October 13, 2020 Feature

My First Big Case

It took years before I realized that this case made me a much better lawyer and person.

Kenneth P. Nolan

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It was on Facebook that I learned Murph had died. Even though he was not doing great—lousy circulation cost a leg—it was that rotten coronavirus that ended Jimmy Murphy’s wonderful life. In his mid-70s, he had some of those “underlying issues,” which is the polite way to say: Don’t be surprised he died.

Yet, I was sad and angry when I read the post. Sad because I hate to see good people die even though I was taught heaven is just a fabulous, glorious place. Angry because I had intended for months to drive down to Jersey to sit with Jimmy and Mary to talk about family, friends, and growing up in Holy Name parish. But I never did. I never sat on their couch and lamented how gentrifiers ruined our neighborhood, how you don’t know anyone when you once knew everyone, and wasn’t it so much better when we didn’t have a nickel and slept three, four, five to a room. Before they eagerly moved to the suburbs after I settled Jimmy’s case for $1 million in the early 1980s.

I also wanted to thank them for what they taught me those many years ago—integrity, humility, commitment. They wouldn’t hear of it, of course, and wouldn’t have believed a word, but I wanted to tell them anyway for it took years, a lot of them actually, before I realized that this case made me a much better lawyer and person.

It’s impossible for you to understand or appreciate the magical Brooklyn neighborhood where we grew up—shooting hoops in the crowded schoolyard, dodging cars while we played stickball or slapball, the freedom in being outside unsupervised all day from age eight. My wife calls it a cult, the obsession that my childhood buddies and I share, as we recall, in voices of joy and reverence, those times 40, 50, or more years ago when life was such a struggle but filled with love and laughter.

As evidence, I point to the recent eulogy of my Aunt Anne by her son, who asked in bewilderment: “Isn’t it strange that the happiest moments of her life were when she lived in Brooklyn during the Depression and the war when she had nothing?” This about a woman who epitomized the American dream—home in suburban Bethesda, happily married for more than 50 years, 5 successful children, 14 beautiful grandchildren, and 2 great-grandsons. It was into this Windsor Terrace area squeezed between Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park where Jimmy Murphy and Mary Trapp were born, raised, and married.

The Pro Bono Case

One summer during law school, I volunteered for the civil division of Legal Services, assisting the many poor, unsophisticated tenants being tossed into the gutter by often heartless landlords. That I persevered in my studies after viewing the zoo that is Housing Court in downtown Brooklyn speaks either to my lack of intelligence or my indifference to gracious, civilized behavior.

Each day, hundreds crowded the cavernous, dilapidated courtroom, overseen by judges, court officers, and clerks with harsh demeanors and angry voices. “Sit down, stop talking, remove your hats, put away the newspapers,” was the chorus. One judge pointed: “You. Yeah, you. That’s right. Stop picking your nose.” When a case was called, the bewildered or old would shuffle to the bench and speak of sickness or tragedy in halting, sincere words. Often without looking up, the question would interrupt: “You got a lawyer?” If the tenant hesitated, the judge would snap: “Get a lawyer. Come back in two weeks. Next.”

Shortly after I was admitted, I was approached by Mary with an eviction notice from her apartment on Sherman Street, where my family had lived since the two-family houses were built around 1910. Mary was a few years older, but I was friends and played basketball with three of her brothers. Of course, I’ll help, I said. This is the reason I suffered through law school—to become a hero by assisting family and friends. And it didn’t hurt that I knew, through my internship, a tenant was routinely given a month or more to vacate no matter what. All I had to do was appear and ask. Then the Murphys would find a place, and the whole neighborhood would be in awe of my prowess and skill.

The only tiny wrinkle was that the Murphy’s landlord was Doris Bullock, a family friend. When my mother learned of my involvement, she snapped: “You know, Doris is not going to be pleased.” As usual, I dismissed her concern since I knew all the Bullock kids—Karen was my first girlfriend—and Doris was easygoing. When the youngest was four or five, he would stroll out the front door, walk around the corner to the supermarket, grab a box of cereal, sit on the floor, and enjoy breakfast. One time, the cops brought him home.

The Bullock’s attorney refused to stipulate, but the judge perfunctorily granted an additional month. A real lawyer I was, since my strategy worked perfectly. Busy at work, I was surprised when Mary alerted me that they still hadn’t found an apartment. “Three kids, you know.” I returned to court, this time with Mrs. Bullock glaring, and her lawyer, Eddie Croce, seething. I begged the judge, who gave a few more weeks with a warning, “I don’t want to see you again.”

“I heard the Murphys still haven’t moved,” my mother said triumphantly. “Do you really know what you’re doing?” I nearly slammed the phone down, for I was now officially panicking that the Murphys would be on the street and everyone would blame me. Miraculously, they found some rooms and eventually even paid the back rent. For some reason, Mrs. Bullock forgot how to smile whenever she saw me.

At last it was over, but no ticker-tape parade greeted me. I forever lost as potential clients the extended Bullock family and their countless friends. I was also certain that Eddie Croce, with his booming local practice, would never refer me business (I was right). And the Murphys, whom I never billed, weren’t particularly ecstatic with the experience. No longer did I feel like a real lawyer—more like a big fat dope.

The Big Case

A few years later, I received another call from Mary, who, through tears, explained that Jimmy, an ironworker, had fallen at work and was in Bellevue Hospital. “He’s going to live, Kenny, but he may need surgery. We don’t know what to do.” Since I specialized in personal injury, I immediately went, sitting with Mary and her large family. I explained the process—investigate immediately, take photos, all that stuff. All present were friendly but extremely skeptical—you handle construction cases? How many have you tried? Other older, more renowned lawyers were mentioned with “it’s only fair to see them, don’t you think?”

I knew I had no shot especially since the Murphys, pleasant and agreeable, would be overwhelmed. I stayed in touch but gave up hope as I heard that more experienced lawyers had visited. Finally, Mary called and said that Jimmy was well enough to see me. Banged up, rotator cuff separation, hand and wrist broken, ligaments and muscles torn, some stitches, but when you fall three stories from a steel beam to a concrete floor, you shouldn’t be able to talk—or breathe. Maybe the Irish do have some luck.

“So, what do we want to do, Jim?” Mary asked. “Who should we hire?” Jimmy pointed at me and said firmly, “I want you.” “But what about . . . ?” “No,” he said firmly. “He helped with the apartment, remember.” He turned to me: “Where’s the paper to sign? I can only make an X with my left hand,” showing me the heavily bandaged right. “OK, good,” Mary smiled. “I want you too, Kenny.” They hadn’t forgotten.

We litigated the case for a few years, and with a powerless right arm and hand, Jimmy could no longer walk the iron. Since failure to provide a safety harness meant absolute liability, the issue was his injuries—whether he could return to work and in what capacity. Despite my many attempts to have Jimmy describe how terrifying the fall, how horrible the pain, how he was desperate to support his family, he minimized everything. The fall was so quick, he said at his deposition, it was over before I knew it. Sure, I can go back to work, would love to. His innocence and decency were obvious, and I prepped for trial.

After we opened, put on a few witnesses, with the judge’s help—juries like working guys with a nice family—they met my number. Even though I advised them to keep it confidential, they immediately told the world. Although somewhat quiet, Jimmy sang my praises loud and often. Soon I began to receive calls about all sorts of legal issues. The bartenders in Farrell’s would slip my number to those with problems. Injured construction workers called—I heard you did good by Jimmy Murphy—and even the local dentist referred a patient.

Jimmy and Mary, kind and loving, are examples of the hard-working, honest people who filled the streets of my childhood and made it so special, even unique. Not perfect, of course, but they were devoted friends who not only helped make my career but, more importantly, taught me that simple kindness and loyalty are more important than fame or riches. Jimmy lived a good, perhaps even great, life, quietly and with dignity. He’s an inspiration.

Kenneth P. Nolan

The author, a senior editor of Litigation and the author of A Streetwise Guide to Litigation (ABA 2013), is counsel to Speiser Krause, Rye Brook, New York.