In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen talks with his law partner Malorie Peacock about their recent jury verdict. (In Episode 51 they discussed trial prep and included how they were preparing for an upcoming trial.) This time they will be discussing their $3,420,000 jury verdict, what worked well, how they overcame the challenges of this case, and the power “of a trial to heal.”
Malorie starts by sharing the background on the case. This was a construction site incident where their client was working when a trench collapsed and killed him. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) found the company did not provide the required trench protection. (For our listeners outside of Texas, Michael explains that in Texas there is optional workers comp, so the company did not have workers comp at the time and he was able to directly sue the employer.)
At face value, this may seem “like an easy win.” However, there were challenges in the case. The first was the lack of eyewitnesses, which was an obstacle for liability, so the case required the use of witness statements. OSHA keeps their witness statements anonymous, so the ambiguity made it more difficult than using a live person. Because of this Michael and Malorie knew there would be doubt in the minds of the jurors, so Michael had to use Keith Mitnik’s philosophy “doubt is not an out” in order to address the issue of anonymous statements that didn’t answer all of the questions in this incident.
Another challenge on the case, which related to damages, was the client being undocumented and working under a different name. This was “the elephant in the room,” which Michael and Malorie discuss in detail explaining why they chose to share this information in trial (even if most lawyers fight to have this excluded). Michael also points out his absolute shock with the defense alleging this was a sham marriage just for papers and provides insight on how a lack of photos and the appearance of the widow was used to argue this.
After sharing the challenges of the case, the topic shifts to jury selection and how a large portion of their jury panel knew about OSHA. Michael also shares his disappointment to his question “who would like to be on the jury,” but Malorie felt differently and was very impressed with the response. In this trial Michael used Sari de la Motte’s inclusive voir dire, shares how it was received by the jury panel, and the result of it making the defense “be reactive instead of proactive.”
Using visuals to educate the jurors was also important, but this doesn’t happen overnight. They discuss how they planned the visuals, why you need to show them to your experts, and talk about how they can be used in an expert testimony. When you use PowerPoint in trial it forces you to stick to a visual plan, but with poster boards you can decide IF you want to use it AND when. Malorie loved when a juror would ask one of them to “move a little bit over” so they could read a poster board. And Michael loved that the jury felt comfortable enough to ask them to move out of the way. This showed them the jury wanted to understand the information and knew why it was important to see it.
The podcast ends with an emotionally raw and incredibly honest conversation about the power “of a trial to heal.” Malorie shares the moment when the jury put money in the blanks the client “started sobbing uncontrollably” and how powerful it was for both her and their client. Trial is “the last stage of closure” in a death case. It is extremely significant and impactful for your client.
This episode also discusses the interesting questions the jury asked and how those questions were answered, feedback from the two alternate jurors, what you can learn from the defense voir dire, dealing with spacing issues in the courtroom, the surprising link between OSHA and high school theatre sets, the process of building trust with your client, the differences between an injury case and a death case, as well as other trial details you will want to hear.