Arthur began by saying the defendants, especially Drake & Sweeney and RiverOaks, had been blindsided by the lawsuit--they were rattled and reeling and unaccustomed to the humiliation, and to the battering they were taking in the press. He spoke very frankly about the distress his beloved firm was suffering. Mordecai just listened, as he did throughout most of the meeting.
Arthur pointed out that there were a number of issues involved. He started with Braden Chance, and revealed that Chance had been expelled by the firm. He did not withdraw; he was kicked out. Arthur spoke candidly about Chance's misdeeds. He was solely in charge of all RiverOaks matters. He knew every aspect of the TAG closing, and monitored every detail. He probably committed malpractice when he allowed the eviction to proceed.
"Probably?" Mordecai said.
Well, okay then, beyond probably. Chance did not meet the necessary level of professional responsibility by proceeding with the eviction. And he doctored the file. And he attempted to cover up his actions. He lied to them, plain and simple, Arthur admitted, with no small amount of discomfort. Had Chance been truthful after Mister's hostage crisis, the firm could have prevented the lawsuit and its resulting flood of bad press. Chance had embarrassed them deeply, and he was history. "How did he doctor the file?" Mordecai asked. The other side wanted to know if Mordecai had seen the file. Where, exactly, was the damned thing? He was not responsive.
Arthur explained that certain papers had been removed.
"Have you seen Hector Palma's memo of January twenty-seventh?" Mordecai asked, and they went rigid.
"No," came the response, delivered by Arthur.
So Chance had in fact removed the memo, along with Lontae's receipt, and fed them to the shredder. With great ceremony, and relishing every second of it, Mordecai removed from his briefcase several copies of the memo and receipt. He majestically slid them across the table, where they were snatched up by hardened lawyers too terrified to breathe.
There was a long silence as the memo was read, then examined, then reread, then finally analyzed desperately for loopholes and words which might be lifted out of context and slanted toward their side of the table. Nothing doing. Hector's words were too clear; his narrative too descriptive.
"May I ask where you got this?" asked Arthur politely.
"That's not important, at least for now."
It was obvious they had been consumed with the memo. Chance had described its contents on his way out the door, and the original had been destroyed. But what if copies had been made?
They were holding the copies, in disbelief.
But because they were seasoned litigators they rallied nicely, laying the memo aside as if it were something they could handle effectively at a later date.
"I guess that brings us to the missing file," Arthur said, anxious to find more solid footing. They had an eyewitness who had seen me near Chance's office the night I took the file. They had fingerprints. They had the mysterious file from my desk, the one that had held the keys. I had gone to Chance demanding to see the RiverOaks/TAG file. There was motive.
"But there are no eyewitnesses," Mordecai said. "It's all circumstantial."
"Do you know where the file is?" Arthur asked.
"We have no interest in seeing Michael Brock go to jail."
"Then why are you pressing criminal charges?"
"Everything's on the table, Mr. Green. If we can resolve the lawsuit, we can also dispose of the criminal matter."
"That's wonderful news. How do you propose we settle the lawsuit?"
Rafter slid over a ten-page summary, filled with multicolored graphs and charts, all designed to convey the argument that children and young, uneducated mothers are not worth much in wrongful-death litigation.
Wlth typical big-firm thoroughness, the minions at Drake & Sweeney had spent untold hours spanning the nation to survey the latest trends in tort compensation. A one-year trend. A five-year trend. A ten-year trend. Region by region. State by state. City by city. How much were juries awarding for the deaths of preschoolers? Not very much. The national average was forty-five thousand dollars, but much lower in the South and Midwest, and slightly higher in California and in larger cities.
Preschoolers do not work, do not earn money, and the courts generally do not allow predictions about future earning capacity.
Lontae's estimate of lost earnings was quite liberal. With a spotty employment history, some weighty assumptions were made. She was twenty-two, and she would one day very soon find full-time employment, at minimum wage. That was a generous assumption, but one Rafter was willing to grant. She would remain clean, sober, and free of pregnancy for the remainder of her working life; another charitable theory. She would find training somewhere along the way, move into a job paying twice as much as minimum wage, and keep said job until she was sixty-five. Adjusting her future earnings for inflation, then translating to present dollars, Rafter arrived at the sum of $570,000 for Lontae's loss of earnings. There were no injuries or burns, no pain and suffering. They died in their sleep.
To settle the case, and admitting no wrongdoing whatsoever, the firm generously offered to pay $50,000 per child, plus the full sum of Lontae's earnings, for a total of $770,000.
"That's not even close," Mordecai said. "I can get that much out of a jury for one dead kid." They sank in their seats.
He went on to discredit almost everything in Rafter's pretty little report. He didn't care what juries were doing in Dallas or Seattle, and failed to see the relevance. He had no interest in judicial proceedings in Omaha. He knew what he could do with a jury in the District, and that was all that mattered. If they thought they could buy their way out cheaply, then it was time for him to leave.
Arthur reasserted himself as Rafter looked for a hole. "It's negotiable," he said. "It's negotiable."
The survey made no allowance for punitive damages, and Mordecai brought this to their attention. "You got a wealthy lawyer from a wealthy firm deliberately allowing a wrongful eviction to occur, and as a direct result my clients got tossed into the streets where they died trying to stay warm. Frankly, gentlemen, it's a beautiful punitive damages case, especially here in the District."
"Here in the District" meant only one thing: a black jury.
"We can negotiate," Arthur said again. "What figure do you have in mind?"
We had debated what number to first place on the table. We had sued for ten million dollars, but we had pulled the number out of the air. It could've been forty or fifty or a hundred.
"A million for each of them," Mordecai said. The words fell heavily on the mahogany table. Those on the other side heard them clearly, but it took seconds for things to register.
"Five million?" Rafter asked, just barely loud enough to be heard.
"Five million," boomed Mordecai. "One for each of the victims."
The legal pads suddenly caught their attention, and all four wrote a few sentences.
After a while, Arthur reentered the fray by explaining that our theory of liability was not absolute. An interveiling act of nature--the snowstorm--was partly responsible for the deaths. A long discussion about weather followed. Mordecai settled the issue by saying, "The jurors will know that it snows in February, that it's cold in February, that we have snowstorms in February."
Throughout the meeting, any reference by him to the jury, or the jurors, was always followed by a few seconds of silence on the other side.