On a Wednesday morning in early August the trial of Connie Garrett v. Nationwide Motors Corporation began. Ordinarily, the trial would only have been worth a paragraph or two in the newspapers, but because Jennifer Parker was representing the plaintiff, the media were out in full force.
Patrick Maguire sat at the defense table, surrounded by a battery of assistants dressed in conservative gray suits.
The process of selecting a jury began. Maguire was casual, almost to the point of indifference, for he knew that Connie Garrett was not going to appear in court. The sight of a beautiful young quadruple amputee would have been a powerful emotional lever with which to pry a large sum of money out of a jury - but there would be no girl and no lever.
This time, Maguire thought, Jennifer Parker has outsmarted herself.
The jury was impaneled and the trial got underway. Patrick Maguire made his opening statement and Jennifer had to admit to herself that he was very good indeed. He dwelt at length on the plight of poor young Connie Garrett, saying all the things that Jennifer had planned to say, stealing her emotional thunder. He spoke of the accident, stressing the fact that Connie Garrett had slipped on ice and that the truck driver had not been at fault.
"The plaintiff is asking you ladies and gentlemen to award her five million dollars." Maguire shook his head incredulously. "Five million dollars! Have you ever seen that much money? I haven't. My firm handles some affluent clients, but I want to tell you that in all my years of practicing law, I have never even seen one million dollars - or half a million dollars."
He could see by the looks on the faces of the jurors that neither had they.
"The defense is going to bring witnesses in here who will tell you how the accident happened. And it was an accident. Before we're through, we'll show you that Nationwide Motors had no culpability in this matter. You will have noticed that the person bringing the suit, Connie Garrett, is not in court today. Her attorney has informed Judge Silverman that she will not make an appearance at all. Connie Garrett is not in this courtroom today where she belongs, but I can tell you where she is. Right now, as I'm standing here talking to you, Connie Garrett is sitting at home counting the money she thinks you're going to give her. She's waiting for her telephone to ring and for her attorney to tell her how many millions of dollars she suckered out of you.
"You and I know that any time there's an accident where a big corporation is involved - no matter how indirectly - there are people who are immediately going to say, 'Why, that company is rich. It can afford it. Let's take it for all we can."
Patrick Maguire paused.
"Connie Garrett's not in this courtroom today because she couldn't face you. She knows that what she's trying to do is immoral. Well, we're going to send her away empty-handed as a lesson to other people who might be tempted to try the same thing in the future. A person has to take responsibility for his or her own actions. If you slip on a piece of ice on the street, you can't blame big brother for it. And you shouldn't try to swindle five million dollars out of him. Thank you."
He turned to bow to Jennifer, and then walked over to the defense table and sat down.
Jennifer rose to her feet and approached the jury. She studied their faces, trying to evaluate the impression that Patrick Maguire had made.
"My esteemed colleague has told you that Connie Garrett will not be in this courtroom during the trial. That is correct." Jennifer pointed to an empty space at the plaintiff's table. "That is where Connie Garrett would be sitting if she were here. Not in that chair. In a special wheelchair. The chair she lives in. Connie Garrett won't be in this courtroom, but before this trial is over you will all have an opportunity to meet her and get to know her as I have gotten to know her."
There was a puzzled frown on Patrick Maguire's face. He leaned over and whispered to one of his assistants.
Jennifer was going on. "I listened as Mr. Maguire spoke so eloquently, and I want to tell you I was touched. I found my heart bleeding for this multibillion-dollar corporation that's being mercilessly attacked by this twenty-four-year-old woman who has no arms or legs. This woman who, at this very moment is sitting at home, greedily awaiting that telephone call that will tell her she's rich." Jennifer's voice dropped.
"Rich to do what? Go out and buy diamonds for the hands she doesn't have? Buy dancing shoes for the feet she doesn't have? Buy beautiful dresses that she can never wear? A Rolls Royce to take her to parties she's not invited to? Just think of all the fun she's going to have with that money."
Jennifer spoke very quietly and sincerely as her eyes moved slowly across the faces of the jurors. "Mr. Maguire has never seen five million dollars at one time. Neither have I. But I'll tell you this. If I were to offer any one of you five million dollars in cash right now, and all I wanted in exchange was to cut off both your arms and both your legs, I don't think five million dollars would seem like very much money...
"The law in this case is very clear," Jennifer explained. "In an earlier trial, which the plaintiff lost, the defendants were aware of a defect in the braking system in their trucks, and they withheld that knowledge from the plaintiff and from the court. In doing so, they acted illegally. That is the basis for this new trial. According to a recent government survey, the biggest contributors to truck accidents involve wheels and tires, brakes and steering systems. If you will just examine these figures for a moment..."
Patrick Maguire was appraising the jury and he was an expert at it. As Jennifer droned on about the statistics, Maguire could tell that the jurors were getting bored with this trial. It was becoming too technical. The trial was no longer about a crippled girl. It was about trucks and braking distances and faulty brake drums. The jurors were losing interest.
Maguire glanced over at Jennifer and thought, She's not as clever as she's reputed to be. Maguire knew that if he had been on the other side defending Connie Garrett, he would have ignored the statistics and mechanical problems and played on the jury's emotions. Jennifer Parker had done exactly the opposite.
Patrick Maguire leaned back in his chair now and relaxed.
Jennifer was approaching the bench. "Your Honor, with the court's permission, I have an exhibit I would like to introduce."
"What kind of exhibit?" Judge Silverman asked.
"When this trial began I promised the jury that they would get to know Connie Garrett. Since she is unable to be here in person, I would like permission to show some pictures of her."
Judge Silverman said, "I see no objection to that." He turned to Patrick Maguire. "Does the attorney for the defense have any objection?"
Patrick Maguire got to his feet, moving slowly, thinking fast. "What kind of pictures?"
Jennifer said, "A few pictures taken of Connie Garrett at home."
Patrick Maguire would have preferred not to have the pictures, but on the other hand, photographs of a crippled girl sitting in a wheelchair were certainly a lot less dramatic than the actual appearance of the girl herself would have been. And there was another factor to consider: If he objected, it would make him look unsympathetic in the eyes of the jury.
He said generously, "By all means, show the pictures."
Jennifer turned to Dan Martin and nodded. Two men in the back row moved forward with a portable screen and a motion picture projector and began to set them up.
Patrick Maguire stood up, surprised. "Wait a minute! What is this?"
Jennifer replied innocently, "The pictures you just agreed to let me show."
Patrick Maguire stood there, silently fuming. Jennifer had said nothing about motion pictures. But it was too late to object. He nodded curtly and sat down again.
Jennifer had the screen positioned so the jury and Judge Silverman could see it clearly.
"May we have the room darkened, Your Honor?"
The judge signaled the bailiff and the shades were lowered. Jennifer walked over to the 16mm projector and turned it on, and the screen came to life.
For the next thirty minutes there was not a sound to be heard in the courtroom. Jennifer had hired a professional cameraman and a young director of commercials to make the film. They had photographed a day in the life of Connie Garrett, and it was a stark, realistic horror story. Nothing had been left to the imagination. The film showed the beautiful young amputee being taken out of bed in the morning, being carried to the toilet, being cleaned like a small, helpless baby...being bathed...being fed and dressed...Jennifer had seen the film over and over and now, as she watched it again, she felt the same lump in her throat and her eyes filled with tears, and she knew that it must be having the same effect on the judge and the jury and the spectators in the courtroom.
When the film was ended, Jennifer turned to Judge Silverman. "The plaintiff rests."
The jury had been out for more than ten hours, and with each passing hour Jennifer's spirits sank lower. She had been sure of an immediate verdict. If they had been as affected by the film as she had been, a verdict should not have taken more than an hour or two.
When the jury had filed out, Patrick Maguire had been frantic, certain that he had lost his case, that he had underestimated Jennifer Parker once again. But as the hours passed and the jury still did not return, Maguire's hopes began to rise. It would not have taken the jury this long to make an emotional decision. "We're going to be all right. The longer they're in there arguing, the more their emotions are going to cool off."
A few minutes before midnight, the foreman sent a note to Judge Silverman for a legal ruling. The judge studied the request, then looked up. "Will both attorneys approach the bench, please?"
When Jennifer and Patrick Maguire were standing in front of him, Judge Silverman said, "I want to apprise you of a note I have just received from the foreman. The jury is asking whether they are legally permitted to award Connie Garrett more than the five million dollars her attorney is suing for."
Jennifer felt suddenly giddy. Her heart began to soar. She turned to look at Patrick Maguire. His face was drained of color.
"I'm informing them," Judge Silverman said, "that it is within their province to set any amount they feel is justified."
Thirty minutes later the jury filed back into the courtroom. The foreman announced they had found in favor of the plaintiff. The amount of damages she was entitled to was six million dollars.
It was the largest personal injury award in the history of the State of New York.
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