Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Trial, Part I: Order in the Court

Cue the credits and the “Perry Mason” music. My days as a juror are over because we ended deliberation and rendered our verdict yesterday afternoon. I know you are just dying to know the outcome, but I’ll save that for a later post. There’s just too much to explain in a single entry. I will do my darndest to give you as much bare bones info as possible, while retaining my pithy little sidebars.

For all of you who have been sending along advice to “hang ‘em high,” you must know that capital punishment was never an option. This was a civil, not criminal, trial, and the end result would be the awarding (or not) of settlement money. No bloody footprints (though blood was involved). No splattered brains. No shady characters. Well, maybe a shady character or two.

No. This was a medical malpractice suit. In terms of the law, “negligence” involving the field of medicine is “medical malpractice.” It certainly doesn’t involve or presume anything intentional. It focuses on whether or not accepted medical practice was used at the time(s) in question.

Our particular case involved a plaintiff with a long string of complicated medical issues who had a massive heart attack just after a radical prostatectomy. The plaintiff contended that he received clearance for the operation from a cardiologist who gave him a cursory work-up before passing him on through the hospital system, missing or ignoring medical symptoms that would have postponed the operation and avoided the MI (myocardial infarction – love those big bad medical terms). A difficult thing to prove, especially going up against a well-known New York cardiologist, his medical group, and NYU Hospital.

Evidence that we the jury could consider included: trial testimony, deposition testimony, and any exhibits presented in court (files, papers, pictures, etc.). This evidence could be “direct” or “circumstantial.” Individual jurors could imbue as much weight on specific evidence as they wish – “circumstantial” is just as valid as “direct” or testimony. One person’s testimony may hold more weight than another’s; it’s up to each juror to decide what to believe. And of course, the reality is that each juror brings experiences, biases, and knowledge that impacts a person’s final decision.

We heard testimony from the plaintiff, his wife, his daughter, the cardiologist in question, a cardiology expert, a nurse anesthetist, a urologist, and an weekend on-call cardiologist. Three lawyers – one for the plaintiff, one for the cardiologist and his medical group, and one for NYC Hospital – were a sight (and sound) to behold. All of the eye-rolling, head-shaking, and deep-sighing - in addition to “Objection, Your Honor!” – could have been distracting if one took them seriously.

Testimony was often long and rambling (not unlike this post). Contradictions occurred within single testimonies, which is to be expected in light of the way questions were phrased by the lawyers. If you’ve ever been deposed or appeared as a witness, you know how infuriating it is to have a lawyer keep yelling, “Yes, or no! Answer yes or no!” when the question may have lots of gray areas. Having been deposed a couple of times, I really felt for all of the witnesses. I wanted to stand up and scream, “Hey! This isn’t a simple “yes” or “no!” Let ‘em say what they need to say!” Of course, er, I had to just sit there and empathize with the poor schmuck on the stand.

The judge was what a judge should be – pragmatic, a little sarcastic, and to the (legal) point. I’ve since learned (because we couldn’t research anything or anyone related with the trial while it was going on) that she beat an incumbent party judge in the mid-90’s, ran uncontested a few years ago (she’s now the party judge, I guess), and was the first openly lesbian elected as a NY judge. That’s cool.

I took the judge’s instructions seriously about keeping an open mind. Every time I felt my sympathy drifting to one side or the other, I intentionally pulled back. It was hard, and it caused headaches (literally). When I left the courthouse each evening, I reviewed what I had heard and tried to argue for all sides to keep myself as impartial as possible. Alas, a couple of my fellow jurors seemed to have made up their minds early on, and those biases reared their ugly heads during deliberation.

The trial - from charging the jury to releasing the jury - lasted ten long days over the course of three weeks. No one said it would be easy. And I never did see Perry Mason, Jack McCoy, or Atticus Finch.

No comments: