“Jury Summons Notice: You have been selected to serve as a Juror. Failure to report will be considered a criminal offense. Please report on your assigned date.” Receiving a jury notice from a federal court is an occasion for mixed feelings. I was never sure whether my first experience was typical, but it certainly was entertaining. I appeared at Michigan’s 3rd Judicial Circuit Court serving Wayne County and, by mid-morning, seven of us were sworn in to hear a civil suit. Since we weren’t allowed to take notes, we would need to recapture what happened afterward and agree to every detail of several days of testimony, no easy task. Plaintiff was a man in his late thirties suing Coca Cola and a truck driver for running a stop sign and smashing into his car. He hadn’t been injured at the time but, now, seven years later, was claiming his neck hurt and he was suffering from despondency as a result. He seemed listless, sitting with downcast eyes and pitiful expression.
Just as we were beginning to feel sorry for him, the defense revealed Mr. Despondent had since played several seasons of professional European football in the United Kingdom. Uh, oh. I could only wonder whether his neck hurt from soccer or he was despondent over a bad season. How can a professional soccer player complain of a sore neck from a seven-year-old automobile accident? But Coca-Cola’s attorneys didn’t have a compelling argument why their truck driver shouldn’t be held liable.
We were led to a jury room to begin deliberating, and a fellow-juror turned to me and said, “We’ve decided to elect you foreman, so tell us what to do.”
No one had said how a foreman was to get a jury to reach a consensus, so I pondered a minute. “All right, but the first thing we should do is to agree about what we heard. What I heard was the truck driver went through a stop sign and smashed the plaintiff’s car. Although he went to a hospital for examination, he wasn’t injured enough to prevent playing professional European football. Now his neck aches, and he’s despondent. Sorry, but I’m despondent even being here. But the defense didn’t give us a reason why they are not liable for the accident, right?
Since no one heard anything different, we voted on slips of paper and decided to find for Mr. Despondent’s seven-year-old bumps and bruises and his smashed car. But now we needed to decide what that meant. “We have to consider the cost of plaintiff’s car and hospital examination and, after that, his pain and suffering. My problem is I think this guy is faking his disabilities. If you agree, let’s cover his out of pocket costs and get him out of here. Maybe he’ll have a better soccer season next year if he plays for another team. Each of us should write a dollar number on a slip of paper so we can see what the maximum and minimum are we think he should receive.”
The least amount was $10,000, the most $2,000,000. I went over the actual costs and took another poll before we decided $40,000 was an amount everyone could agree with. We trooped back into the courtroom and the judge thanked us for having decided appropriately. We later discovered Michigan law allows plaintiff’s attorneys up to 47% of awarded damages. I could only hope Mr. Despondent had enough money to buy a few soccer balls and a happier outlook on life. At least we saved Coca Cola two million dollars.
We returned to the waiting room and were called back to a courtroom to hear a criminal case. A young, tough-looking, black defendant in prison garb was charged with shooting a jewelry store owner after robbing him. He huddled with a court-appointed attorney while the charges were read and prospective jurors called to the jury box. Each was asked whether they could make a fair and impartial judgment after hearing the testimony. The defendant’s attorney asked one prospective juror whether she could remain unbiased if someone testified the defendant was seen in the vicinity of the crime. She was dismissed for having potential bias. Apparently, to prove his point, the attorney then asked the next potential juror, “On the basis the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, could you remain unbiased even if testimony revealed he emerged from the jewelry store with a smoking gun in his hand?”
Before the startled juror could reply, a man seated with me in the rear of the courtroom mumbled in a voice loud enough that carried all the way to the judge’s bench, “Hell No.” The entire courtroom was deathly silent; everyone turning to stare at our suddenly-mute juror ranks.
The defense attorney turned to the judge, “Your Honor, I want the prospective juror who said that to identify himself and be removed from the courtroom.”
The judge commanded, “Whoever said that, please stand up.” After a moment of shuffling feet and embarrassment, a guy meekly rose to his feet. “Prospective juror, you are excused. Please return to the Juror’s Room on the first floor.” There was a sigh of relief that a moment of unpleasantness had passed and business resumed.
However, the man who had actually spoken the words was still seated beside me and we smiled at each other in mutual understanding. Seconds later, he was sworn in without difficulty. After the panel was filled, the rest of us were excused and I returned to the jury room. In this case, perhaps, sleeping dogs should be left alone.