A Memo From Madame Foreperson

March 10, 2008
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I’ve been called to appear for jury duty about half a dozen times in my life. Never have I been asked a qualifying question or even seen the inside of the courtroom. I never got past the Sunday night call up that instructs you to show up at cattle call on Monday a.m. Until last week.

The phone recording let me know my group was to appear. Monday morning, I checked in at the Greene County Judicial Building. No problem. I took Business Law 101 about 100 years ago in college, so I knew that a jury was approximately 12 people. A quick glance around the crowded room (count the legs and divide by two) assured me that the odds of being selected were about 1 in 5. Also, I figured that a conservative, successful businesswoman was just not welcome on any kind of jury. I remembered the O.J. trial. I figured I was off the hook.

Not.

I made it to the Q&A portion of jury selection. This is the point where you are grilled by both teams of attorneys regarding your ability – or inability – to dispense justice in the pending trial. This is also the point where your fellow juror finalists start to panic and trot out the reasons why they should never, ever be asked their opinion on anything.

“I have a weak stomach and won’t be able to able to talk about or look at any blood.”
“My mother was involved in an accident once so I don’t think I can be impartial in this case.”
“I don’t believe in frivolous lawsuits and I think the amounts that juries deliver to people is just ridiculous.” (In spite of the judge’s assurance that the jury would make that decision, this potential juror was blessedly sent home.)

By this point, I was clear that it is just not OK for me to try and get out of jury duty. I am a perfectly good candidate for it. I am smart enough, healthy enough and gosh darn it, a citizen of this great country.

I was selected. I called the office, and to my delight my team instantly accommodated my unanticipated absence (I would discover by week’s end that I am the undeniable weak link in the team. More production occurred in my absence than has ever occurred with me on the job.).

It was a civil case involving a terrible accident. At a concrete products company, three men were ordered to move a row of concrete columns. Bob was the crane operator, and Tom and Al were laborers. Bob used the crane to lift the columns, which Tom and Al guided. As they approached the last column, the crane came close enough to a high voltage power line that the men stopped working. Tom went to get a forklift to move the column; that was the equipment used the previous day for the same task. Bob radioed the supervisor for permission to switch equipment.

The supervisor ordered the men to get back to work or they would find themselves unemployed. The forklift was being used. They were ordered to complete the task with the crane. They went back to work.

The crane boom either hit or came close enough to the power line to send a massive jolt of electricity through the cables. Tom, who was holding on to the cable to steady the load, received the blast of electricity…about 70,000 kilovolts. The electricity entered through his chest and grounded through his feet. One of Tom’s boots blew off and was discovered 25 yards away. The blast caused unconsciousness, severe burns, multiple secondary injuries, and led to the amputation of Tom’s right leg and left big toe.

It was a sad, tragic event. Tom has paid a consequence every day for the accident. It was our job as jurors to assign responsibility – and decide on a dollar amount for damages incurred and yet to be incurred. In legal parlance, Tom was the plaintiff.

Now here is the kicker: The two defendants were the crane manufacturer and the company who sold and serviced the crane.

Are you starting to get nervous? You should.

Throughout the trial, evidence was presented, opinions offered, and conflicting stories told. But the concrete products company was conspicuously absent.

The following points were agreed upon by both sides…

  • Tom had received safety training regarding high voltage lines and crane operation when he earned his journeyman ironworker’s license.
  • Tom knew that the crane was getting too close to the power lines.
  • Tom and Bob were threatened with their jobs if they didn’t complete the task with the crane.
  • Tom chose to go back to work…with the crane crew.
Tom’s lawyers maintained that the crane manufacturer was responsible for the injury because…

  • They manufactured and sold the crane…in 1958. They didn’t continue to warn all crane owners and operators that cranes need to stay more than 10 feet from power lines.
  • Warning signs in the crane cab were not sufficient. Did the crane manufacturer know that the owners and operators actually read and understand the signs?
      Tom’s lawyer maintained that the company who supplied service and parts to the crane was responsible for the injury because…

      • The crane supplier contracted to inspect the crane every year. The inspection checklist was provided by the crane supplier. The inspection was done…with the exception of a series of safety items marked “optional.” For some reason never determined, these items were not performed. This list included alerting all owners and operators about keeping cranes 10 feet or more from power lines. However, the crane had been inspected as per OSHA requirements.
      • By contracting to do the inspection, the plaintiff maintained that the crane supplier’s responsibility increased…even though the crane supplier was not around the day of the accident. In fact, they had not been to the concrete company for a year.
      At the end of the trial, the jurors were removed to the jury deliberating room. Bossy me was elected as foreperson. And we were asked to assign a percentage of responsibility…to the crane manufacturer, the crane supplier…and to Tom.

      Should any responsibility be assigned to the defendants, we were instructed to determine an appropriate dollar amount. Tom’s lawyers made a suggestion: $2 million for Tom for lost wages and hardship. And $500,000 for Tom’s wife.

      I read the judge’s instructions, and asked the jurors, “Do you all feel like I do…that there is someone missing?”

      We all agreed that, from the evidence presented, the concrete company and the supervisor had some ‘splaining to do. Where were they?

      But our task was to assign responsibility to the names on the list. And the concrete company wasn’t on the list. Unanimously, we assigned zero responsibility to crane manufacturer and the crane supplier.

      This meant one thing: there would be no money awarded.

      We delivered our verdict, to the disappointment, no doubt, of Tom, his family…and his lawyers. And, we felt incredibly sad for Tom. He made a mistake. And he would live with the consequences of that mistake.

      After the trial, the judge stopped by the jury room as we were gathering our coats and getting ready to leave.

      He told us that he knew we were wondering about the absence of the concrete company. Here’s the scoop. The concrete company had workers comp insurance. Workers comp is no fault insurance. It kicks in and pays medical and damages no matter who is responsible for the accident. As a result, that company can’t be sued. Kind of a double jeopardy thing. So…on to the next pockets.

      Lessons from Madame Foreperson…

      • As the owner of the company, you don’t get to decide on the defense, or whether or not you will go to court or settle. The insurance companies do that. Should money have been awarded, it would have been paid by insurance companies…to the plaintiff’s insurance companies.
      • A lack of documented training increases the likelihood for assigning negligence. Teach safety…and breathe life into safe business practices at your company. The evidence in this case confirmed that there is a lot of cowboy contracting going on out there.
      • The accident happened 12 years ago. Though the defendants were not found responsible, the legal fees have been racking up for more than a decade. This is particularly frightening when you consider the inefficiencies of the legal system. Time and material billing is essentially unethical. If you need convincing, get involved in a lawsuit.
      • No matter what you do, you’ll never be completely immune to a lawsuit…and it doesn’t matter if you do anything negligent or not.
      • If you want to make sure that justice is served, to the best of our not perfect system’s capacity…show up and serve on jury duty.

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