Occam’s Razor at Work

Occam’s Razor at Work

Occam’s Razor at Work: Simplifying Matters for Jurors

Smith Freed Eberhard Partner Phil Bennett recently overcame steep odds to achieve a favorable verdict for his client by successfully framing the case as a simple matter to which the jurors already had the answer, thereby avoiding a thorough examination of certain specific details and effectively dismissing otherwise solid arguments by the defense.

The Background Story

This matter involved an employee of a film production company injuring a cyclist while driving a rental vehicle in the course of his work. The cyclist filed two suits; one against the driver, and a second against the insurers for the driver, the film production company and the rental car company (Mr. Bennett’s client). Two years after filing, all but the rental car company had settled out. In fighting these claims, the rental car company ended up with a judgment against it for $13,000.00 in damages and $30,000.00 in attorney fees, instead of settling for an estimated $4,000.00.

Next, the rental car company sued the film production company for retrieval of that $43,000.00 plus its own attorney fees on the grounds that, if extra protection is not purchased at the time of rental, the rental agreement indicates that any damages to or caused by the vehicle while in a renter’s possession are the responsibility of the renter.

The defense countered with the argument that the rental car company should have settled for the reasonable sum of $4,000.00 and then billed them for that amount, rather than racking up an additional $39,000.00 in damages and then seeking reimbursement for that unnecessary sum. Due to the strength of this argument, the rental car company’s prior counsel was forced to withdraw only two and a half months prior to trial to allow him to testify to the strategy he employed in resolving the claim and the associated high costs. In a particularly problematic turn, it was discovered that prior counsel had recently penned an article in which he recommended early resolution of these types of claims, and then chasing the money, instead of fighting tooth and nail – the opposite of his actions.

Further, the defense pointed to a clause in the rental agreement that indicated that the rental company would indeed owe PIP in cases like these, if a state requires it by law. The fact that Oregon law does contain such a stipulation was perhaps the most significant hurdle among many for Mr. Bennett.

The Strategy

In order to frame the matter as a straightforward one that didn’t require deep consideration of specific contractual elements, Mr. Bennett, beginning in voir dire, spent more time than usual talking with the jurors about things they were familiar with. For example, he asked the jurors if they had ever rented a car before, if they had ever read the associated contracts before and the fine print therein, and, using suggestive diction, asked if it was correct that all the jurors already knew that if you don’t purchase additional protection from a rental company then you are liable for any damages incurred.

By focusing on shared experiences and assumptions, Mr. Bennett framed the case to the jury as an easy one in that the jurors were already personally familiar with the rules that spoke to the issue at hand. He lent further support to this theme of simplicity by using only a few, straightforward, clear exhibits in contrast to an extensive PowerPoint presentation delivered by the defense. In doing so, the defense’s arguments appeared convoluted and tangential in relation to what came across as a simple, easy-to-understand position.

The Outcome

The jury delivered an unusual verdict that represented a sort-of middle ground in terms of damages. The decision indicated that the rental car company failed to mitigate costs and fees but that the defendant had breached the rental agreement. As such, they granted restitution for all medical payments (minus the $4,000.00 it was presumed the rental car company could’ve settled for) along with one-half of the attorney fees sought, for a total of $25,000.00.

This sum represented a higher number than the offer of judgment from a few months prior, ensuring another very appreciative client for Mr. Bennett, particularly in light of the difficulties posed by the defense’s valid contractual argument and the questionable strategy of the client’s prior counsel.