trucking law

70 – Malorie Peacock – The Method: Our 9-Step Process for Evaluating & Working Up A Case

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with his law partner Malorie Peacock for an exciting preview of his upcoming Trial Guides book on trucking law. They’ll cover Michael’s 9-step method for case evaluation and detail each of those steps, so you can start applying them to your own case evaluation process.

They jump right into this episode with Step 1- initial triage. Michael explains how he derived the term from battlefield medicine, where patients are triaged based on the severity of their injuries and care is prioritized for the patients who need it most. He explains how trial lawyers only have a finite amount of resources, and the decision to put work into a case or not will effect more than just that case. It also takes those resources away from other cases and your personal life.

Michael then shares an example of how he used to work on automotive product liability cases, but his firm has since moved away from them. He has recently rejected five of these cases, even though they were all worthy cases someone will make money from. He chose to do this because these cases don’t fit in with his current docket, and there are other lawyers who will take them and excel at them because they do suit their dockets. Michael even sends his referral attorney to these other lawyers when the referral attorney brings him a case that he knows they will excel on – something that used to terrify him, but he’s since learned it builds an even stronger relationship between him and the referral attorney.

Before moving on to the next step, Michael clarifies that “Initial Triage” is NOT making a final decision on whether or not to accept the case. This step is simply deciding whether you want to look further into the case. In fact, Malorie clarifies that a lawsuit is typically not even filed until about Step 7 in this process.

Step 2 of “The Method” is to gather all the initially available information on the case. This information varies dramatically depending on the type of case it is, but the main goal of this step is to determine a general idea of the liability stories and issues with the case. Michael also explains the importance throughout this process of continually evaluating the case and asking, “Knowing what I know today, is this a case I would take?” If the answer is ever no, consider dropping the case. They conclude this step by discussing a recent example Malorie had of a case where the client was a great person and genuinely deserving, but the facts they discovered during this process made it a case that did not work on her docket.

Step 3 is to identify and analyze all potential immediate causes. Michael explains this as a brainstorming exercise where you record every possible immediate cause of the crash, even the causes that seem unlikely but are possible (for example, a bee in the vehicle). You then divide these potential causes into columns of “winners” and “losers.” Winners are causes which, if proven, help you win the case. Losers are causes which, if proven, mean you lose the case (or need to neutralize them).

After identifying the winners and losers in the case, you move on to Step 4 – conducting a root cause analysis. Michael explains how this concept was first developed by Mr. Toyota, the founder of Toyota Motor Company. Mr. Toyota decided that instead of fixing things when they went wrong, he would try to find the reason these things were going wrong by asking the “5 Why’s.”

To apply this to a case, you take the “winners” discussed in Step 3 and keep asking “Why?” until you find your ultimate root cause. Michael then shares an example from a rear-end case where he took the winner of “the truck driver rear-ended my client” and found “the company did not take the time or effort to train the driver” to be the root cause of the crash. He continues this process for every “winner” and develops multiple theories before he decides which theory he is going to use.

Malorie then re-emphasizes the fact that in an ideal world, you will not have filed the lawsuit yet at this point. They both agree there are times you need to file the lawsuit early to avoid any destroying of evidence, but if possible you should wait.

They move on to Step 5 – drafting the jury instructions. Michael shares how he used to feel doing this so early on was silly, but has since realized it really helps him design the case because he knows what he needs to prove. Malorie adds that doing this also better prepares you for depositions because you know what questions you need to be asking. She also emphasizes to not only look at liability instructions but also damage instructions. This all boils down to, “What do you have to prove?”

The next step in “The Method” is Step 6 – finding rules and anchors. These are authoritative sources for the rules, answering the question “says who?” Michael explains that this is one of the reasons he loves doing trucking cases, because there are so many rules and publications to use as anchors. The more sources that say a rule the better, because defendants are left with two choices: to say they know the rule and broke it, or to say they disagree with all those sources and have their own rule. Michael and Malorie then discuss numerous examples from different types of cases, showing that this method can be used on much more than trucking cases.

Malorie then asks Michael to clarify what an “anchor” is for those who don’t know. He explains an anchor as what you are “anchoring” your rules to. This is an authoritative source or publication of the rule, such as the CDL Manual, a driving company’s textbook, a store’s rules, an OSHA rule, and more. He then concludes this section by explaining how to arm your expert with these anchors to get the most out of their testimony.

Step 7 is to formulate the discovery plan. This is also where you draft the complaint or petition and plead what you need to get the discovery. For example, if you believe the root cause is negligent training, you need information to prove they have a negligent training system. Then, you formulate the discovery plan based on that. Michael cautions strongly against asking another lawyer for their interrogatories before drafting your own. You need to formulate your own based on your theories to prove what you need to prove. You can then use a form to double check and make sure you didn’t miss anything. Michael and Malorie then agree on a fantastic practice tip which makes this process a lot easier and discuss the importance of brainstorming with colleagues.

As discussed earlier, now is the ideal time to file the lawsuit. Then, step 8 is to continually re-evaluate the case. Malorie highlights the need to do this throughout each of the steps as well and to keep notes on what you’ve done so far to avoid repeating any unnecessary work. Michael then explains how as new facts, research, depositions, and discovery emerges, your initial root cause might not be the best strategy anymore and that’s okay. Malorie echoes this statement and adds that too many lawyers are afraid to ask for what they really want in discovery, and more lawyers should be specific and ask for specific documents referenced in other documents.

The above steps were mostly completed before you have all of the information about the case, which Michael cites to further emphasize the point that re-evaluation is key. He then shares some techniques he’s developed at his firm to ensure this gets done by all of his lawyers.

Michael and Malorie conclude the episode with the final step in “The Method”- test the case. Michael explains how the method of which you test the case varies depending on the value of it and lists a number of unconventional methods to do this on a budget. He then lists the advantages and disadvantages of other more conventional methods, including in-person focus groups and online studies like John Campbell’s Empirical Jury. While no method is 100% accurate, they can give you a good idea of where you stand.

This podcast also covers why you should file a FOIA request immediately, how implementing “vulnerability-based trust” by Patrick Lencioni has helped his firm, how to disprove or neutralize “losers” in a case, how Michael applies parts of this method to his employees, why you should research rules BEFORE hiring an expert, why you need to be constantly re-evaluating your case, and so much more.

65 – Malorie Peacock – Lessons from a Virtual Seminar: Successful Applications in a Courtroom and Online

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael talks with his law partner Malorie Peacock to discuss his recent virtual seminar, Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp. They draw parallels between the seminar and the courtroom, including utilizing camera angles through Zoom, energy management, and how to use slides and graphics effectively. Michael also shares a sneak peek inside his upcoming Trial Guides book on trucking law.

The episode begins with a brief overview of what Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp looked like in 2020. While it remained a 6-hour trucking seminar, it was done entirely virtually. Michael describes the multitude of tactics he used to keep the audience engaged, which included celebrity appearances and surprising attendees with actor and comedian David Koechner live.

He notes one of the biggest engagement factors was the use of multiple camera angles and a professional AV crew. Through this, he was able to stand for the presentation and use hand gestures naturally. Malorie and Michael draw parallels between this and a Zoom hearing or trial and agree they’d like to find a way to stand while conducting Zoom hearings. Michael goes as far as to say he’d like to set up a Zoom “studio” in the office in the future, and says he would even hire a professional AV crew again if he had a very big hearing or a virtual trial.

Malorie comments on how surprised she was that utilizing multiple camera angles made such a big difference in the presentation engagement. Michael agrees, and explains how he first heard of this concept from Mark Lanier who utilizes a 3-camera setup for his depositions. When showing depo footage in trial, Lanier will only show the same camera angle for 7 seconds. (This is how they do it in the news media to keep the audience engaged.) If virtual trials move forward, these concepts will all need to be considered to effectively produce a dynamic virtual experience which holds the jurors’ attention.

Malorie then asks Michael a question which must be on everyone’s mind, how did you keep your energy up for 6 ½ straight hours of speaking to a camera without a live audience? Michael notes how similar this was to presenting in a courtroom – you can be absolutely exhausted, but as soon as you step in the room, “you’re on.” He also explains how you can’t be high energy the entire time without coming off frantic and stressing your audience out. The key is to have a range of highs and lows, which serves to conserve your energy and make the highs more impactful.

This type of energy management has taken Michael years to master, and he shares an insightful story from a trial 15 years ago where he learned an important lesson – even if you can’t say everything you want to, you need to slow down and make it about the listener.

Michael goes on to explain his mindset change through the teachings of Carl Bettinger in the book “Twelve Heroes, One Voice.” He used to think it was his job to win the case, but now he knows that’s the jury’s job. And by incorporating this mindset, it’s abundantly clear that the jury deeply understanding the case is much more important than you saying everything you want to say. Malorie then describes her own journey through this, when she was told she speaks very loudly when she’s telling a story she’s passionate about. She realized this comes off as abrasive when the jury isn’t there with her yet and has worked to consciously change this.

Another strategy Michael used to manage his energy during the presentation was the strategic use of PowerPoint slides. He incorporated a variety of both “busy” slides filled with information and simple slides with just a topic or phrase. While presenting the information dense slides, he could be lower energy. But when there was a simple slide, he knew he had to be high energy to carry that portion of the presentation.

This leads Michael and Malorie to discuss the larger applicability of these tactics in the courtroom. When presenting in trial, Michael utilizes completely blank slides in his PowerPoints when he wants the jury to be focused on him. While they both agree more visuals will be necessary in a virtual trial, they recognize the need to incorporate film professionals to make those visuals effective.

On the topic of visuals, they shift to the role of graphics in the courtroom. Michael and Malorie agree that often a simpler graphic is much more effective than an intricate, expensive graphic from a courtroom exhibit company. Michael sums this up perfectly by stating, “If we have to explain the graphic, then we’re losing them.” He’s enjoyed working with his firm’s own graphic artist, and also recommends looking at Upwork and hiring an artist on a contract basis. Malorie adds you can even create some very effective graphics yourself in PowerPoint without spending a dime. This all boils down to the fact that you can’t win a complex case, and while intricate and expensive graphics certainly have their place in the courtroom, they are often overused and frankly a waste of money.

Malorie then shifts the conversation to a discussion of Michael’s upcoming book on trucking law, which Michael previewed during the virtual seminar. One of the major aspects of his research focused on electronic logs for truck drivers, and how they cheat on them. Michael explains how even though truck drivers are allowed to work up to 70 hours a week already, they spend so much time on unpaid activities (deliveries, loading, inspections, etc) they need to cheat in order to make a decent living. Trucking companies have been recommended to pay by the hour or a salary, but they almost always choose to pay their drivers by the mile because it’s better for the company economically.

Michael then describes numerous ways these drivers cheat their logs, including driving on “personal conveyance” time, creating a “phantom driver,” and more which are so intricate they need to be heard to be believed.

Michael and Malorie wrap up the episode with some terrifying facts. Michael spent some time researching drug testing protocols for truck drivers, where he was very disappointed by the current system. Through a plethora of methods, drivers successfully cheat on urine tests and stay on the road. One study indicated as many as 310,000 truck drivers on the road today would fail a hair follicle drug test if given one, to which Malorie replies, “What if that number was commercial airline pilots? People don’t think that way, but they should. These things are huge.”

This podcast also covers Sari de la Motte’s teachings, courtroom models and exhibits, how to catch a truck driver who cheated on their electronic logs, raising the minimum insurance limits for trucking companies, and so much more.

If you’d like to attend Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp in 2021 in person or virtually, visit www.BigRigBootCamp.com for live updates.

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