Friday, March 21, 2014

The wheels of justice grind


Walking up Amsterdam Avenue after a long day in court. (For those of you in other countries, here’s  insight into the US legal system…)

In 2007, someone tripped and fell over a surveyor stone embedded by the city of New York in front of the church many years ago. Since they missed the deadline to sue the city, they sued the church, the development company that was blocked from ever doing our plan, the construction company that never began it’s work and the company that provides the scaffolding for public safety. Over the years, all the other parties were released from the suit except the church.

Even though we had nothing to do with the stone, the argument was we were responsible for the deteroriated sidewalk edging the stone by the abutting sidewalk argument. And that we should have known and notified the city to come fix it.

It should have been simply an insurance matter for us, the company provides the lawyers and then pays off any damage settlement. Except in our case, the insurance company went bankrupt, the attorneys they hired failed to identify what the stone was and missed the deadline to file for summary judgment dismissal then jumped ship when the insurance company stopped paying.

What followed was a desperate search for attorneys, several false starts, at one point a threat from Presbytery that if we didn’t have an attorney in 24 hours, they’d take over the church (never really answering the question as to why  no church related attorneys would pitch in…) Finally my neighbor who is an auctioneer, therapist, singer-songwriter, entertainment booker and attorney stepped in, to keep the ball in the air, so to speak. And then hooked us up with a rising young trial lawyer, who was persuaded to take us on.

This week the case finally comes to trial. After seven years….But here’s what happens. The city court system is so jammed up that judges do everything they can do to persuade you to settle without trial. At the conference with the expediting judge, he says to the attorneys, loud enough for me to hear, Just pay them something to make it go away. She only wants $100000. That’s a bargain for your client. When my attorney declines, the judge says, Well, your client is making  a big mistake. But it’s probably not the first one…

I love that make it go away...You could make a good living suing people and collecting on the make it go aways...

So then we’re shuffled off to the actual trial judge who also makes one last try. Has there been an offer?she asks. I say to my attorney, Why should we offer anything? We have no responsibility. So he says, No your honor. She scowls and asks my attorney to approach the bench. He returns and says, Look, we have to offer something. So we decide to offer 30.

The suing attorney says she’ll have to speak to her client, who was not even there!
And then we break for lunch.

When we come back, she says, Nothing short of 100. So we will go to trial.

The jury is brought in. The suing attorney calls me to the stand and spends about 15 minutes trying to make me admit I’m only wearing my clergy collar to influence the jury. This woman is hard.

Walking up Amsterdam, I’m exhausted. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. That lull between the parade and the night time revelry. I stop in the Gate. Am happy to see RL and Pat O. This is a real Irish pub with Guinness. No green beer here.

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