Way before I started my own law firm in 1990, I was hired to be an associate by a group of lawyers who didn’t like each other.
My job, at that time in my career, was to litigate all the bad cases in the office, particularly if the client was a friend of one of the partners.
One of the first partners I met was also an amateur pilot who had taken out a loan with a friend to buy an airplane. Innocently, in an effort to fit in, I remarked that I hoped I could someday learn to fly. The partner immediately sensed blood in the water. He suggested I buy a one-third interest in the new airplane, and also co-sign the loan with him.
I had convinced myself to get licensed to fly in an airplane that I didn’t want but I had just bought.
It got worse.
I soon learned that the lawyer’s friend and co-owner of my new airplane had so many creditors that he had no bank accounts, and all business was done from a big roll of bills which bulged in his pocket.
He could make anybody laugh. He could make everyone like him. He was one of those down-to-earth-aggressively-friendly-I’ve-got-nothing-to-hide kind of guys, so he immediately was candid about the large polyps he said were way up his nose. If anyone questioned him on this subject he would start snorting loudly until they laughed and then he’d spit into a trash can.
He could also deflect any questions about the wad of cash in his pocket. He would answer that, although he loved his wife dearly, she was a big spender and he was “protecting her from herself.” I never met his wife.
It got worse.
He volunteered to be my copilot as I was racking up inflight hours in my effort to learn to fly. He didn’t like airplane radios so we never relied on them much. We would practice landing touchdowns and take offs at little airports in Pennsylvania.
He would tell me to watch the wind direction of the windsock, and then tell me to look around to see if any other planes were coming in. and then down we would go and touch the runway for a touchdown and take off again.
The plane was kept at a little airport called the Baltimore Sky Park, which had a rolling, uneven runway that ended in an apple orchard to the west and the north and southbound Route 95 to the east — which meant we had to take off or land over several lanes of traffic with the car tops just below us. There were also high tension wires to avoid.
It was like a video game.
The lawyer’s friend, who I will call JF, would get into the plane and instruct me to get up to 3,000 feet, get past the military no fly zone, cross the Chesapeake Bay and then, as he would point, follow Route 50 to Ocean City. I would have to buy him a crab cake and a beer when we got there and then we would get up to 3,000 feet and follow Route 50 home.
It got worse.
I had been set up but didn’t know it.
JF had some serious legal problems and I was given his case by his friend, the partner, to litigate.
In short, JF owned a small modular buildings business, which created folding structures that could be stacked and shipped to job sites.
In this case, he had a container full of modular homes that had been stacked and shipped from his plant outside the city to the Port of Baltimore, then lifted onto the top deck of a freighter that traveled down the Chesapeake Bay, across the ocean though a massive storm that had delayed the ship headed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where — because the shipping company would not pay bribes — his mobile buildings were unloaded at the port using single lift cranes.
As you might imagine on this journey, his buildings got racked and broken. The insurance companies for all the other carriers had settled their cases, but this one little transit company insurance company had refused to pay anything.
This had, of course, become a matter of honor for JF. He would make them pay or die trying.
To win this case against the little transit company’s insurance company I had to prove that all the damage occurred during the 15-mile transit from his plant to the ship, and that there had been no damage done during the remaining storm-battered transatlantic jouney almost a third of the way around the planet, or at the unloading in Jeddah.
When I opened the file, I noticed a letter in the correspondence folder to the lawyer who had given me the case from one of the litigating partners, which had written across it in bold print, “I’m not going to trial with this piece of shit. Get some unwitting associate to do it for you!”
I was that “unwitting” associate?
The judge was a former mayor of Baltimore who had been given a judgeship after a humiliating loss and was forced to retire from politics. He was a nice guy who had been assigned a dark courtroom down a long hall.
JF was my first and only witness because he claimed nobody else knew anything about the case so I didn’t have to interview anybody else.
On the stand, I asked him questions and he told a story of why he knew just from the damage that the injuries had to have happened exclusively during transit from his facilities to the port.
During my direct examination, he gave quick responses and clear answers that supported his case. However, during cross examination, before he answered any questions, he would ask for the question to be repeated, snort several times, and then spit into a paper cup, looking around to see who was laughing.
Midway through the cross examination, after several objections about the snorting and spitting made by opposing counsel, JF shared with the judge that he had huge polyps up his nose that affected his hearing and he apologized profusely.
After the first day of trial, I drove him home. (He had told me that his wife had his car for the entire week of the trial.) I asked him about why he could answer my questions with no problem but with cross examination he had considerable difficulty with his polyps.
He replied, “gives me time to think.”
We won the case and got a modest verdict for damages — but it was a victory and JF was exceedingly happy, probably because he knew he also would not be getting a bill from his friend.
I never completed my training as a pilot but in late January several years later I ran into JF. It was very cold and windy but he seemed happy to see me so we stopped and talked. I jokingly asked him about his surprisingly convincing trial testimony and how he had protected himself so well during the cross-examination.
This time he ducked my direct question but, after a snort and a spit, he told me a story, as if to gently educate me instead.
He told me that about a week ago he had flown the plane to Chicago and met a girl in a bar who said she would do anything to wake up at a warm and sunny place, so he flew her all night to Florida and when they got there they both immediately went to the beach at dawn and went to sleep.
JF said that his wife had asked him how could have gotten so sunburned in Chicago in the dead of winter. He looked at me and answered, “Deny! Deny! Deny!”
As we parted company, it occurred to me that maybe the guy didn’t have a wife.