Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Trouble at Christmas: #1 Sued by a Lunatic


     I'm off work this week, to try to spend some time with the boys, home from college. So I thought for the blog I would dig up a few columns from Christmas past. I noticed they fall into a kind of a theme, which I've dubbed, "Trouble at Christmas."
      This one, from 2000, after a fall season spent in court fending off a street person who had chased me with a knife then sued me. I represented myself in court, for you fans of foreshadowing, and the case resolved itself right before Christmas, the judge dismissing the lawsuit, I noticed a little queasily, "with prejudice."  
     One final point worth mentioning, which somehow didn't make it into the story, is the helpful general advice my wife gave me when appearing before a judge for any reason: "If you have the option of either saying something or not saying something, whenever possible don't say anything." Wise advice, which I used when the guy failed to show up for a court hearing and I was tempted to observe, "I want to point out that he isn't in jail because of me" but wisely didn't. The original headline was "Wheels of justice turn v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y."

     There are 73,728 small squares on the ceiling of Courtroom 1501 in the Daley Center.
     Not that I counted every square, waiting to stand before the bar of justice. I did the math. But I probably could have counted. I had the time.
     I had never been sued before, and found the experience not only hour-devouring and distressing but, in an odd way, uplifting. Looking back over this year of Sturm und Drang (that's German for "moving to the suburbs"), the lawsuit stands out as a lingering piece of unfinished business I should confront before 2000 can be dumped, with a grateful sigh, into the dustbin to make way for a shiny, new 2001.
     Being sued sucks. It is days in a windowless, airless room, somehow both too big and claustrophobic, waiting for your case to be called, staring dully at tiles on the ceiling, hearing the headachy murmur of legalisms just out of earshot, noting the starched exhaustion of lawyers, the unease of regular folk.
     There are motions and counter-motions. Many times I recalled that Hamlet, listing reasons to kill himself in his famous "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy, puts "the law's delay" up high, right after the pangs of despriz'd love.
     Sure, I could have hired a lawyer to handle it all. But first, I'm too cheap. Second, I can't roll over in bed without hitting a lawyer. Third, I wanted to experience the thing, firsthand, to feel its essence. I won't go into the particulars of what sparked the suit. Like most of what winds up in court, it was ridiculous and peevish. Suffice it to say it emerged from what happened between myself and a young man in line at a drugstore. Words were exchanged. The guy pulled a knife and ended up hauled off in handcuffs by the cops.
     As he was taken away, an officer said, "Be sure to show up in court or he'll sue you." But I didn't. He hadn't hurt me. I figured, in the scope of atrocities committed daily in the city, this little incident wasn't worth pursuing. I didn't want to waste my time or add to his woes.
     There is no hell in Judaism, no divine punishment for sins. So I saw being sued as a minor form of punishment—a purgatory—for not listening to the police officer (always, always dear readers, listen to the police officer. They know).
     The process was made almost worth it by the judge (and I'm not polishing apples since the case is—I think—over). The guy suing me didn't have a lawyer either, and didn't seem to grasp the fine points of the legal system, such as the need to show up. Despite my passionate desire to get this over with, I had to admire how the judge—whose eyes conveyed a seen-it-all-twice weariness—tried to cut this guy every break, so that the avenues of justice would not be denied a person just because he happened to be in jail the day his motion was dismissed.
     The lawsuit ground on between August and early December. Quick for law. The odd thing was, as it progressed, I began to like the guy suing me. He had an Energizer Bunny doggedness I appreciated. Despite losing at each step, he pressed on, filing new motions, a Terminator of the Municipal Court.
    After our last—one hopes, in law you never can tell—court appearance, we rode down in the elevator together. "Well," I said. "If I don't see you before Christmas—though if history is any judge, I will—have a merry one." He replied that he reads me in the newspaper.
     I don't want to say that I'll miss court, because I won't. But I will cling to the lessons I've learned: Be unfailingly polite. Listen to the police. And forgive the people you cross swords with. So belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Mr. Guy-Who-Sued-Me. Among my usual lightly held New Year's resolutions is the iron vow to keep myself out of court, if humanly possible. You might consider doing the same.

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 28, 2000

37 comments:

  1. Terminated with extreme prejudice is the CIA's term for killing someone. Ant the KGB had a "wet department" for the same thing. Wet, meaning bloody.
    I believe the legal term is just "with prejudice", so the loon can't sue you anymore, at least on this case.

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    1. I believe you are correct. I must have mis-remembered after 15 years. I'll correct it above. Thanks Clark St.

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    2. How about saying, you understandably forgot? Mis-remembered sounds like something a politician would say.

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    3. Since I added a word, "forgot" seemed the wrong term. Thus "mis-remembered" sounded more apt. This is why I tend to remove comments pointing out errors, you head down a detour into nitpickery hell.

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  2. Yes, "with prejudice " means even if Mr. Guy-who-sued-you comes up with a legitimate scheme, it's too late. He messed up so badly he's not allowed to go at you again for this dispute.

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  3. Yes, "with prejudice " means even if Mr. Guy-who-sued-you comes up with a legitimate scheme, it's too late. He messed up so badly he's not allowed to go at you again for this dispute.

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  4. "The law is a ass." Mr. Bumble "Oliver Twist

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  5. Since he said he reads you in the paper he probably wasn't some street thug.He figured you aren't some pauper. Neil, you are more charitable after then many would have been, self included.

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  6. **than not then

    Be nice to have an edit button.

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    1. If you press "preview," you can get a look at how your comment is going to look and there's an "edit" button provided.

      john

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  7. Neil - if you were able to wish the man who sued you a merry holiday, then you are definitely a better man than I am. It would have taken me awhile to get to that point.

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    1. Remember, the thing was over, and the guy was a 21-year-old black kid who had never caught a break in life and had no prospect of anything ever improving. I felt sorry for him, and in a way admired his pluck. He saw an opportunity and went for it.

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    2. So this guy comes after you with a knife and the well to do, but unnecessary white guilt shows up? You just enabled him. Pitying him is condescending. Gladly pay for the lawyer and make him sorry. Surprised he reads your column or a paper. Tell him to go work for his money and not look for some easy fix.

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    3. You've been suckered and had, buddy. Why should you have to be wasting your time. Knew of some kids that would purposely step before a slow moving car then sue and claim all sorts of injuries. Probably trained by their parents for a quick way to make a buck.

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    4. The young man was working the system using the only venue available to him. It's what you do when the system is so heavily stacked against your demographic.

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    5. About 15 years ago my late father (who considered driving over 35 MPH to be speeding) was sued for injury by a family after he "hit" their 8-year old son after he darted in front of my dad's car on Elston Avenue in the middle of a block during rush-hour. The child fell over for a second or two, then hopped up and continued to the other side of the street. My father said he "may have brushed" the boy while slamming on his brakes at 5 MPH. The insurance company said not to worry, my dad made an appearance in Traffic Court, the judge told him to "be careful". Case dismissed.

      SandyK

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    6. Elston is a diagonal street running between the north and northwest sides.

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    7. WendyC

      That still does not make working the system right. And this isn't Selma in the 1950's. There is affirmative action for those who make the RIGHT choices.

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  8. The great literary treatment of how the wheels of justice turn is, of course, Charles Dickens' "Bleak House," the plot of which centers around an intergenerational case (Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce)involving a disputed will. The case is eventually settled when, to the general approbation of the legal profession, the estate's entire assets have been consumed by legal costs.

    The novel is also noteworthy for the appearance of the first fictional police detective, Inspector Bucket, based on a real copper Dickens shadowed as he investigated crimes in Victorian London.

    A good read.

    Tom Evans

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  9. This was fun...looking forward to a few more "Trouble at Christmas" columns from the past.

    @David Graf -- I agree it would be difficult wishing a Merry Christmas to someone who sued you, but after going through all those court proceedings and finally prevailing, after having to continually see and listen to this guy who persisted in filing motions that ultimately failed, I would probably have done the same thing. Almost a feeling of justified satisfaction combined with pity for the poor schmuck.

    SandyK

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    1. P.S. After reading Neil's response at 1:19 PM, I can understand his reasons now. (I had imagined the person suing him was a well-off, suburban, probably white smart-ass.)Not the case at all.

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    2. The lawsuit was hand-written. I probably should have mentioned that.

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    3. Sandylynnk

      Giving someone a break with the law because he is black, is not equal rights. That is extra rights. With the word "knife" in the sentence, my guess of the perpetrator was accurate, if not politically correct.

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    4. woodman2

      To clarify: My comment "I can understand his reasons now" was referring to Neil's reasons for wishing the guy a Merry Christmas.

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  10. One of my hobbies in the past, was helping homeless people who wanted to get off the street. If someone I knew was arrested, and was trustworthy enough, I would bail them out. I'd accompany them to court and make sure they arrived on time in the correct courtroom, if only to get the bail money back, less a 10% court fee. Watching the cases proceed was educational, and I learned some techniques of people who were adept at gaming the system. Tell me if I'm wrong, here are a few guesses at what may have occurred, and some advice, for what it's worth. The officer did some paperwork, and you signed a complaint. If you are in similar situation and have any doubts about appearing in court, don't file charges, don't sign anything. My next guess would be he filed a civil suit against you for making a false police report, and/or wrongful imprisonment. Final advice, and Neil did everything right in this step, if you are ever sued, and receive a summons, never ignore it no matter how silly it seems. File your response with the court and make all scheduled court appearances. Failure in the final step can result in a default judgment against you.

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    1. Exactly. Now that I think about it, the initial court date was on my birthday. I just shrugged and thought, "Not doing that." Mistake.

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    2. Best to not trust or feel sorry for street persons. Many have made bad choices of their own accord. If you had been stabbed you may not have felt so big hearted.

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  11. Speaking of the poor and disadvantaged in trouble with the law, I've been enjoying "The Good Wife" this season, learning about what goes on in bond court, notably the rapid-fire, dismissive, assembly line-type speed with which the judge can spit denials out.

    SandyK

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    1. I've also enjoyed the show, but I sure hope the procedures in bond court aren't really as quick and dirty as they are portrayed.

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    2. Coey -- Me too, but I fear it might be a pretty accurate portrayal, since the show is usually quite authentic in legal aspects (with a little exaggeration of the nuttiness of the judges thrown in, for dramatic effect, I would hope).

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