A Bad, Bad Day In and Out of Court: A War Story….

All of my blog posts to date have been informative, I hope. If you’re a client with a personal injury claim or just someone reading my blog, I’ve written about the various aspects of making an injury claim. This entry is a personal one about an incident that happened to me at the beginning of my legal career and one that still seems surreal. So, here goes.

I wasn’t out of law school long and my new Florida Bar License still had a nice shine to it. In other words, I was pretty green attorney when this whole sordid saga occurred.

As a new associate, my boss advised that I needed to immerse myself in Court to get use to rules of evidence and civil procedure. The best way to start with limited experience was to start at the bottom – small claims court.

It didn’t take long to build a small claims practice. Before I knew it, other Palm Harbor attorneys started referring me all sorts of matters. Most attorneys avoid small claims court since its rarely lucrative enough for the trip downtown.  At one point, I remember looking at my calendar and it looked like I was taking up part time residence at the old County Courthouse in downtown Clearwater where small claims matters are largely heard.

However, there was one fateful new case that wasn’t scheduled for trial in downtown Clearwater – it was scheduled in Palm Harbor, at the North Pinellas Courthouse, currently where traffic trials are heard. The trial was scheduled at 10 a.m. for 90 minutes and it happened to be on Martin Luther King Day. Remember that – Martin Luther King Day.

Now the case was quite simple. A young Palm Harbor woman had been renting an apartment from a man who owned several units. She moved out and wanted her security deposit returned. The landlord refused to give it back to her claiming damage in excess of normal wear and tear. To say that both my client and the landlord were colorful characters would be an understatement. Because small claims court is designed to be a quick proceeding with little formal process, let’s just say that the details of their landlord/tenant relationship was…..unknown to me. It was a simple case of getting money back.

Anyway, Martin Luther King Day was a very new holiday –  maybe a year or two old and many municipalities hadn’t figured out what offices remained open and what offices would observe MLK Day and close for the day.

We were all present at the Palm Harbor Courthouse on MLK Day at 10 a.m.: my client, her boyfriend, the defendant, the witnesses and I. However, the courthouse was dark and empty. After a time, a guard finally approached us. “The Judge is on the phone for you” he said to me.

It turned out the Palm Harbor Courthouse was closed for MLK Day, but the downtown Clearwater Courthouse was still open. The Judge advised that if we could make it to Clearwater by 10:30 we’d still have one hour to try this case. “I expect to see you all in my chambers by 10:30.” So we all had 30 minutes to get to downtown Clearwater from Palm Harbor.

Here’s where it all went south. I told all present, who came in their own cars, that we all had to (legally) race our way downtown in half an hour if there was any way to get this case heard. If successful, we’d still have one hour to try this case based on a $350 security deposit.

I told my client and her boyfriend that I’d see them in downtown Clearwater and to get there as soon as possible.

Taking what I thought was a shortcut, I zoomed down a side road closer and closer to the courthouse. At this point I hadn’t realized that my presence in court is only as effective as the presence of everyone else. In other words, whether I was first or last didn’t matter. Nothing would happen until everyone else was present.

At this point, traffic came to an absolute halt. Nobody was moving. I soon discovered that what blocked me from getting to my trial was the Clearwater Martin Luther King Day Parade. Hundreds of people were parading down the street that separated me from the courthouse. In a near panic (and remember, what’s at stake is $350) I parked my car randomly and decided to make a run for it.

With briefcase in hand this new attorney made a mad dash for the courthouse, literally through the parade, past a yelling security officer and dodging tuba players from a local high school band. I was within one block of the courthouse when…….it started raining.

Pretty wet, I finally made it to the Judge’s chambers only to see that none of the other participants were in attendance. I was still the first one to get there. Everyone got stuck behind the parade.

This is where it gets interesting.

By the time the last party had arrived, we had much less than one hour to present this case. And there was a distinct change in demeanor of my client and her boyfriend. They were inappropriately laughing, joking, slurring words and……..drunk. This is mid-morning, folks. Their commute from Palm Harbor to Clearwater must have included some serious drinking and  driving because they were Friday night Frathouse drunk.

After testifying that she left her rented apartment in a very clean condition and therefore should get her $350 security deposit back, the landlord – who didn’t have a attorney and was representing himself – went on attack mode. “Your honor, look! She’s drunk right now! See what I’ve put up with for one year?”

To be as delicate as possible, Mr. Landlord told the court that he refused to allow my client to stay past the expiration of her lease because of her constant partying with men. Lots of men, usually one at a time. And in succession. Night after night. “She’s worn out the carpet with a steady stream of men in and out, in and out! I have to clean the place out and fumigate it!! Your Honor, she’s a *****” (surely you can insert your own word).

At this point the proceeding descended into what can only be described as a total verbal explosion with all sides screaming at the other. I looked up to see the Judge with his face in his hands, except he was laughing. He eventually looked at me with that look that seasoned attorneys give new attorneys. His gaze said, “Son, get used to it. We’ve all got stories like this….”

And now after practicing for more than 20 years I know it to be true. I’ve compared notes with other attorneys enough to know that we all have at least one story where we wished we’d have gone to dental school instead of law school.

What happened to these charming people? The Judge “split the baby” and awarded half of the security deposit back to my client and lectured the landlord to be more respectful of his tenants and to watch his words lest he get sued for slander.

Needless to say, I never take Martin Luther King Day for granted. MLK was a tower of a man in the area of human rights yet the day marking his memory is memorable to me for a completely different reason.

This article is written by Walt Blenner, a personal injury attorney practicing law in Tampa Bay area including Palm Harbor, New Port Richey and Dunedin FL

 

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