Updated at 10:30 p.m. Sept. 4, 2012
More than 50 people were quizzed about their attitudes on Junior Seau, lawsuits and a slew of other topics as jury selection began Tuesday in Murray Lea’s personal-injury suit against the estate of the late NFL star.
Several potential jurors told Judge Gonzalo Curiel in downtown San Diego Superior Court that they thought Lea—a homeless surfboard-maker living out of his RV in Carlsbad—was looking for a big payday on a “trumped-up lawsuit.”
“I still have a bias that he’s money-digging,” said one juror.
“I felt like he’s just trying to do this because of Mr. Seau’s name,” said another about the case filed in late June 2011—some 10 months before the former Chargers star committed suicide in his Oceanside home.
But a man in his 20s—who later was excused to take care of an ailing grandfather—said he had concerns about big-name athletes always having their way.
And a man who appeared to be in his 50s said: “I already have a big [view] against powerful moneyed interests,” such as celebrities.
One juror asked: “If [Lea] has such a good case, why is he representing himself?”
Judge Curiel saluted jury pool members for their honesty, but also asked each whether they could still hear the case fairly, setting aside biases. Virtually all said yes—after each signaled they knew about the star athlete.
“We need to have jurors who keep their hands off the scales” of justice, Curiel told the diverse group packing Department 60 of the Hall of Justice on Broadway.
He ordered them to return to court at 9 a.m. Wednesday to continue voir dire, the selection process that concludes with Lea and defendant attorney Rayna Stephan each excusing as many as six people each.
Curiel said 12 jurors would hear the case, along with two alternates, and nine would have to agree on a verdict—in contrast to a unanimous one in a criminal case.
Before the 54 potential jurors filed into court a little after 2 p.m., however, Curiel said he had decided to ask questions of Lea—rather than let the nonlawyer carry his own case.
Curiel said this step was calculated to prevent Lea from accidentally bringing up topics the judge had ruled off-limits—such as the fact Lea contends that he’s only suing Farmers Insurance Group (represented by Stephan), had turned down a settlement offer of $4,000 and had filed dozens of pages of medical and chiropractor receipts as proof of his injuries.
Stephan objected to Curiel’s decision, saying such judge-questioning should be reserved for minors and people in conservatorship—and would signal to a jury that the judge was siding with the plaintiff.
“The court spent half the morning on areas to stay away from,” Stephan said. “[Lea] is able to comprehend what the court orders are.”
But Curiel cited a 1971 case in which a pro per—a person representing himself—was asked questions by a judge as a way of avoiding a prejudiced trial.
“It is a process that’s calculated to ensure … that the case is decided on the merits,” Curiel said, and overruled her objection.
Lea, who told the court he couldn’t afford to buy lunch, confirmed the judge’s concerns by asking: “I can’t say I’m not suing the family or the kids?”
He later asked: “Can I tell people about my incredible website and what’s on it? Then let’s go!”
Curiel said the trial phase would likely last into Thursday.
Patiently explaining rules of evidence, a Superior Court judge Tuesday barred homeless surfboard-maker Murray “Moose” Lea from entering medical records and insurance information into his $256,000 personal-injury trial against the estate of Junior Seau.
Judge Gonzalo Curiel in downtown San Diego Superior Court sustained virtually every objection made by defense attorney Rayna Stephan—mostly on the basis of their being hearsay.
Among them was Lea’s contention that a lady friend of Seau had called him five days after the NFL star’s May 2 suicide to say Seau had been disappointed in an October 2010 accident in which he drove off a Carlsbad cliff. Lea says he jumped out of the car’s way and injured himself—the basis for the civil suit.
Lea says the female caller told him: “I’m your guardian angel, and you need to make three wishes.”
Curiel gave Lea, who lives out of his RV in Carlsbad, the option of calling witnesses to vouch for his documents through the court’s subpoena power and would even delay the trial 24 hours.
But Lea, who said he didn’t know how to contact the caller, also said earlier: “I would not want to put anyone through what I have been for the last 22 months.”
Curiel said: “You understand you have certain rights to call witnesses. If you elect not to call doctors or other witnesses, that’s a matter of [your] choice.”
Lea said both his doctors were on vacation—along with anyone else who could testify about his records—and he “didn’t have 10 cents” to pay for subpoena service.
He also said he was in a bad situation with the Carlsbad Police Department, which he says could vouch for his presence on the cliff at 8:40 a.m. Oct. 18, 2010. Lea said he was worried about his car being towed from his turn-around location if he called officers as witnesses.
Lea told Curiel that in the days after the 2010 incident he had talked to Seau, his Oceanside neighbor, by phone three times, and was told by the Chargers great “there was no way you were frickin there” on the cliff.
Lea, who said he lives out of his RV on a coastal Carlsbad road, told the nearly empty court Tuesday that he had only 15 cents to his name Monday but was able to get downtown thanks to a friend’s $25 donation.
He wore a dark backpack into court and his hair in braids after riding a bike three miles to a train station and arriving at the Hall of Justice before the 9 a.m. hearing.
“Excuse me for wearing sandals,” said Lea, acting as his own attorney. “I can’t tie my shoes. I can’t reach my feet” because of the injuries he says Seau caused.
Lea told the court that Farmers Insurance Group had offered him $2,000 to settle the case, and later $4,000, but Curiel said that information—and a document saying Farmers had refused a claim in the incident—could not be heard by a jury as evidence.
Lea said he would “play the cards” he had been dealt and would avoid talking to media during the trial as stipulated by Curiel.
“This will more than likely be all over the news tomorrow,” Lea said near the end of the two-hour morning session with only a reporter and a self-described “observer” in the courtroom.