Several years ago the plaintiff victims of a drunk driver won a record $1.3 billion jury verdict for the death of two young women and catastrophic injuries to a third.
On the defense side, a movie theater defendant won a complete defense verdict in a tragic theater shooting, a trial that could easily have ended in a billion-dollar verdict.
Below, First Court has compiled and shared the key lessons from these landmark decisions for advocates on either side of a case with big verdict potential:
Big Anger = Big Damages
If there is one common thread from our three decades of jury research experience, it’s that emotions are the key to unlocking big awards. Even a slam-dunk liability case with big specials will not lead to a big verdict – unless jurors are angry at the defendant, or sympathetic to the plaintiff, or both. In the DUI case, we had both. In the Aurora shooting, the defense successfully mitigated both, by directing the juror’s anger to its correct source – the shooter – instead of the theatre.
Wrap Your Case in the Law
With minor variations, the law in every state requires that damages fairly compensate plaintiffs for all damages, economic and non-economic. The definition of compensable non-economic damages tends to include a litany of items ranging from pain and suffering to humiliation.
Detailing how an injury has caused damages in each of those distinct categories is a powerful way for plaintiffs to win big non-economic damages. Associating injuries with the letter of the law, and arriving at bigger amounts by combining many smaller ones makes large awards much more reasonable in juror’s minds.
In our $1 billion case, the law said that the plaintiff should be compensated for a wide range of non-economic damages, and the facts were that the deaths and devastating injuries, in this case, had caused grievous losses in many of the ways spelled out in the jury instruction telling the jurors what damages are intended to accomplish.
Finally, success in a big case is predicated on consistency.
Our billion-dollar jurors trusted the plaintiff’s attorney. Why? Because every single thing he said and did was credible and consistent.
Many plaintiffs make the mistake of spending lots of trial time on liability and medicals and lost wages… and then tell a jury in the last 60 seconds of closing that the most important thing in the case is non-economic injuries. This is a mistake.
Spending time on an issue makes it important. So you must spend time – from voir dire to closing – on what you say is most important.
For plaintiffs, that’s typically non-economic damages. In this case, plaintiff attorney Jeff Weikum used a 20-foot long timeline to illustrate how the victim’s damages would be multiplied over the decades of life they lost and consistently set his arguments in that frame throughout the trial.
The nuts and bolts are easy to describe. But applying them in the heat of a trial is tough to execute well. To guarantee the best outcome, advocates MUST prepare.
First Court has developed a proven approach that allows our clients to prepare for battle, and consistently win their biggest cases:
Early Objective Feedback
Learn exactly what arguments resonate with the people who will be on your jury. Play with different themes and arguments early on using flexible online focus groups, and learn the characteristics of your best and worst jurors. Recognize that what you initially think is the best approach, may not actually click with regular people in your venue. Uncover your winning messages early, and then invest your discovery and trial prep building that winning theme.
Polish your presentation and delivery with a pre-trial private jury trial. Rehearse your voir dire with a group of laypeople from the venue that look, think, and respond exactly how your public jurors will. Feel the heat of presenting to a live panel of laypeople from your venue, before your public trial, and go into the courtroom knowing that your preparation has been exceptional.
Win in Voir Dire
Use powerful software to compile publicly available information and learn everything possible about your prospective jurors in advance. Then, position the case in your preferred frame from the very start. Make the best use of your limited questions and strikes, and go into openings with a jury you know a great deal about, primed to see the case through your lens.
This approach requires hard work but is incredibly rewarding when the verdict comes in. With advances in technology, it’s becoming more and more cost-effective to leverage these powerful tools in a wider range of case values. The biggest verdicts grab the headlines, but the same methods can be scaled to fit almost any case going to trial.
Big verdicts are becoming more common, but are never an accident. Lead your jury to a great trial outcome using First Court’s proven model to win trials big and small. To be on the winning side of the next case you must push to trial.