A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Friday, August 19, 2005

Howdy, Duty

Ex Machina #13

I had jury duty this week. And to my surprise, I got picked. Lawyers tend not to leave other lawyers on the jury, so I was happy to get the experience for once. It was a civil case, involving an electric company meter-reader who got attacked by the defendants' dogs. He was suing for $50,000 (!!) in pain and suffering damages.

Unfortunately, the trial lasted less than two hours. We made it through the opening statements and about half of the direct examination of the first witness before the witness said something prohibited. The jury gets sent out of the courtroom and about twenty minutes later, the judge tells us that she's declared a mistrial and that we can go home. Now it looks like I may never get to be on a jury.

Then again, jury selection can result in some surprises. Like the mayor of New York City getting selected for a trial jury in the latest arc of Ex Machina. As it was with mine, his case is a civil matter, but involving a lawsuit over a bag of poo.

As should probably be expected given Brian K. Vaughan's predilection for factoids, the latest issue (#13) gets the New York jury selection process down pat. For civil cases they begin with a jury pool of twelve, and each side gets three preemptory strikes (allowing them to cut whoever they want), for a final trial jury of six individuals. It plays out exactly that way in the issue. Either he did his research or he has served on a New York jury.

Vaughan even grasps the rationales that attorneys make when deciding who they want on a jury, and shows how both parties could readily believe a given person would favor their side. Jury selection is all about trying to predict individuals' biases and prejudices. That's what "voir dire" (Latin: "to speak the truth") is for; asking potential jurors questions in order to get a hint of which way they might vote in the end.

And it may be mentioned next issue (in fact, I'd almost bet on it), but New York civil juries do not have to reach a unanimous verdict. If five of the six jurors agree, that is sufficient for a decision.

The judge says the plaintiff is "suing the proprietors of the Randcliff Deli on Houston for negligence and emotional distress after she allegedly found an open bag of fecal matter in their salad bar." Mayor Hundred responds with "Aw, [f-word]" under his breath. I sympathize with him. There was a time when civil lawsuits required actual injuries; you sued somebody if they hurt you somehow. But now we can have evolved cases that can only involve emotional distress without any other kind of injury. Granted, most states still require that there be some sort of physical injury in order to sue for 'negligent infliction of emotional distress,' but New York isn't one of them.

So here we have a woman who merely saw (and maybe smelled) a bag of poop, and she's suing. Given the costs of litigation, one can probably assume she's asking for compensation in the four-digit range. All for seeing poo. To be honest, I'm not sure how likely it'd be for that to meet the requirements for "serious" emotional distress. But I know how I'd vote on that jury.

We don't see any of the trial except for the closing arguments. (A wise decision on Vaughan's part, since the content of the trial isn't important at all.) I wonder if a couple of the comments made would be admissible, but that's some serious nitpicking. I can't say for certain, but I imagine that New York allows the plaintiff to give the first closing argument and then to make a rebuttal statement after the defense's closing, so giving the plaintiff's attorney his "parting shot" is probably correct too. I am a little surprised that the attorney is shown to be sitting while making that final statement; attorneys always stand when they speak to the jury.

That's an artistic error, though, and the one thing in the issue that I can point to as being definitively wrong is another artistic detail. It's the same mistake that Kyle Baker made. The American flag should always go on the right of the judge or speaker, but they're backward in every panel. I almost blamed this on Tony Harris (a fellow Georgian, btw), but then I realized that it was actually the colorist's mistake. So I'm looking at you, J.D. Mettler. :)

When the trial ends, one of the jurors says "That was more like Night Court than Law & Order." How true that is of so much of what our courts see.