On Jury Duty, $8 Million Turned Out to be the Price for a Dead Son
The buzzer and its instructions in the jury room at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles
A couple of weeks ago, I sat in a small, cold, white room with 11 other people, calmly debating the monetary value of love.
Specifically, the monetary value of a dead son's "love, companionship, care assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support, training and guidance."
"Anything less than $12 million is an insult," one juror said.
It was after 5 p.m. on a Friday. It was our fourth week on jury duty. We each wanted to put this sorry mess behind us. But how do you even begin to have a rational conversation about this?
It had all started a month earlier when about 70 of us were selected for the jury pool. That 70 included actor Samuel L. Jackson, who showed up with a personal assistant, and a Wolverine impersonator from Hollywood Boulevard, who waited all of five minutes before sitting down on a bench next to Jackson, reaching out his right hand and saying, "Hey, Sam."
Both were eventually excused, Jackson because he had a shoot starting in a couple of weeks and Wolverine, presumably, for being a weirdo.
Augustine "Leo" Liu, the 25-year-old schizophrenic man who died in 2009 while enrolled in a drug study
When we were told the case involved a man who'd volunteered for a medical experiment, Wolverine exclaimed that experimentation should only be done on prison inmates.
Numerous others in the jury pool were dismissed for being hysterical or biased. Whether these people might simply pretending to be hysterical or biased didn't seem to matter much. Their willingness to lie to a group of 70 people, plus a judge, was enough.
I'd been told that, as a news reporter, I would never get chosen to be on a jury. But after hearing from some of the other jury candidates, I wasn't too surprised to be chosen as Juror #6.
The trial centered on the death of Augustine "Leo" Liu II, 25, a schizophrenic young man who volunteered for an experimental drug study and died less than a week later of heart failure.
Trials are never as exciting as portrayed in the movies. There's a lot of procedural stuff, lots of "building foundation," lots of slow, redundant testimony simply to introduce evidence.
The facts are laid out in random, nonsequential order, and lawyers bicker over the tiniest of points.
This trial was dominated by expert witnesses — 15 psychologists, cardiologists, pathologists and other -ologists. The plaintiffs had their -ologists and the defendants had their -ologists. They made polar-opposite claims. Mr. Liu's first EKG and lab results came back abnormal. One set of experts called this an ominous, huge red flag. The other side said, "Eh, no big deal, maybe retest him in a few weeks."
Only a few witnesses were connected to the incident, and we were told little about who Mr. Liu was.
Did he really have the capacity to consent to the drug study? Why didn't he tell the study's doctors about his family history of heart disease?
And why didn't he take his dad along with him when he joined the study, when his dad usually accompanied him to doctor's appointments? So much was left to our imagination. A man had died, but it all felt so abstract, like a math problem.
Now, I would love to have come away from this experience with some contrarian take on lawyers, but I didn't.
Lawyers are the worst.
The six attorneys came across as petty, mean and manipulative, obfuscating at every turn — all the while reminding witnesses that they were under oath. It's incredible to me that a profession could have such disregard for honesty and the pursuit of truth.
Augustine "Leo" Liu and the label for the anti-psychotic Risperdal, an earlier, FDA-approved version of the drug involved in the test during which he died
Anyway. The plaintiff's attorneys argued that Mr. Liu had been given a 1 mg shot of Risperidone and died of heart failure days later. Ergo, the shot of Risperidone killed him, or at the very least had taken a sick man and "pushed him off a cliff" or "off the edge."
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Here's the weird part. When Mr. Liu died, his heart was twice the size of a normal heart. It was a condition that had been going on undetected for years, slowly and silently getting worse. Liu experienced no symptoms — until he had a heart attack.
The shot of Risperidone, meanwhile, wasn't even what the drug company — Janssen Research, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson — was studying. The 1 mg was sort of the pre-dose, used to establish a baseline showing how he would react to a small amount of the drug.
No evidence was produced that the 1 mg of Risperidone did push Mr. Liu "off the cliff." In fact, the first time Liu's liver enzymes started to really shoot up was hours before he got the shot. But those alarming lab results didn't come back until after he'd received the shot. The timing was unimaginably bad.
We jurors still had to decide whether or not Janssen Research had been negligent by allowing Liu in the study and by not sending him for urgent medical care when the alarming results from both the first EKG and liver test came in.
Ultimately, my fellow jurors thought there was enough evidence that the study's doctors were negligent, and that the negligence played a significant role in Liu's death.
Personally, I wasn't entirely convinced. The trial had played out between sets of expert witnesses, and I didn't know who to trust. It seemed that the study doctors could have been more careful, but I thought there wasn't enough evidence to suggest Liu's heart condition was beyond the point of no return.
I didn't, however, feel strongly enough to pull a 12 Angry Men, and I should say that nearly all of my fellow jurors were intelligent and engaged.
Once we voted in favor of the plaintiff 9-3 (the minimum threshold required for a verdict in a civil trial), we moved on to how much to give Marion Liu. That is, how much money, in damages, should we award Marion Liu as compensation for the loss of her son's "love, companionship, care assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support, training and guidance."
Incredibly, we were given little in the way of guidance for this.
Nothing about what previous juries had come up with in similar trials. Nothing about what the law says a human life is valued at. And certainly nothing from the judge (the kind, avuncular Dick Fruin) about what a reasonable monetary range might be.
The only person who deigned to throw out a number was the remarkably slippery plaintiff's attorney, Daniel Balaban, whose actions during closing arguments the judge called "disgraceful." Balaban suggested that we give Mrs. Liu at least $25 million. He then pretended to get choked up. Then he told us to "hug her with justice."
The only instructions we got made it harder to choose a dollar figure. We were told to not go around the room, have everyone say a number and then average it out. We were told not to take into account how much the young Mr. Liu would have made during the rest of his life (that wouldn't be much, as he was schizophrenic and couldn't work) or how much insurance he had.
The judge told us not to "guess or speculate" and not consider Marion Liu's "grief, sorrow or mental anguish." He told us not to punish or make an example out of Janssen. And he told us not to consider attorneys fees.
With all those factors to not consider, what exactly were we left with? Not much.
We were told to add the years since Mr. Liu's death — six — onto the years we expected his mom to live. That, of course, was the darkest, most guilt-inducing part of the discussion. Then we were told to multiply that by, yes, the value of a son's love per year.
We'd heard hours of expert testimony about EKGs and liver enzymes and myocardial myopathy, but nothing about the monetary value of love and companionship. And we couldn't guess or speculate.
Of course, we proceeded to guess and speculate.
What else was there? Some of us started at $100,000 a year, multiplied by 18 years. Others started at half a million a year. We argued, based on nothing more than our perception of numbers. The older jurors tended to want to give more, the younger jurors tended to want to give less.
The conversation was so abstract that most of us had a hard time caring. Half a million, a quarter of a million. Who cared? Could any of it compensate for a son's death? Would any number make a difference?
We started talking about flat sums. Some of us started at $3 million. Others argued for $8 million. Should we settle at $5 million? Oh, but the judge told us not to average. Well, what else could we do? We voted. It was a tie, 7-7. We argued. We voted again. 8-6. Eventually, the low-ballers gave up and we voted to award Marion Liu $8 million.
When the bailiff read the verdict, Balaban freaked out as if he'd won the Super Bowl. Marion Liu sobbed.
It had been one of the slowest-moving months of my life, and it was all over in a flash.
The whole trial had been so abstract — all the facts presented coldly and out of order, the lawyers doing their best to show that there was no such thing as objective fact. I couldn't help but think that trials aren't serving us very well if they're this abstract, and if they're really asking 12 random people to decide the value of a son's love.
But hey, at least Wolverine didn't get picked. They got that part right.
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