Juries, Courtrooms and Linear Thinking

Three years ago I filed a lawsuit. It was my first, and hopefully last, experience as a plaintiff.

I sued a professional—there’s no point in revealing the profession. I sued him for malpractice and negligence, with a specific damages calculation. He, of course, said it was my fault.

This week, after a four-day trial, it went to a jury.

I’m not a lawyer. Don’t even play one on TV, though I’ve done seminars and speeches for some.

So other than jury duty (always rejected), I hadn’t seen courts close up and personal before. Here’s what I learned—one data point, one person. For what it’s worth.

The treatment of jurors impressed me. The judge spoke seriously about gratitude for their civic responsibility. The parties rise and stand every time the jury enters and leaves (which is frequently).

But most of all, the judge admonished them, “If anyone approaches you about this case—call 911. Ask for the Sheriff, and have the Sheriff call me. Any time of day or night.”

The power of the judge scared and impressed me. He made an almost autocratic decision, unilaterally. Then he changed it the next day, calling himself out on his own potential fallibility—I was impressed. A powerful blend of brains, charm and the need to make more calls than an umpire; almost all very well done.

The rules of evidence are extreme, and powerful. Lots of very relevant material never made it in, because it didn’t pass several tests—hearsay, standing, expertise, etc. The intent is to limit the bases of decision to distilled-clean facts, precisely stated.

The presentation of data relied entirely on the cognitive skills of the jury. They listened to days of bland recitations of data, numbers and legal concepts, without physically seeing the documents being described. Data, abstraction, words, concepts. That’s what you’re fed as a juror.

The charges to the jury were complex; a tax-like form with “if yes to 2a, then go to 6; else, go to 3,” which covered several issues of liability, damages and mitigation.

Finally—to the jury. Both sides expected a decision in less than an hour. It went four hours, despite one juror postponing vacation, others their work.

The verdict? Breech of contract, not guilty—but malpractice, guilty. Was malpractice a proximate cause (not “the,” just “a”) of damages—no. Therefore no damages due.

Both sides found this a confusing, almost contradictory, verdict—at least,that is, from the point of view of the legal issues that had been so exquisitely, carefully crafted by the legal teams and the judge. And of course the jury doesn’t get the chance to share its thinking—just the results.

Yet I think there’s at least one explanation—an emotional, human, commonsense logic—that makes a lot of sense. It goes like this:

We’re not thrilled with any of you. We want our professionals to behave better. We’re also worried about excessively litigious behavior—and besides there’s blame enough to go around. Judge, lawyers and court system—we don’t like sitting for days on a case that should have settled; and we don’t like being fed abstractions.
So if your legal constructs don’t allow us to express these deeply held opinions, we will squeeze the constructs, not our opinions.

I have absolutely no way of knowing their thoughts, of course. Surely I could be wrong. But I could see myself thinking that way in their shoes, and I respect it.

It’s another arena of life where society wants us to be rational, cerebral people, solving life’s problems with our brains; while our human hearts drive us through to a clearly seen and desired end, ever-reminding us that we’re not just brains-in-bodies.

It was humbling—for both of us. But I now believe justice was served, and served well. It just wasn’t served on the same platter the system had provided.