Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Law: Juries, Verdict Forms, and Keyser Soze

Rule #1 as a plaintiff. Strike all the engineers from the jury pool.

Jurors should remember: you don't have all the information in a trial, and you don't know how the legal process works. Just because a lawyer doesn't spend time trashing the other side, it doesn't mean the other side is angelic. Sometimes, we cannot introduce evidence about how bad the other side is, even if he's bashing our side. Sometimes, judges rule that one side can say certain things, and we can't respond in kind. That means if we mention certain things, the judge can declare a mistrial, and we have to do the whole trial over again.

Don't make any assumptions. Just look at the evidence. Don't assume that you're smarter than everyone else, and you're able to see something that isn't actually in front of you in the form of testimony or a document.

Also, if you do rule against a plaintiff, it usually means s/he has to pay the other side's costs. Sometimes, if you're not sure about who's right, the best thing to do is to rule for the plaintiff and give him or her one dollar.

For lawyers: don't assume that a plaintiff will always benefit from a general verdict form instead of a special verdict form. (A special verdict form forces the jury to think hard about each element of the case, while a general verdict form basically asks, "Is he liable for fraud? yes/no.") By giving the jury a simplified general verdict form instead of a special verdict form, jurors were able to avoid thinking hard about the case.

Also, a simplified form allows the foreperson to advance her/his own ideas about the law, even if s/he is completely wrong. Here, we
thought the case was already complicated enough, so all of us agreed on a general verdict form to make things easier on the jury. Unfortunately, the general verdict form allowed the jury to bypass thinking analytically about the case and to decide based on their general feelings and the foreperson's own ideas about the law. For example, after the trial, one juror (the foreperson) said, "The other side's conduct wasn't flagrant enough." I was thinking, "Dude, that's not the law. There's no law that says, 'Only flagrant conduct is illegal,' or "The conduct must be flagrant to be illegal.'"

More advice for lawyers: don't always take the high road. If the other side is bashing your client and name-calling, try to find some way of countering without causing a mistrial. Jurors will choose sides based on whom they think is the good guy or the bad guy, regardless of the law. For example, if the other side hasn't bifurcated punitive damages, bring up the value of his home or another large asset if he keeps saying he's judgment-proof. Or bring up his unpaid debts. Or his or her massive wealth. You need something to make the jurors think they're dealing with someone who can handle a judgment or who deserves a judgment.

On the other hand, consider dropping punitive damages if you don't have a slam dunk situation. You won't be able to bring in any evidence of the defendant's net worth or financial information, but the punitive damages portion will probably get bifurcated anyway (thereby preventing you from talking about the other side's financial situation, bad debts, massive wealth, etc.). The upside is that you won't have to prove malice or oppression. If you try to show malice or oppression, jurors may get confused about the burden of proof on the original claim. For example, they may think that negligence requires malice (it doesn't). Lawyers may want to tell a jury in closing argument whether a specific claim requires specific intent.

I am going to need some time to get over this one.
I will not be posting for a while.

P.S. Note to judges: if you allow the other side to bring up stuff about atomic bombs or to equate a foreign government's actions with an individual, no matter what the result, one party will think the process was tainted. Telling someone the remedy for any resulting prejudice is a mistrial--where a party and his lawyer have to come back and do everything all over again--is fair but somewhat impractical when one side is pro se and essentially unemployed, and the other side is paying for a lawyer and expert witnesses. I don't want to focus too much on the national origin issue now, but I might write about it later. At the end of the day, I feel the jury treated my client, an educated U.S. citizen of Middle Eastern descent, as not fully American. Why would they do that? Why would they side with the lawyer who had misrepresented facts all week? Could all the talk about atomic bombs and religion have something to do with it? Was it something else? Was it a combination of different factors, some permissible and some impermissible?

(And yes, I did ask the court to exclude testimony and comments about foreign governments and international affairs. The court wasn't sympathetic to my argument that mentioning the Iranian government and current events would result in prejudice. I argued that allowing such comments and testimony would be unduly prejudicial when the media is currently hyping an Iranian nuclear threat and when the primary images of Iranians in the mainstream media are of the much-hated Iranian president. The court wasn't swayed by my argument. The court did exclude evidence of my client's international travels, but the defendant still mentioned it during the trial. The judge stopped the trial, called us over for a sidebar, and warned the defendant that he was in contempt and should not mention excluded evidence again. The defendant went back to calling my client a "professional plaintiff," which was somewhat hilarious to hear from a plaintiff's lawyer. Also, I don't know if this should make me feel better or worse, but I believe the judge was sincerely fair. I still believe we were very lucky to get an excellent judge.)

Update: I forgot to add one more interesting tidbit. After the trial, a judge can ask the jurors how they voted if requested by a party. This is calling "polling" the jurors. According to the one juror who voted in our favor, someone switched her vote during polling. So one juror decided one thing in the jury room and another thing in public. Why would someone switch her vote?

Keep in mind, other than the defendant's/lawyer's own testimony, no other evidence was offered to prove my client had a bad motive for bringing his current lawsuit. The defendant even said at one point, "You're slicing baloney," when I asked him about the alleged conversations between himself and my client. Two other lawyers who were in the room and heard defendant's allegations found them to be totally baseless and indicated the defendant was not believable. Under cross-examination, the defendant testified that he and my client had a 2 to 3 hours conversation about my client's ex-wife, my client's search for an Iranian wife, and Middle Eastern politics. Later, the defendant suddenly added that my client had discussed the Holocaust during this conversation. I asked about the percentage of the conversation dedicated to personal issues, Middle Eastern politics, and the Holocaust. He answered, "50/50." I asked him how three different topics could be "50/50," which spurred his "slicing baloney" comment. During this part of his testimony, the defendant mentioned Iran's conference against the Holocaust and said the Holocaust is called the "Hollow Holocaust" in Iran. No one in the jury appeared fazed at all, perhaps because by that point, they were tired and had been desensitized by the earlier comments about nuclear bombs and government actions. My client is a clean-shaven U.S. citizen who has been living in America since 1978.

Furthermore, the defendant once accused a sitting judge of being anti-Semitic, a claim that was rejected. Defendant's allegation of judicial anti-Semitism occurred in a separate case, and I didn't want to risk a mistrial/contempt by mentioning it after the judge ruled that we could not discuss unrelated cases.

The one juror who voted in our favor on the legal malpractice claim? A retired ex-Air-Force sergeant. Post-trial, when the jurors learned more information about the defendant, they appeared shocked. The retired ex-Air-Force sergeant even angrily exclaimed, "I told you so," to one of the other jurors.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Appeal.

K_Yew said...

@Anonymous: do you have 20K to spare for an appellate lawyer and the costs of ordering the trial court's transcripts and other documents?

Seriously, though, if you know an appellate attorney who can handle an appeal pro bono, please post a comment with his/her contact information.