[*Note: as I mentioned in the first post in this series – all of the stories that I’m going to tell in the series are totally fictional. They are not based (loosely or otherwise) on any cases I have actually handled, but they hopefully reflect the overall tenor of the situations I’ve encountered.]
Buck is a 37 year-old guy. Once, when the oil business was good, he earned $17 an hour working for a drilling company. He had an accident while he was working there, though, and – after making a workers’ compensation claim – he got paid “substitute” wages while he was out of work for two years. Since then, he has floated in and out of jobs that are, for the most part, minimum wage. He owns a 1987 Chevrolet, which is not insured. He was married twice, and currently lives with his girlfriend.
About three years ago, Buck’s 87 Chevrolet was hit in the rear by an SUV driven by Lori. Lori is a 35 year-old mother of three. Her husband owns a small restauraunt, and she helps with the operation of the business when she can.
If you hear Buck tell it, he was stopped at a stop sign when an SUV hit the back of his Chevvy at about 35 miles per hour. He says the impact jolted him around in his car and his back started hurting him again immediately. He also began to have neck pain over the course of the next few days. Buck says he hasn’t had any pain at all since his “substitute” workers’ compensation income ran out years ago.
Buck’s x-rays and MRI scans don’t show any evidence of injury, but his doctors also say that sometimes people can be hurt even though there isn’t any indication of injury in those sort of tests. Three years later, Buck is telling his lawyer that his back and neck are worse than ever. Buck is severely depressed about his situation, because he has hardly worked at all for three years, now – and he has turned to alcohol, at times, during recent years. One of his doctors thinks he has done this to deal with the pain and depression.
Lori is a very attractive mother who works hard to take care of her kids. She is still driving an SUV, but its a newer model now (she gets a new one about every two years). She tells her lawyer that she got a little distracted by her kids when she was approaching the stop sign and that she assumed Buck’s car was going to move forward because no traffic was coming. She says that she barely “bumped” Buck’s car, and that her kids – who were in the back seat – didn’t even cry after the impact.
Lori’s lawyer’s biggest problem in this case originates from neither Lori nor Buck nor Buck’s lawyer. The biggest problem is Lori’s husband. He is an “angry” type person, and he insists on constantly inserting himself into the case. He is angry because he works hard to take care of his family and doesn’t like being distracted by the lawsuit, because it is insulting for his wife to be brought into court, and because – in his view – Buck is obviously a slacker who is trying to take advantage of the situation. He is angry, and he makes sure that Lori’s lawyer knows how angry he is every time they speak. He often wants to vent about how “wrong” the system is because it allows claims like this, and about how the government ought to do something to stop people like Buck from making obviously frivilous claims.
He is also angry because Lori’s case, which was filed two years ago, still hasn’t been resolved.
Lori, on the other hand, secretly wishes the case were over with, even if her insurance company has to settle. She doesn’t say this, however, because her husband is adamant that there be no settlement, and she doesn’t want to appear to be “on their side,” as he puts it.
Believe it or not, outside of a courtroom, Buck, Lori, and even her husband are pretty nice people. Some people might find Lori and her husband to be a little “uppity” and some might find Buck to be a little rough around the edges, but most of us would find them both to be polite, pleasant people. But they hardly come across as pleasant in this story – any of them.
Why? What has happened here?
They have all been forced to play a role in a justice narrative. Buck, to pursue a claim for his injury, has filed a lawsuit accusing Lori of wrongdoing. Lori, offended that she has been so accused (even though she admits to “bumping” Buck), is now suspicious of his motives. And Lori’s well-meaning husband is dealing with the situation with the only effective socio-emotional tool that he knows when he otherwise has no control: rage and anger.
Oh, and did I mention? Buck’s mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. She is in advanced stages and probably will only live for a few more, largely painful months. In the meantime, one of Lori’s kids has become a discipline problem, and their family business is under considerable financial strain during a down turn in the economy. They owe a lot of money from their company’s start-up, and they’re not sure they can turn it around enough to pay all of those debts. The debt is a source of considerable marital strain.
Nice, ordinary people, thrust into a justice narrative, can become monsters – turning on each other and even hurting the people they love out of a desire to be the one that is “vindicated” in the process.
Worse yet, it is not only the law that “expects” them to find a role in the narrative, they jury that will ultimately try their case will also come into the courthouse looking for the “right” side and the “wrong” side, the “good guy” and the “bad guy.” It is practically ingrained on our collective cultural consciousness to expect this.
I’ve heard jury consultants who make unimaginable gobs of money for helping people to win lawsuits repeat these ideas time and time again: juries come into the courtroom looking for a good guy and a bad guy, because thats what TV, movies, books, news programs, etc. have conditioned them to expect. The way you win the suit is to make yourself the “good guy” in the story and to demonize/villify the other side.
But real life isn’t nearly that simple.
Think about that for a minute, and you’ll readily deduce why people abhor lawyers, who are effective at playing off of these expectations, coloring a jury’s perception of the case so that the other side looks as bad as possible.
But we live in a culture that encourages just that. It causes jurors to expect to see a good guy and a bad guy clash in the courtroom, and jurors are usually confident they can ferret out the difference.
If I may apply some Ecclesiastes-like wisdom here, this is the problem:
Sometimes people who you might judge as morally bankrupt are perfectly innoncent of wrong in a particular instance…AND…
Sometimes people who you might judge as “good folks” can be on the wrong side of a lawsuit. This happens for a lot of reasons, but usually because the prospect of gaining (or losing) a lot of money or prestige in a lawsuit makes people think differently about their situation than they otherwise might.
So there you have it: the “Frankenstien’s Monster” that our cultural justice narrative has created causes nice, but also flawed people who ordinarily want to do what’s right to turn on each other in a battle for mutual survival.
What they get is a justice narrative in which they must either be vindicated or condemned. But what they need – all of them – is much different.
What they need is a narrative of redemption.