A recent British study confirmed something most of us all know intuitively:
Juries trying criminal cases are likely to be more lenient when the person in the dock is physically attractive, psychologists say.
So how do you level the playing field if, for example, you have an attractive doctor as a defendant in a medical malpractice case? And by attractive, I mean not just physically, but someone with good credentials who makes an impressive personal appearance by their ability to speak well. This is important if the patient chose the doctor.
The answer is not to knock them down, but to build them up in opening statements and jury selection (if your jurisdiction allows).
Tell the jury they will like the defendant. After all, your client chose this doctor for surgery, right? Trusted him/her. Kinda like Marcus Welby. Therefore, it stands to reason, the jury will too.
This does a few things: First, you have been dead honest. It is unlikely the jury expected you to “confess” this thing, but frankly, they will likely see it anyway if defense counsel is even mildly competent. Trying to tar a physician at the outset that your client previously trusted has enormous potential to backfire.
The jury also now has very high expectations for the doctor. With the bar set so high, any slip-up or contradictory testimony is likely to be viewed in a harsher light. Assuming you have a solid case to take to trial, this doctor-defendant will also lay out the standards of care (while they still trust him/her) before being confronted with the deviations from care, the sloppy notes, the rushed surgery, failure to read the x-ray, or contradictions from deposition testimony.
And there is something else at play here. The doctor was trusted, and the trust was betrayed. Betrayal often unleashes a flood of powerful emotions.
The instinct for confrontation must, at times, be avoided, and saved for those few special moments when the witness, who has now been built up, strays from the straight and narrow. And if that happens, it will have far greater impact than if you had simply tried to trash the doctor from the outset.
(Eric Turkewitz is a personal injury attorney in New York)