Updated: Feb 5
As a federal judicial clerk, I read hundreds of pages of written pleadings filed with the court. Before a motion’s hearing, I drafted a short bench brief. In the brief, I outlined the main arguments, the controlling law, and included a recommended ruling on the issue before the court.
The Judge reviewed these before the hearing. I was usually pretty convinced I was right on the law and the proper outcome in my bench briefs.
Judge Norton would ask, “So, which way should I rule?”
“Judge, you should grant Plaintiff’s motion,” I would state.
“Nice try, but draft an order denying the motion and here’s why . . . .” He would then school me on the other side of the story.
Years later as an associate in a Charleston law firm, I was working on a case with a partner representing a major railroad company in a railroad crossing accident involving a 60-year lady. She had driven her car into a stopped train at the “Strawberry” crossing on Highway 52 near Moncks Corner, South Carolina. This happened close to midnight. She received significant leg injuries, but thankfully survived the accident.
When she drove into the stopped train, the red railroad crossing signals were flashing. The train was stopped on the tracks, perpendicular to and completely blocking the highway. The crew had put out flares on the highway as required by company policy.
This was a sure winner for me. An easy case. How could there be any factual dispute or how could it be the railroad's fault?
I was confident that the judge would grant my motion for Summary Judgment to effectively kick the case out of court. I wondered why she was out that late on a Friday night and if she had fallen asleep at the wheel. Perhaps she had been drinking, I thought.
The litigation discovery would reveal several key facts. The plaintiff was a well-known and respected member of the Goose Creek and Moncks Corner community. These are rural communities about 20 miles north of Charleston. She had been the bartender at the Naval Weapons Station Officers’ Club for many years. There, she was affectionately known as “Mama Simpson” according to one of the witnesses we deposed.
She did not drink. On this night, she was driving home from work. Mama Simpson had recently been diagnosed terminal cancer.
The train crew testified they had put out flares only on one side of the train because they did not have enough flares. That was a violation of company rules that required flares on both sides of the highway. The Strawberry crossing existed at a slight dip in the two lane highway where thick fog had settled that night. While the red crossing lights were flashing, the crossing signal bell was not working. Records revealed that railroad personnel had written the bell for maintenance months before. While the warning bell is to alert pedestrian traffic, there were additional maintenance issues at the crossing that the railroad had not addressed.
On the first day of trial, the state court judge quickly denied my Summary Judgment motion. We settled the case that day before noon. There were indeed two sides to Mama Simpson’s story. I had been blinded early on by what I assumed was the only side.