I’m Not a Number

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I stepped through the metal detector and walked down the long hallway to the old entrance to the Winnebago County Court-house, a monument to less security-conscious days.  In Room 502, I joined about 200 other citizens, waiting to do our civic duty.  Signing in, I received my badge: no name, just a number—Juror 11593.  I take my card and I stand in line . . .

Looking around, a few things struck me: first, the relative lack of blacks and Hispanics; second, the extremely low number of identifiably professional people—doctors, lawyers, etc.  In Illinois, jurors are chosen from both the voter and driver’s license rolls, and yet the prospective jurors were overwhelmingly working- and middle-class whites.

While I was mulling over the possibility of a class-action lawsuit alleging reverse discrimination in jury selection (People Who Don’t Care v. Winnebago County), my name and 35 others were called, and we walked down one flight of stairs to Judge Ronald Pirello’s courtroom.

Judge Pirello gave us a brief description of the case: Wendy Schneider was suing Dr. Harry Darland, alleging trespass, false imprisonment, intentional and negligent imposition of emotional distress, and battery, resulting from Dr. Darland’s role in having her involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward eight years before.

As jury selection started, I thought my position at Chronicles would amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card.  In fact, the first question Pirello asked me was, “You look familiar.  Have we met before?”  I explained that I had been in his courtroom several times, covering cases, including the eminent-domain proceedings against Tom and Jan Ditzler.  When Pirello announced that Chronicles was “right of center” and asked whether that might bias me toward the doctor, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.  As the plaintiff’s attorney, Dennis Schumacher, told Pirello, “Judge, we except—,” I was ready to grab my bag and go, until the full sentence sank in: “Judge, we accept this slate of jurors.”

Thus began six days in the courthouse, considering a case that was largely without merit.  At age 26, Mrs. Schneider (then unmarried) had been admitted to the hospital for a possible aspirin overdose, which friends, relatives, and her doctors thought was a suicide attempt.  And so, a week and a half later, when Mrs. Schneider, after a night out drinking with some friends, called another friend and indicated that she now knew how “to do it right,” her father became understandably concerned.

What followed was, in fact, a technical violation of Illinois law.  In Illinois, only a police officer, state’s attorney, or the courts have the authority to order an involuntary commitment.  But Mrs. Schneider’s apparent threat to kill herself occurred in the early hours of a Sunday morning, and a police officer, dispatched to her house around 3:00 A.M. to conduct a “welfare check,” chose not to convey her to a hospital, because friends at the house promised to keep an eye on her.  With the police option seemingly exhausted and the state’s attorney’s office and the courts closed, Mrs. Schneider’s father turned to Dr. Darland, who had delivered Mrs. Schneider and was the only physician she had ever had.

What happened next is a matter of dispute; the only thing that is certain is that each side was subtly skewing its testimony to make its case stronger.  Dr. Darland and Mrs. Schneider’s father went to her house, where Dr. Darland took her—admittedly, against her will—outside, loaded her in the car, and brought her to the hospital.  She spent eight days in the psych ward before the courts forced her discharge because of the technical violation of the law.

If the plaintiff’s case had been strong, Dr. Darland’s insurance company would have settled years earlier.  The plaintiff’s attorney, a former prosecutor for Ogle County, did the best he could, but long before the testimony had ended, it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that the plaintiff had no hope of winning significant damages—clear, that is, to everyone but Mrs. Schneider and a representative of the doctor’s insurance company.

Testimony ended on Friday; we were told to return at 10:30 on Tuesday morning for closing arguments and deliberation.  When the appointed hour came, Judge Pirello emerged from his courtroom and went over to a conference room occupied by the plaintiff and her lawyer.  They’ve settled the case, I thought to myself, and minutes later, after we were ushered into the jury room, Pirello came in to thank us and revealed what he could: The representative from the insurance company had become concerned about the possibility of a large award, and so he had offered the plaintiff “considerably more than $50,000” (the amount she was asking for) to settle the case.  Pirello asked us how we would have voted, and the response was unanimous: We would have awarded damages of no more than one dollar.

For years, insurance companies have blamed skyrocketing premiums on, on the one hand, juries who grant outrageous awards, and, on the other, working- and middle-class people who take advantage of their insurance to run off to the doctor whenever they have a sniffle.  But here was a clear-cut case; even the plaintiff’s attorney later admitted that he had bet Mrs. Schneider a steak dinner that the settlement would be far better than any damages she would receive from the jury.  And as far back as April 1998, concurring in an appellate court opinion reinstating Mrs. Schneider’s case on technical grounds, one justice had written, “Based upon the present record, it remains to be seen if the plaintiff can recover more than nominal damages.”

As I walked away from the courtroom, all I could hear were the words of Bob Seger, playing over and over again in my mind.  To the insurance company, Juror 11593 was “just another statistic on a sheet,” as was the settlement whose costs will be passed on to the 12 flesh-and-blood men and women who would have made the right decision, if only they had been given the chance.

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