Good morning from your friends at Parker and Lundy. We encourage everyone to be safe, as the next 24 hours will likely bring dangerous weather conditions to northwest Georgia. Be sure you have water, batteries, and non-perishable food items available if the power goes out in your area.
Today is also one of those few days we have in life – a day where we can all remember exactly where we were, sixteen years ago today, when tragedy struck.
For years now, I’ve posted this story on the anniversary of a horrible attack against our country. To be sure, it is from a different perspective.
God Bless you all today, and God Bless the souls of the three thousand lost, on what still seems like yesterday.
My first verdict in a civil jury trial
I started practicing law in 1998, and practicing in a small town like Cedartown gave me the opportunity to get trial experience right away. Within my first year, I had “second chaired” a murder trial in which my partner Rick Lundy won an acquittal for our client. I had also “second chaired” a civil trial for damages, in which my partner Bill Lundy won a substantial verdict for our client in a motor vehicle accident case.
Serving as “second chair” counsel in a jury trial is probably a lot like being the backup quarterback on an NFL team – lots of work, lots of preparation, reading and memorizing every detail of our game plan. However, unless something really unusual occurs, the second chair counsel stands on the proverbial sidelines, while the seasoned starter throws touchdown passes. I was very proud that we won the cases, but I was ready to get onto the playing field myself.
After these two trials as second chair, I was lead counsel in two felony jury trials during the following year. Armed with more energy and enthusiasm than law or facts, I was able to obtain “not guilty” verdicts for my clients – outcomes that surprised the few people paying attention to such things, other than my grateful clients.
Undefeated and ready to take on the world in the courtroom, I felt I was ready for the “big time” – lead counsel in a civil trial for damages. My client for this trial was a very nice lady, a truck driver who suffered painful injuries when another driver ran her off of the interstate and down into a ditch. My client was very proud that she’d been able to keep her truck from injuring other drivers, but it came at the cost of getting knocked around pretty bad.
The insurance company defending this particular case had never taken my client seriously. She didn’t have the money or health insurance to seek proper medical care. The best evidence of her injuries that we had, other than a few sporadic visits to the doctor, was the testimony of her adult daughters who cared for her after the wreck. In those days, the average settlement for a case such as this was payment of around three times the individual’s medical expenses, to compensate the person for their pain, suffering and trauma following a bad wreck. Prior to this trial, the defendant’s insurer had offered my client an amount slightly less than her total medical expenses. They wouldn’t even admit that those expenses were related to the wreck. They were just trying to make her go away. To do so would mean that she would get nothing, but that was the insurer’s final offer. My client was mad, I was insulted, and we decided to have our day in Court.
Monday morning I drove over to Canton, in Cherokee County, about an hour and a half from Cedartown. Other than my client, I didn’t know anyone in the courthouse. We picked a jury, argued some motions, and left for the day. The trial was set to start Tuesday morning.
Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night. One more time to review exhibits, draft questions, prepare for cross examination. At this point, I was not getting along well with the opposing attorney, who kept telling me how bad my client’s case was, and that we were unreasonable in turning down their meager offer. I decided that if we were going to lose, we were going to go down fighting.
As soon as the jury was seated, opening statements began. I was aggressive. I seeded the jury with the questions that I’d want them to keep asking themselves throughout the trial. I framed the issue for trial as the defendant’s refusal to accept responsibility, rather than my client’s lack of medical evidence. I told them they shouldn’t listen to the Defendant’s attorney at all, until they accepted responsibility for causing the wreck.
After opening statements, the judge abruptly excused the jury. He called me and my opposing counsel up to the bench. I didn’t know this judge, and I assumed that I was about to be called down for excessive courtroom theatrics.
He looked down from the bench. I will never forget what he said next:
“Our country is under attack. Planes have just struck the World Trade Center. We are evacuating the courthouse, and the bailiffs are telling the jurors right now. We don’t know if they may have had family members on the flights – no one knows where the flights came from, or if more attacks will occur. Go home, and we will call you if we can resume the trial. We just don’t know what will happen next. We may be at war.”
I drove home in a daze. During trial I was usually sleep-deprived, but very focused; I rarely let in any consideration of the outside world. In the blink of an eye, events beyond any of our control had taken over our country’s consciousness.
I called my parents, the office, and a few friends just to make sure everyone was ok. Traffic was terrible leaving metro Atlanta, so I stopped at a restaurant. The lunch crowd gathered around the televisions and stared in horror at the images of the collapsing buildings, and the rubble in lower Manhattan. I was among total strangers, but I could feel a strong sense of community, of our shared trauma.
Late that afternoon, the judge’s secretary called. We would continue with the trial tomorrow, if all of the jurors returned. None of us knew if they would come back, given the circumstances. No one could blame them if they stayed home.
They all came back. When I stood up to call my first witness, I looked over at the jurors. I could tell that everyone’s world was different today, but we were all trying to focus. For a moment it was like we were sharing an out-of-body experience, watching ourselves and trying to figure out if we could all be normal again, together.
Our trial turned out to be pretty colorful, with a lot of emotion on both sides. The Defendant never accepted responsibility. Defense counsel remained dismissive. They called a surprise witness, but the testimony backfired.
In spite of this, I feared that we were going to lose this trial. Thousands of people had just lost their lives, and everyone had seen it, repeated over and over again on television. One lady’s problems just didn’t seem very important.
On Wednesday, we finished the evidence. I stood up to make my closing argument, and I just stopped. This was my first chance to speak directly to the jurors since the tragedy had occurred, and I felt like I had to acknowledge it somehow.
I thanked the jury for coming back to finish their service. I told them that to me, a lawyer who relies on strangers to serve as jurors, their act of coming back to the courthouse was proof that our country was going to be OK. This, in itself, was an act of courage.
We were attacked in a manner designed to disrupt our lives, to erode our confidence in the things that we take for granted. Shirking our civic duties at such a time – including jury duty – would give our attackers exactly what they wanted. Here in northwest Georgia, far removed from the site of our national tragedy, we could go about our daily business and fulfill our civic duties. We could begin to be normal again, and prove that the country that our founders envisioned so long ago can withstand a lot more than a brutal terrorist attack.
The jury deliberated for several hours before I experienced another first as a trial lawyer. The jury sent out a note. I was very tense as the judge came back into the courtroom and took the note from the bailiff. He read it aloud. They wanted a calculator.
I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled as the defense attorney voiced her objection. I realized in an instant that they wouldn’t have needed a calculator if the verdict was going to be zero. When they came back, the jury announced that their verdict totaled approximately twenty times my client’s medical expenses. Not a tremendous sum, but far more than we were ever offered, and almost twice the amount of the insurance company’s policy.
Several of the jurors looked me in the eye and shook my hand on the way out. One hugged my client. She felt so vindicated in that moment, because they had focused, had listened to her story, and they knew that it was the truth. My client hugged me, hugged her children, and left with her head held higher than I’d ever seen.
I will never forget the first verdict I won in a civil jury trial. It changed my client’s life, and it reinforced my faith in our democracy at a time that our nation was reeling in crisis. I will always remember exactly where I was when attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred. And I will always appreciate the focus, attention, and courage displayed by the twelve total strangers who came back to the courthouse and discharged their civic duty. I don’t know them, but I am proud of them.
Their verdict told me that we would all be normal again, together.