The litigators, p.17
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       The Litigators, p.17

           John Grisham
 

  “That’s nice. Please sit down. So you actually filed this lawsuit before you consulted with any experts?”

  “Well, yes, Your Honor, and that’s not unusual.”

  Judge Seawright doubted if Mr. Figg knew what was usual or unusual, but he decided not to embarrass the guy this early in the game. He picked up a pen and said, “You have ten days to designate your experts, then the defense will be allowed to depose them without delay.”

  “Yes sir,” Wally said, falling back into his chair.

  “Thank you. Now, we have eight death cases here, so we’re dealing with eight families. To start with, I want you to take the depositions of the personal representatives of all eight. Mr. Figg, when can you make these people available?”

  “Tomorrow,” Wally said.

  The judge turned to Nadine Karros and said, “That soon enough?”

  She smiled and said, “We prefer reasonable notice, Your Honor.”

  “I’m sure you have a busy trial calendar, Ms. Karros.”

  “As always, yes.”

  “And you also have unlimited resources. I count eleven lawyers taking notes right now, and I’m sure there are hundreds more back at the firm. These are just depositions, nothing complicated, so on Wednesday of next week you’re going to depose four of the plaintiffs, and on Thursday you’ll do the other four. Two hours max per plaintiff; if you need more time, we’ll do them later. If you can’t be there, Ms. Karros, just pick out five or six from your squad, and I’m sure they can handle the depositions.”

  “I’ll be there, Your Honor,” she said coolly.

  “Mr. Figg?”

  “We’ll be there.”

  “I’ll get my clerk to arrange the time, schedule, details, and we’ll e-mail it to you by tomorrow. Then, as soon as Mr. Figg designates his experts, we will schedule their depositions. Ms. Karros, when your experts are in place, please provide the necessary information, and we’ll go from there. I want these initial depositions out of the way within sixty days. Any questions?” There were none.

  He continued: “Now, I have reviewed three other lawsuits involving this defendant and its products, and, frankly, I’m not impressed with Varrick’s integrity or its ability to abide by the rules of discovery. The company, it seems, has a great deal of trouble turning over documents to the other side. It has been caught red-handed concealing documents. It has been sanctioned by judges at the state and federal levels. It has been embarrassed before juries and paid dearly with large verdicts, yet it continues to hide documents. At least three times, its executives have been charged with perjury. Ms. Karros, how can you assure me that your client will play by the rules?”

  She glared at the judge, paused for a moment in a stare-down, then said, “I was not the attorney for Varrick Labs in those other cases, Your Honor, and I don’t know what happened there. I will not be tainted by lawsuits I had nothing to do with. I know the rules inside and out, and my clients always play by the rules.”

  “We’ll see. Your client needs to be warned that I am watching closely. At the first hint of a discovery violation, I will haul the CEO into this courtroom and draw blood. Do you understand me, Ms. Karros?”

  “I do.”

  “Mr. Figg, you have not yet made a request for documents. When might this happen?”

  “We’re working on that now, Your Honor,” Wally said with as much confidence as possible. “We should have it in a couple of weeks.” Alisandros had promised an exhaustive list of documents to be sought from Varrick but had yet to come through.

  “I’m waiting on you,” Seawright said. “This is your lawsuit. You filed it, now let’s get going.”

  “Yes sir,” Wally replied anxiously.

  “Anything else?” he asked.

  Most of the lawyers shook their heads. His Honor seemed to relax somewhat as he chewed on the cap of his pen. He said, “I’m thinking this case might do well under Local Rule 83:19. Have you considered this, Mr. Figg?”

  Mr. Figg had not, because Mr. Figg was not aware of Local Rule 83:19. He opened his mouth, but only dry came forth. David quickly picked up the flag and spoke his first words in court: “We’ve considered that, Your Honor, but we have not yet discussed it with Mr. Alisandros. We should make a decision within the week.”

  Seawright looked at Nadine Karros and said, “And your response?”

  “We are the defense, Your Honor, and we are never eager to go to trial.” Her candor amused the judge.

  Wally whispered to David, “What the hell’s Rule 83:19?”

  David whispered back, “The Rocket Docket. Streamline the case. Balls to the wall.”

  “We don’t want that, do we?” Wally hissed.

  “No. We want to settle and cash in.”

  “No need to file a motion, Mr. Figg,” His Honor said. “I’m placing this case in 83:19 status. On the fast track, Mr. Figg, so let’s get things moving along.”

  “Yes sir,” Wally managed to mumble.

  Judge Seawright tapped his gavel and said, “We’ll meet again in sixty days, and I expect Mr. Alisandros to be here. Adjourned.”

  As David and Wally were stuffing files and notepads into their briefcases in hopes of a fast exit, Nadine Karros sauntered over for a quick hello. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Figg, Mr. Zinc,” she said with a smile that made Wally’s nervous heart skip another beat.

  “A pleasure,” he said. David returned the smile as he shook her hand.

  “This promises to be a long, bruising fight,” she said, “with a lot of money on the table. I try to keep things on a professional level and hard feelings at a minimum. I’m sure your firm feels the same way.”

  “Oh yes,” Wally gushed, and almost asked her to go have a drink. David wasn’t as easily manipulated. He saw her as a pretty face and a warm facade, but just below the surface was a ruthless combatant who would enjoy watching you bleed in open court.

  “I guess I’ll see you next Wednesday,” she said.

  “If not sooner,” Wally said, a lame attempt at humor.

  As she stepped away, David grabbed Wally by the arm and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

  CHAPTER 20

  Now that Helen was expecting and her future would be consumed with the baby, her studies at Northwestern seemed less important. She dropped one class because of morning sickness, and she was struggling with motivational problems in most of her others. David was pushing her, delicately, but she wanted to take a break. She was almost thirty-four, thrilled at the prospect of becoming a mother, and losing interest quickly in a doctorate in art history.

  On a frigid day in March, they were having lunch in a café near the campus when Toni Vance, Helen’s friend from class, happened to drop by. David had met her only once. She was ten years older and had two teenagers and a husband who had something to do with containerized shipping. She also had the Burmese housekeeper with a grandson who was alive but probably brain damaged. David had urged Helen to push Toni to arrange a meeting, but the housekeeper had not been cooperative. Snooping, without violating laws or anyone’s privacy, David had learned that the little boy was five years old and for the past two months had been in intensive care at the Lakeshore Children’s Hospital on Chicago’s North Side. His name was Thuya Khaing, and he had been born in Sacramento, so he was a U.S. citizen. As for his parents, David had no way of knowing their immigration status. Zaw, the housekeeper, supposedly had a green card.

  “I think Zaw would talk to you now,” Toni said as she sipped an espresso.

  “When and where?” David asked.

  She glanced at her watch. “My next class is over at two, then I’ll go home. Why don’t you guys stop by?”

  At 2:30, David and Helen parked behind a Jaguar in the driveway of a striking contemporary house in Oak Park. Whatever Mr. Vance did with containerized cargo, he did it well. The house jutted here and there, up and down, with lots of glass and marble and no discernible design. It tried desperately to be unique, and it succeeded greatly. They finally located
the front door and were met by Toni, who’d found time to change outfits and was no longer trying to look like a twenty-year-old student. She led them to a sunroom with full views of the sky and clouds, and moments later Zaw entered with a tray of coffees. Introductions were made.

  David had never met a Burmese woman, but he guessed her age at sixty. She was petite in her maid’s uniform, with short, graying hair and a face that seemed locked into a perpetual smile.

  “Her English is very good,” Toni said. “Please join us, Zaw.” Zaw awkwardly sat on a small stool near her boss.

  “How long have you been in the United States?” David asked.

  “Twenty year.”

  “And you have family here?”

  “My husband is here, work for Sears. My son too. Work for tree company.”

  “And he’s the father of the grandson who’s in the hospital?”

  She nodded slowly. The smile vanished at the mention of the boy.

  “Yes.”

  “Does the boy have brothers and sisters?”

  She flashed two fingers and said, “Two sister.”

  “Have they been sick too?”

  “No.”

  “Okay, can you tell me what happened when the boy got sick?”

  She looked at Toni, who said, “It’s okay, Zaw. You can trust these people. Mr. Zinc needs to hear the story.”

  Zaw nodded and began talking, her eyes glued to the floor. “He get real tired all the time, sleep a lot, then bad pain here.” She tapped her stomach. “He cry so hard because of the pain. Then he start to vomit, every day he vomit, and he lose weight, get real skinny. We take him to doctor. They put him in hospital and he go to sleep.” She touched her head. “They think he has brain problem.”

  “Did the doctor say it was lead poisoning?”

  She nodded. “Yes.” No hesitation.

  David nodded too as he let this soak in. “Does your grandson live with you?”

  “Next door. Apartment.”

  He looked at Toni and asked, “Do you know where she lives?”

  “Rogers Park. It’s an old apartment complex. I think everyone there is from Burma.”

  “Zaw, is it possible for me to see the apartment where the boy lives?”

  She nodded. “Yes.”

  “Why do you need to see the apartment?” Toni asked.

  “To find the source of the lead. Could be in the paint on the walls or in some of his toys. It might be in the water. I should have a look.”

  Zaw rose quietly and said, “Excuse me, please.” A few seconds later, she was back with a small plastic bag, from which she removed a set of pink plastic teeth, complete with two large vampire fangs. “He like these,” Zaw said. “He scare his sisters, make funny noise.”

  David held the cheap toy. The plastic was hard, and some of the coloring, or paint, had chipped off. “Did you see him play with these?”

  “Yes. Many time.”

  “When did he get these?”

  “Last year. Halloween,” she said, without the H sound. “I don’t know if it make him sick, but he use them all the time. Pink, green, black, blue, many color.”

  “So there’s a whole set of these?”

  “Yes.”

  “Where are the others?”

  “Apartment.”

  ———

  It was spitting snow when David and Helen found the apartment complex after dark. The buildings were 1960s-style blocks of plywood and tar paper, a few bricks on the steps, a few shrubs here and there. All the units were two stories, some with boarded windows and obviously abandoned. There were a few vehicles, all ancient imports from Japan. It was easy to get the impression that the place would have been condemned, with bulldozers to follow, but for the heroic efforts of the Burmese immigrants.

  Zaw was waiting at 14B and led them a few steps to 14C. Thuya’s parents looked to be about twenty years old, but were really closer to forty. They looked exhausted, sad eyed, and as frightened as any parents would be. They were appreciative that a real lawyer would come to their home, though they were terrified of the legal system and understood nothing about it. The mother, Lwin, hurried about preparing and serving tea. The father, Zaw’s son, went by Soe and, as the man of the house, did most of the talking. His English was good, much better than his wife’s. As Zaw had said, he worked for a company that did all manner of tree work. His wife cleaned offices downtown. It was obvious to both David and Helen that there had been a lot of discussion before their arrival.

  The apartment was sparsely furnished but neat and clean. The only effort at decor was a large photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and most famous dissident in Burma. Something was on the stove in the kitchen, and its pungent aroma reeked of onions. In the car, the Zincs had vowed not to stay for dinner in the unlikely event they were invited. Thuya’s two sisters were not to be seen or heard.

  The yellowish tea was served in tiny cups, and after a sip or two Soe said, “Why do you want to talk to us?”

  David took his first sip, hoped it would be his last, and said, “Because if your son has in fact been poisoned by lead, and if the lead came from a toy or something here in the apartment, then you may—and I emphasize the word ‘may’—have a case against the maker of the dangerous product. I would like to investigate this matter, but I am making no promises.”

  “You mean we could get money?”

  “Possibly. That’s the purpose of the case, or lawsuit, but first we need to dig a little deeper.”

  “How much money?”

  Here, of course, Wally would promise them anything. David had heard him promise—or practically guarantee—a million or more to several of his Krayoxx clients.

  “I can’t answer that,” David said. “It’s too early. I would like to investigate, see if we can put together a case, and take it one step at a time.”

  Helen was watching her husband with admiration. He was doing a fine job in an arena where he knew nothing and had no experience. He’d never seen a lawsuit at Rogan Rothberg.

  “Okay,” Soe said. “What now?”

  “Two things,” David said. “First, I’d like to have a look at his things—toys, books, bed—anything that might be a source of lead. Second, I need for you to sign some papers that will allow me to begin accumulating his medical records.”

  Soe nodded at Lwin, who reached into a small box and removed a plastic ziploc bag. She opened it and on the small coffee table lined up five pairs of fake teeth and fangs—blue, black, green, purple, and red. Zaw added the pink ones from the afternoon visit, and the set was complete.

  “These called Nasty Teeth,” Soe said.

  David stared at the row of Nasty Teeth and for the first time felt the twinge of excitement of a big lawsuit. He picked up the green ones—hard but pliable plastic, flexible enough to open and close easily. He had no trouble seeing a pesky little brother with these in his mouth, growling and snapping at his sisters.

  “Your son played with these?” David asked. Lwin nodded sadly.

  Soe said, “He like them, kept them in his mouth. Tried to eat dinner with them one night.”

  “Who bought them?” David asked.

  “I did,” Soe said. “I bought a few things for Halloween. Cost not too much.”

  “Where did you buy them?” David asked, almost holding his breath. He hoped for an answer like Walmart, Kmart, Target, Sears, Macy’s—some chain with deep pockets.

  “At market,” Soe said.

  “What market?”

  “Big mall. Near Logan Square.”

  Helen said, “Probably the Mighty Mall,” and David’s excitement waned a bit. The Mighty Mall was a hodgepodge of cavernous metal buildings housing a maze of cramped stalls and booths where one could find almost anything of legal value and many items from the black market. Cheap clothing, household goods, old albums, athletic gear, counterfeit CDs, used paperbacks, fake jewelry, toys, games, a million things. The low prices attracted large crowds. Virtually a
ll business was in cash. Record keeping and receipts were not priorities.

  “Did these come in a package?” David asked. A package would provide the name of the manufacturer and maybe the importer.

 

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