The Verdict on Jury Duty

More than six weeks later, I am finally done with jury duty! The attorneys made their closing arguments yesterday morning, and the jury reached a verdict in the late afternoon after about 45 minutes of instructions from the judge and two hours of deliberations. At the end of the trial, the judge told us that this was the longest jury trial he has ever presided over, and he’s been doing this since 1995.

Having been immersed in this case for the past month and a half, it’s hard not to dive into an extraordinarily detailed account of the claims and arguments involved, but in the most general terms, the plaintiff claimed that an MTA bus had mounted a sidewalk and run over his foot, resulting in permanent pain and disability. The defense argued that it was physically impossible for the injury to have occurred as the plaintiff described, due to the mechanics of the bus. Complicating factors included the lack of any eyewitnesses apart from the plaintiff, the fact that the plaintiff had suffered a stroke in the time since the accident, and the fact that there had been a previous trial about the same case.

Over the course of the trial, we heard from a plethora of witnesses: the plaintiff, close friends, neighbors, a casual acquaintance, a friend’s widow, an attorney, a urologist, a biomechanical engineer, an orthopedic surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a neurologist, an EMT, a police officer, a mechanic, an accident reconstructionist, and a graphic artist. The attorneys read us transcripts of testimony from the 50-h hearing, the examination before trial, the previous trial, and even earlier in our own trial. We examined exhibits ranging from graphic photographs of surgery to complicated mechanical diagrams from a bus service manual, from medical records to police reports to Google Street View images to an example of a shoe. We learned in detail about the bones and arteries of the foot, about the tracking of the wheels of articulated buses, about intimate parts of the plaintiff’s medical history, about crush injuries and pain medication and rearview mirrors and street paving patterns and precisely how far each sign and tree in a certain block in Manhattan is from the curb.

Ultimately, we were asked to decide on two main questions (although they were broken down into five, officially): whether we believe that the MTA bus had negligently run over the plaintiff’s foot, causing his injuries; and how much we wanted to award in damages, should we decide that they were warranted. The burden of proof was on the plaintiff, who had to demonstrate that a preponderance of credible evidence supported his claim, and five of the six of us had to agree to any verdict we rendered.

We began our deliberations by giving each person a turn, in order of juror number, to share in detail their position on whether the MTA bus had run over the plaintiff’s foot and the reasons behind that position. No one, not even the defense, contested that the plaintiff has suffered a serious crush injury to his foot, and all the jurors agreed that the evidence supported the idea that this injury had most likely been caused by a heavy vehicle rolling over his foot. However, when we first took stock, we had two jurors who firmly believed that that heavy vehicle had been the MTA bus, one who was wavering but leaning toward yes, one who was uncertain, and two who were doubtful. As the discussion continued, we brought up counterpoints to each other’s concerns and even staged a couple of dramatic re-enactments of potential scenarios for how the events could have unfolded. Gradually, people began to reconsider their positions, and ultimately the other five jurors agreed to rule in favor of the plaintiff.

I was the lone dissenter. There was a hole in the timeline that had bothered me from the first day of the trial that had never been filled. There were inconsistencies in the plaintiff’s testimony, and certainly the accident couldn’t have unfolded exactly as he sometimes described without the bus or the trees or signs on the sidewalk (“street furniture” in courtroom parlance) sustaining damage, although most of the jury forgave him those details due to the way trauma impacts memory. There were certain witnesses who I found difficult to trust, more so than the other members of the jury, and I found myself silently wondering if I was unnaturally skeptical, if my willingness to trust was somehow damaged, if something in my history had caused me to armor myself in a way that made it more difficult to form connections.

On the other hand, from the little I saw of him, the plaintiff did seem to me like he was probably an honest man. I know that some members of the jury were swayed by the consistency of his story that the bus had run over his foot, even if the particulars of where and with which wheel were foggy. Others pointed out that he had enjoyed a stellar reputation among his friends, neighbors, business partners, and clients. The plaintiff’s attorney had mentioned in his closing statement that this was a “man of significance,” a remark and an idea that I had found off-putting, but which probably still held some resonance in a city like New York.

In the end, although I couldn’t say that the MTA bus hadn’t run over the plaintiff’s foot, there wasn’t enough evidence to convince me that it had. There was enough for the other jurors. We had spent six weeks building a strong rapport together, so there was no acrimony in this. I told the others that I wouldn’t hold up the deliberations, and they all assured me that it was absolutely fine for me to dissent. It was probably as positive as the experience of being the only person in a room to disagree with everyone else there about the very thing for which you have all assembled could be.

From there, we moved on to the question of damages, which were split into two categories. We were asked to decide on an amount of damages for the time between the date of the accident and the date of our verdict, an interval of about nine and a half years. We were then asked to decide on a separate amount of damages for the time between the date of the verdict and the end of the plaintiff’s life, a duration we were asked to estimate in years. The plaintiff’s attorney asked us for $3-5 million in each of these categories and suggested estimating a life expectancy of 10 years; the judge told us that a man of the plaintiff’s age had a statistical life expectancy of 12.1 years, but that we could take his health into account and adjust our estimate as we saw fit. Aside from this, however, we were given no other numerical guidelines for the damages portion of our verdict.

To be honest, this was the part of the deliberations that made me the most uncomfortable. That we, a jury of laypeople, were asked to come up with a number for damages at all struck me as deeply problematic — what if we had awarded $100 billion and bankrupted the City of New York? — and this was compounded for me by the way the jury conducted the discussion. We started with $5 million, the high end of the range requested by the plaintiff’s attorney, and went around the room, asking each person whether they believed we should award more or less than that amount for the first category. I said less; everyone else said more. The foreperson then asked the same question about $7 million. Everyone except me said they felt comfortable with that figure. We repeated a similar process for the second category, landing on $7 million for that part of the damages as well, and thus, within a matter of minutes, the verdict was decided.

More than at any other time over the past six weeks, I felt my youth and my lack of means keenly. Nothing in my life has ever prepared me for the task of quantifying pain and suffering, of measuring the value of the quality of someone’s life in dollars, but the numbers thrown around the jury room felt arbitrary and extravagant and unimaginable to me. I couldn’t comprehend how $7 million would feel right and $5 million would feel wrong and how everyone else in the room felt comfortable deciding on differences of millions of dollars in the span of seconds, like play money or a whim. I suppose I wanted to approach the question with a facsimile of rigor, breaking it down in some systematic way into lost income, cost of medical care, compensation per year for lost enjoyment of life, who knows what else. The others, I can only guess, felt that no system could ever suffice for such an impossible task and preferred to trust their intuitive ballpark figures. I only know that I left feeling like a pauper in New Yorkers’ clothing, out of place in this city that was clearly too rich for me.

After we returned to the courtroom and the foreperson read out the verdict, the judge went down the line of jurors and asked each of us if this was our verdict.

“Juror #1, is this your verdict?” the judge asked.

“Yes, it is,” Juror #1 responded.

“Juror #2, is this your verdict?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Juror #3, is this your verdict?” he asked me.

“Yes, it is,” I answered, willing my voice not to waver. It wasn’t my verdict. But it was our verdict.

I know that the other members of the jury left satisfied, happy to see justice served and proud to have played a part in the serving of it. Last night, trying to make my peace with it all, I thought to myself, at the very worst, if we were wrong, we’ve taken money away from the city and made a disabled old man very happy. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse mistakes to make.