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On first blush, it sounded like the kind of case a tort reformer would cite when decrying “runaway juries.” In Newnan, Ga., a town not known for big verdicts, a jury gave a plaintiff $2.75 million after a three-day wrongful death trial that both sides expected the defense to win. Brooks v. Hancock, No. 02SV351 (Coweta Co., Ga., State Ct.). Justin Brooks, 19, was driving to work when he turned left into traffic and was killed in a collision. An autopsy showed that he had marijuana in his system. A police officer testified that the pickup truck he collided with had the right of way. Yet it took the jury just 45 minutes last month to return a unanimous verdict in the suit that Brooks’ mother brought against the driver and his employer. What happened? Interviews with the lawyers and three of the 11 jurors provided answers. Georgia’s comparative negligence law meant that plaintiff’s lawyer Eric Hertz of Tucker, Ga.’s Hertz, Link & Smith only had to prove that Brooks was less than 50% to blame. This was the biggest factor in his decision to take the case, Hertz said. There was also evidence that the truck was speeding. That wasn’t the only problem that the driver, Daniel Hancock, presented for the defense. On the morning of the crash, Hancock was driving a company truck to Ognio Grading Inc., the construction company where he worked. Though he testified that he was driving within the 55 mph limit, his record hurt his credibility. He had 18 moving violations-some for speeding-said his lawyer, William Harrison of Atlanta’s Mozley, Finlayson & Loggins. Harrison tried to minimize the damage by limiting interrogatories on this subject to three years. That strategy backfired when Hancock testified about violations during this period, then had to admit on cross that he had more. The distinction was lost on jurors, who said that Hancock had been caught in a lie. Also, Hancock wasn’t alone in the truck, but his co-worker didn’t help. He was vague about the truck’s speed and his testimony was generally incoherent. “He was so far out in left field we just totally disregarded him,” said juror Robert Sandler. The strongest defense witness was probably the investigating police officer, who confirmed that Hancock had the right of way. But his testimony was undercut by a retired policeman who witnessed the crash. He estimated that Hancock was traveling five to 10 mph above the limit. His daughter also saw the accident and testified that Brooks appeared to have room to pull out. Juror Ericcia Gaither summed up the jury’s attitude: “This guy should not have been allowed to drive a company truck.” By contrast, although the jury found Brooks 27% to blame, his problem “was more misjudging the speed of a truck and the time to get through,” she said. “We’ve all done that.” Marijuana was the wildcard and it worked to Hertz’s advantage. Experts testified that there was only a trace in Brooks’ body. “To me,” said juror Sandra Lyne, “it really wasn’t an issue because it was such a tiny amount that it could have been secondhand smoke even.” Harrison introduced it in his closing. “He tried to make Justin seem like he was nothing,” Gaither remembered. “He was a drug user. He was just a nobody. That really offended us.” The boy’s father and brother had testified that he loved tropical fish, was studying welding and aspired to be a deep-sea welder-a job that can pay $100,000 a year. These figured into Hertz’s request for damages. But to him, the fact that eight jurors were women was most important. He’s always found women to be more generous than men, he said. Though it wasn’t Hertz’s first seven-figure verdict, it was the first that went against Harrison, the defense lawyer said. The sting was softened by a high-low agreement that led to a confidential settlement much less than the verdict. For jurors, even the full verdict was not enough. “We never thought it would be enough, no matter what it was,” said juror Lyne.

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