Jury Duty

I was called to jury duty on a civil matter in Judge Jeanine Nadel’s court last week. The matter of Masingale v. FCA US LLC wherein Mr. Richard Masingale of Fort Bragg was suing Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge, etc. and the Sport dealership in Fort Bragg over a big Dodge truck he’d bought there and wasn’t happy with.  We never got to hear the details of Mr. Masingale’s complaint because just as the 12 jurors had been picked and it was down to the two alternates, the parties settled for an undisclosed amount. 

But the jury selection process was instructive in itself.

Fifty-five of us had filed into the courtroom on Tuesday afternoon and 24 names were called at random to fill the seats in the jury box and alongside it.  These people were then subjected to questions designed to see if they would be selected for this case, which was expected to take ten days – news that made everyone groan, and produced in the jurors a tangible eagerness to appear unsuitable.

The lawyer for plaintiff Masingale was Richard Wirtz and he got to go first in the selection process. Since this was a case involving cars, he had every single potential juror tell the court all about all the cars they had in their families. Some of them had quite a few. One guy had 12 (for a tree-trimming business), but almost everyone had two or three, at least – with the sole exception of myself, and I haven’t owned a car in over 25 years.

Needless perhaps to say, it was a lengthy process, having all these people tell about all their cars and the problems they’ve had with ‘em.  From my somewhat unique perspective as probably the only person in California – if not the entire USA – who has no cars, it occurred to me that people in general spend most of their waking hours completely absorbed, in one way or another, with their cars – maintenance and mechanical problems, insurance and licensing, buying and selling, accident repairs, tire and oil changes, washing and waxing, driving and parking, not to mention the constant drain on finances for gas.  But readers don’t want to be preached to about the decadence of America’s car culture, so I’ll move on.

What emerged from all this “car talk” was that several people had heard from friends and relatives that they ought to avoid the Sport dealership, and two people had had bad experiences there themselves. As the reader can well imagine, with 55 people trying to get out of a trial that would last 10 court days – which amounts to two weeks, in reality, taken out of their lives – the idea that if you had a problem with Jeeps, Dodge or Chrysler you could get excused from duty soon kindled in the minds of those who had better things to do with the coming two weeks.

And so when it came to the turn of the dealership’s defense to sort through the jurors, the questioning changed to a David and Goliath approach, a bit of dialectical elegance to catch out those who would, out of a love for the underdog, not give a big international corporation like FCA US LLC a fair hearing.  And this was telling because those who wanted out only had to admit that, yes, they were compassionate, decent people and would be inclined to help out “the little guy” (even though Mr. Masingale was big man with a full beard).

I won’t mention any names, but there were some interesting people in the jury pool:  A paleontologist; an aerialist; an anesthesiologist; a ships master from Exxon’s ill-fated “Valdez” oil tanker; a former used car salesman (who said he’d been trained to lie to customers); the father of an AVA correspondent; a retired CalFire Chief; a CalFire applicant (he hoped to make $500 per day if he could get hired this summer, and had an occupational exam scheduled during the trial, so he was especially anxious about getting stuck on the jury); and a good many others with backgrounds I don’t recall.

During a break I was wandering Mendo’s Hallowed Halls Of Justice and noticed the lawyers for the Defense, Nixon Peabody LLP of Los Angeles, and especially lead counsel Jeanette Suarez in conference with someone on the other end of a text messaging conference.  These lawyers were late after the break and Court Attendant Chelsie (last name not known) was sent to go find them.  When they came back they went into chambers with Judge Nadel, and shortly emerged with welcome news that the case had settled. One would assume from the voir dire that they had concluded that the jury pool, no matter who was picked, would be amenable to the plaintiff and his complaint. 

Judge Nadel gave me permission to question the attorneys, but they refused to disclose the amount of settlement.  Mr. Masingale, taking the hint from his lawyer, no doubt, likewise declined comment.

Judge Nadel did however disclose that the paleontologist was her next door neighbor and a friend. 

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