Updated at 7:10 p.m. Sept. 6, 2012
Calling no witnesses and presenting little evidence, homeless surfboard-maker Murray “Moose” Lea used a “tree fell in a forest” argument to claim that the estate of Junior Seau should pay him tens of thousands of dollars.
The sandal-wearing Carlsbad man, who lives in a Dodge van, told a downtown San Diego Superior Court jury Thursday that even though he had no proof of being injured while jumping away from Seau’s SUV in October 2010, “Why would I come here and make you waste your time if I’m lying?”
In closing arguments, Lea told the eight-man, four-woman civil jury that he was the only witness to the Seau accident that exacerbated injuries going back 27 years.
“If we were in a forest, and a tree fell down, does it make a noise?” Lea said. “Hell, yes—one big kaboom!”
But defense attorney Rayna Stephan said: “We wish [Lea] the best, but Mr. Seau’s estate should not be responsible” for Lea’s medical expenses and lost earnings. “It’s just not right.”
The jury took less than an hour to return a unanimous verdict—agreeing with Stephan and denying Lea any damages for the Oct. 18, 2010, incident involving the late football star’s Cadillac Escalade going over a seaside cliff.
Lea acted as his own attorney, having fired his first one and not being able to find another, according to his court filings. His attempts to introduce treatment records from a medical doctor and a chiropractor were rebuffed when Stephan objected to them as hearsay and without anyone to vouch for their accuracy.
On Thursday, a day after saying one of his caregivers was on vacation, he said that doctor was unavailable to testify because he was in North Dakota attending an uncle’s funeral.
In any case, he told the jury, he owed one $3,200 and another $7,500.
Stephan also pointed to what she called contradictions and inconsistencies in Lea’s story and said a letter he sent Seau after the incident said: “I’m poor. I need help. I aggravated my hip [injury] in the commotion and running around” afterward, including time he spent talking to TV and radio stations.
She said he failed to note his injuries during media interviews in the immediate hours after the accident.
And Lea’s letter pointed to a motive, she said.
“If it wasn’t Mr. Seau, there wouldn’t be a letter,” Stephan said. “If it wasn’t for Mr. Seau, there wouldn’t be a lawsuit. ... There’s not one shred of evidence for anything” in the lawsuit that originally asked for $256,000.
“What he told you in closing argument defies common sense,” Stephan told the Hall of Justice jury on Broadway.
After the three-day trial, supervising juror Galene Thayer said the jury “looked very deeply into what evidence there was” for Lea’s claim. “We really didn’t see a substantial amount of evidence or proof” that Lea was injured that morning on the cliff.
“Everyone had their opinion on how—if they were in this situation—what they would do,” Thayer said. “Things like maybe getting an affidavit, some kind of notarized statement, some kind of eyewitnesses.”
Stephan, whose closing argument was observed by her deputy district attorney sister Summer and La Jolla attorney mother Jeanette, said the Seau family was pleased with the outcome.
“Justice was served, and on behalf of the estate of Junior Seau, we are grateful for the time that (jurors) took. … The jury saw it the way we see it—and that is the plaintiff did not meet the burden of proof.”
Lea’s homeless status was not ignored, the chief juror said.
“Some people said they really felt for the guy,” Thayer said. “But really part of the judge’s instructions were to take our own personal considerations out of the question and focus on the evidence.
“As much as our heart really went out to him and his situation … it really didn’t become a factor for our decision.”
Lea’s claims to being good friends with Seau—which he later said during closing wasn’t true—and other statements such as being a professional surfer some considered exaggerated led to doubts about his story.
“Veracity definitely factored into [the verdict],” Thayer said outside the courtroom while Lea stripped off his shirt and donned a green T-shirt promoting his business. “And motive also factored into it.”
Thayer said the jury took note of evidence that Lea, after a reputed 2008 injury at the Del Mar racetrack, sought damages there as well.
Lea told Channel 10 News after the trial that his case “reminds me a little about the O.J. [Simpson] trial—the one with the most expensive attorneys wins” and also said: “I’m almost better. Another 15 [to] 20 days, the hip flexor will get a little bit better. I have a couple of shops lined up and I’ll be back in business again.”
During the rebuttal phase of his closing argument, Lea said his homelessness should not be held against him since “you could call half the San Diego Padres homeless, too.”
He said he chose to live out of his van on a Carlsbad coastal highway, and he depicted his motives as sincere, saying: “You’re going to have to believe me.” And before an objection was sustained, Lea said: “I’ve been getting life threats. People on the Internet are writing crazy stuff about me.”
Lea got no takers when he invited jurors to feel his hip flexor wrapped in “two 8-foot Ace bandages.”
But he tried an appeal to common sense.
“What stupid person would file a lawsuit against Junior Seau—the most famous San Diego athlete?” he asked. ”Why would I put myself through such scrutiny if it wasn’t true?”