Dissecting a Case
I recently finished working on one of the most difficult, interesting, and tragic cases I have ever consulted on. I think insights can be learned by dissecting cases, so with the attorneys’ permissions, I am honored to share the facts, consulting tips, and outcome of this case with you.
A hotel downtown (Defendant) hires some security guards. One has a background of assault charges and impersonating a police officer. He says he has put that behind him and the hotel is confident in hiring him. His friend is also hired with no criminal record but he does get written up on the job for verbal abuse. The hotel claims to have trained the guards although no paperwork was presented to reflect the training.
Meanwhile, in another state, a different hotel evicts an intoxicated guest. The guest drives away and ends up on a wreck. The Defendant hotel hears of this event and holds mandatory meetings to discuss options other than eviction as well as safe eviction procedures to prevent something similar from happening at their hotel. One of the security guards in question is not present at the meeting.
Fast forward a couple of months. The Plaintiff, a 20 year old female books a room at the Defendant hotel. She and a few girlfriends are planning on staying the night after partying with a few other friends. They go out drinking and everyone comes back to the room around 2:30am. There are no noise complaints but one of the security guards hears noise coming from the room. He knocks and enters the room to tell them to quiet down. This starts a heated exchange between the Plaintiff, a male member of the group, and the security guard. The order of events was contested but at some point, there was an offer for the girls to stay if the men would leave. At some point after this, the entire group leaves and is escorted out of the hotel into the frigid winter air. A male member of the group asks if they can wait inside and call a cab. The security guard tells them “No, get the f**k out.” There is a cab stand outside the hotel. One girl says she can drive so 7 of them pile into Plaintiff’s PT Cruiser and head down the highway. Their BAC levels are high. Only the female driving buckles her seat belt.
About 40 minutes later, the PT Cruiser comes up upon a distressed vehicle going 8mph on the highway when there is a full shoulder open for them to drive on. The female driving is distracted by Plaintiff and her ex-boyfriend in the back seat. She doesn’t see the distressed vehicle until it is too late. She collides with it. The Plaintiff is in a permanent vegetative state. We were asking for $20 million in economic damages and $40 million for permanent impairment/pain and suffering.
The Defense argued liability and causation. They argued that they had no duties toward unregistered guests so their only duty was to the Plaintiff. They further argued that Plaintiff chose to leave when she didn’t want to stay with just the female friends so therefore there was no eviction and no eviction procedures were broken. In addition, there was a cab stand at the hotel and everyone testified that in the past, they have called cabs when drunk. Further, the Defendant hotel argued that they had no reason to know the group members were intoxicated as they were able to walk straight up and down escalators in heels, were not slurring their speech, and even emergency personnel who came to help at the wreck didn’t notice signs of intoxication. Finally, they argued that this was a case entirely about causation. Even if the hotel did something wrong in the eviction, it surely did not cause a group of people to get into a car and drive intoxicated, nor did it have anything to do with a distressed vehicle, the fact that the group did not wear seat belts, or the fact that the driver was distracted and not watching the road.
I worked on this case when it was at its inception. We ran some focus groups at the time and found out that the eviction issue was huge and that many jurors felt there was no case if we failed to prove eviction. However, there were some jurors willing to give some small percentage of responsibility to the hotel – around 10%.
The case seemed to go south when the judge granted a Motion to Dismiss the case. The lead attorney, however, fought it up to the Supreme Court, who reversed the dismissal and sent the case back down for trial. This ordeal took a whole 10 years!
I ran a second round of very detailed focus groups. We found that jurors were hung up on the eviction with most saying that they felt the group left voluntarily. Even the jurors who felt the hotel did something wrong then conceded that it did not cause the wreck. We ran another set of focus groups because jurors were giving varying arguments and I wanted to be sure I knew the path that the real jurors were likely to take. The second set of focus groups confirmed the main issues – the eviction, the causation problem, the drunk driving. The jurors were willing to give between 0-33% responsibility to the Defendant and only a few hundred thousand in damages.
CHANGING THE CASE
I sat down with the attorneys and we reworked the case. First, I told them we needed to make a timeline of the entire eviction process and highlight in red the several points at which the security guards or hotel said or did anything to indicate eviction. Further, we picked a different eviction point. Instead of relying on the hotel’s dishonesty in their destruction of documents and lying about training to try to get jurors to disbelieve their claim that the group was given a chance to stay, we instead embraced the fact that at one point in time the group was given an option of splitting up and having the girls stay. We did this in part because one of our witnesses was going to testify to this but mostly because the focus group jurors believed it regardless. We picked an eviction point AFTER that exchange to show eviction. We also argued that eviction was not necessarily a point in time but rather a process and showed all the times when the group was not welcomed at the hotel.
I suggested that jurors’ anger button was going to be set off by the security guards’ actions and the hotel’s “loss” of documentation as well as some other lies they told in documentation. We needed to make those issues front and center. We also needed to explain that the fact the guard entered the room is akin to someone entering your home. Even police cannot simply enter a home or hotel room. I suggested that they explain that policies, such as the eviction policies, are in place because someone got hurt before and out of that injury, a policy was created. By dismissing the policies, the hotel dismissed someone else’s tragedy. I also re-framed the lack of training and documentation to be a contract issue. The hotel, by hiring security and providing people a safe place to stay, implicitly has a contract to do so in a responsible manner. If the hotel skimps on hiring and training, they are implicitly assuming the risk that someone may get harmed and they are responsible for that harm. Same with eviction procedures.
Some focus group jurors blamed the group for getting confrontational with the guards and therefore forgave the guards for becoming belligerent and escalating the situation. I told the attorneys that we needed to explain that security guards are there only for when things go wrong. If guests are behaving, keeping noise levels down, and sleeping, there is no need for a security guard. The guards are there to calm a situation down, not to escalate it. Having guards skip protocol and escalate a situation is worse than having no guards at all.
To conquer the problem with causation, I suggested that we needed to explain it with different wording. To say the eviction “caused” the wreck was too big of a jump for the jurors. But many focus group jurors said that it “set it in motion” or that this was a “chain of events.” Every mention of causation in opening and at trial was to me explained using these words.
JURY TRIAL RESULT
In addition to focus groups, I participated in the jury selection and editing of opening statement. The case was tried over a period of 2 weeks. The jury spent a full day deliberating and wanted to come back after a holiday weekend. They returned and spent another half day deliberating. They sent a question to the judge asking to see the hotel video surveillance again. This scared the Plaintiff into thinking the jurors were still stuck on causation so they settled. The jurors apparently had only 15 minutes to go and said that they were going to come back in favor of the plaintiff. They were going to put a high percentage of responsibility on the hotel. I do not know the amount they were going to award in damages but the attorneys have said that the client would have done very well for himself had he held out another 15 minutes.
I am honored to have worked on the case and transformed it into something everyone could be proud of.