Friday, November 16, 2007

Landlords always take out the garbage -- and other tall tales I've learned

The landlord was trained as a doctor in his native South Korea; he never qualified to practice medicine in this country, though. His English was never quite good enough; when he was deposed we had a Korean-English translator.

The tenants were recent Iranian immigrants (this is a story of a case I handled many years ago); when family members were deposed we needed a Farsi-English translator.

How, I asked, did you communicate with one another? "In English," said the landlords. "In English," said the tenants.

Although all parties in the case were foreign-born, they fell readily into all-American roles.

My clients, the landlords, Dr. and Mrs., were deeply hurt by the tenants' suit. After all, did they not help Mrs. Tenant bring in her groceries when they saw her coming back from the store? Did Dr. Landlord not always take down the garbage from the back porch when the tenants left it there? They were always around the place, they said, tending it, fixing it, maintaining it in pristine condition. I think there's a secret school somewhere where landlords -- from every background -- are taught to say the same things. If anyone had asked, I was quite sure that Mrs. Landlord would have claimed to have brought homemade chicken soup to the tenants' apartment whenever anyone had the sniffles.

Fortunately no one asked about the chicken soup.

And the tenants, too, had all the clichés down pat: They only saw the landlord on the first of the month, when the rent was due. He was impossible to miss on that day -- and impossible to find on any other day of the month, particularly when repairs were needed. And repairs were frequently needed because the landlords didn't maintain the building at all: Wasn't it the leaking bathroom radiator that was the cause of their daughter's injuries?

Well, that certainly was the allegation: Daughter Tenant, 21, had an epileptic seizure and fell while exiting the shower into a scalding hot pool of water on the bathroom floor. She suffered facial scarring as a result of this event and her family charged that it was the leaky bathroom radiator that had caused the pool of hot water.

Radiators are supposed to be hot -- especially in January when this accident occurred -- but they're not supposed to leak pools of scalding water. And each of the tenants testified how they'd complained about the problem every time they saw the landlord -- you know, on rent day -- and he never fixed anything.

The family heard a loud noise when the incident happened, forced open the bathroom door and rescued the girl from further injury.

There was a scar.

So I arranged for the girl to be seen by a plastic surgeon to evaluate the scar. The plaintiff's attorney couldn't complain: I was going to have the scar evaluated. Could it be reduced? Could it be removed? But I also asked the surgeon to evaluate how the scar was formed.

What he told me -- and what he told the court in an Affidavit -- was that the scar was consistent with one caused by contact with a heat source -- falling against the radiator -- as opposed to one caused by scalding. The girl couldn't contradict any of this: She was unconscious. And the family members found her on the floor, but that was not inconsistent with her slumping there after being burned. As for the water on the floor? The shower was still running.

The court granted us summary judgment: That means there was no trial. The court decided the case as a matter of law, that the girl could not hope to prove her case against the landlord. An appeal was filed, but it was not pursued.

I suppose this is a good story to illustrate how a little medical or scientific analysis can help find the truth in a lawsuit -- but this case just says "America" to me.


Jeni said...

Good post! And yes, I would agree that it does speak "America" as well. Interesting the discombobulation of facts pertaining to the accident though isn't it?

landgirl said...

Hats off to you for forensic work but what happened next. Did the girl get her scar removed? Did the landlord and family come to a good accord. Sorry, Cur, I always like to watch stories to the very very end.
It is nice to be back in American for many reasons not least of which is to see the lovely array of different styles and colours of faces.