) so we ate in the jury room and waited for the courtroom to reopen. At 2:15 we were finally able to go in and announce our verdict.

Juror 1 was asked to stand and the court clerk read each item on the verdict sheet, asking for our verdict and number of jurors in agreement for each item. Once the verdict had been read, the DA asked for a polling of the jury, so one by one we were asked individually if that was our verdict, and one by one we each stood and replied, "yes." And that was that.

We then went back to the jury room, where the judge came to speak to us. She thanked us for our service and answered any questions we had, and allowed some of her interns to ask us questions as well (we were told we did not have to answer if we did not want to). She then told us that the attorneys would probably want to speak to us as we exit, so if we did not want to talk to them, we should exit a different way. Five of the six of us went out the front door to speak with the attorneys. Only Juror 4 (the strongest pro-Plaintiff juror) left without speaking to anyone.

Juror 5 and I had sort of become friends during the whole process (since we are close in age and were very like-minded about the issues in this case), so we stuck together when we spoke to everyone outside. The first thing that happened when we left the courthouse was the Plaintiff came up to us with tears in his eyes, thanking us profusely for our verdict and showing us pictures of his family. On the one hand it made me feel really good about the verdict, because he was so grateful and really does seem like a nice guy. On the other hand, I felt badly because he was thanking the two jurors who were most in favor of the defense, so...yeah. I spent some time talking to him and then spoke to his attorney.

I have to say, I found the PA entirely unlikeable after speaking with him outside the courthouse. Frankly, it put a damper on my good feelings about the verdict because I found him so unlikeable that I almost regretted that he "won." (Thankfully my good feelings towards his client mitigated that a bit, but still.) He was rather boastful about his victory, and proud of himself for "ripping that doctor a new one" on Wednesday. He asked me specifically what I thought of his discrediting the doctor with the two reports he did for the same person, and I told him that I thought it showed the doctor was NOT biased and did not alter his findings based on who hired him. The PA's response was, "oh, so you bought into that excuse, did you?" I found that somewhat offensive. He also went on and on about how awful the judge was (I disagreed), and was inappropriately flirty with Juror 5. I am assuming that was just a joke gone too far, but that level of flirting (joking or not) while sporting a wedding band and friendship bracelet from your kid is downright scumbag-like in my book. Needless to say, it was probably better for his client that I didn't get to see his true personality until after the trial.

I then spoke to the DA for quite a while. He was much more humble, and thanked us for the careful consideration we gave to this case. He was not surprised that it did not end up in his favor, as it was a hard case to argue - his client clearly should have repaired that missing plank, and he couldn't exactly attack the Plaintiff for not watching where he was going because he was focused on his kid. So really, it was hard to make a good case for his client, but he did the best he could. I told him I liked his style (he was much more calm and poker-faced than the PA) and gave him other feedback where I could. He was very nice and appreciative. He also told us that although our total damages amount was higher than his client had been offering before the trial, it was also lower than the Plaintiff had initially been seeking. So, I felt good that we had awarded a "middle ground" number, sort of a compromise.

And that was it! Juror 5 and I were the last two left, as we stayed the longest talking to the parties. She and I talked a little more to each other then parted ways. Our jury was officially disbanded.

Farewell, courthouse! I snapped this photo with my Blackberry as I headed back to the subway when it was all over.

What a fantastic experience it all was! I am so happy to have been a part of it, and I hope to have the opportunity to serve on another jury again someday.


Lauren said...

Sounds like an awesome experience Meghan! :-)

Anonymous said...

Way to go Meghan! You sound so professional!
Aunt Rachel

Becky said...

Woo-hoo! Juror #3 ROCKS!

AD said...

Totally fascinating.