Civil Jury Verdicts – Musings

Just to be clear, I did not come up with the idea of a Civil Jury Verdicts column. In fact the column was a big hit long before I arrived on the scene. The person who was writing the column was leaving the area and I was asked if I could take over the column. I leapt at the opportunity. Recall, I spent 10 years in the publishing business prior to becoming a lawyer, and I thought I could hone my literary talents (such as they are). At any rate the proposal at the time was we would do both a civil jury verdict column and a criminal jury verdict column. I chose the civil column as I had transitioned from the DA’s office into the civil arena and another lawyer was designated as the criminal column author. I knew you would ask:  “So whatever happened with the criminal jury column?” Good question. It simply never got off the ground. I do believe all that started somewhere in the 1990s if memory serves.

Prior to taking on the assignment, I met with my predecessor at the courthouse in Martinez to discuss the column and how to prepare for the writing. He advised he got a monthly report from the court administrator’s office listing all civil verdicts in the Martinez courts. Those verdict reports included both bench trials and jury trials. The report listed the case name, the case number, the presiding judge, the involved attorneys and the prevailing parties. He obviously had more time than I had, as he would then take that report and go to the clerk’s office to research each reported case. Goodness, I thought, I had a busy law practice with a big firm, and I certainly could not spend all that time at the clerk’s office. Needed all those billable hours back then. So we prepared a form and sent it out to all the listed attorneys. The form asked the pertinent information, most critically a brief fact report and final demands and offers. As you may recall I got a good response and actually wrote a column every month for some years. Of course back then there were many more vehicle-accident cases going to trial, as the cost of experts had not ballooned as we later observed. But that’s another story. It was fun providing information which was interesting and helped advocates decide how Contra Costa juries decided civil disputes. I had so much information that I wrote an article listing all the “fast track” judges and how many cases they each handled, how many cases went to trial and the results. I mentioned the article to the PJ at the time and he went a little “ballistic.” Apparently it was a sensitive topic considering the perception internally of how hard each judge worked and which judges might have been challenged (170.6) more than others. I got the message and that particular column never saw the light of day.

You have heard it from me many times, when I started writing the Civil Jury Verdicts column, the number of trials to verdict in Martinez alone was somewhere between 50 and 60. As the years went by the number kept falling until it reached a low of 12 actual cases to verdict one year. When I first started there was still a Municipal Court and a Superior Court. Those stats I told you I received did not include the Municipal Court cases. Now don’t get excited, the judges are busier than ever and many cases start and settle midstream. Those matters were not reported as verdicts, even though there were many such cases. In fact in my own experience I have had a least 15 cases start with jury selection and testimony, only to settle before verdict. The advent of ADR (mediations, not the old non-binding arbitrations) also account for the lower numbers of actual trials. And of course don’t forget the very successful settlement mentors who assist on the first day of trail. My most recent case settled on the first day of trial after about ten hours of settlement negotiations. All good news.

I love writing the column and every chance I get I lament the fact I do not get all the statistical information I once got in order to inform the readers. No blame is directed at anyone, not the least the Court itself. But the fact is a court administrator several years ago advised I would no longer get the monthly statistical report due to budget issues. I don’t think any of the judges even knew I got the report in the first place, much less that I would not be receiving it. I mentioned it again recently and I obviously hit a nerve as I was taken to task as it appeared I was blaming the Court. Not so. I was surprised, as I have mentioned the lack of the statistical report many times in the columns. Thus my plea in every column for the past years to please send reports about trials, both in-county and out-of-county, both federal and state and even interesting settlements and arbitrations. The invitation still holds.

I was told at one time the Civil Jury Verdicts was the most popular regular column in the Contra Costa Lawyer. It is a fun column to read. It is free advertising for those attorneys who are mentioned, but more importantly it is a real eye opener to read about demands, offers and verdicts. I will say at one time I heard from Judge Cahill, just before my client was hit with a huge verdict in San Francisco, “In most cases when a case goes to trial one side or the other miscalculated.” And that is so true. So, we have all read about the $1 million demand and the $10,000 offer followed by a defense verdict. Or the opposite where the demand was seven figures, the offer was five figures and verdict was in the eight figure range. Ouch I say! Not long ago a friend was on the defense end of one of those latter-described verdicts. I contacted him and he advised, “Matt I don’t tell you about the ones I win, so I certainly won’t tell you about the ones I lose.”

Over the years I have regularly received telephone calls from out-of-county attorneys asking my opinion about a particular case set for trial in Contra Costa and about the trial judge – all because my name is associated with the column. I do plan to keep writing the column, unless of course somebody has a better idea. And I am pleased to chat about cases with anyone who cares to call me. You will hear it from me however to settle your case if you possibly can. Rare is the case which must have 12 citizens decide the facts.

So the good news is I have been told I will once again be getting reports and statistics for our civil trial departments, and in an unrelated turn of events I just received reports from four attorneys on a number of cases. So, as soon as I finish my new chicken run and winterize my bee hives, I will sit down and prepare a Civil Jury Verdicts column with actual case reports. Stay tuned.