Charlotte Monger smiled broadly as a D.C. Superior Court jury awarded her $3 million on Tuesday for what her lawyer had argued was botched thyroid surgery that left her vocal cords paralyzed. Yesterday, though, the 44-year-old public school teacher from Annapolis watched calmly as yet another jury was selected to hear her claims -- and this time it was the real thing.
Tuesday's $3 million award was part of a novel experiment to try to force opposing sides in a civil lawsuit to settle without a lengthy and expensive trial.
It was the first time the so-called summary jury trial was used in the Washington area and -- despite its apparent failure in the Monger case -- court officials said that more and more lawyers will be forced to take part in an abbreviated version of a trial as the court tries new ways to reduce a growing and costly backlog of civil cases.
In a summary jury trial, both sides present their arguments without any witnesses testifying before a jury. The jury then deliberates and presents a nonbinding verdict that is intended to give both sides an indication of how good their cases are, thus inducing both sides to settle.
"This was not a normal trial . . . Judge Eugene Hamilton said Wednesday as he told the six jurors in Monger's summary trial for the first time that their $3 million verdict was not binding.
The jury, he said, has given the parties "a very strong indication of what impact their prospective cases are likely to have . . . and they are now in a better position to negotiate the matter among themselves . . . without the necessity of an actual trial . . . . We must explore more quick and less expensive ways to dispose of lawsuits. "
The experiment, however, did not work in the Monger case. Both sides did negotiate further, but after sleeping on whether to settle, returned to court more convinced than ever that each had a winning case.
They told Hamilton they wanted a real trial, which could last two weeks. The summary trial took 1 1/2 days.
There is a backlog of 5,275 civil suits in Superior Court and the average case takes nearly 2 1/2 years to reach trial and costs about $1,000 a day in court costs alone.
The summary jury trial was first developed in 1980 by federal Judge Thomas D. Lambros of Ohio. Lambros thought too many cases were going to trial that could be settled outside the courtroom simply because the two parties could not agree on the amount of a settlement.
Lambros believed that if he could come up with a procedure that gave lawyers a realistic view of how their cases might be perceived by a jury, settlements would be forthcoming without resorting to a lengthy and costly trial.
"If we have methods for forecasting other important matters in life such as the weather and the conditions of the stockmarket, then why can't we effectively forecast jury verdicts and try to provide some kind of objective decision making, rather than leaving it to subjective evaluation," Lambros said in a telephone interview.
Lambros said he got the idea for the abbreviated trial because of two particular cases in which plaintiffs had rejected large amounts of money offered in pretrial settlement negotiations. In both cases, Lambros said the plaintiff opted to go to trial and received less money from the jury than had been offered during settlement negotiations.
Lambros said his experience is that the procedure has a high success rate. Of the 150 summary jury cases he has overseen, more than 90 percent settled after the first verdict and before the actual trial, he said.
The defendant in the Monger case, George Washington University Hospital, initially offered to settle for $45,000. Monger said she would not take less than $625,000, according to sources close to the negotiations.
During the two hours of arguments, lawyers buttressed their claims by reading from statements of potential trial witnesses. Monger, whose suit claimed the operation weakened her voice and caused breathing problems, did not testify but later said in a softly modulated voice, "I think the jurors liked me."
Steven Hamilton, the hospital's lawyer, raised the hospital's settlement offer to $100,000 after the initial verdict, but privately told the judge and Monger's lawyer that the hospital refused to go higher because the $3 million verdict was so unrealistically inflated as to be an unreliable indicator of an actual trial award.
Monger, represented by Brian Shevlin, was buoyed by the initial amount and became more entrenched in her demands for a substantially higher payment.
Asked by Shevlin on Tuesday if she was more inclined to settle after the summary jury verdict, Monger smiled and said, "Yes, if they will give me $3 million."