Legal Law

Up To The Witching Hour: The (Virtually) Misplaced Halloween

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Sarah E. Hansen to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.

Since I was a child, Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. I loved being able to get dressed up as someone I was not, going door-to-door on a brisk night, spooky stories and caramel apples, and coming home with a bag full of candy. I lived in a small suburban town in upstate New York, on a block well known to be the prime location for trick-or-treating.

As I got older, my love for Halloween grew as I began to have a deeper appreciation for the fall, the harvest, and everything pumpkin spice. I live in the same small town I grew up in, where my 10-year-old daughter shares my love for Halloween and everything spooky.

Since she was little, it has been our family tradition to get dressed up for Halloween and go trick-or-treating on the same block I grew up on. The number of children in the neighborhood swelled in recent years, and it is now estimated that on a good weather night, about 800 to 1,000 kids will come down my childhood street, candy bucket in hand. I realized early on that it was impossible to leave work at a reasonable hour and be home with enough time to get my daughter and myself into matching mother/daughter costumes (usually themed with her as a Disney princess and me as the corresponding villain) and get to my parents’ house before the crowds grew too big to navigate, so I started a similar tradition of taking off of work every Halloween. I have been with my firm since joining when my daughter was an infant, and made partner when she was five. After so many years, it is now well known and expected that I will not be working on Halloween.

Yet somehow, a year ago, a trial in a long-pending motor vehicle accident case was scheduled to start with jury selection on October 31. How it got scheduled for Halloween, my holiday of holidays, is unknown. But it had. And it was not going anywhere. The case was an old one — scheduled for trial in 2019, the accident which was the subject of the claim against my client had occurred over 12 years earlier.

The lawsuit involved two accidents, and multiple defendants, one of whom I represented in the suit. Plaintiff’s attorney was a long-established and well-known personal injury attorney in our area. The attorneys for the two co-defendants were also both men with decades of trial experience who were highly respected in the legal community. Negotiations had not gotten far, due to what we felt was an exorbitant settlement demand.

Going into October, I knew that this was going to be the “lost Halloween.” Preparations for the three-week trial were just too significant, with lengthy and extensive motions in limine, thousands of pages of deposition transcripts, and a bevy of experts on both sides. I tried to prepare my daughter early that this year was not going to be like our normal routine of several weekends of fall festivals, apple orchards, and haunted houses, counting down to the big night.

We had obtained our coordinating Rapunzel/Mother Gothel costumes months earlier, and I made sure we got the opportunity to wear them once; to an early Halloween event in September. Weekends leading up to the “big day” were spent in the office, not in the pumpkin patch.

Regardless, things were progressing as usual until several days before jury selection, when out of the blue, plaintiff discontinued his case against one of the parties; the company my client was driving for at the time of his accident. At the time, I had been working collaboratively on a joint defense with the attorney for the company, so the dismissal of his client from the case, suddenly meant that he was no longer going to be an ally at the defense table, able to assist in mounting a strong coordinated attack on the plaintiff’s case. The other remaining defendant, however, was still there, and although our positions on liability were different (as that defendant was involved in a separate accident from mine) our proof as to damages still overlapped.

That did not last, however, as shortly later, plaintiff’s counsel suddenly settled the case with the co-defendant, making a demand that was low enough that the co-defendant did not even try to negotiate but just agreed to pay it. Suddenly, I went from being one of three at the defense table, to being the last man (or woman) standing, and I was getting the distinct impression that this was a tactic meant to remove the more experienced older male attorneys while leaving the younger, female attorney on her own. This impression was borne out when the judge’s law clerk asked plaintiff’s counsel if he had a settlement demand to convey for my client, and the result was a demand in the several millions of dollars, more than six times over the amount paid by the co-defendant.

The next day, the day before Halloween, we were to appear early in the day for oral argument on motions in limine. By that time, I knew the case like the back of my hand and went in armed with that knowledge and ready to go. After several hours of argument, the court asked us to come back that afternoon for further argument and then negotiations. The judge’s law clerk
worked on the case into the late evening hours. I remember telling the law clerk, in frustration, to let plaintiff’s counsel know that if he forced me to lose my Halloween picking a jury, there was no way I was going to settle the case, and we would just take a verdict. We finally reached a settlement around 9 p.m. that night, for an amount lower than what the co-defendant had paid.

The next morning, I took off for Halloween.

Sarah E. Hansen is a civil trial attorney in the Buffalo, New York area, and practices in the areas of
transportation law, catastrophic loss defense, employment law, labor law and other general negligence. She resides with her husband, who works in the aerospace industry, and her fourth grade daughter, who wants to become a NASA ground controller someday. She can be reached at [email protected]

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