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When a San Francisco juror with a Ph.D. in neuroscience recently volunteered during voir dire that she considered punitive damages a perversion of justice, it seemed to confirm what some judges and attorneys have begun to suspect: As the city’s jury pool becomes more highly educated, it’s taking a turn to the right. Just ask Angela Alioto. The plaintiffs’ attorney recently had a jury in an employment discrimination case with several highly educated, New Economy jurors that looked askance at her client’s plight. The woman was a 28-year employee at a major publishing house who developed a physical disability from her job. She was fired, Alioto said, when she couldn’t perform because of her work-related injury. Jurors were unsympathetic and returned a defense verdict. “They felt she was a pain in the fanny and should have been fired,” Alioto said. “When you’re 25 and making millions, you are totally intolerant and don’t know the struggle one has to go through in the workplace.” San Francisco was once known for blue-collar jurors who regularly returned liberal plaintiffs’ awards. But with more residents touting college and postgraduate degrees, anecdotal evidence suggests many jurors now turn up their noses at low-damage personal injury and wrongful termination cases. To gather empirical evidence of the trend, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Carlos Bea has charted the educational levels of prospective jurors over the past year. He says his data show that often more than half of those summoned have graduated from college, with many earning advanced degrees. “This is telling me that the demographics of the juries in San Francisco are changing,” Bea said. “It also means the gentrification — the upscaling economically and educationally — of the jury pool.” Bea said that in recent cases in his courtroom, the typical panel of 12 and two alternates had eight jurors with B.A. or B.S. degrees, and another three with M.B.A.s, J.D.s, M.D.s or Ph.Ds. San Francisco Superior Court Judge John Conway recently passed out questionnaires in a criminal case to 115 prospective jurors. Included was a question about their education. What Conway learned surprised him. Of the 115 persons responding, 59 had college or postgraduate degrees and another 24 had some college. “It’s remarkable that more than half of them had college or postgraduate degrees,” Conway said. “You can see the changing demographics in San Francisco … with the influx of new residents with better educations.” And it appears all that education can be harmful to plaintiffs with minor personal injuries. “I had three rear-enders in which the damage to the automobiles was between $350 and $3,000 and all involved soft-tissue injuries that required some treatment, usually by chiropractors or a form of alternative medicine,” Bea recalled. “All three of them were defense verdicts.” He said that convinced him that smarter jurors may be more stingy with big verdicts. “There is a certain amount of venue selection [by attorneys] and the conventional wisdom was that plaintiffs should get their cases into San Francisco,” Bea said. “But plaintiffs’ attorneys should start to give a second look to the kind of cases they bring in San Francisco, especially what I call the invisible injury case, in which they should give a third look.” BLAME THE DOT-COMMERS Gone are the days of verdicts such as the one returned in the mid-1970s that involved a woman in a cable car accident. Her attorney, the late Marvin Lewis, argued the mishap turned her into a nymphomaniac. Jurors agreed and awarded her $50,000, big money in those days. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Alexander Saldamando sees a similar trend in several cases he presided over that involved automobiles, passengers and pedestrians. “The sense I get is that unless you suffer broken bones, the jury won’t give you any money,” Saldamando said. “But this could shift if the pedestrian problems we’re having in San Francisco continue.” In the last three weeks, 18 pedestrians in the city have been hit by cars. Most required hospitalization. As the city’s dot-com and multimedia communities grow, they can be expected to exert their opinions and views on jury pools. Karen Jo Koonan of the National Jury Project/West in Oakland, Calif., said the New Economy workers’ influence is especially noticeable in employment cases. Koonan said that as “dot-commers jump from job to job” there’s no expectation that employees should expect anything from their employers. “The dot-commers have no sense that the employers owe anything to the employees,” she said. This makes it difficult for longtime employees who allege they have been wrongfully terminated to win major damage awards. “What a person does five or six days a week … like writing lines of code … shapes your view of the world,” Koonan said. “They want things to be neat and clean.” Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Conrad Rushing has long tracked juror educational levels in Silicon Valley. He also found that as the education curve rises the damage awards drop. “I have not had a plaintiffs’ rear-ender verdict in about four years,” Rushing said. “The truth of the matter is that auto personal injury is a declining caseload.” The judge has kept a book on his juries back to 1978. His observations give him a panoramic perspective on his county’s panels. “It has always been the case that Santa Clara has had very intelligent jurors, and some of them even think they’re the most intelligent people in the courtroom,” Rushing said. “I think there is a level of arrogance that comes with education.” Indeed, Conway says that just because someone has a college sheepskin or makes a ton of money doesn’t mean they’ll make a better juror. “Merely because you have a college degree does not mean you bring common sense to deliberations,” the judge said. “People without a formal education usually have a life experience that can assist the jury reach its verdict.” San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne Bouliane says she doesn’t even ask questions about a prospective juror’s education. “I think it could be kind of intimidating,” for a juror to be put in the position of divulging such information in an open court setting, Bouliane said. “I think common sense is the best qualification for a juror, and you can’t get that in school,” she said. “You want someone who can judge credibility and someone who has life experiences and can relate to someone other than themselves.” WHERE ARE THE CARPENTERS? In a recent jury pool of 64 questioned by San Francisco Superior Court Judge James McBride, 18 had college degrees, another 12 had postgraduate degrees, while another 18 had “some college.” McBride said there are more high-tech and bio-tech people, some service industry workers, “but you don’t get carpenters or plumbers, the traditional trades people.” Of course, that doesn’t mean every plaintiff goes away empty-handed. Plaintiffs’ attorney Christopher Andreas of Novato, Calif.’s Brayton, Purcell & Geagan said his firm recently won a $4.6 million award in an asbestos case before McBride in which 11 of the 17 jurors and alternates had college or advanced degrees. There were several professionals among them. “I’ve always said that our jurors are getting more white-collar and more educated than before,” Andreas said. “San Francisco used to be more blue-collar, but that’s changing.” McBride says the new attitude may have less to do with education and “may be a more demographic thing — that is, making money. I’m not sure that education is the factor that has changed the most.” Advanced degrees aside, plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Safire says jurors have become more savvy in regard to court procedure, since the televised murder trial of O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted. “Jurors seem to always know now that there’s something else that they don’t know in the case,” Safire said. “They know that chiropractors usually overtreat and overcharge. As a result, he said, “insurance companies don’t want to settle. They want to go to trial” where they figure they can win. “I think you get more money from arbitrators these days than you do from a jury,” the attorney lamented. Safire says that he, too, sees more highly educated people with big incomes in jury pools. But he’s not glad to see them. “A soft-tissue injury to a dot-commer is worthless, unless it happens to them. And when it happens to them, they want a million dollars.”

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