This is justice?

I recently served on a jury in a civil trial in Los Angeles County. It was the first time I’ve actually gone through the whole process and been selected for a jury, and it was certainly interesting and “good for me” to go through it. It was also frustrating, however, because I couldn’t help but think about how inequality extends even to our legal system (which wasn’t really a surprise, of course).

Here was the case in a nutshell. A woman was walking her dog in her neighborhood a couple years ago when a large dog attacked her and bit her rather severely in her arm and knocked her down a couple times, leading also to problems in her knee and ankle. Perhaps even more significantly, she received significant emotional damage due to the trauma. She sued the owner of the house where the attack occurred. In our deliberations, I and most of my fellow jurors felt the owner of the house bore some responsibility, but in the end we decided unanimously in favor of the defendant due to the narrow scope of the verdict instructions the judge gave us. We had to decide whether the defendant was (1) the owner of the dog or (2) “kept or controlled” the dog. The evidence showed that someone visiting the property at the time was the owner of the dog, and there wasn’t really any evidence that the homeowner had taken responsibility for caring for the dog, so in the end – after clarifying with the judge that we were to consider the defendant as an individual, not as a property owner – it was a simple decision to make.

It was the right decision, but it certainly didn’t feel good. Sure, all of us jurors were inconvenienced for a week and countless public funds went toward supporting the case and trial, but the real victim was this poor woman who in the end received nothing for her troubles. This was not someone looking for a quick way to make a buck; she was a typical hard-working immigrant who came to this country looking to provide a better life for her family. She was victimized by the dog and then by an ambulance-chasing attorney who somehow got this case to go to trial and then proceeded to waste all our time with just atrocious lawyering, leaving numerous holes in almost all aspects of the case.

I couldn’t help but think, if she had the resources to hire a decent lawyer, the result likely would have been different. Yes, the system worked as well as it could in this case, but it still smelled.

Published by Bill

Social justice advocate and collaborative leader

2 thoughts on “This is justice?

  1. Sounds like the “inequality” was due to the woman not getting a very good lawyer. He probably went after the homeowner under his homeowner’s insurance. He could have sued the owner of the dog, but perhaps there wasn’t adequate insurance to make it worth his while. The legal system is not perfect, but it works pretty well, all things considered. The attorney was probably working on a contingency anyway, so it’s possible he didn’t get anything out of the case anyway.

  2. Hi Bill,

    I just served on a civil jury as well. I finished the experience feeling very frustrated by the fact that those who can afford good attorneys to litigate instead of finding a solution through arbitration or mediation are able to bring frivolous cases to our court system that inconvenience 13 people and burden taxpayers through the use of the court’s time. In this case, neither individual was blameless, and yet because our society allows it, they could sue one another for damages in a jury trial.

    After the verdict the judge gave us all a brief sermon on the importance of trial by jury in our democracy, but in this case I struggled to see the connection.

    I’m sorry you were similarly disappointed by your jury experience. Certainly, those with less are disadvantaged to a greater degree than those with the pockets deep enough to afford high priced lawyers. If it were up to me, we would be like New Zealand and limit people’s “right” to sue!

    Thanks again for your blog!

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