Grisham leavens his plot with humor. Thus readers marvel at the intricate maneuvers of the competing conspirators and laugh at the ways some maneuvers work out. In a funny scene early on, one of the prospective jurors proudly announces that he is blind, a fact that millions of dollars paid to the jury investigators failed to uncover. Then this blind man wants to be considered for service in this law suit, or he will sue! In another early scene, Nicholas tests his ability to manipulate the jury by convincing them to recite the Pledge of Allegiance when they enter the jury box, a move which discomposes everyone else in the courtroom.
Grisham displays a dry, sardonic, and knowing humor, a technique that marks nearly all his novels. He offers a mocking insight into the vagaries of trials. For example, he writes of the jury's response to the taped deposition of the man whose illness brought on the suit: "Watching a dead man talk was quite compelling at first, but the jurors soon learned that his life had been just as boring as theirs. The heavy lunch settled in, and they began to twitch and fidget." Of human behavior Grisham is equally cynical. When Fitch's goons try to read Nicholas' stolen computer disks, they find, among other useless files, "a gawky poem he'd written about rivers" and later "more dreadful poems"—a subtle tangent about Nicholas' character. Grisham describes a black juror's consternation at the nondenominational Sunday service offered...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
A fruitful subject for opening discussion of the novel is how readers feel about law suits, about huge monetary judgments against big corporations, and about tobacco litigation. The reaction of smokers to the novel might be interesting to gauge. Another obvious line of inquiry is concerns about the jury system. Reading groups could discuss if any members have served on juries or been a party, a witness, or a spectator at a jury trial. What faith do readers have in juries, given their own experiences and some of the notorious verdicts from the 1990s? A third big issue for discussion could be moral relativism: in this novel, what is the "right" or "just" thing to do? Where is "justice" in this novel?
1. Discounting the jurors who have self-serving agendas—Nicholas and the stubborn Lonnie Shaver—could this jury have reached an impartial verdict in this case? Could this jury reach a just verdict? Where is justice in this book?
2. Are the methods of Nicholas and Marlee necessary to win a verdict against Big Tobacco? Historically, Big Tobacco wins in court even though pressures against the industry emanated from states which were filing their own lawsuits and from the White House under Bill Clinton. How does the accepted theory that tobacco does cause disease square with the results in court and with the American affection for personal responsibility?
3. Are justice and morality involved in the legal battle in this book? Are Nicholas...
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John Grisham's seventh novel chronicles a law suit against the tobacco industry set in a Biloxi, Mississippi, courtroom. Before his writing career started, as a lawyer in a single-man firm, Grisham frequently took civil cases, including product liability, although never one of the multimillion dollar magnitude nor the nationwide attention that he describes here. As Grisham's fans would expect, The Runaway Jury is much more than a sober and insightful novelization of the vagaries of civil law. Indeed, this novel is a thriller about two competing efforts to rig the jury's verdict: one from the evil tobacco industry, the other from a seemingly innocuous juror. As is typical for Grisham, the little guy wins this battle and brings about a huge defeat for Big Tobacco.
Grisham's thrillers tend to address big social issues as they deliver page-turning drama. Here Grisham takes on two huge topics of debate that have been in the news for decades: the liability of tobacco companies for illnesses caused by cigarettes and the controversy of whether juries can render just verdicts despite the manipulative techniques of trial lawyers.
Regarding the first issue, Grisham places this trial in Biloxi into the context of tobacco litigation in the mid-1990s. In the world of the novel, the Big Four Tobacco Companies, all given fictional names (actually in the nonfictional world they are the Big Five), have beaten back sixteen law suits filed by smokers without ever paying any money in penalties or damages. In truth, by the summer of 1996, when the novel was published, the industry had indeed weathered nineteen suits without paying damages, although the most famous of those cases, brought by the family of Rose Cipollone in New Jersey in 1988, did result in a modest award of $400,000 which was overturned on appeal. That same year, 1988, the industry braced for what observers then thought was a case the plaintiff could well win, a case brought in central Mississippi by the family of a deceased smoker. Unlike many states' laws, Mississippi's favored plaintiffs by allowing monetary awards even for minimal findings of liability, as small as one percent. In the novel Grisham alludes to this generous law in simplified, unexplained fashion by stating that the anti-tobacco lawyers chose Mississippi as a venue for its "beautiful tort laws."
The 1988 case, Horton v. American Tobacco, hovers over the novel. Grisham's hero refers to it obliquely in conversation with his fellow jurors, noting an earlier Mississippi trial in which "there was some pretty outrageous behavior both before the jury was picked and after the trial started." And Grisham's villain slyly muses on how he had engineered mistrials. The Horton case played into racial and social class anxieties, with a family of African-American plaintiffs and an overwhelmingly African-American jury. But the region was rife with poverty and unemployment, and the defense hired a number of locals as advisers. When the jury deadlocked at 7-5, some of these advisers were accused by the plaintiffs of illegal contacts with jurors. In the 1990 retrial, the jury found that smoking cigarettes had caused the fatal lung cancer that attacked Nathan Horton, but awarded his family no damages, citing fault with Horton himself. In revisiting a Mississippi tobacco case for his novel, Grisham removes the racial aspect and changes the setting to the Gulf Coast. But he uses two key elements of the Horton case: the lingering suspicion of illegal jury contacts, and the claim by Horton's attorneys— then made for the first time before a jury in a tobacco case—that cigarettes contained inherently harmful additives such as pesticides and herbicides. Grisham has the plaintiffs' lawyers in the novel make a similar claim.
Another feature of tobacco litigation in the 1990s is the uncovering of secret industry documents suggesting that the leaders of Big Tobacco knew for decades that they produced a harmful substance, but kept producing it. And Grisham's novel features a witness, a former tobacco executive who has changed sides, who refers to a memo from the 1930s that admits that nicotine is addictive. As to the constant debate on when people start smoking and whether the industry tries to get teenagers to buy cigarettes, Grisham handles it by having those on his jury who had smoked (or still do) admit that they started as teens. Tobacco company stock is especially volatile during such cases, so Grisham includes a sequence about a complicated manipulation of tobacco stock that occurs in conjunction with the verdict. Grisham's novel anticipated another feature of tobacco litigation: In apparent wish-fulfillment, Grisham's plaintiffs win the case— in the world of the novel the first such victory. Then in August 1996, just months after the novel was issued, a Florida jury found against a tobacco company and awarded $750,000 to a cancer-stricken former smoker—the first such award since the overturned Cipollone verdict and thus only the second in the history of tobacco litigation. Although this fortuitous convergence of fictional and actual verdicts suggests that Grisham is in tune with current events, he may not be in tune with popular sentiment. While Americans express ready belief that cigarettes cause disease, seldom does tobacco lose in front of juries.
An anti-tobacco adherent might argue that Big Tobacco's courtroom success derives from their skill at jury selection and jury manipulation, or put another way, on the unreliability of juries. Thus The Runaway Jury partakes of the 1990s debate on the efficacy of the jury system....
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A fine preparation or contrast for The Runaway Jury is any of the versions of Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. Rose wrote the original television play in 1954, then expanded the script for the celebrated 1957 film with Henry Fonda as the honorable juror #8 who persuades a reluctant jury to acquit a murder defendant. (Sherman L. Sergei adapted the material into a three-act stage play. Rose himself updated the script for a 1997 cable telecast.) Juror #8 is an unambiguously good man whose decency wins the jurors to his side. Most of the jurymen are quiet and unassuming, willing to be led. Juror #8 must joust for control with the only two other men who have assertive personalities. Contrasting Juror #8 and Nicholas...
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The Runaway Jury fits with most of Grisham's other novels in the thriller genre, a category he defines in an oft quoted interview (1993): "You take a sympathetic hero or heroine, an ordinary person, and tie them into a horrible situation or conspiracy where their lives are at stake." His heroes are young people with the intellect and cunning and resourcefulness that these thriller plots demand. Significantly, however, these heroes survive by their wits rather than physical prowess. In his books Grisham has few overtly violent scenes, although he does succeed in making the threats convincing. Like Mitch McDeere in The Firm (1991; see separate entry) and Rudy Baylor in The Rainmaker (1995; see separate entry) and...
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