As everybody knows by now, superstar Taylor Swift recently won a civil assault and battery claim against Denver-area DJ David Mueller stemming from his alleged groping of her at a 2013 meet-and-greet. Mueller originally filed a $3 million lawsuit against Swift and his employer, claiming that he was unjustly fired from his job after the singer complained about the assault. Swift countersued for one dollar. A Denver jury dismissed Mueller’s claim and ruled in favor of Swift’s assault and battery countersuit, forcing Mueller to pay Swift the symbolic dollar.
The jury of six women and two men concluded within hours that Mueller had groped Swift by grabbing her bottom beneath her skirt during a photo shoot, as his wife stood on the other side of Swift. Many of us in the legal community who were following the case were not surprised by the prompt verdict in Swift’s favor. The reason is multi-faceted, and serves as a good example for non-legal professionals regarding what is required to win a civil trial.
Remember that juries are made up of individual citizens, like you and me. Aside from just the facts, they are often making determinations regarding the more subtle aspects of the case and the parties. In my view, the jury sided with Swift because of five key factors which are often common denominators among winning plaintiffs in civil litigation world. I like to call them the “5 C’s of successful litigation. Let’s take a closer look at each.
- Credibility. Whether or not you like Swift’s music, she has not been known to make false claims against others, cry “sexual harassment” at any offense, or favor litigation over private resolution. She sought only $1 in damages, demonstrating that this was not about money for her. In short, she had no motive to make up the assault claim. In fact, Swift did not even initiate the lawsuit — the radio host, David Mueller, did, claiming he had been defamed.
- Communication. Prompt discussion with others supports the claim. Swift told her photographer and her mother about the incident immediately after it happened. Although she did not make any formal criminal complaint against Mueller, timely communicating in any way (to a friend or relative, or writing in a journal) about harassment or assault can be compelling evidence of veracity before time passes. Failure to immediately react or file a claim is not damning. On the flip side, Mueller’s lawyer attempted to make much of the fact that Swift did not immediately slap Mueller, express outrage in her facial expression, or file a legal complaint. Swift testified that she was too stunned to react and did not want to create a scene in front of fans. The jury obviously found Swift’s explanation believable — perhaps sensing that she had the fortitude to withhold any reaction.
- Consistency. Swift’s story remained constant from the beginning. Her witnesses confirmed that what she said in court was the same thing she said to them right after the incident took place. In contrast, Mueller took a variety of positions when confronted with the accusation: Initially denying it, but also issuing an apology. If you did nothing wrong, don’t apologize.
- Corroboration. Swift also had the benefit of a photograph that appeared to show her moving away from Mueller, with his hand shown behind her, at the level of her bottom. Although the lawyers disputed the meaning of the photo, it supported her story. As we have seen before, such corroborating physical evidence — think of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress — can be decisive in these he-said-she-said style of cases.
- Conspicuous Facts. Jurors are smart, and conspicuous or far-fetched facts will always hurt your case. Too many litigants cannot resist the temptation to embellish or justify that which cannot reasonably be justified. Conspicuous counterevidence cut against Mueller. Specifically he claimed to have spilled coffee on a computer on which he had stored a “secret” recording of a conversation with his employer about Swift’s allegations, destroying the recording. Swift’s attorneys characterized it as willful destruction of evidence, allowing the jury to infer he was covering up facts that hurt his case.
In retrospect, the evidence appears to have clearly favored Swift, but these cases never seem as black and white in the beginning.
Chris Jeter is a founding partner of the law firm of Massillamany & Jeter LLP and serves as Team Leader for the firm’s Civil Litigation Practice Group. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Jeter at (317) 576-8580 or by e-mail at: [email protected]
This article is not intended to serve as legal advice. Should you have questions about this topic, you should consult with a licensed lawyer.