Courtroom tales remind us that laughs can be found even in the most serious of spaces
Did you know that some of life’s most humorous moments are played out regularly on the stage of a courtroom somewhere near you? While court trials are typically serious affairs about serious subjects, they have long been the source of many comedic moments. Lawyers are tense and jurors are nervous but abruptly empowered. Witnesses are often so intimidated by the atmosphere they are unable to relate their unique knowledge or perspective. Over the years, I have personally witnessed many funny incidents in the courtrooms of East Tennessee and have heard many more from other lawyers. When lawyers get together, they like to talk about the glorious things they have observed in their courtroom trials. Perhaps you will enjoy a few of these judicial calamities.
Years ago, in the second day of a Knox County damage trial, everyone was in place at 8:30 a.m. when it was discovered that the defense attorney was missing. His client was seated quietly at the courtroom table, but she had no lawyer. “Where is Mr. B (the defense lawyer)?”, the judge asked. No one knew and the judge compelled the jury, the parties, the court reporter, and the plaintiff’s attorney to remain in place until the defense lawyer arrived or called to explain his absence. Finally, after a 20-minute wait, Mr. B burst through the door of the courtroom on a dead run. Out of breath and his clothes in shambles, he explained, “I’m sorry I’m late, Judge, but I spent the night at my girlfriend’s house last night and woke up this morning and couldn’t find my socks.”
In the cross-examination of a very religious witness early in my career, she began speaking in tongues. Now, that’s a challenging situation for any lawyer. They do not teach the proper response to that in law school. In the middle of my impassioned closing argument in a federal civil rights case, a lawyer at counsel table overswivelled his chair and tipped over backwards in the seated position just as I started outlining the grievous damages my client had suffered. The jury, judge, and I could only see his two legs and feet sticking up above the table top and the snow white skin of his legs was showing where his pants yielded to gravity. No lawyer can quickly recover from these types of sudden and unforeseen events. Juries love spontaneity and delight in seeing the unexpected occur.
I once called an expert witness to the stand, and after I asked his name and allowed him to describe his three degrees in the field of engineering and his years of scientific research, I made the mistake of asking his age. The man truly had no idea of how old he was and finally offered up his date of birth. The jury loved watching my pain.
Early on the first day of a medical malpractice case in Sevier County, the jury selection process ran a little longer than normal. We finally agreed on 12 good citizens who seemed a perfect match for my case, and the judge announced, “Well, we’ve worked hard this morning, let’s take a short break, then we’ll get started.” The judge tapped the gavel and the bailiff said, “All rise. This court stands in recess.” When everyone reassembled in the courtroom 15 minutes later, one of the jurors was missing. The bailiff searched the hallways and the restrooms, but the 12th juror was not to be found. After waiting a few minutes, the judge looked at the jury and commented, “You don’t think he’d be stupid enough to go home, do you?” Juror No. 6 spoke up and replied, “I know him, Judge, and the answer is ‘yes’.”
In Blount County, after I had questioned the jury in a medical case, the defense lawyer asked the jury panel, “Does anyone on this panel know Mr. Pryor, the lawyer who filed this lawsuit?” A very attractive and well-dressed lady on the back row of the jury raised her hand. I was shocked because I knew few, if any, people in that county and did not recognize her as a person I’d ever met. “How do you know Mr. Pryor?” the lawyer asked. “Well, he took me to Dallas to a football game a few years ago.” The courtroom roared with laughter thinking a tryst had been revealed. I immediately requested an opportunity to question the juror and led her through an explanation that I was in charge of a chartered bus tour to the Cotton Bowl when I was in law school and she and her husband were part of a group of 40 people who purchased the travel package to watch Tennessee play Texas. Whew, I escaped again!
Judge Robert Love Taylor presided over the Federal District Court in Knoxville from 1950 until his death in 1987. Judge Taylor had the reputation of a tyrant when pressing lawyers along to finish their proof in record time. Judge Taylor always wanted quick, short trials with no extra motion and no frills. Of course, I am hardly a frilless lawyer. I tried many cases before Judge Taylor, and in one car wreck case my client had sustained serious and disabling injuries when hit head-on in the curve of a two-lane mountain road. On the morning of the trial, I was attempting to prove that the impact was on my client’s side of the road and that the defendant had negligently crossed the centerline into the plaintiff’s lane. Importantly, I needed to prove the impact debris from the two cars was deposited in my client’s lane of travel. I called my client and then her son, who came to the scene and observed the debris.
My third witness was the wrecker driver who responded to the wreck and would testify that the debris was in my client’s lane, but, unfortunately, I ran into Judge Taylor’s impatience. “This is cumulative evidence!” he screamed when I called for the wrecker driver. “You don’t need this witness, you’ve already called two witnesses.” I resisted by explaining, in front of the jury, that it was important to introduce the testimony of an unbiased third party and that the wrecker driver had excellent recall and remembered detail important to the jury’s decision. “Very well, but make it quick,” Judge Taylor conceded. With that, the witness was brought into the massive and ornate courtroom for the first time. He was dressed in a work uniform with his name “Marvin” stitched over his shirt pocket. His mouth flew open as he stood and gazed up at the baroque ceiling of the majestic room whereupon Judge Taylor, a short fiery man, stood and leaned forward from the judge’s bench toward the witness and in a loud accusatory tone asked, “WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS?” To which my key witness replied, “Nothing, Judge.” The jury could not contain their laughter as the judge looked disappointedly at me. Luckily I talked both the judge and the witness through the necessary proof and won the case to the delight of the jury. I think they felt sorry for me.
The Cocke County Gas Company dug a ditch across a driveway and temporarily backfilled it before stopping work for the day. The backfill washed out during an overnight rain storm causing a car to wreck the next morning. In the suit against the guilty gas company for injuries suffered in the wreck, Judge Taylor asked the gas company lawyer what possible defense he had to such an obvious case and he replied, “Your Honor, I’m relying mainly on the defense that the cause was an ‘Act of God’,” to which Judge Taylor replied, throwing his arms in the air, “Don’t you know God doesn’t act in Cocke County?”
Lawyers know that they must take great caution when questioning jurors during the selection process because responses are difficult to predict. Sometimes they forget and can expose themselves to great risk. In an attempt to illustrate that Tennessee statutes do not require a passenger car to automatically stop at every railroad crossing and that a stop is only required when a train is visible or when the railroad warns of the train’s approach, a Knoxville lawyer representing a man whose car was hit by a train once asked a jury, “Do you know of any law that requires you to stop at a railroad crossing?” Bad question to teach a complex issue. Without pause, a juror on the front row spoke up and said, “Yes, the law of survival.”
I remember trying a complex case for personal injury in Anderson County against five lawyers from the Clinton/Oak Ridge area. As the only out-of-county lawyer, I was worried about local bias until after the jury was selected and sworn and one of the jurors asked to be heard. In open court, he said, “Judge, do you remember on the first day of jury service when I rode up on the elevator with you and told you I thought I could be fair on any case unless one particular lawyer that I hated was involved?” The judge searched for recall and then said, “Yes, I remember that. It was an Anderson County lawyer with which you had had a bad experience.” To which the juror replied, “Well, he’s here.” I fought hard to keep that juror on the panel, but the case went forward with only 11 jurors, some of whom may have had difficulties with that same lawyer because my client prevailed. Sometimes a trial is a contest to see which side hired the most acceptable lawyer.
Today, private mediation has become very popular as a means of resolving litigation without a jury trial. There are far fewer jury trials today than just 10 or 15 years ago and far fewer humorous stories to tell. Many lawyers today have never tried a case in front of a jury because of mediation, or because they only practice to settle cases and not necessarily to insist on full and fair damages being paid. In many ways, that’s a shame because a fair and impartial jury trial has always been the best method ever devised to determine truth and to do substantial justice between parties. Many lawyers have forgotten that it is the genuine threat of a jury trial that is the key to forcing a fair compromised settlement. It has been my experience that juries work really hard at trying to award fair and reasonable damages, and insurance companies work really hard at trying to avoid paying fair and reasonable damages. This is not to mention that insurance settlements and mediations are virtually humorless.