I had never been to Elk County, Pennsylvania before. Almost five hours from Philadelphia, it never occurred to me that I would try a case out this way. Oh well, it’s a short one day bench trial, might as well enjoy the experience of seeing new places.
As I arrived late on a Sunday night, the area had a certain charm to it. Surrounded by state game land and steel factories, I felt like I had traveled back in time about 100 years. Things seemed much simpler out here.
Starving after a long drive, I pulled up into a diner and sat down next to a heavy fellow. We began striking up a conversation.
“You look fancy in that suit and tie. Are you a lawyer or a banker or something?”
“Lawyer. I have a trial out here tomorrow.”
“Where are you from?”
“Ah, a city slicker…” he said with a bit of a twang.
“Haha, I’m a country boy at heart. Grew up in Carroll County Maryland.” I often miss the small county town where I grew up.
“Well, just so you know, we don’t have that frou frou coffee you city people like. That Moonbucks or whatever the hell you people call it” he said with a grin.
I laughed. “I’ve got to tell you, part of me has always thought about moving back to a place like this. Clean air, scenic views, good hunting…”
“Son, let me tell you, this is a good place. I bought my house for $47k back in 1991. It’s the type of place where you know all your neighbors and see the same few guys in the pub on the weekend. Life moves slower out here.”
I pulled up to the hotel at around 8:15pm. Usually I try and travel light. I typically bring one bag that fits all of my trial evidence, and a change of clothes. I packed a spare pair of underwear, an extra dress shirt, and an extra tie. I have found that traveling with too much stuff makes the experience miserable.
Our trial was scheduled to start on Monday morning at 9:00am. The day before, I had spent hours upon hours with the client, Jack McHugh, preparing, printing documents, and polishing his testimony. If I’ve learned one thing over the years it’s this — the more prepared attorney usually wins the day. Even the most talented trial lawyer will lose without prep work.
Monday morning we arrived at the courthouse bright and early. The facts of the case were simple: my client, who lives out of state, purchased a tractor from the defendant, Industrial Tractor. When he received the tractor, it turned out be be defective, requiring thousands of dollars in repairs just to run properly. Obviously, Jack wanted his money back. Industrial Tractor refused to give him a refund. Jack filed a lawsuit against Industrial Tractor on his own, figuring a trial before a judge would be simpler than having to convince twelve jurors. A week before the trial Jack hired me to help him put on the case.
As I sat in the courtroom, an older lawyer approached me.
“Are you Mr. Rushie?” he said with almost a southern drawl.
“People only call me Mr. Rushie when I’m in trouble. I’m Jordan. I take it you’re the attorney for Industrial Tractor?”
“Why yes sir, I am. I’m John Dolan. Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. I think I passed your office on the way to the courthouse.” John’s office was in a large building that said “Dolan & Associates”.
“Yes sir. We’ve been there almost 72 years, when my father started the law firm. Why don’t we go have a little chat with the judge before getting started? Just the attorneys.”
We walked into chambers and were greeted by a judge who looked to be in his 70s.
“John, good to see you. How was your son’s graduation?” the judge asked.
“It was great, thank you for asking. We’re so proud to have another UVA grad in the family, just like his father. And your honor.”
“And I take it you must be Mr. Rushie?”
“You must not be from around here. Around these parts, we still speak in the courtroom with proper decorum.”
“Yes, your honor.”
“John, why don’t you tell me a little what this case is about?”
“Well judge, I’m exactly not saying it’s frivolous, but his client bought a tractor and now he wants his money back. It’s a perfectly good tractor that might need a little maintenance, that’s all it is. But it seems Mr. McHugh thinks that Industrial Tractor should have to service his tractor for life, and if they won’t do that he’ll sue them. You know that they can’t service his tractor forever for free. Mr. McHugh filed this lawsuit on his own, so I suspect Mr. Rushie doesn’t know about all this…”
The judge nodded. “Mr. Rushie, it sounds like you have a weak case, but I’ll hear it if I must.”
“Judge, he’s not looking for a lifetime of service. He’s looking for a tractor that runs. He paid $30k for a big green paperweight.”
John piped in: “Judge, you know that my client is a reasonable man. In the interest of avoiding litigation, I could probably get him to put up a few thousand dollars. We don’t think this lawsuit has any merit, but my client doesn’t want to pay legal fees, and a few grand would send Mr. McHugh on a nice vacation.”
Hell no. “The cost of the tractor was $30,000, plus the additional $20,000 he had to put into it. And it still doesn’t run. Why would anyone pay $30,000 for a paperweight?”
The judge stepped in: “alright, I’ll hear the case. And Mr. Rushie, I just want you to know that there is no ‘hometown’ advantage in my courtroom and you’ll get a fair shake. Do you mind if I have a word with John alone? It’s got nothing to do with this case.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond… “No problem.”
We went back out into the courtroom and waited. And waited. Around noon the judge’s clerk came out.
“The judge is going to be busy until around 4pm. Y’all can go back to your offices until then.”
“My office is four hours away, and my client is in town from out of state.”
“The judge is aware.”
We booked the hotel rooms for another night and continued preparing our case. Around 3:45, we headed back to the courtroom. The judge took the bench around 4:15.
“I am profusely sorry for being late. We will hear your openings today, and what Mr. McHugh has to say.
Like me, Jack McHugh was a city guy. Later in life he moved down south, where tractors were a hobby of his. Given his profession in IT, Jack was very good at documentation, spreadsheets, and technical explanations.
During his direct examination, Jack was able to show every single thing wrong with this new tractor, track every expense he put into it, and then back up his position with expert testimony — a mechanic testified that the tractor never should have been sold in the first place.
John’s cross-examination of Jack lasted for almost two hours, but fell flat at every turn. It was apparent John hadn’t reviewed our evidence very closely, as most of his questions seemed to help our case.
John had underestimated us.
At the conclusion of cross-examination the judge chimed in:
“Alright. I have a very busy scheduled tomorrow, so we’re not going to be able to hear this case until Wednesday.”
“Your Honor, respectfully, me and my client are both in from out of town. This was supposed to be a one day trial.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Rushie, there is a very good hotel in the area that you’ll much like on Main Street.”
“That’s where we’re staying…”
Jack and I left the courthouse well after 7:30pm.
We spent most of our “day off” continuing to prepare and walking around town. There wasn’t much to do, and nowhere to buy clothes. Admittedly, I enjoyed the clean air and slow pace of a more rural life. Everyone seemed to know each other.
Wednesday afternoon we showed up to court bright and early, and John asks:
“Judge, there are some topics I didn’t address on Monday during cross-examination. May I continue?”
“I object. He’s already had his shot at cross-examination.”
“Your objection is overruled. Proceed.”
John then proceeded to cross-examine my witness again, except this time he was much more prepared. Suddenly his questions were much more pointed. His cross-examination lasted for almost two hours. Around 4pm he was finished.
It’s obvious John had spent the “day off” preparing and learning the case.
At the conclusion, the judge said:
“John, I suspect your client is going to have a lot to testify about. So we’re not going to hear any more testimony today. We’ll reconvene Thursday around 2:30pm.”
Night four in Ridgway, Pennsylvania.
We booked the hotel rooms again. I washed my underwear in the sink. Both my dress shirts were covered in sweat, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Thursday afternoon I showed up to court looking disheveled, in the same suit I had been wearing for four days now, the same tie I wore on Monday, and a dress shirt that desperately needed to be laundered.
John, looking sharp, called the owner of Industrial Tractor, Mike Colt. Colt testified that he was born and raised in Elk County, and was a family man with five kids. Colt served in the military, and then took over his father’s tractor company in 1996. Industrial Tractor takes pride in making the best tractors in the state, and putting the fine people of Elk County to work. I have to admit, he was a likable guy. Someone I wouldn’t mind grabbing a drink with once this was over.
During Colt’s testimony, the judge would chime in and ask questions like “You weren’t trying to mislead anyone, right? That tractor was in perfectly good working condition before it left your factory, yes?”
Colt’s testimony wrapped up around 4:00pm, and I began to cross-examine him. He was surprisingly nervous.
“Sir, isn’t it true that it cost you approximately $10,000 to make this tractor?”
“Uh, yes, that’s correct.”
“So you made a $20,000 profit selling this tractor to my client?”
“And having heard my client’s testimony, and knowing the condition the tractor is in, you’d agree with me that the tractor was not worth $30,000 on the day your company sold it to Mr. McHugh?”
“I suppose not.”
“And you’d agree with me that it’s not fair that my client paid $30,000 for a tractor that doesn’t run, and your company made a $20,000 profit off him?”
“No sir, I don’t suppose it is.”
“And you’d be upset if you purchased something for $30,000 and it didn’t work properly, right?”
“I would be, yes.”
“And sir, do you recognize this document? It is an advertisement your company circulated on the internet, saying all its tractors run great, right?”
“And you’d agree with me, based on the testimony you’ve heard today, that the statement is false as it pertains to my client’s tractor.”
“I suppose it is.”
“And you would agree that there is no way all of the defects my client testified about could have happened within less than a month of him owning it, right?”
“Meaning that Industrial Tractor is responsible for this tractor not working, correct?”
I could see my client practically grinning at counsel table. We had this, and I’d only just begun. When suddenly…
“Mr. Rushie, sit down. It’s now 4:15pm” the judge bellowed.
“I object. I’m not done cross-examining this witness.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Respectfully, I’m not. I’ll stay in town another day and we can finish tomorrow.”
“I am busy all day tomorrow, and next week” the judge said.
“Fine, then I’ll take his deposition.”
“No, you will not. Your objections are preserved for appeal. I am inclined to dismiss this case based on Brown v. McCann.”
“Your honor, Brown is entirely inapplicable. The applicable case law is Darren v. Connors. I’ve prepared a memo…”
“I’m not interested in your memo. I will make my decision in the next few weeks and get back to you.”
We walked out of the courtroom, Jack in complete disbelief.
“What the hell just happened, Jordan? I drove over ten hours to be here, spent over $2000 this week in meals and hotels, we end up stuck in this town for a week with no clothes, and you’re not even allowed to cross-examine the defendant?” he asked. “I got cross-examined for over an hour. Twice!”
Walking back to the hotel, I wasn’t really sure what to say.
All I knew is we were far from home.