Watching My First Jury Trial: Paralegal’s Perspective

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I have heard many clients say they’d like to sue whoever hurt them. Yet the reality is that most cases will never even reach the Court. No lawsuit needs to be filed. This firm handles personal injury for the Plaintiff, the individual claiming injuries and damages caused directly or indirectly by someone or something. Most of these cases are cut and dry; liability is clear and accepted. Rear-ended at a stoplight: straightforward. T-boned by a red-light runner: straightforward. 

Settlement of a personal injury claim well before trial or even litigation — the process that comes after filing a lawsuit with the Court — saves significant time, expenses, and stress. It costs $240 to file a lawsuit in King County, or $242.49 if you do it online. Then we have to locate and serve the Defendant with that lawsuit, which process can easily rack up hundreds of dollars. These are just some of the costs that the firm advances on your behalf, but which necessarily come out of your eventual monetary settlement, award, or verdict. And unlike the pre-litigation process — where we’re handling all the business of insurance and negotiations on the client’s behalf, so they can continue about their life, uninterrupted — a lawsuit requires much more from the Plaintiff. You’ll likely be deposed, answer interrogatories, maybe undergo a DME. We need a whole lot more information from you, and so too will Defense.

That said, it’s relatively rare to go to trial. At least over a civil matter of personal injury. It’s nearly August as I write this, and this firm’s seen four so far this year. This is more than normal — last year we had just one, and I understand that’s our average. But there are many reasons we go: a case may be too difficult, Defense may be too stubborn, or a client may simply choose not to accept their offers or options. Perhaps we get de novo’d. Failing alternative dispute resolution, we’ll take your case to Court.

I’ve personally worked on two of this year’s trials. While as a paralegal I’m not allowed to attend your deposition, arbitration, or mediation — that’s the domain of those immediately involved, namely you and your attorney — apparently almost anyone can enter a courtroom. Now, I’ve never been called for jury duty, and I’ve never had to go to Court. And I was curious what trial would be like. No amount of behind-the-scenes paralegal legwork clears the air of mystery about it until you actually go see for yourself. 

So this spring, I did. I’ll spare the details of the case itself. I attended the third day of our trial, which had been continued (a technical term) and bumped (not a technical term) for other trials, more than a couple times. But come June, we were on. The first day as I understand it was spent largely on jury selection, or “voir dire.” The second saw opening statements from the attorneys, testimony from Plaintiff’s medical expert (a physiatrist), and more. 

King County has two courthouses. One’s in Kent and the other’s in Seattle. This particular case was at Seattle’s King County Superior Court, a couple blocks east from Pioneer Square and a (brisk, painfully uphill) fifteen-minute walk south of Pike Place, a stop off the light rail. Armed guards (police?) attend the doors. Security’s right inside — take off your jacket, de-pocket the cell phone, all the procedures of the airport, really — and you’re quickly through. 

It takes a minute to find where you belong. Monitors displaying details of rooms and judges and parties’ names line the hallway, and still you may need help. Soon enough I rode up the elevator with a woman frantically changing her clothes (in the elevator) for her hearing; she asked me what I knew about warrants, which is next to nothing. I wished her luck all the same. I finally joined our trial after morning break. They’d started around eight and broke somewhere around 10:30. I’d nervously texted my boss that I was in the building, found the courtroom, could see through the window that things were happening, and he’d told me I could really just go on in, but I waited. As a first-timer, and as I could see no one else in the gallery, I did not want to cause any kind of interruption. I waited in the hall — quiet and stark and limited in cellular reception — with the rotation of next door’s drug-court attendees.

I entered at Plaintiff’s testimony. This client had been deposed before and was sure of herself. Though she needed an interpreter — and at trial, there are two, who alternate every half-hour or hour — you could sense a confidence in her answers. The translation (and what was lost therein) visibly disoriented the Defense, it seemed, though there was not a minute when I saw a juror seem confused or frustrated. I tried very hard to read them. And they might have been a little sleepy, sure, or come a long way to be there, but at least our thirteen (and later, twelve, after the departure of the alternate) were by all appearances totally attentive and earnest. 

At breaks and even outside on the lunch hour, I did not expect to see so many of our jurors as I did. I silently washed my hands beside the Defense attorney and loitered in the hall some beside the Defense’s medical expert (a neurologist). By mid-day, everyone knew my affiliation to the Plaintiff; I was the only person there “to watch,” after all, and the attorneys from my firm openly checked in with me. Courthouse intermingling is something pop culture does get right. So I talked only to our team. I was committed to being as inconspicuous as possible here.

The Defense attorney asked our client about her injuries and her accident. I remember a lot of back and forth about the operation of her seatbelt, and whether her nose grazed any part of the car. They asked about her hobbies, activities, travels, and her life. Though there were two attorneys present for either side, only one ever did question the given witness. Plaintiff’s attorney — our attorney — connected powerfully with Plaintiff’s traumatic personal history, something difficult to do — and again, in translation — and he painted this motor vehicle accident as another painful blight on a hard life. 

Defense had retained their own expert for trial as we had, and he went on the stand after lunch. Much is stated only for context. As with a deposition, where much is stated only for the record: name, title, occupational and educational history. It is interesting to hear firsthand their admission of their fee schedules (many hundreds of dollars per hour) and the breakdown of their practice. This doctor deals in something like 95% for the side of the Defense — whether that’s live testimony, exams, reports, reviews, or otherwise — to corroborate the story they want to tell, with the support of his “M.D.” Now this M.D. advocated that our client had not received a concussion in the accident. Conversely, we were trying to prove that by all signs and symptoms she had indeed, though never properly named.

The jury had the opportunity to anonymously ask any questions of the witness, and their questions were all keen. They submitted these on paper to the bailiff, and the judge read them aloud after both attorneys agreed to their acceptability. These questions were my favorite part. This was our one real source of insight as to where they might stand, yet all those they presented on this day were remarkably objective, or at least well considered.

Closing arguments took place not long thereafter. As far as a trial might go, this one was very short. Liability had been accepted long ago and was not disputed. This was about money and treatment. Our client had “treated” for longer than Defense found reasonable, and longer than they wanted to pay for. Both attorneys closed with their version of how much our client might be repaid for her pain and suffering, and admittedly it is a little jarring to hear so frankly discussed numbers like that, bald like that, for all I deal with them at work. Defense’s strategy in closing was to offer a greater “daily rate” of compensation for our client’s pain and suffering “general damages” than even we suggested, an effort to seem — again — reasonable, generous even, but for a far shorter timeframe than ours, and exclusive of our client’s extended period of medical treatment. Not what we wanted.

Trial thus concluded. We were through by about five o’clock. The jury verdict would arrive the next day, though not before they presented the attorneys with additional questions of clarification. So long as a verdict is not appealed within a set number of days, it will most likely be paid, and the matter will be through.

I would relay my expectations here, had I had any. I knew not to expect anything like the movies, acquainted as I am (now) with this area of law and just how dry personal injury litigation can (frankly) be. While for many, this event would be no kind of a good time, I was entirely captivated: I saw my attorneys’, my colleagues’, and my own work up there, exhibits on display that I had helped build and compile, testimony that I had previously read and rehashed, and only truly come to understand here, live and in color. And there emerges further all that done by the people who came before me. 

This is the culmination of years of work and tireless commitment for a client. There is a special appreciation for the work we do that might only be actualized when you see all these moving parts coming together, aligned and serviceable or not, and all the hours and dollars spent creating these things, fixing them, and continuously retooling and reworking the case. This is the culmination of belief in value, however we got here.

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