One driver was struck and killed by another one, prematurely widowing a wife of 30 years just as she and her husband were about to enjoy their golden years together. A prime personal injury case, which conventional wisdom holds should go to a jury that will be more sympathetic than a judge to tales of pain, suffering and wrecked lives?
Not so, says Washington trial lawyer Jacob A. Stein. He recently won a $420,000 verdict in a similar case from a judge-not a jury-in Montgomery County. Stein deliberately decided against a jury trial-in this case because the victim was riding a motorcycle.
"I felt that a jury might not treat with sufficient care a case where someone was riding a motorcycle," said Stein, fearing a prejudice against motorcycle riders as hot rodders. In this instance, though, the victim rode a motorcycle to and from work to conserve gasoline.
Beyond that, Stein said juries have changed in recent years and no longer award the extremely high "sympathy" verdicts for which they were once known. Juries, he said, have became influenced by other factors, including the idea that big judgments came from insurance premiums, which all of us pay.
"There is a feeling that juries give much higher verdicts than judges based on sympathy. I question whether that is a fact," Stein said.
"If you've got the evidence," he continued, "I think you are better off before a judge than before a jury."In personal injury cases, for example, if the evidence holding a person liable is weak, a jury is apt to come in with a smaller amount of money for damages, Stein said. "A judge won't do that. If he finds there's proof of liability-whether it's strong proof or weak proof-he will award the same damages."
Backing that view is the experience of Harry Goldberg, another Washington trial lawyer, who a few years ago had part of one case decided by a judge and part of the same case decided by a jury after one trial. The judge, William Bryant of U.S. District Court here, awarded almost four times as much as the jury did.
(The season both a judge and a jury made separate decisions on the same case is that both the District of Columbia and the United States were defendants, and under federal law negligence cases against the government must be decided by a judge, not a jury. Although the negligence was shared, Bryant awarded $975,000 from the U.S. government while the jury said the District of Columbia government had to pay far less - $250,000.)
"In this particular case the judge was closer to being correct," said Goldberg. "He realized the total impact on this man's life."
To Goldberg, location is all important as to whether to go for a jury trial. Juries in Alexandria, he said, came in with "shockingly low" judgments in two trials arising from a fatal airline crash. He was able to get his case switched to U.S. court in Washington-and immediately settled for $50,000 more than he was offered in Virginia.
"Areas do make difference," said Goldberg. "But there's only one certainty about a jury-and that's uncertainty."
John Doar, who first gained fame as the assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights during the Kennedy administration and went on to be special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment hearings, is quitting as a partner in the top-star New York law firm of Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine to go into a practice on his own.
"I'm just starting out. I'm going to be on my own," said Doar, 57, whose legal career began with a small family law firm in New Richmond, Wis., that included his father, brother and cousins.
"I really know that I want to go back to that kind of practice," said Doar, whose public career also has included being president of the New York City Board of Education and director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development and Services Corp. in a ghetto area of Brooklyn.
Answering the question everyone asks, he said his quitting Donovan, leisure has nothing to do with his last big case there-a civil antitrust suit that his client, Eastman Kodak, lost, and which saw a Donovan, Leisure partner, Mahlon F. Perkins Jr., sentenced to a month in jail for lying and withholding documents.
"I would have left anyway," said Doar, who became a partner in Donovan, Leisure in February 1975 and plans to remain a trial specialist in his New York firm.
Apparently the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling 18 months ago allowing lawyers to advertise was not enough for Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney Andre Evans. He brought criminal charges against Stuart Gordon, a lawyer who runs a Virginia Beach legal clinic that advertises. Gordon is accused of violating two obscure state laws against advertising services in wills and divorce cases.
Gordon, who joined the Legal Clinic of Bettis & Gordon in September after 20 years of practice with a larger, traditional firm in Norfolk, won support from Virginia Attorney General Marshall Coleman, who took the unprecedented step of filing a court brief supporting Gordon and calling the two state laws unconstitutional.
Thursday even Evans gave up, and the case was thrown out of court.