Back in 2014, the electrical transformer in my yard blew up during a storm and the lid came off and the oil inside sprayed over part of my garden.
You can read more about it here.
I sued the utility company to recoup the money I spent to replace the plants, etc.
I sued them in General Sessions court, aka small claims court, and won.
They appealed to Circuit Court, a higher authority, if you will.
Recently, with the trial date looming, the attorney for the utility filed something called a Motion for Summary Judgment, which is basically a request to the judge to toss out the case before the trial on the grounds that there’s nothing trial-worthy in the suit.
That hearing was held recently.
I should mention I’m representing myself because, hey, I’m only asking for $730. I would be well in the hole just by walking into a lawyer’s office and since I’m not an eccentric millionaire, it doesn’t make fiscal sense to pay for representation.
So it’s just me, myself, and I.
I always feel completely at sea in a courtroom. First of all, I’ve washed off all my usual dirt and made a good effort to clean even the deep down soil under my fingernails. I’m not me without my dirt.
Second, I’m wearing non-blue jeans and non-muck boots, which makes me feel a little off.
Third, I’m not a lawyer and I’m easily overwhelmed by the legal process.
Our town has a great big, beautiful courthouse. If you’ve ever read a John Grisham novel, you’ve probably read a description of it, with its seven kinds of marble and mahogany paneling.
This is why I ditch the gardening shoes; that much marble and limestone demands respect and awe, and proper footwear.
The ones I wore on Friday were a half size too big for me, especially the right shoe, and I had to step that foot with a funny little twist to keep it from flying off. Also, we were feeling the tail end of some sort of Canadian vortex and it was very cold. This is relevant because I had on a dress because all my non-jean pants are from the part of the ’90s that hasn’t swung back in style yet. During a recent, poorly-timed spasm of KonMari I’d decided that none of my tights sparked joy, so I had nothing to put on my cold legs.
Another consequence of the tights purge was now everyone could see the four-inch-diameter round bruise on my right calf sustained while wrangling a fence panel the week before.
One more wardrobe note: the only dress that sort of looked appropriate was sleeveless. I had to wear a jacket over it so when I took off my coat I didn’t look like I’d mistaken the courtroom for a garden party. It’s a lined, corduroy jacket and quite bulky under my slightly-too-small overcoat. The outline of the jacket was visible under the tight fabric of the coat and I looked like I was auditioning for a Hans and Franz remake.
Picture it. Me, with my epic bruised frozen leg, stuffed like homemade sausage into a gray wool overcoat, twist-stepping it up these limestone stairs:
Through these marble halls:
Rudy Baylor wasn’t there (the photo above is a still from The Rainmaker), but I could have used his help.
In the courtroom, waiting for the judge to arrive, it was old home week among the assembly of lawyers; they talked in low tones about their various cases, their weekend plans, their desire to switch to other types of law from the one they’re stuck in. Two of the lawyers, one on either side of the bench I was sitting on, struck up a conversation with me between them. I got up and offered to move over so they could talk. They took me up on it.
I’m cold by nature, and this time of year coming in and out of buildings, I spend a lot of time both hot AND cold simultaneously. It’s an uncomfortable state, exacerbated by nervousness; kind of sweaty and trembly at the same time. I concentrated on keeping my knees from bouncing and stared at the almost crew cut of the utility company’s lawyer sitting on the bench in front of me.
He’s very young. I bear him no rancor. He’s just doing his job, and a bit of a bad guy role it is. It must be an irritation to him, this case. He’s outside counsel, doesn’t work for the utility company itself, but a firm they’ve hired to do stuff like this, deal with pesky, trifling homeowners with petty beefs. Whatever he got into law to do, I’m sure this wasn’t it.
He’s nervous, too. He has a tell. I’ve noticed it every time we’ve sat in court together. He yawns.
I used to yawn a lot before track meets when I was on the team in high school. It’s a classic sign of nervousness, and his yawns make me, actually, less nervous. Still terribly nervous, but less so knowing I’m not the only one. He’s a little shaky, too, when he’s addressing the judge.
It’s endearing. As I said, he’s very young, and I feel a bit materteral toward him. I had to look that word up. It means like an aunt, the female version of avuncular.
We have to wait our turn. Other matters are before the court. An eviction, some child custody business. Soon they get to us.
The judge doesn’t feel the defendant (the utility) has been persuasive enough in its argument for summary judgment. Basically, the case law they cited wasn’t analogous to this case and most of all, they haven’t mentioned the GTLA.
The GTLA, I found out later, thank you Google, is the Government Tort Liability Act. In short, it’s a Get Out Of Jail Free Card for governments. It grants them immunity from being sued for almost everything. It’s meant to keep governments from being overburdened by litigation while trying to get on with the job of taking care of citizens. There are very few exceptions to this immunity.
Back to the courthouse. The judge kindly reminded the defendant about the GTLA and seemed to ask him why didn’t you cite it in your memorandum in support of your motion?
A bit flustered, the lawyer, I think (I was still at sea), replied in words to the effect that he was quite familiar with the GTLA, thank you very much, to which the judge replied, in effect, if you’re such an expert on the GTLA then just when were you planning to bring that up?
The lawyer looked like he really wished he were someplace else.
The judge, she has a very kind tone in her voice, asked both of us if we would like a do over. We agreed. We will come back in a few weeks after resubmitting his Motion for Summary Judgment and my Opposition to said motion.
She also suggested we try to settle this out of court.
Of course, I would be happy to come to some sort of settlement, but the utility is uninterested in settling. It would be setting the wrong precedent. Can’t go around paying for ruined property. Too burdensome.
The lawyer and I talk briefly in the hall. He reiterates that the utility is unlikely to change its mind about a settlement. It comes as no surprise to me. We part ways, but we are scheduled for our version of Groundhog Day in January.
Now the judge has reminded the utility’s lawyer of his extensive knowledge of the GTLA, I have very little hope of prevailing. The GTLA is a mighty shield.
I suppose I should decide, KonMari fashion, whether or not continuing to pursue this brings me joy.
I enjoy learning new things. like GTLA case law. Did you know if you are accidentally mauled by a police dog as an innocent bystander, you are unable to sue the police department for your pain and suffering?
Did you know if your relative dies of heat stroke because he was refused electricity services because he was born at home out in the country and never got a birth certificate (no proper ID), you can’t sue the utility over it?
I enjoy suggesting to the utility that they act responsibly.
I enjoy being in that beautiful courthouse (as long as I’m the plaintiff).
I hate to be a girly-man (woman), but this isn’t as one-dimensional as that. We’ll see.
I think I just want to PUMP! [clap} YOU UP!
Image credit courthouse exterior: Steve Burns
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