Years ago when I was a new attorney at a relatively large Tampa personal injury firm, the partners decided that it was time I expanded my courtroom experience to an actual jury trial on an injury case.
Excited, yet nervous, I inquired about the case they had in mind. They kind of smirked and said, “It’s the kind of case even a new trial lawyer can’t screw up.”
Intrigued and relieved, I asked for more information about this great car crash case that was a slam-dunk.
On a rainy evening our client was driving up a wet US 19 in the middle of 3 lanes right behind another car. Traffic was steady even though it was about 9 p.m. Both my client and the driver ahead of him were cruising at the speed limit of 55 mph.
As they approached an intersection with a solid green light, the driver ahead quickly changed lanes which revealed to our client that there was an abandoned car directly ahead of him in his lane of travel. The car was sitting at a dead stop on US 19 with its hood propped up and no tail lights were on. It was a stalled and abandoned car and had been sitting there for who-knows-how-long.
The client quickly looked to his left and right hand lane, saw cars and realized he had nowhere to go. He jammed on his brakes, but too late. He hydroplaned directly into the back of this car at a relatively high rate of speed in an explosive collision. Since it was dark and the abandoned car had no lights on, it was only seen at a few car lengths away so the crash was imminent.
The client absolutely believed there was nothing he could do to avoid this crash. In fact, since he was pretty badly injured he placed the blame on the person who abandoned the car at that terribly dangerous intersection.
Okay, back to my conversation with the law partners about this case. “Uh…..you think this case is an absolute winner? Aren’t there problems with liability?”
“That’s what we’re talking about!! You cannot possibly screw this case up because you cannot win this case. It’s unwinnable. Florida Statutes state that if you rear end somebody there is a presumption you were following too closely and you were at fault.”
The other partner chimed in: “And, there’s no law against leaving your broken down car in the road way if you cannot move the car yourself. We have no proof this young woman who had driven the car wasn’t trying to get help. In fact, she was. Her father was on his way to help get this car off the road.”
Well then, I inquired, isn’t it irresponsible for any of us to try this case? Turned out our client was injured, was very mad about this situation, he understood the risk and, in his words: “I can’t believe a jury wouldn’t sympathize with me. If I was truly at fault in this crash, I want to hear 6 jurors tell me so!” So, theory being, I could get courtroom experience and in no way worsen a case due to inexperience. However, something also told me my law partners didn’t want to touch this and I was the perfect foil.
So, onto a jury trial we went. The trial was held in downtown Clearwater in the glorious Courtroom 1, the oldest courtroom downtown that was built around 1924. It looked and still looks like something out of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. It was the most beautiful place to have my ass handed to me.
While everyone on our side of the fence knew the risks and there was still a chance of some success, I still felt a bit like a Roman gladiator being led to the slaughter. I remember our judge, a man of great character and girth whose complexion resembled something like rare roast beef due to excessive high blood pressure, wiggled his finger at me prior to jury selection and said “Son, are you sure you want to go forward with this?”
No, I thought. “Yes”, I said.
I could stretch this out for another 1,000 words. A jury was chosen and opening statements were made. Suffice it to say that the opposing counsel and I spend an inordinate amount of time on how the collision happened. The jury at first looked confused, then perplexed, then kind of……….mad. The reaction of “I’m missing time from work for this?”
I noticed that when we were presenting testimony about my client’s injuries the jury looked distracted and bored. They had already checked out mentally since they most likely weren’t getting past the fact that they probably thought our client caused the collision.
Despite my trumped up optimism during the course of the trial that this case isn’t a stinker, it wasn’t shaping up to be the case of the year. Or even the day.
After I finished my closing argument at the podium just a few feet from the jury box, the man who turned out to be the foreman of the jury looked to the woman beside him and whispered: “This won’t take long…”
Gulp. I knew that I had done nothing wrong during the trial, in fact I held up pretty well during the 3 days, but hearing this made my stomach churn. I now knew what it feels like to await a jury verdict. It is something that every trial lawyer kvetches about regardless of depth of experience.
We sat in the Courtroom hallway and before you could say: “It’s Friday afternoon and we want out of here,” the jury returned with the verdict.
Well, the client took it well. He assumed the risk, and the gigantic goose-egg of $0.00 the jury handed him was a hard thing to take, but it was an important lesson for us all.
Afterwards in Chambers, this judge, after bumming yet another smoke from his secretary because he quit smoking years ago, told me, “Son, the most important thing I’ve ever learned from being a lawyer, isn’t the law at all. It’s trust your instincts. In this case, you had both the law and instincts working against you.”
I know. I didn’t have a chance. Still, I had jury trial #1 under my belt.