On Dec. 10, 1999, 12-year-old honor student Jeffrey Jernigan was riding in the front passenger’s seat of a 1993 Oldsmobile Delta 88 driven by his brother. While driving near Smut Eye, Alabama, they were involved in a head-on collision, and the Delta 88’s passenger compartment collapsed on Jeffrey.
Jeffrey’s skull was fractured, forcing surgeons to remove the left frontal lobe of his brain. Jeffrey, who was one of the top five students his teachers said they had ever taught, was left in a brain-damaged state where he would require institutional case for the rest of his life. Members of the Jernigan family sued General Motors, makers of the Delta 88, alleging that design defects in the car caused Jeffrey’s injuries. GM countered that no other car would have performed differently in such a serious collision. Jernigan v. General Motors Corp., No. CV2000-104 (Bullock Co., Ala., Cir.Ct.).
The case ultimately resulted in a verdict of $122 million, earning it the rank of 19 among The National Law Journal’s 100 largest verdicts of 2002. The trial judge later reduced it to $82 million. The case is now on appeal.
Trial technology played an important part in that verdict. Both parties retained large firms that have invested in litigation technology. Moreover, Jernigan may represent a growing trend – law firms creating their own in-house trial technology departments. While many firms have information technology departments doing everything from formatting laptops to installing local area networks to setting up audio-visual equipment, in Jernigan even many sophisticated trial exhibits, such as animations, were done in-house instead of by outside consultants.
In 2001, James R. Lauridson, a medical doctor and deputy chief medical examiner for the state of Alabama, was considering a career move. In his 16 years with the state, he had testified in court countless times, and was noticing a trend.
“I was seeing a greater disconnect between the complexity of cases and the training level of jurors,” Lauridson said. As he watched lawyers present cases that were becoming much more technical and difficult to understand, he thought about ways to give jurors tools to digest what was being unloaded on them. As many litigators have discovered, visual presentation was the key.
“Jurors come from many different backgrounds, but what is the common denominator?” Lauridson asked, answering: They all understand better through visual presentation was the key.
Lauridson, who was an electrical engineering undergrad, had an interest in using computer technology to explain complicated medical issues. He developed a CD-Rom tutorial for prosecutors and others describing the injuries associated with Shaken Baby Syndrome. The CD, featuring approximately 150 Power Point images, is a product of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome.
When Lauridson considered his career move, he wanted to go somewhere with the resources to allow him to develop technology that can get expensive. He decided to join Montgomery, Alabama’s Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles as the director of the law firm’s graphics department. Beasley Allen represented the Jernigans in their suit against GM.
The crux of the Jernigans’ case against GM centered on an alleged secret plan known within GM as “Project 2500.” The Jernigans claimed the cost-saving program resulted in a structural redesign of Delta 88 that made it unsafe, causing Jeffrey’s injuries.
“It was called Project 2500 because the goal was to reduce the manufacturing cost of each vehicle by $2,500,” said Beasley Allen partner Greg Allen, one of the Jernigans’ lawyers. To save that much money, the Jernigans argued that GM used lighter, less-safe materials.
“They thinned out the metal and shaved the door beam, as well as changing from high-strength steel to low-strength steel,” Allen said. As a result, the Jernigans argued, the Delta 88’s head-injury criteria went from between 500 and 600 to between 1,050 and 1,080. According to Allen, the goal is to have head-injury criteria of below 800.
Allen said that the GM engineers who conducted the safety tests did so with vehicles equipped with passenger-side airbags and that a GM memo indicated that the company realized there was a problem in cars without airbags. The company decided to add the airbags beginning with the 1994 model year, according to Allen.
“The problem was, they sold our car without one,” Allen said, adding, “They sold the car without the airbags for two years; they were just gambling with folks’ lives.”
No more blows
Allen and his partner Jere Beasley consulted with Lauridson on how to present their case to the jury. For their overall presentation system, they used inData Corp.’s TrialDirector. “It’s wonderful,” Allen said, adding, “I’ll never try another case with blowups again.” (“Blow-ups” are the scale models traditionally used as demonstrative evidence.) Allen recited the benefits of automated exhibits found by many litigators, whether they use TrialDirector, Sanction or another platform, including the ease with which exhibits are presented to the jury.
“When using blowups, I would always try to maneuver them so the jury had the best view; a lot of judges didn’t like that-they wanted to see, too,” Allen said, adding, “Now, it’s not a problem.”
While many litigators have cited the increased speed with which technology allows them to try a case, Allen said increased speed actually changes the content of his cases.
“You lose a jury if you take too long,” Allen said. Thus, before going high-tech, Allen would find his best arguments and drop the rest if it would cause his case to go too long.
“We tried this case in two weeks. Without technology, it would have taken at least three, maybe four. I was able to keep some arguments I would have had to drop before,” he said.
Animating the accident
Allen and Lauridson’s next task was creating exhibits featuring the Delta 88. Lauridson and his staff at Beasley Allen’s graphics department would create animations to be loaded onto TrialDirector. That way, the litigators would be able to present Lauridson’s animations with the same system they used for video depositions and documents.
To begin the process, Lauridson drew rough drafts for the team to examine. This initial period is the time when Lauridson finds the biggest advantages in having an in-house graphics department at the firm instead of using outside consultants.
“While doing the rough drafts, I can walk down the hall, stick my head in somebody’s office and we can discuss ideas for the animation,” Lauridson said.
Lauridson said that one of the first animation decisions is whether to use two-dimensional or three-dimensional animations. Lauridson uses a variety of software applications to create his images. For his 2-D animations, Lauridson uses Adobe After Effects and Adobe Illustrator.
“You can make things look 3-D with these programs, but they’re really 2-D, he said. When he goes 3-D, Lauridson uses Discreet’s 3D Studio Max and Curious Labs’ Poser. For editing, he uses Adobe Premiere and Discreet’s Cleaner. For Jernigan, Lauridson elected to use 2-D format.
“Not everything needs to be 3-D. You need to think about the case. If the issues can be presented in 2-D, you should really go with it instead of 3-D,” Lauridson said, adding, “3-D takes about three to five times as long as 2-D. Thus, it ends up being three to five times more expensive.”
Lauridson felt he would be able to illustrate fully the collapse of the Delta 88’s passenger compartment in 2-D. He created multiple animations and still images, showing how the impact destroyed the Delta 88’s “A pillar,” the piece of metal on each side of the front w
indshield by the driver’s and passenger’s windows.
Allen believes Lauridson’s animations were key to the success of his case. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” he said.
General Motors’ lead attorney, Robert Hays, a partner in Atlanta’s King & Spalding, took a deliberately lower technology approach to the case.
“My client was a large company and I had a rural venue,” Hayes said, stressing that he had to be careful in presenting GM before a rural jury.
“I didn’t want to go high-tech, and be accused of buying a slick presentation,” Hays added.
Hays, too, used animations, but he said he wanted to make sure his were “simple and straightforward.” Although Hays said that, in other trials, he has used a bar-coded system to retrieve documents electronically, he didn’t do so in Jernigan.
“We intentionally didn’t use electronic tracking with bar codes,” Hays said, adding “We used blowups as well. We had the jury in mind.”
Allen believes that Laurdison and the Beasley Allen graphics department were vital in the success of the Jernigans’ case against GM. Although an in-house graphics department such as Beasley Allen’s is a rarity even at large firms, it could be the wave of the future. Even small and midsize firms may be jumping on the bandwagon.
Miami personal injury attorney James Ferraro is part of two firms: his own firm, Miami’s Ferraro & Associates, and Cleveland’s Kelley & Ferraro. Although the Miami firm is small, it does some graphics work in-house and is assisted by the Cleveland firm with larger projects. Ferraro predicts that both firms will soon be going the way of Beasley Allen.
“It’s really been helpful having our own guy on-site,” Ferraro said, adding, “We’ll be doing it all ourselves soon.”