Belleville plaintiff attorney Thomas Keefe Jr. said Madison and St. Clair Counties see relatively few jury trials compared to the number of cases filed.
Last year, Madison County had 1,787 law cases filed but only saw 11 cases in the law division go all the way to verdict, where the plaintiff sought more than $50,000 for damages. There were a total of 16 civil cases that went to verdict, including cases in the arbitration division.
St. Clair County had 683 law cases filed last year but only saw six law cases go all the way to verdict, with a total of 11 civil verdicts including arbitration cases.
“When you think about it, the number of cases tried to verdict, it is a puny number,” Keefe said.
Keefe's client was awarded the largest jury verdict last year when a St. Clair County jury ruled in favor of plaintiffs Craig and Yvonne Spencer, awarding them $9.4 million. Craig Spencer was allegedly injured when co-workers were descending a ladder and landed on him.
Keefe has extensive experience in both Madison and St. Clair Counties. He said trying cases in both counties is similar for the most part.
“The right case would get similar results in either place,” he said.
However, Keefe said Madison County tends to trend more conservative than St. Clair County. The political atmosphere in each county affects the verdicts juries return, as conservative juries tend to hand out less money.
“The perception that Madison County is a plaintiff’s paradise, that’s just not true,” he said.
Keefe said the demographics in Madison County have changed in the last 20 years. In the past, juries were mostly made up of blue collar workers and returned big verdicts. But now juries are coming from wealthier neighborhoods in Edwardsville and Glen Carbon, which tend to be more conservative.
Keefe also said getting a plaintiff verdict in a medical malpractice case in Madison County is a “significant challenge,” especially against an individual doctor.
He said doctors give people “warm fuzzy feelings.” He explained that most juries remember positive, maybe even life-saving, experiences involving doctors, so they don’t want to return a verdict against a doctor that may have just made a mistake.
“Juries believe that it’s somehow an indictment on the doctor’s general abilities rather than that he made a mistake in this case. They’re afraid that they’re going to hurt the doctor,” he said.
However, he said they are more willing to return verdicts against establishments and hospitals.
Keefe also said lawyers focus too much on themselves when it comes to verdicts.
“Lawyers take too much credit when they win, and they take too much blame when they lose,” he said.
He added that lawyers should not use their client’s result for their benefit.
“When you publicize a verdict, you are making it all about you,” he said. “It’s never supposed to be about you.”
Keefe said attorneys are reluctant to try cases; and those that are tried are typically not good cases, resulting in small verdicts or defense verdicts. He said the large number of defense verdicts can be attributed to case selection.
“A good case is a good case,” he said.
“Bad cases will get you bad verdicts, that’s a fact,” he added.
“There’s no magic to this,” he continued.
Keefe said most of the good cases settle rather than go to trial.
Another factor is “extremely qualified, confident, hard-working” defense lawyers, Keefe said.
But he encouraged attorneys to take the chance and take more cases to trial.
“If you can’t stand to lose it, you can’t stand to try it,” he said.
“Nobody gets to win all the time,” he added. “You’re going to lose some.”
He explained that settlement is encouraged through mediation and arbitration, resulting in many young lawyers who have never been to trial.
Keefe said young attorneys who don’t “get in there and try some cases” will become more hesitant to take a case to trial the longer they’ve been out of law school.
He also urged fellow attorneys to trust the juries to decide cases appropriately based upon the evidence and law.
“I think one of the things these verdicts would demonstrate is that if you go to trial and you have a good case, then 12 people who have all sworn an oath to follow the law and follow the evidence will return fair verdicts,” he said.
“Those 12 people sitting in the box together are by far the smartest people in the room,” he added.
He said that together, juries have about 600 years of life experience.
He also said attorneys should use voir dire to talk to people and to avoid generalizing jurors.