ST. LOUIS, MO/May 20, 2017 (STL.News) This spring, third-year students Emily Bell and Ryan Reed had the rare opportunity to get real-world experience by representing a plaintiff as lead counsel in a jury trial, just a few months before graduation.
The consumer case involved a client who had problems with the way in which her claim on her home warranty was handled.
The SLU LAW Legal Clinics got involved when John Ammann, McDonnell Professor of Justice in American Society and litigation clinical instructor, received a call asking him to take over the case after the unexpected death of the original lawyer representing the client. After analyzing the background of the case, which was set for a jury trial, Ammann knew that students from the Legal Clinics could handle it.
“I knew it was a case we needed two students for, because any time you’re doing a jury trial there’s a lot of work to do,” Ammann said. “Emily was in her second semester with the clinic, doing research on the case before then, and Ryan, in his first semester there, was asking for more cases. He loves the trial stuff.”
Reed, who had previous moot and mock court experiences, was looking forward to the real-life application.
“Any trial experience you get in law school is incredible,” Reed said. “I can’t speak highly enough of Emily; she had all the experience, so I was just trying to help.”
Right away, the team, supervised by Ammann along with volunteer attorney Deborah Price, got to work. Typically, Ammann said, in this type of consumer case, the home warranty company would often settle rather than go forward with a lengthy trial. However, in this instance, the parties could not reach an agreement, and a jury trial was inevitable.
The SLU LAW team was unfazed and found itself even more motivated to bring justice for their client in court.
“We always kind of assumed that this case was not going to settle, so it was not a shock to find out our trial was going forward,” Bell said. “We were so busy in the days leading up to the trial that I did not really have a lot of time to sit around and allow myself to feel nervous. I was so ready to just get into court and advocate for our client.”
Trial preparation included interviewing the client, preparing jury instructions and interviewing key witnesses for the plaintiff.
“A lot of work had already been done prior to the trial date, of course,” Ammann said. “However, I did make them work on Super Bowl Sunday till about 4 or 5 o’clock. The workload was pretty heavy, but I knew they could handle it.”
The trial began Feb. 8, at the Carnahan Courthouse, next door to SLU LAW. After the jury selection was completed, the trial began, with Bell giving the opening statement.
“I knew that my opening statement was going to be powerful, but I was terrified. I had never done anything like this before,” Bell said. “Ryan kept reassuring me that I was prepared and that I really could do this. His positive attitude gave me a ton of confidence, and I felt relieved afterwards.”
That kind of unity carried the team through day one, as they both argued the plaintiff’s case for the next four hours.
“My overall thoughts after day one was that things were going in our favor,” Reed said. “Everything was going according to plan, and the highlight of day one was when our client told her story to the jury – that was really powerful.”
However, things took an unexpected turn when, in the early hours of Thursday morning, shortly before the start of the second day of trial, Ammann was rushed to the hospital after waking up with chest pains. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and learned he would have to remain in the hospital for a few more days.
“Honestly, the first thing that came to mind was not about the case, I just wanted to make sure that he was okay,” Reed said. “We were certainly going to miss Professor Ammann in the court, but it definitely helped that we had a wise attorney in Deborah [Price] sitting next to us at the trial to help us out.”
Day two began at 9 a.m., with final arguments ending the trial at 2 p.m. Hourly updates were being sent via text to Ammann, who was impatiently waiting in his hospital bed for the trial results. It was time for the jury to deliberate. As Bell put it, one word summed up everyone’s thoughts and emotions once deliberation began: “Relief.”
“There was so much emotion and adrenaline involved with this process, so knowing we were finally done felt so great,” Bell said. “After our first day of trial, Professor Ammann pulled Ryan and me aside and told us how proud he was of us. … That stuck with me through deliberation, and I knew that no matter what, when we walked away from this trial, we did everything we could have.”
After a brief 60 minutes, the jury came to a decision – they had sided with the plaintiff, finding that the home warranty company was liable for its negligence.
Yet, the team was not out of the woods just yet. Issues with the form of the jury’s verdict prompted the judge to set a new trial for April 3. Just before that trial date, however, the warranty company and the plaintiff reached a settlement that was satisfactory for both parties.
Ammann, who made a speedy recovery and is back at full strength, described his emotion at the end of the lengthy process.
“I felt nothing but pride for the both of them. They did an incredible job,” he said. “I didn’t say a word to the jury; it was all them.”
Not only did Bell and Reed get to experience a real-world jury trial, but they also got to experience the feeling of success that accompanies a job well done.