The Seattle Times reports that a King County jury reached a unanimous verdict for the defendant after a seven day personal injury trial, taking only 15 minutes to reach a verdict.
Disclaimer: The only thing I know about this case is what I read in the newspaper so I am using this as an illustration and making assumptions in an effort to learn from this event.
The newspaper reports that plaintiff was a 51 year old woman who sued the city of Seattle asking damages for injuries suffered when the police handcuffed her after a hit and run incident. She had been arrested after two Seattle police officers responded to a report of a hit and run collision involving her company van and a parked car. She was arrested and charged with hit and run of an unattended vehicle. She claimed during the arrest the police “yanked” her right arm behind her back causing excruciating pain and seriously damaging her right shoulder. She was a janitor and claimed that the injuries incapacitated her so that she could not mop, wax, vacuum, garden or make her bed. She testified that she needed help from her husband and daughter to do basic tasks almost every day. She claimed disability in her right shoulder, arm and hand.
According to the newspaper there were some significant problems with her case. To start with, there was a patrol car video. The video did not show her being handcuffed, but it did show her sitting calmly on the bumper of the patrol car and then being equally calm in the back of the car. She did not appear to be distressed or in pain.
In addition, the plaintiff was born in Bosnia and had difficulty with English. But, apparently the most damaging part of the defense was a video taken of her by a private investigator hired by the city. The video showed the plaintiff driving, shopping, pulling open a glass door with her right injured hand and carrying packages in her right hand as well. She was videoed carrying numerous large bags in her right hand from a store to her car.
It is significant too, that her lawyer asked the jury for $1 million dollars which the jury took 15 minutes to reject and to reject her entire case.
Here, the plaintiff was suing the police for abuse. No matter what the publicity about police abuse there remains a sizeable percentage of jurors who generally believe the police can do no wrong and only guilty people get arrested. They deserve what they get in these juror’s minds. I think you start with a difficult job in voir dire finding jurors who are not biased in these cases. The problem is you don’t have enough time to do a proper job.
Immigration is a hot stove issue in this country. We have a woman who wasn’t born here and doesn’t speak English well. That’s enough to light up a bias in a number of jurors. This too, is something that needs to be discussed in jury selection and covered in your case in chief.
What about the video’s that were shown to the jury? Nothing is more damaging than a claim of serious injury and photos immediately after the claimed injury, at the scene, which show otherwise. What are you going to believe, the physical evidence or explanations? Here is a subject that needs to be opened by the plaintiff in jury selection and covered in opening to inoculate against the jury reaction. But, on top of that we have a private investigator videoing her doing things she claims she can’t do.
The fact is we have to deal with secret videos more often these days. The key is early discovery of their existence and the discovery deposition of the investigator. Next, we need to fully explore the issue in jury selection plus deal with it in opening by showing it yourself and inoculating against the drama of seeing for the first time. We need to show it to the plaintiff in direct and ask about it. It becomes a race to tell the truth first with defendant. And, if a poor job is done in these regards, a request by the plaintiff for an amount large enough the jury finds it really inappropriate you get an emotional backlash from the jury.
So, based only on my description and without knowing the actual facts, we have a case of non fracture and what is essentially a soft tissue damage claim which drug out for seven days. A woman who appears to have been dramatically impeached by video and who doesn’t speak English well to explain it. A suit against the city and its police asking $1 million dollars. Tax payers on the jury and really difficult issues. These facts require really careful and extensive discovery, motions in limine, a skillful voir dire and a carefully focused trial. Even then the odds are not good for the plaintiff. I’m sorry about the result and would assume this was a case most lawyers would have trouble winning.