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War Story #1

When conversation turned to depositions, Thurgood Weinstein liked to play the wrongful term of Mr. Monk. They sat down. Defense counsel spread his papers. The witness was sworn. "State your name for the record." "James F. Monk." "Now, that’s not right, is it?" defense counsel said. For the next three hours, he tore Mr. Monk a new one. Everything he had in his personnel file was a lie. "Lucky for me, the court reporter was a babe," Goodie would say. "I just watched her work."

My favorite was Santa Krishnameri. Santa was an alcoholic, who lived in a Sixth Street S.R.O. On the day in question, he had picked up his girlfriend, after she was discharged from the mental ward. They had spent the afternoon in the bars. They had spent the evening there too. Then, at 9:06 p.m., Santa stepped between two parked cars on the 1800 block of Lombard, on his way to a bodega, and was creamed by a red Datsun 240Z, driven by Annie Woo, nineteen.

In those days, I got space from a p.i. lawyer off Jackson Square. He threw me cases he didn’t want, and I kicked back a portion of my fees. You handle p.i. on a contingency basis. You advance costs and pocket a third of forty percent of the recovery. Recovery is based on two things – damages and liability. Damages are wage loss, medical bills, pain and suffering, which you figured at three-to-five times medicals. Liability is fault. You figure the potential damages. You reduce by the percentage of fault that is your client’s. So apply that to Santa. He hadn’t worked in five years, so scratch wage loss. But the Datsun had broken both his legs, and, with no one to care for him, SFGH had kept him inside long enough to run up a $90,000 tab. Since I was used to rear-enders and fender-benders, whip-lashed necks and sprained backs, he glittered like a pot of gold.

And Santa’s version of events mapped a rainbow to chase toward it. He had looked both ways. He had stepped out carefully. "She trav-eled, doctor, like the bat from hell." I calculated: red sports car; teenage driver; headed for North Beach on a Friday night. I heard percenage points of liability ringing up – ka-ching, ka-ching.

"What did you want with the grocery?" I said.

"Bananas," he said.

"An excellent source of potassium," I said.

I walked Santa through the police report a dozen times. I visited the block with him in tow. I hired an investigator to take photographs and canvass the block for witnesses. I laid out $3500 for an accident reconstruction guy to tell me about skid marks and coefficients of friction and diagram the scene in four colors on poster board. I walked Santa through that. By now, he was remembering how the air smelled and the sounds of the night. He still looked and stepped carefully. The Datsun still roared from hell. I bought him a sport jacket without puke stains on the lapel for his deposition.

It was at Bache, Pfnagel & Stahl, on the twenty-second floor of the Knowsbleit Building, on the Embarcadero, by Pier 25. Through the wall of window I could see a tanker moving with stately grace toward the Golden Gate. It should have reminded me how thin the shield that kept disaster from multi-thousand Tweetie-Pies. I felt super. I had my photos. I had my expert’s report. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

Santa took the oath. He listened to defense counsel’s admonitions. He coasted through family particulars, past residences, last grade of school completed. He hiccupped a bit at employment record. He made his medical history feel about as comfortable as wrestling a python. Then he headed for the tape. "Describe for me how the accident happened.."

Damned if he didn’t have himself practically swan-diving, dead drunk, into the Datsun’s grill.

"That’s all I have, counsel," Mickey Stahl said.

"No questions," I said.

Santa and I walked to the elevator. I saw the money I had in costs flying south, winged, like in a comic’s thought balloon. "So what happened," I said, "to proceeding with due caution?"

"But Mis-ter Rob-ert," he said, "I had sworn to tell the truth."