Tuesday, February 04, 2014

When A Tree Falls In A Forest . . .

The dreaded summons came.  Jury Duty.  The usual drill.  So I call Sunday night and am told to check back Monday at 10:30-11 a.m.  I do and am informed that my pool must report to the Superior Court in Paso Robles in one hour.  So I toss some clothes on and scamper over the hill to the nice new courthouse near Park St. in downtown Paso. 

My fellow poolers were gathered in the foyer and it was clear that the one-hour deadline had caught them in the middle of their busy lives --professionals in their professional clothes and workmen coming straight from the ranch or the factory floor. There's something comforting about that -- citizen jurists willing to drop what they're doing in order to ensure that justice be done among their fellow citizens.  Though it would be more comforting if so many of our laws weren't so goofy and so many of our fellow citizens didn't spent so much time Walking While Stupid.

We were soon hustled into the courtroom to be winnowed out for a three-day civil trial, the outlines of which were given as the following:  Neighbor A has a very, very tall cypress tree at or near his fence line.  Said very tall cypress tree had a big limb that, apparently, for no reason, came off and fell on Neighbor B's roof, causing $14,000 in damage.  Neighbor B's insurance company paid to fix the damage. 

So far, so good, you might say.  It happens.  Trees are notorious for doing that.  Their branches fly off in the wind, or their limbs fall off, or they fly apart, or explode, or get the vapors and up and die and then fall over for no good reason.  Just because.  It's always something with trees and the bigger they are the more worry they bring into the world of the homeowner who lies awake at night listening to the wind and worrying, and so he goes out and buys himself some home owners insurance to cover things like something on his property damaging something or someone.

And so it was with Neighbor A and Neighbor B.  The wrinkle here was that Neighbor B's insurance company, after paying the bill, was suing Neighbor A to get that money back. Which is what insurance companies do -- they sue the other guy's insurance company in order to prove the other guy was at fault and needs to cough up.  Naturally, the insurnace company on the losing end of the stick will object, but in this case, weirdly, the jury pool was given no hint in the early proceedings that there was an Insurance Company A anywhere in the vicinity.  Homeowner A was sitting in the hot seat, not Insurance Company A.  And Homeowner A's lawyer, during voir dire, kept using words like "fair" and "moral" and "healthy, sound tree" and "nobody could expect something like that." And kept asking if any of the prospective jurors ever had tree issues before, like tree limbs or trees falling on their houses.

"Moral?"  "Fair?" Tree issues? I kept thinking to myself.  If Homeowner A is seeking "justice" and "morals" and "fairness," Boy, has he come to the wrong address.  I've always held with Oliver Wendell Holmes who aptly observed, "This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice." 

And, "healthy, sound tree?" and "nobody could expect something like that?"  Is the lawyer kidding?  Doesn't he know trees?  Doesn't he know the perverse lethality of anything on a property?  Paving stones that looked secure on Wed, suddenly destabilize on Thursday morning at 9 a.m. and the Postman goes flying, breaking his hip, and within days his lawyers are on your doorstep.  Or that garden hose neatly coiled up and out of the way that magically uncoils and trips your neighbor who came to your door to bring you a bouquet of flowers and next thing you know your neighbor's insurance company is coming knocking. 

Deadly.  Homesteads are deadly places filled with malign objects and adverse events just waiting to unleash ruin and mayhem on your life, leaving you bankrupt and homeless, pushing your shabby belongings down the road in a filched shopping cart with one broken wheel, with your homeowners' insurance guy saying, "Sorry about that, but you should have read the really fine print in Sub paragraph 12a."

So, "healthy, sound tree," and "fairness" and "moral" put a peculiar spin on what might be going on here, thereby turning the whole enterprise into one big WTF?  I mean, isn't the law pretty clear on this -- if it's on your property and under your legal control -- dogs, kids, wheeled objects, bricks . . . trees -- it's on you.  Period.  Not "fair."  Not "moral."  But there it is.

So what the heck were we all doing here?  Except maybe Homeowner A didn't have homeowner's insurance?  Or his insurance company had declared him to have been negligent regarding his tree and refused to reimburse Insurance B, so Homeowner A figures, What the hell, I'll try my chances in court, which would be really dumb because even in the unlikely event he wins the case, I'm pretty sure Neighbor A's lawyer will likely cost him way more than the $14,000 house repair bill.

Well, it was all a mystery since the panel was picked and the rest of us were dismissed, our service fulfilled for the next year, and so we filed out into the tail-end of an afternoon of blue skies full of  white clouds, unlikely to ever know the fate of a man who went to a court of law looking for "fairness." I could only silently wish "good luck" to everyone left to wrestle with the consequences of the deceptive nature of cypress trees.

Jury duty's always like that, bits and pieces of lives, half-told stories, hidden issues, imperfect justice lost in a maze of the law, frail humans struggling against cruel fate and untrustworthy tree limbs. But it wasn't a complete waste of my time because, as I walked to the parking lot on a street full of very tall trees filled with lethal limbs towering overhead, I decided I'd better call my Insurance Guy and ask him about my homeowners' policy vis a vis . . . trees. 


Sewertoons AKA Lynette Tornatzky said...

Great posting! In the middle of a tree thing right now, which, hopefully in a month, will be resolved. Thanks for an inside view on the play-out of what could happen here if the plans run amok..... scary!

Churadogs said...

I would have to presume that, like everything else, the Devil is in the Details with that particular case. Like was there a problem with Homeowner A's policy loophole or some such. Always the fine print. And word definitions, like "Act of God." ?? What the hell does that mean vis a vis "insurance" since ANYTHING can be considered to be an "act of God" and so be excluded. It's all Humpty Dumpty "definitions" I suppose. But, interesting afternoon. Still sort of curious as to how it all came out. And why.

Anonymous said...

i love being on juries. this story is why.


Churadogs said...

Donna, It was (and is) always fascinating. Voir dire is particularly amazing; you have no idea how complicated and rich and complex your fellow citizen's lives and life-stories are until you sit in the courtroom and listen to people answering voi dire questions. Wow.