After law school I went to work for a white-shoe, blue blood law firm where I wrote uninspired legal memorandums about jurisdiction and venue and the rule against perpetuities. Most of my output was drivel, but I was relieved to find that someone thought of a rule against perpetuity because I was two years in and it already felt like a lifetime.
Citing irreconcilable differences, I went to work for a firm where I was told I would be able to try cases defending insurance companies against unscrupulous malingerers, also known as people wanting to be paid a fair sum for a reasonable claim.
My first assignment was to research the legal effect of the term “total blindness” in a disability policy. Some greedy bastard was trying to lay claim to his benefits after having lost only 98% of his vision in a horrific industrial accident involving molten ore.
As Mrs. Hedges, our besotted third grade Cub Scout den mother, used to say when we were supposed to craft sock puppets but she didn’t have the right supplies: “Fuck every single last bit of that nonsense.”
I then took a job with one of those “stack ‘em deep and settle ‘em cheap” mills. My boss was a theretofore respected attorney who had developed a drinking problem and a troublesome habit of spending money that didn’t belong to him. A gifted litigator in his day, he liked to brag that he never lost a trial.
One hot Friday afternoon, about two weeks after I started, I was summoned to his office. He was holding a crystal tumbler filled with Crown Royal in one hand and a thin file in the other.
“I hope you didn’t have any plans this weekend. You’ve been called to trial. Yoakum County. Monday morning at 9.”
He tossed me the first notch on my trial lawyer belt: Robert Ryder v. William Doggett and FD Drilling.
According to our threadbare Petition, my client, Mr. Ryder, was a roughneck on a drilling rig. Mr. Doggett, an employee of FD Drilling, worked on a rig about 200 yards away. One evening, the crews from the two rigs engaged in a series of practical jokes which escalated to the point of gunfire. Doggett was the gunman; Ryder, my client, the victim.
The medical records showed that Mr. Ryder suffered a gunshot wound to his left shoulder. He was in the hospital for 3 days and had about $20,000.00 in medical bills. A report from his doctor said his shoulder needed further surgery and physical therapy which would run another $20,000.00.
There was also a letter in the file from the workers compensation carrier denying benefits because they considered gunplay to be outside the “course and scope” of employment. I wondered whether he should have appealed that decision based on the fact that, well, this was Texas.
I called Mr. Ryder’s number several times on Saturday to arrange a pre-trial prep session but there was no answer and no answering machine. So, early Sunday morning in August I left my pregnant wife and two year old son and started the 358 mile drive to Plains, Texas. The air conditioning on my 10 year old Volvo felt like the warm breath of a purse dog so when I pulled into the Days Inn six hours later, I looked like I had been running from some Tommy Lee Jones character.
Still unable to reach the client, I decided to drive to his home. About 5 miles outside of town, past a patch of dead tumbleweeds, down a dirt road, I pulled up to a double wide trailer. As I approached the front door, I could hear the theme song for “America’s Funniest Home Videos” pierced by an occasional hillbilly guffaw. The place smelled like stale cigarette smoke and boiled cabbage.
I knocked on the unsteady metal door frame. Someone inside turned down the television hoping to conceal their presence.
I knocked again. Finally a thin reed of a man appeared in the doorway, his left arm hanging limply by his side.
“Yes sir. I’m looking for Robert Ryder.”
“Sorry man. Ain’t no one here by that name.”
He started to turn away.
“Mr. Ryder. I’m Tim Hoch. I’m your lawyer.”
“Bullshit. Show me your lawyer ID.”
“I don’t have a lawyer ID. I just have your file here. We’re going to trial tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow? Can’t. Gotta carry my ma to the doc.”
“Mind if I come in?”
He pushed the door open. Once inside, he introduced me to his mom who was fully reclined in an easy chair under a mound of blankets. She was not well.
We went to the kitchen. A bug zapper was the only light above the table so the dead carcasses of several hundred insects were scattered about.
“I thought you guys done give up on me. Hadn’t heard from you in two years.”
“I’m sure sorry about that. I’ve been trying to call you since Friday.”
“Phone don’t ring.”
He cleared a stack of unopened mail from the table, most of which appeared to be collection letters. I opened my file.
“First of all how are you doing these days?”
“Like shit. Left arm don’t work at all. Can’t find a job. Mom’s got the cancer and I’m always pissed.”
His bleak recitation actually glossed over how awful things appeared.
Robbie, he insisted I call him, hadn’t worked anything but an occasional odd job since being shot. The lack of physical therapy resulted in profound atrophy of his arm. As we spoke, his mom would cough and lurch violently about every three minutes. After one particularly rough episode, I looked over to see whether she was still alive.
“She’s fine. But it’s some kind of hell,” said Robbie.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened the night you were shot?”
“We was workin’ overnight tryin’ to fish some busted pipe outta the hole. We needed more string so me and Jimmy went over to borrow some from FD. Anyways, Mad Dog was runnin the rig for FD and…”
“Billy Doggett. Everyone calls him Mad Dog. He was foreman for FD. Him and Jimmy don’t like each other cause Jimmy was always tellin’ everyone about the time he caught Mad Dog pullin’ his pud in the bunkhouse. So Mad Dog tells us to go to hell.”
“When we get back to our rig, the guys was pissed so they put a copperhead we found earlier that day in a bag and went over and threw it on the FD rig. So’s about twenty minutes later Mad Dog and his numbnuts come over and start raisin’ hell and throwin cow turds everywhere. This goes back and forth awhile. Then an hour or so after everything gets quiet we start hearin’ gunshots. Next thing I know, I’m bleedin’ all over.”
“How do you know it was Mad Dog who shot you?”
“His ex-wife told everyone he was braggin’ about it after.”
“That’s good. Try to keep your cool and tell it just like you told it to me.”
“I’ll do my best. But I cain’t be there right at 9. I’ll get there as soon as I can after I drop off ma.”
Monday morning I showed up at the Yoakum County Courthouse-a two story beige brick building surrounded by a quaint town square. The courtroom had dark paneling and old church benches. I made my way past the wooden divider that separated the parties from the spectators when I heard the bellow of a large gut.
“Hello counselor. Welcome to Plains.”
He offered his stubby, moist hand.
“Thank you. You must be Mr. Davis.”
“Mr. Davis is my dad. Just call me Jack.”
He appeared to be in his mid-sixties. I figured his dad was probably long since dead so I was unlikely to ever meet him or need to remember to call him “Mister.” Jack was stout and mostly bald but with a ring of gray, matted hair.
He had already taken up residence at one of the counsel tables where he neatly placed his yellow pad, his Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and a King James Bible.
Just then the bailiff came in.
“You the out of town lawyer?”
I looked at Jack. He looked at me.
“Oh me, yes. Yes. That’s me,” I said.
“Judge is ready to see you.”
The chambers were stuffy and hot. The Judge was already in his robe, reading the newspaper.
“Mornin’ Jack,” he said to my opponent with a deep drawl.
“Mornin’ yer honor,” said Jack, bursting with pride that they were on a first name basis.
The Judge turned to me.
“And you are?”
I have always had this habit of trying to affect the same manner and speech of the people I’m around, so I sounded like an idiot straight outta the chute, so to speak.
“This here name is Tim. Tim Hoch.” It didn’t roll off a west Texas tongue anyway but I secretly cursed my parents for not giving me a name with a little more flexible machismo, like Tough or Flint or Bear.
“Welcome to Plains,” said the judge, displaying the countenance and Alpha-male boredom of a silverback gorilla. “Who’s dancing in the hog trough today?” he asked.
Jack wasted no time.
“Yer Honor, this here case shoulda nevah been filed in the first place.”
Apparently believing this was a sufficient exposition of the facts, the Judge looked at me for a response.
“Well, um, I, uh, would, of course, disagree.”
It was an ineloquent introduction, to be sure. Jack continued.
“Yer honor, I’m here to defend the integrity of my client, a client that employs dozens of citizens of this county. But I am deeply offended at these scurrilous allegations and we will seek a ruling from yer honor that this is a frivolous endeavor, yer Honor.”
I was still a little slow on the uptake.
“Judge, I was just given the file on Friday and…”
I felt like I was drowning. I tried to recalibrate.
“Your honor. Mr. Davis has it wrong. The only reason we’re here is because of the reckless and deadly behavior of his….”
The Judge had already heard enough. He waved his hand and shook his head.
“Let’s go stew this skunk.”
We went back to the courtroom and I was relieved to see Robbie sitting at our table. He looked great in his pressed jeans, western shirt and spit-shined ropers. A large, hairy man in overalls was seated at Jack’s table. The bailiff was instructing a group of Yoakum County citizens on the legal requirements for jury duty. Robbie leaned over and whispered.
“That prick keeps flipping me the bird-double barrel.”
“Mad Dog. See? He just did it again.”
About that time, the Judge called the courtroom to order. He welcomed his fellow Yoakums and extolled the civil jury system as the most important pillar of our democracy. Then he introduced me to the jury pool.
“Mr. Hoch here is gonna ask you some questions about what you believe and don’t believe. Then Mr. Davis gets to ask you some questions. This will help us decide who is best suited to serve on this jury. Mr. Hoch you may proceed.”
I stood and told them how pleased I was to be able to represent Robbie in his hometown; how much I was enjoying the hospitality of the local citizenry; and how I looked forward to presenting our case.
Then it was time to wade into the backwaters.
“How many of you have ever filed a lawsuit?”
Not a single hand.
“That’s very fortunate. How many of you hold it against Mr. Ryder that he filed a lawsuit?”
The brief silence was interrupted by a low wattage flicker from the third row.
“I don’t believe in ‘em.”
Several nodded in agreement.
“Interesting,” I said in response to an opinion I found to be dull and uninformed. “Why is that?”
“Too many of ‘em,” he said.
“Just tryin’ to hit the lottery,” added a lady in front.
Nods all around. This thing was starting to flatline.
“You got a problem with someone just settle it yourself,” someone said.
I spotted an opportunity.
“That’s a great idea. So instead of filing a lawsuit, you think it’d be better if folks just worked it out between themselves?” I asked.
“Yes I do.”
“What if that doesn’t work? Should they resort to violence?”
“Because that’s what happened here. These two men had a disagreement and that man sitting over there, Mad Dog Doggett, shot my client, Robbie Ryder, in the shoulder.”
There wasn’t as much hand-raising after that exchange. I was able to strike a few for cause who said they’d never consider giving damages of any kind whatsoever. Those who remained were still a salty bunch and I knew I would just have to try to select the least worst.
Jack Davis picked up his Bible. His folksy manner combined with his lofty vocabulary conveyed that he was one of them, but also just a notch or two above.
“Folks, on behalf of Mr. Doggett and FD Drilling, I would be remiss if I neglected to thank you for your honorable service here today. How many of you agree that a man should refrain from mischief?”
“It says so in that Bible,” offered one helpful fellow.
“Indeed it does. In fact it says that those who conceive mischief give rise to iniquity,” Jack preached. “And how many of you believe that iniquity should be rewarded?”
Davis went on like this until I objected and the Judge mercifully made him stop. We finally seated 12 stoics and started the testimony.
I called Robbie to the stand and took him through the facts just as we had done in his trailer the night before.
Davis rose and began his cross examination.
“Now Mr. Ryder, you testified that my client’s ex-wife told folks that my client admitted to shooting you, is that correct?”
“Do you happen to know anything about her reputation for veracity?”
“Lots of fellas think she has a pretty good one but I don’t wanna say cause I’m a gentleman and I don’t look at ladies that way.”
The Judge and I were the only ones who chuckled. Davis then asked Robbie about his 3 convictions for public intoxication from 20 years ago.
“What is your explanation for this habitual drunkenness?”
“Habitual thirstiness, I guess.”
Robbie’s quiet manner conveyed an earnest charm. He spoke of his desire to work, his inability to use his arm and his abject frustration. Davis couldn’t touch him.
Mad Dog took the stand and denied everything. He said Robbie and his crew were always partying and jacking around and shooting guns and Robbie was just looking for someone to blame. I asked him about his reputation for being a hot head. I even suggested he lost his temper that night after Jimmy teased him about a certain incident in the bunkhouse.
“That’s BS and Jimmy knows it!” shouted Mad Dog.
Then I pressed him on whether he shot Robbie. I asked him why his story was contrary to every witness statement in the record. He didn’t know.
“Even if I did shoot my gun, I would’ve fired into outer space and the bullet probably burned up on re-entry.”
The next morning we gave our final argument. I took a clinical approach to the testimony. I asked the jury to consider all of Robbie’s medical bills and to give him enough for surgery and physical therapy. I also asked them to consider damages for his mental anguish and his incapacity.
Davis would have none of it. He called Robbie’s lawsuit a “money grab.” Robbie was a “shiftless prevaricator” who was trying to “hoodwink the fine citizens of this community.” Davis quoted Corinthians and asked “what partnership hath righteousness with lawlessness and what fellowship hath light with darkness?”
“None!” Davis, and apparently the Old Testament, concluded. “We don’t think you should give this man one thin dime.”
I got to go one more time.
“I don’t really know many Bible verses,” I said. “I do remember one that requires us to bear one another’s burdens. I can’t quote the chapter or verse. But I sure like that one. It brings me great comfort. When I first met Robbie he told me that people in Plains are good folk who will always try to do the right thing. Ask them to help and they will. So that’s what I’m asking. A little help. A little trust. A little optimism. A little belief in your fellow man.”
It wasn’t much but it was all I had in the moment.
The jury deliberated a couple of hours before delivering their verdict. They found that both Robbie (40%) and Mad Dog (60%) were responsible for the incident. They awarded Robbie his past medical bills of $20,000.00 plus $500 for his pain and suffering. A final judgment would reduce that by 40%-the amount of Robbie’s proportionate responsibility. There was no award for the money he would need to have his shoulder surgery or his physical therapy.
Jack Davis was packing his briefcase, basking in self-adulation, when the Judge came over and shook my hand.
“I know you’re disappointed. But just remember: The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every day.”
Maybe I had spent too much time in Plains, but I took this as an offer of solace, this comparison to a canine’s sphincter. And I appreciated it as such.
“Thank you your honor.”
Robbie and I walked to his truck. I told him I was sorry I couldn’t get him what he so desperately needed.
“Ain’t your fault. You fought like hell. No one ever done that for me before. Want you to know I appreciate it.”
A thunderstorm was brewing in the distance. Robby turned west into the darkening sky as I headed east trying to stay one step ahead, undefeated.