Articles Tagged with jury trial

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I have been recovering from hip replacement surgery (my second) these last two weeks and have watched a lot of daytime television while keeping my leg elevated and ice on my hip.  Although I have enjoyed the short sabbatical, I hate that it came only through the necessity of having a new hip implanted. But I am doing very well and expect to be back in my office next week!

One thing that I won’t miss  is watching so many lawyer ads on TV. I do not believe they improve our image as plaintiff’s personal injury lawyers and for lawyers like me who actually try jury trials, it is perfectly clear that our jurors hate these ads. I just recently tried a medical malpractice trial in DeKalb County (which resulted in a $2.35 Million verdict for my client) and many of the perspective jurors during jury selection talked about how they didn’t trust lawyers because of the ads they see on TV and generally, because of these lawyer ads, they were suspicious of our bringing a personal injury case to trial. I had to do a lot of work in jury selection to make sure those potential jurors understood I didn’t advertise and that my case they were about to sit on was a legitimate case in which my client’s mother had died due to medical malpractice. I hate that right out of the gate I had to deal with some other lawyer’s advertisement on TV, like the person in an ad who claims her lawyer got her $900,000.00 and she doesn’t even look injured!

One of the things I have noticed while being forced to watch these TV lawyer ads, is that most of them proudly promote that they don’t get paid unless you get paid, as if they are the only lawyers in the State of Georgia who will boldly make that promise.  Although their statement is true, they are not the only personal injury lawyers who don’t charge a client for their time unless and until they win or settle a case for the client. In fact, as far as I know, ALL plaintiff’s personal injury attorneys, in Georgia and the entire United States for that matter, make the same deal as these TV advertising lawyers who act like they have the monopoly on this arrangement. It’s called a contingency fee agreement and all personal injury lawyers use one to be retained to work for a client on a personal injury case. Please understand that the statement made by TV advertisers about this says absolutely nothing about their skills, ability and experience as a trial lawyer.  We all work under this arrangement.

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I was just put on a jury in a case that seems pretty clear cut.  So why am I here? Why is there a trial?

Many jurors may find themselves thinking this in a case in which the defendant is clearly at fault and the plaintiff is clearly injured. Most reasonable people, as jurors tend to be, would assume a clear liability case with clear injuries should be settled out of court. My concern is that when a juror is forced to sit on a jury in a case like this, the juror may very likely assume it must be because the plaintiff wanted too much money. But it seems to be a trend in many cases in Georgia that what actually has happened is that the insurance carrier for the at-fault defendant has refused to offer much, if anything, before trial, to try to resolve the case. This has been borne out many times in recent trials.

For example, in a case tried in Whitfield County, Georgia (Dalton) a jury entered a verdict in the amount of $21.6 million last month for a man who lost a leg after being struck by a pick-up truck as he walked toward a Whitfield County highway to stop traffic for a tractor-trailer.  The plaintiff’s medical bills were more than $411,000 and the insurance carrier didn’t even offer that much before the trial, according to plaintiff’s attorney. He said the insurance carriers never offered any meaningful settlement despite their client’s permanent, life-altering injuries and despite a court-ordered mediation.

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Recently, I was in a courtroom in Fulton County, Georgia watching a medical malpractice trial.  I was not involved in the trial; I was just a trialwatcher. When I have time, I still enjoy watching trials, both civil and criminal, for the real life drama on display. No movie or play can capture the sheer, raw emotion of a trial.  A jury’s decision can be life-altering. In a civil trial for money damages,  a verdict for the plaintiff can give the family of the injured person or decedent a sense of Justice and much needed closure. A verdict for the defendant can give a defendant a sense of vindication. The whole trial process is designed to find the truth. In fact, the word “verdict,” in Latin, means “to speak the truth.”

I have often seen normal laypeople who are testifying realize, on the stand, they have underestimated the emotional pressure that the formality of the courtroom imposes on them. There is something about the utter dignity and formality of the Courtroom, with the judge sitting high on the bench, with a court reporter taking down every word uttered, with 12 citizens sitting in judgment, with a Deputy Sheriff at the door, that brings the enormity of it all into crystallized focus. In this medical malpractice trial I was watching, there was a moment with one of the defendants on the witness stand when he simply broke down during his testimony. He began to tear up on the stand and the began to cry, and the plaintiff’s attorney quickly asked the judge for a break. But it was too late. The defendant began crying uncontrollably, and literally fell down on the floor from the weight of it all. His attorney had to go help get him off the floor and then out of the courtroom as the bailiff quickly took the jury back to the jury room. It was clear that the defendant had suffered something so strong emotionally that he could not go on. We were all worried about his mental well-being. I knew his attorney and knew he would make sure his client was supported emotionally and not left alone.  I believe his attorney was sincerely concerned about his client’s ability now to go on with the trial and meaningfully participate in the trial and assist his attorney. In speaking with several of the attorneys in the case, both plaintiff and defense, not one of us had ever seen something like that happen in a trial before.  Most of us had practiced for over 30 years. Meanwhile, the plaintiff’s attorney felt just as strongly that the defendant’s outburst of emotion directly in front of the jury was so overly prejudicial that the jury could not help but sympathize with the defendant, regardless of any instruction the judge might give to the contrary. Telling a jury they may have no sympathy for either side is easier said than done when a witness has just broken down in front of their eyes.  Discussion was had by all counsel with the judge in the judge’s chambers, and I was not privy to what they discussed and argued. Eventually, the defendant who had broken down on the stand reappeared in the courtroom. He looked shaken and seemed to be trembling. He was visibly trembling as he took sips out of a water bottle. There was no question in my mind that this was sincere and beyond his control. I felt empathy for him. After about an hour, though, the judge and all counsel came back into the courtroom and the jury was brought back into the courtroom. The judge declared a mistrial and thanked the jury for their work and instructed the jury they were no longer needed and that their jury duty had been fulfilled.

Wow.

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Every day as I travel down Edgewood Avenue in Downtown Atlanta in the middle of Georgia State University, some pedestrian, without fail, decides to take a risk and walk out in front of either my car or another car as I watch. The only time this doesn’t happen is when Georgia State is on Spring Break. It is a stressful trip, knowing that in addition to the numerous cars all around me that I have to be aware of, I have to be ready to slam my breaks in a nanosecond to avoid hitting a pedestrian walking out in front of my car when I have the right-of-way. I am aware of the plentiful crosswalks available for pedestrian use, but they are mostly ignored.  I am talking about students who ignore the crossing signals and walk across a street either not in a crosswalk at all, or in a crosswalk but cross when the signal is telling them to stop.  This typical daily occurrence with pedestrians has me thinking about just exactly what are the laws in Georgia pertaining to pedestrians? Is it just me or are the pedestrian signals getting more complicated?  What do they actually mean?  When does a pedestrian have the right-of-way to cross the street? Can a driver of a vehicle just mow down a pedestrian if the pedestrian is not in the crosswalk?  How about if the pedestrian is in the crosswalk but the flashing hand has started with a stopwatch ticking down, telling the pedstrian how many seconds he or she has to cross the street before the signal turns?  Is a pedestrian required to know how fast they can walk and how many seconds they typically take to cross a street?  Does it depend on how many lanes the street is?  And whether there is a headwind or tailwind? My drive today has me thinking about all of this.  Hmmm….

First, we can easily find the Georgia Rules of the Road as they pertain to pedestrians on the Georgia Highway Safety website. The Official Code of Georgia provides:  § 40-6-91. Right of Way in Crosswalks: 

(a) The driver of a vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross the roadway within a crosswalk when the pedestrian is upon the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling, or when the pedestrian is approaching and is within one lane of the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning. For the purposes of this subsection, “half of the roadway” means all traffic lanes carrying traffic in one direction of travel.

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What is the price of a life lost? Could you put a price tag on your own life or that of a family member, killed at the hands of a negligent defendant? How much would you want people to say your life would have been worth?

These are the questions that juries must face when evaluating “damages” to award in wrongful death cases. Plaintiffs’ attorneys must ask the jurors to award money to a family who has lost its loved one due to the negligence of someone else. It’s tough to ask and even tougher to answer, but when parents have lost their child because of someone’s negligence, there must be some sort of monetary justice for the family.

So how much is a life worth? The Georgia Code provides: “The amount of the recovery shall be the full value of the life of the decedent.” O.C.G.A. § 51-4-5. But what determines that full value of life? The judge may instruct the jury: “You should consider the gross sum that the deceased would have earned to the end of life had the deceased not been killed… in determining the amount of the full value of the life of the deceased. The full value of the life of the deceased is not limited to the amount of money that could have or would have been earned had the deceased not been killed.”

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As I work at my desk in my office today, I have the voir dire (jury selection) in the retrial of Ray Tensing livestreaming on one of my monitors. Some folks have called jury selection the most boring part of any trial, but it may very well be the most important, because from jury selection comes the group of local citizens who will decide the fate of the parties in the case and really decide what the conscience of the community is regarding the issue being tried. The Ray Tensing case is an excessive force case being tried in Cincinnati, Ohio this week. Tensing is the former University of Cincinnati police officer charged with one count of murder and one count of voluntary manslaughter in connection with the 2015 shooting death of Sam DuBose. The deadly encounter happened during an off-campus traffic stop. Tensing has said he fired his service weapon in self defense. The incident was captured by Tensing’s police-issued body-worn camera. A am watching the criminal trial of Mr. Tensing, who is being tried for on one count of murder and one count of voluntary manslaughter.  There has already been a civil case that settled for money damages against the University of Cincinnati, Mr. Tensing’s employer at the time of the killing.  It is being tried for a second time because the first trial ended in a mistrial.  Watching voir dire or jury selection is helpful to me as a trial lawyer, not only in ideas of potential bias to explore but in hearing how a certain cross-section of our nation feels about jury trials in general. It is interesting that in Ohio, if a lawyer asks the Court to strike a juror for cause, meaning the juror has expressed so much bias about the issues and has stated he doesn’t think he could be fair on the case, the lawyer moves to strike the juror out loud in front of all the other jurors.  For example, one juror who the judge struck for cause said in jury selection that he thought Mr. Tensing “deserved a medal” for shooting Mr. Dubose.  No wonder why he was struck for cause.  In Georgia, we don’t do it that way because of the fear that once the judge strikes one juror for cause, in front of all the other jurors, the rest of the jurors will figure out what to say to get off the jury and then pretty soon all the jurors are gone. So in Georgia we approach the bench and make these sort of motions to the judge at her bench.

Many of the folks in the Tensing jury panel have mentioned the concern and anxiety they had simply upon receiving a juror summons requiring them to be present in court for the jury selection of this case.  They have expressed their bewilderment about whey they of all people in Cincinnati received a juror summons, why they have to be there, why they have to take time out of their jobs and lives to be there…in short, why them?  Why me?

Interesting question, and with a recent opinion issued by the Supreme Court of Georgia, Ricks v. State, infra, regarding how a jury panel is composed, I thought it merited looking into the issue of jury composition a bit deeper.  Georgia has a fairly new Jury Composition Rule that controls the manner in which Georgia citizens will be summoned for jury duty. For use in compiling official lists of potential jurors, the Jury Composition Act directs the Clerks Council to obtain voter registration records from the Secretary of State and driver’s license and identification card records from the Department of Driver Services (“DDS”); the Act also directs the Clerks Council to obtain records on individuals who are ineligible for jury service, including certain records regarding mentally incompetent persons and convicted felons who have not had their civil rights restored. See id. § 1-16 (codified as amended as OCGA § 15-12-40.1 (b), (c)).  Ricks v. State, S17A0465, 2017 WL 2061675,  (Ga. May 15, 2017)

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The news, even for the most jaded of us, was shocking:  Wells Fargo employees had created thousands of fraudulent bank accounts in their own customers’ names, without their customers’ permission or knowledge, so that employees could receive bonuses for opening a certain number of new accounts. These unscrupulous employees would take money out of their customer’s legitimate accounts and put them in the newly created fraudulent accounts.  If this caused a legitimate account to experience an overdraft, the Wells Fargo customer would be responsible for paying the normal fine for an overdraft. This really happened. And, so far, no one has been indicted and no one is going to prison for it.  Kudos to Senator Elizabeth Warren for suggesting that, but I wouldn’t count on it happening. And according to CNN, Wells Fargo may be the tip of the iceberg for banking fraud.

The question that is foremost in my mind now is whether Wells Fargo customers will get their day in court?  That’s a big question mark. Why?  Because the self-dealing of Wells Fargo includes inserting an arbitration clause in their banking agreements that essentially says if any dispute arises, the customer agrees it will be decided by arbitration.  This clause, found in all types of consumer contracts, including credit card agreements and nursing home admissions, is the same as forcing a customer to waive their 7th Amendment Constitutional rights to a jury trial.  Yet, a constitutional right cannot be unknowingly waived.  Waiver must be knowing and intentional for it to be valid. I am willing to bet that none of the Wells Fargo customers knew they were waiving their right to a jury trial when they became customers of Wells Fargo. I doubt they were told about it, I doubt they read any of the small print legal agreement they had to sign to open an account there and I doubt any of them had any knowing understanding or appreciation for what they were signing.   In fact, with “e-signatures” now on documents sent to us by email, it is highly unlikely that anyone reads anything now.  But lawyers for Wells Fargo have promptly raised this issue as a possible defense to any lawsuits filed against it for its fraud. They may attempt to use an arbitration clause from when the customer opened a legitimate account to defend against lawsuits brought for the opening of fraudulent accounts. Seems like that, alone, should be against the law.  This is particularly insulting when Wells Fargo executives took home millions of dollars in bonuses while defrauding their customers. Huh?

People are fighting back. The Wells Fargo incident simply brings to light the practice of forcing arbitration on consumers in a variety of transactions without the customers knowing anything about it. The American Association of Justice (“AAJ”) is fighting back.  Likewise, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is working on a rule that would restore your rights in situations where you unwittingly signed an arbitration clause.  If you are the victim of banking fraud, you can submit a complaint to the CFPB.  “Take Justice Back” is a grassroots campaign of AAJ that seeks to restore accountability and ensure American consumers have access to justice in the commercial transactions.  Consumers have to keep fighting the good fight on this issue. That good fight starts with being aware of forced arbitration clauses.  Check the fine print in any agreement you enter. You will likely find an arbitration clause in there somewhere. Cross it out, intial that, and THEN sign the agreement.  I once did this on surgery consent forms when my daughter was having knee surgery. I thought for sure they were going to call me up to the desk and tell me they couldn’t perform my daughter’s surgery because I had not signed their agreement to arbitrate. But, no, they never called me up to the desk and her surgery went on without a hitch. Take back your power and don’t be bullied by corporations. Don’t sign these arbitration agreements.

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Many of you know that as President of the State Bar of Georgia I began a statewide effort to reduce suicides among attorneys, which was occurring at an alarming rate. I created the State Bar’s “How To Save a Life” program and we set about educating our members about the warning signs of suicide, what to say and what not to say to a colleague or friend who you suspect may be contemplating suicide and the steps to take to help prevent suicide.  In the process, I learned a lot myself and suicide prevention has become a movement I hold dear, although I had certainly never even given it a second thought before I was faced with it in our membership as President of the State Bar. As a result of this learning process for me, I read just about everything I can on suicide.

Which brings me to the subject of this post: who is legally responsible for the suicide of someone else?  The recent Georgia Court of Appeals opinion in Mayor and City Council of The City of Richmond Hill v. Maia, No. A15A2334 (Ga. Ct. App. March 20, 2016), which may very well be one of the saddest cases I have ever read, answers that question in the context of city police officer and suicide victim and held the victim’s suicide was a reasonably forseeable consequence of the police officer’s negligent conduct where the police officer had a specific duty not to disclose the suicide victim’s confidential information.  The appellate court held that issue was one for the jury to decide and the case was remanded to the trial court for a trial. It is my understanding, however, that the City of Richmond has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court and the case is on the Supreme Court’s July docket. 

The facts of City of Richmond Hill are heartbreaking and very difficult to read and even imagine.  A young high school teenager attempted suicide by cutting her neck and stabbing herself.  Her mother placed her in a mental health hospital after the attempt.  The child stayed there for 9 days and then returned to her school.  As such things are with teenagers, the child’s suicide attempt became the talk of the school. According to her boyfriend’s testimony in the case “everybody knew after a couple of days what happened.” The City of Richmond Hill police department investigated the suicide attempt and as part of their official police investigation took photographs of the child’s injuries from the suicide attempt.  In what appears to be a horrific irony, one of the investigating police officers had a child who attended the same high school as the victim. The police officer became concerned  that his child did not appreciate the seriousness of the suicide attempt and so, in clear violation of the police department’s written policy entitled “Duty to Refrain from Disclosing any Information Relating to Police Activities,” showed the photographs of the victim to his daughter by accessing them through the police department’s computers. The police officer swore that he did not give them to his daughter or print them, but within days his daughter was showing these photographs of the victim on her cell phone to other students in the high school.

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I recently had jury duty in DeKalb County, Georgia, where I have been a resident for 15 years. In 15 years, I have received a summons for jury duty two times.  I have never served on an actual trial jury.  This is the ironic curse of being a trial lawyer.  Most likely, I will never serve on a trial jury although my job involves persuading trial juries to see a case my client’s way.  I have been in many, many courts throughout the State of Georgia and I am proud to say as a DeKalb County resident there is no better court experience than DeKalb County, from the deputies who check you through the metal detector, to the jury clerks who handle hundreds of jurors every day, to the courtroom staff of the trial judges, to the judges themselves.  It is an extremely pleasant experience and trust me, I have been in many Georgia courthouses where that simply cannot be said.

I believe jury duty is the Heart of American Government.  A trial jury is the smallest form of self-government ever conceived.  Government by the People for the People, right?  Trial by jury was so important to our nation’s Forefathers they enshrined it in the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Said President John Adams about trial by jury: “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”  So with that attitude, I proudly stepped into the DeKalb County Courthouse, with jury summons in hand, not in my usual role as trial lawyer, but in the very important role as potential juror. Awesome!  I can’t wait!

I went through the process of jury selection, called Voir Dire in law school and never called that again by me.  It sounds too pretentious, doesn’t it?  And jury “selection” is a misnomer…it is actually jury “deselection.”  Trial Lawyers don’t get to look at the jury venire (another pretentious word for the jurors from whom the trial jury will be struck) and pick who looks best to them. It is the opposite of that. Trial lawyers get (usually) six peremptory strikes to take off the jurors who seem like they would be horrible jurors for their side of the case, for one reason or another.  Each side of the trial strikes six jurors and whoever is left is your trial jury who will decide the case. Again, ironically, the jurors who end up deciding the case are usually the jurors you know the least about. They have often never even responded to any of your questions in “jury selection” so there were no red flags in their personal history to make you concerned about how they would see your case given their preconceived notions or their obvious leanings toward one side or the other. There are also strikes the Court (i.e., the trial judge) exercises called “strikes for cause” where it has been demonstrated that a juror could not possibly be impartial because of something that has happened in their lives perhaps so similar to the case to be tried that they have already made up their minds how the case should come out. Or maybe they have such deep religious beliefs that they are forbidden by their particular Faith to judge another human being and so would be incompetent to sit in judgment of another person.   I was thinking about jury selection this morning as I was reading about the trial that begins to today in the Boston Marathon bombing.  Jury selection in that Federal trial is estimated to take months and the jury venire from which a trial jury of twelve will be struck will  consist of 1,200 jurors!  Where in the courtroom do they put 1,200 jurors?

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