Student learns important lessons in citizenship with jury duty service

After more than two decades of finding successful ways to get out of jury duty, that ended when I was chosen to serve on a civil trial at the George L. Allen County Civil Courthouse in downtown Dallas.

I was among the first 80 people called from the pool of registered voters who were summoned to report to the seventh floor of Judge Craig Smith’s courtroom. The 36 of us participated in the “voir dire” selection process. We were questioned by lawyers for the plaintiff and the defendant as they decided who would be the lucky 12 to serve on the trial.

It was a medical case in which the defendant, a woman, ran into the 17-year old plaintiff as she pulled into a 7-11 parking lot. The plaintiff was asking for more than $5,000 to pay the chiropractor he had seen following the accident. In addition, the plaintiff was asking for $10,000 for the mental anguish the accident caused him and his parents.

The plaintiff’s lawyer didn’t ask me any questions like he did some of the others. Given that, I figured I would not get picked. That was until the defendant’s lawyer zeroed in on me and the woman sitting next to me. He asked if we checked our monthly billing statements to make sure the amount owed was correct. Of course we both said “yes,” and that may have been what got both of us selected two hours later.

As Juror 6, with pen and pad in hand, I took notes as the lawyers questioned witnesses. I couldn’t help but notice Juror 5 doing nothing. His arms were folded and legs crossed the whole time like he had already made up his mind about the case.

I was not surprised during deliberations when Juror 5 told us he worked for a company that paid award settlements in medical lawsuits. He said his company settles because the fees involved in fighting the case were likely to cost more than the settlement.

The jurors did not introduce themselves to each other. We were all known by our juror numbers. That doesn’t mean, however, that each juror didn’t have individual traits that stuck out from the rest.

Juror 5 was the most colorful. Since only 10 of us were needed to make a unanimous decision about the award, he told us he was voting “no” across the board, told us to decide and proceeded to go to work on his laptop.

The jury foreman insisted we all follow the rules in deliberating the case and referred to the video we watched in the central jury room. We were not supposed to use our laptops or cellphones during deliberations. Just when I thought there was going to be an entertaining pissing contest between the two, Juror 5 put his laptop away.

Another juror said he was willing to vote the way everyone else voted so he could be home by 6 p.m. He had other things to do. And yet another juror wanted a better diagram of the 7-11 parking lot to make a better decision about a monetary judgment.

I had questions about the case. Was the woman driver negligent when she hit the kid? Yes. Just because it was 7:30 a.m. and the sun was in her eyes wasn’t a good enough excuse as to why she accidentally hit the boy. Did she use the visor to keep the sun out of her eyes when she pulled into the parking lot? What exactly was the “low-speed” mentioned by the police officer who filed the accident report?

It took less than 90 minutes for us to come to a decision. We awarded the plaintiff $5,000 to pay for the chiropractor bill.

When it was over, my attitude changed about serving on a jury. As the judge told us in the central jury room, we are one of the few countries in the world where citizens serve on juries. Like voting, jury duty is one of the freedoms we have in this country and should be taken seriously.

“There is no better way to ensure that citizens receive a fair trial in our courts than to have other citizens without a vested interest in the dispute participate in the process,” Judge Smith wrote in a thank-you letter I received a week later. “Maintenance of your rights to a trial by jury, due process and trials based on fairness and the rule of law, is worth working for.”

The next time I get summoned to serve on a jury, I might not be so quick to postpone the date. I might actually “want” to show up that day and hope to be selected. It beats going to work.