Congratulations Michael! Can you give me a little background on the case?
Yes, absolutely. We represented Sherri Myagi, a dentist who had a full life as a scuba diver, a certified rescue instructor, and she was one of 25 people in the United States who is certified in Japanese dance at the instructor level. She also traveled around the world hiking. One random day, she was accidentally struck by a handcart pushed by an employee at a store — just a small impact that left good-sized bruise. It resulted in what is called “Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS)” . It started in her right foot, then one day she noticed her left toe had it as well. Slowly it became what is called a “mirror image spread”. She ended up with CRPS in both feet. CRPS is a condition mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. It’s a stabbing, burning pain, but it also changes your circulatory system. We know this from people who have had the disease that have been autopsied. It’s terrible.
Is there a cure?
No. All you can do is reduce the symptoms with various nerve burning procedures, and in the end a spinal cord stimulator to confuse the pain signal. You’re also taking high doses of morphine or other opioids as a standard treatment protocol. Defendants have a lot of fun with this because there is no objective test, we can’t apply an instrument and say, “Okay, you have CRPS”. The test is looking for subjective symptoms and then objective signs.
How did you use the TLC “discovering the story” methods to understand your client and her case?
I came into this trial late in the game — maybe eight weeks before trial. The first thing I did is go to Sherri’s house. We watched her, observed her, listened to her, really tried to better understand who she is. We came to learn that she is a very interesting lady. She’s extremely bright. Normally people that operate at that level academically don’t communicate well with the rest of the world, but she is a brilliant exception. She is authentically a very kind, caring and compassionate human being. Because of this time spent with her, and listening to her story — not just asking her to answer all our legal questions, we were able during the trial to allow the jury to see her just how she is: an ordinary, everyday person that had something tragic happen and now is trying to overcome what are really insurmountable odds in terms of pain and major life changes.
When you were developing your Opening Statement, what did you want to focus on?
In jury selection, I downplayed our story intentionally and made it a case about someone who has a sore foot and is asking for $20 million. I just wanted to lay the groundwork. We continued to building our story so that by the time we got to our Opening Statement, the jury had a really good idea of the story, without being fact-specific. We were able to present this essentially as a book that largely had been written by the circumstances, but one for which the jurors were able to write the final chapter. We asked them, would it be a book on injustice?.. A book on half justice? … Or we hoped it would be a book on full justice, one that the jurors could feel happy about.
How has the experience of working this case changed you?
In much of the same way as spending three weeks at the Trial Lawyers College in the middle of Wyoming did — it recharged my batteries in a good way! At the end of this trial, as when I graduated from TLC, I left with a sense of purpose in my profession which is sadly something that I have struggled with for a couple of decades now. What’s my real purpose? What am I doing, and what are we doing in these courtrooms? Do we actually make anyone’s life better? These are the questions I often find I ask myself. I know that thru the practice of law, we can make our own lives better, but I always want to make sure I am doing that for others as well. I am fortunate that I come from the lower socio-economic scale. Viewing justice from that side long enough, you realize that true money cannot buy justice, but a lack of it certainly guarantees injustice. If you’re raised in that environment, like I was, you carry that view of the world with you. At least I do, and I suspect that others do as well.
What part of your experience at TLC do you think prepared you most for this case?
TLC was pretty life-changing for me. I think it is for everyone. You may not know it at that point, but it certainly changes you to your core as a human being. I am nothing more than a simple country kid that barely had a high school education. I’m not well rounded; I’m not well read; I’m not well versed; I’m not well anything, but at TLC I learned that I don’t have to hide that. I don’t have be ashamed of that. I learned I can just be accepting of me and whatever gifts I do have in this life — and that is uniquely a TLC insight. Thru changing my view of myself, those three weeks changed every part of my practice to some degree as well: direct exams, jury selection, opening, closings, everything.
Was it a conscious change or was it the kind of thing that you’re going about your business and then you realize, “Oh! That’s vastly different.”?
Both. I was lucky enough to go in with a group of people that were as equally as screwed up as I was, they know who they are and they know that I’m right. We went through psychodrama together and we were quite a bunch of misfits, we still are. We are just a lot more comfortable in our skins now.
Do you have a ritual that you do before you head into the courtroom?
I do actually, it’s one that certain people in my life make fun of. I always walk down before every closing argument to the old courthouse where Clarence Darrow practiced and I just kind of hang out there for a little while until I feel like I’m ready and then I walk over to court. Sometimes, if the case feels especially hopeless, I’ll go there before jury selection too.
What’s your favorite part of the trial?
I like jury selection the best. I don’t believe those 12 people are chosen randomly. It always seems like we end up with a composition of people who bring just the needed element in terms of life stories, background, diversity. It’s a magical process, when done right. Which of course brings me to a real evil that’s going on in courtrooms across the nation right now and that is judges feeling that they have to limit jury selection. Some judges say 20 minutes, some say 40 minutes. My client just waited four years to get into this courtroom and I question why we can’t take one day and pick a jury correctly? I think we should be able to take the time we all need to learn the life stories of our jury pool, to learn their attitudes and their beliefs and their values. There are jurors who are not appropriate for certain types of cases. When it gets to the very key of the case – which is jury selection – we have the audacity to say let’s do this in 40 minutes? Let’s get to the most important part of the case? Somewhere, somehow, legal education as a whole has let down the legal system when it comes to that part of the case.
What is the most influential book that you’ve ever read?
One of Gerry Spence’s books, “Freedom to Slavery”. That book is the seed that has grown thousands of actual trial lawyers into living, breathing, feeling human beings across the nation. That is a tremendous book that as time goes on, long after Gerry, myself and people of our generation are gone, future generations are going to realize exactly how important that book is. I’ve watched it. I’ve sent out copies to people and I’ve watched it change them. That book at its core speaks the essence of the justice system and how we could fix it in a way that wouldn’t require extra budgets. It would just require us to quit using this ridiculous law school system that gives out merit to people who are analytically smart, but emotionally deficient. Most states have a Trial Lawyer organization that tries to do the right thing, but I think that they are focused more on political actions than on meaningful education. It’s up to us. We should all be out there trying to educate, speaking at any organization that will have us to explain in meaningful terms the story of law and the story of what would happen without a justice system. People would die from their injuries. We are in a strange spot in history. All sides know what the answer is and it’s just going to be a question of are we going to revert back to cracking down, to getting tough, to extended sentences that really disproportionately target minority communities; or are we going to remember we are all human beings, trying to co-exist in this country, and that our rule of law that guarantees justice is really worth fighting for and defending. And when I have cases like this, where I can get my client justice, I feel like I am living my purpose.