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By: Wayne Brown
Often we hear the reference as to what a litigious society America has become. It’s quite true and I am certain that the circumstance has evolved because the only thing America has more of than rats is lawyers. They are interwoven into the fabric of our society like termites infested into an old wooden barn. Statistically, they say that only 10% of Americans ever really need a lawyer. If that is true, and I believe it might be, then there is no wonder that the old adage is true that one lawyer practicing in a town by himself will starve but two lawyers can make a damn good living. Most folks would agree with that premise I am sure.
I felt the sting of the lawyer’s bite many years ago and got a good feel for the term “negligence”. I would advise anyone who has not been sucked into the cesspool of wreck-chasing lawyers to stay alert and do everything in their power to stay out of any situation which might allow you to experience this dark world which operates under the umbrella of our democratic society using rather irrational logic as its justification. I think once you have heard my story that you might agree that this is the case.
I was in Houston, Texas on business. Houston is certainly not one of my favorite towns and I have this gut feeling that the very first redneck was birthed somewhere near there. Houston is terrible for traffic in the early morning hours, at noon, hell, all the time is probably the best thing to say. If they don’t have a traffic problem, they will quickly create one for you. That was the case on this day as I made my way southbound on I-45 through the downtown area of Houston on a bright sunny morning. All southbound lanes were running bumper to bumper but the joy of it all was that the traffic was still moving at a steady rate. I was relieved in that it seemed that I would make my 9:00 AM appointment on time.
I was driving in the middle lane of the southbound freeway watching the signs for an indication of my upcoming exit ramp. As we approached the exit for Scott Avenue, I was totally unaware that up ahead some idiot in a BMW decided that this was his exit so he came across two lanes and cut the cars off in the far right lane getting to the ramp. As he did so and sped away down the exit ramp the first car that he had cut off slammed on its brakes setting off a chain reaction of rear-enders in that lane that seemed to just go on and on. In the middle lane, life was serene. We were moving right along. In fact, the lane in front of me had opened up and was clear of traffic ahead of me for at least a hundred yards or so…all for no apparent reason.
At just that moment, in the right hand lane adjacent to mine, a driver in a sign installation bucket truck saw that he was going to be involved in the chain reaction rear-ending going on in the right lane. He quickly swerved to my lane but still hit the car in front of him which then turned him 90 degrees across my lane and to a sudden stop. That left me with no where to go as I had cars on either side of me and no time to get stopped before piling directly into the side of the stalled truck and watching the front of my car crumple up in slow motion. I remember thinking, “I really don’t need this today.”
Suddenly, the freeway is a mess and most of the lanes are now stopped. A man rushes up and taps on my window. He hands me his card. He is an editor with USA Today and he tells me that he saw the whole thing and will be glad to testify on my behalf. I am thinking, “Wow, I am just now accepting the fact that I was involved and you are already in court!” I thanked him and shoved the card in my pocket. By now police cars were beginning to arrive on the scene and they had only one purpose…clear the freeway as fast as possible. I was told to attempt to start my car and drive it. I was then directed down the off ramp to the parking area of an abandoned service station. The police divided the people into equal groups. My group met at the service station. Others met in different areas. I was never sure how many cars there were involved but I would estimate that the number had to be more than a two dozen.
There were six or eight people in my group. We parked our cars in the lot and got out to talk with the officer. He had us huddle around him and he immediately explained that we needed to get our paperwork and insurance in hand because he was about to write each one of us a traffic ticket. I said, “Wait a minute officer, you are going to give me a ticket…for what reason may I ask?” At that point, he turned to me and stated, “Sir, the law states that you must maintain control of your automobile at all times. Obviously you were just in an accident and sustained damages therefore you must not have been in control of your vehicle as the law clearly states.” To that I replied, “You better call someone because you are not giving me a ticket.” The officer then left and went to his cruiser to call his supervisor. Shortly he returned, had us all crowd around and stated, “Okay, I am giving everyone a ticket except Mr. Brown here.” Amazingly, all the others nodded their agreement and lined up to get their tickets.
I was able to drive my wrecked car home to the Dallas area although I had to make the trip in daylight hours as my headlights were pointed skyward now. At the time, I was also going through a divorce. This was the icing on the cake for me. At least I had survived and not had to leave my car in Houston for repairs. I guess that seemed to be the silver lining in that dark cloud. Little did I know but this was just the beginning of a long, frustrating experience that would outlast my divorce proceedings.
A few months passed and life fell into place again. My car was repaired, my divorce was final, and the stars were slowly realigning themselves in the heavens. I actually thought that I was on my way to “normal” wherever the hell that is. It was then that I received a visit from the local county constable who served with me legal papers. When I inquired as to the content of the papers thinking that it could only be another chapter in my divorce proceeding, I was shocked to hear the constable state, “You are the defendant in a negligence case”. “What!” I thought, having all but forgotten the accident in Houston months before. I tore into the papers and began to read. It only got worse.
I along with several others referred to in the legal papers as “etals” was being sued by the people who had been cut off by the exiting BMW on that sunny morning in Houston. My name was listed first on the defendant list as if I were the primary culprit. It seems that the participants in the accident had been listed in alphabetical order in the police report therefore my name came up first when the wreck-chasing lawyer was digging through the files. Well, up to now I have been mad. Now, I am madder than hell and I want to kick someone’s ass for including me in this frivolous charade.
I call my insurance company and inquire as to how they plan to participate in this kangaroo trial. They tell me to calm down and just take things in stride. They already have a lawyer to represent me on retainer in the Houston area. They will take care of everything. I need not worry, just let them handle it. I feel a sense of relief and hope that justice will be served and things put into their proper place. I feel violated. I feel raped. I want the scales of justice to be realigned into their proper balance.
As promised by the insurance company, the lawyer calls me to discuss the case. I explain to her that I am being bamboozled and gave her the details of what had transpired on the freeway in Houston that fateful morning. She simply laughed and told me that I was taking this situation far too seriously. After all she said, “This is Texas, we sue everybody here and let the courts sort it out.” I reiterated my anger then pointed out that I was innocent and that this was a travesty of the judicial process. Again she laughed and pointed out that I really could not make such a claim and that I was probably guilty because, after all, I had been involved in an accident therefore I must be at least a portion of the blame. I could tell right away that me and this woman saw the situation in a totally different light.
Soon there was a process of depositional testimony and drawings as to what transpired in the accident. The police did nothing to cite a cause that was correct; they just ticketed everyone involved except me. Some Houston attorney who regularly peruses the police files or pays some local cop to tip him off every time there is a significant accident had filed the case on behalf of a Hispanic couple who had been the first car rear-ended. There was some question as to whether these folks could even speak English…all the better for the wreck-chasing lawyer.
Months went by with no real activity in the case. In the interim, I received a summons to appear in court in Houston to testify against a man who I had never heard of or met. I had no choice but to show up and see what was going on. As it turned out, this man was in the same accident. He had been driving a delivery truck and was traveling in the far right lane. He came over a slight hill only to find the accident already in place. He had to hit his brakes hard in an attempt to avoid the car in front of him. He also steered the truck off to the right. He did a pretty good job of it in that the only contact that he made was to brush the rear bumper of the car in front of him with his left front tire. The police cited him as “The Primary Cause of the Accident” because he was the last vehicle in line. It turned out that he had contested the ticket and asked to be tried for the charge. We sat beside each other in the courtroom waiting for the trial to start. He explained to me that if he was found guilty, he would lose his job.
We waited for most of the morning but court did not start as planned at 9:00 AM. Finally, as we neared the noon hour, an officer of the court emerged from the back and told us that a settlement had been reached and the case would not be tried. It turns out that the man’s lawyer had gained approval for him to plead “Nola Contendre” which is apparently either an old Latin term or a Hispanic one, which means that he is not guilty nor is he innocent but that he does have to pay a fine. I had to shake my head as I left the courthouse realizing that the court only cared about the fine in the first place.
Time ticks along and more months pass in succession. Now we are approaching two years since the lawsuit was first filed. I hear from my attorney that they judge has now sent word to the plaintiff’s lawyer to either try the case or he is going to throw it out of court. Again, I am relieved for it sounds like the plaintiff’s case may not be strong enough to go to court and succeed. Once again, my naïve understanding of our legal system was going to bite me in the butt.
After several more weeks, I had not heard from my lawyer. I could not believe it was taking this long to get this case to trial. I wanted to see justice carried out and I wanted to see myself vindicated from these accusations. To my surprise, one of the legal aides in the lawyer’s office tells me that my case is over. She then immediately transfers me to the lawyer to get the details. As you will remember, the judge had instructed the plaintiff’s lawyer that he must try the case or drop it. Apparently this was the bluff that had been played not only in this case but in every one. The plaintiff does not want to go to trial and the defendants are hoping that he will not. The plaintiff wants to settle out of court and keeps the bluff in place in the hopes that the defendants will come to the table. My lawyer advised me that the case had been settled and she gleefully added that I would be happy to know that she contributed $1,000 to the settlement in my name to arrive at the terms. In other words, all the lawyers got to together and worked out a deal. I was tossed in the trash so that the insurance company could forego defending my good name. In doing so, they contributed money in my name for the good of the overall settlement. In essence, it sounds like I pleaded, “Nola Contendre”.
Suffice to say that the particular lawyer involved would never see me again even if she was the last lawyer on earth and I was up to my ass in court proceedings. I thought we had a justice system that considered people innocent until proven guilty. There was no attempt to prove me guilty but I was rendered at least partially so by my lawyer’s willingness to give someone money. Thus the scales of justice never truly aligned for me. The lawyers made money. The insurance companies were happy that a settlement was reached. The plaintiff got some monetary concessions. And me, well I figure I got the shaft.
So, what is the moral of such a story? I think it might be that one should never cruise down the road on a bright sunny day carefully driving along and otherwise minding one’s own business and not be cognizant of the fact that at any given moment the American justice system can invade your life and convict you unfairly and without due process. Think about that next time you head to the grocery store.
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