Friday, December 21, 2007

Deal, or No Deal

So, I served on a jury on Monday. I'm glad to do my civic duty, and I have complete confidence that we decided the case correctly, but I'm sad to say the whole thing missed the point of what matters.

This was a civil case, so there were only 7 in the jury. This case was a piece of a medical malpractice case that's been going on for 4 1/2 years. In all that time, no jury has ever heard any medical testimony. We didn't get all the details of the case, so I can't connect all the dots, but here's some pieces.

When he was about 12, J. fell off his skateboard and broke his wrist. Dr. M. set his wrist in a cast. 6 weeks later, the cast was removed and his wrist wasn't set correctly. A different doctor then performed orthopedic surgery to correct the problem. Somewhere along the line, J., his father, and his mother sued Dr. M. for malpractice. Their lawyer, B., took the case on a contingency basis.

So, the original suit was "non-suited" for procedural reasons. In other words, it just went away because of some filing error on B's part. B. refiled the case. This second suit was also "non-suited." We weren't told why, but apparently the judge blamed the plaintiff, and J. (now 14) was ordered to pay $15,455.95 to Dr M. for lawyer fees. Somewhere along the line, this, or the original non-suit, or the second non-suit, I don't know, was twice appealed to the Virginia supreme court. J. didn't fare so well at the Virginia supreme court, apparently because B. didn't file the correct paperwork along the way. B. filed a third suit for J.

So, I guess because of the ongoing appeals, J. (now 16 or 17) never paid Dr. M. for lawyer fees. The original judge didn't take too kindly to this, and so was threatening to put J. in jail if he didn't pay the fee, and to do so on the day before the SATs.

Here's where we come in. B. called Dr. M's lawyer and asked if they would forget the $15,455.95 if they dropped the third suit. Dr. M (or his insurance company) agreed, and then Dr. M's lawyers and B. called the judge in the second suit to say, "no worries -- the issue is settled." Here's the thing -- they couldn't reach the judge because of a power outage at the courthouse. J's other lawyer, C. made reference to an "alleged power outage." The judge responded: "I assure you, Mr. C., the court did not lie. We really did have a power outage." She then went on to explain that because of the construction next door, when the power goes out all of the toilets back up. The witness on the stand (Dr. M's lawyer) said: "TMI, Judge." We all got a good laugh. Wait -- I still haven't explained what we were doing there!

So, because they couldn't get through to the judge on Wednesday, it was too late to remove the case from the docket, so J. still had to show up before the judge on Friday. Apparently because J. was going to miss a test in an AP class so he could go to court, J. (or his father) changed his mind and said he'd rather pay and continue the suit than stick with the deal. So, when they all showed up on Friday, and Dr. M's lawyer announced: "We have a deal," B. says, "No, we don't."

So, we, the jury, had to decide: "Deal, or No Deal?"

Hour after hour of testimony from lawyers about which lawyer called which lawyer at what time on what day about what topic. Questions about which lawyer had authority from which client to do what. Instructions from all lawyers involved as well as the judge about what makes a contact. Questions about who was going to pay some other lawyer $750, questions about when the question of "a rule to show cause" was raised, questions about what constitutes authorization to represent someone else at law, etc.

Here's what it came down to: B. lied on the stand. He couldn't keep his lies straight, so he repeatedly contradicted himself; he contradicted documentary evidence he'd previously signed. Dr. M's lawyers had all kinds of documents that supported everything they said. B. couldn't produce any evidence to support what he said. J.'s other lawyer, Mr. C, even had to quiz him in a confrontational way just to get his own witness to tell a single coherent story. Dr. M's lawyers pointed out to him that if he stuck with what he was saying on the stand, he could be punished by the Virginia bar for ethics violations, so he changed his testimony. But then he went back to what he said before. And on.

When we went to deliberation, the foreman made sure we walked through every criterion for a valid contract. Yes, they were all there. They were all there in spades. Not a one of us 7 had even the slightest doubt. The foreman is trying to keep us focused, but the answers to his questions were so easy for us all, it was more fun to just play "spot the contradictions in B's testimony."

Here's the problem. The two most important questions in the whole matter weren't addressed. We didn't even hear anything about them. The first question: What now for Dr. M? Does the fact that they had a deal mean the whole awful thing is over for him? Does he get to go on with his life, or is this just one more piece of a never-ending case? We don't know. I suspect that J.'s father isn't going to let this die, and Dr. M. will be back in court again on this topic. The second question: What of J? He wasn't in the courtroom. We don't know if he has any permanent disability, or "just some scars," as one lawyer said. What does he think about all this? We don't know. In short, we never heard from, or even about, the two most important people in the whole case.

I hope, for both their sakes, this whole ordeal is over, and they can get on with their lives. Sadly, I fear that won't be the case.


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