The Civil Case

JuryOf the five times I’ve been selected to serve on jury panels, only one was a civil case. It was sometime in the early 90s when I was living in an apartment in the Academy House in Center City, so it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to get to the courtroom each day, though as I recall the trial only lasted about two days. It was, I believe, my first time in the newly built Criminal Justice Center.

Jury selection occurred without the judge present. It was just the lawyers and two people (a man and a woman) who I later came to realize were the plaintiffs. If I were giving their counselor some advice, I’d have told him to keep the plaintiffs away from the jury selection process because the woman in particular had such a sour look on her face that she immediately made a bad impression on me. I don’t know how the other jurors felt. But presumably the two plaintiffs insisted on participating in the jury selection process. Or perhaps they had to be there, as perhaps one of the questions was whether we potential jurors recognized them, but I don’t recall the defendant being present. The selection process was mainly asking us questions as a group with a show of hands as to whether we could be impartial about this or that.

Once the two lawyers had agreed on the jury panel, we all went to the courtroom where the judge introduced himself and we were sworn in.

The plaintiffs, a husband and his wife who appeared to be about 40ish , were suing the defendant, a man who seemed to be around 50 or so; he was an immigrant from Poland and spoke English with a very thick accent.

The case revolved around a car crash that had occurred in the early morning hours and had been caused by the Polish man not stopping at a red light. There had been some relatively minor damage to both vehicles (the Pole had a photo of his damaged car but the husband did not), but neither man seemed to be seriously injured. The husband went to a chiropractor after the crash; the Pole did not seek any medical treatment.

Philadelphia Criminal Justice CenterSome time after the crash, the husband developed some serious medical problems, and now he and his wife were suing the Pole for damages caused by the crash and for loss of consortium.

Each side had a medical expert testify. The plaintiff’s expert claimed, in essence, that the crash had caused the husband’s medical problems, while the defendant’s expert refuted that claim. Both the husband and the Pole testified, as well as the wife, and a police officer who had been at the scene the crash. Maybe one or two others.

Once again, when we got to the jury room, I was selected foreman simply because no one else wanted the position.

There was no disputing that the Polish man had run the red light and had caused the crash. We were given a list of questions we had to answer.

I don’t remember the questions, but they were a logical progression starting with something like did the car crash cause the plaintiff’s injuries. We needed to answer each one in the affirmative in order to decide for the plaintiff; if we got to a “no” answer, then the case was decided for the defendant.

As I recall, initially nobody had a very strong opinion one way or the other, although the Black and other minority jurors were leaning towards the plaintiffs, while I and the other white jurors tended to favor the defendant.

We went around the room and everyone got to speak and it was all very civil. One fellow said very early on that he thought that the two medical experts cancelled each other out, and pretty much everyone else agreed with him. Actually, I thought that the defendant’s expert had made a stronger case, but eliminating the medical testimony favored the defendant anyway, so I didn’t voice my opinion on that.

We didn’t just talk about the first question on the list, we discussed all of them; we discussed the case from every angle that we could think of, and gradually the consensus formed in favor of the defendant. So we answered the first question with a “no”.

We had spent about three hours in deliberations and when the jury wrangler (not sure what her title was) came in and looked at our verdict sheet and saw that we had only answered the first question, she made some comment about our spending all that time just for one question. She left to let the judge know that we had reached a verdict, and the most vocal member of our jury panel erupted in outrage. She didn’t know how much we had discussed, he fumed. How dare she be so dismissive!

In thinking it over later I wondered if the negative impression that I had formed of the plaintiffs in the jury room had influenced my decision. I didn’t think so, and in any case the eleven other people came to the same conclusion.

And why had there been such a dichotomy in the way the minority jurors perceived the case versus the white folks? I think they initially saw the plaintiffs as the victims, but as we all discussed the case, they came to see the defendant as the victim. That’s just a guess.

When I announced the decision in the courtroom, the defendant broke down in tears. The judge, who had presided quietly over the proceedings through the whole case, gently noted that perhaps, being an immigrant, the Polish defendant had not expected to receive a fair judgement in the case.

When we had first come together in the jury room, several of the jurors expressed a certain contempt for the jury system and the criminal justice system. Now that it was over I asked them if their opinions had changed at all, and they said they still didn’t think much of the criminal justice system, but perhaps the civil system wasn’t so bad.

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