Peter Clothier, a friend of mine, recently wrote a heartfelt blog post about his experience serving on a jury to decide on a personal injury case. Needless to say, this blog post, which appeared in Peter’s blog, The Buddha Diaries, immediately caught my attention.
Here’s a brief description of the case Peter was on the jury for. An 18-year-old man driving a 1992 Honda Accord rear-ended a Mercedes SUV when they were both stopped at a traffic light. The teenager was inattentive and ended up ramming the back of the SUV at 3 to 6 miles an hour. The two drivers exchanged information. A month later, the SUV driver experienced lower back pain. Doctors diagnosed a damaged disk and then it was one thing after another. He underwent three surgeries to repair the disk, tried to get it replaced with an artificial one, which didn’t work. In the end, he was in pain, he could no longer work and his relationship broke down. His whole life was falling apart. He filed a personal injury lawsuit against the teenager seeking damages for his injuries, pain and suffering.
This is where Peter’s journey began as a juror. In his blog, Peter beautifully and articulately describes the inner struggles that a juror goes through when he or she is sitting there, listening to emotional testimony and grueling details from technical experts (sometimes you wonder if they’re speaking English!).
In this case, Peter faced one significant challenge–maintaining his objectivity and reining in his tendency to judge or pre-judge. In my opinion, that’s easier said than done. It’s probably the biggest challenge for anyone who sits on a jury–whether it’s a civil rights case, personal injury case or a criminal case. All of us have opinions. We bring our own ideas and life experiences to the table, but we also bring our baggage–our biases and prejudices. I find it particularly interesting that Peter did not like the demeanor and presentation of the plaintiff’s attorney from day one, but constantly told himself to “keep an open mind” and analyze the case based on the facts, not his own bias or prejudice.
Peter talks about his skepticism of the facts presented from the plaintiff’s side, especially the fact that all the witnesses were from an Antelope Valley hospital whose employees seemed to be well-known to the plaintiff’s attorney. Normally, this is not a bad thing. But in this case, the plaintiff had gotten most of his treatment from another hospital. That left Peter and other jurors wondering why staff from the hospital where he actually got treated did not testify. What did they have to hide? In addition to these concerns, it came out during the trial that the plaintiff has taken a fall a month before this car accident and was treated for back injuries.
But he and other jurors were torn because they sympathized with the plaintiff, the pain and suffering he had been through and how his life was turned upside down because of his injuries. However, the jurors knew that their job was not to decide whether the plaintiff suffered injuries. Their job was to determine whether the 18-year-old defendant was liable for those injuries. These jurors at no point lost track of what they were there to do. In the end they all voted unanimously in the defendant’s favor. The plaintiff’s attorney, with his overly dramatic arguments (by Peter’s account), loud and hostile questioning of the witnesses and holes in his case, did not help his injured client. Still, Peter’s blog shows that jurors labored over the facts, controlled their instincts, emotions and tendency to unfairly judge the individuals involved and came up with a judgment that was sympathetic, fair and objective. I commend Peter and other members of the jury who took the time and did their due diligence by setting their personal feelings aside and doing the right thing.