The Alabama Road Builder - Fall 2015 - (Page 18)

Legal LEGAL: When Juries Aren't Just By T. Kent Garrett & Theresa Johnston I have been trying cases in Alabama for more than 30 years. I have stood in front of juries in areas spanning from Jefferson County to the Florida border in that time. During those 30  years, I have sent juries back into the deliberation room perfectly sure that they would reach a verdict in my favor, only to be surprised by a negative result. Thankfully, I have also had the opposite occur. I have never settled a case just to reduce stress. I settled if it was the right thing to do for the client. It has been an interesting career. What have I learned that I can pass along to the owners of businesses operating in Alabama? The jurisdiction in which a case is filed against you makes all the difference. For example, a case filed in Autauga County, Chilton County or Elmore County, is difficult for a plaintiff to prove. Any trial lawyer that has actually been there will tell you that that area, like other areas in our state, is generally very conservative when it comes to whether to award a verdict to a plaintiff. They are also conservative on the amount. The complete opposite is true with respect to the region of West Alabama, referred to as the "Black Belt." The parking areas outside the courthouses in Lowndes, Macon and Bullock Counties look like a sales lot at a BMW or Mercedes dealership when the cases are all called. The high 18 verdicts in these areas, due to extremely lenient juries, create a lot of activity. By way of contrast, when the courts in more conservative jurisdictions summon the lawyers on all active cases, they produce a mere handful of lawyers. The cases are filed in the jurisdictions that have juries friendly to the person filing the lawsuit if the case can be brought there under the venue laws. It was Jefferson who said the requirement of a democracy is a well-informed and educated populace. For a variety of reasons, juries in West Alabama often lack the functional literacy required to reach a fair result in a case. This is a sad state of affairs in Alabama, and we should understand why this is the case without placing blame. It frequently has to do with a lack of adequate education. It also has to do with resentment and mistrust. Many of the people that live in the "Black Belt" feel they have been mistreated through the years. Frankly, there are accurate historical roots for this feeling. The era of Jim Crowe was fraught with injustice. Many of the citizens of that area have a long memory. Unfortunately, juries in that part of our state frequently react by punishing businesses that come into their courts as parties. Skilled attorneys play on these biases and cause juries to resort to decisions founded on emotion rather than the actual evidence. Any lawyer that has actually tried cases in the jurisdictions I am speaking of can give you many examples of horror stories they have seen. Several years ago, in Macon County, the jury awarded $5 million in a traffic accident case involving approximately $20,000 in medical bills. They failed to deliver a verdict properly signed by the foreperson of the jury. The judge instructed the jury to return to the deliberation room to have the foreperson sign the form. The verdict form came back with the signatures of four people on the verdict. Now, understand that the judge in every civil case is careful to explain to the jury that a foreperson is a single individual who operates as a discussion leader for the group. The court always instructs the jury that the first thing they need to do is to name a foreperson to help them in their deliberations. This means that not one of the twelve individuals on that particular jury understood that the foreperson is one person, and not four. The way a case is presented to a jury in West Alabama speaks volumes. In my opinion, the best trial lawyer filing cases in this area is Jere Beasley. His reputation for obtaining large verdicts does not need to be restated. He is as good as anyone I've ever seen at making an out-of-state lawyer look like he has no business in the courtroom. One of the things he does in his cases is spend a great deal of time with a PowerPoint presentation, teaching the jury how to fill out the verdict form. He does not leave it to the jury to accurately fill out the form with the number he wishes them to give. Why are juries in the "Black Belt" so difficult for a business interest to relate to? A few facts about Alabama in general, and West Alabama in particular, shed a great deal of light on this. First of all, Alabama is the sixth poorest state in America. The poorest of the poor are the following counties: Wilcox,

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The Alabama Road Builder - Fall 2015

Executive Director's Message
President's Message
ARBA Convention 2015 Highlights
The Costs of Sound Safety Performance
Senate Passes Long-Term Transportation Bill
Moving Forward With the Northern Beltline
Products and Services Marketplace
Index to Advertiers/
Heard Along the Highway

The Alabama Road Builder - Fall 2015