DTCI: A dramatic, real life slip-and-fall case fit for television

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dtci-culp-meganIs being an attorney as exciting as it looks on TV? I’m sure as lawyers, we have all heard one version of this question or another. Usually, I say, “Nah, television makes everything seem more dramatic. Real life law tends to move at a slower pace, and not many cases are television-worthy.” I do not mean being a lawyer is boring or predictable, especially in my first two years of practice, but I definitely watch shows that depict lawyers with a healthy dose of eye-rolling.

My 2019 practice of law, however, started off with a story fit for television. The matter in question started as a general slip-and-fall, nothing crazy. The plaintiff’s story seemed a bit unreliable based on her inaccurate memory of the weather, but she had a witness. The most serendipitous witness imaginable, but we had not yet been able to discount his reliability.

Trial was set to begin in February. The plaintiff was not interested in settling the matter without the need for trial, so we were in full trial-preparation mode. We were tying up all loose ends and preparing all exhibits. We had all intentions of seeing this matter to the end, and there was no indication the looming trial would not take place.

Cue a phone call from our corporate client. They had received a voicemail from a man claiming to have some “information” very relevant to our case, the one only weeks away from trial. We reached out immediately. I cannot recall whether I had any expectation that anything would come from this call, but we definitely needed to investigate. The man answered and proceeded to provide his personal knowledge that the plaintiff was lying about the events surrounding her fall just to get money from our client. If true, that information on its own is exciting for any defense attorney, but he did not stop there. The man told us that not only did the plaintiff not fall the way she testified in her deposition, but the “witness” was not really a witness. The man indicated the witness had not been in the vicinity during the fall, and he was being paid for his untruthful testimony in “drugs, money or both.” A relatively ordinary slip-and-fall case had suddenly potentially transformed into a lying plaintiff who was bribing a witness.

Everything after that began to move fast. We obtained detailed background reports on our new potential witness, the plaintiff’s witness and the plaintiff, and we hired a private investigator.

Our witness said he was willing to testify and sign an affidavit with all the information he provided. I spoke to him on the phone a handful of times, getting every bit of information he had. Meanwhile, our private investigators were witnessing drug deals and — to hear them tell it —walking into a seedier version of “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name, but they were strangers.

Coming into the office each day revealed a new dose of exciting information. We were in high gear trying to prepare for the trial while at the same time trying to confirm the truth of our new witness’ crazy story of witness bribery. Then one morning, just a few days after our first conversation, I talked to our witness on the phone. He was on board and ready to sign his affidavit. However, when we talked on the phone that same afternoon, he was crying. He now seemed to be scared about what would happen to him if he testified for us. We did our best to assuage his fears, and we thought he was solid. Then he went radio silent. Great. Now what?

There was now a real possibility we would be going to trial with a plaintiff who we were convinced was not only lying but also paying the witness to lie, but without any evidence of it.

We then received a very late-night phone call from our private investigators. They had tracked down the plaintiff’s witness and were sitting with him at a restaurant in a small town. After much conversation, the witness started explaining that he was a friend of a friend of the plaintiff, that he was not an eyewitness to the plaintiff’s fall, and that the plaintiff was paying him for his untruthful testimony. In the end, he prepared and signed an affidavit containing all this information.

Then the stuff you don’t see on TV started. We checked the model rules for how to proceed, we contacted the plaintiff’s attorney, we contacted the court, and we sent a copy of the affidavit to the plaintiff’s attorney. Only two days later, the entire matter was dismissed. If it had been television, we might have had a dramatic showdown in the courtroom where we shocked everyone, including the plaintiff’s attorney, when the plaintiff’s witness flipped on the stand. Model rules, who?

Instead it was over in a motion, and we came to work the next day, sat down and thought, now what?

Is being an attorney as exciting as it looks on TV? “Yep.”•

Megan C. Culp is an associate in the Indianapolis firm of Pitcher Thompson and is a member of DTCI. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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