Monday, February 17, 2014

No. 108 – Forty Mile Town

Performer: Eric Johnson
Songwriter: Eric Johnson
Original Release: Ah Via Musicom
Year: 1990
Definitive Version: Roll the Bones Tour, 1991.

Perhaps the biggest indication that things were different professionally for me was in September 2009 when I received a summons for jury duty. It was my first.

I always suspected that part of the reason I never got called was because I worked for a newspaper, so I might know too much about specific cases. Then, after I moved back to Columbus, you could add that my father and grandfather were lawyers in town. I’m certain that if my name came up in the Bozo-puter, it was marked, “Don’t waste your time.”

Well, neither of those things applied to me by 2009, and my name came up. Fortunately, I had a ready-made excuse for why I shouldn’t serve: I was on deadline for the magazine—like the day before we went to press. I called and asked for a delay, which was granted.

Three months later, I got another summons. This one was mandatory. I was to report for jury duty at the Honorable Richard J. Daley Plaza (that’s where they got that Picasso) to perform my civic duty … of trying to get out of serving on a jury by any means possible.

I arrived promptly at 9, and my jury-pool group was called into court almost instantly. The case was a civil suit involving a guy injured while he rode his bike by the driver of an SUV who allegedly was on his cellphone at the time.

I got this. I already hate SUV drivers in general as well as drivers who yak on their cellphones. No way I’m getting on this case. I’ll go back to the pool and run out the clock working on my Christmas letter and the next batch of Laurie tunes, which were to include Forty Mile Town—the song that made me an Eric Johnson fan way back in 1991. Done and done.

Not so fast, Artemus. The defense attorney asked me about my opinion of drivers who use cellphones, and I told the truth: It should be banned. That simple. Then he asked whether I could put aside my prejudices and examine the facts of the case rationally, and I told the truth again: Yes.

Wrong answer. Next thing I knew, I was in the jury room with the other schlubs who couldn’t get out of it and then seated on the jury. The good news was that was the end of my day. The bad news was that this case was expected to last all week. All week?! Ugh!

The details were straight-forward—a bike-car crash at dusk at an undisclosed suburban location. The main question was who was at fault and whether the crash led to the injuries the plaintiff claimed. The biker plaintiff sought 100 Gs in recompense.

For the next three days, we heard testimony about what happened and then mostly on spinal stenosis, what causes it, how it manifests itself. I took copious notes. On the fourth day—Friday—the case went to the jury.

It actually was a pretty open-and-shut case, in my opinion: The driver was at fault, but the injuries of the biker were exaggerated. The evidence that led me to that conclusion:

* Based on the layout of the intersection and where the crash took place, the driver HAD to have been speeding to make the turn he did and hit the biker where he did without rolling his SUV. Thus, he was at fault, regardless of whether he was on his cellphone. (No phone records were pulled, which was a pretty dumb misplay by the plaintiff’s attorney.)

* The biker went through a fair amount of rehab, got better and went back to work—as a guy who lifted heavy appliances—and to his golf game, which can be absolute hell on a back. It was several years after the incident before his injuries became debilitating and before the suit was brought; in fact, it was just before the statute of limitations ran out.

It seemed to me the driver should be liable for all bills and missed wages from work for the six-month period immediately following the incident but then nothing more after, because the biker was at least partially to blame for his further injury.

It wasn’t as clear to everyone else on the jury, however. In fact, several jurors didn’t think the SUV driver was in fault at all and didn’t want to give the plaintiff a dime. Fair enough, but this opinion was based on two things this dude couldn’t abide. First, there was the issue of the plaintiff’s attorney. Their hatred of his demeanor clouded their judgment. Yes, he was something of a twit—constantly running afoul of the judge—but that was irrelevant to the facts of the case.

Second—and think of this the next time you read about a jury finding with which you disagree—some voiced the idea that they’d been in the courtroom for a whole week and just wanted to just get out there, so we should reach a decision now. Look, I’m tired of fighting my way through the Christkindlmarket outside, too, but we’re here. No one’s going anywhere until we do this the right way.

It took longer than perhaps anyone wanted, but eventually, I steered the panel to my way of thinking. How was I able to pull that off? Well, before we began debate on the verdict itself, we elected a foreman—the supposed leader of the jury who sits closest to the judge and addresses the judge at verdict time. It might have been the first time I ever won election to anything.

We finally agreed: The driver was at fault and we would award for compensation over the first four months afterward, which totaled $6,000. We rang the judge to let them know we’d reached a verdict.

Walking back into the courtroom was interesting. We all had sat in the same seats all week until then, and I felt as though both lawyers and the judge looked at me as though my selection as foreman was no surprise to them. Have you reached a verdict? I stood—just like in the movies. Yes, your honor. We have.

After the case was closed and we were back in the jury room to fill out pay cards for the day, the judge visited us to compliment us on our work. It was only then that he gave us background of the case to which we weren’t privy. The plaintiff’s attorney, Lionel Hutz, was the third one on the case after others had dropped out due to the weakness of the plaintiff’s case.

The plaintiff already settled with two of the three insurers who covered the SUV driver, for $50,000, but one insurer held out. The judge said the case went to nonbinding arbitration before court, and the arbitration panel found exactly as we did: liability on the part of the SUV driver but extenuating circumstances making him liable only for a certain portion of the bills, to the tune of $6,000.

When I heard that, I felt vindicated. If we reached the same conclusion as another body that looked at the same evidence did, then we got it exactly right. No need to second-guess anything. Hey, I wasn’t named foreman for no reason.

A couple of months ago, I got another summons—this time for criminal court. Ugh! I called the night before and was told that I wasn’t needed to report at this time. Whew!

It was a stay of execution, but my name is out there now. It might be only a matter of time before it gets called again.

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