Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Hosed for the Holidays
Now the reasons for this are many, but at the risk of oversimplifying the matter, I’ll say that the basic reason why this happened is due to the core principle of American jurisprudence: any idiot can sue anybody for any reason that pops into his fetid little brain. Don’t have a case? Doesn’t matter. Don’t have the cash to hire an attorney? Doesn’t matter. Don’t have the ability to formulate a cogent argument in front of a judge? Doesn’t matter. Don’t even have the foresight to watch an episode of “Law & Order” in order to get an idea of how to state a case in a courtroom? Shucks, folks, it just doesn’t matter. Just haul yourself and your pea-brain to the county courthouse, fill out the necessary paperwork, and voyla! (as they say in gewd Frainch), you’re suing somebody!
First, the details leading to litigation: For years, my dad ran a 10-minute oil change in my home town (admittedly similar to the one detailed in my book, Wonderboy and the Black Hole of Nixvy Veck). Once he reached retirement age, however, he sold the business in exchange for some cash and about 155 acres of farm land, which he now leases to local farmers to raise crops of guar and peanuts.
However, he’s always been the type who needs to keep busy. After a month or two of hanging around the house, he found he had completed his honey-do list, and was soon itching for something else to fill his time.
This he found in an old, long-defunct gas station, which he bought and re-opened as Alvin’s Sticker Station, where he did safety inspections for the state, as well as the occasional car wash or minor auto repair. After a few years, he decided it was high time to re-retire and so hang up his hat for good.
At this point, enter the litigator, whom I’ll call L.T. Gator (L.T. for short) to safeguard his identity and spare him any further public embarrassment. Not that he deserves my sympathy or charity.
L.T., seeing that my dad was about to leave a reasonably thriving business, offered to buy it. True, he lacked the cash to buy the place outright, so he asked my dad if he could pay monthly installments until reaching the purchase price. My dad said, sure, but if L.T. were to fall behind on the payments, the deal was off and the sticker station would revert back to his possession. L.T. agreed to this, provided that my dad would also promise not to open any new businesses that would compete with him. All parties agreed, hands were shook, and that, as they say, was that.
Mind you—and perhaps I’m showing a bias here—the primary reason why Alvin’s Sticker Station was a reasonably thriving business was not because of any pressing need for safety inspections or any congeries of filthy automobiles in manifest need of a good wash, but because of the guy sitting behind the counter and smoking pack after pack of cigarettes. My dad is a truly fine auto mechanic. He’s the kind who can listen to an engine over the phone and tell you what’s wrong with it. He’s also fair, honest, and charges reasonable rates.
And this characterization—and once again I may be guilty of displaying a bias—is most assuredly not one I would ever attribute to Mr. L.T. Gator. I’ve known L.T. since high school, and the guy’s always given me the impression that he’s perpetually two bricks shy of a load. Not evil, mind you, just merely squirrelly.
In point of fact, I remember that when we were in high school, L.T. decided that his car needed a new paint job, and because he lacked the cash (this is a perennial theme in tales of L.T.), he grabbed a can of spray paint and vandalized his own car in hopes of getting his insurance to pay for it. He told his insurance adjustor that the vandals had been a bunch of football hooligans from a neighboring town. Why the hooligans should pick out his car and no one else’s, especially considering that L.T. was not nor had ever been a member of the football team, he didn’t say. Nor did he care to speculate why the hooligans had suddenly got themselves swept up in football fury when such an event had never taken place in that town either before or since the attack in question. Just a one-time thing that clearly no one could ever deny wasn’t a one-time thing.
The insurance adjustor, after inspecting L.T.’s car briefly, asked then if this were so, why did the hooligans misspell the name of their town’s football mascot?
I’m not sure what L.T.’s reply was, or even if he ever managed to get the paint job, though I recall for months thereafter he could be seen driving the streets of my home town in his spraypaintmobile, its gold commands of “Go! Team!” and the like in stark contrast to the spotty, pale blue of its body. I tell the tale only to suggest a particular aspect of L.T.’s general character—he’s the type who sometimes wants something for nothing, is at times willing to fabricate a story in order to get it, and, as far as his plans go, does not exactly look before he leaps. “Machiavellian” is never a word that arises in any conversations about him.
More to the point of this particular story, he’s not the type to run a business particularly well. In a few short months, he had driven away much of his clientele, and the prospects of going into default on his agreement with my dad loomed large.
But now the plot thickens: As fate would have it, the 10-minute oil change that had been bought from my dad had been re-sold, re-bought, and re-vamped as a tire/brake/muffler center, and the new manager, not himself too keen on how to run a business, contacted my dad for advice, offering to hire him on a short-term basis as consultant. My dad could show him how to keep his books, how to run the payroll, and introduce him to a variety of contacts for parts, supplies, and services.
So, for about two months, my dad showed him the ropes. Each morning, he drove his pickup down to his former place of business, and stayed for about four hours each day, helping the new manager in whatever way he could. After a time, he billed the manager and collected his fee. That was, so he figured, the end of it.
Well, not quite.
Imagine my dad’s surprise, then, when the local sheriff approached him some days later and served papers full of wherewiths and pursuant tos and henceforths, announcing that L.T. had elected to sue him for breach of contract and was asking for $5000 in compensation for damages incurred.
The breach? That in hiring out as a consultant he had reneged on his agreement not to open up any new competition. The damages? Well, $5000 of course! Why $5000? Well, it’s a number, ain’t it?
This, apparently, expresses the depth of thought L.T. had given the matter. Be that as it may, my dad found himself in court shortly after New Year’s Day.
At this point, it becomes necessary to describe the court proceedings, though I think it safe to say it wasn’t exactly an episode of “Perry Mason.”
After reading the complaint, the judge asked my dad for his side of the story. My dad recounted the particulars of the agreement with L.T., stating that he didn’t see how his actions could warrant a claim of breach of contract; he hadn’t opened any new business, only contracted for consultation work for a business that had already been established; further, the “new business” was for a tire/brake/muffler shop, which is not the sort of business readily construed as being in competition with an inspection sticker/car wash center.
The judge then turned to L.T. “State your case,” he said. So it was now L.T.’s time to shine, and shine he did, like a 5-watt bulb in a thick fog.
Rising before the bench, L.T. offered evidence for the court’s consideration, at which point he pulled out a thick wad of Polaroid pictures. Each morning, as my dad showed up for his consultation work, he had parked his pickup behind the shop, and each morning, without fail, L.T. had managed to swing by with his trusty camera and took a photo of dad’s pickup parked behind the shop, proving beyond all reasonable doubt that my dad’s pickup was in the parking lot!!
The judge, a thoughtful representative of our legal system, looked at each photo. Each bore a clear, unblemished image of my dad’s pickup, and each was annotated with the date the photo was snapped.
“Yes,” said the judge assiduously. “That is indeed a photograph of the defendant’s pickup. What does it prove?”
“Well, your honor,” L.T. replied respectfully. “It proves the defendant was there.”
“As I recall,” said his honor, “the defendant has never denied being there. In fact, he has openly admitted to have been there, doing what he describes as consultation work. The question is, is this in any way germane to your claim of breach of contract?”
“The goddanged Germans got nothing to do with it!” L.T. screeched. (Actually, this never happened. I’m merely repeating the only good joke from “Smokey and the Bandit.” What really happened, incredibly enough, was that L.T. was unable to show the connection to how my dad’s pickup being in the parking lot of a tire shop constituted breaking a promise not to open up a new business in competition with L.T.)
At this point the judge deigned to point out why L.T. was unable to make the connection: a photo of a pickup in a parking lot only demonstrates that a pickup was parked in the lot; it does absolutely nothing to confirm or even to suggest what went on inside the shop. The defendant could have been there breaking a verbal contract, or he could have been there talking about sports or politics, or he may not have been there at all; whether the court’s verdict hinged on proof beyond a reasonable doubt or on the lesser requirement of proof implied by a preponderance of the evidence, a photo of a pickup is insufficient for either when the pickup is not the one being sued.
Fine and dandy, L.T. figured. Time to pull out his big guns. Drop the bomb, as it were. So, he reached deep down in his hip pocket and produced with a flourish—ta-dah!—one of those miniature tape recorders, the kind Norm MacDonald used for his Saturday Night Live Weekend Updates. The difference, of course, being that MacDonald was actually trying to look a fool.
And in true L.T.-not-quite-thinking-things-through grandeur, he actually presented before a court of law a taped recording he had secretly made of a conversation he had had with my dad, in which my dad, having now been informed of L.T.’s intention to sue him, denied having committed breach of contract and flatly stated that he didn’t owe L.T. one red penny.
One recalls the old adage: truth is stranger than fiction. If you ever need an example, remember this tale.
The judge, who I have to admit strikes me as one of the most level-headed guys I ever heard tell of, listened to the recording, paused a moment, then softly asked “When you made this recording, Mr. Gator, did you mention to the defendant that the conversation was to be recorded?”
Uh, no, Judge, stated the erudite L.T.
“You do realize, don’t you, Mr. Gator, that a recording made without an individual’s knowledge, is not permissible as evidence in a court of law in this State? In fact, in many States, including this one, such an act is illegal?”
A reply was grunted, more or less along the lines of “Well, I guess I know that now!”
“And even if such evidence were permissible, do you realize that the only thing established by your recording of the conversation is that the defendant does not believe that he committed breach of contract and therefore does not owe you any money?”
Grunt, op cit.
“And perhaps you also realize, don’t you, Mr. Gator, that the reason we are assembled this day in this courtroom is because the defendant continues to believe that he did not commit breach of contract and thus still feels no obligation of remuneration in your favor? Can you understand, then, that the only accomplishment of your recording, even if—and I feel I should stress this—even if such a recording were admissible evidence—and, again, I should stress this all the more, it is not!—is to confirm what the defendant has already declared to this court? Namely, that he doesn’t concur with your charge? I mean, that’s what courts are for, to settle disagreements, and so far you’ve only managed to prove that the defendant disagrees with you—and this is something everyone, yourself included, already knows.”
Grunt, op cit, amended to include shuffling of feet.
“Is there any further evidence you wish to submit to this court?” the judge asked, the tenor of his voice strongly hinting that any further evidence had really ought to be of the evidentiary sort.
Actually no, coughed the Sir William Wilberforce of the inspection sticker industry.
“So, allow me to sum up,” the judge suggested judiciously. “You’ve provided no affidavits, no testimony from witnesses, no evidence either direct nor indirect that the agreement you entered into with the defendant was ever broken, nor have you demonstrated any injury, either physical, emotional, or financial, nor any reason to indicate why said injury should be worth $5000 to you. Is that it?”
I have no knowledge of any reply made, but as the question was largely rhetorical, we can forgive L.T. for any failure to respond.
“In that case,” said the judge, “I think I may have to find for the defendant.”
As they say in legalese: quod erat demonstrandum.
Which means “that which was to be demonstrated.” And what was to be demonstrated? Like I said: Not evil, just squirrelly.