Jury Duty

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I served on a jury.

TL:DRIf I ever need to go to trial (civil or criminal) I can’t pick just any attorney. I’ll need one willing to work with me. I’ll need one with strong recommendations regarding their skill with voir dire as well as how they connect dots and how they organize the evidence.

You’d think by this time in my life I wouldn’t be experiencing too many things for the first time but yesterday I did. I served as a juror in a civil trial in Harris County (Houston), Texas.

Where we assembled. Red circle is about where the 11th Civil Court is located.

I received the summons in the mail to register online to prepare for my stint as a juror. Along with hundreds (maybe even a thousand or more) I showed up at the Jury Assembly center downtown Houston and was sorted into an auditorium where various processes were executed – reading of the Texas Uniform Jury Handbook (double-sided, single sheet of paper with everything I needed to know as a juror), validation of my parking ticket, receiving and being educated on the payment Mastercard they give each juror ($20 first day, $58/day subsequent days), and then further sorted into groups for either criminal or civil court trials. I was sorted into a civil case to be heard in the 11th Civil Court.

Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins presides over this court and is a very affable person who even shared with us a bit of history about the 11th Civil Court. I believe she said it is the oldest civil court in Houston (Texas maybe?) and the original judge was Judge Franklin, Ben’s cousin. The first case heard was about the theft of a pig and the minutes of the case still exist in the archives across the street.

There were 36 of us jurors who went through voir dire /ˌvwär ˈdir/, I was number 15. The attorney for the plaintiff went first and I thought she did not do well. She spent a crazy amount of time telling each juror over and over what preponderance of the evidence meant and asking whether or not we could follow the law and not be “fully convinced” but convinced just enough. Then she did the same thing with regard to whether or not we could follow the law and award $$ for pain and suffering. I was really amazed at how bad she was. She (and the other attorney) had to approach the bench several times. BTW, when that happened the Judge clicked a button and the room was filled with white noise so we couldn’t hear what was being said.

What surprised me was how many of the jurors (and she only got through the first 14 of us) said they could not follow the law regarding either of her questions. That unless they were fully convinced, they just didn’t think they could do it. To me this meant they felt like their opinion was more important than following the instructions they were given. The legal instructions.

I know Texans tend to think rules and laws don’t apply to them, this is my experience after living here three years this time (the 3 years I lived in Dallas was too long ago to count) so I wondered if it would be the same situation in New York or Kentucky. May 13th update: I was criticized about this thought told that not only would it happen in NY or KY but it would happen everywhere and anywhere in the USA because that’s where we have landed. EVERYONE thinks their opinion is more important than the law and the surprising thing isn’t that it’s the fact that this many people told the truth about it. I stand corrected.

The attorney for the defense was better. He asked more broad questions and to bigger groups having us raise our hands, and then drilling down with some specific people. He even asked one guy if that was his opinion just because he wanted to get out of jury duty. The guy sheepishly hung his head, giggled, and said no.

After voir dire we were released into the hallway where we waited for about an hour. Some jurors were called back. I noticed later none of them were selected for duty.

We were called back and the court clerk read the names of those selected, of which I was one.

Oh, there was a single deputy who shepherded us through everything from the very beginning to the end. She was nice but professional. It was like she was Mama Duck and we ducklings followed her every direction.

Once the 12 of us were selected we were directed into the juror seating area and Judge Hawkins set our expectations as to what was going to happen for the rest of the day. We were informed that during the morning session the two attorneys had reached a consensus on one matter but the matter of damages still needed to be addressed by us.

We heard the case after lunch. Basically, it was a woman claiming that being hit from behind had caused her and her young daughter physical pain and suffering and she had tens of thousands of dollars of medical debt for which she wanted to be reimbursed.

I felt like I kept an open mind from the beginning but it wasn’t long before I felt like the plaintiff attorney was not doing an appropriate job laying out the case. One of her key premises was that the defendant should be held accountable because that’s the only way to keep drivers more attentive. I was like: Bullshit. Stupid argument.

When the plaintiff took the stand to explain herself there were many things that just didn’t add up. And, again, her attorney did a very poor job connecting her pain to the accident. Everyone drove away from the accident, no one was hurt. The plaintiff didn’t go to the ER until four days after. She never saw her own primary care doctor. She went to a chiropractor but we could never find who referred her to do that. She had two MRIs months after the accident. It just didn’t line up.

The plaintiff wanted about $30,000 to cover her out of pocket medical costs ($23,000), $5k for future costs (spinal injections, a treatment that the plaintiff herself said she probably wouldn’t seek), and then pain and suffering for herself and her daughter.

What interested me most about the entire experience was what happened in the jury room after both attorneys had rested their case.

We picked a lead juror. Well, basically one woman picked him and there was no general consensus and ultimately, he wasn’t much of a leader. He started the discussion with a question: How many of us think she should get the entire $30,000? His idea was to work backward and decide an amount and then divvy that amount into the various areas of dispersal (past expenses, pain, suffering, etc.). I thought working backward this way wasn’t appropriate.

I picked up the two-inch stack of paperwork (exhibits) which were all the medical records, basically. There was no cover sheet that indexed the information, no summary, nothing. It was a stack of a mess. And no one wanted to deal with it. By this time, it was 3:30 and people were wanting to leave, wanting to be out of downtown Houston before the worst of the traffic started (too late!).

I couldn’t help but think, WOW, I would not want a jury like this deciding my fate!

It became clear pretty quickly that the majority did not believe the plaintiff. I did believe her pain was real but I never heard her attorney really prove the connection to the accident. I did think it was possible, however. The way the plaintiff described her pain pretty closely aligned with the experiences I’ve had with lower lumbar disc issues (not stemming from a car accident). But when I asked around the table, most people didn’t believe her.

Most all of the other jurors were concerned about how much the insurance had paid, was going to pay, and a couple of them wanted to ask the Judge questions about that. I pointed out the information was in the stack of evidence. This was out-of-pocket (oop) costs. Then, a few jurors were concerned about what the plaintiff would actually do with the money she was awarded. Would she actually pay off her medical bills. I was rather shocked by this. Clearly that was not a matter we were supposed to consider.

Everyone agreed to cover the oop costs for the ER visit and the medicines but aside from that there was disagreement particularly with regard to any pain and suffering money for the daughter. I thought that should be a big ZERO. There was no proof at all that was warranted. But the majority thought the child should get $500. Weird. No one thought the MRIs should be covered and after discussion, because there’d never been a referral to the chiropractor that could be found in the stack of evidence, only a nominal amount was given toward that expense. She ended up getting about $7,000 which was reached by getting 10 out of 12 of us to compromise.

We rang the bell twice to summon our Mother Duck who took the documented consensus to the Judge and then we were led in for our last task which was agreeing we’d achieved a verdict.

Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant expressed any emotion when the judgement was read by the judge.

After we were released, we had to go back to the jury room and wait for our printed excuse from work paper – which of course I didn’t need – and while waiting the Judge came and spoke to us. She wanted our opinion of the process but mostly I think she wanted us to be advocates for jury participation. I liked her. She’s the first woman to serve as the judge in the 11th circuit. About time.

As we were leaving the plaintiff attorney wasn’t waiting for us but the defense attorney and his co-council (seemed like she was very young and in training) were waiting and asked us what they could have done better. I think what he really wanted to tell us was that he was representing the insurance company and they had thought, from the start, that this was an insurance fraud case.

As I drove the hour home in the horrible Houston traffic, I had plenty of time to go over what I’d just learned from this new experience.

If the plaintiff’s attorney had done a better job connecting the medical treatment to the accident it would have convinced many more jurors to reimburse the costs. In particular, that attorney and her client who took the stand did nothing to truly justify the huge chiropractic expenses.

But making much more of an impression on me were the attitudes and opinions of the jurors who were selected. It clearly demonstrated the importance of being skilled in voir dire. And even then, it was clear to me that people will get on the jury who will not follow the law, who will not be unbiased or fair. And, as always, I saw the loudest most aggressive types of personalities will control the jury room. The types who like to take charge, be heard, and push their opinions. As an aside – the woman next to me tried to coach me on how to fill out the amounts I believed should be allocated. Yeah. Right. You can imagine how that went over with me.

And it was very interesting to see how many wanted to give the child money for pain or suffering even though there was absolutely zero proof it was warranted. Even the plaintiff said that after the accident the child was terrified, and then moments later she said her child was scared and confused. The child was 3 at the time, I’m sure it’s a long-lost memory – if that.

The final lesson for me was this: If I ever need to go to trial (civil or criminal) I can’t pick just any attorney (uh duh, of course) – I’ll need one I can work with. I’ll need one with strong recommendations regarding their skill with voir dire as well as how they connect dots and how they organize the evidence.

I love learning new things. Yesterday was great.

Leave a Reply