Saturday, January 29, 2011

The First Real Law Suit

We all have to take our baby legal steps. One significant event for me was in November of 2010. It was my first real lawsuit. I was both the victim and the advocate. The event would transform me later to the aggressor and advocate.

In August 2009, my father has promised to restore my classic 1967 Mustang as a gift to getting into UCLA Law School. Bless his heart. However, that was the only happy part about this.

I had given my car to a trusted mechanic, I had known for years. His job was to restore the mechanical problems. He ended up changing out my braking systems. He took six months for a job that should have taken at most a month. I kept calling asking when the work would be done.

One day, when I went to check on the car, the top was down. It was raining heavily. The water was seeping into the newly upholstered chairs. I could feel the rage in me. And I let it out: "What the hell? Why can't you put the top up? Why are there dirty, greasy used parts on my newly upholstered seats? Why? What the HELL?!" The employee looked at me with a sheepish look that expressed fear and stupidity in one glance. You could see him cracking under the pressure. I just said, "Put the top back up."

I came back a few weeks later to a car that was partially finished. The owner wasn't there that day the car was soaking in rain. He was there now. He knew about the whole story. He gave me a discount but said I needed to get the car off his lot. I towed it to my friend to fix the rest.

Fast forward now 3 months later. The disc brake job they did had some faults. It was a used braking system - though it was represented to me as new. The parts were worn out. He gave me the dirty parts.

I went back to the mechanic with the dirty parts. He inspected them and acknowledged that they were faulty. He replaced half of them but refused to replace all of them or reimburse me for the extra labor. He just said, "I make no money! I make no more money!"

I was pissed. That was it. They mistreat my property, improperly installed my brakes, and worst of all his employees laughed at me when I was angry. I wrote a demand letter, which asked for him to pay for the parts and labor. It also tacked on $100 for my wasted time. No response.

Escalation. I went to the Court House and filled my first small claims form. My friend then drove by his place and asked, "Are you Ty?" and he said, "Yes." He handed him papers and said, "You've been served." We drove off in my roadster.

On the day of court, I get a call in the morning. Who is this? I wonder. It's Ty - the mechanic. "Hi Paul. I just want to settle this. Let's not be angry at each other. What about $500?" and I thought, No way. That's how much I put in my demand letter. At the very least, I need more than the original demand letter. You waited until the last day when you could have settled." I said, "$800." He said, "Can you help out a guy?" I said, "What about $700." He said, "Alright, that sounds good. Come by today and I'll cut you a check."

I then drove out to my constitutional law class. I talked to several of my law school friends. They all said, "Take it! take it!" But something inside of me thought, no way. That's not even 50% of my claim. It's not good enough. After class, I took a 30 minute drive to his place. I said, "No, actually I want $1,000 to settle."

He said, "WHat?! No way! We go to court."

On the phone with several people I got the following comments: "You're stupid. You should've taken the money. Now, you're going to lose. He's going to paint you as greedy. Blah blah blah."

I sit down and think. I need a two part strategy.

Part I - change the contract claim to a tort claim. Contract claims are standard. However, if you can convince the jury or judge that the breach is a tort claim you are eligible for punitive damages and it affects the defendant's business insurance severely. Torts are bad things: assault, battery, emotional distress, etc. I would argue that failing to properly inspect brakes puts drivers at a huge risk. If not for my other mechanic's inspection, I could have been severely injured. Right?

Part II - Marshall the facts. There's a story but there's a story and then there's another story. What I mean by this is that the events of facts can be told and retold in multiple perspectives. You need to tell your story in the best narrative possible. You start off with your best fact and their worst fact. I'll show you later how this played out in this narrative.

We're at Court. I'm a bit nervous. So is he. We approach the podium. The judge tells me to begin. Marshall the facts.

"Your honor, in August of 2010 Ty was contracted to do a brake job. I found out a few months later, he installed a used braking system with faulty parts." (See that's his worst fact and my best fact. Already you hear this and think, this guy is terrible.) "I had tried on multiple attempts to resolve this with Ty, but he refused." (Again, now he looks unreasonable and i look reasonable.)

Already, the weapons of war are damaging the enemy. I see him shaking and looking stressed. he wasn't ready for the merciless way of lawyering.

"Your honor, can you imagine anything worse a mechanic could do but to do a bad job on brakes?" I then pause for three seconds. Let the judge think. The rhetorical question only has one answer: No. "I am now asking for punitive damages to prevent him from doing this to someone else."

The judge says, "I don't give out punitive damages in this court."

I'm not phased by losing on strategy one. Continuing on, i think ;. . . "Let me show you pictures your honor of the reckless manner he handled my car." I then showed him pictures of the used parts on my seat. Ty is shaking uncontrollably now. "You know how reckless he was. One day, I come to check up on my car. It was raining. And he left the top down." At this point, Ty begins hitting his hand on his head and shaking some more. It looks like he's going to cry now.

The judge glares at him. I recognize now his shame and guilt is only before the public to see. I justify myself, he took it here. I didn't take him here. If he settled earlier, we wouldn't be here. Is this justification or is this the truth? I don't know. He finally has a chance to talk, but he can't say anything. He's under so much stress. He actually starts screaming, "I don't know. There's no new braking system available for this car."

I state, "Your honor, a five minute google search produced this new braking system." I showed him the picture.

The mechanic gets hysterical. The judge says, "Mr. X, if you continue on this way, I will have to kick you out of this court room. We understand you're nervous but you need to control yourself."

The mechanic says, "Your honor, I don't speak English well." He doesn't. He's Chinese-Vietnamese.

The argument flashed before my head. Now, I can put the defendant out of his misery by firing the last shot. This one would go to the heart. "Your honor, we're not here today to judge Mr. X's english speaking ability. No. We are here today to see if a mechanic of 10 years should have known to inspect a USED braking system. He did not." The judge nodded.

The judge then says, "I will mail the decision out."

The mechanic shakes more and is hysterical. The bailiff takes him out and says, "Mr. X, you are making everyone in this courtroom scared."

I walk away. I find my car. I get into my roadster. As I drive out, I see the mechanic with his head down. I knew I had won, even without the judgment coming yet. I saw him walking with him looking down on the floor. The shame imprinted on him was obvious. Did I do the right thing? Of course, I drank champagne later because I knew I had won. But something bothered me, did I do the right thing?

Two day later the judgment came in for a substantial amount of money. I told my father. He congratulated me and bought me dinner. "That's my boy." I then said, "But Dad, the guy was like you. An asian immigrant, who was trying to make a living." My father replied, "Yes, but he did you wrong son. You have to crush people like that with punishment." Hmmm, I thought. Then I told my mother and she said, "Really?! You won? I thought you were going to lose." I thought, thanks mom, nice thought. When I came home to see her the following weekend, she gave me the hero's homecoming. She made the most beautiful food and bought me beautiful drinks. She said, "That's my boy. Tough and strong and smart. You have to break people like that, you know." I realized then, I came from a family that celebrated victory, vengeance, and power.

That was the first time I tasted of the power and cruelty of using the law. I had broken a man's spirit before my very own eyes. Was that just? Was that right? I left, knowing I had paid an internal price to exact my retribution.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The New Year's Resolution: The Year of Champagne

First off, Happy New Years everyone! New Years is such a big deal for Korean families, much bigger than Christmas. We used to see all the relatives. Bow. Say, "May the New Years bring you luck and fortune." Then the relatives gave us money! =) I'm older now, so there's no more money. Soon, I think I'll be having to dish out the dosh. But as a student, I make nothing. =(

New Years is a great time, especially if you had a rough year. From an objective standpoint, I had a very easy year. I'm not in Africa or North Korea struggling to make money or eat or worrying about what tomorrow may bring. No. From that vantage point, I'm a privileged guy, who goes to a privileged school, who has a privileged life. But from a relative standpoint, if you stood in my shoes, it was a hard year. I was transitioning from having a pleasant, French-like life style in New Zealand to going into something that was more of a military program. I don't think that's an exaggeration. 14 hour days, everyday. Being with the same people. Being crushed of my spirit. I was disappointed in some of my results. I hated being by myself, studying such long hours. I had a huge fight with my brother. In New Zealand, we would say, "It wasn't pleasant."

However, the turn of events started coming around October. I had classes I could pick. I had more control. I had more friends, I enjoyed in law school. My performance significantly improved. My family life got better. And best of all, the last few months my mom and I have been cooking together in the kitchen. It's been resulting in some really awesome food. I'm an expert in seafood. She's an expert in soups. So, we made Crab Broth Soup with Rice cakes. Time taken to make 8 hours. Time taken to eat: 10 minutes. MMMM

I made some really cool New Year's resolutions this year. I'm calling it the year of Champagne. In Chinese and Korean culture we have the year of the Pig or Dog or Horse. But this is the Year of Champagne for me.

1. My first and biggest resolution is the 12 Bottles of Champagne Challenge.

That is every month, I need a reason to break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate. And I don't mean, find a reason to drink. No, I would like to hope that there are real achievements made or relationships made or hallmarks made to celebrate.

The first Champagne - To the Beginning of a New Year.

2. I want to achieve a higher level of virtue as a law student. Virtue is a complex concept and word. I think in our English language - it really has lost a lot of its original meaning. For instance, the Virtuoso is a master of his instrument and music. He is virtuous because of his ability to do his work. A knife is virtuous because it cuts with precision. Likewise, being a virtuous human being isn't limited to nobility or morals. No, I think I need to also have virtue in understanding, practicing, and executing the law. Likewise, I also need to be virtuous in its use. Thus, that's my two part goal.

3. It's time for promoting healthier relationships. I admittedly had a lot of conflict last year, mostly with family. (It's normal). But this year, it's not about not having conflict but working to resolve things with wisdom.

4. Re-take up Martial Arts. Hey, already done. This Monday, I started my Israeli martial arts training of Krav Maga. It's a brutal form of martial arts where you learn groin kicks, punches, etc. My knuckles are scarred and bleeding from the training. But it was so fun! Note to self: Continue training.

If I do those things well, then I think I'll feel fulfilled.

Happy New Years.

PS: Note, I changed blogs. I didn't want to subject my readers to all that advertising anymore.