A short story by James Radford. A young lawyer in a small Georgia town thinks he has landed his first big case when a lo...
a short story by James Radford
- Bumblebee David Redding curled into a soft armchair, hidden between stacks of forgotten volumes. The young man twisted sideways and rested his head on the chair’s soft inside wing. He closed his eyes and felt the rough texture of the chair’s faded blue fabric against his forehead, the threads of its decorative yellow stitching. He smelled the age of the chair, and it brought him comfort. This lonely corner of Murphy & Fender’s unused law library was the one place where David could find respite. Even in his own office with the door closed, Don Fender might knock at any time, wanting an update on some brief or another. The receptionist’s voice would crackle from the speakerphone at any moment, announcing a call that needed his attention. His computer would endlessly emit that awful cowbell noise that signaled another new email. But here, in this forgotten room, among these forgotten volumes of ancient cases, he could be alone. David had become lost in his thoughts when he heard the library door open. He heard a leather sole clop down upon the hardwood floor. A shot of adrenaline rushed to his brain, and he stood quickly. He pulled a volume from the shelf that had concealed him. He stared down at some arbitrary text and began to read. A figured appeared in the corner of his eye, and he turned to see Cornelius Murphy standing in the space between the stacks. David issued a sigh of relief when he saw the frail, aging man, the one who had founded the firm nearly forty years ago, standing before him. He was grateful that it was not Don Fender. For that matter, David was grateful it was not the Cornelius Murphy of ten years ago, the one whose reputation for viciousness had inspired many a defendant to settle their cases rather than face him in the courtroom. The common wisdom was that Murphy had calmed down
substantially right around 2008. That was the year when the Georgia Supreme Court finally affirmed the $230 million products liability verdict that Murphy and a group of plaintiffs lawyers obtained against Dansby Chemical. Dansby had found a blockbuster product in a chicken feed additive that proved remarkable at promoting tissue development in poultry. However, Dansby had made a deliberate effort to conceal the fact that its miracle product was comprised almost entirely of arsenic. Thousands upon thousands had unwittingly sunk their teeth into juicy, arsenic-laced legs of chicken. Murphy and his cohorts represented a number of plaintiffs who had developed acute arsenic poisoning, and the estate of one individual who had died of the same. Justice had been served, and Cornelius Murphy had achieved wealth beyond his wildest dreams as a result. So, today, though Murphy continued to come into the office at 8:30 every morning and not leave until around 6:00 p.m., his level of anxiety was diminished greatly. More often than not, you could find him lounging on his leather couch, a copy of the Wall Street Journal spread open before him, a steaming cup of coffee on the table beside him. David sometimes heard Murphy’s voice floating through the hallways as he talked on the phone, and his talk usually surrounded his father’s estate, or some piece of art he was attempting to purchase. The walls of Murphy’s office were covered with large Western landscapes—tan deserts punctuated by green cacti, a clear blue sky or a brilliant multicolored sunset overhead. It was a place of leisure and relaxation. This was, in fact, the only Cornelius Murphy young David Redding had ever known. To David, the man’s former life as a lethal attack dog was a thing of pure legend. David looked up from his book and met Murphy’s eye. He issued a nervous smile. “Mr. Murphy,” he said, and nodded politely.
“Hello there, young man,” said the old lawyer. “I didn’t know people your age used these books anymore.” David lifted the book appreciatively. He had no idea what it was. “Sometimes you’ve got to go back to the source,” he said. He was putting on his best attempt to seem jovial and good-humored. The old man leaned forward to inspect the volume. “Ah,” he said. “Mississippi cases, 1942. That’s an obscure one. We ordered that back in the 70’s. Had a dispute over a very old contract that was entered into here in Georgia, but governed by Mississippi law under its terms.” He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What exactly are you researching?” David chuckled nervously. “Oh, goodness,” he said. “I, uh. You know, I think I may have picked this one up by mistake, I. . . .” “You’re not pulling my leg, are you, son?” Mr. Murphy squinted and leaned in ever so slightly to catch the young man’s eyes. David felt his throat tighten. The man questioning him had won more jury trials than he could even imagine. This was a man who, at one point in his career, carried out cross-examinations with the same frequency as he drank water. A man who had penetrated the most obstinate witness, who had exposed even the most well-crafted lies to jury after jury. David knew his match, and he gave up. “I guess I am pulling your leg, sir. I had been sitting here alone, enjoying the quiet.” “I see.” Mr. Murphy looked at the young man for a moment longer, studying his expression. “How is your practice going, son?” he asked. David hesitated. In honesty, he felt at this particular moment that his practice was going horribly. He had come to the library to commiserate in silence. He wanted to burst into tears. He wanted to collapse into this old lawyer’s arms, and tell him all his troubles. But he didn’t do that, of course. Instead, he swallowed those feelings, and said, “oh, great, sir!” David heard
the crack in his own voice. He knew he was perpetrating a transparent façade. The old man studied David’s face for another moment. “Well, I had come in here to do a little research myself—some real research,” he said, giving David a mildly scolding glance. “But why don’t you have a seat. I’d like to hear about your cases.” Mr. Murphy gestured to the round wooden table that sat in the center of the law library. David closed the old Mississippi casebook and put it back on the shelf, where it would probably remain forever. He followed Mr. Murphy to the table and took a seat in a rigid wooden chair. “Any particular case on your mind?” Mr. Murphy asked. The young man smiled. Again, he laughed nervously, and looked down at the table, avoiding Mr. Murphy’s eyes. He was reminded once again that this was a man who had made his living reading people, had made a name for himself discerning hidden truths, teasing out hidden facts. Mr. Murphy seemed instinctively to know that something was troubling David’s mind. More than that, he seemed to care. And David saw no use fighting it. “Yes sir,” he said. “I guess you could say that there was one particular case on my mind.” “I can see that,” the old man said. “Lose a big motion? Trouble with opposing counsel? Difficult client?” “All of the above, I guess you could say.” “Aha,” the old man said. “The triple whammy.” This brought a smile to David’s face. A real smile, something he hadn’t had all day. “Tell me about it,” the old man said. David sighed and began to spin his tale of woe. ***
When kind old Nina Fuller shuffled into David’s office, hobbling along on her one good leg, her face bruised and scratched from some awful accident, visions of dollar bills danced in the young man's head. When Mrs. Fuller told David about the careless busboy who had smashed into her, his arms loaded with dishes as he rushed through Ralph's Restaurant, David licked his lips. He imagined Christmas morning, when he would present his wife with the new Lexus he had seen on television, an oversized red bow adorning its roof. Ralph's was a national chain that had just come to Tulluh County. They were solvent, that was for sure, and this seemed like a case of clear liability. The case represented David’s best opportunity yet to bring home some bacon. Mrs. Fuller spoke with a small, sweet voice. There was a bit of strain in each word she uttered, revealing some dull pain beneath her placid surface. Even as she struggled through her speech, she smiled, and crunched her chin slightly into her neck, shyly, sheepishly, embarrassed by her afflictions, not wanting to cause a fuss. The perfect client, David thought to himself. A genuine injury suffered by a genuine person, someone who wasn't out to exaggerate her suffering, who wasn't acting out in search of a windfall. “Why don't you start by giving me a Cliff's Notes version of what happened to you on that day,” he said. “I'll ask you some more details later, but give me the basics.” “Well,” Mrs. Fuller began sheepishly. “It was the Sunday before last. They just opened that Ralph's, right over there in front of where the old Wal-Mart used to be. You know, the one they shut down right before they put up the Supercenter?” “Oh yeah, there by the Hardee's. Real nice.”
“Yes, real nice,” she said, emphasizing the almost incredibly quality of the new eatery. “Well, anyways, I wanted to try it, so Butch told me he'd take me after church. Woo, was it crowded! Everybody in Tulluh County was there, seemed like. It was like when they opened the Chick-Fil-A, you remember that? First two weeks, cars wrapped around the place all day and night waiting for the drive through. Couldn't hardly find a place to sit down inside. You remember that?” “Oh yeah.” “Well, that's what Ralph's was like that Sunday. Everybody had the same idea we did, I guess. Anyways, after we finally got sat down—we waited probably 30 minutes—they brought us out a big basket full of those Ralph's Rolls, you know what I'm talking about? Those big, fat, buttery rolls? They just bring you out a big basket of those things, for free, before you even order your lunch. It's really something else. I liked to have filled up on those rolls before my sandwich ever come out. Butch said to me, shoot, he said, somebody could just come in here and sit down and drink water and eat on these rolls until they were full. He said, I can't believe nobody's ever thought of that before. Well, I ordered a fried flounder sandwich. Butch got himself those baby back ribs, and a baked potato. He always gets a baked potato whenever we go out to eat. I try to tell him, he ought not to eat so much starch, but he just won't listen.” “That's really something. Mrs. Fuller, let's skip ahead to the injury. What happened?” “Well,” she said, “It was one of them Mexican boys. The ones that carry the dirty dishes back to the kitchen, you know? We had just gotten up to go. I picked up my little box with the other half of my sandwich in it. I had eaten so many of those rolls I could hardly finish my sandwich. We walked through the dining area, past all the other tables, and we had nearly made it to door, when, BAM! Well, honey, I didn’t know what had hit me.
And next thing you know, I'm laying on the ground. My head is throbbing. And I'm just trying to figure out where I am. Eventually I was able to sit up. I tried to push myself up onto my legs, but my left knee just gave out. I couldn’t stand. And, oh, that knee hurt.” “How did you figure out who had knocked you over?” “Butch saw it, it was the Mexican boy.” “Did you go to the emergency room?” “Well, no. A police officer came out and took a report. And then I just asked Butch to take me home. I figured I'd go see Dr. Killingsworth the next day. Which I did. At first I thought I was going to be ok. And then that night my knee just started to hurt more and more. And my back started to bother me. So, the next day, I went and saw the doctor. He took an x-ray. Said I tore a ligament in my knee. Said I might have torn something in my back, too. That, plus a concussion.” David sat with Mrs. Fuller for another hour or so, getting as much information as he could. More details about the layout of the restaurant, the identity of any witnesses. He was a little surprised when the only witness she identified was her husband, Butch. She didn’t know the names of anyone who had witnessed the fall. But, he’d seen stranger. He had Mrs. Fuller execute a medical release and signed her up on a 40% contingency. She didn't balk at all when he explained that 40% of any recovery would go toward his fee. Best kind of client you can have, he thought. At the end of their meeting, David led Mrs. Fuller to the back door. He opened the door for her, and saw a large, bald man sitting in an old grey coupe, waiting for her in the gravel parking lot behind the firm. That must be Butch, he thought. He waved to the man. Butch gave a shallow nod in return. After he’d seen Mrs. Fuller off, he called to his paralegal. “Cathy,” he said, “get the police report on this thing, would you please? And send a
release out to Dr. Killingsworth for the medicals. And could you put together a spoliation notice to Ralph’s? We need them to preserve the surveillance footage. You know the drill.” “No problem,” Cathy answered. *** David thought that Ralph's corporate office would have retained one of the big Atlanta firms to defend the case. Believe it or not, this would have been ideal. The big boys tended to settle these small-town cases. If you could show them evidence of liability, document the medical bills, and convince them you had some hook to your case—a gruesome injury photo, a sympathetic plaintiff, a hated defendant—the Atlanta firms were inclined to settle. The last thing they wanted was to come down to Tulluh County, in their Brooks Brothers suits, and stand trial before a jury full of locals. Horror stories of million dollar verdicts in tiny superior courts were often repeated (though usually exaggerated) among members of the bar. Instead, to David’s horror, Ralph’s hired Charlie Danger. Believe it or not, that was the man’s real name. Charlie was a great lawyer: thorough in his investigations, knowledgeable of the law, eloquent in the courtroom. But what made him dangerous was his charm, his Charlie Danger persona. Charlie was well known and well liked among the Tulluh County bar and bench. He was tall and handsome, with a head full of golden hair and a wide grin of porcelain-white teeth. David was a perfectly good-looking guy in his own right, he thought—physically fit, symmetrical face, a respectable amount of hair left on his head—but next to Charlie Danger, he felt squat and ugly. David felt a pain in his gut when he got Charlie’s response to the spoliation notice. “Ralph’s policy is to maintain all surveillance video for a
period of seven days, except in the event of an injury or other event that may give rise to a legal claim,” it read. “Ralph’s has no record of any incident, as described in your letter, on the aforementioned date. Therefore, any surveillance footage has been destroyed.” That bastard, David thought. Destroying evidence and playing dumb. David saw an opportunity to be aggressive, to be merciless, just as he’d known Cornelius Murphy and Don Fender and the other great plaintiff’s lawyers to be. It was time to make a stand, he thought. To add David Redding’s name to the list of greats. Normally, David would have waited until all the medical records were in, all the police reports gathered, before moving forward with a lawsuit. In most cases, he’d issue a demand letter, and try to get the opposing party’s view of the case before filing the complaint in court. But this could be my first great case, he thought. Charlie Danger needs to learn who he’s messing with. It’s time I made my mark. David worked late into the night, preparing his Complaint for Damages. Along with the Complaint, he drafted a Motion for Spoliation Sanctions, asking that Ralph’s be deemed liable as a matter of law, that their ability to take depositions be limited, that they be assessed attorneys’ fees, due to their destruction of the surveillance footage. It was an aggressive paper, David thought to himself. It gave him great excitement to write it. He prepared an affidavit for Mrs. Fuller’s signature, setting forth the factual details of the incident at Ralph’s. He printed out the pleadings, signed them, and made service copies. He laid the documents out on his desk and looked over his handiwork, these brilliant legal instruments, prepared by his own learned hand and illuminated by his desk lamp. I’ll teach Charlie Danger not to underestimate David Redding, he thought. First thing next morning, David asked Cathy to get in touch with the Sheriff’s Office to check on the police report. One came through the fax
machine just a few minutes later. He looked it over, and sure enough, a deputy had gone out to Ralph’s on the day in question. Mrs. Fuller had told the deputy the same thing she told him. There wasn’t a lot of detail in the report, but that wasn’t irregular for a civil matter of this nature, where there were no criminal allegations. Mrs. Fuller came by the office around lunchtime to sign her affidavit. Just like before, she’d come in alone, while Butch waited out in the car. She hobbled in on the same pair of crutches. The bruises on her face seemed to have healed. David reminded her to keep all her doctor’s appointments, and to keep him updated on her course of treatment, and she said she would. It was a sunny summer day in Tulluh County. David felt adrenaline rushing through his veins. He bounced down the sidewalk through historic downtown, to the storied county courthouse, with the pleadings gripped in his hands. He felt the sun shining down upon his face. He was leaning into this case, he thought to himself. He wasn’t taking any crap from Charlie Danger. *** Charlie Danger rose from his seat behind counsel’s table. “Good morning judge,” he said, and smiled. David looked up at Charlie’s golden hair, which seemed to glimmer in the sunlight pouring through the tall windows on each side of the grand old courtroom. Charlie’s grin was enormous and perfect, like something out of a magazine advertisement for toothpaste. David couldn’t help but notice the judge smiling back at Charlie, unable to resist the man’s friendly, inviting face. “May it please the court, Charles Danger for the defendant, Ralph’s Restaurants. We stand in opposition to this spoliation motion. We look forward to calling our witnesses.”
“Very well, then,” said Judge Evans. The judge nodded to David. “Counselor, this is your motion, call your first witness.” “Thank you, your honor. I’d like to call Mrs. Nina Fuller.” David gestured to his client, who sat next to him at the plaintiff’s table. She stood. David gestured toward the witness stand. Mrs. Fuller moved toward the front of the courtroom. Charlie Danger stood. “I apologize, your honor. There was an oversight on my part. I’d ask that we invoke the rule of sequestration. There are some individuals in court at the moment who may be called as witnesses.” “Alright then, who would that be?” “We may wish to call Mr. Butch Fuller, your honor. I believe I recognize him there on the second row.” Charlie turned to where Butch was sitting, stone-faced and stiff, on the second row of the gallery behind the plaintiff’s table. Butch flinched ever so slightly. Then his brows furrowed into a frown. “Any objections?” asked the judge, looking at David. “Certainly not to invoking the rule, your honor. I had not contemplated that Mr. Fuller would be a witness today, but I. . . .” “Well,” the judge said. “He was present for the injury, was he not?” “Well, yes, your honor, he was.” “I’d say he’s fair game, if you or Mr. Danger want to call him. So I’ll invoke the rule. Mr. Fuller, if you could please step into the lobby and have a seat. One of the bailiffs here will come and get you if you’re needed to testify.” David thought he saw Butch’s frowning, narrow eyes lock onto his wife’s for a moment. There was some communication between the two of them, but David could not discern exactly what. Butch stood and lumbered out of the courtroom.
Mrs. Fuller took the stand, and David ran through the same questions they’d gone through on the date of their first meeting. She told of her Sunday lunch with Butch, and the busboy who had knocked her down. She left out her dissertation on Ralph’s “free rolls” deal. That’s good witness preparation, David thought to himself. Charlie Danger stood. He strode gracefully to the podium. He’d brought some papers with him to the stand. He looked down at them calmly and flipped through the pages. “Good morning, Mrs. Fuller,” he said, finally. He looked up at the witness and displayed his wonderful smile. Mrs. Fuller smiled back, helpless to resist his charm. “Good morning,” she said. “Mrs. Fuller,” he began. “You made a police report on the day in question, isn’t that right?” “Yes, sir. I did.” “May I approach the witness, your honor?” Charlie held a piece of paper up for the judge to see. “You may.” Charlie brought the paper forward and handed it to Mrs. Fuller. “Do you recognize this document?” he asked her. “I don’t,” she said. “I’ll represent to the court that this is a copy of the police report from the day of the alleged incident. I’d ask my brother if he’d stipulate to its authenticity?” Charlie looked over his shoulder at David. “No objections, your honor. I’ll stipulate,” David said. “It’s admitted,” said the judge. Charlie continued. “Ma’am, it would appear from the report here that you met the deputy in the parking lot outside the establishment, is that right?” “Yes sir, that’s correct.”
“Now remind me, what time did you say you were leaving Ralph’s that day, right before the accident happened?” “Oh, I’d say around one, one-thirty. Right after lunch.” After she’d said this, she looked down at the police report and scanned its contents. “I see you’re already looking at the report, ma’am,” Charlie said. “There is a notation here from Deputy Medcalf that she took your statement at fourteen-hundred and thirty hours,” do you see that? “Yes, I see it.” “Now, that’s military time, isn’t it? In laypeople’s time, that would translate into 2:30 p.m., isn’t that right?” “I suppose so.” “As you read the notation there, Mrs. Fuller, does it change in any way your recollection of what time you met with the deputy?” “It may have been more like 2:30, I’m just not sure.” “Now, Mrs. Fuller, why is it that you were in the parking lot at the time of the police contact? Is there some reason you didn’t wait there in the restaurant? I believe you said your knee was hurting, your head was aching? Is there some reason you moved out of the place, all the way to the car, before calling the police?” “Well, I think Butch called the police while we were in the restaurant there. And. . . . well, we were just so mad about what had happened, you know, that we decided we’d get on out of there. We just decided to wait in the car for the officer to arrive.” “I see.” David sneaked his eyes up toward Judge Evans, trying to gauge his view of the testimony. The judge was raising a single eyebrow, though ever so slightly. It was a look of skepticism, David thought. As David was watching the judge, the judge’s eyes turned down and locked for a moment
with David’s. David looked away suddenly. He gulped. He turned his eyes to the notes in front of him and pretended to write something down. Charlie thumbed through the papers that remained on the podium. He pulled out several documents, each held together by paperclips, and examined them. He turned and placed a document in front of David, without looking at him. “May I approach the bench, your honor?” “You may.” Charlie walked to the bench and handed a copy of the same document up to the judge. The judge reached down to take it. Charlie placed a copy of the document in front of Mrs. Fuller. “Mrs. Fuller,” he asked. “Do you recognize the document I’ve placed in front of you?” She studied it carefully. David observed what he thought was panic in Mrs. Fuller’s countenance. Her hand shook. Her eyes blinked rapidly. Her breathing grew heavier; he could see her shoulders moving up and down, her chest heaving in and out. She cleared her throat. “I’m not sure that I do,” she said. David was looking at the same document, and he too felt panic. It was the panic of seeing something you had not expected, had not prepared for. The document was a booking report for Butch Fuller. Earlier that year, according to the report, Butch had been arrested for domestic violence. The victim: one Nina Fuller. According to the report, a neighbor had called the police after she heard a commotion at the Fuller residence. The police showed up to find Butch surly and reeking of alcohol. The police found Mrs. Fuller in a back bedroom with the door closed. It appeared she was hiding. She had a large, visible bruise just below her left eye. The same place she’d been bruised after the accident at Ralph’s, David thought. According to the report, Mrs. Fuller had insisted that she fell, and begged the police not to arrest Butch. The police decided to arrest Butch anyway.
According to the report, as they led Butch to the police car, Mrs. Fuller had come to the front door, and was screaming, “I told them you didn’t do nothing, Butch! I told them, and they wouldn’t listen! I promise, baby, I promise!” David stood. “Objection, your honor,” he said. “There is no one here to properly authenticate this document. Mrs. Fuller didn’t create it. Of course, she has no ability to testify to its validity.” The judge looked at Charlie. Charlie said, “Oh, goodness, I apologize. I forgot the authentication form.” He returned to his podium and pulled three pages from his stack. He handed a copy to David, and brought a second to the judge. “Your honor,” he said, “I have a notarized authentication form here from the Tulluh County Sheriff’s Office. This ought to permit the introduction of the document. I apologize, I should have included that with the original exhibit.” He did that on purpose, David thought. He drew the objection from me just to embarrass me, just to hear the panic in my voice. David felt humiliated and powerless. “Counsel?” The judge looked at David. “In light of this form, your honor, I suppose I’ll have to withdraw my objection.” That was all he could say. “Now, Mrs. Fuller, I’d like to ask you some questions about the things that are described in that document. But first, let me show you one other.” Charlie pulled the next document from his stack. He gave one to David, one to the judge, and carried one to Mrs. Fuller. “And this time,” he said with a smile, “I’ve included the authentication form.” David looked at the paper in front of him. It was a criminal history report for one Butch Fuller. Forgery, 1st degree, convicted. Theft by deception, convicted. Forgery, 1st degree (a second incident!), convicted. Assault and battery, convicted. Methamphetamine (methamphetamine?!),
convicted. Driving Under the Influence, two separate occasions, convicted each time. According to the rap sheet, Butch had been released from his latest stint in the state prison only weeks prior to the day that Mrs. Fuller had appeared in his office. David felt the blood drain from his face. He felt gloom pour into his heart. “Are you familiar with any of the offenses listed on this report, Mrs. Fuller?” Charlie asked. Mrs. Fuller did not immediately answer. Her chest began once again to heave. She looked down at the paper blankly. David felt he should object, but now that the authentication issue had been closed, he could not think of a valid basis, other than “this hurts my case.” Of course, David realized, none of this proved anything. So what if she was married to a scumbag? That doesn’t mitigate the fact that was bowled over by an employee of Ralph’s restaurant. But now, was he so sure that was a fact? It’s totally irrelevant, he thought. Ah, yes, relevance! The obvious objection! But why hadn’t that objection come to his mind immediately? Was it because he knew, even if not strictly relevant in a legal sense, that this new information was profoundly relevant? Isn’t this the sort of information that would have impacted his decision to file this lawsuit so quickly? Would he have been so cavalier if he’d known Butch was a career hustler? A wife-beater? Isn’t this the kind of information that would have impacted his decision to take the case at all? He felt he’d been duped. But, he realized, it was his own fault: he hadn’t asked the right questions. He dove in without looking where he was going. David felt trapped. Instinctively, he knew where this was all heading. But he stood anyway. “Objection, your honor. There is no relevance to these documents. This is a case about whether my client was injured by an employee of Ralph’s Restaurant—the criminal history of her husband has
nothing whatsoever to do with it. This is an attempt by my opposing counsel to muddy the waters.” “Counsel?” The judge looked to Charlie Danger. Charlie issued a knowing smile. He knew David would make this objection. “Your honor, as we have no jury before us today, I’d ask the court for a little leeway on these evidentiary matters. I have more evidence for the court today, and I believe the relevance of these records will become increasingly clear as we go along.” “I’m going to allow the questioning,” Judge Evans said. “And I’ll decide how much weight, if any, to give the evidence.” David could hear something akin to sympathy in the judge’s voice. And indeed, just as Charlie Danger had promised, Butch’s criminal records seemed more and more relevant as the proceedings moved along. Charlie presented the testimony of Ralph’s restaurant manager, who testified very plainly, very matter-of-fact, about the company’s records retention policy. The manager explained the training he received in making incident reports and preserving surveillance footage. He explained the importance of preserving footage any time there was an injury or accident, or even an irate customer. And, of course, he testified that there had been no report of any incident whatsoever on the day in question. Charlie called Deputy Medcalf, who had taken the report in Ralph’s parking lot. The deputy testified that Butch did most of the talking in the parking lot that day. That Mrs. Fuller had stood there, nodding in agreement. When Charlie asked the deputy—who was female—whether she had any misgivings, any concerns about the veracity of the report, she began to nod her head yes. David objected before the deputy could vocalize her answer. The judge overruled the objection without comment. The deputy said Mrs. Fuller looked frightened. She said Mrs. Fuller fit the profile of an abused spouse.
It was all David could do to keep himself calm during the presentation of Charlie’s case. He felt in his gut that his client had been exposed as a liar—or, at the very least, an accomplice to someone else’s lie. He knew in his heart that his case was based on a falsehood. He knew he had been used as a tool in Butch Fuller’s attempt to extract money from an innocent defendant and provide cover for the abuse of his wife. Of course, none of that had been definitively proven at this hearing. But he knew it in his heart. He knew in his conscience that he was on the wrong side of the case. *** Judge Evans denied the spoliation motion. There were many judges who would have taken the opportunity to chastise David for filing a motion like this with so little information, for seeking such severe sanctions without a significant evidentiary basis, for wasting the court’s time. But Judge Evans didn’t do any of these things. Upon denying the motion, he said simply, “I would encourage counsel to get together and try to get this case resolved.” It was his courteous, calm way of saying that he didn’t want to see this one back in his courtroom. David was lucky that Judge Evans was so patient. As David exited the courtroom, he felt defeat and humiliation. He had initiated the litigation with fire in his blood, a determination to destroy his opponent and enrich himself with the spoils. He had walked into the courtroom that day atop a pedestal he built for himself, one he imagined in his own mind. The flimsiness of that pedestal had been revealed by an attorney with the experience, the patience, and the preparation, to see its weakness from far away.
Butch Fuller was sitting on a bench in the lobby outside the courtroom. He stood and looked at David. He ignored his wife, who scooted out behind David. “Well?” he said. “The judge denied our motion,” David said. He could not hide his dejection. He was doing his best to hide his anger toward Butch Fuller. He knew it wouldn’t get him anywhere, not at this moment. “Ok,” Butch said, unmoved. “Well, what’s next?” David looked at Butch blankly. He was forcing all emotion from his expression, trying to remain neutral, professional. He took slow, measured breaths. He wanted to tell Butch to get out of his sight and never to call him again. But instead, David said, “let’s sit down over there,” and gestured toward a bench further away from the courtroom door. David followed the couple to the far bench and sat down next to them. “Listen,” he said. “I have to be very frank with you. I am concerned about where this case is going. To put it very plainly, I believe we are unlikely to prove your case. You have no witnesses, other than you, Butch. The manager denies there ever was an incident. Plus, Butch, your criminal history is going to present a huge problem. Your credibility as a witness is severely undermined. My advice is that we look for a way to wind this down. I can do that for you, but I can’t continue to prosecute the case. I don’t see a way to win.” As he spoke, David was looking at Mrs. Fuller—who was, after all, his client. Her face was blank and expressionless. It was Butch who stood and responded. “Sounds to me like you’re giving up!” He was angry. “What kind of attorney are you? You can’t just turn tail on us! You can’t go chicken! You work for us. You do what we say, not the other way around!” David took a deep breath. He cleared his throat. He tried to speak quietly, to keep the conversation confidential. “Mr. Fuller, I understand your frustration. Part of my obligation as your wife’s attorney is to be frank.
And ethically, where I do not believe a case has a reasonable likelihood of success, I cannot continue. Sometimes, I have to make a judgment call.” Butch looked down at his wife. “I told you we needed a lawyer who was more experienced than this! Not this kid!” He looked back at David. “This is a slam dunk case! Mexican boy ran into her was probably in the country illegally! They’ll settle just to avoid the bad press! Why haven’t you gone to the media!” David was the type to always listen to his clients, to always keep an open mind that they might have more information than himself, that they might be able to change his mind. And though he knew in his heart he was doing the right thing, these challenges from Butch ate at him. Maybe I really am being a quitter, he thought. Maybe it’s my obligation to see this thing through. But his instinct, his gut realization, spoke louder. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I encourage you to get a second opinion, and I am happy to refer you to one of my colleagues. But I can’t continue down this path.” Butch looked at David with wide, angry eyes. He held his arms out to his side and clenched his fists. He breathed loudly. He seemed to clench his teeth. David returned Butch’s glare with calm, unmoving eyes. If he had harbored a modicum of doubt as to whether he was doing the right thing, Butch’s angry eyes resolved that doubt finally. “Let’s go, Nina,” Butch said to his wife. Mrs. Fuller quietly and compliantly turned toward her husband. She didn’t look at David at all. “This isn’t over. You’ll hear from the state bar,” Butch said, and he pointed an accusing finger into David’s face. Then, Butch turned and stomped out of the courthouse, Mrs. Fuller shuffling behind him. David watched them exit. David turned toward the door to the courtroom, where Charlie Danger was standing, watching.
*** “And this all happened today?” Mr. Murphy asked. David looked at his watch. “A little over an hour ago,” he said. Mr. Murphy smiled. “Well,” he said. “You told the story well. I imagine you’ll make a good trial lawyer.” David turned down his face and laughed quietly. “Young man, I won’t lie to you. You jumped into those waters without adequate preparation. You young plaintiff’s lawyers, all you’ve ever heard is ‘be aggressive.’ And there’s some truth to that, of course. But aggressive doesn’t mean reckless. You threw caution to the wind.” “I know, I. . . .” “But,” Mr. Murphy interceded. “What if things had gone differently? What if the risk had played out in your favor? You wouldn’t be coming in here to hide. You’d be bounding down the halls, crowing about the whoopin’ you put on old Charlie Danger. And you’d be on your way to a good, early settlement. Wasn’t that result equally as likely? Problem is, you jumped in without looking. “If you’re going to practice law that way, fine. But be prepared to get bitten in the rear as many times as not. Most people don’t have the stomach to take so much punishment. I know I don’t, not any more at least. “I’ve taken many risks in my career. Made a lot of dumb mistakes, too. Especially when I was younger. But as I got older, I learned to identify which risks were worth taking, and which ones to avoid. And you know how I developed that skill?” David had an idea. But he said, “how?” “By taking the risks. By making the mistakes. By doing what you did today. And getting stung, over and over again, like a bear digging in a tree
for a honeycomb. Each time I got stung, it hurt. It hurt real bad. But over time, I learned to distinguish a bumblebee from a fruit fly. I learned what to reach out and grab, and what to stay away from. I learned when to jump and when to lay back and wait. But not before enduring a lot of pain. If you’re going to represent plaintiffs, young man, you’re going to have to endure a lot more days like the one you had today. After awhile, if you’ve got the endurance, you’ll start to win. But it will take a while.” David nodded. He didn’t dare say a word. He was so immensely grateful for this counsel, this encouragement, this wisdom. “This case will haunt you for a little while,” said Mr. Murphy. “You’ll lay awake in your bed at night, thinking about the humiliation you felt in the courtroom today. You’ll replay your meetings with the client and kick yourself for not seeing the warning signs. You’ll be sitting at dinner with your family, and the image of that man yelling at you in the courthouse will appear like an uninvited guest to ruin your meal. Shoot, you may even have to respond to a bar complaint, if the man is serious. But it will fade. Over time, it will fade. You’ll become engrossed in your other cases, and time will move forward.” David sat there, nodding, looking graciously at Mr. Murphy. “You have children?” Mr. Murphy asked. “Yes sir, a little girl. Just turned three.” “What a wonderful age,” Mr. Murphy said, and smiled. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? Go and spend some time with that little girl. That’s something I wish I’d done more of when I was your age. Don’t miss the opportunity.” David’s sense of gratitude grew to the point that he felt he would cry. “I appreciate that, sir,” he said. “Good luck, son,” said Mr. Murphy. He stood and reached his hand out to David.
“Now,” said Mr. Murphy. “I really do need to look at some of these books.” “Yes, sir,” David said, and exited the library. *** “Higher!” “This is as high as you can go! You’ll fall out if I push any harder!” “Higher, daddy, higher!” “This is as high as I can push!” David laughed and continued this unwinnable debate with little Zelda. She really did look like she might fall out onto her head each time the swing reached its forward crest. He had pushed her in this swing enough times to know she wouldn’t fall out, though, held in by centrifugal force or whatever magical power kept children from flying out of these bucket-seated swings. The evening sun warmed the back of his arms, its summer rays now filtered by the forest of trees behind him. A breeze blew through the air and cooled his face. He entered into a blissful sort of hypnosis, watching his sweet girl swing out, and then back in, out and in, over and again. He listened to the children around him, running around the park, laughing and squealing and squabbling among themselves as they relished the cooling of the air on this summer evening. In his hypnosis, the thoughts swam freely about his brain. Of course, the images from the morning came into his view more than once, just as Mr. Murphy had said they would. The shouts of Butch Fuller, the humiliation in his gut as Judge Evans caught his wandering eye, the helplessness he felt to undo his mistakes.
But Mr. Muphy’s words had cleared out a little space for other thoughts to swim into the frame. He thought about the Johnson case, the young man whose motorcycle tire had blown just minutes after he’d purchased it, causing him to fall and break his arm, yet the insurance company wouldn’t offer him a dime. He thought about the Kerry matter, and his client who was told, in front of witnesses, that she was “too old” to be a good pharmaceutical sales rep, hours before she had been fired. He thought about the Terrance matter, and his client who’d been arrested and detained for weeks, without probable cause, almost certainly due to the color of his skin. He began to think about how he would litigate those cases, how he would win them, how we would vindicate his clients. David had endured today’s stings. They were already beginning to heal. He would go back into battle soon, stronger and smarter. He pushed his little girl higher in the swing, thought of the challenges awaiting him, and his smile grew wider.