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A recent $28 million verdict involving a fatal Ford rollover crash in a tiny Texas town has highlighted an ongoing battle for many lawyers: getting a fair trial in a small town. In addition to the obvious-everyone in a small town knows everyone else-small town jurors are more likely to want to stick it to big corporations, particularly when the victim is local. “This is not a phenomenon. It’s real. And it’s for this reason you’ll see litigants fighting for years over the proper venues of a case,” said attorney David Sugden of Call, Jensen & Ferrell in Newport Beach, Calif., who does mostly defense work for companies. “I think, for whatever reason, small towns have proven to be fertile ground for plaintiffs’ lawyers and they are giving huge punitive damage awards,” Sugden said. Small towns also tend to put big-city defense attorneys on the defensive themselves, careful not to appear as an outsider invading a quaint little town, he noted. Sugden has seen it firsthand. Last year, while handling a breach-of-contract case for a Florida company being sued in a small county in Northern California, Sugden lost a significant hearing on a motion to transfer the venue to Florida. Sugden felt that he didn’t stand a chance against the local attorneys, whom the judge spoke to on a first-name basis in court. “By the time I got up there, I knew I was doomed,” Sugden said. This “doomed” experience is what defense attorneys have come to refer to as being “hometowned”-that is, losing clout in a courtroom because they’re not from there. “Certainly big-city counsel carry a stigma in a small town where the local jury, and even the judges, will often say, ‘You’re a big-city slicker. What are you doing down in our town?’ ” said attorney Arthur Cook, managing partner at the Los Angeles firm Hill Farrer & Burrill, which represents corporate and managerial interests. Cook, who said that he lost his first jury trial some 25 years ago because the local attorney was more influential, urges attorneys to hire local counsel when working in small towns. And at all times, he said, avoid appearing overconfident. “You’ll be watched by everybody and they’re going to be looking for you to be cocky,” Cook said. “And if you are, they’re going to slap you hard for it.” But plaintiffs’ attorney Andrew Stern of Philadelphia’s Kline & Specter argues that the outsider stigma can go both ways. For example, he said, defense lawyers are quick to cast plaintiffs’ attorneys in a negative light before small-town juries. “They make you out to be the big-city guy who came into their little town to take all the money, which is inaccurate,” said Stern. The Ford case In the recent Ford Motor Co. case-in which a Zavala County (Crystal City), Texas, jury hit Ford with a $28 million verdict in March over the deaths of two popular teenagers killed in an Explorer rollover crash-Ford attorneys argue that the odds were stacked against them from the beginning. The deceased victims were two former local high school celebrities in a town of 8,000 people-both former Miss Crystal City-who died while attending graduation festivities. One of the victims was the granddaughter of a former district judge who attended the trial wearing a button with his deceased granddaughter’s picture on it. Also, that same judge was a former colleague of the judge who oversaw the trial. Last, but not least, one of the jurors was the girlfriend of one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, which Ford did not learn about until halfway through the trial, when they had her dismissed.
Making a case Attorney Marty Rose of Dallas-based Rose Walker, who has tried cases in small towns across the country for the last 30 years, offers the following strategies for successfully dealing with small-town juries:

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