Since the recession has hit California, I have been noticing a trend that jurors are increasingly angry at the participants who brought them to court. The jurors are facing issues of putting food on the table and the last thing they want to do is consider a litigant’s “right to a jury” when they are worried about where the next meal will come from.
In many mediations, I have discussed this issue. Today, the L.A. Times ran an article addressing this very issue. It is important to note that this story appears to reflect a very large percentage of the population in Los Angeles and doesn’t fare well for what can happen in a jury trial.
Here is an excerpt of the article:
Spurned in his effort to get out of jury duty, salesman Tony Prados turned his attention to the case that could cost him three weeks’ pay: A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy was suing his former sergeant, alleging severe emotional distress inflicted by lewd and false innuendo that he was gay.
Prados, an ex-Marine, leaned forward in the jury box and asked in a let-me-get-this-straight tone of voice: “He’s brave enough to go out and get shot at by anyone but he couldn’t handle this?” he said of the locker-room taunting.
Fellow jury candidate Robert Avanesian, who had also unsuccessfully sought dismissal on financial hardship grounds, chimed in: “I think severe emotional distress is what is happening in Haiti. I don’t think you could have such severe emotional distress from that,” he said of the allegations in the deputy’s case.
The spontaneous outbursts of the reluctant jurors just as Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James R. Dunn was about to swear them in emboldened others in the jury pool to express disdain for the case and concerns about their ability to be fair, and to ratchet up the pathos in their claims of facing economic ruin if forced to sit for the three-week trial.
In this time of double-digit unemployment and shrinking benefits for those who do have jobs, courts are finding it more difficult to seat juries for trials running more than a day or two. And in extreme cases, reluctance has escalated into rebellion, experts say.
After three days of mounting insurrection, lawyers for both the deputy and the sergeant waived their right to a jury trial and left the verdict up to Dunn.
“We can’t have a disgruntled jury,” said attorney Gregory W. Smith, who represents Deputy Robert Lyznick in the lawsuit against his former supervisor. He called the panel “scary” and too volatile for either side to trust.
Money woes inflicted by the recession have spurred more hardship claims, especially by those called for long cases, say jury consultants and courtroom administrators. More than a quarter of all qualified jurors were released on hardship grounds last year, according to court statistics. And judges say they have seen more people request such dismissals in the last year.
“There’s a lot of tension, a lot more stress people are dealing with these days,” said Gloria Gomez, director of juror services for the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
In Lyznick’s suit against the county, Dunn granted hardship dismissals for more than half of the 65 people sent to his courtroom. In a neighboring courtroom, where Judge Robert H. O’Brien was about to try an asbestos case, 66 of 107 prospective jurors were excused for financial difficulties before the individual questioning, or voir dire, got started.
“The economic situation has really put attorneys and judges in an awkward position of having to say to someone who is the sole wage earner in a family or someone who is self-employed and doesn’t get paid when they don’t work that they have to serve, and we have more and more of those,” said Jaine E. Fraser, a psychologist and jury consultant who sat in for the asbestos jury selection before the parties settled.
People on the margins of society tend to be more sympathetic with victims bringing suit, and excluding them on hardship grounds can disadvantage plaintiffs, Fraser said. But it’s also risky, she noted, to force people into jury service that will cut deeply into their paychecks.
Here is what one person said about the jury process: “I think with what is going on in the country, there are a lot of angry people,” said retired Broadway actor Sammy Williams. “Money is such an issue and to give money to someone for results of a case, it’s really important that they’re getting it for a real reason, an important reason.”
More and more, parties are recognizing that alternative forms of resolving their disputes are preferable. These alternatives including trial before the judge, arbitration and mediation.