The Verdict Isn't In
Does This Widow Deserve $23 Billion?
A jury awards a woman $23 billion. The Constitution said nothing about this.
Last week, a jury of her peers awarded a lone human, Cynthia Robinson, over $23.6 billion to punish a cigarette company for the death of her husband. And poof, they were no longer her peers—that is, unless they happened to be the only jury in history to be composed entirely of multi-billionaires.
The rest of America—depending on its feelings about corporate malfeasance versus individual responsibility—was cornered into only one of two positions when it heard the exorbitant pile of punitive damages the defendant, RJ Reynolds, was told to pony up: either shows ’em right! Or, are you kidding me?!
Even the plaintiff thought the jurors were pulling her leg. Or rather, according to reports, she thought they had said “million,” not “billion,” and she had to be assured her ears were deceiving her. Had it been a scant $23.6 million, she was still more than ready to pop some victory champagne. “I got so excited,” she said. If the 23 billion-with-a-“b” amount stands—23,623,718,906 dollars and 62 cents, to be precise—she could buy the champagne industry. (It won’t. The payday will likely be reduced on appeal, as was a similar $28 billion verdict a decade ago, subsequently reduced to $28 million. In the law, one must mind one’s b’s and m’s.)
Unsurprisingly, an executive for the cigarette Company called the sum “grossly excessive” and—here’s the kicker—“impermissible under… constitutional law.”
Oh right, that Constitution thing. That prescient and precious set of rules which, thanks to one Article and a couple Amendments, affords us certain rights when we’re accused of a crime. We have right to be heard by a jury for criminal trials, an impartial jury for jury trials, even a jury for a federal civil trial “where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars.”
The virtues of a trial by jury are self-evident, especially compared to the Teutonic tradition of determining innocence by winning a duel, or the bygone European (and Monty Python-esque) practice of seeing if defendants can withstand being tossed into the river while tied up in a bag. And true: Among the many revolutionary “facts … submitted to a candid world” in the Declaration of Independence was a complaint against King George “for depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of a trial by jury.” And yes, granted, Thomas Jefferson did once write to Thomas Paine that a jury trial is “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
So trial by jury? Check.
Strange thing, though. The Constitution says nothing about the right to, let alone the virtues of, a jury of our peers. Yet, over the years, as an “impartial jury” has been more narrowly interpreted, we have earned the right to be judged by people exactly like us. Lucky us?
Thanks to the rigorous science that is voir dire (jury selection) we entrust our juries to people who can’t be trusted.
I should know: I’m one of ’em.
I’ve served on a jury. Juries are composed of people like me: People with a bone to pick. People with an ax to grind. People who feel powerless. People who feel too powerful. People who have too much time on their hands and watch too much “CSI.” People who are either not clever enough or too moral enough to try to game the system and get themselves excused from jury duty by pretending to be prejudiced, irrational, or a heart surgeon late to scrub in across town. You know, people.
And I’ve said it before: it is with no lack of disgust at myself that I’ve come to realize that if through some advanced “Orphan Black” technology I somehow ended up serving on a jury rendering judgment on myself, I’d likely find the defendant, Kevin Bleyer—a relatively innocent man, mind you—guilty, guilty, guilty in the first degree. Just to send a message. Why? Because sometimes, in the wrong mood, I’d like to send a message that smokers should be thrown in jail for casually throwing their cigarette butts into the street. And I’m sure I’m guilty of something far worse.
See what happens when we trust ourselves? We The Jurors occasionally think it’s our prerogative to be heard, rather than be just.
The widow’s attorney admitted the jury in this poor woman’s case wanted to “send a statement.” The rich widow herself said that that R.J. Reynolds “got knocked in the head” by the jury. (Somewhere, there’s another jury itching to find that jury guilty of assault. Just to send a statement.)
It’s something We The People should consider: We The Jurors are a great argument for tort reform. But I’m not here to start an argument. I am here to render a verdict about our jury system, because I am our jury system: Good in theory, bad in practice.
Or maybe it’s the best of bad options, the noblest effort on earth to render justice in the most democratic, thoughtful, human way.
Or maybe I’m just putting this all on the record so I’ll have something prejudicial to read from next time I try to get out of jury duty.