One of the first things they teach lawyer aspirants in law school is not to ask a question during a trial unless you already know the answer. It keeps the attorney from being surprised.
But when the client turns into what seems to be a really slick con artist, it can leave even a wily old practitioner like Melvin Belli standing alone in left field with the sun in his eyes.Belli, known as the "King of Torts" for most of his 60-plus-year practice, was still shaking his silvery head Wednesday, almost a week after his sure-thing case had blown up in his face.
"The most perfect witness I've ever seen," he said ruefully, adding, "The trial judge said the same thing and one of the judges back east agreed."
"The most perfect witness" was a grandmotherly soul who came to Belli with a touching story about how she couldn't play the organ at church any more because of the grievous hand injury suffered when she slipped and fell in a fast-food outlet.
The outlet, a San Diego branch of a company with a militaristic title that sells fried fowl, had casually and wrongfully left a puddle of barbecue sauce on the floor, causing her to slip and fall, she claimed.
Belli, who has done very well for his clients and himself by holding insurance companies up by their ankles and shaking until all their spare change fell out, took her case.
"She reminded me of my own grandmother, whom I loved very much," he recalled. "She was a perfect lady in demeanor, appearance and manner, she had a wonderful smile and clear eyes, and she was a good talker.
"And that story about the church organ really got to me."
He was particularly convinced, Belli explained, when the woman, known in this case as Pauline Johnson, offered to take a polygraph test, as did her husband.
A couple of weeks before the trial, the fowl firm's lawyers offered a $500,000 settlement, but "the Johnsons," aiming higher, turned it down.
But Thursday, in the fourth day of trial, lawyers for the food company showed a video tape of Belli's client, then using the name Patricia Latham, with her arm working perfectly well, at a Florida amusement park.
The tape was originally shown in a Florida courtroom where the woman was suing a bowling alley in another slip-and-fall case.
"Besides that, she turns out to have gotten a million-dollar verdict in another similar case back there," Belli muttered.
After the tape was shown, he said, his client asked to be excused for a few minutes to get some medication from her car, but, Belli said, a few minutes later the bailiff told the judge that he'd just seen the couple drive off.
"They haven't been seen or heard from since," he said.