I did jury duty this week and ended up on a personal injury case, this resulting from a car accident. I got the sense that several other trials were also car-accident cases – at least two of our “expert witnesses” were testifying in other cases that day. My spouse was on a jury about two years ago, and his case was also personal injury, though it was between a worker and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment.
The plaintiff’s lawyer pushed us fairly hard during voir dire on whether or not we could be fair or were predisposed against personal injury cases. There certainly are handy negative archetypes to latch on to: an injured party is not really injured but just going for the big payoff, or an ambulance-chasing lawyer trying to make a buck. On the other side I could conjure up a reckless driver unwilling to own up to consequences.
The sad truth that seemed reasonable to me is that the injured party really is injured and likely faces a lifetime of chronic low-grade pain management. The problem is, he’s been rear-ended three times in a two-year period, each time he was stopped at a light, once he was already the 3rd car deep when a drunk slammed full-speed into the end of the line. This last time was the most minor; it seemed pretty clear that our defendant barely tapped him. In my mind, the question has nothing to do with the facts of the accident or fault, it’s also not really an issue of what the plaintiff needs, it just comes down to who pays.
How do we decide who pays? Do we go by the pain and behavior changes of the injured (what I boil the plaintiff’s case to), or do we go by the amount of damage done to the vehicles in the accidents (what I boil the defendant’s case to)? Those two trend lines were in direct opposition. For better or for worse, I was the alternate so I didn’t get to watch the group wrestle with this. I just got my “all clear” call from the court, I have no details on how my fellow jurors decided but they ended up awarding nothing.
What I found myself thinking was that a national health care system would save all of this. It was sad to me how low the amounts of money were at stake: somewhere between 3 and 10K to cover the medical treatments, maybe $1500 for pain and suffering, though the plaintiff’s lawyer also suggested $15000 for, a future-looking expense, I think future pain and suffering. So a total around 20K. I was trying to do the math, it must have cost at least $100/hr for the lawyer. Three days of court time plus prep which involved collating a huge notebook of documents and deposing 3-4 people, maybe 50 hours (spread among cheaper assistants as well) so I’ll hazard $5000, plus 2 expert witnesses, so I’ll round my final upper estimate for the defendent up to 6000 -totally off the cuff, but trying to stay below a likely settlement offer which would have avoided trial. Don’t know what the defendant was offered to settle, and also don’t know if he’d make an economic or an emotional decision. I’ll guess the plaintiff’s lawyer was signed up for a cut of whatever was won. But to calculate the total savings that could be had if we had nationalized healthcare we have to add the judge, the clerk, the bailiff, the courthouse time and the jury (plus alternate!). We as a society surely could have provided good healthcare treatment for less.
If we didn’t have to battle out in court who pays, how much would be saved annually? We need to take this into account when we’re looking at what would be more efficient for healthcare – how much goes into the legal system as a side effect of our “competitive” system now? Suddenly having good care for everyone seems much more feasible in my mind.
One interesting side note, the courthouse does seem to be an economic boon for the immediate area by bringing a big and steady lunch-crowd to the nearby shopping mall.