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ATTORNEY: Edward Blackmon Jr. FIRM: Blackmon & Blackmon, Canton, Miss. CASE: Baker v. Washington Mutual Finance Group, No. CV980026 (Holmes Co., Miss., Cir. Ct.) Edward Blackmon Jr. does not believe in waiting until the opening statement to begin persuading the jury. “You can really set the tone in voir dire.” By the right set of questions, he says, “You can get them to understand what your case is about.” In a trial last year in Lexington, Miss., Blackmon was representing 23 customers of a subprime lender. They were charging the lender with fraud and breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the sales of loan packages. “The theme was corporate responsibility,” Blackmon says. So, in voir dire, Blackmon asked specific questions that related to that theme and to the evidence he planned to put on. “I asked them, ‘How many of you believe that a corporation has an obligation to treat its customers fairly?’ I asked, ‘Should a corporation be allowed to take advantage of people who can’t read? Is a big corporation beyond the law?’” By the time the final panel was selected, the jurors not only knew what the case was about, but, by the way he framed the questions, had given initial assent to his primary points. At the end of trial, the jurors gave a final agreement with Blackmon’s theme and awarded his clients $71.27 million. That award was one of the largest jury awards of 2001; Blackmon also had another jury verdict in the top 20 last year, winning a $100 million products liability judgment in September over the acid reflux medication Propulsid. Blackmon does not confine himself to working exclusively for plaintiffs. About half of his practice is representing corporate defendants in a variety of actions, including products liability. While Blackmon is now involved in big-ticket civil litigation, that was not how he began his career. After graduating from George Washington University Law School in 1973, Blackmon returned home to Mississippi. His practice was primarily civil rights at the beginning. Over the next decade, he filed and won a series of civil rights actions attacking segregation and racial discrimination in the state, financing this effort by handling criminal defense work. But he found criminal defense work “emotionally draining,” he says, and began moving into civil litigation. In the lending fraud case, Blackmon’s clients were suing Washington Mutual Finance Group, the subprime consumer lending branch of Washington Mutual Savings Bank. The plaintiffs contended that loan officers at the company’s Greenwood, Miss., office were fraudulently inducing customers to come in and refinance loans and convincing customers to buy unnecessary insurance on the loans. The loans involved were small consumer loans, generally from $500 to $1,500, Blackmon says. “The company made its money with products added to the loans, such as life insurance or property insurance. People would borrow $500, but end up owing $2,000.” When a customer came to the office, he says, “the loan officer would ask, ‘Do you want to have collateral insurance on it?’” The loan officer would suggest that a window fan, lawn mower or air conditioner could be used as collateral, then would accept whatever valuation the customer had placed on the item. “Then they’d sell you life insurance,” he continues, “so the loan would be paid if you died. But if it was secured by property, why would you need life insurance? Then they’d sell you disability insurance.” But, he adds, “you couldn’t get that independently of credit life insurance, so many of the customers didn’t even know they had it.” Once a loan was paid off, he says, “they’d try to flip you.” “Flipping,” he explains, is a process where the loan officers would attempt to get the borrowers customers to take out new loans or refinance nearly paid-up loans. “They would send out letters telling these people, if you come in today, you’re entitled to another $500.” He alleges “[t]hey targeted poor people who happened to be black.” These were people, he adds, who couldn’t get traditional loans. In selecting the jury, he says, he was looking for jurors who could identify or at least empathize with the plaintiffs. “In this case, I wanted people who have had to deal with small loan companies, or who have family members who did,” Blackmon says. “I wanted people with children in school.” In his opening statement, Blackmon says, he began by telling the jurors how a loan package is developed, but connecting it to the specific experiences of his clients. “I talk about the people involved. I describe how my clients came in, with all their papers ready, and how the loan officers loaded up all these other products.” In the opening and throughout his presentation, he frequently turns to parables to convey his themes. “This is truly the Bible Belt. Religion is a great part of what we do,” he says. He then gives titles to these themes. For this case, he says, he called one of his primary themes “In the Temple,” referring to the episode in the Christian Bible where Jesus went to the temple and kicked out the Pharisees. Blackmon talks about how Jesus turned over the tables, then tells the jurors, “we don’t have Jesus to turn over the tables, but we do have the jury.” As his first witness, Blackmon called a representative from Washington Mutual. He peppered the witness with questions on company policy and company training of loan officers. He asked about the practice in the Greenwood office of accepting the customers’ assessment of the value of the items used for collateral. “I asked, ‘Do you take automobiles for security?’ He said yes. Then I asked, ‘Do you trust your customers’ word for it on the value?’ ” This time the witness answered no. Loan officers at the Greenwood office were convincing customers to refinance loans at a rate of nearly seven times higher than other loan offices in the state. “I asked if this office was doing it on its own. Why was this happening in Greenwood? He couldn’t explain it.” The testimony of the manager of the Greenwood office sealed the case for the plaintiffs, Blackmon says. Dolly Andrews had worked for the company for 30 years and had trained the loan officers in Greenwood. Blackmon asked her about the company policy on loans and insurance on these loans, as detailed by the corporate representative. “She didn’t know the policy,” Blackmon says. “She had worked for the company for 30 years, but had never received any written policy directives.” A major claim of the plaintiffs was that they commonly bought additional products without knowing what they were buying. The defense countered that each signed disclaimers attesting to their knowledge that they were buying insurance. But, Blackmon says, many of the plaintiffs couldn’t read. “Miss Dolly said that everyone understood what the documents were,” Blackmon adds. “I asked, ‘What if they couldn’t read?’ She answered, ‘I’d read it to them.’ Then I handed her the loan documents and had her read them.” After she read a sentence, Blackmon stopped her and asked, “What does that mean?” The witness said she didn’t know. “I had her read another sentence, then asked her, ‘What does that mean?’ Again, she said she didn’t know.” “It was obvious that she couldn’t explain this to the consumer,” he adds. On June 13, 2001, a Lexington, Miss., jury awarded the plaintiffs $69 million in punitives and $2.27 million in compensatories. In November the award was cut to about $54 million; the verdict has been appealed. TRIAL TIPS � Start setting the tone of your case in voir dire. � Develop themes to connect with the jury, and give them titles. � Be creative; use ‘parables.’

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