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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Plethora of reasons for defense counsel to argue damages at trial

Hey you! Pay attention!

In the latest issue of The Jury Expert, Jeri Kagel has contributed a very thoughtful article, entitled "Damages: The Defense Attorney's Dilemma." In her article, Jeri presents in stark terms the ambivalence that most civil defense attorneys experience regarding discussing damages before a jury. All of us in the trial consulting profession encounter clients who are stubborn about certain things.
"I never make opening statements." 
"I don't depose opposing experts because I don't want 'em to know what's coming." 
"I don't like my expert to use visual aids because it distracts the jury from what he's saying."
By a large margin, the most common immovable object is, "I don't argue damages at trial."
We trial consultants have read the experimental research on the topic. We have run our own studies. We know that arguing damages at trial is a winning strategy for defense attorneys. It generally has a negligible impact on the liability decision and can have a profound impact on the damage award.

Don't live in fear! Come into the light!

In fact, our frustration with our clients on this point has led many of us to write newsletter articles, editorials and/or blog posts about this very topic.

From myself, "Getting Defense Counsel to talk about damages is like conducting an intervention."

From Aaron Abbott, "New Research on Damage Awards: Do jurors split the difference?"

From Sarah Murray, "Strategies for minimizing damages in high damages cases."

From Jeffrey Frederick, "Searching for rocks in the Channel: Pretesting your case before trial."

I actually managed to convince a client to run a mock trial experiment on the question of arguing damages at trial. We had two panels who all watched the same mock trial for a day-and-a-half. We then separated them for closing arguments. To one group, defense counsel said nothing about damages. To the other, defense counsel added one paragraph, discussing the unreasonableness of plaintiff's award request, and suggesting a more appropriate figure.

Much to my client's surprise, the panel that had heard defense arguments about damages did not once discuss this fact with respect to the liability question. That is, when deciding whether the defendant was liable, not once did anyone point out that defense counsel had raised the damages issue in his closing.

The differences did emerge when we asked the two panels to calculate a damage award for the plaintiff. The panel that had heard a counter-argument on damages from defense counsel chose an award half the size arrived at by the panel that only heard plaintiff's arguments about damages. The provision of a "counter-anchor" for damage award calculations can substantially reduce the size of such an award.

Don't put off until tomorrow what you can argue today.

A significant contribution of Jeri's article in The Jury Expert is a cataloging of opportunities for defense counsel to introduce arguments about damages throughout the trial. The typical question a defense attorney confronts is, "Should I mention damages in my closing argument?" Jeri points out that this dilemma should not be so narrowly defined. Defense counsel should include questions during voir dire about how prospective jurors are likely to think about calculating damage awards. She advocates including arguments in opening statements that help "teach" jurors how to evaluate critically testimony about damages.

A more comprehensive strategy for dealing with the damages issue allows defense counsel to influence juror decisions about damages without having to resort to the "arguing in the alternative" tactic. (My client didn't do anything wrong, but if you decide he did, it wasn't really that bad.) In addition, in jurisdictions that do not permit an ad damnum (specific monetary request from the plaintiff), defense counsel can implement those strategies most appropriate to the local rules.

There is one big lesson one should glean from the experimental literature and the musings of trial consultants. Don't punt on damages. Ceding to the plaintiff total control over the way in which the jury discusses damages is a recipe for disaster.