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Judge postpones wrongful-death trials, cites 'poisoned' jury pool

In a recent post we discussed the Metro train crash that killed nine people and injured many more. Seven wrongful-death lawsuits were settled, and the remaining two were to be decided this month. But a U.S. District judge has postponed both trials based on recent news reports and comments by attorneys and parties in the case that he said had "poisoned" the jury pool.

The media reported Feb. 15 that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority had settled seven of the lawsuits. One of the remaining lawsuits was scheduled for trial March 12. But the judge said subsequent statements to the media by the plaintiffs' counsel and a victim's family member were inappropriate. He denied the defense's motion to dismiss the case, saying that was too extreme a move and would have likely been reversed. But he also said the comments to the media warranted sanction in the form of a postponement of the trial.

"The water has been poisoned," the judge said in putting a gag order in place Feb. 16. Since then he's expressed concern about finding an impartial jury, considering the amount of publicity surrounding the trials. He said he's considered moving the trial to another jurisdiction, but would try to find a jury in Washington, D.C., first.

The news story at issue contained inappropriate comments about the settlement negotiations from the mother of one of the women who died in the 2009 crash. Hers is one of the remaining two lawsuits. Other comments came from the attorney in the other lawsuit yet to be tried, though he denies having told the press about any confidential proceedings. Both he and the attorney in the other case argued that it would be unfair to the families of the victims to delay or dismiss their trials, which are currently scheduled for October and November.

Wrongful death lawsuits like these are very difficult for families, even if they come years after the deaths of their loved ones. Talking about the accidents that claimed their relatives' lives tends to rekindle raw emotions, and it can be difficult to avoid speaking to the media -- particularly in high-profile cases. But it's important to remember that sharing confidential details of a case can cause delays, dismissals or other problems that defeat the purpose of a wrongful-death lawsuit: to ensure families are justly compensated for their loss.

Source: Legal Times, "Citing 'Poisoned' Jury Pool, Judge Postpones Metro Crash Trials," Zoe Tillman, Feb. 29, 2012

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