It’s conventional wisdom among trial lawyers that you might very well be on your way to winning a case if your closing argument brings a juror to tears.
So imagine what attorney Robert Mongeluzzi must have been thinking when, 20 minutes into his opening statement on Monday in a personal injury case, Juror No.1 fainted.
Mongeluzzi was in the midst of describing a particularly grisly surgical procedure in which doctors were removing sections of rotting flesh and bone in the hope of avoiding an amputation of plaintiff Gary Pettet’s right leg.
According to accounts from the plaintiffs team – Mongeluzzi and Andrew Duffy of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky and Joel Wayne Garber of Voorhees, N.J. – the juror, a teacher from Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill section, had flinched and winced a few times and then suddenly pitched backward in her chair as her eyes rolled back in her head and she lost consciousness.
As her fellow jurors steadied her to prevent a fall, Mongeluzzi turned to Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge John M. Younge, who ordered his staff to call 911 and summon EMTs.
The trial never resumed because the impact of Mongeluzzi’s oratory apparently gave the defense a case of the vapors, too, and the lawyers soon reported to Younge that they had struck a $10 million settlement – nearly double the figure offered before trial and about five times the amount offered in a failed mediation late last year.
For the plaintiff, the settlement brought a surprisingly swift conclusion to a court battle sparked by a life-changing auto accident in the early morning hours of July 3, 2007.
Pettet, a cement mason from Berlin, N.J., was driving to work and had just crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia when he was struck by a PATCO truck driven by Stephen Cassidy.
PATCO’s lawyers ultimately stipulated to liability in the case when a video from the bridge revealed that the accident was caused by Cassidy running a red light.
Pettet’s truck was slammed into a median strip in the accident and he suffered multiple breaks of his right leg and a shattering of his right ankle.
Over the next few months, Pettet underwent 12 surgeries, including the installation of plates and screws in his leg.
But Mongeluzzi told the jury that the surgeries resulted in a series of complications and infections that ultimately forced the doctors to perform an amputation.
In his opening speech, Mongeluzzi described some of Pettet’s harrowing medical procedures in vivid detail.
In the final minutes of his talk before the juror fainted, Mongeluzzi was describing a debriding procedure that doctors were forced to perform because the infection had become serious.
Mongeluzzi explained that in a debridement, the doctors “cut the infected, rotting flesh out of his ankle. And that includes his skin, that includes the subcutaneous muscle, and that includes dead, rotting, infected bone.”
At the plaintiffs counsel table, Duffy said he was watching the jurors and noticed that Juror No. 1 was leaning forward, was extremely focused and seemed to be finding the details difficult to endure as she flinched at some of the more grisly moments.
Mongeluzzi went on to explain that the first debridement was not successful and was beginning to describe a second, similar procedure that was performed three days later when the juror was overcome.
Garber said the juror suddenly sat upright for a moment and that her head went back as she closed her eyes.
A transcript of the proceedings shows that Mongeluzzi interrupted his speech and said, “Your honor,” but the transcribing ends there and does not record Younge’s instructions to clear the courtroom and call for medical help.
In an interview, Garber said he had handled Pettet’s case on his own for two years and decided to join forces with Mongeluzzi when it became clear that it could not be settled.
Prior to the trial, Garber said, the highest offer from the defense was $2.5 million. Mongeluzzi said the defense raised its offer to $5.25 million during jury selection but that he had insisted the case “could not settle for less than eight figures.”
The plaintiffs team said they had expected to return to the courtroom after lunch to resume the trial, but that defense attorney John J. Snyder of Rawle & Henderson stopped them from leaving the courthouse and asked to renew settlement talks.
Snyder could not be reached for comment on the settlement.