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Just lucky sometimes

The scene: Closing arguments in an auto negligence case, being tried on liability first. Plaintiff’s attorney (me) goes first:

“Your honor, the defendant’s story that my client was making a U-turn on a road with one lane in each direction just doesn’t make much sense,” I said. “My client testified that he was turning left, which is consistent with his testimony about where he was going. A U-turn under those circumstances would be just about impossible — he was driving a huge Ford F-150. I drive a small Saturn and I couldn’t have made that U-turn.”

“Most attorneys would be embarrassed to admit that they drive a Saturn,” the judge interjected.

“Judge, I’m just not the Beamer-type,”  I replied.

That started a conversation about car preferences that had absolutely nothing to do with the case. After it was over, the judge ruled that she found my client credible and ruled for him on liability.

The judge said she would postpone the damages portion of the trial for 30 minutes so the parties could see if it were possible to work it out. It wasn’t, so my client testified for a few minutes about his injuries and medical treatment and the judge determined that his damages were worth $15,000. We filed for a maximum of $15,000, and I was surprised at the verdict, expecting maybe $7,000 on a good day.

I firmly believe that in most district court cases, the value of a lawyer isn’t so much the courtroom practice as all of the extraneous details. For example, in an automobile negligence case, lawyers typically assist their clients in processing Personal Injury Protection (PIP) applications, getting benefits paid, collecting medical bills and reports and generally just keeping things organized.

Most non-lawyers could probably handle a district court case on their own and the results would probably not be significantly different from those achieved by lawyers.

But this case left me scratching my head a little. Could it be that this judge just had some personal experience that translated into a firm belief about what even smaller auto accidents were worth? The judge did have a chance to “bond” with my client during the liability phase, and so maybe that increased the value.

I wondered if the tangent about the cars had anything to do with it. Maybe the judge felt that any lawyer driving a Saturn needs more money to afford a “better” car (sorry, judge — I’m paid by salary).  It probably didn’t change anything, but it probably didn’t hurt.

The lesson I got out of it, for lawyers and pro se litigants alike, is that it usually can’t hurt to (respectfully, of course) give the judge or jury a reason to pay attention. Judges in particular see hundreds and hundreds of these cases, many of them with similar facts. It’s probably a boring job much of the time.

That little exchange gave the judge something to do, and a reason to make the case a little more interactive. Maybe it had nothing to do with the verdict. Heck, it probably had nothing to do with the verdict.

But I’ll take what I can get.