Friday was the last day of a 5 day jury trial our firm has tried alongside some other law firms we frequently work with. To put it simply, the trial did not go smoothly. This case brings home a point that is often debated among trial lawyers. When should a case be settled rather than tried?
This is a case based on a crash that occurred in 2009. Our firm represents one of the passengers in a crash who died. It is a complicated crash wherein a van ran into the rear of a tractor trailer that was pulled onto the highway from an emergency lane going 20-25 mph. The speed limit on the the highway was 70 mph. The minimum speed limit was 40 mph. The tractor trailer company and its driver’s claimed that they were going 55 when they were hit. The problem with that story is that the crush damage to the van was so bad, it was obvious that the crash was a 50 mph speed differential. It was clear to any experienced observer that the drivers were not telling the truth.
It took years of litigation until one of the driver’s confessed that he had not been telling the truth and admitted they had pulled off the road and were merging back on when the crash occurred.
At that point, it became clear that there was substantial blame on the company for contributing to the crash. Very few crashes are black and white with 100% responsibility on one party or the other and this case is a good example.
Georgia law allows the jury to apportion blame to the correct parties. In this case, the jury has to decide how much blame lay with the driver of the van who rear ended the truck and the driver of the tractor trailer who was driving 20 mph below the minimum speed limit on the highway.
The case went to mediation last year and unfortunately the Federal Court had merged the innocent passengers of the van case with the partially culpable. That meant that although the tractor trailer company recognized that it was probable that there would be a verdict in favor of the innocent passengers, settlement of the case become almost impossible because the company wanted complete closure with the deceased van driver’s family.
The case eventually found its way to trial in Atlanta Federal Court. The evidence has all come in about the way the parties expected except for the investigating officer’s statement that he believed the tractor trailer driving was lying. The investigating police officer even testified he thought that the tractor trailer driver was lying about going too slowly.
The jury reviewed the evidence and took about an hour to decide there was no responsibility on the part of the tractor trailer company and I don’t slight them for it.
It comes down to this; there are many possible legal claims in the world; it does not mean they make a lot of sense. This case has always been a story of the overtired driver of a van who feel asleep at the wheel and rammed into the back of a truck. At its most fundamental level, that is the story of the case.
There was strong evidence that the truck was going 20-25 mph on the highway and that the driver lied about it. The physical evidence backed that up. The problem is, if the driver of the following van had been alert, he could have easily driven around the truck.
Some lawyers get so lost in the detail of what little fact they can prove to keep the patient alive (the case going), it is not the same thing as having a strong case that the jury will get behind.
I know this rule and the thing I slight myself for is not telling our co-counsel in more forceful terms to settle the case while it was possible. Bad case stories make for bad verdicts. If you find yourself explaining the case to friends and having to backpedal and say “but, but” when they object to the merits of the case, this is a strong sign that you should find a compromise.