U.S. lawyers demonstrate civil law to Czechoslovaks No procedure exists to sue for damages

December 22, 1991|By Cox News Service

A Volkswagen put an end to Petr Novak at a Prague intersection early one morning. But rest assured, he did not die in vain.

The death of the fictitious pedestrian, in fact, may well launch a revolution in Czech litigation. A delegation of prominent American lawyers, led by Don Keenan of Atlanta, will introduce the concept of a civil trial to their peers in Prague.

"The whole notion of receiving compensation for injuries, suffering, even death is foreign to them," said Mr. Keenan, president of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Under Czechoslovak law, no civil trial procedure exists for a person who has been wronged to seek monetary damages. In most cases, the government provides limited remedies.

"If a trolley runs over your leg, the idea of going before a jury of your peers is not in the equation," Mr. Keenan said. "The state would simply relocate you into a job you could do without a leg and take care of your medical bills. There's nothing to address pain and suffering or mental anguish."

During a mock civil trial, a jury of ordinary Czechoslovak citizens will be asked for the first time to place a monetary value on a human life.

"I can imagine the blank stares I'm going to have," Mr. Keenan said.

So how much was Petr Novak's life worth?

"The jury could very well come back and say that, yes, the driver was at fault, but the spouse can find another husband or go to work and, therefore, there is no loss here," Mr. Keenan said.

On the other hand, the jury may take into account that Novak, 40, was at his prime when he was run down and that he left behind a wife and two children.

The trial is being sponsored by the American Board of Trial Advocates in conjunction with the Charles University Law School in Prague.

During its two-day visit, the delegation will conduct a panel discussion covering a host of legal issues with Czechoslovak Supreme Court justices, labor leaders and law students.

The profile of Novak was carefully researched to be realistic while incorporating myriad legal questions.

The demonstration was organized in part to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which includes the Seventh Amendment guarantee of the right to a jury trial in a civil case.

The event has received extensive coverage in the Czechoslovak news media, Mr. Keenan said, adding that the U.S. lawyers had printed up a batch of T-shirts emblazoned with "Celebrate the 7th Amendment, 200 years of Civil Jury Trials."

"We feel somewhat evangelistic about it," he said.

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