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Front Page - Friday, December 4, 2020

‘Oh, I can top that one’

Local attorneys keep ’em laughing with stories of early cases

Tom Wyatt was eager to tackle his first federal case after a senior partner at his firm dropped it onto his desk and said it would allow him to “cut his teeth on a lawsuit with interesting facts.”

Little did Wyatt know that meant it was a case the senior partner was all too happy to unload on an unwitting rookie.

The client, James Hardy, was a 60-year-old oil refinery worker from Beaumont, Texas. During a road trip to Nashville, Hardy and his wife and mother-in-law had stopped in Chattanooga to see Rock City and Ruby Falls. But before taking in the local sights, Hardy saw something not advertised in any of the city’s tourist brochures.

Hardy and his wife didn’t sleep together due to his thunderous snoring, Wyatt says, so they purchased two rooms at the Days Inn in East Ridge – one for the ladies and one for him.

As Wyatt tells it, Hardy took the key to his room, opened the door, entered and saw a nude blonde woman lying on the bed beside a large white cat. He abruptly turned to exit the room while carrying his bags in both hands.

The next day, Hardy begin experiencing severe neck pain. Upon returning to Texas, he saw a physician and learned he had a ruptured cervical disc.

Days Inn disputed the case, Wyatt recalls. Not only did the hotel’s records show no one had rented the room, its employees claimed the room was empty when they checked it after Hardy reported the incident. Consequently, the hotel refused to settle the case and sent the defense to the late Phil Fleissner.

“Those who remember Phil can only imagine the field day he had with this case,” Wyatt says. “However, my bumbling around and a doggedly honest client seemed to engender sympathy from the jury.”

To everyone’s surprise, Wyatt says, the jury awarded his client $25,000 for damages.

If Wyatt’s story ended there, it would already be great fodder for bar meetings and cocktail parties. But it also comes with an amusing coda.

“A couple days after the trial, a reporter called to interview me about the trial,” Wyatt continues. “I asked him to identify his paper, and he said he was a freelance writer. He promised to send me a copy of the article if any news source picked it up, but I never heard back from him.”

About three months later, Wyatt was in the checkout line at a grocery store when he glanced at the magazines strategically placed to catch the attention of waiting shoppers. Among the periodicals was a sensationalistic rag called “The Weekly World News.”

One of the headlines caught Wyatt’s eye.

“It read, ‘Man breaks neck looking at naked lady,’” he remembers. “I picked up the paper, turned to the article and saw a large, obviously choreographed, photograph of a man with a startled look running with suitcases in each hand from a motel room.

“In the background was a beautiful blonde lady sitting up in bed, her bare chest obscured by the large white cat she was holding. The title of the article was ‘Jumpy Jim breaks neck looking at naked lady.’”

The article sensationalized the facts, Wyatt says, although most of his quotes were accurate. However, the author falsely wrote that Wyatt said the award was the largest ever recorded in the U.S. for a case of this nature.

“I said no such thing, but the statement was probably true. I doubt any other case like it had ever been tried in the United States.”

Wyatt, who now serves as a judge in the Chattanooga office of the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims, purchased a copy of the paper. Even though he later lost it, he’ll never forget the outlandish details of the case or his flirtation with fame on the sordid pages of a tabloid.

Like Wyatt, many of Chattanooga’s trial attorneys experienced memorable rites of passage. Fresh out of law school and needing real world experience, they tackled lost causes, survived early losses and sometimes pulled off a miraculous win on their way to becoming some of the city’s most prolific litigators.

Along the way, they gathered a compendium of always-entertaining and occasionally enlightening stories that paint a picture of the more colorful hues of the American justice system.

Case of the fast-draw jury

For more than 30 years, attorney C. Mark Warren of Warren & Griffin has represented the interests of the injured. He’s also compiled a catalog of war stories and developed a style of storytelling that’s as humorous as the accounts themselves.

Case in point: Warren’s first case – a slip-and-fall suit in federal court in 1990 when he was a young lawyer at Stophel & Stophel.

As Warren tells it, the deck was stacked against him before the case hit his desk. As with Wyatt, someone higher up the totem pole passed the matter on to him, possibly because the senior attorney thought he needed to experience the agony of defeat.

“I was green behind the ears and didn’t know a bad case when I saw one,” Warren says, leaning back in a chair in his firm’s conference room. His law partner, John Mark Griffin, is listening nearby.

“I didn’t realize how bad this one was until I stood to make the opening statement and saw the disgust on the faces of the six men sitting in the jury box.”

The most damning aspect of the case was its weak liability, Warren says. His client, a woman with the last name of McDaniel, had walked into the garage at a Sears either in ignorance or defiance of a large sign that read: “Employees only – do not enter.”

The case was also weak on damages, Warren adds. Despite hitting concrete a split-second after slipping on oil, the only injury McDaniel sustained was chronic fatigue syndrome, or, Warren says incredulously, the yuppie flu.

Since the case took place before the Tennessee Supreme Court abolished the doctrine of contributory negligence in McIntyre v. Balentine, Warren’s client lacked a leg on which to stand, he says.

“Back then, if you were even 1% responsible for your injury, you received nothing,” Warren explains.

Making matter worse, the “Do not enter” sign looked enormous as the defending attorney, the late Harry Weill, brandished it in the relatively small courtroom, Warren says, his raspy voice increasing in volume.

McDaniel’s courtroom demeanor didn’t help, Warren says. Before the case, she had asked him what she and her husband should wear to court, and he told her to dress like she was going to church.

“I didn’t realize they were Church of God people from Cleveland,” Warren says, shaking his head. “The husband showed up with gold rings on every finger, and they were both wearing Rolexes.”

Not only that, but McDaniel had just received a nose job. As part of the procedure, the surgeon had injected cocaine into her nose.

Weill seized this opportunity to gain even more ground. “As Harry is cross-examining her, he says, ‘Isn’t it true, Ms. McDaniel, that you put cocaine in your nose?’

“Objection!” Warren all but shouts as he bolts upright in his chair. “I objected, but by that point, the bell was already rung.”

Warren was not expecting good news as the jury left to deliberate the case after two days of litigation, but he was still surprised to see the six men to return to the courtroom seven minutes later. To no one’s surprise, he lost the case.

“I think McDaniel still holds a record for a jury being out in federal court,” Warren cackles.

“And it took them three minutes to get from the jury box to the jury room and three minutes to get back,” laughs Griffin, who can no longer resist pitching in.

To this day, Warren says he holds his breath until the jury in a case he’s litigated has been out for seven minutes. After that, he relaxes.

“If I make it to seven minutes, I’m golden.”

Warren does more than tell his slip-and-fall story at social gatherings; he also uses it to bolster the spirits of young attorneys who have suffered a hard loss.

“I tell them at least the jury was out for more than seven minutes.”

Hoyt Samples wins by one

Hoyt Samples of Samples, Jennings, Clem & Fields fared better than Warren on his first case – but just barely.

Although the case, which involved a simple replevin dispute (one party allegedly holding property belonging to another party), took place 41 years ago, Samples says he’ll never forget it because of the reason he won.

“I tried the case before the Hon. Raulston Schoolfield, and my worthy opponent was Charles Paty,” Samples remembers. “At the end of the trial, Judge Schoolfield looked up and said, ‘Mr. Samples, you had three witnesses and Mr. Paty only had two, so you win.’

“Charley and I have laughed about that over the years.”

Paty, who practices with Paty, Rymer, Ulin & Larramore, speculates the greater weight of evidence fell in Samples’ favor.

“Judge Schoolfield said Hoyt had three witnesses and I had only two, so I guess that was the greater weight.”

Although Paty took a loss that day, he evened his tally on another case with an equally surprising finish.

Paty sniffs out tax fraud

Although trial lawyers often spend untold amounts of time preparing to try a case, circumstances sometimes force them to enter a courtroom armed with less than all the ammunition they might need to win.

Such was Paty’s dilemma as he tried his first custody case, which took place in the late H. Ted Milburn’s courtroom. After very little pre-trial discovery, both he and the late attorney David Nelson had taken their places beside their respective clients and were endeavoring to represent them to the best of their abilities.

For Nelson, this meant eliciting testimony from his client that suggested he should have custody of the litigants’ only child – their son.

“Dave’s client took the stand and said my client was an unfaithful wife; therefore, he would be the better parent,” Paty recalls.

Backed against a proverbial wall, Paty asked his client if she knew about anything he could use to attack the father’s credibility. She said, “Look at his tax return.” When Paty asked what he should look for, she replied, “Look at the dependents.”

Paty knew the two parents had only one child but five dependents were listed on the father’s tax return.

Curious, Paty asked his client if the father had any other children. She replied no and insisted he ask him about the additional dependents.

Feeling like he was stepping off the edge of a tall cliff, Paty read the names out loud and asked the father who they were.

The man said they were his hunting dogs.

“In 1979, you didn’t have to list the Social Security numbers for your dependents,” Paty explains.

After Milburn spun around in his chair and exclaimed shock, Paty asked the father why he had included his hunting dogs on his tax return. Without missing a beat, the man said, “I feed them and take care of them, so I figured they’re dependent on me.”

Reeling from the unexpected revelation, Paty asked the father where he had completed his tax return. To his further surprise, the man said the IRS.

“I asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell them they were your hunting dogs?’ And he said, ‘Because they didn’t ask.’”

Paty won the case and secured custody of the child (but not the dogs) for his client. He says he still occasionally sees her, and she always smiles at the memory of the trial.

“She’s introduced me to her son as an adult, and he seems to be doing well.”

Steep climb in boundary dispute

As Joseph Willard, Jr., stood at the base of the stairs leading to the second floor of the Walker County Courthouse, he craned his neck to look up at the ceiling, which he estimated hovered 20 feet above him.

Even in 1980, the courthouse was already “a beautiful old building,” Willard says, but the climb to the second floor was intimidating.

“The stairs from the first floor to the second floor consist of 20 to 30 steps, then a large landing, then another 20 to 30 steps,” he recalls. “They are also quite steep.”

Willard was there to represent an older man in a boundary dispute. As he gripped his briefcase and started the ascent, he says he was about two steps ahead of his client.

When Willard reached the second floor, he heard a loud gasp behind him and then the sound of the man tumbling to the landing.

Efforts to render aid to him were fruitless. “I believe he passed before he reached the landing,” Willard says.

The grief-stricken family and the other party settled the case quickly after the horrific incident, Willard says, still sounding sad about the startling death of his client 40 years ago.

Willard has thought about the case every time he’s tried another matter in the Walker County Courthouse. But he says he never let it dissuade him from being a part of a profession in which he has great pride.

“I’m glad it didn’t discourage me from continuing to practice,” he says. “I really enjoy my job and know we have the finest legal system in the world.”

Serpentine path to victory

Lawyers often use precedent to establish the background of a case they are arguing in court. But they rarely reach as far back in history as attorney Sandi Bott did one day in 1980.

Bott was there representing a married couple embroiled in a dispute with a landlord company over the status of their lease. After moving out of the Ooltewah home they had rented only a few days after settling in, they wanted the company to release them from their obligation. The company, however, insisted they pay for the entire lease.

The dispute rose out of a skin-crawling discovery the wife made during their first evening in the home. As she was preparing dinner in the kitchen, she opened a cabinet and found a large black snake coiled up in a pot.

The woman was more frightened of snakes than Indiana Jones, Bott says, and was unable to sleep that night. The next day, she informed the leasing agent of the unwanted house guest, but received no sympathy.

“The leasing agent, ‘You signed the lease; you’re on the hook for 12 months. The snake is not our problem,’” Bott remembers.

That night, the woman returned to the kitchen and found not only the snake from the night before curled in front of her refrigerator but also several baby snakes.

“Needless to say, they found another house to rent, and the leasing company sued them for the term of the lease,” Bott continues. “They came to me, and I countersued on the basis of constructive eviction, which means you don’t have to pay your rent if the premises are unlivable.”

The case was tried in General Sessions Court, with the late Judge William Sherrill presiding. Sherrill was known to chain-smoke in court, Bott says, and would often let his cigarette burn down to a long, slender finger of gray ash.

After Bott presented her client’s case, a young attorney from a local law firm stood to speak on behalf of the landlord company.

“He said, ‘Judge Sherrill, we have focused all of our resources on this matter, and we have not found a single reported case in the history of the State of Tennessee in which the presence of a snake, or snakes, constituted constructive eviction,’” Bott says. “I thought, ‘Oh, shit! They researched it.’”

Since Bott’s case was the first to be tried that day, the courtroom was full of attorneys and litigants waiting for their turn. Some were reading a newspaper; others were doing the crossword. Meanwhile, Sherrill listened from the bench, his smoking hand motionless as his cigarette turned to ash.

Determined to offer a response, Bott stood, looked at Sherrill and said, “Your honor, there is one reported case in which the presence of a snake has constituted constructive eviction: Adam and Eve were constructively evicted from the Garden of Eden due to the presence of a snake.”

The courtroom exploded in laughter and newspapers were thrown into the air, Bott says. The uproar might have even caused the ash to drop off Sherrill’s cigarette.

The judge was still laughing as he ruled on the case. “He said, ‘I’ll charge them a month’s rent, but they don’t have to pay anything else.’”

Bott has shared this story at many different gatherings over the years, and it has always sparked big laughs. But it has never caused quite the same uproar as it did in court that day.

The attorneys of the Chattanooga Bar Association have many more memorable stories about their early cases to tell:

A pair of lawyers were tight-lipped about a matter related to a dead fish due to the nature of the NDA associated with the case

Warren has a knee-slapper about the time the Yellow Pages printed the wrong Bible verse in his firm’s ad

Paty shared a few eye-popping details about a judge who threatened to pummel his client in court.

But this is where this collection ends. If you want to hear these and other accounts, lend the narrators your ear at the next bar event or cocktail party, and then perhaps repay the effort with a story of your own.