Effectively Connecting With A Jury In A Subrogation Trial

Consider this hypothetical:

It is 2 a.m. on a Monday morning. John and Jill Smith are fast asleep in the master bedroom while their kids are asleep down the hall. John awakes to the noisy smoke detector and the smell of smoke coming from their master bathroom. John goes to the bathroom to see what is happening. He opens the bathroom door and sees flames raging from the ceiling fan. John yells to his wife to gather the kids and run to safety while he helplessly tries extinguishing the fire with a fire extinguisher. The fire grows beyond John’s control. John gives up the fight then joins his family in the front yard. John and his family watch their home burn and watch as countless family heirlooms and memories are taken down by the flames.

Anne Amazing from Anyday Insurance arrives at the scene after the fire. Anne ensures the Smiths that they will have a warm place to stay while their home is rebuilt. While the sentimental value of the items cannot be replaced, Anne Amazing provides compensation to the Smiths so that they can begin rebuilding their life. While the wounds still exist, the Smiths can begin to live again.

Forensic investigation determines that the fire was started by a defective Fireprone Fan. Fireprone refuses to take responsibility for their actions and chooses to drag the Smiths and Anyday through contentious litigation. The cause of the loss is clear. The scope of the damages is clear. Regardless, Fireprone has taken Anyday to the eve of trial. Anyday Insurance contacts their subrogation counsel to discuss trial authority. The subrogation specialist Rachel Recovery is nervous. She informs counsel that her superiors are afraid of the jury bias against insurance companies. Even though Anyday has a very strong case, Rachel’s supervisor advised her to accept Fireprone Fans offer for 50% of the claim. Believing in her case but needing reassurance, Rachel asks the following question to subrogation counsel: Should I take the money or can you win this trial?

Many studies show that jurors tend to be biased against insurance companies. In fact, everyday experience confirms that this bias exists. However, juror bias should not prevent you from receiving a good result at trial. In fact, you can counteract juror bias if you conduct an effective voire dire. During voir dire, you must not only ask the right questions, but you must listen to every answer carefully. Even subtle answers that are unrelated to the topic of insurance can show that a juror would be biased against your client’s cause.

For example, an effective question that one can ask a juror to assess their potential bias is:

Q:  Do you think just because someone is wealthy that they do not deserve compensation if they have been wronged?

Depending on their answer, you may want to think about eliminating them from your jury.

Next, you must persuasively present your case. This is easier than you think. Many defense attorneys, will take complicated and emotional issues such as the insured’s lost belongings and reduce those items to mere numbers. This effectively takes the emotional factor out of the equation and strictly focuses on the logistics. Plaintiff’s counsel in a subrogation case cannot allow the case to be reduced to a matter of dollars and cents. Instead, I recommend focusing on what your insureds lost and the actions that your clients took to compensate them for their loss. I challenge you to remember your first fire inspection. Remember the devastation that family felt when they lost their home and all of their things. That is what your case is about.

Consider the hypothetical above. If that case went to trial, I would focus on: (1) how helpless John and Jill Smith felt watching their home burn; and (2) how much better they felt after Anyday compensated them for their loss and helped them begin to rebuild their future. When the Smith’s watched their home burn down and felt like they had nothing left, Anyday came in and provided them with just compensation.

Ask the jurors, where would the Smith’s be if it were not for Anyday? The Smith’s life was devastated by a defective fan that was supposed to cool and clear steam from their bathroom, not burn their house down. Destructive testing conducted after the Smith’s home burned down showed that the defective wiring in the fan turned it into a dangerous weapon. When Fireprone’s product burned down the Smith home, Anyday Insurance was there to rebuild while Fireprone was there to litigate. Without Anyday, the Smiths would have never had the opportunity to start again and rebuild their lives. The Smith’s would have been without a home and they would have never received compensation for their lost belongings.

Without Anyday, the Smiths would have been left to seek help from Fireprone. Without insurance companies, the public would be left to fend for themselves against these dangerous products and the companies who manufacture them.

When setting up your case for the jury, make it clear that you are trying to recover from the responsible party for the harm they or their product caused. In the hypothetical, Anyday compensated the Smith’s for their loss and now seeks to make Fireprone answers for their mistakes. This is why potential bias should not be enough to scare a subrogation carrier out of taking a case to trial. Subrogation carriers are fixers. They fix what has been broken and then make the breakers take responsibility for their actions. Subrogation investigations have discovered product defects that were harming the public. A product defect gone unnoticed is another building about to burn and another injury waiting to happen. Avoid the bias by telling the jury what your client really wants: To make those responsible take responsibility for their actions. Make sure that each juror is open to listening to your client’s story. Further, make sure that you tell the actual story. I reiterate, embrace the emotional! Do not let your client’s case be diminished to dollars and cents. You should never be afraid of taking your case to trial if you use these methods.

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