Fear separates heroes from cowards.
I live in beautiful northern Baltimore County west of Harford County, north of Baltimore city and south of the Pennsylvania line. It is rich with beautiful horse farms, deer and fox hunting, verdant farmland and wonderful people.
I am a moderate Democrat. Where I live is by and large Trump country but I love my neighbors. For the most part, we don’t let politics get in the way of respect and friendship.
Last week, two friends and I held a small fundraiser for a Democratic Congressional candidate who is running to unseat an incumbent Trump Republican who met in the White House to plan the January 6th attack on the Capital.
As the midterms have been approaching, for some reason, I have been remembering old litigation from when I had been hired by a prominent personal injury lawyer to try the cases he thought he would lose.
I wanted to learn how to try cases before I started my own firm in 1990, so this was perfect and I took the job.
In the 1980s, the Harford County Courthouse was being renovated. An alternative courthouse annex was set up to handle cases while the renovations proceeded.
This temporary courthouse had a makeshift heating air conditioning and ventilation system hung from the ceiling, and the sounds from other courtrooms and the neighboring bathroom could be heard through this system during the proceedings.
I had been assigned a case which my employer had said was “difficult.” Our client, a young-for-his-age teenage boy, was so shy he could barely answer my questions about his bicycle accident during our first meeting.
The accident involved a car and the boy had his leg broken and his bicycle destroyed. There were real questions about who was at fault. His parents filed on his behalf, and without his knowledge, a lawsuit for extensive damages.
The boy had no friends and was so shy that his only freedom came when he left school in the afternoon to ride his bike for hours along country roads while his classmates played seasonal team sports.
His parents were clearly disappointed by their son. He would never be the football captain or the class president.
I met him with his parents for trial preparation about a week before trial. After we went over the case that had been filed, the boy seemed reticent and I asked his parents to leave the room. I asked him to go over the facts once more with me one on one. He looked down and repeated what his parents had told me before they had left the room. He was uncomfortable, but what was striking about him was that when his eyes met mine and he told me something, he was honest, definitive, and straightforward.
I feared this was a boy who was being forced to tell a story instead of the truth.
He clearly was not looking forward to testifying under oath.
On the day of trial, I asked his parents to bring him to the courthouse early so that he could sit in the witness chair alone without anybody there, to familiarize himself with the space and settle his nerves.
When he sat alone in that witness chair he was terrified. I wanted his parents to see him sitting there alone staring into space and shaking before anybody else came into that courtroom.
I then asked him to go sit with his parents so we could talk about the possibility that the case could be settled before trial. The parents refused and reiterated that they wanted several hundred thousand dollars in damages.
Several minutes later, the opposing counsel came in and started to set up for the trial. Shortly thereafter, the people who would be chosen as jurors filtered in.
The boy become more and more frightened. About 10 minutes before the judge would appear and we would pick a jury, the boy slowly started to cry by himself. I noticed that the parents were trying to cover this up, and they asked to remove him briefly from the courtroom to go to the bathroom so he could compose himself.
The defense counsel had offered nothing to settle the case, because he believed that the boy was too shy to make a good impression before the jury. He ambled over and offered a nominal amount to resolve the case, which is not unusual before a case begins.
All of a sudden, through the heating ducts from the bathroom, the sound of gagging and then a toilet repeatedly flushing could be heard.
The defense counsel asked where was the boy. I said I was sure he would be back before the judge entered and we started picking a jury.
Moments later, the boy’s father came into the courtroom and signaled for me to join him in the hall. He told me the boy had refused to testify but his father instructed me that he was going to make sure he did.
I asked the father to consider a settlement of the case, because the boy clearly was uncomfortable with testifying to something that apparently he did not believe was true. The father said he would consult his wife. I insisted that whatever decision was made had to be given to me by my client, their son.
He hurried off to the bathroom and returned with his wife who agreed that the boy would be ready to testify.
I told them to get their son. They told me to come into the men’s room because he wouldn’t leave his stall.
The boy looked at me when he came out of the stall, tears streaming down his face. He looked down and wouldn’t talk. I looked at him and said, do you want me to resolve this case? And he nodded. His parents objected. I push them aside. What do you think is a fair settlement, I asked. He waved his hands as if to say nothing. I told him that the other side had made a nominal offer to merely resolve the case and I asked him whether I could negotiate further and resolve it rather than dismiss it. His parents resisted, but he nodded yes.
When I reentered the courtroom the sound of the toilet flushing was coming through the ductwork and there were muffled heated voices also coming through.
The defense counsel asked again where was my client. The judge was about to enter. I joked that if he only had offered a little more money, maybe it could have been resolved. He added to his offer. I told him I was authorized to settle the case for double that amount and we did.
It wasn’t much. It was a compromise. Enough to pay some hospital bills and get a replacement bicycle for the boy.
It only took about 10 or 15 minutes to put the settlement on the record and send the jury home. I left the courthouse and looked for the boy and his parents. Their car was gone and I never saw them again.
I wish I could have said goodbye to that boy who was too shy to confront the world, but had the courage to stand his ground and refuse to lie!
Fear separates the heroes from the cowards.
Two days ago, after our little political fundraiser, my friend and his wife, who had held the reception at their home, woke up to find a dead fox hung from their mailbox.
This is not who we are in northern Baltimore County.
This not who we are as Americans.