Why Alabama Jury Trials Should Not Be Like Speed Dating!
Last week, Madison County re-started civil jury trials. After months of coronavirus shutdowns, it’s nice to be back at the courthouse. Now, I’m not writing to debate the wisdom of re-opening or not. I’m OK waiting longer for more vaccinations. Public health and safety should be our top priority. As a community, we should each take the steps needed to protect our neighbors. But, again, I’m not writing about the issue of shutdowns.
When the court did re-open this week in Huntsville, one of our car accident injury cases was number one on the docket. First up for trial! We prepare our personal injury cases. We’ve been prepared in this Huntsville accident case for months. Ready to go. It was good to finish the case for our client. Our client patiently waited through recent months as have so many other people.
Maybe you are asking — Why did the case not settle? While most cases eventually settle, some do not. Sometimes, cases should not settle. Maybe the insurance company adjuster ignored the extent of injuries or damages. Maybe the insurance company is taking advantage of courthouse closures to delay and deny justice.
When you are dealing with a certain insurance carrier, “the good hands” people, you are not likely to receive a reasonable offer. That’s OK. Get the case ready. That’s exactly the position we found ourselves. Attorney Jennifer McKown in my office did a great job preparing a case that had a number of difficult hurdles. By the way, she also won a successful jury verdict for our injured client when the case went to trial this week. She won that verdict under some very challenging corona-related circumstances. That’s the subject of this post.
In my post title, I reference “speed dating.” Should trials be events where the listener has mere moments to decide one way or the other? Should trials be events where you rush through the whole process like an assembly line? Of course not.
I understand courts are backlogged due to many months of closures. I understand courts now need to move quickly to play catch-up. I also understand many Alabama auto insurance companies used the closures to delay reasonable settlements. If you ever serve on a jury, the defendant driver likely has insurance. We just are not allowed to mention it at trial. Keep that in mind — The other driver has car insurance but they have special and unfair rules prohibiting anyone from telling you that.
I understand the need to move the process. But, the need to catch-up should not require us to sacrifice justice in a case. Let’s take jury selection for example. This was a difficult week for court administrators. While they worked really hard to assemble a full panel of prospective jurors, the lawyers were given only 15 minutes to meet and talk with them. Imagine introducing yourself to a large group of people, asking about two questions, and being told “time.” Potential jurors are thrust into a largely unknown world of “court” which involves strange processes and cases of all different types. A little time is needed for everyone to understand whether or not the case is one a juror feels fair and comfortable hearing. The time crunch is especially unfair to the injured plaintiff who must start first and spend time asking introductory questions.
If you are a potential juror, you’ve probably been summoned to a strange process. You have to make arrangements for your job, your kids, your life to free your schedule. Then, on Monday morning you have to drive to downtown Huntsville, park and get through courthouse security. You arrive at the courthouse only to be herded around a bunch of rooms with people you just met. Finally, you are taken into a courtroom where a strange judge and a bunch of strange lawyers are sitting. Who are they? What kind of case is it? Suddenly, you are being told rules and asked questions. It takes longer than 15 minutes to learn whether or not you feel you can fairly decide a case. If I were serving on the jury, I would want a little more time to understand the important task in front of me.
At trial, the parties were also allowed only 15 minutes to present opening and closing remarks. Our trial involved a straightforward car accident injury. We really needed a few extra minutes to discuss fully the medical information. But, it was OK. What if the case had been more complex? Late last year, I resolved a complicated commercial truck accident case with serious traumatic brain injuries. That case could NEVER have been presented in a mere 15 minutes. The time constraints certainly present a huge barrier to justice in a more complex injury or damage case.
Who does this speed-dating model serve? Not our client who suffered injuries and waited years to present his important claims. Not the defendant required to defend himself in minutes. Not the jurors plucked from their lives expecting to hear, learn and decide a trial involving their neighbors and the safety of the community. After the trial, Jennifer described it as the end of a drug commercial where the screen scrolls a list of potential side effects that is too long and too fast to read and understand. We’ve all seen those television commercials. The jurors in our case really worked hard to decide the issues. They listened and took notes during the trial. They took the important job seriously. But, they really deserved better from our system. I’m hoping we will soon return to normal human interactions.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm represents seriously injured people across Alabama. If you have questions, let us know. Consultations are always free and confidential. Outside court, we continue in our articles and teaching to advocate for safer workplaces, safer roadways and safer products.