The Confession of a Naive Lawyer
A 30-year old black male (I will call him "Mr. Jones", but the name is fictitious) came to my office without an appointment. I learned that Mr. Jones suffered a devastating brain injury in a bus accident in 1986. Mr. Jones was a passenger in a CDTA bus on a major road in Albany, New York, when he told the bus driver he wanted to get off. When the bus stopped to let Mr. Jones out, the bus was in the far left lane (the "passing lane") of two eastbound lanes. Almost immediately after stepping off the bus, a motorcycle traveling in the far-right lane violently collided with Mr. Jones. The collision with the motorcycle sent Mr. Jones flying about 100 feet into the middle of the intersection.
Although he was lucky to live and had an extensive and long hospitalization, Mr. Jones suffered permanent brain damage. Mr. Jones's life was never the same. Mr. Jones was never able to work again (he was a cook) despite many efforts. For a young man whose life was moving in the right direction, everything was changed in the flash of a second for Mr. Jones.
At my first meeting with him, Mr. Jones told me that he had been to every lawyer in Albany and no one wanted his case. I explained that I had no experience in personal injury law (I was a real estate lawyer at the time), but this just sounded like a good case to me. The bus driver let Mr. Jones out of the bus in the middle of Washington Avenue into traffic that was traveling in the same direction of the bus. I thought, "How can we lose this case?" I told Mr. Jones that I'd do what I could for him and I accepted his case.
Over the next two years, I immersed myself in law and medical books about personal injury law and brain damage. I was fascinated by the legal and medical aspects of the case and I spent every free moment I had working on Mr. Jones's case. It didn't take long for me to realize that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my career.
After two years of depositions and discovery, the case was ready for trial. Every aspect of the trial was carefully orchestrated from exhibits to witnesses and motions. The trial went better than I expected and I had strong hopes for a substantial verdict. I believed the evidence had been overwhelmingly in favor of Mr. Jones's case; in fact, the bus company admitted in its internal investigation that the bus driver was negligent by discharging Mr. Jones from the bus in the middle of the road. I was very confident that Mr. Jones was on the verge of a large verdict in his favor.
Near the end of the trial, the bus's lawyer made a fair offer and Mr. Jones accepted. While the settlement was not what I had hoped, I knew that Mr. Jones's financial needs would be taken care of. A just result was reached, but (as all lawyers do), I was troubled by the thought that Mr. Jones would have done much better had he gone to verdict with his case.
After the Judge informed the jury about the settlement and that they were free to go, I asked a couple of the jurors to speak with me about the trial. I wanted to know how they intended to decide the case. I was stunned about their answers.
One juror used a racial epithet in explaining that Mr. Jones was worthless and was not going to get a penny from her. Another juror silently nodded her head in agreement. It was clear that the evidence meant nothing to the jurors and they intended to find in favor of bus company for no other reason than they did not like Mr. Jones, or the fact that he was a black man. I could not believe my ears.
A young, naive lawyer grew up that day. I discovered that cases are not won or lost by the quality of witnesses, exhibits and arguments made by the lawyers. Cases are decided based upon whether the jury likes your client. If the jury doesn't like your client, you will lose. It's just that simple.
After the case, I kept in touch with Mr. Jones and sadly, his life continued to spiral downward through petty crime and drugs that had never been a part of his life before the bus accident. Looking back, I know the jurors haven't giving Mr. Jones or his case a second thought after the trial was over. The trial was just two weeks that they had to do their "civic duty".
But I wish the jurors could see Mr. Jones today and what his life is like. Maybe they would think back and wish they could have done better...or probably I'm just being naive again.
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