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“You’re trapped in a room with no windows or doors, just a mirror and a table. How do you get out?”

I recently came across a riddle which starts like that, and it reminded me of an old case. Some trials can feel like you’re trapped in a room, but it’s in those pressured situations where I find inspiration.

See, when you’re starting out in this game, you have to work for other lawyers, usually. Not many of us go straight to hanging out a shingle. Me, I broke into this business because of a lawyer named Paul Zuckerman who had the idea of hiring new associates out of the public defender’s office and took out an ad in the Daily Journal. He was building a litigation shop. That was his thing. At the time, he took cases mainly by referral from other lawyers, so he needed a reputation for being aggressive.

Most lawyers in this business don’t have the stomach for trial because it’s risky and expensive, but they see so many cases where they just know it’s worth more than the offer—but what to do? Give it to Paul! He’ll try anything. That’s the rep Paul wanted: fearless. So he was looking for lawyers who weren’t scared of trying cases. And one thing about the public defender’s office: whatever fear you had of trying cases, you get over it pretty quick.

So here I am in the Van Nuys courthouse, limited jurisdiction, assigned to the Honorable James Bolvan. Conventional wisdom considers that unlucky for a plaintiff. I enjoy Bolvan’s personality, he’s very colorful, but most injury lawyers dislike his unpredictable and erratic behavior. Makes it hard to assess risk, which makes it hard to know if you should try the case or settle. I don’t care, there are no offers on the table anyway, and Paul said “Go get’em Molloy!” so I figure I should go get them—because what the hell.

My client is pissed though.

“When do we have trial and be done?” he asks with a thick Armenian accent. Every day stuck in court for him is lost business. Bad enough that his work van got laid up in the body shop for a week while they pulled dents out of its rear, now he has clients looking for other electricians to replace him while he sits around waiting for a jury. All this just to get compensated for being rear-ended.

“Ari, I’m sorry, I know it sucks, but the defendant has rights that we can’t do anything about.”

“Rights? He has rights? What of my rights? Does he have right to drive into me and not pay?”

“You have rights too, trust me. We’re going to do everything we can to enforce those rights. Not much longer, okay? We’ve come this far, we’ll see it through.”

“But why so long? What for we have to come so many days?”

“It’s the jury system, Ari. It’s very complicated.”

“Could we not just have judge decide? Why we need jury?”

“It’s not just up to us. The defense has the right to a jury also. To give it to the judge, both sides have to waive jury. I mean, both sides have to say they don’t want a jury. Only then can we leave it to just the judge.”

Ari nods. “I see. And they want jury?”

“Yes, because it makes it harder on us to win. But that’s OK, we’re ready.”

He nods again. He’s a working man and this is something he understands very well: people try to screw you however they can if you let them. He crosses his arms and settles in for the long haul.

Neither Here Nor There

Limited jurisdiction is a funny place. It’s the middle child of LA courtrooms—cases that don’t really fit in anywhere, because they’re worth too much to get the speed and economy of small claims, but not enough to really make worthwhile all the expense and effort of trial by jury. Most PI lawyers avoid limited jurisdiction like the plague. It’s the neglected corner of the courthouse haunted by pro per litigants stumbling lost along the corridors in a zombie daze, shuffling creased and stained papers aimlessly in their hands.

Well, maybe not that bad, but still—not good.

Anyway, my boss at the time—Paul—his attitude was to try every case that doesn’t settle, even in limited jurisdiction. It was about street cred with the insurance carriers. Doesn’t matter if it’s a net waste of time on the individual case, he figured. The effort will pay off with better settlements down the line. Meanwhile, people who couldn’t get help otherwise got their day in court. Just the kind of thing a former public defender is down for. Ari’s case was one of those. He wasn’t hurt bad, but he was hurt. Nothing a little chiropractic care couldn’t fix, but unless there was surgery in his future most lawyers wouldn’t even look at the case, much less try it to a jury. The insurance companies know this, which is why his settlement offer is zero.

Finally the judge finishes his morning calendar and goes back into chambers. After a while his clerk comes out and ushers me through the door beside the bench, together with the defense attorney. That’s my opponent. It’s only my second time seeing him in person, the first being just two days ago when we reported to court for trial.

Normally you get to know your opponent through the discovery process, but limited jurisdiction cases only allow for one deposition, and even then the expense is rarely justified. I didn’t take one, but the defense is house counsel for the carrier and normally I would’ve expected them to take the client’s depo, because they can afford it. Nevertheless, they never did depose him. They didn’t have him go to a defense medical exam either, and their expert designations only have a crash recon listed, so it looks like they’re only disputing liability and not damages. Or at least they’re not strongly disputing damages. I sent them written requests for admissions and they denied everything across the board—liability, damages, causation, the whole nine yards.

We sit down in Bolvan’s chambers. He’s got a crazy assortment of knick-knacks all across his desk like something an old time grandmother would collect: Hummel figurines; Franklin Mint coins; even a decorative plate in his credenza behind him. Tucked in there as well is a tri-folded US flag in a glass display case. Could mean the judge lost someone close to him who was in the service, or it could be from some memorable event during his own service. Either way, it indicates a serious armed services connection.

Anyway, he reaches across the desk to give us both a jovial handshake. His robes are hanging on a brass coat stand to one side of his desk along with his suit jacket. His dress shirt is blue striped with a white collar and red tie dotted with little West Highland terriers. He’s Armenian but he and his office are done up like he’s a New England country squire with all the Yankee doodles. He’s a thick-set little guy with thinning white hair and red cheeks and blue eyes, like his own body is part of the color scheme.

“So what are we doing with this case today?” he begins, smiling and genial. The matter is set for jury trial, as we all know, so what he really means is settlement. Jurors are in short supply and high demand everywhere; criminal cases are the top priority because incarcerated defendants have a Constitutional right to a speedy trial, so jury trials in civil cases are stigmatized from the start, and limited jurisdiction jury trials are practically an abomination in the eyes of the Chief Judge. If a jury is unavailable when the speedy-trial clock runs out, that means a criminal will have to go free because either some jerk with an inflated small-claims case wanted to grab a bit more cash, or some jerk who owes money wanted to duck the bill. I can’t disagree; in my opinion, limited jurisdiction cases should settle, or go to bench trial.

“Did you have a chance to speak with your carrier?”

This more pointed follow-up question is directed to my esteemed colleague on the defense. The guy tucks a smile snugly up one cheek and answers: “Well, we actually don’t have an offer, as it turns out,” and spreads his hands as if to shrug. I look quickly at the judge—this is unexpected.

You see, two days ago we reported to this court and Judge Bolvan brought us in chambers just like he did today, and just like today he asked about settlement, trying to act as a mediator. At that time, my esteemed colleague on the defense said that if he could just have a day or two, he could talk to the claims adjuster and maybe get some settlement authority.

“But if we put this over to Wednesday,” Judge Bolvan said at the time, “we might not be able to get a jury panel.”

“We might not need one,” replied my esteemed colleague.

But now here he sits in his too-big suit, a wispy man who was measured for a larger size but shrunk through the years without changing his wardrobe, peeking out like a tortoise from a grey wool shell. He knows the judge will be mad, but he has his orders—just like I have mine.

Sure enough, Bolvan thunders: “I told you we would not have a jury panel if we put this over! You told me you would get settlement authority!”

No doubt he’s thinking about the negative mark on his record if this trial gets continued again. Bolvan is angling to be raised from limited to unlimited jurisdiction, but for that he needs to close his cases. LA County courts are groaning under the weight of increased filings coupled with budget cuts, and the chief judge has been hammering the trial courts to move cases along.

“I’m sorry judge, but yesterday our expert went out to the scene and looked around, and now the carrier is positive that they have no liability, so…” he shrugs again.

“Wait a minute,” I step in. “So your expert went out to the scene yesterday—the day after we were supposed to start trial?”

The turtle glances at me sideways and doesn’t answer. But Judge Bolvan gets it.

“You didn’t want that time for talking settlement, you just wanted it for your expert!” He jabs his finger at the defense lawyer and starts to huff with anger.

My very esteemed colleague leans forward at that, saying: “No no no! I really did talk to the carrier, and we were having the expert visit the scene on that day anyway!”

I can tell Bolvan doesn’t buy it, but his options are limited. He flops back into his chair and throws up his hands. “So now what do we do!”

Defense counsel glances at me again with a sickening smile—this is the kicker, he figures—and says: “Well, the one thing I can offer is that I was authorized to waive jury…” and he lets that dangle, as if to taunt me.

You see, it’s conventional wisdom that plaintiff’s attorneys want to take their cases to jury just as much as the defense, mainly because a civil jury verdict does not have to be unanimous. A jury can return a civil verdict with just nine votes out of twelve, so you can afford to lose three and still win the case. But with a bench trial it’s just the judge, so you either win or lose with that one vote. And in this case, that judge is Bolvan, and everyone knows that plaintiff’s attorneys hate him. The defense lawyer figures there’s no way that I will also waive jury. He’s only offering so that I will look like the one who’s causing the trial continuance, not him. But he doesn’t know me. And his patronizing attitude is pissing me off.

Which brings me back to that riddle:

“You’re trapped in a room with no windows or doors, just a mirror and a table. How do you get out?”

The first part of the answer goes like this:

“You look in the mirror and you see what you saw, so you take the saw and cut the table in half.”

I jump out of my chair and shout: “Great! So do I! Let’s do this!”

They both look at me for a moment, dumbfounded. Then Judge Bolvan claps his hands together, bends forward to slap them on his desk and pushes up with such force that his chair bangs into the credenza, rattling the flag in its case. “Right!” he shouts back at me. “Let’s go!”

Thunderstruck, my esteemed colleague on the defense seems to retreat into his suit jacket as he stammers: “Wha—what?”

Bolvan has already snatched his robes from the coat stand and flung them around his shoulders like a black cape. “You heard me!” he replies with delight. “You were ordered to be ready for trial, so now we go! Mr. Molloy,” he says, turning to me and not quite getting my name right, “you are ready, yes?”

“Yes your Honor!” I reply, grinning.

“Then come! I will call the Court to order and you may bring your first witness.” He rushes through the door, leaving us behind in his chambers.

Two hours later, it’s all over.

Yes, the whole trial was done in only two hours. I called my client as my only witness. In limited jurisdiction, litigants are allowed to submit sworn declarations instead of live testimony, so rather than pay to have the chiropractor come testify, I submitted a declaration from him with his medical records and billing attached. Ari did a fine job testifying, and frankly it was a treat to hear how similar his accent was to Judge Bolvan’s. The judge even interrupted to ask from where in Armenia his family hails.

The defense called only their expert, nobody else was available, and even then they had to have him come rushing to court. His testimony was basically that Ari cut the defendant off and slammed on the brakes. Honestly, you don’t need an expert for that, but they had planned to impress and confuse the jury with a bunch of complicated mathematical calculations. That sort of thing doesn’t work as well in a bench trial with a judge who’s heard hundreds of car accident cases. I also took advantage of his presence by entering the police report into evidence through him, which I couldn’t have done otherwise on account of the hearsay rule. The police report found the defendant at fault, and since the expert referred to it while formulating his opinions, I was allowed to put it in evidence and cross-examine him about it.

When it came time for closing arguments, I barely said a word. I learned a long time ago to read the room and say as little as possible when you’re winning. Too many times I’ve seen lawyers blow it by “monologueing” like a villain from an old James Bond movie. I chewed on my own foot plenty when coming up through the Tampa Public Defender’s office and learned I didn’t like the taste.

As for the defense attorney, he barely got to make an argument at all. Before he’d really started, Judge Bolvan interrupted him to exclaim from the bench: “What I want to know is this: where were his EYES? Where was your client looking? This van was right in front of him, did he not see it? How could he hit this huge van that was right in front of him?”

That pretty much tells you all you need to know about how it turned out. Which brings me back to the riddle. How do you get out of a room with no windows or doors, using just a mirror and table? Well, I took the saw that I saw in the mirror and cut the table in half. And the last part goes:

“You take the two halves of the table and put them together, making a whole. You put the hole on the wall and climb right out.”

Next: a shooting brings me out to an apartment complex in Pomona

  • Waiving trial by jury can happen several ways besides just telling the judge. It can also happen by not paying the jury fee on time, for example. https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/code-of-civil-procedure/ccp-sect-631.html
  • Even when jury is waived, a judge is not all-powerful. Judicial performance is reviewed and judges can be disciplined if necessary. https://cjp.ca.gov/
  • If you have a case that’s too big for small claims but other lawyers aren’t giving you enough attention, be sure to contact us for a free evaluation! https://thelionslaw.com/contact-us/

THIS IS A DRAMATIZATION OF A REAL CASE. NAMES AND CERTAIN DETAILS HAVE BEEN CHANGED, OMITTED OR ADDED