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Jury Duty: Part III
Volume 68: Mon February 6, 2006
Where our hero, Ryan, hears concluding arguments and retires to the jury deliberation room to decide the fate of $12,176.
We arrived at the courthouse for what, we were assured, would probably be our last day. The closing arguments, we were told, wouldn't take long, then it was just a matter of how long it took us to deliberate and agree on a verdict. In theory, the deliberating could take days, but in practice, for a simple little case like ours that only required a single decision to be decided upon, it was most likely we'd finish by the end of the day.
The lawyers made their final pleas, practically begging us to agree with them. Mr. Gebrekidan's lawyer boiled it down to reliance. It was absurd to think that Gebrekidan had stolen and trashed his own car, and the one lie he did deliberately tell wasn't even of any importance. The insurance company had to prove not only that Gebrekidan had lied to the claim investigators, but that they relied on the lie and suffered damage as a result—which he, naturally, said they didn't do.
He also made a point of bringing up that missing key. They agree with the forensic locksmith that one of Gebrekidan's keys was used to take the car—it just wasn't Mr. Gebrekidan who had it. I have to admit, I found the forensic locksmith's testimony very fascinating, but I had been wondering what the point of putting him on the stand was in the first place. Both sides agreed that a key was used to drive the car, so why was Farmer's Insurance even bothering to put him on the stand? My personal opinion—I think it was a lot of hand-waving. Farmer's Insurance was trying to dazzle us with all their investigative techniques and exhibits, but he only testified about what both sides completely agreed with. And in the end, I felt it hurt Farmer's Insurance because that was when I got the complete timeline of who knew what and when and concluded that Gebrekidan could not possibily have stolen and trashed his own car (which I didn't really believe in the first place, but that cemented it for me).
Farmer's Insurance astutely pointed out that you can't lie to a claim investigator, then claim you didn't suffer damage because they didn't believe the lie in the first place. Then pounded out all the other lies and inconsistencies in Gebrekidan's claim, blah, blah, blah. Just a rehash of all the other arguments.
After the closing arguments closed, each juror was given a fat wad of legal papers, stapled together, with legal definitions and what we had to determine to decide (the one count that needed to be decided) in favor of one side or the other. Then we were sent off to the jury deliberation room to be sequestered until we had made a decision.
We were warned if we wanted to make any phone calls, to do them before we started deliberating. Once we started, we would not be allowed to leave the room nor allowed to call anyone. Or even talk to anyone except the court reporter. Not until we had a verdict. Only five of the six jurors needed to agree for a verdict.
At this point, I was indecisive about how I wanted to vote. I felt like Farmer's Insurance was trying to get out of paying a claim on a technicality more than anything—then threw all the mud they could at Gebrekidan hoping something would stick. But I didn't much want to give the money to Gebrekidan either who'd willingly lied to the claim investigator in the first place and lied to us on the witness stand claiming that his brother borrowed the car more often than he really did. Frankly, I didn't like either side and wanted to find in favor of neither of them, but that wasn't an option.
With everything in order, we marched off to the jury deliberation room. The room had a set of instructions for jurors which I read first. These directions were generalized and applicable to all cases, so were always left in the room. The first thing it suggested was that we pick a foreperson for the jury to help keep everything running smoothly. And to 'get to know each other.' Introduce ourselves and a little about ourselves. And discuss how to decide who would talk when so we weren't talking over each other.
We'd already been getting to know each other from our conversations the last couple of days. Especially in the mornings when we first arrived but before they were ready for us in court where we sat around for an hour chatting about whatever popped into our heads. So we already had that part down.
I decided not to mention anything about selecting a foreperson. I so did not want to BE the foreperson, and I was afraid the first person who mentioned it would end up being selected to fill the role. Thus, I felt I was best off not saying anything on that score.
However, we did decide that with only six of us there, we didn't feel having a pecking order (or talking order, as the case may be) was of any use. Just say what you want and if later we had problems with that system, we'd deal with it then. =)
As I mentioned before, there were four points we had to consider for deciding our verdict. If any one of them we felt were true, we'd have to find in favor of Farmer's Insurance. If we felt they were all false, however, we'd have to find in favor of Gebrekidan.
So we started going down the list, one at a time. The first two I don't remember exactly what they were, but I think were about if we thought Mr. Gebrekidan had stolen and trashed his own vehicle.
I had strong views that that was an incredibly stupid conclusion based on what we had heard. We discussed it a bit, even though none of us seemed to think he was guilty of that. We theorized how much an airbag was worth, and wouldn't it have been easier for him to steal someone else's airbag instead of his own if that's really what he had been up to? I'm not sure why we discussed the issue as much as we did seeing as we were all in agreement that he had nothing to do with the theft and trashing of his own car.
But since I had such strong views that he didn't steal his own car, I reminded people that because this was a civil case, we were supposed to decide what we think probably happened. So I told the story I had thought up, from start to finish, that I felt best explained the facts that were presented:
Mr. Gebrekidan's showed up at his house on August 15th and his vehicle was still there. That night, someone smashed the side window behind the driver (we learned during the trial that car thieves often break the back window because they don't want to sit in the broken glass that would cover the front seat if they broke in the front window), reached in, and unlocked the door. Then he tried to hot wire the car but failed. Rather than just leave empty-handed, however, he decided to search the car for stuff worth taking. And, oh, look at that. The spare key is in the side door. (We also learned during the trial that the spare key was often kept in the driver's door.) Now he had a way to start the car and drive off with it. Which explains why the ignition had looked like it was forced, but still had been stolen using a key.
The next morning, Gebrekidan noticed the vehicle was missing, and for whatever stupid reason, he chose not to report it. Not then, at least. Maybe he thought he could find out what happened to it and with his father in the hospital, didn't consider it a priority. Whatever the reason, he didn't report it. He tells the cop who found the trashed vehicle that he never let anyone borrow it because by then he knew it had been stolen. His brother had clearly not borrowed it!
When he talks to this other agent that expresses concern about why it took him so long to report the vehicle stolen, he gets it in his head he should lie to the claim investigator about his whereabouts for the previous three days. He just wants his money and doesn't want a fuss over something as unimportant as why he took so long to report it stolen.
He also tells the claim investigator that he has both keys, not realizing he left the second key in the car door and the thief used it to drive off with his car. Later, when asked to produce the keys, he realizes that he's missing one of them and can only produce one key.
At this point, Farmer's Insurance thinks it can get away with denying his claim and starts to investigate even more deeply and hires the forensic locksmith to check out the car and low and behold discovers that the person who stole the car actually used a key to do it despite the damage to the ignition. They conclude they can throw another piece of mud at Gebrekidan—claim he tried to make it look like he hot wired the car then drove it off with the key.
Finally, Farmer's Insurance formally denies the claim at which point Gebrekidan realizes he'll be out over $12,000 unless he gets himself a lawyer to get the money for him. A cheap lawyer that even an a Matlock-challenged person such as myself could see was an idiot. And now the ball was in our court, as it were.
A couple of the other jurors looked a bit surprised at my story, wide-eyed and interested, and one of them commented that that sounded exactly what had happened. In the courtroom, we'd hear bits and pieces of the full story, one witness at a time, jumping back and forth in the timeline. Even in the closing arguments, neither of the lawyers wrote out a complete timeline of what happened and who knew what at various, critical points. I summed it up in such a way that it was the first time a couple of those jurors understood what happened, in order, from start to finish.
Or rather, what probably happened. There could be mistakes in my story, but I felt it was the best story that fit all of the evidence we knew to be true. All those little nagging details fell right into place. Why was the ignition broken into if the thief had a key, for instance? Why did Gebrekidan say he had both keys then could only produce one of them? It all fit, and it seemed so logical. I felt confident that's what probably happened, and since it wasn't a criminal case, I didn't even have to feel that's what happened beyond a reasonable doubt. Probably was good enough! =)
I just loved that. What probably happened. Doesn't matter if justice is served—innocent until proven guilty need not apply here. If you think that's what probably happened, then that's what happened. End of story.
That done, we were left with two other points to consider, and here we had a bit more disagreement. The first of those two was whether or not we felt that Mr. Gebrekidan had materially misrepresented his claim, and the second was if we felt that Farmer's Insurance had relied on the misrepresentation.
Those were a bit trickier, and the paperwork gave us official definitions for the words material and reliance to help us out. We picked through though definitions with a fine-tooth comb and it didn't help much. We still were disagreeing.
Heck, I was disagreeing with myself, even. I was inclined to think it was material if we found ourselves disagreeing on the matter! If it wasn't material, we wouldn't be arguing the topic. We're in court because it is material.
But then, what did Gebrekidan claiming he was out of town during the time his vehicle was stolen have anything else to do with the case? If he had told the truth, would his claim be valid? Regardless of what his answer was, even, as long as it was true, he'd still have a valid claim.
After over an hour of discussion on this matter, the court reporter came in and asked if we were near a decision. Not that she was trying to rush us, but rather so she'd know if she should order lunch for us. While we were in deliberations, we would not be allowed out for lunch. They'd order out for us and she'd bring in the food to us.
At our current rate of progress debating the merits of whether or not Mr. Gebrekidan's lies were material or not, I figured we'd be there for at least another hour and said so. I joked that we could stretch out the deliberations for the next couple days. I could use the extra money, being unemployed and all that, and everyone erupted in laughter, and a free lunch to boot every day! Not like I had anything better to do with my time—I was unemployed, after all. They laughed again. Others quickly concurred on my 'at least an hour' assessment left of deliberations, and we were given menus for Big Town Hero. Heh. I couldn't help but laugh since that's where I'd eaten lunch for the last two days. Now I didn't even have a choice in the matter.
We were given a limit on how much each person could spend, and we decided to spent to our limit. Get the large sandwich! Doesn't matter if you can only eat half—take the other half home for dinner! Go ahead and get the soda and cookie, not like you're paying for it. Frankly, we were having a lot of fun pouring over the menu deciding what all to get which probably wasted another half hour of our time, laughing and joking the entire time. =)
The food order finally went out, and we were back discussing the matter of what makes a lie a material one. Getting bored with that, we decided to skip ahead to the forth count—if the lie was material, did Farmer's Insurance rely on it?
We disagreed on this matter too. On one side of the fence, Farmer's Insurance never believed the lie, so it's hard to claim they relied on it. On the other hand, you could argue that by determining Gebrekidan's whereabouts at the time of the theft was a lie, it caused them to look deeper into the case, spend money on a forensic locksmith, causing them undue damage. But on the other other hand, just because they find a lie, does that mean Farmer's Insurance can throw a couple of dollars at the problem saying they had to 'dig deeper' knowing it could get them out of an even bigger payment later. Basically, they 'dug deeper' into the investigation just to use as an excuse to deny the claim rather than because it was a material lie.
Do'h! Did you see that? Back to material again. Oh, we went around and around, but finally lunch arrived and we started to eat. =)
It basically came down to one thing we spent so much time discussing: Was Gebrekidan lying about being out of town at the time of the theft a material lie or not?
"That's the $12,000 lie," I said authoritatively. "Is that lie going to cost him $12,000 or not?"
Around this time, I wrote down on my notebook a question: What if he lied about where he went for lunch that day? Would that have been material? Of course not—it has nothing to do with the theft of the vehicle. And it occurred to me—the location of Gebrekidan's presence also had nothing to do with the theft of the vehicle. I was starting to have leanings towards declaring that the lie was not material. And if it was not material, then it was Farmer's Insurance that was stupid to throw good money trying to pretend it was material. They didn't rely on it—they were depending on it to get them off the hook for twelve grand. They just didn't think Mr. Gebrekidan would take it all the way to a trial and now it's cost them more than would have paid if they just paid up the otherwise perfectly valid claim.
I did say that I felt Gebrekidan should be punished for deliberately lying about his claim, and another juror pointed out that in way, he has. He has to pay a lawyer to get his money, he has to go through the stress of a trial, and even if he wins, he still comes out behind where he would have been had he told the truth in the first place. This pleased me. =) I felt much less guilty about giving a liar money when I realized that the lawyer would get his piece of the pie and the stress he certainly must have felt going to trial. He was probably out in the hall, wondering what was taking the jury so long. Was that a good sign? A bad sign? How much longer would they have to wait before we came to a decision? I bet they were talking about that juror who spent the whole trial doodling in his notebook instead of paying attention. ;o)
I was also getting the impression that most of us were starting to lean in that direction. I also knew we only needed five people to agree to get ourselves a verdict. Who cares if one of us disagreed—we could still be out of there! So I suggested let's take a vote. Who thinks we should find in favor of Mr. Gebrekidan. Four people raised their hands. I, having called for the vote, forgot to raise mine, even though I was leaning in that direction myself. Ah-ha! We've got ourselves a verdict!
The one person who didn't raise their hand (the college student that was so fascinated by my stint at Intel) said he was still undecided on the matter, and I reminded him that we only needed five people to agree for a verdict. He could stay undecided—it didn't matter anymore. We had enough votes for a verdict!
Then one of the other jurors immediately suggested that I should be the foreman. WHAT?! No, no, no, NO, NOOO!!!!
"No," I told them, "I do not want to be the foreman."
"But you have to. You took the vote that got our verdict."
I was pretty sure that wasn't the requirement for being the foreman of the jury, but everyone else started nodding in agreement. Damnit. I so did not want to be the foreman. I didn't want to be on the spot like that. Curse me for leading these people into a vote and getting us out of there!
The verdict form was passed over to me, and I marked in X in favor of Mr. Gebrekidan, then signed my name. Only the foreman of the jury had to sign their name, and everyone else joked that as soon as I put my name to that document, I'd never get ensured by Farmer's Insurance for the rest of my life. I laughed and said it was just as well. If they make a habit of denying legitimate claims, I wouldn't want to be insured by them in the first place.
We rang the buzzer to get the attention of the court reporter to tell her we had a verdict, and she informed us to wait a bit. They were actually conducting another court proceeding at the moment and needed time to clear the room and get all the lawyers and clients for our case back to the courtroom.
So I hung onto the paper and we continued joking away among ourselves having a good old time of it.
"So," I inquired, "where do you all want to meet up for our one-year reunion?"
The whole room burst into laughter. Loud. I was just joking, I'll admit, but I didn't think it was nearly as funny as everyone else in the room thought it was. But I went along with it. "Yeah, we need to get together for a one year reunion to catch up on old times."
About a half hour later, we were instructed to enter the courtroom. We took our seats in the jury box, then rose when the judge entered the room. Then sat down again.
The judge thanked us for our time, and said it sounded like we were having a pretty good time in the jury deliberation room. We all chuckled at that—apparently our rambunctious laughter throughout the afternoon had been noticed. =)
The judged asked who the foreperson was, and I feebly raised my hand.
"And you've agreed on a verdict?"
"Yes." I waved the paper. The court reporter took it and handed it to the judge who read it.
During this time, I didn't look at either of the lawyers or their clients. I still didn't think either one of them really deserved the money and wasn't altogether happy about having to make one side happy, and I didn't really care how they felt about the verdict. I didn't even want to know what they thought. So I looked at the judge, and only the judge.
"And you all agreed to this verdict?" the judge inquired.
"Yes," I nodded.
The judge read the verdict. I held my breath. Would there be that gasp like you see in the movies? Shock by one side or the other? A gasp of happiness by Gebrekidan or a shocked silence by Farmer's Insurance? It also occurred to me—this was the first time I ever knew a verdict of anything before it was officially announced. Even in the movies, they don't show you the deliberations. They don't show you what they decided right when it's decided. No, they wait until the verdict is about to be read. Build the tension to the breaking point. Then tell the audience the verdict. Oh, of course, you know the bad guys are going to go to prison and the good guys are always freed, but until that very last second when the verdict is read, you know—in theory—anything could happen.
I'll admit, I didn't pay that much attention to the Michael Jackson trial, but I did happen to catch the news just as it was announced that a verdict was reached but before it was actually read. Amanda turned on the television, and we watched the news feeds live as Michael Jackson went into the courtroom and waited for the verdict to be read. That was TENSION, man! Tension! The gathered crowed outside, waiting with baited breath. I was kind of excited about something so momentous happening in Santa Maria, practically a stone's throw away from my hometown of San Luis Obispo. In fact, I'd even driven past the courthouse there with my mom when we went to Santa Maria on a Costco run to see the circus first hand. Must have been a slow news day when we drove by, because only a dozen or two people were outside, most of them carrying signs saying they loved Michael Jackson and therefore he could not be guilty of the crimes he was arrested for.
Our verdict didn't have anyone going to jail or going free, but there was $12,176 at stake. And there wasn't a single person in the audience to gasp when the judge read the verdict.
The judge asked the lawyers if they wanted to poll the jurors about our votes, and I was surprised when the attorney for Farmer's Insurance answered in the affirmative. Why? What did he think would happen? Someone would confess, "No! I was threatened and tortured that if I didn't agree to the verdict, something bad would happen to my family!"
But for whatever reason, he wanted to hear how we voted. Or rather, the exact question the judge asked us, was if we 'agreed' to this verdict. It was an interesting way to phrase the question, and could potentially mean two different things. (1) Did you vote for that verdict, or (2) do you agree that that was the verdict you all came up with. Which are two distinctly different questions, but I wasn't sure which one the judge was asking. However, it didn't really matter to me since the answer was the same in both cases. Yes, I voted for that verdict, and yes, we as a group agreed on that verdict. I wondered what the undecided person would say, but when it was his turn, he also said yes, and that was that.
The judge thanked us once again for helping and court was dismissed. We were free to leave. Jury duty was officially over.
We went back into the jury deliberation room to gather our belongings, and I asked the other jurors, "So, about that one-year reunion...." And they all busted up laughing all over again.
"Does that mean it's not going to happen?" I asked with mock concern.
One of the older women jurors replied, "How about I see you in two years—when we have to serve for jury duty again."
"It's a deal!"
Another one of the jurors asked if any of us had watched the reactions of Mr. Gebrekidan when the verdict was announced, and I said I didn't look at either side the entire time. I didn't really care what they thought and had no desire to see their reactions at the verdict. And he said that as we were leaving, Gebrekidan told him 'thank you.' Which kind of surprised me, because I didn't hear that. And thanks weren't really necessary. It's not like we were trying to do him any favors or anything.
I left down the stairs for the last time, then headed to the juror assembly room where I first checked in for jury duty two days before. Now that my days as a juror were over, I had to return my juror badge before I left the courthouse for the last time.
I quickly found a payphone and called my mom. "Guess what! I was the foreman of the jury! Yeah, they were big shoes to fill...."
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