Things I Have Learned From Lawyering

1996HondaOdyssey

I have been a practicing attorney for over thirty years.  Most of that time has been spent in litigation either representing or being paid by insurance companies.  Therefore I suppose you could say that I have made my living from the misfortunes of others.  When people get hurt or suffer a loss, we lawyers are there to help clean up the non-physical parts of the mess.  Mop in hand, I have learned a few things.

I have often joked that if not for left turns and gravity I would not have much to do.  But behind this little quip has been a lot of experience with folks who have suffered injury (or worse) from these two situations.

There are as many fact situations leading to accidents as there are people.  But some of these patterns have stuck in my memory and I have learned the lessons that the less-fortunate people who were involved in these accidents have taught me.

Never drive a hatchback or a station wagon or a van when the spare tire is not secured to its mounting place.  A loose spare makes a surprisingly good missile in a crash.  The fact that they are made mostly of rubber and filled with air does not help.

Alcohol and anger are a really bad combination.  These two ingredients can make you do things that you would never ordinarily do.  Like dumping your boyfriend’s clothes and belongings into a pile and setting fire to them.  In the garage that is attached to your house.  This one ended pretty much as you would expect.

Another combination that can be really bad is when cat people and dog people live next door to one another.  And when they do it can take more than a chain link fence to avoid trouble.  One case in my experience conclusively established that while a cat’s paw may fit through a chain link fence, the entire cat will not, even when that paw is being yanked multiple times by a highly motivated dog.  The cat survived (although the paw did not) and the owner learned the hard lesson that while society seems to think of pets as regular members of the family, the law has not yet made that jump when it comes to valuing an injury to an animal.

Children are unpredictable.  One might run out in front of your car at any time.  So it is best to keep your eyes open.  And even if you do sometimes there is simply not enough time to react.  Even where the law exonerates the driver everyone will still blame the driver.  Including the driver.

Peoples’ willingness to tell the truth often depends on the liklihood of getting caught (and the magnatude of the penalty) if they don’t.  A trial lawyer’s greatest cross-examination victories often involve exposing a witness in a lie.  Untruths that are not exposed are more frequent than you might imagine, like one that I witnessed being exposed purely by chance.

I once had a client with a small claims judgment against a businessman.  In a collection hearing, the businessman claimed that the Hummer he drove to court was owned by his wife.  An unusually proactive court bailiff (a law enforcement officer in my State) got on his radio to check on the title and found this to be untrue.  When the judge issued an order attaching the Hummer the man walked to a bank and brought back the cash to pay the judgment.  From a bank that he had neglected to include in his answer to my question “At which financial institutions do you have accounts?”

There are many, many people driving cars that are not covered by insurance, even in jurisdictions where this is illegal.  Many are U.S. citizens whose licenses have been suspended or revoked for a number of reasons.  And many others are those who are living here without proper immigration status.  Most of this second group are unable to get valid state drivers licenses because of their inability to prove legal residency.  And over the last twenty years or so many insurance policies have been re-written to deny otherwise covered claims when the person at fault does not have a valid drivers license.  There was a time in my experience when those in this country unlawfully had a very high tendency to buy car insurance.  Today this group has a very low tendency to buy it because it is a waste of money for them.

I need to come back to that quip about left turns and gravity.  You can’t do anything about gravity, but left turns are another matter.  It has become my rule of thumb to avoid left turns whenever reasonably possible.  Because left turns usually involve crossing in front of traffic coming from the other way.  I have never tried to calculate just what proportion of the auto accident cases I have handled have been left turns, but it has been a lot of them.  So when I have a choice of routes from point A to point B and one of them has fewer left turns than the other, that’s the one I pick.   As for the two auto accidents I have been in as an adult?  Those were caused by the left turns of others.

Finally, they are called accidents for a reason.  Nobody ever gets up in the morning and says “I think I’ll have an accident today.”  The opposite is almost always true.  Nobody expects the unexpected, even when we all know that these things happen to others every single day.  So I have learned to always wear my seat belts, to be mindful that there are lots of other drivers not paying attention, and to keep my insurance premiums paid.

Be safe.

Photo credit: The author (following one of those left turns that someone else made)

 

 

11 thoughts on “Things I Have Learned From Lawyering

  1. Well said. Learning to ride a motorcycle really opened my eyes to how much people aren’t paying attention, and I guess that’s getting worse.

    Obviously a lot of people do not have debilitating reflexive honesty, unlike Jason and myself. One of my friend’s neighbors was a habitual drunk who regularly lost his license due to DUI. However it was explained to me that it was actually better when he had no licence because then he drove sober and careful. Once he got his license back all bets were off. This information made my reflexively honest brain melt a little bit.

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    • Reflexive Honesty, whether debilitating or otherwise, seems to be a rare condition in my world of lawsuits. Even normally honest people are tempted by the little fib when they fear that a true answer will hurt their case. “No”, I try to tell them, “I can deal with an unfavorable fact far easier than I can deal with a credibility problem.”

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  2. Such things are fun. Having worked in highway safety for quite a while, it’s amazing how many people do something dumb and blame the highway – then sue someone.

    My favorite was a letter from a city of 8,000 in southeast Missouri that urged and pleaded for a highway connector to be redesigned with a lowering of the speed limit. It seems two brothers, who apparently were two of the most upstanding and moral young people ever born, died in a car wreck along with the girlfriend of one of them. Knowing the location and the huge oak tree they hit that was almost at the right-of-way line, along with the 45 mph speed limit, I was shocked and stupefied how their 1983 Pontiac Bonneville was able to hit that tree and the engine/transmission/front sub-frame broke off the car, going another 85 feet.

    Calling the highway patrolman who had worked this “accident”, he broke out laughing when I read him the letter. It seems these virtuous favorite sons were traveling 105 mph at the time of impact, had been smoking weed, and the more sober one who had been driving had a blood alcohol content of 0.33; the other was at 0.38.

    For quality and liability reasons, I had our attorney proofread my response, which was a delight to write. This was in 1998. That tree and the connector are unchanged.

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    • There is indeed a tendency in human nature to want to make things somebody else’s fault. Cars trees and high speed are indeed a bad combination. I have sometimes wondered if modern product liability laws would even allow trees if they were manufactured and installed instead of having been products of nature that grew from a seed.

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  3. I’ve learned a lot from the lawyers I’ve had to hire. One, that the criminal justice system can create a nearly impossible road back to full functioning in society for those who’ve been incarcerated. Two, that there are times that The Way Things Work just isn’t fair, and if you want to avoid losing your mind you’d best just accept reality.

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    • I have had virtually nothing to do with the criminal side of the law, but from what I have seen I would not disagree with you.

      On whether things are “fair” is always a tough question. By the time stuff comes to me the clear black and white situations have mostly been resolved, so all I see is gray. When two people have two conflicting positions, I have seen where each of them has a different idea of what is fair, and often both of them have some reasonable basis for their position. But you are correct, whatever “fair” might be, we don’t always get it, so sometimes it is best to make your peace with a bad situation and move on.

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