New York City’s Civil Court is the busiest on the planet so it is easy to believe that some really weird things happen there. Legal -but logical- weirdness was the order of the day in Bianco v. Pierre 1450/00 (reported in the New York Law Journal on November 15,2005) which involved a garden-variety automobile accident case where a plaintiff passenger was seeking damages from the owner of the taxicab in which he had been injured when the accident occurred.

The problem was that the defendant had disappeared after giving a deposition and was no where to be found at the time of trial. When the plaintiff’s counsel requested a “missing witness” charge (instructions to the jury that the defendant’s failure to appear could be viewed as an admission of fault on his part) the judge demanded that diligent effort first be made to locate the defendant before the trial continued. Lo and behold, it only took a private detective one day to learn that the defendant had died a full year earlier and was buried in Haiti. He had evidently passed away without assets, his taxi medallion having been foreclosed prior to his death.

The court was reluctant to declare a mistrial, especially since that accident had occurred nearly ten years prior! Finding that the defendant not only had no assets but also no relative living in the U.S. who might be appointed as his administrator, a quickly fashioned solution was to appoint the partners of the law firm representing the defendant’s insurer to be the temporary administrators of the defendant’s estate for the limited purpose of completing the trial. The order appointing the temporary fiduciaries was conditioned upon the stipulation by the plaintiffs that recovery would be limited to the available insurance coverage. All of this was done over the objections of defense counsel and upon the finding of the court that this was neither prejudicial nor unduly burdensome to them and that it was within the discretion of the court to make the appointment.

One of the things I love about the law is that no matter how long I practice, I know I will never see everything!