Wanna hear about the weirdest trial I ever had?
This is a story about how a little, tiny, nothing of a case turned into the most daunting double backflip of my mediocre professional career. Mainly, it’s about how COVID-19 took litigation that was already unnecessarily challenging, and turned it into the stuff of nightmares.
This story will take a little longer to tell than most. It’s less like a post, and more like a graphic novel. It’s based on a true story, but the way I tell it here is gonna have to be merely truish. I am a lawyer, after all, and I have to guard client confidences as well as keep a host of other things secret. You’ll just have to take me at my word. Besides, this story has a little bit of everything for 2020: COVID-19, the Me Too Movement, Black Lives Matter, confrontation with the police, a trial, and even a tiger. And I promise that most of you, dear readers—even the lawyers—might even learn a thing or two. Because even for a story about 2020, this one is weird. And, of course, it’s all…
So, without any further ado, I present to you:
Docket 1: Tiger King, or the Ghost of Coronavirus Future
ONE MONTH BEFORE SHUTDOWN.
Okay, so, Frank Hernandez is a lawyer friend of mine, and has been for about eight years. Early in my career, Frank and I worked together as attorneys for co-defendants on a big case. Frank, who was a partner working for another firm, really took me under his wing, and showed me a lot about how the practice works. We ended up becoming friends, and would sometimes meet up for coffee or drinks.
Anyway, Frank and his ex-wife Mary were going through a nasty divorce. The first issue was that Mary had recently begun dating a dude named Ben, who had moved in with Mary in Frank’s former house in the faraway suburbs of Megalopolis, just over the county line.
But the main dispute between Frank and Mary was over custody of their nine year-old daughter, Clara. According to Frank, Mary would regularly show up late on the days he was supposed to pick up Clara. This, in turn, prompted Frank to send nasty texts to Mary and her new boyfriend (since he was paying her phone bills as part of the divorce settlement, Ben’s number was fairly easy to discover).
And in perhaps the most 2020 twist you can imagine, Ben was a zookeeper who worked with big cats. All of this was before Tiger King came out, so I guess Frank didn’t really understand just how crazy things could get. Anyway, Clara had told Frank that she and her mother often visited Ben at the zoo. In fact, Clara had mentioned in passing that Ben would regularly let them go into the tiger’s cage! And that he acted like the tiger was his pet! How exciting!
This did not sit well with Frank.
In fact, Frank may have sent a text message to Mary, saying something to the effect that if she, say, allowed Clara to set foot inside that zoo–and especially the tiger enclosure–ever again, Frank might just, oh…kill Ben. And the tiger. And by “may have” I mean that he definitely sent that text message. I’m pretty sure he had been drinking when he sent it.
One Friday afternoon, Frank went to Mary’s house at his appointed time to pick up Clara for the weekend, and to take her to softball practice. No one was there. Frank called Mary and got no response. This was not the first time this behavior had occurred. Mary had pulled the disappearing act the week before, and the week before that. So Frank headed to the zoo.
It would all end up with Frank in the tiger enclosure, covered in mud, carrying a baseball bat.
Frank was all alone with the tiger in its enclosure for approximately five minutes before zoo security could come and fish him out. In fairness, the baseball bat probably saved Frank’s life by dissuading the tiger from jumping on Frank and eating him. Tigers in the wild can jump approximately 36 feet, and the water barrier between the tiger and the small patch of land on the other side of the wall is only about ten feet. Anyway, Frank was arrested and spent three nights in jail.
Adding insult to injury, Mary told the cops that it wasn’t even the right night for Clara’s softball practice.
I think the lesson here is, don’t drink and text. Or, don’t jump into tiger cages. I guess what I’m saying is, mistakes were made.
Frank felt he had been set up.
So naturally, it was all he could talk about.
In fact, Frank had been charged with domestic assault and aggravated trespassing. The aggravated trespassing charge was nothing – an infraction. But the misdemeanor carried jail time, and it also allowed Mary to get a temporary restraining order against Frank in their divorce case. Which also kept Frank from seeing Clara.
Look, Frank was a lawyer, and I figured he could handle this himself.
I turned to my next call. I had spent my morning interviewing experts, and my next call was with an epidemiologist named Dr. James Friend. We were about to hire him as an expert in a case that was set for trial the next month, where the plaintiffs were renters in an apartment building claiming that they had been permanently injured by toxic mold. The formative parts of the call were fine, and it was clear that Dr. Friend was our guy.
Then I hung up the phone and forgot all about it. Hey, I was going on my vacation! What Dr. Friend told me had sounded bad, but that’s what experts do. They tend to deal in worst case scenarios, and everything feels a little hyperbolic. They’re usually right; it’s just that the way they say things often sounds worse than it is. I had heard it all–massive product safety issues leading to potentially untold thousands of deaths, construction defects that will cause a high rise to collapse, securities fraud that could undermine entire markets–and I’d gotten used to prognostications of doom that weren’t quite as dire as the relatively accurate predictions would suggest.
Hours later, I was well into the rhythm of my day, when I got a reminder of that other dire matter I had been dealing with that day.
Next docket entry: The Lady, or the Tiger?