When the Jury is Emotionally Involved, They’ll Help
McDonald’s offered $2000 to TLC grad Scott Callahan’s 15-year-old client, who they called “that boy”.
The jury saw it differently and awarded 100 times that amount. Great victory, Scott! Can you give us a little background on the case? Sure. Robert was 15 years old when he was hired at McDonalds. He was cleaning the grill when the cooking mat popped up and burned his right distal forearm. His manager sprayed it, wrapped it, and he returned to work. Three weeks later, Robert’s mom took him to the emergency room. Medicaid paid $25.00 for the visit. That was his only treatment. McDonalds blamed Robert throughout the entire case. However, just before the jury was seated, they decided to “accept” liability. In Texas, kids as young as 14 can work, but cooking on or cleaning a hot grill is prohibited for 14 and 15 year olds under the Labor Code. McDonalds said they accidentally miscalculated his age when they hired him. What was the experience like for you? It’s always a good experience when there’s a connection with the jury and the defense can’t do anything about it. Was there a moment when you felt that shift happen? Trial is a story and, for me, there was one point that felt like the inciting event. It was when McDonalds’ lawyer said in an aw-shucks kind of way – “That boy just burned himself.” To me, that was a turning point. “That boy” has a name, “that boy” has value, and “that boy” deserves to be protected by our community. By calling him “that boy”, were they purposefully trying to minimize everything about him? Yes. So there were two things that resonated with me thanks to TLC. First, what is an apology? At a grad course several years ago, we dealt with apologies and what it really means. An apology is made up of three things – the person needs to admit they are wrong, they should apologize, and most importantly they need to make amends for what they have done. Then, the person who was wronged can be in a place of forgiving. If that apology is fulfilled, then the weight of the wrong can be lifted. McDonalds “accepted” liability strategically, but they refused to fulfill an apology and they still wanted to blame “that boy.” Until they made amends, or were told to make amends, Robert is the only one who was being penalized. I asked the jury to see that amends were made for Robert. The second thing is the concept of shame or shaming. I recently read a great article in The Warrior by TLC grad Emily DeToto. It was written in the criminal case context, but it made so much sense to me for my civil cases too. In criminal cases, DAs try to shame the defendants and shame the jury or the judge into finding defendants guilty, regardless of the evidence, because the charge brought is so shameful. For me, that translates into the civil arena because civil defendants regularly shame personal injury plaintiffs and juries with arguments that the plaintiffs are lying, everything is frivolous, and plaintiffs are just trying to trick juries into awarding lottery money. That’s exactly what McDonald’s did in this case. They treated Robert like he wasn’t worth anything. Like he had no value. They treated him like he didn’t matter. That his scar was no different than the others on his arms from playing football. They told the jury that we were “just after that money.” They wanted to give him fast food justice. They were shaming the jury. When we entrust our kids to others, whether it’s the daycare, an employer, or anyone, we trust that our kids will be safe and they will be taken care of. McDonalds violated that trust, abused their power over Robert, and they refused to make amends for what they had done. What was it like when you first began working with your client? It was hard. Robert is quiet. Meanwhile, his Mom and Dad are very outgoing, very talkative. It was tough for me to really learn what the scar meant to him. Did it really bother him? How? It was a 2 ½ inch scar and had healed pretty nicely except for some darkening and hypertrophy. Part of me was worried that if he couldn’t convey it, then maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal to him, and then the jury wouldn’t care. When discovering the story, I also realized that Robert’s Mom carried a lot of guilt for what happened. She encouraged him to start working at a young age. She felt guilty and responsible. Her testimony at trial was powerful. How many times did you do the TLC “Discovering the story” methods with him in the office? Were you able to get what you needed out of just one meeting? You know it’s funny, it’s not like they come to the office and I say “okay now we’re going to start discovering the story.” It doesn’t work like that. It’s every time I meet with them, it’s every time I talk to them on the phone, there is some semblance of discovering the story. It’s not a formal starting or stopping of a stopwatch. You begin to learn about them on a much deeper level. What is something that you didn’t know before this trial, but you’re going to apply to the next trial? This trial just served as a reminder for me. Being the best lawyer is being human and listening. Then when you do talk, you have something worth saying. What’s the best advice you could give to a lawyer heading into their first trial? Never lose credibility. Even if it means you have to eat bad facts or address things that you think are going to hurt you. Attack your fears head on and tell the jury what you’re afraid of. They’ll save you. Is there anything that you believed before you took this case but has changed? Why a case like this has to be tried is beyond me. I think it’s unfortunate that McDonalds wastes everybody’s time to try to save money. At the end of the day, they didn’t save money and they certainly weren’t happy. About Scott: Scott graduated from TLC in September 2010. He practices in Katy, Texas and he’s board-certified in Personal Injury Trial Law. He earned his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston where he was an Assistant Editor of the South Texas Law Review. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and he is a member of the American Association for Justice. Scott is an avid soccer player, fan, and coach. – See more at: http://triallawyerscollege.org/BlogPost.aspx?g=3332ce39-61e7-4c1f-935e-8bdf81d4613e#sthash.Q4DdyCDk.dpuf