I am back from a successful trial in El Paso County . In a career that has spanned 20 years, I can tell you that the most common place I find myself is right where the naysayers say it can't be done. I have had a very fulfilling and successful career swimming in a direction that is often ill-advised. This latest trial is certainly no exception.
El Paso County is a jurisdiction that has had the reputation of being a very challenging location to get a good jury verdict. It is said to be too Republican, too Christian, and even too diversity-challenged to be a welcoming place for an injury victim. Traditional wisdom has been that people who fall into these groups have strong feelings against lawsuits, no matter how meritorious. However, like most stereotypes, the branding of El Paso County as a "no man's land" for friendly juries is both over-blown and probably unfair.
It is true that El Paso County is conservative. As a trial attorney, they certainly make you prove your case. But for our April 4th trial, I found the prospective jury panel to be quite educated, eloquent, and most assuredly willing to be fair. They understood the importance of their civil duty and that a jury's job is to enforce community standards.
This recent jury verdict causes me to have a warmer place in my heart for the fine folks of El Paso County. Also, there were some specific lessons that I learned and will apply to all my future trials, regardless of the jurisdiction. There are seven rules that I follow in trial whether other people think it's a challenging place to win or not:
1. USE ALL THE TIME YOU ARE GIVEN TO EXPLORE THE POTENTIAL JUROR'S VIEWS:
The process of selecting a jury of 6 from a gallery of potential jurors is called voir dire. That is a French word that means "to speak the truth." As the phrase implies, it is critically important to ask these folks as many questions as possible to learn the truth about our prospective jurors.
Asking them questions like "can you be fair?" gets you nowhere. Asking them how they feel about the fact that in civil cases each side needs to prove their case by just tipping the scale, a "more likely than not" standard, reveals a myriad of opinions from the panel you could never achieve with any series of "yes/no" questions. We don't preach to the jury about how they should think. Instead, we focus on open-ended questions and we talk for as long as the judge allows in order to fully understand the individual beliefs and biases of our possible jurors.
2. OPENING STATEMENT: Nothing fancy...just the facts:
Since PowerPoint, the likelihood that a lawyer will try to dazzle with bullet-points or a fancy time-line where jurors must crane their neck away from the lawyer to look at the cleverness of the on-screen presentation has become more and more tempting. I resist that temptation.
Opening statement is the time for the lawyer to tell the jury the story of the case. Any attempt to dazzle hurts the lawyer's credibility. If our words, in simple and straightforward explanation, can't adequately tell the story of our case, then we probably have a bad case and should settle anyway. If our case isn't a total waste of the jury's time, a clear and honest story using words is the only way to present it.
"Fancy" is for defense counsels funded by big insurance company money. We have the facts on our side, so why distract the jury with "fancy?"
3. START BY PROVING FAULT AND FORCE OF IMPACT FIRST:
Jurors want to know they are devoting their week to a trial that is meaningful. I never want to call that into question. I always try to show why we belong in court and why the attention they are devoting is deserved.
The only cases that should ever make it to court are those where injuries are significant and can unquestionably be explained by a huge wreck. I bring the entire accident investigation team including the police officer who responded to the crash, and I make sure that we show jurors photos of the crash. Jurors rightly expect police and crash photos in an car crash case. I always deliver both.
4. A DEFENDANT WHO TESTIFIES DEFENSIVE NEVER HURTS EITHER:
Questioning defendants is an art. Their insurance company lawyers tell them to act remorseful. They tell them to say yes to a lot to my questions. However, Defendants just can't help it. They always get defensive and show their true colors.
The truth is that the defendant never cares, because the insurance company is always footing the bill for the verdict anyway.Defendants are just window dressing. It's simply big insurance company money on that side of the room. That is usually why the defendants are not properly prepared. They get defensive, maybe even a little obnoxious, and look terrible to the jury.
5. SPEND THE TIME NECESSARY TO BRING LOTS OF FRIENDS AND FAMILY TO TESTIFY:
The only way to show the extent of damage to a person's life following a crash is to have the friends and family testify as to impact of the injuries on the person's life. I bring as many people to testify as possible. This is often the best way for a jury to really understand the full impact of my client's injuries.
6. DON'T WORRY TOO MUCH ABOUT WHAT THE JURY IS THINKING ALONG THE WAY:
In Colorado, j uries are allowed to write down questions that the judge will then pose to a witness. This is somewhat unique to our great state. It allows a jury to get the answers to a question that they believe is important.
Some attorneys try to read as much into these questions as possible and discern them like tea leaves. I find if you try to determine where you stand with the jury based on the questions asked, you will drive yourself crazy. I just continue to prove my case, witness after witness.
7. FINISH YOUR CASE WITH A CLOSING LIKE IT'S THE LAST ONE YOU WILL EVER DO.
I give it my all in the courtroom. Closing argument is where you put it all together. I treat every closing argument like it is the very last one I will ever do. My client deserves everything that I have.
Cases are not won in favorable or unfavorable locations. They are won by proving the case with solid evidence, witnesses and hard work. I find that the above seven rules work anywhere.
At Anderson, Hemmat & McQuinn L.L.C., we know that when we take a case to trial it is because our client has truly been hurt because of the negligence of someone else and they deserve to have their case zealously advocated.We believe this because we know that Justice for Victims Begins Here.