There were only two good things about spending seven tortuous days on jury duty last week.
- My fellow jurors – a perky group of twelve very smart people aged somewhere between 24 and, well, 60something, whose combined skin colors would have qualified us for a very snappy We Are the World video decades ago or, at the very least, a 1990s Benetton ad
- The fact that we awarded a 37 year-old working class guy with four kids $600,000 in damages to be paid by his insurance company because three years ago they refused to pay the lousy $5000 they contractually owed him for the medical bills he accrued from an accident he didn’t even cause.
Yes, I know the company will appeal and that Carlos (not his real name, though he is Hispanic – a salient fact to be addressed later on) won’t get anywhere near that amount of money since…
a. The company will appeal
b. He will have to pay taxes on whatever money he does get, and
c. He will have to give a percentage of the money to his attorney.
Still, whatever is left will be a huge sum to Carlos – a man guilty of nothing more than getting hit by a fellow truck driver while he was driving his kids home from school and paying his premiums on time to this same insurance company every month for the last 13 years. He is also a man who, up until Obamacare passed, could not afford health insurance but did make sure he paid extra for special medical coverage on his auto policy that insured some payment of medical bills to himself and the passengers in his car in case of an unforeseen accident.
I have spent a lifetime cleverly avoiding serving on a jury and for good reason. It’s a tedious process mired in technicalities and legalese that interrupts your life and seems to seldom result in a verdict that sticks or that couldn’t have been decided just as well by someone else with more time on their hands than you. Plus, let’s face it – I’m a bit selfish. Who wants to trudge an hour downtown every day and sit in a room full of people you don’t know when you could be…working at your job? Surfing the web? Talking to your friends? Eating? Venting? Or perhaps even having ________?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to rush out a year from now and try to sign up again. And honestly, I can’t even promise that I won’t try to postpone or get out of it some other way in the future if I do get that dreaded summons in the mail. But I will forever realize from now on that in some tiny way our justice system does still occasionally work and will perhaps be persuaded to stand up for it a little bit more in the future. That might not seem like a big deal to you but given the current wave of nationwide cynicism and weariness, particularly my own, about whether our system of government still works at all – or even a little – it is something well worth noting – and feeling.
I will not bore you with the minutiae of this case, mostly because I don’t think even a newly minted flag waver such as myself could live through it a second time without wanting to stab hot pokers into the sides of my head (and yours). But I do want to provide a few salient points of what a case could look like in the event you get called and think nothing you do will matter. However, first some words about …
My Fellow Jurors: TWELVE NOT ANGRY MEN
There were actually eight women and four men, none of who were angry though one of us – that would be me – could probably be referred to as crabby. And not only were we not pissed off but we were all smart, which goes against everything I’d ever heard about jury service. Those urban legends go something like this: They’ll never choose you once they know you went to college, they hate people who have strong opinions, they stay away from anyone with professional jobs and, most certainly, anyone having to do with show business – and, finally – they’ll never, EVER take a mouthy gay Jew from New York like you. (Note: The latter refers solely to moi, and is patently, and particularly, untrue).
Of course, none of the above is true. Our group was comprised of two marketing executives, a high school principal, two college professors, a tech executive, an ad/media buyer, several social workers, a television producer and a student of criminology, among others. And in thinking about it afterwards I also realized we were about as racially diverse as any ad promoting the justice system could hope for: White, African American, Indian, Hispanic, Asian and probably one or two I left out. We didn’t get into religion but, well, this is wise not only for jury service but at any public gathering or, well, anything at all.
LISTENERS AND NOTE TAKERS
This was an especially complicated civil case involving endless health insurance claims, fraud and tedious power point presentations. Quite often I felt as if I were back in high school chemistry class or lost in a loop of Ben Stein outtakes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but with a body double miming his own lines instead of the ones written by John Hughes. Yet whenever my mind would wander I’d look around and see everyone else taking copious notes on the steno pads the court provided, trying to follow every word that I’d almost given up on. They also maintained the required poker faces throughout while I often grimaced and rolled my eyes at some of the witnesses or arguments I deemed idiotic as if I were Lucy Ricardo being told she couldn’t afford to buy the new dress she wanted or didn’t have enough talent to be in show business.
I like to think of myself as a resourceful, fun guy and maybe I am sometimes. Still, this group more than kept up and, often, surpassed me. I was particularly in awe that they all figured out days before I did that you could enter through the doorway on Grand Ave. and be three blocks closer to the parking garage as well as only one floor away from our courtroom instead of entering on Hill St., as I did, where you had to walk up and down numerous hilly (hee hee) streets in the hot afternoon and morning as well as travel up six additional stories in order to get to our designated location.
Not to mention, they all had much better initial excuses to get out of serving than I did. My fave was the guy who cited reading Thomas Piketty’s current NY Times bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as a reason for his bias against the corporate greed of the insurance industry. A clever plea for elimination on a case where a behemoth corporation was being sued by the little guy but it didn’t work. No excuses did. All the lawyers seemed concerned with was that a juror would agree to “try and be fair.” How do you adamantly refuse under oath to try to be fair without the fear of being cited for contempt of court? #Youcant.
And finally, and most importantly, towards the end of what was becoming an endless trial of infinite facts, a bunch of these same compatriots came onboard with me when for diversion, during our breaks, I started a game called “redress the attorney.” It came to my attention that the cheap dark beige and green suits some of the not bad-looking lawyers were wearing did nothing for them and I began to suggest copious color palettes that might help the matter.
Rather than this seeming like a “gay thing” a whole group of these said compatriots volunteered to play along and in the course of a few days we were able to re-outfit the entire courtroom in bold blues, maroons, grays and blacks. In fact, we actually pondered whether to tell the attorneys what we came up with at the end of the trial and where to shop, particularly after we found out their individual fees were – $400 per hour. #BloomingdalesMensDept or #AtLeastTheory.
It’s not as much fun to write about this though it probably is more important. The reason is that most of us do not have a chance if an insurance company decides for whatever reason not to pay your claim. There are several reasons for this:
- Few of us want to spend three years suing and giving depositions but THEY (nee the insurance guys and gals) are happy to.
- Very few of us keep records of every piece of paper and phone conversation we’ve ever had with one of THEIR representatives but THEY keep EVERYTHING. (Note: I am now an expert witness to that fact and have the residual brain freeze to prove it).
- No one, except perhaps Siri, remembers every name, date and location of every medical test and treatment they’ve ever been given and, certainly neither she nor even your own medical professional can properly justify each treatment you’ve ever received or are entitled to be reimbursed by under the terms of the fine print of THEIR contract. But you’d better believe THEY can and most certainly WILL.
Which brings us back to the case. In a nutshell, here’s what happened to Carlos.
One early afternoon three years ago he had picked up his kids, all under 12 at the time, from a bunch of different schools and was driving home in the slow lane of the freeway, minding his own business, when a very large truck hit the driver’s side of his car twice and caused him to two times bounce off against the rails of the roadway. Luckily, only the car was hurt initially.
Predictably, Carlos just wanted to go back to work and ignore whatever pains he began having several days later but then, when his oldest daughter began experiencing some discomfort he was told by a buddy to contact an attorney he successfully used and sue the other driver. Carlos was inclined to do this because his own insurance company had lied to him and told him he was not entitled to be reimbursed by them for any doctor bills resulting from the accident even though he indeed was. (Note: They later claimed this was merely their own “clerical” mistake that went on for several months).
In any event, his 12 year-old daughter received treatment and his insurance company (THEY) finally paid her bills, albeit at a reduced rate. But Carlos, whose doctor-ordered MRI revealed he had a disc bulge, was refused payment for his claims by his insurance company (aka THEM). What followed were months and then years of:
– Accusations that Carlos’ attorney was trying to hide settlement money he received from a successful lawsuit suit with the other driver (Note: Legally his insurance company (aka THEY) still MUST PAY for his medical bills regardless of money received from elsewhere).
– Charges that Carlos went to a dubious medical clinic because one of its many co-owners had previously been accused, but never convicted, of medical fraud, and…
– Implications, then later assertions, that Carlos’ reputable Century City attorney was really a scammer whose entire career consisted of going after insurance carriers and their shady dealings and, hence, could not be trusted to ever reveal the entire truth to said company (aka THEM) about anything.
Of course, none of this admittedly had anything to do with Carlos personally and he was at no time accused by his insurer (THEM) of lying. However, because his insurance reps (THEY again) were suspicious of the lawyer and medical facility he happened on to, Carlos, his four children and his wife (who was not in the car at the time of the accident but signed forms as the guardian of his children) were put on a permanent watch list in the state of California of people who have been investigated for insurance fraud – a list from which none of their names can EVER be removed.
Never mind that all of his children were years away from driving. For the rest of their lives, as well as the lives of their parents, all of these names will bounce back whenever any of them applies for insurance of any kind and they will in turn be put in a special pile of high risk insurers where, well….it’s not so cheap or easy to get covered. Not for now and not in the unforeseeable future. It’s sort of like that awful boss who always remembers that one mistake you didn’t make that cost him money or the kid who keeps bringing up the time you peed in your pants during elementary school even though it was really just water that squirted on you when you were trying to take a drink from a faulty fountain on a particularly hot day.
I’m sure I left stuff out but that’s it in a nutshell. No, I didn’t mention the female thirtysomething insurance special investigator who used to work at a gym prior to her six-month training course as an S.I.. for THEM and her penchant for wandering unannounced into medical facilities with her camera expecting to take pictures and interview doctors and technicians about their professional practices while she taped everything they said. Nor did I speak about the expert THEY put on the witness stand who said that THEIR investigation of Carlos’ claim was one of the best he’d seen in two decades of work despite the fact that said company (THEY again) readily admitted that for two full months after he filed his claim Carlos was consistently told by THEM he was NOT entitled to the medical coverage he had indeed paid for.
Okay, so– what do you do about a case like this? I mean, I certainly don’t spend as much time on my own medical forms though God knows I (and you) clearly should.
Well, you consider all the points made, look at your notes and try to boil it down to who filed the case and why. For me, it was much like working on a complicated screenplay or story of any kind where, at the end of the day, it’s really all about your main character and what he or she wants.
When you throw out all the superfluous, brain-breaking information it was all about Carlos (our main character) and whether he deserved to have his medical bills paid under the terms of what he had inarguably purchased. And when boiled down to that the verdict became crystal clear. Not only for me but for 11 of the 12 jurors. This is known as a clear decision in a civil trial such as this where you only need a two-thirds majority on one side to render a verdict.
(Note: Our lone holdout never faulted Carlos but didn’t believe his lawyer had proven enough of his case according to the law, a subjective conclusion but certainly understandable considering the law is not too specific on how much proof is enough).
So we rule in favor of Carlos and agree he gets his medical bills and attorney fees paid for by THEM. The question remaining is – what amount, if any, are we willing to reward him on the third part of the suit – unspecified damages for mental distress. Well, at this point my instinct is to give a large cash reward to each and every juror who has had to listen to three years of the tedious hell of millions of insurance claims but clearly that is not an option. So — how do you put a dollar value on distress without becoming what my grandmother used to say, a schnorrer (Yiddish for a sponger or beggar for money). Well, luckily, the day was over and we’d have the night to think about it before deciding the next morning because by then all of us in the deliberation room were totally farshtunken (Yiddish for rotting)
That evening, after venting endlessly to myself since legally I was still forbidden to discuss the case with anyone, including the Significant Other, I thought a lot about Carlos, his four children and his wife and I couldn’t help but wonder: if he and his family had gone to one of the more upscale L.A. doctors I have access to – the ones who went to the fancier schools and have offices in better zip codes where they cater to patients like me who can afford to pay as they go and then fight for reimbursement on another day –would they have been treated the way that they were? Then I began to wonder even further: if he had my name rather than one of Hispanic origin (or even the title of Chair) would even that have made the difference?
Well, we’ll never know, will we? But I certainly have feelings about it. As do you. Still, a legal case is not about feelings, it’s about facts. Then suddenly – it hit me.
What is the price of being put on a lifelong fraud list when you never committed fraud and never even came close to doing so? What is the cost to Carlos and his wife, both in their thirties, and moreover, what is the lifelong cost to their four children – all minors who right now don’t have their own insurance policies but will have this accusation dogging them for their rest of their lives?
I concoct my own financial rewards formula that night and consider if I’ve lost my mind when I total the dollar amount. I then share my reasoning with my fellow jurors the following day (with a mea culpa that though I might now be crazy, even crazy people like me can be committed to what they think is right and that I came up with the only alternative I could, short of revolution, that seemed truly fair).
To my great surprise, not only did every color of the rainbow in our little Benetton ad agree but the amount of what they believed were distress damages to Carlos and his family began to increase – greatly – meaning, by A LOT – the more we discuss.
Eventually we decide to throw out the highest figure ($6,000,000!) and the lowest ($100,000) and each of us begin to compromise in either direction. Hence the $600,000 number. Maybe it sounded like a lot when I started writing this but now, somehow, it doesn’t feel like nearly enough.
In any event, we get back into court and the judge announces the verdict. Carlos’ attorney, who is today thankfully finally wearing the black suit instead of the beige one (Note: Did he hear me?) jumps back in shock when he hears the damages figure. The attorney forthe insurance company (aka THEM) – that, fyi, had record profits in excess of $1.3 billion last year – as well as its rep, are floored. As for Carlos, one of my fellow jurors told me she later saw him quietly sitting outside the courtroom, trying to hide several tears forming around the corners of his eyes.
Yeah, sometimes this is how justice works. I’m going to try to and remember that, not to mention the shortcut you can take to get into the courthouse. Though I won’t need the latter for at least a year, and hopefully never. If I play my cards right. Which I don’t do nearly enough.