THE TRUTH ABOUT TRIAL
A jury trial is supposed to be a search for the truth. Unfortunately, when you go into a trial as an injured Plaintiff, some of the rules that are in place really serve to hide the truth.
For example, if we sue someone and take your case all the way to trial, they have insurance. But the insurance companies are politically very powerful and they have gotten rules passed that will not allow us to make any mention of insurance. Instead, the insurance company that took the Defendant’s money in the form of premiums and is on the hook for the Defendant’s failure to follow the safety rules then hides behind the Defendant and lets the jury think we are there to take money directly from that person.
Big insurance companies have also long worked behind the scenes to create the impression that Plaintiffs are just faking injuries and all the lawsuits brought by injured people are frivolous. These things are not true and distract from several important truths. First, we screen our cases very carefully to only bring valid claims. This is not only part of our ethical obligations as attorneys but also simply something we believe in. Additionally, bringing valid cases to court where people are really injured serves a broad purpose than just getting our client compensation for their bills, lost wages and pain and suffering; it serves to enforce the rules for safety and send a public message that when people break those rules, our community will hold them accountable.
Another thing we cannot talk about under Pennsylvania law is how much money we are requesting to compensate you fully for your harms and losses. Once of the most common questions we hear from jurors is some version of “why didn’t you tell us how much money we needed to award to your client?” Part of this stems from the fact that in certain other states, you CAN specifically name a value, thus the headlines about “50 million dollar lawsuits.” In Pennsylvania, all we can do is decide whether the case is above a certain threshold so that it goes to a jury. After that, we can give the jury tools and information to help them see the value of the claim but we cannot tell them specifically what they ought to award you.
We also cannot ask the jury to put themselves in your shoes or imagine it was their parent, spouse or child. While many of us teach the golden rule as a way to decide how to act, the rules do not allow us to ask the jury to consider the case in this basic way. We believe a jury should evaluate your case not only through the lens of what you have been through as an individual but also based what you have experienced in your status as the unfortunate representative of the community that was hurt when someone broke the safety rules and made us all unsafe. The rules limit how we can talk about this fundamental issue.
One of the most frustrating experience you can have as an injured person is to FINALLY get to your day in court and when you try to share with the jury what you have been through, the pain, the injuries, the “new normal” you have to live with, you find yourself opposed by a certain kind of attorney, one that keeps interrupting you, trying to make you answer questions in one word or less, and who keeps trying to get you to say inaccurate or incomplete things by asking suggestive or “leading” questions that threaten your ability to tell your story and be understood. The challenge is that you are just an ordinary man or woman, intelligent and honest, but not accustomed to being treated this way or having someone try to bend and shape your truth.
An additional obstacle at trial is what has become known as the “CSI Effect.” With the popularity of fictional television shows that rely on over exaggerated forensics or “science” to try and show exactly and precisely how something very complicated occurred has made jurors sometimes desire that kind of explanation. In real life, the kind of evidence available on TV is rarely accessible in real life. More importantly, in a civil trial to seek compensation for your injuries, we are not required to prove things so absolutely. The standard in these trials is “a preponderance of the evidence” often explained as simply “more likely than not” or the slightest tipping of the scales.
One of the most frustrating and unfair things an injured person can go through is what is often called an “IME” or and “Independent Medical Exam.” The very name of this process is misleading as this “independent” doctor is hired by the insurance company of the person who hurt you to examine you and render an opinion that either denies or drastically understates your injuries. If the “independent” doctor doesn’t give this sort of opinion and instead tells the truth about how hurt you are, the insurance company has rules about not hiring them anymore. This doctor will then come into court to testify or be videotaped testifying to be played in court telling the jury you are just fine or should have healed long ago. This doctor is usually unfamiliar with your true condition, barely spends any time with you during their supposed examination, and has a financial incentive to minimize everything that has happened to you.
Why do we give you all of this information? We want you to know that jury trials, while seemingly about the truth, are really constructed in a way to obscure or limit much of the truth about what you have been through and who is going to pay for it. This is important to understand because, in the face of all the things the jury is not allowed to know or fully understand, it is vital that the law firm you select to fight for you and tell your story both knows the rules and how to help the jury see the truth, sometimes in spite of them.