Hot Coffee, Juror Bias and Fear of the Unknown
We have all heard about the infamous McDonald’s spilled coffee case as a supposed frivolous lawsuit resulting in a run-away-verdict. It is touted as the prime example of how corporate America has been victimized by juries and how the jury system is broken. However, this was not the case. In fact, Stella Liebeck, the little old lady from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was severely burned as a result of a long-standing problem with McDonalds serving coffee at temperatures known to cause severe burns in customers. This wasn’t their first rodeo. Other claims and lawsuits had been brought as a result of McDonald’s policy of serving coffee at unsafe temperatures. Normally, our fellow citizens sitting on juries reach verdicts fairly and for reasons demonstrated by evidence in the court room. Unfortunately, our sound bite era does not allow for the whole truth to be conveyed.
Another case that often results in cries of foul is the O.J. Simpson murder trial and its verdict of not guilty. Jurors are criticized for the outcome of the case. As a casual observer, I questioned how the jurors could have reached such a verdict. However, once again there was more to the story than we could appreciate from afar with a few minutes devoted to the news each evening. First of all, Mark Fuhrman, one of the lead detectives committed perjury by testifying that he had never ever used the n-word in the past ten years giving rise to questions of bias and a lack of credibility. F. Lee Bailey brilliantly anchored and locked in his testimony so that Fuhrman could not escape by claiming this was a mistake or innocent misstatement. Second, some of the blood evidence collected was called into question when discrepancies arose, such as chemical preservatives used by the police when collecting samples, were found to be present in some of the blood collected by the police at O.J. Simpson’s residence and elsewhere. The defense suggested in their opening statement that the police had planted this evidence, using known blood samples from Nicole Brown Simpson and O.J. Simpson. The police had collected these known blood samples in test tubes containing the preservative EDTA. The presence of EDTA in blood collected by police at O.J. Simpson’s residence and elsewhere lead to the inference that the blood was collected in tubes from the crime scene and then later deposited at the Simpson residence when it was searched by police. Finally, strategic errors were made by the prosecution as to the venue of the trial and the glove demonstration [Remember: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”]. Such evidence raised “reasons” to “doubt” the integrity of the whole police investigation. It was not necessary to show that O.J. was innocent to receive a not guilty verdict. The defense had to only raise “reasonable doubts” in the minds of the jurors to prevail. When looking at the whole picture presented by the case, it is easy to see how the jury could have doubted the integrity of the entire process and questioned whether they could trust the evidence enough to find O.J. guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
When dealing with jury selection, it is important to get jurors talking about their thoughts and prejudices without fear that you will ridicule or judge them. There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings by the public that could hurt your client. This means that you need to get jurors talking openly and without hesitation. You have to fearlessly approach jurors with an open mind and heart. David Ball, a noted jury expert, has preached this approach in his book, David Ball on Damages III. He notes in his book that renowned trial attorney, Gerry Spence, will approach jurors with a question like this:
“Good morning folks, I’m here on behalf of my client. This is when I get to ask you some questions for jury selection, but before the usual questions, some things worry me that I need to ask you about. We’ve all been hearing a lot lately about legal reform, tort reform, verdicts being too high, lawyers taking advantage, frivolous lawsuits, verdicts hurting businesses, hurting medical care, and all those things. We need to know how people feel about these things. If you could please tell me what if anything bothers you about what’s going on?”
He then proceeds to get each juror to talk openly about their problems or baggage they bring to the case. My own approach to this problem goes something like this:
Is there anything I missed? [pause – looking at the panel]. That’s my greatest fear, you know. I have limited time to ask you questions. I learned long ago that I need your help to do the best job I can for my client. I may not have been smart enough to ask something which would have an impact, even a little on you coming into this case with an open mind. Is there anything I should know about your background that you are aware of, that if you were in my client’s shoes here, you would want me to know about you? Is there anything you would want me to know about your opinions, beliefs or philosophy that I have not asked about, that if you were my client, you would want me to know?
I have had many a juror reveal important information that lead to them being struck for cause or motivated the potential juror to concede that this was not the right case for them to serve on as a fair and impartial juror.
So get them talking next time you do jury selection. The bottom line is that you must let go of your fear of the unknown, because what you don’t know can hurt both you and your client.