Monday, May 24, 2010

OTR: Reflections on Jury Service

About a month ago, I received the dreaded Summons for jury service. The good news was that I was a "Standby Juror", which meant that I needed to call the courthouse the night before service to see if I was needed. The bad news was that if I wasn't needed, another notice would float in shortly summoning me to serve. Unfortunately, the timing of the notice left a lot to be desired, with various dates for job candidates to be interviewed, start dates for new employees, speaking engagements, and whatnot. But the Thursday in question could be cleaned up if necessary and my track record over 25 years or so was never setting foot in a courtroom. And even if selected, I know cops and lawyers... lots of lawyers. I have made records and e-discovery my expertise. I testify on behalf of a Fortune 100 corporation... who would want me on their jury?

Wednesday night... "If your last name begins with a letter between B and N... please come to the courthouse tomorrow." So I packed a bag. I left the laptop behind, but had a couple books, some writing material and enough to keep me occupied for a day. Summons in hand, I strolled into the courthouse about 9am for the 9:30 am call, confident that I would have a nice day of studying as usual when jury service beckons. My Summons was exchanged for a number "16" piece of paper and an instruction sheet. I found an empty seat and settled in with a book as the video about jury service began to play. We were admonished to stay in this half of the room until we were told we could move around freely because they had some juries to call. No problem, I have number sixteen, I thought...

"Attention jurors! Pools 16 and 35, please come up front!"

Eh? Did they say 16?

So my brain rationalized, "Well, the last time this happened, they settled as soon as we were standing outside the courtroom. They passed out checks and sent us home. Cool, maybe I'll be home for lunch." So we trooped on to an elevator. There were 36 of us. No one looked real happy. We assembled in the courtroom in short order. The judge introduced everyone and asked if anyone knew any of the principals. And so it went. Lunchtime came and $10 later I was back in the courtroom as they continued weeding through the pool. Then the judge started calling names. I heard my own and took a seat in the jury box as directed. My heart sank. And sank again when the judge dismissed the 24 lucky people not selected. We were there for the duration. I held out hope that the parties still might settle, even with a seated jury. My mind raced through things that needed to be reorganized in my world. Then the judge sent us home, telling us that the case would be concluded "no later than Wednesday." That was a small positive, but I figured that I'd be late for the meeting of colleagues that I was hosting that Wednesday and this judge was not looking for excuses.

So began service. The case, in a nutshell, was a tenant suing a landlord because the tenant allegedly fell down a flight of stairs and was injured, that injury then made worse by subsequent treatment. It was a personal injury lawsuit. Yea. Graphic photos of ugly injured body parts would follow. Unintelligible medical terminology. Failed attempts at establishing foundation for evidence. Apparent discrepancies between sworn depositions and sworn testimony. And then the case would be placed in our hands.

The twelve of us had a fair amount of time together -- time where we couldn't talk about the case, but really had little else in common. So small bits of smalltalk, comments about public transit, reflections about the quality of the refreshments, whatever would pass the moments waiting for the wheels of justice to continue their turn.

By Tuesday morning, the evidence was complete and the lawyers geared up for the big finish. Plaintiff's attorney opened with the photos of the injured ankle. He demanded justice for his client. Defense recounted the holes in the Plaintiff's case, then forgot what he was going to say about why the plaintiff complained to the local building department. We all wanted to help him out because we managed to remember, but we sat stoically. Plaintiff's attorney came back for an undemanded encore and his big finish. He opened by insulting the defendant, referring to her and her boyfriend as "shacking up". That got the loudest objection from the Defense and an admonition from the judge. It scored zero points with the jury. We all sat there trying to understand that he had actually said that -- and what in the world he was trying to accomplish with that statement. But he moved on mercifully. The judge warned him that he had five minutes to wrap up. He launched into his finish and finally got around to what the Plaintiff was asking for. He laid out the damages for lost wages, at which point the judge told him that his time was up. Whoops. The judge's look conveyed a "I dare you to open your mouth" meaning. The lawyer looked like a fish out of water. He gathered up his papers and slunk back to his seat. The case was about to be ours.

The judge passed out written instructions and walked us through them. The bottom line was that the Plaintiff had to prove negligence by the Defendant on at least one of the counts AND prove "proximate cause" of the injury from the negligence. We retired to the jury room. Bio breaks happened and apparently I was elected foreman while I was taking mine. So I polled the jurors to see where they were. They all pretty much vented on the ineptitude of the Plaintiff's attorney. I reminded everyone of what we were instructed to disregard and what we were there to decide. We threw out two of the three negligence claims after a couple rounds of discussion. The last item of negligence was fairly clear, so we decided that we had the required act of negligence. Now we had to tie it to the injury. I read the judge's instruction on "proximate cause". Unfortunately, the Plaintiff's discrepancies in his story left us with the conclusion that we couldn't tie the negligence to the injury as the Plaintiff described what had happened.

Lunch was served and we discussed the outcome while we chewed. One juror was stuck. He felt that the Defendant was negligent, the Plaintiff was injured in proximity to the negligence, so we should find for the Plaintiff. I re-read the instruction about Proximate Cause. Others argued that they couldn't connect the two. That juror finally agreed with the rest of us. We had a verdict. We found for the Defendant. A light and buzzer announced our decision. We signed the verdict forms, then we waited for everyone to gather in the courtroom. We marched out together and the judge asked me if we had a verdict. I answered, "Yes we have, your honor." That would be my sole public act. I handed over the forms to the deputy, the judge reviewed them and read them to the court. The case was over. No drama, no hysterics, just a weary sigh from the jurors. The judge then thanked us at length for our service. He walked us through the history of the jury trial. Then he said something that really stuck with me... "There are three things that the United States demands of its citizens. First, to pay taxes. Second, to serve in the defense of the country in time of war. Third to serve on a jury. All of these demands come with a penalty for failure to comply -- the loss of freedom." I'm not sure that's completely accurate, but you get the gist.

There was a demand once more for everyone to rise for the jury and we went back to the jury room, collected our cell phones and said our good byes. The judge came in to thank us again and pass out our certificates of service. He dismissed us and we were free.

So four days of this experience left me with some thoughts about jury service. Perhaps the biggest impression is that I forget how privileged my life is. I'm surrounded at work by extraordinarily smart people -- and yes, lawyers who could litigate circles around the guys in that courtroom. My fellow jurors were almost uniformly a blue collar crowd. People in my role in their world are out of sight for them. For me, jury service was an inconvenience. The day job paid me and I could keep the princely sum of $17.20 a day for my trouble. For some of the others, they didn't get paid by their employers and those who did get paid had to turn in the check. The instructions from the judge were difficult for me to understand. For several jurors, they really didn't understand. Uniformly, however, we didn't want to be there. Civic duty or not, we didn't want the responsibility and we wanted to be anywhere else. Some walked away with a sense of duty and thankfulness that we concluded the trial quickly, but given a choice of other things to do, we would have rather been elsewhere.