Discovery is that part of a law suit where the two sides exchange information and prepare their cases for trial. There’s written discovery, that’s a big part of it. Depositions are involved too, showing up in person and answering lawyers’ questions.
Scoobie was a client of ours, a plaintiff in a personal injury case. “Scoobie” is not his real name, he actually went by the nickname of another beloved television character. He was a hard guy to get ahold of, and the office had had no success in getting in touch with him about the discovery process. Without his cooperation, the case would be dismissed. No one else involved wanted to deal with it. Let it blow up, there’s no money in it. He’ll screw up the case somehow, it might as well be now. Besides, a jury would hate him. That was the thinking.
Scoobie was a young man with a poor education and no job, and no prospects.
I said, I’ll take care of it, no problem, I’ll go get the family to help me find him. The address was a large but inexpensive home in a new development in the Eastern Empire of Los Angeles, in San Bernardino County. It was a large, loosely connected, extended family consisting of a matriarchal grandmother and lots of children, grandchildren and cousins, aged from grammar school to adult men and women, a real houseful. It was an African-American family.
I got to the address at about 10:00 a.m., unannounced, ready to devote all day to it. A large, powerful man opened the door. He was initially very suspicious. I am never offended by this. In fact, I recommend that all black Americans be suspicious of any white man that they don’t know, and most of the white women too. Was I police? A parole or probation officer? From Children’s Services? Once I had convinced him and another adult man that I worked for Scoobie and was trying to help him get some money that was coming to him they invited me in and introduced me to grandma.
She was sitting in a recreation room, in some kind of huge Barcalounger, and I never saw her get up. There was seating for at least fifteen people, and many children and teenagers were present. The TV was on. She sized me up and quickly accepted me at my word, and then I was in. A pair of young men materialized. They were very interested in the proceedings. We sat around discussing strategies for finding Scoobie, and since the young men traveled in the same circles as Scoobie they were full of ideas.
They figured that I would never find Scoobie on my own, so they offered to come with me. I was delighted because this seemed to offer a real chance of success. They thought that there was a good chance that he was at the home of one of his girlfriends, and they knew where several of them lived. Along the way we could just ask people for possible leads. They were really enjoying themselves, it was like playing detective.
Scoobie was at the home of the second girlfriend that we checked. He was a husky, Geri-Curled twenty-five year old, with that devil-may-care, always cheerful attitude that I have noticed many times in young men in his milieu. Having given up on education and the job scene, and fully expecting to go to prison someday or get shot, he was well adjusted to making the best of everything that was available to him. He and the cousins spoke a semi-dialect that was not quite Black English, but not quite standard either. They were easy to understand though, and they were smart guys so they understood me just fine. Having gotten acquainted, we all went back to the family home.
I had brought along the written discovery, so we set up at the dining room table and got started on that. Along the way a lunch of fried fish was prepared for everyone in the house. It was cooked by the big guy who had answered the door, he was about thirty-five years old and he didn’t say much. It was served in a paper towel, to be eaten by hand. Delicious, by the way. I ran the situation down for Scoobie and he agreed to be more cooperative in the future. We had a date for his deposition the following week, and he promised that he’d show up. I made sure to get as many phone numbers as I could in case we had to look for him again.
He did, in fact, show up at the lawyers’ office for the depo, and he was on time. One hour early, as I had instructed him, so that we’d have time to prepare. One of the girlfriends drove him. I used the common lawyer’s technique in these depo preparations. You don’t want to just feed the client lies to say at the depo, you can’t just feed them a script, but you want them to say certain things and avoid other things. You don’t want them to actually say out loud truthful things that you would then have to tell them, please God, don’t say that. So you say, here’s how these things go, and launch off into some hypotheticals, if this is what happened, it’s bad, if this is what happened, it’s good, if someone says something like this, they’ll probably win. “Just tell them what happened.” I always threw in a “if I kick you under the table, shut up.” Many people just ignore you, but some bright lights internalize your hypo’s very quickly and do a great job of incorporating the good points into their answers. Scoobie was one of the good ones.
To win his case, we would have to show that the landlord at the apartments where he had fallen down the stairs had prior knowledge of the dangerous condition. This is never easy. I had mentioned this, but I never feed him a particular strategy. At the perfect time, he dropped in that he had told the super at the apartments about a loose railing on several occasions, but the super had just blown him off. I had no idea whether this was true or not, but he said it on his own initiative so my conscious was clear, and my actions were ethical according to the rules. He described running up the stairs and the railing coming loose in his hand, causing him to fall backwards.
He totally aced the depo, and he showed that he would be a great witness for himself if the case went to trial. Before we left the building after the depo, the lawyer called me into his office and we settled the case right there.
This was treated as some kind of miracle of mine back at the office.
These were typical events in the life of a lawyer in Los Angeles, and another episode in the adventures of a simple man trying to figure out race relations in America.
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