Litigation laywer Chance and his loyal associate Justin take on an injury case from a client who believes the only fair judgment is God’s; by Charles C. Parsons.
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Kate King hobbled into our library room, pushing down hard on a cane in one hand, while her brother held her erect with his arm under her other shoulder. She was a portly 40ish woman who filled the floppy charcoal dress that hung to her ankles. She wore no makeup. Her ebony hair was pulled sternly back against her scalp. Her brother, Kevin, guided her to a chair beside our conference table. As she collapsed into the seat, I noticed a thick-soled shoe on her protruding right foot. Her face was furrowed in pain as she glanced about the office with dark suspicious eyes.
Chance looked across the tabletop. “Kate, why did you wait ten months to consult a lawyer after you shattered that hip?”
She twisted her fleshy neck to face him.
“I figured it was God’s will.”
Kevin, standing behind her, shuffled uneasily. When our law firm represented him three years earlier, he’d come to our office the day after his auto accident. Chance crossed his arms and looked directly at Kate.
“From what Kevin tells me, you fell because your landlord didn’t clear up the ice where his tenants had to walk.”
She shrugged; he continued.
“We can’t restore the good limb you’ve lost,” he said. “Now, we must motivate a jury to award sufficient money to fully replace your loss.”
“How can money make up for this?” she snapped, pulling up her dress hem just above her right ankle, pointing to a six-inch leather sole. “My right leg healed that much shorter than my left leg after the surgery. Everything on my right side is ruined.”
Chance inhaled deeply. “Now you see my challenge. I can tell your gait is off-kilter. Every step you take is going to worsen your back. This isn’t an easy case.”
Kate fumbled for her purse. “You seem to know what you’re doing, so go ahead. But me, I’ll trust in the Lord to make sure justice is done.”
Chance flipped open the laptop on his desk. His fingers danced over the keyboard as he entered information into the template of our computer server. Sitting beside him, I noticed a familiar tic pulsating in his left eye. The twinge was proof to me that his adrenaline was operating full throttle. In the four years I’d worked as an associate in his personal injury law firm, I’d seen those spasms. Chance relied on gambler’s instincts, a bullishness that prodded him to go all in on a case to win. Now, as I watched him pecking away at the keyboard, I sensed he was already refining the details of Kate’s fall. As she answered his questions, he reframed her response to win on the merits. If he could prove Kate’s landlord caused her fall, her injury would deliver a big verdict.
When Chance hired me, he’d joked about needing a second set of eyes and ears to rein in his gambling addiction. Once I’d settled into our office suite, I observed he was perpetually on the hunt for risky cases with large verdict potential. Representing seriously injured clients for a big reward excited him. On occasion, when a jury lavished a big award on one of our disabled victims, his eyes sparkled. He was delighted with the client’s good fortune. It also paid our rent.
Kate tugged a small black testament from her purse; its compressed spine was worn and crooked. Her eyes strained at the small print on the weathered pages. She clenched the bible tightly as Chance pestered her for information about her landlord and the parking lot. When he finished, he printed out our standard retainer agreement. Kate lingered over every passage of the contract. Finally, she signed it.
Kevin assisted Kate out of our office. Chance shoved a camera into a canvas bag.
“Let’s hightail it over to that apartment complex,” he said. “I want to see how she was so badly injured.”
Since joining Chance, I’d traveled with him to the scene of every new client’s injury. Each had been a search for human error. Like a prospector panning for gold, Chance was convinced he would discover a hidden peril created by a negligent mortal.
In the late autumn afternoon, we trudged among cars parked on the sloped lot of the Potomac Heights apartment complex. Mature oak trees, ablaze in orange, yellow and red leaves, stood irregularly along the border of the wide ascending macadam surface. Chance leaned against a car and gazed up the inclined asphalt layer. Its dark surface rose uninterrupted to a crest about one hundred yards away, on which were perched several pink buildings of the apartment complex. Chance turned to me.
“Justin, see if you can get Kevin on your cell phone?”
Kevin picked up on the third ring. I put him on speaker phone, and Chance leaned in to speak.
“Kevin, didn’t you tell me you spoke with a security guard at the apartment complex the morning after Kate fell down?”
“The guard was named Donny. He’d taken photos of where Kate fell that showed a strip of ice winding through the parked cars.”
“Did he mention some pink-colored brick buildings?”
“Donny said there’d been a heavy snowstorm about two weeks earlier. The landlord wanted his snowplows to clear the lot without obstructing his tenants as they drove in from the street. The snowplows piled the powder up top near some pink-colored buildings.”
Without saying a word, Chance turned and jogged up the slope. I hung up and scrambled after him. At the peak of the incline, the pink buildings in the complex surrounded a broad open space that formed a shelf-like precipice overlooking the parking lot.
Chance was huffing. “They must’ve piled the snow here.”
We walked to the edge and looked down at the cars below.
He ran his foot along the rim. “I’ll bet there’s a connection with the ice down there that caused Kate’s busted hip.”
I took a step back. “Maybe, but we need to see that photo the security guard took.”
“We’ll have to subpoena it,” he said. “The landlord won’t willingly turn that over.”
As we descended toward the parked cars, Chance suddenly grabbed my shoulder. “Look, Justin. What’s missing?”
I looked around, then, seeing nothing, shrugged my shoulders.
“Justin, there aren’t any floodlights for that lot!”
He swung me around to face him. “Kate’s landlord’s handed us the perfect case! He created a hidden danger for his tenants in darkness.”
“Calm down,” I said. “You need that photo to clinch your theory.”
We hurried back to his car. As he drove back to the office, Chance rattled off items he wanted for Kate’s case. His voice chattered like a machine gun as he reeled off requests for weather reports, snowfall data, the guard’s photo, slope measurements.
Chance’s hands trembled on the steering wheel. “We’re going to need experts: design architects who lay out parking lots, orthopedic surgeons, an economist to project economic losses.” His left eye flinched. “Those guys are expensive.”
Chance mounted an erasable whiteboard on a wall in a corner of his office. With a black felt marker, he scribbled keywords: a list of things needed to win Kate’s case: Safety expert on bad parking lot design! Orthopedist to explain insidious injury! Nullify adverse court decisions!” He nodded to me as he scratched the last task. I was to research the law and root out any appellate decisions that might undercut Kate’s case. Beneath his wonky list, he left a space to enter costs our firm incurred. He wanted an ongoing picture of our cash outlays.
Each morning when he arrived, Chance raced into his office to the board hanging in the corner. Sunlight bathed the whiteboard from a nearby window illuminating the scratching black words he’d added. Chance dubbed this space his war workstation. He’d carefully update the expense list as he paid for each item. After a month, the costs were $5,400. He’d written a check to an orthopedic surgeon, who’d testify concerning Kate’s leg-length discrepancy. Chance insisted on dramatic evidence on Kate’s injury, how the uneven weight on Kate’s lumbar vertebrae as she tried to walk caused wasting of her spinal cord. The orthopedist suggested procuring a first-rate medical illustration to use in court.
My eyes widened looking at the board. “This could get pricey.”
He shrugged. “To win, we need good experts.” He gazed at the expense column. “If we’re going to beat that landlord, we must invest enough money to be sure we’re gonna win.”
When she’d left the hospital, Kate had moved back into her parents’ house. Kevin, who also lived in there, would sometimes telephone me.
“Justin, I think you guys need to watch Kate,” he said. “She’s getting a lot of advice about her case from a prayer group at her church.”
“What kind of advice?”
“The group says that her lawyers should be seeking guidance from above.”
I suggested to Chance that we visit Kate’s home to investigate Kevin’s concern.
“You go,” he urged, resuming his attention on the choice of an expert.
On my drive there, the streets of white single-family clapboard houses were lined with mature oak trees. Kate’s parents’ home shared the same uniform features as the other dwellings in their rolling suburban neighborhood and was surrounded by well-tended azaleas and shrubs.
Kevin ushered me into a dimly lit living room. The walls were decorated with faded prints of the crucifixion and the ascension. As I sat down, he told me that Kate would soon return from the nearby church.
I looked up at him from the sofa. “Do you ever join Kate at her prayer groups?”
“No! I’m not into fire and brimstone.”
“Maybe she’s looking for solace after her injury.”
“All I know is she comes home aroused.”
As he spoke, I looked out the front window and saw Kate hobbling home on her cane. She entered the living room chanting under her breath. She sat down but was unable to stay still. Kevin left the room.
Kate crossed her arms. “Where’s Mr. Chance?”
“He’s back at the office honing the evidence in your case.”
I described Chance’s workstation, how he was picking experts for her case, investing money.
She shrugged. “He’s just a mercenary, isn’t he? He’s not a Christian soldier marching for God’s cause.”
“Chance is the guy you want representing you.”
“I’d feel more assured if he was kneeling with us at church.”
Her eyes narrowed as I raised my eyebrows.
“You must have faith,” she insisted. “You must come to one of our meetings. We meet tomorrow at one o’clock.”
Reluctantly, I agreed to join her the next day.
“Get Mr. Chance to break free and come along with you.”
When I later told Chance I planned to attend the prayer meeting, he nodded approvingly.
“Nice going, Justin. Juries love litigants who have values,” he said. “Tell her to bring her little Bible to court when we start.”
He declined to attend.
The next day, Kate guided me inside the large frigid sanctuary of the Holy Destiny Church. Several matronly women in shapeless dresses were huddled in a circle, holding hands. The church walls were a dank, mortared stone pierced by Moorish style windows, a miniature replica of some ancient basilica. Kate introduced me as a member of her legal team.
“Justin is here today seeking God’s blessing on our mission.”
An elderly lady, Rachel, wearing a dark shawl over her head, gaped at me through wire-rimmed glasses. “You’re pretty young to be in charge of such an important calling.”
“I’m an associate to the lead lawyer.”
“Why isn’t the main lawyer here?” Rachel demanded.
“He’s back in his office working to win her case.”
“He should be here seeking guidance from the Lord.” Rachel looked around; the others nodded.
“We don’t even know if Kate’s lawyer has been saved,” she said, sitting down with the group of women.
They debated the meaning of a biblical passage: Acts 17:31. Rachel read it aloud, applying it to Kate’s case.
“For he has set a day when he will judge the world’s justice by the man he has appointed.”
Rachel, holding Kate’s hand, looked at me. “This Mr. Chance professes to serve Sister Kate as God’s appointed,” she said, “but we must hear him pray.”
Before leaving the church to return to the office, I joined them in a short prayer. As I departed, I sensed that Kate expected me to secure Chance’s presence for their next prayer session. However, in his office, Chance rebuffed the request.
“No way am I going to be vetted by a bunch of zealots. I’m already up to my eyeballs in this lawsuit.”
Lunch became a daily brainstorming exercise for Kate’s case. We’d order in sandwiches and gather in our dimly-lit conference room. One day, sitting around the mahogany table, Chance stopped nibbling on his tuna sub and leaned over the polished surface, his eyes glimmering.
“Kate’s case is perfect.”
I shook my head. “Your friend, Martin Marshall, insists there’s something wrong with every legal case.”
Chance smiled when I mentioned Martin’s name. Martin, an older lawyer, was a mentor for him, a reliable voice of reason.
“Martin hasn’t seen this one.”
I rummaged through some briefing papers I’d written.
“I already see two major problems: the case law and the client. Shall I start with the case law?”
I handed him an abstract I’d prepared that dissected a recent appellate decision called Wilkens v Crofton Properties. In the Wilkens case, a panel of newly appointed conservative judges had chosen to broadly undercut the legal rights of injured litigants in our circuit. The judges overturned a large jury verdict for a hotel guest who’d fallen on ice while carrying his luggage over an uncleared hotel parking lot. The judges ruled that the man had willfully “accepted the risk” of injury as he walked to his rented room, concluding that the hotel guest “knew or should have known” there might be a slippery surface lurking ahead on his path. They wrote the guest could have looked for some other unspecified route to his rented room. The panel held that landowners, under certain conditions, could be legally exempted from safeguarding their guests against injury in inclement weather. They ordered that the case should never have been submitted to the jury for consideration.
Chance stiffened as he read my abstract.
“Idiots in black robes!” he shrieked. “After this Wilkens case, a landlord would be a fool to clear his property in winter weather. Why pay the money to remove snow when nobody can sue him?”
He looked at me, his left eye rapidly blinking. “This case is different. Kate’s landlord created the hidden hazard that injured her.”
“Maybe,” I replied. “But, let’s face it: the Wilkens judges have made Kate’s case dicey.”
Chance’s nostrils flared. “Listen, Justin!” he yelled. “The law is never what a bunch of stupid judges wrote last time. The law is what a high-minded court will write this time.”
Chance grabbed his felt marker and, on his list, scribbled: “Fuck Wilkens. Must overcome!” As he raged, I chose not to mention his second problem.
After Chance filed the lawsuit, Mr. John Greig telephoned and introduced himself as the lawyer for Kate’s landlord, Ben Cohen. Greig proved to be a cooperative adversary, willingly producing various materials as Chance requested them from the landlord’s file concerning the site of Kate’s injury. Among the documents was a grainy, black-and-white photograph taken by the security guard after Kate’s fall. It showed a grayish pile of dirty snow on the precipice overlooking the sloped parking lot. A long blackish icy streak snaked down the hill from the pile and slithered among the parked cars.
Chance’s cheeks glowed. “This picture’s the smoking gun. It shows that the landlord created the hazard that injured Kate.”
“What do we do next?”
“We get Kate in here to confirm that it was this ice streak in the picture that caused her fall. Then I’m writing that big retainer check that architectural expert is demanding.”
“She’s not going to come here until you meet with her prayer group.”
He scowled at me. “I’ll meet with her, but not her kooks. Set up a meeting at her house.” He pulled out his checkbook to pay the expert. “I need to prepare her for the questions Greig is going to ask at her deposition.”
Kate sat hunched on the living room sofa in her parent’s living room. Chance confidently produced the photograph for her to inspect. He pointed to the dark ice among the parked cars. “That ice streak was human error. Cohen carelessly exposed his tenants to serious injury in the darkness; he must compensate you.”
Kate squirmed on the sofa. “A courtroom isn’t the right place for judging, Mr. Cohen,” she said. “Judgment of humans is God’s domain.”
“This trial isn’t about the ultimate judgment of a human being. A jury merely decides whether the landlord erred in this one instance. The ultimate judgment by God comes at the end of Mr. Cohen’s life.”
Her eyebrows softened. Chance pressed on. “We can get this case settled if you’ll work with me.” He explained that she need only give a sworn deposition about her injury to Cohen’s lawyer. He was sure a generous offer of settlement would follow to conclude the case.
She sighed deeply. “I should probably confer with Rachel, but tell me what’s coming as this lawyer starts questioning me.”
For the next hour, Kate gamely answered as Chance posed question after question she would be asked. Chance’s face shone when they finished.
Back in the car, Chance rubbed his palms together. “She’s going to impress Greig, make him realize his client is facing a big verdict.”
Later that day, I went to the courthouse to file some papers. While standing in line for coffee in the basement cafeteria, Martin Marshall tapped me on the shoulder. Chance had introduced Martin to me months before. Now a retired attorney, Martin had prospered in his career taking high-risk injury cases other lawyers declined. He wore his usual dark tailored suit that emphasized his lithe frame.
“How’s our boy Chance?” he asked. “Working on something big?”
As I described the Kate King case, Martin smiled. “Sounds like Chance has a biggy, if he can get around that Wilkens decision.”
I shook my head. “I think he’s got problems with his client too.”
I described my visit to Kate’s fundamentalist church, her zealous prayer group, her aroused state after the daily gatherings. “Kate’s a loose cannon, but Chance isn’t listening. He’s too in love with her case.”
We sat down at a vacant table. Several other lawyers were seated in the broad, high-ceilinged lunchroom. Martin sipped calmly on a double expresso. “I’ve represented several religious clients who’ve managed to trash good cases,” he said. “I devised my own litmus test for ferreting out fanatics.”
He leaned over the table. “If my client prays to God for guidance, that’s okay; he’s just religious. But when he tells me that God has told him what to do, I know he’s a psychopath.” He stared at me. “Is this Kate praying for help?” Then he stared up at the ceiling. “Or is He giving her directions?”
“I don’t know. This is all new to me.”
Martin rose to leave. “A lawyer’s got to know his client’s frailties.”
Chance danced into the office after Greig had conducted Kate’s deposition under oath. She’d been a convincing, sympathetic witness describing her parking lot injury.
“Greig could tell that Kate’s got jury appeal,” he exclaimed. “He’s going to push his landlord for a settlement.”
I looked at the list on the whiteboard.
“Great, because I’m getting nervous about all those experts you’re hiring. Why do we need a meteorologist to go with an architect and a safety engineer?”
He ran a hand through his blond hair. “We’re going to bludgeon this landlord into submission.”
The bottom line on the board had crept up to $18,400.
Chance correctly surmised Greig would want a settlement. I was seated in the conference room when Greig telephoned. I could see Chance through his open office door. I pressed the conference call button to listen.
With soothing words, Greig began what sounded like a practiced performance.
“We’re only a few weeks away from a very expensive trial,” he began. “I’m calling because our clients both have risks that could hurt them.”
“How do you see those risks?”
“First, Ms. King has been seriously injured. If this case reaches a jury, my client could get slammed with a sizable verdict.”
Through the receiver, I heard Greig draw a deep breath.
“But the law is against your client,” he said. “I’m sure you’re aware of Wilkens v Crofton Properties?”
“Sure. But comparing this case with Wilkens is like comparing apples to oranges.”
Chance oozed confidence through the phone, his voice firm. “The Wilkens judges reasoned that the hotel guest could see ice in his path ahead, but he proceeded anyway.” He stopped to allow Greig to digest the differences. “Kate was lured into a dark, unlit parking lot, thinking the landlord’s snowplows had cleared it of ice and snow.”
Greig was silent as Chance spoke. Finally, he asked “Have you got an amount your client will accept to resolve this case?”
Chance paused, then replied. “I’d recommend she settle her case for $1.5 million dollars.”
I strained through the conference phone to gauge Greig’s reaction.
There was no gasp, no sigh, nothing. Instead, he calmly replied. “I’ve suggested my client consider paying $750,000 to eliminate his risk. Does that interest you?”
Chance told Greig he’d call back after speaking with his client; the two men hung up.
He danced into the conference room. “That’s his opening gambit,” he said, smiling. “I’m sure Cohen will put up a million. Let’s get Kate on the phone right away,”
“You’ll have to wait a couple hours. Right now, I’m sure she’s at her prayer meeting.”
Later, Kevin put Kate on the telephone at her home.
“We’ve got Cohen on the run,” Chance said. “His lawyer’s made a good settlement offer.”
I heard Kate snort into the phone. “We prayed for advice on the case today.”
Chance’s grin relaxed as he continued. “Cohen’s attorney said he might pay $750,000 to settle this case. That’s a pretty tempting offer.”
Kate was silent.
“I told the lawyer that his offer was low, but I’d recommend that you accept $1.5 million. How does that sound?”
As he held the silent phone, Chance’s eyebrows drew together. Finally, Kate spoke.
“I’ve already asked for guidance. I’ll call you back when I have an answer.” She hung up.
Chance squirmed as he looked at the whiteboard on the corner wall.
“Maybe I should have told her I’ve already sunk $22,000 into her case.”
Two days later, while I was in the conference room, Kate called. I listened in.
“God has decreed that the offender must pay five million dollars to his victim, no less.”
In his office, Chance bumped his knee against his desk.
“Listen to me Kate,” he blurted. “We’ve got a fair offer already. Cohen will pay more. But he’ll never pay that much.”
Kate’s tone was icy cold.
“I’ll not dishonor my Lord’s command. Tell the lawyer that it must be five million.” She hung up the phone.
Later that day, Greig telephoned. I was in Chance’s office as he moaned into the phone.
“John, I agree,” he said. “Five million is absurd.” He lowered his voice. “But let’s keep the settlement talk open, okay? Kate needs time to grasp that she’s facing a long life ahead with big medical expenses and no insurance.”
As he hung up, Chance breathed a sigh of relief. Greig still wanted to settle.
Over the next two weeks, Chance moped about the office, mostly skipping lunch. But, like a dutiful solder, he primed for battle. He prepared the final pages in his trial notebook. His erasable board now showed outlays of $27,323. Over that time, he’d spoken with Kate five times, but each time, as he hung up, he’d weakly thrown up his hands. Now he waited to hear from Greig.
Finally, the phone rang. I pressed the conference call feature and heard Chance speak in a calm voice with Greig. “Okay John, Thanks. I’ll pass your offer to Kate.”
He hung up, then dialed Kate’s telephone. “Kate, Cohen’s offered one million to settle. Otherwise, we go to trial. You’ve got to take it,” he pleaded. “We could lose.”
After several minutes, he hung up and walked the few steps to my room. “Justin,” he growled. “She won’t budge. Her God insists on five million.” His hands were shaking. “She’s gambling on a verdict using my money.”
I went into the conference room and telephoned Kevin. I pleaded with him to bring Kate into the office.
Kevin cleared his throat. “Kate says she’ll see you at the courthouse.”
The suburban county courthouse outside Washington was an impressive colonial brick structure. Its broad slate roof was surmounted by a white cupola; a historic weathervane with a female figure pivoted on top. Public entry into the building was through two large, raised panel mahogany doors in a front archway.
Kate sat on an oak bench with three other women in the main hallway. I pointed out Rachel, who sat in the same dark shapeless gown, holding Kate’s hand. Kevin stood nearby in a rumpled, green sports-coat over a checkered shirt. On the other side of the high-ceilinged hallway, Greig was seated on another bench, conferring with Mr. Cohen.
Chance greeted Kate, who clutched her small Bible. A large computer screen posting the day’s trials was mounted on the wall outside a nearby courtroom. I saw that our case had been assigned Judge Deborah Pearson.
A female clerk in a navy-blue skirt called out for Chance and Greig, announcing that Judge Pearson wanted to “confer with counsel” before she empaneled a jury. I joined the two men as the clerk guided us through a labyrinth of wainscoted passages. Up ahead, I could see an open doorway that led into a room paneled in mahogany.
Inside, a slim, light-skinned woman with neatly trimmed gray hair was seated at a desk. A black robe hung on a nearby coatrack.
Judge Pearson rose and greeted us. Her warmth conferred a feeling that we were gathered on a noble mission. We sat down in leather chairs around her desk.
She pointed to folder on her desk. “I’ve read this five-inch court file, but that’s it for my knowledge of this litigation.” She leaned forward over her desk. “Has the defense made an offer of settlement?”
“Yes, your honor,” Greig replied, “the defense has offered $1,000,000 to settle this case.”
The judge’s eyes widened. “Then gentlemen, why are we here? Mr. Chance, that seems a very generous offer.”
“I’ve pleaded with my client to accept it,” he replied. “However, her God has overridden my advice.”
“Your client is not planning to use my courtroom to deliver a sermon, is she?”
“Good. Has her God told her an amount that would be just?”
“Yes ma’am. Five million dollars.”
Judge Pearson rocked back in her chair. Her gaze wandered to the ceiling.
“You know, gentlemen,” she began, struggling to sound lighthearted, “I rose this morning, ate a nourishing breakfast, and while driving here, faced the day joyfully. I longed to preside over spirited eloquence in my courtroom. Now it seems I might have to listen to a decree from God?” She rolled her shoulders.
After a moment’s silence, Judge Pearson leaned forward. “Mr. Chance, I suppose you’ve told your client about Wilkens v Crofton Gardens?”
“Yes, your honor.”
The judge breathed deeply, then shook her head. “Are you gentlemen ready to proceed?”
Both lawyers nodded.
“Of course, you are,” she grumbled, turning to her clerk. “Bring in a jury panel. Let the circus begin.”
Judge Pearson’s courtroom resembled the huge, cavernous drawing room of an ancient French chateau: alabaster-colored dental cornice molding trimmed the top of tall walls that intersected its high ceiling. Around the perimeter was polished mahogany wainscoting. A troop of citizens marched into the galley for jury selection.
Chance and Greig readily agreed on twelve jurors. Most of those chosen sat foggy-eyed as Judge Pearson described what evidence they would hear to decide the lawsuit. Chance’s opening statement was stirring. Two of the jurors winced noticeably as he described Kate’s leg length discrepancy. Even Judge Pearson shifted uncomfortably. In his opening, Greig reminded the jurors that they weren’t to reward victims simply because they were injured but must weigh the evidence.
Chance sequenced his presentation of the evidence for maximum impact. Each witness’ testimony linked cohesively to show the landlord’s wrongdoing. The jurors nodded when the surgeon testified that Kate “would not die from her painful injuries, but she will definitely die with them.”
The judge took a short recess before Kate took the witness stand. In the hallway, Chance instructed her before she testified.
“Don’t bring up the Almighty,” he said. “Stick to the fact that no one could see the ice near the car.”
“This jury should know that I’ve been saved.”
“If you mention God, this judge will declare a mistrial,” he warned, “We’ve got this jury eating out of our hand.”
Kate delivered a harrowing account of her fall that cold dark evening. One juror covered her mouth with trembling fingers as Kate described the sharp stabbing pain. Greig fidgeted in his seat, sensing jury hostility awaited him if he attacked her. His cross examination was a few short questions.
Kate hobbled back to the counsel’s table. Chance announced that he’d concluded his evidence. Judge Pearson excused the jury from the courtroom, explaining that the lawyers had some legal matters to discuss with her.
When the jury had left, Greig rose and requested the judge to enter a “directed verdict” for Mr. Cohen. “The Wilkens decision mandates that the plaintiff’s evidence is legally meritless; it would be an error to allow these citizens to consider it.” Judge Pearson listened impassively.
Chance deftly contrasted Kate’s case from the facts in Wilkens, arguing that the Wilkens judges never intended to exempt a landlord from creating a hidden danger.
After both lawyers finished, Judge Pearson leaned forward over her podium.
“The defense motion to dismiss requires deep thought.” She asked Kate to rise. “I understand that you’ve received an offer of settlement to end this litigation. Is that correct?”
Kate nodded. “Mr. Cohen says he’ll pay $1,000,000 if I drop this case.”
“Ms. King, I strongly urge you accept the offer.”
“Your honor, it would be blasphemous if I disobeyed the Lord.”
Judge Pearson paused respectfully before speaking again.
“Well, I’m going to take a fifteen-minute recess, and then we’ll reconvene.” The judge motioned to Kate. “In that time, you are to go back to the lady’s room, or wherever you can talk to your Lord. Tell him that this court believes that you should accept the landlord’s offer. Do you understand?”
In the hallway, I observed Rachel put her arm around Kate’s shoulder, guiding her away. Kevin walked beside them, pleading with his sister to accept the judge’s advice. Rachel assisted Kate into the lady’s room.
Chance turned to me quivering. “Justin, this is the best presentation I’ve ever made. That jury just might award five million.”
Fifteen minutes passed; Kate remained in the lady’s room. Finally, she hobbled into the courtroom.
Judge Pearson retook the bench and asked Kate if she’d reached a decision.
“My Lord has decreed that the landlord must pay five million dollars.”
The judge sat sphinxlike, then nodded. “Thank you, Ms. King. You may be seated.”
Once Kate sat down at counsel’s table, the judge carefully selected her words, knowing her verbal ruling might later be transcribed if an appeal was taken to the appellate court.
“The defendant seeks a directed verdict asserting that Ms. King’s claim is legally barred by the law. I am obliged to follow the law. Thus, I dismiss Ms. King’s claim as barred from jury deliberation by the opinion in Wilkens v Crofton Properties.”
Judge Pearson rapped her gavel that the case was concluded, dismissed the jury, and left the courtroom.
Outside the courthouse, Chance and I stood by Kate, waiting for Kevin to bring around his car to drive her home. Rachel stood nearby, huddled with the other women. When the car arrived, Kate turned to Chance as she struggled into the passenger seat.
“This miscarriage of justice must be appealed.”
Chance leaned down, looking at her in the car. “Kate, as your lawyer, I secured a reasonable offer of settlement, and you rejected it.” He stared directly into her eyes. “I’m saddled with the costs of carrying your litigation this far, but you’ll have to find another lawyer to pursue any appeal.”
Her yellow eyes seared back at him through the car window. We watched quietly as Kevin pulled away.
Chance and I sat in the dimly-lit tavern near the courthouse in a booth with high backrests of dark, deep-tufted Naugahyde. Martin entered and walked toward us. Martin once told me that lawyers drank for one of three reasons: to celebrate a victory, to drown a defeat or to get free legal advice.
Martin slid into our booth. “I sense despair among the troops. Bad day in Pearson’s court?”
Chance clenched his fists. “Martin, I had a dream jury eating out of my hand. But in the end, the Almighty prevailed. The client sent her lawyer home penniless and loaded with debts.”
Martin patted Chance’s shoulder. “Sure, you lost, but you’re a better lawyer for the experience. Time to move on to the next case.”