Last week we had our first jury trial since the courts reopened, so wanted to provide a report. It was one of the first civil jury trials in the state since re-opening and was very different than the jury trials handled prior to COVID. What follows is a report of how everything went, from jury selection to verdict.
About the Case
The case itself was a major liability dispute. From the beginning, the insurance company had placed my client at fault and denied the claim.
My client was crossing Rossville Boulevard as a pedestrian near Shakerwood Road when he was struck by the Defendant. There were some significant factual disputes, but my client admitted he was not crossing at the (unmarked) crosswalk. He also admitted that he was using Airpods and talking on the phone while he was crossing, but that he looked both ways before he crossed.
Rossville Boulevard has three lanes in each direction with a grass median separating them and he was attempting to make it to the grass median before crossing the rest of the roadway. He testified that he crossed where he did because the grass median did not extend all the way to the intersection and he always crossed at that point because it was safer to cross there than at the intersection where you had to get across all 6 lanes (three in each direction) without the protection of a median.
He lived within walking distance of the intersection and walked this route weekly for many years prior to the incident.
Normally, jury selection occurs in the courtroom on the day of trial. However, for anyone who has been called for jury duty, you can understand how the normal routine would simply not be possible during COVID. There is simply no way to have every potential juror in the jury assembly room and then have a group of 30-40 brought up to a single courtroom for jury selection, without having legitimate concerns about everyone’s safety and well-being.
As such, Baltimore County came up with a very creative process by which to conduct jury selection. They moved that part of the process to the Cow Palace at the Timonium Fairgrounds (there is a sentence I never thought I would write!). They had a security checkpoint set up for lawyers and jurors just like at the courthouse and they obviously did temperature checks as well.
There was no heat inside though, so it was cold. Good luck to anyone who has to do jury selection there when the weather gets REALLY cold!
Judge Ensor conducted the jury selection and voir dire and she was great. The process was explained to us in advance and it ran very smoothly. They had a stage set up with tables for the Judge, lawyers and parties and then out on the floor they had socially distanced chairs for the prospective jurors.
We did the first stage of voir dire with the Judge using a microphone and then they had a separate semi-private room on the side with a curtain for the individual questioning. Overall it only took about 90 minutes and we were the only jury being selected that day so when we were done, the other jurors were sent home.
Judge Ensor then spoke to our jury and told them that they needed to report to the jury assembly room at the courthouse the following morning, but were done for the day.
The following day we all reported to our assigned courtroom for trial. We were assigned Judge Dennis Robinson who was excellent. By my understanding, it was also his first jury trial as a Judge since the courts re-opened, so he was very flexible with the jurors, parties and attorneys and made sure that things moved as efficiently as possible under the circumstances.
The courtroom itself was set up very specifically to ensure the safety of everyone, especially the jurors. The Judge, courtroom clerk and witness box all had plexiglass protectors separating them from others in the courtroom. The lawyers set at their regular trial tables, but the parties sat at separate tables directly behind their respective attorneys.
As for the trial itself, it moved along very quickly. There was one initial motion that was resolved by Judge Robinson and only two witnesses who were called to testify. Even though they were behind the plexiglass, the jurors wore masks at all times as did the attorneys. It certainly made it difficult to “connect” with the jurors, but they seemed to be genuinely attentive and engaged which is all you can ask for.
In terms of the testimony and evidence, the Plaintiff was adamant that when he went to cross the street, he looked both ways and there were no cars coming. It was approximately 5pm in December, so it was dark and it was also snowing. He also testified that he had one leg on the median when he was struck in the far left lane, which means he was essentially all the way across the roadway.
By contrast the defendant testified that he saw the defendant on the passenger side of his vehicle immediately before impact and that one of the reasons he never saw him was because there were two cars in the lane next to him (my client swore there were no other cars).
However, the defendant said that when he saw the plaintiff, he immediately swerved to the right to avoid the collision, but struck the plaintiff anyway throwing him into the windshield and then up in the air and fifteen feet onto the median.
There driver’s side of the windshield was completely shattered and there was blood visible on the pictures of the vehicle taken after the car accident. My client had a dislocated shoulder and a fractured tibia which required multiple surgeries. The first was to repair his broken leg (which included inserting a rod and screws) and the second was to repair the wound and do a skin graft.
He stayed in the hospital for 10 days and after he was discharged, he had 14 weeks of physical therapy. The total amount of his medical bills was $72,808.18. There was no real argument made by the defense that his treatment or the amount of the medical bills wasn’t reasonable or related.
The defendant’s testimony differed greatly from my client’s. About the only thing they agreed on was that he was driving in the far left of the three lanes (the one next to the median). He had multiple contradictions/inconsistencies between his answers to interrogatories and deposition testimony and I also emphasized the fact that his version of what happened made no sense.
If the plaintiff was on the passenger side of the vehicle and there were other cars in the middle lane next to him, why would he swerve to the right? That would take him right into the pedestrian and the cars. The only reason to swerve right would be if the pedestrian was on the driver’s side of the vehicle, which was consistent with my client’s testimony.
In closing arguments I pointed out not only the inconsistencies in the defendant’s story, but also that his version made no sense. I had argued that there was evidence that the defendant was not keeping a proper lookout and there was also evidence that he was driving without his lights on, both of which he denied.
As for my client’s conduct, I explained to the jury why he had crossed where he did and emphasized that it was safer for him to do so. I also obviously stressed the nature and extent of his injuries in the hopes of having the jury be sympathetic towards him, especially in light of the fact that the defendant did not come across well at all and was very unlikeable.
Overall I thought the trial went pretty well, but when the jury started their deliberations, I thought there was a strong possibility that we might lose on contributory negligence. In Maryland, if you are even 1% at fault for your injuries, you are barred from recovering. That fear was reinforced when we were told the jury had reached a verdict after only 25 minutes, which is normally bad news for plaintiffs.
Fortunately, my fear was unfounded. The jury decided that the defendant was negligent, and also that there was no contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff, and awarded:
$72,808.18 in past meds
$73,000 in pain and suffering
That resulted in a total verdict of $145,808.18 which, after the jury was excused, was reduced to $100,000. This was an amount agreed to as a cap in advance of trial given that it was the extent of the defendant’s insurance coverage.
My client and his mother were ecstatic. They understood that the odds were stacked against us so to win was a great feeling for everyone.
It was also fantastic to be back in the courtroom and trying a case in front of a jury again. Judge Ensor and Judge Robinson were both terrific which was no surprise. I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable at all, so I give everyone involved a lot of credit for creating a functional and safe jury selection process and for making sure the trial ran smoothly.