Last week, I found myself in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota before U.S. District Court Judge Ann Montgomery arguing about fair play and substantial justice in a business dispute. It was an early morning hearing so we could clear the courtroom for the on-going high-stakes trial of Trice-Adams v. Toyota Motor Corporation, the case that pits bereaved families against the car company in connection with the terrible accident that resulted in deaths, injuries, and in the wrongful conviction of Koua Fong Lee for vehicular homicide.
From the magic words of “fair play and substantial justice,” experienced litigators will recognize that I was in court in connection with a threshold dispute over personal jurisdiction, which often (and in my case) plays out at the inception of litigation. But “fair play and substantial justice” is what litigation is all about from the very onset to the final judgment, of course.
I lingered in the courtroom to watch some “fair play and substantial justice” in action at trial — some testimony in the Trice-Adams v. Toyota case.
It is not often that one gets a chance to watch a nationally prominent plaintiff’s lawyer, Bob Hilliard, and a similarly distinguished products liability defense expert, David Graves, go toe-to-toe at trial. On the other hand, I was treated to a random snippet of trial rather than opening arguments or closing arguments, where trial lawyers are comparatively free to display the full splendor of their rhetorical plumage (or not).
I watched part of the cross-examination of plaintiff’s accident reconstruction expert, Andy Irwin by defense counsel, David Graves.
The cross-examination concerned acceleration rates. It was very dull. And it was marred by technical issues. Defense counsel wanted to make what seemed an simple point about a distance of 1,600 feet on a map showing the scene of the accident but he appeared to decided on the fly to use tools in Adobe software that he could not get to work…
Seconds can feel like hours in court. It is hard enough to keep jurors attention with concepts like “full acceleration” vs. “open throttle” without technical glitches. The lessons for trial lawyers might be (1) get your techno-wrinkles ironed out before game day, but also (2) the best lawyers in the world have glitches at trial. It comes with the turf. Keep your eyes on the big picture and recognize that SNAFU stands for “situation normal, all f**ked up.” It applies from time to time in every trial…
Judge Montgomery added some welcome levity when defense counsel asked his technical assistant to blow up a a portion of a defense exhibit on the display. “In federal court, we ENLARGE exhibits. We don’t blow them up…”