A Memo From Madame Foreperson
I've been called to appear for jury duty about half a dozen times in my life. However, I never got past the Sunday night call-up that instructs you to show up on Monday a.m.
Until last Sunday. The phone recording let me know my "group" was to appear. How about that! Monday morning, I checked in at the Greene County Judicial Building. No problem. I took Business Law 101 about 100 years ago in college, so I knew that a jury was approximately 12 people. A quick glance around the crowded room (count the legs and divide by two) assured me that the odds of being selected were about 1 in 5.
Also, I figured that a conservative, successful businesswoman was just not welcome on any kind of jury. I remembered the O.J. trial. I figured I was off the hook.
I made it to the Q&A portion of jury selection. This is the point where you are grilled by both teams of attorneys regarding your ability -- or inability -- to dispense justice in the pending trial. This is also the point where your fellow juror finalists start to panic and trot out the reasons why they should never, ever be asked their opinion on anything.
"I have a weak stomach and won't be able to able to talk about or look at any blood."
"My mother was involved in an accident once so I don't think I can be impartial in this case."
Even ... "I don't believe in frivolous lawsuits and I think the dollar amount that juries deliver to people is just ridiculous." In spite of the judge's assurance that this jury would make that decision, this potential juror was blessedly sent home.
By this point, I was clear that it is just not OK for me to try and get out of jury duty. I am a perfectly good candidate for it. I am smart enough, healthy enough and, gosh darn it, a citizen of this great country. Also, imagine the president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing shirking jury duty. What would Ben say?
Doing My DutyI was selected. I called the office and, to my delight, the whole Benjamin Franklin Plumbing team instantly accommodated my unanticipated absence. (I would discover by week's end that I am the undeniable weak link in my team. More production occurred in my absence than has ever occurred with me on the job.)
My schedule cleared, I approached my duties as juror with patriotic fervor. First of all, let me explain that I break no laws or etiquette by discussing the trial now that the trial is over. During the trial, you are not allowed to talk about the trial at all, even with your fellow jurors. Afterwards, the jurors may talk about the case. I learned some lessons worth sharing with you. I did change the names of the people and companies involved.
It was a civil case involving a terrible accident. At a concrete products company, three men were ordered to move a row of concrete columns. Bob was a crane operator, and Tom and Al were laborers. Bob used the crane to lift the columns; Tom and Al guided the columns.
As they approached the last column, the crane came close enough to a high-voltage power line that the men stopped working. Tom went to get a forklift to move the column -- that was the equipment used the previous day on the same task. Bob radioed the supervisor for permission to switch equipment.
The supervisor ordered the men to get back to work, or they would find themselves unemployed. The forklift was being used. They were ordered to complete the task with the crane. They went back to work.
The crane boom hit the power line and sent a massive jolt of electricity through the lifting cables. Tom, who was holding on to the cable to steady the load, received the blast of electricity, about 70,000 kilovolts. The electricity entered through his chest, and grounded through his feet. One of Tom's work boots blew off, and was found 25 yards away. The blast caused unconsciousness, severe burns, multiple secondary injuries, and led to the amputation of Tom's right leg and left great toe.
It was a sad, tragic event. And Tom has paid a consequence every day for the accident. It was our job as jurors to assign responsibility and decide on a dollar amount for damages incurred and yet to be incurred. In legal parlance, Tom was the plaintiff.
Who Is Responsible?Now here is the kicker: The two defendants were the crane manufacturer and the company who sold and serviced the crane.
Are you starting to get nervous? You should.
Throughout the trial, evidence was presented, opinions offered and conflicting stories told. But Tom's employer, the concrete products company, was conspicuously absent.
Both sides agreed upon the following points:
- Tom had received safety training regarding high-voltage lines and crane operation when he earned his journeyman ironworker's license.
- Tom knew that the crane was getting too close to the power lines.
- Tom and Bob were threatened with their jobs if they didn't complete the task with the crane.
- Tom chose to go back to work with the crane crew.
- They manufactured the crane -- in 1958.
- They didn't continue to warn all crane owners and operators since 1958 that cranes need to stay more than 10 feet from power lines.
- Warning signs in the crane cab were not sufficient. (Did the crane manufacturer know that the owners and operators actually read and understand the signs?)
- The crane supplier contracted to inspect the crane every year. The crane supplier provided the inspection checklist. The inspection was done -- with the exception of a series of safety items marked "optional." For some reason never determined, these items were not performed. This list included alerting all owners and operators about keeping cranes 10 feet or more from power lines. However, the crane had been inspected as per OSHA requirements.
- By contracting to do the inspection, the plaintiff maintained that the crane supplier's responsibility increased, even though the crane supplier was not around the day of the accident. In fact, they had not been to the concrete company for a year.
The Elephant In The Living RoomAt the end of the trial, the jurors were removed to the jury deliberating room. Bossy me was elected as foreperson. And we were asked to assign a percentage of responsibility -- to the crane manufacturer, the crane supplier and to Tom.
Should any responsibility be assigned to the defendants, we were instructed to determine an appropriate dollar amount. Tom's lawyers made a suggestion: $2 million for Tom for lost wages and hardship. And $500,000 for Tom's wife.
I read the judge's instructions, and asked the jurors, "Do you all feel like I do, that there is someone missing?"
We all agreed that, from the evidence presented, the concrete company and the supervisor had some 'splaining to do. Where were they?
But our task was to assign responsibility to the names on the list. And the concrete company wasn't on the list. Unanimously, we assigned zero responsibility to crane manufacturer and the crane supplier.
This meant one thing: there would be no money awarded.
We delivered our verdict, to the disappointment, no doubt, of Tom, his family -- and his lawyers. And we felt incredibly sad for Tom. He made a mistake. And he would live with the consequences of that mistake.
After the trial, the judge stopped by the jury room as we were gathering our coats and getting ready to leave.
He told us that he knew we were wondering about the absence of the concrete company. Here's the scoop. The concrete company had workers comp insurance. Workers comp is no-fault insurance. It kicks in and pays medical and damages no matter who is responsible for the accident. As a result, that company can't be sued. Kind of a double jeopardy thing. So Tom and his lawyers moved on to the next deep pockets, the crane manufacturer and the crane supplier.