(Although the Hinterland trial is finished and I’m back home, I’ve been asked by our lead attorneys to not write publicly about what occurred. If anyone has questions about what took place, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will make a good faith effort to answer every one of them as openly as possible.
As I mentioned in my post of 9/4/11, (LABOR DAY IN THE HINTERLAND–09/04/2011), my work with the law has pretty much ended with this last trial. As I begin to move on though, thoughts about the early years working with Ron dance through my mind.
My very first case, for example, where an elderly widow sued a uranium enrichment plant for withholding medical information about her husband who died from liver cancer caused by the particularly toxic chemical the plant used on a regular basis.
I’ll never forget the widow on the stand, telling about how she and her husband learned the news of his impending death. Weeks earlier the plant offhandedly suggested he check in with his regular doctor (even though the plant’s hospital and doctors had been his regular doctors throughout the 40 years he’d worked there). He went to a local doctor that he knew, who sent him to another town to see a liver specialist. The couple decided to celebrate their wedding anniversary dinner by having dinner in the liver specialist’s town so they could pick up the results.
The widow drove home alone that night. The moment the specialist saw them, he immediately admitted her husband into the hospital. They never had that year’s anniversary dinner and damn few others.
When she finished testifying there was complete silence; the depth of emotion echoed silently in the courtroom. The judge adjourned the case for the day. My heart was heavy as we walked to our car and then I overhead a defense lawyer burst out laughing about her testimony. Luckily Ron noticed, grabbed me from behind, and pulled me away. Though I know it made sense given the trial, I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to slam his fat, laughing face. Well, we lost that case but rather than face a long, drawn out appeal, the defense offered her an extremely generous settlement. I still have a thank you letter from that widow pinned to my office wall.
Then there was our campaign get the D.C. Metro to pay for houses and apartments they damaged while building three underground subway stations in a poor, Black neighborhood the city wanted to gentrify. A lot of footwork tracking down people who lived in the community. Trudging through a drug house to check on individual apartments that might have been damaged. Then, after going door-to-door sitting on their stoop while they were getting high trying to elicit names and addresses. Pretty damn crazy. But we were able to negotiate fixes for all those we did find, and forced the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to create a pool of money for those we didn’t. The aftermath has been the continuing friendships we’ve maintained with many of the people we met on that mission.
Early on in my connection to the firm, an F.B.I. agent hired us to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against DC’s government. His wife, also an F.B.I. agent, was assigned to work with the D.C. Cold Case Squad. Just like the TV show, this unit tries to solve old murders the police are no longer investigating. Their headquarters were situated in a multi-purpose government building that also housed, for example, their Department of Motor Vehicles, so the building had people traipsing in and out all day long. One day a man (wanted for murder) strolled into the building with a rifle, took the elevator up to the seventh floor and walked down the hall looking for the Homicide offices. He mistakenly ended up in Cold Case, where he proceeded to shoot everyone in sight. Our client’s wife was able to wound the assailant, but died in the conflict.
Now there’s this thing in the law called Sovereign Immunity, which basically means you can’t sue the government because of governmental policies. So, for example, if you’re mugged on the street corner, you can’t sue the city for not having a cop on that corner. Their response would simply be: our policies don’t include having police in that particular location. However, you can overcome Sovereign Immunity if you can prove the city violated its own policies. So, in the example above, if it had been the city’s policy to have a policeman on that particular corner at that particular time and the policeman somehow failed to do his duty, i.e. protect you from the mugging, or simply wasn’t there, then a lawsuit against the city is permissible. (Lawyers out there, feel free to correct me if my explanation is either inadequate or inaccurate.)
The judge refused to hear the case claiming the city was protected by Sovereign Immunity. After a long arduous appeals process, we finally got the green light. Turns out that the City had a written policy in place that everyone walking in and out of that building was to be machine-screened or hand-wanded. A policy that had long been neglected (this was pre-9/1/1) and the day our client’s wife was killed was no different.
And so the trial ensued. I spent time developing juror profiles—a composite of the type person we most wanted on the jury and also of those who we didn’t want. I wrote a series of questions (voir dire) designed to elicit information to identify people we were interested in and prepped the plaintiff and other witnesses for their testimony about that day in the Squad. The trial began and then, from my spectator seat, I noticed a bulge in our client’s suitcoat. During the next break I asked him about it and was shown the gun that the F.B.I. issues to all their agents. The last thing in the world I wanted this jury to see was our client was packing—legal or not. We had an intense argument in the bathroom about his carrying it from the next day on. He accused me of being an anti-gun phobic, but then finally conceded that the jury probably wouldn’t like it either. He stopped wearing it to court.
We won the case going away; and although money is never, ever a real compensation for a beloved wife, our client was awarded a substantial amount. That night in the hotel “war room,” I finally put on my earrings that I’d taken off for the trial. Our client came over and said, “Never in a million years could I have imagined liking, even being a friend with someone like you.” My response was just as direct: “Never in a million years could I have imagined liking, even being a friend with someone likeyou.” And we both broke out laughing.
Years later he sent Sue and me airplane tickets to Chicago, so we could attend his remarriage. It was a lovely affair attended by lots of men with bulges in their suitcoats.
These have been just a few of the early memories that I have about my time working with Ron. I have no doubt there will be more posts to come with other memories about different times and cases. Feeling like you’ve done some good in the world stays with you. Sixteen years is a long time and saying goodbye is difficult.
The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live. ~Flora Whittemore