Today I had my day in court. Again. I was called for jury duty. It is the second time I have served on a jury in Fairfax Circuit Court. My first was a drunk driving trial in which we the jury found the defendant guilty. In Virginia juries also determine the sentence in a criminal case and damages in a civil case. (I have no idea if the jury’s determination is binding on the court.) In the drunk driving trial, the defendant was on his third DUI and the conviction under Virginia’s three strikes law was a felony. He had good lawyers, but it didn’t matter. We hit him with a fine and jail time.
Today’s case was a civil dispute between two people, a husband and wife, and a single defendant. The wife was driving her car and making a left at a green light when she was hit by the defendant, who admitted he ran the red light. The husband was suing for reimbursement of his rental car costs, incurred because his wife’s car was out of action. The wife was suing for a monetary award to cover damages.
During voir dire, I had to tell the defense attorney about my wife’s accident (she was run over by an SUV 15 months ago) and that her situation was still unresolved. I can’t believe he left me on the jury. It may be because almost every other juror told of a car accident involving themselves or a loved one. It’s a jungle out there.
There is an old saying, a lawyer is a fool who has himself as a client. Today’s trial was pretty much proof of that. The defendant had an young attorney who did a decent job. The plaintiffs represented themselves. Most of the trial involved the judge explaining to the husband what he could or could not assert in front of the jury, what could or could not be admitted into the record, etc. Basic trial law.
The interesting part of the case was applying the concept of contributory negligence. Under this legal concept, if a plaintiff even slightly contributed to the accident, he or she cannot make a claim against the defendant. The judge explained that we might find this to be harsh, but it is the law that we had to work with. The driver admitted that he ran a red light and hit the plaintiff.
After the evidence was presented, we were sent off to the jury room to deliberate. First, we had to determine if the plaintiff contributed to the accident. The seven jurors all heard the same evidence and all had slightly different versions of it. We determined after about 30 minutes that the plaintiff was in no way negligent. Then we had to determine damages. Here’s where the plaintiff’s need for a lawyer came into play. We were given no quantitative evidence of material harm to the driver. No cost of car repair, no cost of doctors visits, no cost of medical diagnostic tests, nothing. On cross examination we learned that she had been in an accident a week earlier so we couldn’t tell if her injuries were from the accident at issue in the case. We all sympathized with her, but our instructions from the bench were we were not allowed to let that influence our decision. We gave her no monetary award.
Technically the driver (the wife) was representing herself, but she hardly said anything to the jury.
The husband did address the jury. He kept screwing up argument and evidence, what was admissable and what was not. The judge was patient to a fault with him. The plaintiffs claimed that he had essentially run up a car rental bill frivolously. We sided with the husband despite his painfully inept self representation. He told the jury how much he wanted and we gave it to him.
There was some talk of settlement talks between the parties that the jury wasn’t supposed to hear. We had the sense that the husband didn’t like what was offered and took the case to trial out of spite. A couple of the jurors said his wife kept putting her hand on his arm to keep him from interrupting the judge.
The jurors I served with were all intelligent, logical, and articulate. The jury has to be unanimous in its decision. All I did as foreman was stop deliberations periodically and force each juror to vote. Negligent: yes or no. Around we went. More deliberations. Finally, we had seven nos. Then, how much money for her? Around and around.
Then we did the same with the husband.
Then I wrote the jury’s findings down and signed my name. Case closed. Jury dismissed.
While waiting in the jury pool room (no billiards or water, just tables and chairs and 100 or so of my peers), I killed time reading Bicycling magazine. The man sitting next to me asked if I was a cyclist. It turns out he was Jim Strang, one of the owners of Spokes Etc. bike shops. I probably paid for his kid’s college education!!! Jim told me many stories of the bike business in the DC area going back to the 1970s. We talked about Metropolis (a great shop in Shirlington), the various incarnations of the Belle Haven location, CityBikes and BicycleSpace, and some of the long history of Larry Black, now owner of Mt. Airy and College Park Bikes, but previously an owner of three stores, one in DC, one in Virginia, and one in Maryland. In passing, he mentioned some of the bike stores that I used to shop at back in the day. We even talked about how it might have been Jim who sold me The Mule at the Quaker Lane Spokes store. (They had bought to many and were selling them at a steep discount. I was happy to take one off his hands.) I could have talked all day with him but then the court deputy came in and grabbed us for duty.
On the way home, I stopped at the Spokes Belle Haven store to buy some tubes and chamois cream. Jim’s still got a daughter to put through college.