Authors: Claire Matturro
To Mary Catherine Carter Hamner and William Peter Matturro
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I, Lilly Rose Cleary,
have a nearly endless capacity for driving myself crazy.
That's why I ended up in law school, that and a serious lack of any readily discernible talents, despite my being smart and tall for a girl.
That's why I was sitting behind a long wooden table in a courtroom, defending this guy, this person, my client, in a civil lawsuit accusing him of causing this woman, this plaintiff now testifying, to suffer the terrible pain and disability of whiplash.
From being rear-ended in a kayak. In a mangrove channel off the Intracoastal. On a church outing.
Kayak whiplash invited ridicule. Naturally, I obliged. But after an early deposition round of humiliating the plaintiff, economics brayed and I had offered her twenty thousand dollars, the nuisance value of such a case, to stop being stupid and shut up and settle. But no, she had insisted on her constitutional right to a jury trial, meaning I, the defense attorney, would get the twenty thousand and more for convincing the jury to give her nothing.
In my efforts to persuade the jury to give her precisely that nothing, I was trapped behind this courtroom table while this woman's attorney, Newton “Newly” Moneta, questioned her on direct, trying to nail down her husband's loss of consortium claim. This plaintiff, this woman who couldn't even kayak right, was expounding on why she couldn't have sex with her husband because her neck and shoulders and back and entire torso were a constant spasm of pain because my guy, the defendant, had come around a bend in the man-groves and rear-ended her as she sat, stopped dead, in her kayak.
Listening to this plaintiff pontificate on her lack of a sex life, I thought my head would explode. My legs jiggled under the table, I shifted and sighed, slumped and straightened, and my fingers tapped on the desk until my client frowned at me. So, okay, spank me, I'm not good at sitting still.
Newly took a step back and nodded at me, and it was my turn.
But the plaintiff, thinking, I guess, that the jury might have missed her point, hung her head and said in a little-girl voice, “I mean, I can't even, you know, do him with my hands, because my arm and shoulders hurt so.”
Newly whipped around toward her and said, “Thank you,” and told “your honor” he was done.
I stood up. Didn't even bother to walk around from behind the table.
“You can't”âI stopped and glanced down to show my own reluctance to pursue this inquiryâ “manually stimulate him with your hand?”
She looked wary but nodded.
“Anything wrong with your mouth?” I asked.
Newly objected before he even got back to his table.
The plaintiff jerked her head up, glared at me as if this were all my fault, and said, “I don't have to answer that.”
In case the judge had missed it the first time, Newly repeated, “I object, your honor.”
Not waiting for the judge to respond, which is bad lawyer etiquette, I said, “Your honor, he opened the door on direct.” Lawyer talk for “You started it.”
Newly said, “Outside the scope of direct.” Lawyer talk for “Did not.”
The judge said, “Overruled” and turned to the plaintiff and said, “Yes, you do have to answer that.” Judge talk for “I'm the boss.”
The plaintiff gave it her best shot at being offended and offered such a nonanswer answer that I said, “I withdraw the question, your honor. No further questions.” Lawyer talk for “Never mind, the jury gets my point.”
Newly closed the plaintiff's case with a medical whore, who swore a person could actually suffer such a thing as whiplash from a rear-ended kayak. After Newly officially rested his case, I made the standard motion and asked the judge to rule immediately in favor of my guy and deprive the jury of both hearing my defense and reaching its own verdict. To my detailed argument, Judge Goddard responded, “Go to lunch but don't take long.” Taking that for a denial of my motion, I gathered up my client as the judge added, “I want this case over with today.” We'd been at it for two days before this morning's testimony, and Judge Goddard had apparently had a bellyful.
With Judge Goddard's infamous impatience in mind, I scarfed a banana and a bowl of organic mixed greens with a maple syrup vinaigrette dressing from the Granary, the local health food store, while my client, a guy named Elvis who drove a tow truck and who had the rare good luck of having a personal liability insurance policy that was covering my fees and his lunch, picked at a tofu sandwich and asked, “What is this stuff?”
“It's like tuna,” I said, figuring soybean curd was beyond the tolerance of his Florida cracker upbringing.
After lunch, I put Elvis on the stand to show the jury that he was a nice, basic guy and then put on our main medical guy. This medical witness was costing my client, or, to be technically correct, the client's liability insurance company, a small fortune, but the doc was great. Soft voice, big medical words explained to a grade-school level without condescension, gray hair, and taupe-colored wire-frame glasses that brought out his blue eyes. Came across like Marcus Welby, M.D. Privately, he'd told me the plaintiff was as healthy as an ox, big as one, and about as dumb, and, by the way, he “really knew how to grill a great steak” if I would like to have dinner with him at his beachfront house. Yeah, sure, dead cow burnt over charcoal to maximize the carcinogenic impact. I said I'd keep his offer in mind for the calm after the trial and suggested that he convey to the jury that the plaintiff was a big, stupid girl making this up. Bless his heart, the doc did just that.
Newly wisely elected to limit his cross-examination to eliciting the amount of money we were paying this guy per hour to testify. I rehabilitated Doc Welby on redirect over Newly's objection and Judge Goddard's explicitly expressed impatienceâhe tapped his watch twice during my two questionsâby having him point out that his hourly rate for testifying was less than that of the plaintiff's medical whore.
After that, I put Elvis on again for a five-minute review of “I'm a nice guy” and “Really, it was just a tap. I mean, I didn't see her and didn't know she was just sitting there in the channel,” and I rested my case.
Newly, no doubt having sensed his contingency fee slipping away, was pretty quick in his closing statement. If he had a point, I didn't hear it.
When it was my turn to close, I stood up and walked into the center ring of the courtroom, wearing my pearl gray suit with the demure skirt a modest one inch below the knees because a jury consulting firm had statistics showing that to be the length a jury preferred, and I smiled as if I were the best friend of every person on that jury and I was
glad to see them.
And kept smiling until I giggled. Just a little.
“Really!” I said, arching my eyebrows into perfect little black exclamation points of ridicule, and I sat down.
But my tone of voice, which I had practiced in front of every experienced trial attorney in my law firm, conveyed the whole scope of my contempt for such a silly case.
Newly rose, as if to object, but then sat down.
I won, of course.
After the foreman read the verdict and the judge thanked the jury, the plaintiff jumped up and waggled her finger at me. “I can appeal. I know my rights. I'm gonna appeal. And then you'll be sorry.”
Sorry? An appeal just meant I would double the legal fees I'd draw in.
Behind the plaintiff, Newly, whom I liked despite his occasional tendency to display sociopathic behavior, opened his mouth and made a crude sexual gesture with his lips and tongue, and I burst out laughing.
He smiled and winked. Once, between his wives, we'd had a thing going for a week or two, but I was only a year out of law school and still pretending to be idealistic, and I couldn't get past the fact that he advertised on the local buses. Despite our brief fling, or maybe because of it, we had remained friends. Just last week, he asked me out again after he admitted his current wife (number four) had filed for a divorce. He's a big man, punches the bag and plays raquetball, hides his age, still has all his hair, and he can be both rib-busting funny and toe-curling sexy. We'd had a good time before the bus advertisements shamed me off of him. I told Newly, “You get that divorce, you call me.”
I'm big on keeping my options open. And I was years past pretending to be idealistic.
Of course I had to take Elvis out for the obligatory victory drink, and of course he wanted to go to the Cracker Boys Bar, where I nursed a bottled beer, not trusting that anyone had actually washed the glasses, and tried not to touch anything. I was buzzy from my beer when Elvis kissed me good-bye and said thank you about a hundred times as if I'd done all this as a personal favor.
So, it was dark when I walked back to the law offices that I share with my cowboy law partners, and the humid Sarasota, Florida, breeze hit my face and pouffed my hair and warmed me from the artificial cold of the bar. I was thinking about how much I wanted to get out of my damn expensive Italian shoes and wash my face and hands. Cutting through the alley that runs beside my law firm, I crossed over to the back door. I always use the back door unless I have a snooty client with me. The front door, with its gargoyle door handles, creeps me out.
My trial briefcase, which is the size of carry-on luggage, pulled down my right hand, and my purse, which is the size of a normal briefcase, weighted down my shoulder as I punched in the code on the back lock with my left hand. No, as I told the cop later, I wasn't paying attention. This was my territory, and I had just won a case and was thinking that tomorrow morning I would regale the troops with punch-lineâbyâpunch-line coverage of my courtroom victory. Muggers and descriptions had no place on the mental lists ping-ponging in my brain.
Somebody put a choke hold on me, and my victory-replay fantasy was cut off by the need to breathe. I dropped the briefcase and the purse.
I stomped on my attacker's foot as hard as I could with my own foot and tried to jam my elbows into his rib cage. My reward was only a slight letup in the choking, but that allowed me enough air to scream.
Screaming got me knocked upside the head pretty good by a gloved fist holding something hard and giving off a strange perfumy, chemical smell I couldn't place, but my attacker had to stop choking me to hit me. That was a modest improvement. For a moment I wished I'd spent more time with a boxing bag at the Y instead of the evil Stairmaster as I tried to turn and punch back.
What probably saved me was one of the firm's founding three partners, Ashton Stanley the Second of royal Florida cracker genealogy, driving into the back parking lot. Ashton suspects he might be the Second Coming, but he strikes me as a short maniac with nearly as much hair as I have, only he wears his straight up. Trying to add inches with the pouf in his hair. When Ashton saw what was going on, he honked his horn and activated the burglar alarm in his Lexus.
Of course, he also got out of his gold sedan and gave chase to the bad guy, who naturally got clean away, given the head start Ashton allowed him. I'd have run off too if I could have caught my breath.