Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It's like Matlock, Sans Seersucker

I made my monthly pilgrimage to the out-lyingest of the out-lying counties this week.  This time the district court was in session there, finishing up a civil trial.   I had just finished my work when Sushi, the court coordinator, knocked on my door.  My office is just behind the employee restroom, so I get lots of 'foot traffic'.  She asked if I wanted to go upstairs to the courtroom to watch the closing arguments.

"It will be the only interesting part of the trial."

She was right; it was interesting.

I slid into a pew somewhere near the middle of the cavernous, mostly empty, space.  The courtroom was a product of an earlier time when these sorts of proceedings provided the best show in town.  Crowds were the rule. Nowadays, the spectator pool usually just consists of the interested parties and maybe a court house employee or two with time on their hands.  The tip-tapping of Sushi's heels echoed slightly off the walls of the hollow room as she delivered her paperwork to the Judge then returned to the cheap seats and sat down next to me.  The arguments began.

One side represented an employer and their insurance company and the other represented the wheelchair-bound widow of a faithful employee.

I listened to the widow's lawyer tell the jury the story of this hard-working man who wasn't feeling well one morning, although he went to work anyway.  His co-workers said he seemed sort of depressed, but nothing really out of the ordinary.  At the noon hour he returned home and ate lunch.  After a brief respite, he told his wife he loved her, kissed her goodbye and returned to his post.

Some time after that, while alone on the job site, he fell into a pit of water and drowned.

At the autopsy, hours after his death, they weighed his body both clothed and unclothed.  When wearing his muck-filled garments his body weighed 47 pounds more, thanks to the wet, muddy fabric.

I was vaguely horrified.  This poor man, obviously well-liked by his co-workers and family, was dead.  Gone.  Fine one moment, drowned the next.  A pit full of muddy water must be a terrible way to go.  I could imagine the feel of the cold, dark water invading my lungs as I fought for footing; sinking deeper and deeper into a bottomless abyss.

As the attorney continued to wax lengthy about the details of the dead man's last day, I mused about how much money the jury might award to the widow and how little it would do to replace what she lost. Although it mightn't provide consolation, the cash would certainly make life a little easier for her.

In the midst of my musing, my phone started to vibrate.  I retrieved it from my pocket, surprised to see the words "text message from Sushi" on the screen.  Evidently she is an accomplished mentalist and mind reader.  She wrote:

      6 foot man.
      6 foot pit.
      4 feet of water.

Well, hell.

Even I can do that math.  Why didn't the guy just stand up?

At that point, the employer's attorney did stand up.  He addressed the jury.  "The only question we are here to decide today is 'was the plaintiff intoxicated or not at the time of the accident?'"  Turns out the man was a well known in the community as a drug user. He'd been arrested several times and had trouble keeping long-term employment. The autopsy found cocaine in his system, but couldn't pin-point with certainty when he'd last used.  The co-workers who testified had varied on whether or not the employee was "depressed" or just coming down from being high on the day of his death.

The jury didn't give the widow any money.  She didn't seem surprised.

We stuck around a bit to watch the wrap up, then made our way across the street to the diner for lunch.  Unfortunately, despite our blue-cheese-fueled speculation, Sushi's final question remained unanswered:  "Forty-seven pounds - what the hell was that guy wearing??!"