Film Friday: Rendering “The Verdict”

I’m going to come right out and say it: Frank Galvin, the alcoholic, ambulance-chasing disgraced attorney at the center of The Verdict is probably one of my favorite cinematic litigators of all time. The film starts with Frank sitting in a bar, circling death notices before running out to funeral homes where he presses the flesh of the bereaved and forces business cards into their hands, fishing probably for the estate or a quick buck running down a wrongful death settlement, and then back to the bar. He’s a man who lives in a shanty apartment with a run down office and a fake secretary, and who hustles for a living. In one scene, where the opposing counsel is trying to get a feel for him, they say “He’s tried three cases in the last four years, and he’s lost all of them.” He is not treated by the film as a respected attorney.

But he is treated by the film as a fucking human, and it’s a role that lawyers rarely get to authentically play. So I love this goddamn movie.

Alright, so if you’ve never seen the 1982 film, here’s the plot: Frank Galvin is a disgraced Boston lawyer who graduated from the Ivy League and married into a full partnership at a prestigious firm. In one case, though, the firm decided Frank needed a little help so they bribed a juror. Frank found out, threatened to report the conduct, but the firm was a step ahead of him and framed Frank for doing it. In the end, Frank kept his law license, but lost his position at the firm, got divorced, and ended up hustling street cases as a five-and-dimer in the mean streets of Boston, drowning his sorrows in a glass of Bushmills nightly with a group of cronies down at the local bar.

By the time the film catches up with Galvin, he’s been living that life for 12 years, and the movie isn’t too damn shy about portraying this. There’s the funeral scene above, the old mentor coming into his office and finding him passed out and still drunk on the couch with a case going to trial in ten days and no knowledge of the file, and Galvin’s typing a letter and tacking it to the door so prospective clients who show up while he’s out would think he had a secretary, something he certainly didn’t have. About the only vestige of the high powered lawyer left in Galvin are the suits he wears, which are decidedly nice suits.

Yes, assholes, when lawyers watch movies we notice the suits.

Frank has been fed a case by an old friend trying to help him stay afloat. The case is a young lady who went into a hospital to give birth, was given the wrong anesthetic, choked on her own vomit, lost the baby, and became a vegetable. The implication of negligence is sky-fucking-high and it’s definitely the type of case that a man like Galvin would have salivated over back in 1982 before the ugly specter of Tort Reform began to cast it’s dark, Mordor-like gaze across the land. Galvin gets into it looking for a quick settlement where he can take his cut and run, but somewhere along the way discovers that having absolutely nothing left to fucking lose has made him rediscover his inner idealistic badass lawyer beneath the years of calloused skin. He turns down a substantial offer to settle the case and decides on his own to take the case to trial, wanting the hospital to pay.

This leads into one of my personal favorite scenes in the movie, and one of the most accurate sets of scenes you’ve ever seen in any movie: the prep of the witnesses. The high powered firm sticks one of their doctors in front of him and, without telling him what to say (a huge ethical no-no), tells him how to say it, staying away from medical jargon and coaching him on how to refer to the poor comatose girl as “the patient” and not by name to avoid humanizing her. At one point, the high powered lawyer gets in the face of the doctor, getting the doctor emotionally charged and angry.

Yeah, that shit actually happens by the way. A good lawyer will spend hours prepping a witness in advance of trial, and will do a mock cross-examination where our goal is to make the witness want to fucking punch us to figure out how they hold up under pressure. Very accurate.

With the deck stacked against him, an unsympathetic judge, and a high-powered firm on the other side, the trial is a shitshow of everything that could possibly go wrong. He loses his expert witness and has to find another one without great credentials, the judge damn near tries the case for him and to his detriment, and it looks like a winning case is going to turn into a loser.

This leads to probably the second best learning example a young lawyer can take from The Verdict. Galvin, in his rum-soaked ways, has the hospital doctor on the stand and man, he is laying the fuck into him. He has this doctor on the goddamn ropes, struggling from punch to punch to answer. It’s a particularly effective cross-examination, and you can tell that by the way the defense and the judge are both trying to get him to stop. Galvin’s courtroom presence, strutting from witness stand to jury box and back, is riveting and one that mimics some of the best cross-examiners I’ve ever seen. Then Galvin loses the magic when he asks one question too far…after getting the doctor to admit that the brain damage could have resulted from any momentary loss of blood to the brain, a key point in proving negligence, the doctor says “It’s obvious.”

Galvin, not knowing the answer, asks “Why is it obvious.”

The doctor’s response? “It was right there on her chart: she was anemic. Less blood, less oxygen, faster brain death.” The devastating implication is the doctor not only knew the chart, but knew her specific condition going in, and was a medical expert trained to handle that specific situation. In a negligence case, making the opposing party look fucking competent.

BUT even this isn’t unrealistic. Lawyers ask the “one question too many” all the time, especially in the heat of an effective cross-examination.

The case is a shitshow right up until Galvin finds a witness, a nurse, who admits the hospital told her to change the records so the wrong anesthetic would look like an accident caused by the staff being given incorrect information, not negligence because the doctors didn’t fucking read the notes. However, the witnesses outburst leads to an objection from the defense and an instruction from the judge to disregard the testimony.

The jury, though, doesn’t fucking listen, and actually comes back asking if they can award more than what the Plaintiff was asking for. That’s where the film ends, right there, wrapped up in a pretty pink bow.

Except it isn’t, because the world sucks and right very rarely wins out over might in the world of the real courts. Lawyers know this shit.

See, in civil law we have this thing called  “Judgment non obstante veredicto,” or a “judgment notwithstanding the verdict.” Shorthandedly referred to as a JNOV by lawyers, this is where after the jury has gone back into their little room and rendered a verdict in a case, the jury is then dismissed and the losing side pops up and says “Your Honor, we move for judgment notwithstanding the verdict based on the weight of the evidence presented!” The lawyer on the winning side starts to respond and they bicker back and forth for a few minutes before that tired old judge raises his or her hand and directs them to put it in motherfucking briefs and sends them on their merry way. What’s really being asked of the court in this instance is that the judge review the record of the case and say “Yeah, fuck that, those morons we plucked out of the Walmart aisle were clearly wrong,” and change the verdict. And it does fucking happen, because juries love to think that they’re somehow winning one for the team by ignoring the weight of the evidence or the instructions of the judge to give a win to the little guy.

Who’s making that decision in The Verdict? How about the same judge that destroys Galvin’s examination of his own witness by asking pointed and biased questions, prompting Galvin to say “If you’re going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn’t lose it!” The same judge that refused continuances when the expert witness went missing, the same judge that instructed the jury to disregard the testimony of the nurse Galvin found to testify for his side. The judge that’s clearly identified as a “defendant’s judge.”

Yeah, Galvin’s pretty much fucked on the JNOV. There’s no way in hell that judge is going to disregard his own instructions to the jury to disregard testimony, and up until that point in the film Galvin, while acting like a good lawyer, had a total shitshow of a case on trial. There’s no way this judge is going to reverse himself and decide that the jury’s verdict was in line with the weight of the evidence presented. He’s going to reverse the jury and find for the defendant, the Big Bad Catholic Hospital with its fancy three-piece suit attorney that spends hours telling a client how to testify.

Then Galvin will have to appeal. Galvin, who took the case on contingency and hasn’t had a successful law practice in years, with his two working class clients who definitely don’t have the money to see the case through appeal. Besides, appellate courts aren’t exactly fucking renowned for disregarding the trial level determinations, often deferring to the determination of the presiding judge. I mean, they may, but this was the 80’s and Boston, so at the same time they may not, given that appellate court judges tend to have the support of those old-line firms nine times out of ten.

So what’s the end result of The Verdict? Realistically, the sitting judge will grant JNOV on request of the defense, and Galvin will file an appeal from the JNOV. Somewhere down the road, the defense will repeat the same offer to settle they gave Galvin at the beginning of the case, and this time he’ll fucking take it, because his clients are tired, he’s broke, and everyone just wants to get their money. The hospital and the church that owns it may have spent a bit more on legal fees, but they’ve admitted no wrongdoing and have settled the case for what, to them, is a fucking pittance of the true value of the claim brought against them.

Overall, The Verdict is one of the better, and more accurate, movies to watch if you want to get a real feel for the day-to-day grind of trying an actual fucking case, although it is pretty damn dated these days thanks to Tort Reform. Fuckin’ tort reform, screwing up all my goddamn fun.