What If The Jury Simply Cannot Comprehend The Subject Matter

I cut my teeth as a young lawyer doing almost exclusively automotive product liability defense.  What always amazed me, particularly in cases involving extreme tragedy (death, disfigurement, paralysis), was how the automobile manufacturers took these risky cases to trial–and won!  How was it possible to convince a jury to look beyond the tragedy and extreme suffering, consider the evidence about the design of a crucial component, understand that evidence, and return a verdict for the manufacturer?  Particularly puzzling for me was the fact that, as we neared trial, even I still did not completely understand the technology, and I was a reasonably educated person who had been living with the case for several months.

A very distinguished trial lawyer answered this question during a pretrial presentation to our client of one particularly challenging case.  He said that, in his experience presenting these cases to juries (and mock juries) all across the country, then debriefing the jurors after trial, it is clear that much of the technical nuances escape most jurors.  No amount of careful teaching with brilliant demonstrative exhibits can make a person with a high school education or less, who has never worked in the automotive industry and, frankly, doesn’t care much about cars at all, understand a component, and comprehend why a company chose design A over design B.

What does matter to these jurors, he said, is seeing the lengths to which the manufacturer went to understand what occurred and how the plaintiff suffered her injury.  If something failed, jurors like to understand how and why it failed, and particularly why a safer alternative design wasn’t available or why the design advocated by the plaintiff’s expert wouldn’t work or would have produced the same (or even worse) result.  This is why it’s so extremely expensive to take these kinds of cases to trial, particularly when it takes one or more full-fledged crash tests, using identical automobiles, to understand exactly what happened.

A corollary is that jurors appreciate learning how hard the manufacturer worked, and how carefully the component was tested, to assure that the car was as safe as possible for the driver and her passengers.  To the extent this can be woven into a story, with witnesses who do not drone on for days, the chances of keeping jurors awake to hear the ending improves.  I like to think this principle can be equally applied to any context  in which jurors are going to be asked to evaluate highly technical evidence.  It becomes less about how or why something works, and more about how much the defendant cares about learning what really happened in a given case.

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