Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Truth, Justice, and the Jury

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Truth, Justice, and the Jury

Article excerpt


An experienced attorney recently forwarded an email sharing the descriptions of several recent verdicts in civil cases. He suggested that the cases might be of use in teaching law students why most lawsuits are settled. The list contained in the email included the following cases:

   (a) January 2000: Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas, was
   awarded $780,000 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle
   tripping over a toddler who was running inside a furniture store.
   The owners of the store were understandably surprised at the
   verdict, considering the misbehaving little boy was Ms.
   Robertson's son.

   (b) October 1998: Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pennsylvania, was
   leaving a house he had just finished robbing by way of the garage.
   He was not able to get the garage door to go up since the automatic
   door opener was malfunctioning. He couldn't reenter the house
   because the door connecting the house and garage locked when he
   pulled it shut. The family was on vacation. Mr. Dickson found
   himself locked in the garage for eight days. He subsisted on a case
   of Pepsi he found, and a large bag of dry dog food. He sued the
   homeowner's insurance company claiming the situation caused
   him undue mental anguish. The jury agreed to the tune of half a
   million dollars.

   (c) November 2000: Merv Garzinski of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
   purchased a brand new 32 foot Winnebago motor home. On his
   first trip home, having joined the freeway, he set the cruise
   control at 70 mph and calmly left the drivers seat to go into
   the back and make himself a cup of coffee. Not surprisingly the
   Winnie left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Mr. Garzinski
   sued Winnebago for not advising him in the handbook that he
   couldn't actually do this. He was awarded $1,750,000 plus a new
   Winnie. (Winnebago actually changed their handbooks on the back
   of this court case, just in case there are any other complete
   morons buying their vehicles.) (1)

These reported verdicts offer dramatic support to critics of the civil jury who question the wisdom of the Seventh Amendment, to those who favor limiting the Seventh Amendment's application, and to advocates of tort reform who claim that the civil jury is out of control. The general theme is that a group of laypersons cannot be trusted to find the truth and to administer even-handed justice. One problem mars this neat fit with what critics of the civil jury have always assumed. It is that none of the three cases described above, or any of the other four included in the email, actually exists. Each of the described cases is complete with date, name of plaintiff, and location, but none could be located in court records, jury verdict reporters, contemporaneous news accounts, or even through more informal avenues, such as checking with the chairpersons of local bar association tort committees. In response to our query about the case that allegedly caused it to alter its manual, Winnebago replied, "As far as we are concerned, there is no truth to this story." (2)

Why was this list of imaginary cases created and circulated widely on the Internet? One possible answer is that supporters of tort reform create and diligently distribute false information about jury verdicts to garner support for their reform efforts. Even if such efforts to mislead do occur, (3) the question remains: why did a sophisticated attorney believe that these purported descriptions of jury verdicts were accurate reports? One logical possibility is that even if these cases are fabrications, juries regularly do make unjustified awards to undeserving plaintiffs. If that is true, however, why invent imaginary cases?

If these urban legends do not accurately portray jury behavior, belief in their accuracy can impose serious costs. …

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