Showing Up to Court Is Important
About a year into practice, I was being sent to my first solo district court trial. For those of you not practicing in Alabama, district court trials are bench trials with damages capped at $10,000.00. There is no discovery permitted. The Rules of Evidence usually get a little loosy-goosy. It’s basically the wild West.
Well, I was excited about my first district court trial. It was a small truck wreck case where the Plaintiff alleged that our tractor-trailer backed into his parked vehicle at a truck stop. The driver of the tractor-trailer had a different account of events. He was going to testify that he was backing up but the Plaintiff’s vehicle darted behind him and got hit.
While doing a little background checking on the Plaintiff, I discovered he had recently made a worker’s compensation claim alleging the exact same injuries he was claiming resulted from our accident. He had a different lawyer for each of his claims. In attempting to settle our case, I mentioned this fact to his lawyer in the truck-wreck case. A couple of days later that lawyer withdrew. So I was headed to trial against a pro se plaintiff in a case with questionable liability and questionable injury. What more could a defense lawyer ask for?!
I’ll tell you what more – an adjuster who’s on the same page as the defense lawyer. The day before I discovered we weren’t on the same page. I’m not sure we were in the same library. I got a phone call that went something like this:
Adjuster: “I want you to call the Plaintiff and offer him $10,000.”
Me: “I’m sorry. What?”
A: “Yeah. I want you to make him a settlement offer of $10,000.”
M: “Let’s talk about this. On our worst day, if everything goes against us, the most we can lose is $10,000.”
M: “There’s no reason to offer him that much money.”
A: “I understand.”
M: “We could very well get a defense verdict on this one.”
A: “I know.”
M: “But you still want me to offer him the $10,000?”
M: “Ummm. Ok. I guess.”
It did my heart good when I couldn’t reach the Plaintiff by phone over the next few hours. The next day, I headed up to the courthouse with my truck driver and company owner in tow. It wasn’t necessary for them to be there since I was just going to hand over $10,000 to the Plaintiff, but it had been pre-arranged and I hadn’t called to tell them otherwise. We got to the courtroom and waited with thirty other people for our respective cases to be called. I didn’t know what the Plaintiff looked like, so any number of folks waiting there could have been him.
The judge called our case: John Doe v. Trucking Company and Driver X. I approached the bench, and my clients stayed seated. And a small miracle happened. No one else came forward. The Plaintiff hadn’t come. The Plaintiff who was going to be $10,000 richer merely by showing up to court. He wasn’t there. The judge instructed me to go sit back down, and he’d call our case again after he’d gone through his docket.
Thirty minutes later, we went through the same sequence. Same result. The judge told me he wanted to ask my driver some questions about the accident, then he’d make his ruling. I called the driver up to me and said very quietly, “The judge is going to ask you some questions. I want you to listen very carefully and use all your common sense when answering. He’s trying to help you out.”
Me: “Alright, Your Honor. We’re ready”
Judge: [Swears driver in] “Driver, were you in an accident on X date?”
Judge: “Was it your fault?”
Judge: “Alright, I’ve heard enough. I find in favor of the Defendants.”
And that’s how I won my first trial! But there’s more.
A couple of weeks later, the Plaintiff called me to ask about his case. I told him that he’d missed the trial and the Court had ruled in my clients’ favor. The case was over. I never told him he’d missed out on $10,000 by not showing up to court that day. It seemed mean-spirited and cruel. I wouldn’t want to know a thing like that. And although I’m a black-hat wearing insurance defense lawyer, even I’m not that cold.
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Photo by Alan.