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Monday, February 9, 2009

A Schnauzer Adventure With Jury Duty

As expected, I was not chosen to serve on a panel when I reported for jury duty last week in U.S. District Court in Birmingham. But the experience did offer several surprises.

The biggest surprise was the nature of the case we were to hear. I was expecting it to be something involving money, civil rights, or discrimination. But it was a medical-malpractice case, involving spinal surgery that did not have the desired results, before U.S. District Judge Karen Bowdre.

All forms of professional malpractice are normally state matters, so it was puzzling to see this case in federal court. In fact, I'm still not sure how it wound up in federal court. My best guess is that the patient's care involved someone crossing state lines, but I didn't stick around long enough to find out about that.

I think it would have been an interesting case, and I kind of wish I had been picked. But given my history with the justice system--and the fact that I write a blog about legal issues--I knew my chances were slim.

I was among 23 folks in the jury pool, which was narrowed down to eight--six jurors and two alternates--to hear the case.

At one point, I thought I actually had a decent chance of being picked. During voir dire questioning by the judge and attorneys from both sides, we were asked if we had ever been parties in a lawsuit. I had--surprise, surprise--far more experience with lawsuits than anyone else on the panel.

Also, during voir dire, I revealed that one of my "hobbies" is writing a blog called Legal Schnauzer. By this point, I figured my goose surely was cooked as far as being picked.

But the judge and the lawyers asked a number of questions about our connections to the medical profession:

* Did we, or anyone close to us, work in the medical field? Several folks in the pool worked in the medical field or had spouses/children in the field. (My only real connection is a brother who is a radiology technician, but he works in Missouri.)

* Had we, or anyone close to us, ever had spinal surgery, back surgery, or any kind of neurological surgery? I was amazed how many people said yes to this one. Guess Mrs. Schnauzer and I need to thank the stars above for our relatively good health.

* Had we, or anyone close to us, ever had a bad outcome from surgery or considered filing a medical-malpractice claim. Most folks had experienced positive outcomes from surgery, but a few said yes to this. The closest thing I've had to serious surgery was for my wisdom teeth, and that went fine.

As I saw how many people were likely to get struck because of their connections to, or experiences with, the medical profession, I started thinking, "Sweet Jehovah, I'm actually going to get picked--by default."

My thoughts of being chosen grew stronger when one of the defense lawyers had a question for me. He wanted to know if, during my work as an editor at UAB, had I ever written articles about physicians and medical care? I said that yes, I had written many articles about physicians, primarily those who worked at UAB or were alumni of the School of Medicine. Just as an example, off the top of my head, I cited an article I had written about Dr. Alan Dimick, retired head of the UAB Burn Center and a pioneer in the treatment of severe burns.

It's just a guess on my part, but I think the attorney wanted to know if I could understand the medical testimony in the case and if my writing experience had given me a favorable impression of doctors and other medical personnel. He also might have thought my experience would make me influential with other jurors.

Either way, I didn't get picked. It's possible the defense wanted me on the panel, but the plaintiff struck me. I figured both sides would strike me.

Here is one final surprise: Two lawyers were among the 23 of us, and one of them actually got picked for the jury. And he was one of the people who'd had a less-than-wonderful experience with a medical procedure. If I remember his story correctly, he had a biopsy done on his throat, and during the course of the procedure, his vocal cords were nicked. He lost his voice for a period of time, a pretty serious complication for an attorney. He said he considered a medical-malpractice claim, but his voice returned after two or three months and he chose not to pursue a lawsuit.

I wondered if the final choice came down to him and me. Somebody probably held their nose when they made that choice.

The trial was expected to take about a week, so it might be over by now. I wish I could report on the results, but I don't remember the names of the parties. I do remember the law firms involved, both from Birmingham. The plaintiff was represented by Baxley Dillard Dauphin McKnight & Barclift. That firm was formed by former Alabama lieutenant governor and attorney general Bill Baxley. The defendant was represented by Starnes & Atchison.

Professional malpractice cases usually come down to expert testimony, so I suspect that was a key to the case. The plaintiff in this case certainly appeared to be a sympathetic figure; she clearly had significant health problems. How much of that came from the surgery and how much came from other causes? I guess I will never know.

I do hope justice was served. My best guess is that the case settled before it went to the jury.

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