Thursday, February 11, 2010

Musings on a Civil Suit

For  a fair amount of last month I was a guest of the State of Arizona.  As a juror in a civil case. Meadows of Wickenburg vs the family of Parham Maghsoudlou.

Parham Maghsoudlou was an immigrant to Sweden. His family left Iran and found a home in Umeå.  His parents owned a bakery, and he was a fairly typical young man.  He drank some, he smoked a lot of hash, he gambled more than a little bit, and he got into some trouble with the law.

In 2005 Parham's family got fed up with his antics, and his gambling debts, and cast around for a treatment facility for him. For his gambling primarily, since they'd paid off a bit over $60,000  in his gambling debts.  A relative in London did some checking around, and found The Meadows of Wickenburg, a fairly quiet and discreet facility in Arizona.

Parham was put onto a plane, and sent across the ocean to America, speaking some English, to get treatment.  He was able to get through the airports and several plane changes, and The Meadows' staff found him, and brought him to their facility.

Parham's English was fair. He was more than able to get through the check in process, and sign all the forms, including the Basic Understandings portion of the check in. Rules, agreements, and what his treatment would entail.

Mind you, the facility was for the treatment of addiction.  It was a good facility for such things, but it was a voluntary facility.  You agreed to stick with their program, and you got as much out of the program as you could put in.  That was very much part of the treatment program, an offshoot of the basic 12 Step model.

I preface with this, because in early December of 2005, Parham eloped--he left the facility without permission which was against the rules of the program--not once but twice.  He was discharged, and refused to be placed at another facility to continue treatment. He insisted at being dropped off at Sky Harbor Airport where his mother was coming in that evening from Sweden.

Parham never met his mother. Instead, he rented a car, and wound up near Flagstaff, and wandered away from his car by several miles, and succumbed to hypothermia in the desert.

The Maghsoudlous held The Meadows responsible for his death.  They should have let him stay was the refrain we jurors were treated to time and time again by the family's attorneys.

The only problem being, that most addiction treatment facilities have strict rules, and are very up front about those rules--you break treatment, you can't stay.  Even if your mother is coming. Especially not if you are an adult. Especially not if you're an adult and you insist on leaving, which the records clearly showed.

In the course of this trial, I found that I disliked this young man. And I feel bad about that, because one doesn't like to speak ill of the dead. Especially not the accidentally dead, but we got to hear a great deal about his life, and Parham was a spoiled brat, who was selfish, gambled and smoked a lot of hash, and his family bailed him out of any trouble he got himself into. Which says a great more about his family, and what the other hurdles he faced.  A life too easy can be as much a trial as a hard one.  He had issues to be sure.  He was diagnosed bipolar in Sweden, and was on medication for it, and while at The Meadows, the doctors there got him on a better treatment plan than they'd found him on.

The family contended that he was delusional, due to his bipolar disorder.  The expert witness brought by the plaintiffs gave the opinion that he was probably psychotic.  Mind you, the same doctor also was quoted at the same testimony that he wouldn't call Joseph Smith delusional since he'd never seen the patient, and it has to be said, that of all the medical professionals brought by the plaintiffs, the expert was the only one to never meet Parham, so I take his diagnosis with more than just a grain of salt, by his own admissions.

We sat for better than a week hearing the plaintiffs try to show how out of touch that this young man was.  The only problem being, that the only one to call him psychotic or out of touch with reality was the expert witness who'd never seen the young man.

In the end, the jury was dismissed with the facts of the case before us.  We needed to have the consensus of eight out of the ten of us to come to verdict.  Seven of us concluded that Parham, being a grown man, and being a voluntary patient, and with no medical evidence of being committable, could not have been held by the hospital against his will, and his will was fairly obvious to leave treatment when it got hard.  Which was sad, because there was a staff at the hospital that wanted him to keep in treatment.  They had arranged for another facility, and a more one on one program with another facility that they had a good relationship with, and had he gone, The Meadows would have ferried his mother to it on their own dime.

But, he left.  And he made a choice to drive a car out to Flagstaff, and get out of that car and wander around, and apparently got lost and died.

That was seven of the ten of us.  Not quite the eight we needed.

So, the bargaining began.  And that is really what I wanted to get to. Not the tragedy of Parham's death--which we all agreed was a terrible thing to happen and we had nothing but sympathy for his family--but the way our civil justice system works.

In Arizona, we have a percentage of fault system.  In cases where fault can be seen on both parties, a jury find percentages of fault. In this case, it saved us from being entirely hung as a jury, and allowed my fellows to bargain for a verdict.  At first the bid was 90%-10% with Parham holding the majority of blame.  That didn't fly with three of our jurors who were adamant that the facility should have done something to hold him.  So, with seven of us sure that the facility had done nothing wrong, the bargaining began.

90-10 wouldn't sway them. 80-20 wouldn't either.  And eventually, it got dickered down to a 50-50 split of blame.  Myself and one other juror were out of the process, because neither of us felt that facility could be held at fault for a decision that a grown man had made to leave treatment, against medical advice.  While we both felt for the family, we weren't going to be involved in rewarding them for not raising their son better, and for some their own questionable judgement for sending their boy so far from home, without any support network, and then blame the facility for not doing their job for them--with their 24 year old son.

The fault laid out, then it came time to make an award.  The five who felt that the whole thing was without merit now had to dicker amounts. Which was remarkably easier than the assignation of blame, since two of the three who felt so strongly couldn't put a number to the grief, and with the adjustment of the percentages of blame, the family would receive $125,000. Which, ultimately, probably wouldn't cover their attorney fees.

And I have no doubt that the family will appeal the decision.

Which is the real tragedy here. Not just that a young man accidentally got himself killed in the desert, but that his family hasn't really been allowed to grieve him properly with this court case pending. More than three years now, they've been in a sort of limbo, looking to blame someone for his death.

As a juror, I got a chance to see the case up close. Examine the evidence, look at all the things that the newspapers never got a chance to examine.  The case was sad beyond belief, because Parham wasn't really a bad kid. He wasn't crazy. He was a spoiled brat who'd never been held to any kind of responsibility for his actions--and the evidence of that was massive in the records brought from Sweden.  He was ill prepared for adulthood, coddled by a mother who never told him no, who had his debts paid any time he ran them up, and his treatment was really the first time in his life that he'd ever been held to his word. And oddly enough, when put into a situation where he was being held to his word, being confronted with responsibility for his actions, he rejected it, and ran from it.

A young man who never got a chance to learn responsibility, and now his family looks to cement that legacy to look to blame anyone but themselves for not teaching it to him.  And that has saddened me beyond anything.

The wrangling in the jury room, the folks who were willing to toss aside their own convictions to get out of the jury room, to make an award that they didn't feel was deserving, and the folks who kicked in their heels to right a perceived wrong, but not so much that they would fight to award the family anything that would even cover their legal costs, that was an eye opener.  Our civil justice system, if you have never been on such a jury, is something of a shock.  A lot of details, a lot of legalese, but eventually, the case is decided by emotions evoked by the attorneys.  Matters of law can be debated by the attorneys, but eventually, cases are decided by your peers, and logic and law aren't always what decides a case.  In the end, my feeling of disquiet that those of us who felt that facility had done no wrong could not really have our voices heard, thanks to the need to have 80% of our number agree.  In the end, no one was happy with the decision, so perhaps that does mean it was fair. But all that disquiet doesn't erase the real tragedy that a family will not have closure from our decision, and will continue on their quest, for possibly years to come.

In the end, I post this to share the experience, since I know few folks who have actually served on a jury. My boss gave me rashers of grief for not proclaiming that I'd hear the case, so long as there weren't no Jews involved.  He figured THAT would get me booted, toot sweet.  But, in the end, I did my civil duty, and now I'm left with a sort of sad feeling for these folks, and more, the knowledge that the family will only appeal and someone else will decide what our jury went through such moral and ethical hurdles to get through.

Originally posted on Fri Nov 20, 2009 at 02:10:32 AM EST at The Motley Moose

1 comment:

  1. Having been on a jury, I think your experience would have been vastly different had you been forced to reach unanimity (as I was). The "percentage of fault" system you mention sounds totally ridiculous to me, and seems mostly to serve the court system itself (by lowering incidence of retrial and shortening how long juries deliberate) rather than justice. When you are forced to stay in a room until you reach a "yes" or "no" answer, the dynamic is much different.