This morning I got up and went down to the Cook County Courthouse to serve my jury duty. I’ve been called at least once in every state I’ve lived in, and actually had to go once before in Philadelphia. That time, I was interviewed for a jury and when asked about whether I could be objective, started expounding (more or less) on the nature of truth and I may have even cited Rashomon to prove my point. Needless to say, I was no selected. Today, however, was different. Today when the plaintiff’s attorney had his chance to ask the prosepective jurors questions, he went down the line following along with the surveys we’d filled out on our summonses, asking us questions about what we did for a living, how much education we’d had, if we’d ever been to court before, etc. etc. I did not have an opportunity to explain my skepticism about objectivity. For whatever reasons, then, I was chosen to serve on this jury. And I have complex feelings about what went on.
The case was a civil suit One guy was accelerating through a green light, when another guy turned left, right into the first guy’s car (it was a mustang, it was clearly his pride and joy, he even had the mustang logo tattooed on his arm). While the second guy tried weakly to defend his actions, it was clearly his fault as he simply didn’t have the right of way. In the jury room we all relatively quickly conceded that the second guy was entirely at fault. What was more complicated was the question of damages. In his closing argument, the plaintiff’s attroney asked for $21,000 in damages–$9,500 for pain and suffering, $11,500 for loss of life enjoyment. The plaintiff contended that because of the accident, his client has suffered new injuries–pain in his neck, shoulder, back and hip–and as a result was unable either to perform his job as he normally would or to enjoy such hobbies as fishing. There was no medical testimony, no medical records submitted to evidence, no bills cited. It was one guy’s word against another.
I was skeptical about this guy’s injuries, but I was willing to let my fellow jurors convince me that were legitimate. I’m still not sure, but giving him the benefit of the doubt, the preponderance of evidence, seemed and seems reasonable. What was interesting was whether the amount–$21,000 total– seemed like alot or a little. To a graduate student uncertain about my job prospects, it seemed like alot. To someone who’s had dozens of medical bills and had to take time out for medical treatment, as well as having work and leisure patterns disrupted, $21,000 may seem like small consolation. We ultimately compromised and agreed $18,000 seemed fair. At the time, it did, in retrospect I still have a nagging sense of sympathy with the defendant who now has to confront that debt for an accident, that even if it were the result of negligence still seems to me just that, an accident.
Which leads me to the most complex of my complex feelings. Why do we live in a society where litigation is the way in which we resolve these kinds of issues? Why is the second guy held accountable in this way for what was, I think, genuinely an accident? Where my thought process leads me is, basically, to socialism (I know John is smiling now). In invoking socialism, I first of all mean socialized medicine and labor laws that are sensitive to these kinds of situations, and labor situations which are flexible based on these kinds of (physical) injuries. Yet second of all, I mean more generally a system whereby we don’t need to use the law to get our due. This case seemed to me kind of waste of time. It only lasted an hour and I’m interested in questions of citizenship so it wasn’t without merit for me, but I can only imagine the time and money spent just to get to that point in terms of bureaucracy and administration, legal fees and the judge’s time and salary. Couldn’t we be spending our time better? Isn’t there a system in which $21,000 doesn’t matter because there are mechanisms built in to catch us when we fall, when we are unintentionally injured or when we unintentionally cause an accident? Where even if the condition was preexisting, it could nonetheless be treated effectively? Where the legal system isn’t the recourse to deal with the commodity fetishism of one man’s attachment to his car? Is that system socialism? It seems to me that it is certainly not capitalism and the civil division of the American legal system.