Honesty is the Best Policy

Recently, I tried a lawsuit in Harris County. It was car wreck lawsuit where the cause of the accident was in dispute. It was a typical he said, she said situation. I had the case referred to me the weekend before the case was set for trial on Monday. The referral lawyer had a commitment that had to be met that Monday, and this particular client was set for her day in court. As a trial lawyer, this was a great opportunity and I took the case. I had to get caught up quickly on the facts of the case and I spent the entire weekend preparing jury selection notes, an opening statement, direct and cross examinations, and a closing argument. I studied the police report and the officer’s findings, the depositions that had been taken, and the client’s medical records regarding the treatment that she received following the incident.

Based on my reading of the file, it was a good case. Although liability was in dispute (the cause of the accident was disputed by the defendant), we had the officer on our side and he agreed with my client’s account of the incident. The client was believable and her deposition testimony was consistent with the officer’s police report. The client had to be taken by ambulance to the emergency room and the client had religiously attended all of her rehab appointments. We picked the jury that Monday and we were set to begin opening statements the following morning. After my opening statement, I felt very confident that the jury would see things our way and that they would return a verdict that would compensate the client for her terrible injuries. The members on the jury were making eye contact, smiling, and nodding with me during the opening statement. During the direct examination of the client, they were listening, taking notes, and seemed receptive to her injuries and her account of the accident. The jury was with us. Of course they were; the client had a good case.

After I passed the witness, the other side began cross-examination. Immediately, the lawyer began to question my new client on whether she had her seatbelt on during the accident. The accident report said she had it on, she testified in her deposition that she had it on, and she had just testified on the stand that she had it on. We had nothing to worry about, right? Then, the defense lawyer pulled out one page from the hundreds of pages of medical records that we had entered into evidence. On this one page was a box where the client had checked off “unrestrained.” He began to question the client on why she had checked the “unrestrained” box on the questionnaire when she was meeting with that particular doctor. The client immediately froze up and admitted that she was NOT wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident.

This was a major blow and a shock to us. Despite my later arguments to the jury that her wearing, or not wearing, her seatbelt did not have anything to do with the cause of the accident, or whether the defendant was negligent, the jury was no longer interested in my client’s case. They felt that they had been lied to. They had been lied to. We all had. What was worse, they were no longer listening to our side after that. While we were still able to win the trial and prove that the defendant was negligent and that the negligence caused my client’s injuries, the jury also found my client negligent. Further, the jury only awarded a fraction of the past medical expenses that the client incurred and did not award anything for the pain and suffering or physical impairment that the client had experienced for many months following the incident.

The lesson here is simple and it is one that we have all heard since we were children. Honesty is the best policy; the truth will set you free. Had the client simply told the truth during her conversation with the officer and during her deposition, which was under oath, we could have worked with the facts and argued the case accordingly. Indeed, the fact that she did not have her seatbelt on did not have any affect on whether the defendant negligently caused the accident. The police report made it very clear that the defendant was the cause of the incident, as did the other evidence. However, once the jury found out that the client was lying to them, they simply did not care about her. The jury never even made eye contact with us following her cross-examination. There is no doubt in my mind that had she told the truth, the jury would have compensated her in an amount that was fair and just. In the end, after she admitted that she lied, we were just lucky to recover anything at all. This lesson is not just for clients who have filed a lawsuit; this lesson is for all of us. Honesty truly is the best policy.