Courthouse Blues - 03.13.02

It was just over a month ago now that I received a summons for jury duty for county court. Like a good little citizen, I filled out the short questionare and returned it via mail, then waited and wondered whether I'd get called. Only a month later (almost to the day at which it said I could expect to be called), I indeed did hear back, and I was to report to the court house at 8:45 on a Tuesday morning.

With book in hand, I showed up, and after I'd plowed through about 20 pages, everyone in the waiting room (just over 30 of us) were called into the courtroom and random names were drawn to sit on the prospective juror panel of 24. My name was the last one called, and after a short break, everyone was asked the same questions by the lawyers in order to ascertain which group of people would be best suited to jury the trial.

The list was made and I happened to be on it, so the 13 jurors (12 actual and one un-named alternate) took their places and we heard opening statements. Just after that, we were given a 2 hour lunch break, and I was figured that at the rate we were moving it might end up lasting a couple days.

The case itself was fairly straightforward, but had some slightly interesting twists. An older lady (plaintiff) and her mother were driving home home in their car East to West on a gravel road just south of Lincoln one Friday afternoon. Just as they entered an intersection, a man (defendant) smashed into them with a small pickup just behind the drivers side door. Both cars spun around and ended up on the Southeast ditch, and everyone involved had been wearing seatbelts. The driver of the pickup (the guy) was completely uninjured (other than some bruises) and hopped out to help. The passenger of the car (even though she was fairly old) was able to get herself out of the car, but the seatbelt of the driver of the car has given her neck abrasions and partially cut off her breathing. With the help of the driver of the pickup, the seatbelt was taken off to free up breathing and the driver was left in the car until the paramedics came.

One thing to note about some gravel road intersections is that neither direction often has a stop or yield sign. Therefore, one of the undisputed items was that the man in the pickup failed to yield (cars to the right always have right-of-way in these situations). The man driving the truck admitted that he only saw her car at the last minute, and tried to slow down and steer out of the accident, while the woman driving the car admitted she didn't see his car until the grill was only 10 feet or less from her.

Another specific to note about the intersection in question was that there's a grove of trees on the right side of the road as you're driving south (the direction of the defendant). To compound the problems, the road that the plaintiff was driving on came up out of a slight valley as it neared the intersection. Although it was a clear, sunny day in May, neither driver really had the chance to see each other until they got very close to the intersection.

One of the disputed items that we were to decide was actually how much she had been injured by the accident. The other passenger in her car wasn't injured, but gave testimony that her daughter had not only been choking as the seatbelt cut off her airflow, but that she had deep bruises and pain that kept her from getting back to her regular life for almost six months. She was retired at the time, and I assume she had no health insurance at the time of the accident, as out-of-pocket medical bills were brought forth to total almost 5,000 dollars.

One of the strangest facets of this case involved the car itself. The car that was hit was a 1989 Pontiac 6000, with a blue book value of around 1,500 dollars. One of the points that the plaintiffs tried to bring up was that since they lived in the country (and had no nearby access to stores, etc), it was actually worth more than 3,000 dollars to them. After it had been hit (and totalled at the scene), it was towed to Lincoln (about 15 miles north of the accident) and left at a storage facility. The accident itself had happened on May 19, 2000, and the car was still sitting at the storage facility, racking up charges of 6 dollars a day (for a total of almost 5,000 dollars since the time of the accident). In addition to the expenses listed above, the plaintiff had also rented a car for a couple weeks after the accident in order to get around, and this bill was submitted along with the above, making the supposed settlement equal out to roughly 12,000 dollars (medical bills, car, and storage fees).

The trial itself was interesting at parts, and mind-numbing at others. Some points were re-iterated so many times that I wanted to point out to the lawyers that I'd already heard the same thing about 3 times already, while there were other things that weren't even answered (at least in my mind). There were 6 live witnesses called, as well as one written deposition and one videotaped one. A couple of the witnesses were obviously just brought forth to try to nudge a little more sympathy from the jury, as they did nothing more than explain the pain and suffering of the plaintiff (family members, not doctors).

Some of the things that didn't quite line up included written doctor statements that agreed the plaintiffs had deep bruises and a couple lacerations, but those seemed to be the extent of the prognosis. Even X-rays showed that these seemed to be the worst of the problems that anyone had. Still, when different witnesses were on the stand, they talked about the plaintiff having broken ribs, as well as a broken sternum, at one point even saying that the cracked sternum didn't show up in the X-ray.

Another of the contested items was the speed at which both vehicles were travelling. The man driving the pickup admitted that he'd been driving 55 miles per hour at the time, which was 5 miles per hour over the speed limit on a country road. The woman driving the car stated that she was only going 35 at the time of the accident. The defendant had a taped deposition from a young girl who was following the plaintiff at the time of the accident which stated she thought that they were going much faster than 35, but her testimony was pretty shaky (she was driving on a learners permit).

During a break after all this testimony, the jurors again had a short break and it was found by the court that the defendant was indeed negligent in the case (he'd been issued a ticket on the day of the accident and already paid that), so it was up to us as the jury to decide on an award of damages.

The closing statements were probably some of the best I'd seen from either of the lawyers during the two days. Being succinct, they at least boiled things down to black and white terms and got around to stating their points (in comparison, at some points during questioning of witnesses, it simply seemed like they were engaging in idle chit-chat).

During the first statement by the plaintiff, we were told about the loss of the car, as well as the storage fees and out-of-pocket medical expenses. Given all the information stated earlier on in the trial, the number seemed to be hovering right at about 12,000 dollars for all of the above, and that figure was mentioned once in the closing statement.

In the closing statement of the defendant, it was admitted that the driver of the truck was found negligent by the court. All along, he had admitted making errors, but that he had tried to avoid the accident while the plaintiff did not. Without attacking witnesses, the validity of the "pain and suffering" argument was questioned, especially since the last doctor visit had come about 5 days after the accident itself. The storage of the automobile for 6 dollars a day was also questioned as a valid cost, especially since the total more than tripled the value of the car itself. Not only that, but the plaintiffs lived on a farm and had ample room for storage of the totalled vehicle there until they found another place for it.

In the rebuttal closing statement, the plaintiff finally dropped the big number that I was wondering about. Instead of mentioning the 12,000 dollar figure again, he stated that the plaintiff was looking for a 25-30,000 dollar settlement for everything, including pain and suffering.

It was after these closing statements that I was informed that I was indeed the alternate juror and that my service was now done. I stood up and left the courtroom, then talked with the bailiff as I went to retreive my book from the break room. I told her that although it was fun, I felt sort of slighted since I sat through the entire trial, yet didn't get to add my discussion and thoughts to the actual decision by the jury. She said that was a pretty typical reaction and was friendly, as I imagine that she gets the same sort of reaction most of the time. Even though it wasn't a huge case, and it wasn't a big emotional involvement on my part, it would have been nice to be able to feel like I had a word in the final decision.

Alas, such is our justice system. Even if my first experience as a juror was a little frustrating, I'm glad that we live in a country where such benefits are allowed to us as citizens. Plus, the actual motions of sitting on the jury were very interesting given all my combined experience with courtrooms in the past. Because most of my actual notions of courtrooms and jurys have come from seeing different things on television or in movies, it was almost a natural inclination to feel like I was sitting on the set of a movie or television show as things unfolded in front of me. After that initial feeling, though, I was able to settle in and take everything in, thinking that I was going to be able to formulate some opinions and discuss things with fellow jurors.

Instead, I guess I'll have to read about the settlement in the paper, if I'm even inclined to follow it that far. I do know that if I'm asked to serve on a jury again, though, I'll jump at the chance. It wasn't necessarily fun, but it was a good learning experience.