Legally Speaking: Sweet justice

By John G. Browning | Aug 19, 2013

According to the latest poll by the Pew Research Center, lawyers rank dead last among 10 professions for contributions to society—behind the military, teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers, the clergy, artists, journalists and even business executives.

Only 18 percent of the Americans polled felt lawyers contributed “a lot” to society; while over a third (34 percent) believed that lawyers contribute little or nothing to society.

Why such low public esteem?  Perhaps it has something to do with justice.  People involved in civil or criminal cases want to see that justice is done, that people get what they have coming to them (for better or worse).

Plea bargains in criminal cases and out of court settlements or lopsided verdicts in civil matters just don’t provide people with the warm fuzzy satisfaction of seeing that justice was truly done.  If anything, all too often we see things that shock the conscience and convince us that something is wrong with the system.

For example, just recently 33-year-old Latrice Brewer (through her attorney Peter Kelly) of Mineola, N.Y., filed for a share of the $350,000 in wrongful death settlements paid after the deaths of her three children in 2008.

Sounds fair, until you learn that Ms. Brewer was the one who drowned her own children in the bathtub, and then was found “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.”

Her lawyer maintains that the mentally disturbed woman (who is confined to an upstate New York psychiatric hospital) should be exempt from a state law that bars convicts from profiting from their crime because of the “not guilty” finding.

That’s not justice, and it’s just plain offensive.  But justice does occur out there, albeit sometimes in small but still satisfying ways.  Take Roger Herrin, for example.  The 76-year-old retired doctor lost his teenage son in a 2001 car accident; Herrin’s son was a passenger in a Jeep that was struck broadside by a truck that ran a stop sign.

In the litigation that followed, a trial judge awarded most of the $800,000 in uninsured motorists funds to Herrin’s surviving father.  But an appellate court reassessed the judgment and ordered a different distribution that paid out more of the money to surviving occupants of the Jeep. As a result, Roger Herrin was ordered to pay back over $500,000 from what he had collected to these other victims.

When the time came recently to make the first installment of $150,000, Herrin chose a novel way to pay it while simultaneously protesting what he considers an unfair ruling.  He paid it in quarters (Herrin later told reporters that if possible, he would have paid it “in pennies.”).

That’s right—he had 7,500 pounds of quarters brought from the Federal Reserve in St. Louis by armored truck, then transferred to a flatbed truck and taken to the offices of the two Illinois law firms representing the other crash victims (note: they were not happy at the unusual delivery).

And if you’ve ever been upset with people who don’t clean up after their dogs, you’ll appreciate this bit of sweet justice.  In Brunete, Spain (a suburb of Madrid), the government came up with a unique way to go after scofflaw dog owners.  Last year, they hired an ad agency that had a realistic-looking, remote-controlled pile of fake dog poop follow offending owners and bump into their shoes.

While amusing, the tactic didn’t have the deterrent effect the town fathers wanted.  So recently, the suburb launched an undercover sting, in which volunteers approached owners after witnessing an offending “deposit,” striking up casual conversation and asking about the dog.  After finding out the dog’s name and breed, they proceeded to identify the owner through pet license information.

Shortly thereafter, each owner received a “special delivery” of a white box bearing the town’s seal with “Lost and Found” on it.  Inside the box was the unscooped dog feces.

The offending owners evidently started getting the message because, within a few months, government officials noticed a substantial reduction in the public area poop problem.  Justice was served, although in a somewhat smelly fashion.

As a defense attorney, I particularly enjoy tales of personal injury claimants who exaggerate their injuries and get their comeuppance in the end.  Such was the case in June, when a former U.S. Postal Service mail carrier pled guilty to worker’s compensation fraud.

It seems that the former postal worker has been collecting disability payments for the last eight years based on her claims that she could not “stand, sit, kneel, squat, climb, bend, reach, or grasp.”

Investigators gathered evidence that contradicted her claims, including footage of her lifting and carrying items like groceries and furniture, as well as ziplining while on a cruise.

But the most damning evidence came from the postal worker’s 2009 appearance on the television game show “The Price is Right,” in which she was shown jumping up and down excitedly and spinning the big wheel twice.

Busted!  Maybe at her September sentencing hearing the judge will arrive at a sentence by picking a number and seeing which side guesses closest to it without going over.

And here’s one for anyone who’s ever been unhappy with credit card interest rates and fees.  Forty-two-year-old Dmitry Argarkov of Voronezh, Russia, got a credit card offer in the mail from Tinkoff Credit Systems.

Argarkov didn’t like the terms that were offered, but instead of throwing the proposed contract away, he did something different: he scanned it into his computer and changed the terms, providing himself with a 0 percent interest rate, no fees and no credit limit.

Other provisions in Argarkov’s version called for the bank to pay a 3 million ruble penalty for noncompliance and 6 million rubles if it tried to cancel the contract.

To Argarkov’s surprise, the company apparently failed to read his amendments, and signed the agreement and issued him a credit card.

Later on, Tinkoff tried to close the account due to overdue payments and sued him for fees and charges that were in the original—but not the amended and signed—version of the contract.

In early August, a Russian judge ruled in Argarkov’s favor (he was only ordered to pay off his outstanding balance) and rejected the bank’s claim that it had signed the document without reading it (a defense usually scoffed at by the credit card companies when their cardholders raise it).

Now, Argarkov has taken the offensive and is suing Tinkoff for millions of rubles for breaching the contract and incurring penalties under the revised contract.  Turning the tables on the credit card company—now that’s justice.

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