By: Rob Harris
With the possible exception of a presidential debate podium, there is nothing like litigation to provide a theater for the drama known as life.
A California appellate court described as follows the circus, I mean dispute, that existed between two contractors that was about to occupy a trial court’s time and resources for the next millenium:
The complaint alleges that on January 29, 2010 Laing approached Cardona on the golf course at the Glendora County Club. The complaint alleges that, while Cardona was “playing a round of golf with his business associates,” Laing “confronted Cardona regarding monies allegedly owed, ” “used obscene and profane language, ” and “did touch Cardona in an attempt to take [his] watch and did touch Cardona in an offensive matter.” The complaint alleges that “Laing was negligent in making the offensive contact” and was “under the influence of alcohol when the negligent touching took place.” Although the complaint did not allege the precise amount of Cardona’s damages, the complaint alleged that Cardona was damaged “in [a] sum to be determined at the time of trial, ” which Cardona estimated “to be around $4, 000, 000.”
While many of us may subscribe to the view that a golf course, like a church, constitutes a place of sanctuary at which no one–no matter his off-the-course transgressions–should find refuge, the calculator workout necessary to compute a damage claim of $4 million for a few drunken off color words coupled with a boorish reach for a watch seems rather excessive.
The trial judge, hoping to bring reason where apparently none could be found, proceeded as follows:
The court stated, “I’m going to give you folks a few minutes to go into the jury room and resolve this case.” Counsel for Laing responded that “[t]his case cannot be resolved. They already owe us $60,000. This whole lawsuit is a retaliation for trying to collect the debt. . . . And if you start to break down this case, the only claim he has is that‘Mr. Laing grabbed my arm at the county club.’ That’s the only claim that survives,which Mr. Laing denies and which the witnesses that Mr. Cardona said were with him and witnessed it also deny it. I took their depositions. They said no such thing took place. There’s no way to settle the case.” The court stated,“I want you both to go into the jury room and discuss a disposition of this case,reasonably considering all aspects of costs and future costs and additional judgments or postjudgment issues, appeals and everything. Just go back there and see if you can resolve this case by some sort of disposition.”
After the parties returned to the courtroom and reported that they had not settled the case, the court asked, “Are you close?” Counsel for Laing stated, “Not in the same universe.”
So, apparently reluctant to let his courtroom be held hostage to a lengthy trial, the judge invited the defendant’s lawyer to make motions to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims, which the court promptly granted.
However admirable the motivation, the California appellate court found fault with the trial judge, reversing his dismissal. As the appellate court explained:
Cardona may not have had the strongest case against Laing. The allegations in Cardona’s complaint may not have been a model of notice pleading.. And Cardona may not have suffered much in the way of provable damages. But Cardona deserved to have his day in court, and, if he did not prove his claims by a preponderance of the evidence, to have a jury of his peers find against him on his claims, or, at a minimum, to have the court grant a directed verdict at the close of his case. The opportunity to be heard is a fundamental cornerstone of our justice system, and the trial court’s day-of-trial rulings deprived Cardona of that opportunity.