Anatomy of a Broken System


This is a mostly off-topic post. It’s a reflection on one of those things that probably many of us run into but never realize quite what it was that happened.

This was my third jury duty in New York City. This time, as opposed to the other two which were criminal cases, it was a civil suit. Civil trials of this sort are divided into two portions: fault and award (not sure if those are the terms they used, but that’s the idea: first, who is at fault?, if both parties, what % do you assign to each; then second, how much money is due and that number gets multiplied by the percentage that the defendant was found at fault).

This was a minor car accident. The defendant was a young man who had since moved to California and worked for a music company. His car had apparently sideswiped another car, driven by a woman in her thirties on a bridge. She had claimed she broke her nose as a result of the sideswipe.

We found him at fault because he left the scene and failed to call the police. His excuse was that she had sideswiped him and that he was afraid for his life thinking it was a crazy person and went home. The fact that he said that and still did not call the police was a problem for his version. He was in college at the time. Perhaps he had been drinking and was more concerned about that. It would be obvious why he might not want to bring that up in court. By the way, I think this was ten years after the accident that it made its way into court. She was now in her forties, he about thirty.

I note in passing, as I noted in passing to the other jurors who thought nothing of it, it was probably not only the woman’s nose that has seen the scalpel. She gave Dolly Parton a run for her money on breast size. She had had work done, no question.

So, we found him 100% responsible (or maybe it was 90/10). Now, at this point I’m thinking, because we did already cover some of the costs, that she’s due about $5,000 maximum. Though I had to agree with the auto repairs, the nose was just too much to buy into off. A sideswipe causing a head-on nose break on a steering wheel? From someone clearly the recipient of plastic surgery (and we were told, had had several other car accidents) it wasn’t going to wash with me.

But that is all only partially relevant to the point. The defendant’s attorney began giving his closing arguments for phase two and, in the middle of them, seemed to give up…got choked up, became crestfallen. I glanced at my fellow jurors and none looked like they were out for blood. Yet he behaved as though it was pointless to go on, we obviously hated his client. It was also very bad acting, and I was trying to figure out what he was trying to do. Didn’t need to at the time because…

They settled during lunch. The plaintiff had been asking for, I was told by her attorney afterwards, “a phone number.” One million plus. They had settled for $95,000 or $100,000 or so. What does that tell you by itself? If you were really due, really out of pocket a million dollars, would you settle for 1/10th?

But what only occurred to me more recently was that the defendant’s attorney was on the take. He purposely left out the facts like her multiple accidents until after phase one was complete. His godawful acting of getting choked up only made sense this way: he was attempting to herd his client into settling. He wasn’t trying to convince the jury of anything, his acting was just for his client and the judge.

So instead of the $5,000 she was due, she got $95,000.

His attorney also quickly ushered him away rather than have him talk to the jury. Typically, attorneys like to talk to jurors to see what they could do better next time. I’d have been curious as well had I been the defendant just how much would the jury have thought that she was due. Being afraid of a seven figure number made him settle for the five or six one. His attorney played him and dragged him out to prevent him figuring out the scam.

The first point is, I guess, don’t hire a cheap defense attorney in a civil case. The other side can and will buy him.

The second is, how easy it is to excuse, miss, ignore and rationalize away rampant corruption even when it’s right in front of your face (or wherever). Maybe this is on topic after all.


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