The interesting thing about this case is much less a story about an ordinary accident and far more about the extraordinary circumstances that evolved. A number of years ago I learned of a man who had moved from North Carolina to Schenectady, New York to become a cantor in a synagogue. Sadly, he had been discharged by the synagogue and had become impoverished. He and his wife were living in a two-family house in a rundown neighborhood.
He had a somewhat interesting and unusual background. A Holocaust survivor from Hungary, he found himself living in France as a young man and somehow became a professional boxer. Despite this, he wasn’t at all an imposing figure, standing about 5’8” and weighing 150 lbs. But he had a direct and serious manner. When he wasn’t competing, he worked in the textile industry. He had two sons who had moved to America and were employed, one in the textile industry and one running a restaurant. Eventually, the sons succeeded in encouraging him to come to America.
When he arrived in the U.S., he began working as the manager of a textile factory in North Carolina. However, it had always been his dream to use his voice as a cantor in a synagogue. Somehow he learned of an opening for a cantor for a small synagogue in Schenectady. So he packed up everything to make his dream come true. He was given a trial, passed with flying colors, and was immediately hired.
Unfortunately as happens all too frequently, the rabbi and the cantor soon did not see eye-to-eye on matters of ritual. As a result, he was discharged. Now he and his wife were forced to survive on welfare and food stamps and a bit of help from their two sons.
At that time I was attending a small synagogue in Albany, New York when I learned about this man’s plight. I asked the founder and president of the synagogue to invite him to be our cantor for the High Holy Days. I even agreed to pay for his services as an anonymous donor, thinking that we would benefit from his services and that he would receive the money he desperately needed.
He came to Albany and led the service for the High Holy Days. He had a beautiful voice. He was a sincere leader of the prayer services, not just a good singer. He really raised the level of the spirituality of the services during these most important days of the Jewish New Year.
Shortly thereafter, I learned that the cantor had been the victim of an accident. The house in which he was living was situated on a small hill. He had to descend about 10 or 12 steps to reach the street level. On an otherwise ordinary autumn day, one of the steps fractured as he descended. The cantor fell down a half dozen steps and ruptured his shoulder.
This injury led to surgery. The surgeon who repaired the tear was not only an excellent surgeon but he also spoke French, and thus the two developed an immediate personal relationship.
Shortly thereafter the cantor called me and asked if he might have a negligence case. I told him to be a bit patient. I would look into the matter and report my findings.
To determine if he had a case, I retained the services of a professor at the nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Architecture. The professor went down to the site and I met him at the scene.
It was a warm, spring day, but the scene was anything but pleasant. The house was a shabby, two-family construction with a large porch. The quiet street was lined with similar homes, though few in such bad shape.
He looked at the concrete step which had still not been repaired. He took multiple photos and told me that, in his opinion, the stairs had been long neglected. In fact, not only was the step visibly fractured but it also had numerous other signs of deterioration. Other steps were in the same state of disrepair and were, in essence, accidents waiting to happen.
Luckily, the professor agreed to not only write a report for me, he also agreed to take the time from a very busy teaching schedule to testify if necessary.
With that, I filed suit in Schenectady County against the landlord. A tall, pot-bellied man of about 60 years at the time, the landlord had a craggy look to him. He had rough hands from his primary job as a machinist. Despite owning this and several other buildings, being a landlord was a part-time job for him. Moreover, it was clear that more than the stairs were neglected on this property. In fact, most of his buildings were run down and in need of some tender loving care.
Aetna was the insurance company on the property, and they responded by denying responsibility.
We exchanged papers detailing what we believed the negligence was and how the steps should have been maintained to ensure the safety of tenants. Aetna opposed these claims and denied everything, of course.
Eventually, we did the usual depositions. My client was deposed and asked how the accident happened, what the injuries were, and how he was doing. Likewise, we deposed the landlord and got some admissions from him that were helpful.
The man was facing a serious lawsuit, but he was forthright in his responses and answered without hesitation. The landlord confessed that he did not spend much time repairing the property. He had a full-time job working for General Electric in Schenectady. He justified his supposed neglect by insisting the real estate properties were just extra income–and not much at that. In his opinion, he was doing the best he could.
The case was set for trial but we continued to try to get the insurance company to settle. Despite what was a fairly serious injury, they offered just $10,000.
After my client healed, his doctor’s opinion was that the cantor had some permanent limitations in range of motion as a result of the accident and surgery. This simply did not move the needle with the Aetna.
Fortunately, the injury didn’t prevent my client from getting a better job. He was able to work as an inspector for Kosher authorities. Specifically, he would go out to farms in the area and check how the cows were getting milked, bottled, and stored to ensure they complied with Kosher laws and could be sold in Kosher stores.
This was excellent work and paid well—better than his work in the textile industry. In addition, it required little if any physical labor. His accident in some sense had become a blessing in disguise. However, as a result of this job, I couldn’t establish that he had suffered any past or future economic loss from the injury.
On the other hand, my client did claim, with support from his physician, that there was some limitation in motion of the arm and shoulder. The insurance company, as a matter of course, had him examined by their own physician.
By sheer luck and coincidence, the insurance company’s physician was also a native French speaker! He was a polished and refined man, with gray hair and a pleasant demeanor. He immediately reminded me of Dr. Kildare, a kind-hearted young doctor in a famous 1960s TV program.
Once again, the doctor and my client developed a strong rapport. By the end of the exam, we suspected the doctor would give an opinion on the stand that would be favorable to our case.
We went to trial and as usual, selected the jury. But before the trial began, the judge called us into chambers and asked us if we wanted to settle. I demanded $125,000 for the injury. The insurance company grudgingly raised its offer. But to just $25,000.
The trial commenced. My client testified and our expert witness, the professor, testified. Then the landlord testified. Once again he was frank about the fact that the properties were old and in disrepair. He made the excuse that after taxes, utilities, insurance, and the maintenance he was able to do, that he wasn’t making much money on the property.
It was clear he was trying to gain the sympathy of the jury, but he was more or less admitting that he was not fulfilling his duty to his tenants. However, his testimony itself lacked sympathy for the victim, which may have worked against him.
Finally, the insurance company called their doctor to testify, and just as my client suspected, he gave honest answers to our cross-examination. He agreed with my client’s doctor that there was a permanent injury, with some limitation of use. Further, he agreed that, as my client got older, the injury could cause an early onset of arthritis. Aetna’s lawyers were left with very little room to maneuver.
After that, the judge called us back into chambers and once again tried to effect a settlement. I stuck to my $125,000 demand. The insurance made a final offer of $50,000.
Keep in mind that although my client was now employed, he was still essentially penniless. I went out into the hallway, discussed this final offer with him, and actually encouraged him to give some consideration to the $50,000 offer.
He then told me something that knocked me for a loop. He said his rabbi—a person whom I had never met and apparently lived up in Montreal—insisted that the insurance company wasn’t offering an adequate settlement because I wasn’t asking for enough money!
I told my client, “Look, I’m asking for substantially more than the insurance company is offering.”
He responded, “Well you should be asking for even more.”
With that, we met again in the judge’s chambers and told him the case was simply not going to
settle. The case was then submitted to the jury for decision.
Through the normal course of discovery, we had learned that there was $300,000 in insurance coverage on the property. This was fortunate given the condition of the property, which could easily have been insured for far less.
We told the jury that, among other things, if they brought back a verdict of $300,000 it would not be excessive in our opinion. This was without mentioning the amount of insurance. That is not permitted in accident cases.
I think I was the most surprised person in the courtroom. My client had just scolded me, on behalf of this mysterious rabbi, for not asking for enough money, and here the jury seemingly proved his point.
The defense attorney stormed out of the courtroom without another word. The next day I went to the courthouse and filed judgment papers in the sum of $300,000. I did this immediately because the defendant has just 30 days to file an appeal. I wanted that clock to start running. In addition, once the judgment papers are filed, an interest of 9% starts to run as well.
Several weeks passed and I was greeted not with an appeal as I had fully expected, but by a motion by the defense lawyer to set aside the verdict and ask for a new trial.
The defense claimed the judge and jury had made a mistake. Specifically, he argued that the injury was not worth $300,000. His main argument was the fact that I had only asked for $125,000 during settlement negotiations. How could the case possibly be worth more than twice as much as I had demanded in the full settlement?
Three months went by and the judge finally ruled on the motion. He decided that the jury had spoken and that the award and verdict would be left standing. The defense could only get a second chance by appealing to a higher court.
At that point, I got an expected call from the defense attorney saying they intended to appeal unless I accepted a lower amount. I asked, “How are you going to do that? Your 30 days to file an appeal have run out. Just because you filed a motion to set aside doesn’t mean you didn’t have to file a formal Notice of Appeal within 30 days after I filed the judgment and served it on you.”
I could hear the attorney gulp at the other end of the line. Then in a very quiet voice, he said, “Let me talk to the insurance carrier and get back to you.”
In the meantime, my client had left the country to visit Hungary for a month and left me with a power of attorney to handle the matter in his absence. He made it clear that I was to do whatever I thought best. But before he left my office, he declared, “By the way, my rabbi says I’m going to get more than $300,000!” And then he was gone.
Eventually, Aetna’s attorney got back to me and offered to settle for the full $300,000.
I said, “Oh, no you won’t. There’s interest coming.”
The attorney dejectedly responded, “You know that if I have to pay interest on this, I’m going to lose my job for not filing a timely appeal.”
I had no idea if he was bluffing, but I told him, “I want a check for $300,001 and I want it on my desk this afternoon.
He finally replied, “You want an extra dollar?”
I simply hung up without answering him.
There was no way I was going to make a liar out of this rabbi, whoever he was. Of course, an insurance company check for exactly $300,001 was promptly delivered that day.
My client came back from Hungary shortly thereafter, came to the office, and after a bit of chatting asked what had transpired in his absence.
“The case has been settled,” I told him.
“Oh. For how much?”
I handed him a photocopy of the check. He looked at it, studied it, then looked up at me and said, “See? I told you that my rabbi said that I would get more than $300,000.”
“OK my friend, I think it’s time for me to meet this rabbi.”
My client quickly retorted, “Not unless we’re going to make a substantial donation to him.”
I’m not sure how he came up with an amount, but finally, he said, “I want to give him $27,000.”
I kicked in $9,000 and my client contributed $18,000, which is the same ratio as my fee to his recovery, one-third, two-thirds.
A couple of weeks later we drove up to Montreal. Outside of the city, there was a little village that had been founded by this rabbi after World War II. We were greeted warmly by his assistant and eventually ushered in to see him.
As soon as I saw the rabbi, I realized this was not just any clergyman. This was a Holy Man. There was something very special about the way he looked. He had an innocent, almost babyish face. A glowing face of purity. Porcelain skin. He was saintly, otherworldly. He sat at the end of a long table, bedecked in a flowing robe. I had surely never encountered a person who looked that way.
We talked to the rabbi briefly, he gave us a blessing, and then we left.
Soon thereafter my own relationship with this rabbi began. I started getting calls from his assistant about followers and admirers of his who were having various legal problems. One involved a tax lawyer in Florida who had serious problems. Another involved a major clothing chain. Yet another involved the disgraced former owner of nursing homes. Quite the variety. I did what I could for these people, but I never charged them. I would always tell them, “I’m doing this for the rabbi.”
From time to time I would go back and visit him in Montreal. I met some of his followers and members of his family. In fact, I learned that the rabbi’s wife was somehow distantly related to my wife’s family!
People came from all over the world to see this rabbi. One famous individual, a billionaire banker from Switzerland, sent his private jet to bring the rabbi to New York. Another one I met in the rabbi’s study came all the way from Brazil for the sole purpose of getting a personal blessing from the rabbi and then simply turned around and went right back to Brazil.
That’s how it was until the rabbi passed away at an advanced age several years ago.
It’s amazing how small chains of events can lead to incredible discoveries. Had I not heard of the cantor’s misfortune, I would not have met him, which in turn means I would not have had the chance to help him after his accident. And had I not taken his case, I would not have met this extraordinary rabbi, who seemed silently to have played a central role in the outcome of what might have otherwise appeared to be a simple fall-down case.