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Home > The Appeal(3)

The Appeal(3)
Author: John Grisham

One side of the courtroom managed to breathe while the other side began to turn blue.

"Question number two: "Do you find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the contamination was the proximate cause of the death or deaths of (a) Chad Baker and/or (b) Pete Baker?"Answer: "Yes, for both."

Mary Grace managed to pluck tissues from a box and hand them over with her left hand while writing furiously with her right. Wes managed to steal a glance at juror number four, who happened to be glancing at him with a humorous grin that seemed to say, "Now for the good part."

"Question number three: "For Chad Baker, what amount of money do you award to his mother, Jeannette Baker, as damages for his wrongful death?"Answer: "Five hundred thousand dollars."

Dead children aren't worth much, because they earn nothing, but Chad 's impressive award rang like an alarm because it gave a quick preview of what was to come. Wes stared at the clock above the judge and thanked God that bankruptcy had been averted.

"Question number four: "For Pete Baker, what amount of money do you award to his widow, Jeannette Baker, as damages for his wrongful death?"Answer: "Two and a half million dollars."

There was a rustle from the money boys in the front row behind Jared Kurtin. Krane could certainly handle a $3 million hit, but it was the ripple effect that suddenly terrified them. For his part, Mr. Kurtin had yet to flinch.

Not yet.

Jeannette Baker began to slide out of her chair. She was caught by both of her lawyers, who pulled her up, wrapped arms around her frail shoulders, and whispered to her.

She was sobbing, out of control.

There were six questions on the list that the lawyers had hammered out, and if the jury answered yes to number five, then the whole world would go crazy.

Judge Harrison was at that point, reading it slowly, clearing his throat, studying the answer. Then he revealed his mean streak. He did so with a smile. He glanced up a few inches, just above the sheet of paper he was holding, just over the cheap reading glasses perched on his nose, and he looked directly at Wes Payton. The grin was tight, conspiratorial, yet filled with gleeful satisfaction.

"Question number five: "Do you find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the actions of Krane Chemical Corporation were either intentional or so grossly negligent as to justify the imposition of punitive damages?"Answer: "Yes."

Mary Grace stopped writing and looked over the bobbing head of her client to her husband, whose gaze was frozen upon her. They had won, and that alone was an exhilarating, almost indescribable rush of euphoria. But how large was their victory? At that crucial split second, both knew it was indeed a landslide.

Question number six: "What is the amount of punitive damages"? Answer: "Thirty-eight million dollars."

There were gasps and coughs and soft whistles as the shock waves rattled around the courtroom. Jared Kurtin and his gang were busy writing everything down and trying to appear unfazed by the bomb blast. The honchos from Krane in the front row were trying to recover and breathe normally. Most glared at the jurors and thought vile thoughts that ran along the lines of ignorant people, backwater stupidity, and so on.

Mr. and Mrs. Payton were again both reaching for their client, who was overcome by the sheer weight of the verdict and trying pitifully to sit up. Wes whispered reassurances to Jeannette while repeating to himself the numbers he had just heard. Somehow, he managed to keep his face serious and avoid a goofy smile.

Huffy the banker stopped crunching his nails. In less than thirty seconds he had gone from a disgraced, bankrupt former bank vice president to a rising star with designs on a bigger salary and office. He even felt smarter. Oh, what a marvelous entrance into the bank's boardroom he would choreograph first thing in the morning.

The judge was going on about formalities and thanking the jurors, but Huffy didn't care. He had heard all he needed to hear.

The jurors stood and filed out as Uncle Joe held the door and nodded with approval.

He would later tell his wife that he had predicted such a verdict, though she had no memory of it. He claimed he hadn't missed a verdict in the many decades he had worked as a bailiff. When the jurors were gone, Jared Kurtin stood and, with perfect composure, rattled off the usual post-verdict inquiries, which Judge Harrison took with great compassion now that the blood was on the floor. Mary Grace had no response.

Mary Grace didn't care. She had what she wanted.

Wes was thinking about the $41 million and fighting his emotions. The firm would survive, as would their marriage, their reputations, everything.

When Judge Harrison finally announced, "We are adjourned," a mob raced from the courtroom.

Everyone grabbed a cell phone.

Mr. Trudeau was still standing at the window, watching the last of the sun set far beyond New Jersey. Across the wide room Stu the assistant took the call and ventured forward a few steps before mustering the nerve to say, "Sir, that was from Hattiesburg.

Three million in actual damages, thirty-eight in punitive."

From the rear, there was a slight dip in the boss's shoulder, a quiet exhaling in frustration, then a mumbling of obscenities.

Mr. Trudeau slowly turned around and glared at the assistant as if he just might shoot the messenger. "You sure you heard that right?" he asked, and Stu desperately wished he had not.

"Yes, sir."

Behind him the door was open. Bobby Ratzlaff appeared in a rush, out of breath, shocked and scared and looking for Mr. Trudeau. Ratzlaff was the chief in-house lawyer, and his neck would be the first on the chopping block. He was already sweating.

"Get your boys here in five minutes," Mr. Trudeau growled, then turned back to his window.

The press conference materialized on the first floor of the courthouse.

In two small groups, Wes and Mary Grace chatted patiently with reporters. Both gave the same answers to the same questions. No, the verdict was not a record for the state of Mississippi. Yes, they felt it was justified. No, it was not expected, not an award that large anyway. Certainly it would be appealed. Wes had great respect for Jared Kurtin, but not for his client. Their firm currently represented thirty other plaintiffs who were suing Krane Chemical. No, they did not expect to settle those cases.

Yes, they were exhausted.

After half an hour they finally begged off, and walked from the Forrest County Circuit Court building hand in hand, each lugging a heavy briefcase. They were photographed getting into their car and driving away.

Alone, they said nothing. Four blocks, five, six. Ten minutes passed without a word.

The car, a battered Ford Taurus with a million miles, at least one low tire, and the constant click of a sticking valve, drifted through the streets around the university.

Wes spoke first. "What's one-third of forty-one million?"

"Don't even think about it."

"I'm not thinking about it. Just a joke."

"Just drive."

"Anyplace in particular?"

"No."

The Taurus ventured into the suburbs, going nowhere but certainly not going back to the office. They stayed far away from the neighborhood with the lovely home they had once owned.

Reality slowly settled in as the numbness began to fade. A lawsuit they had reluctantly filed four years earlier had now been decided in a most dramatic fashion. An excruciating marathon was over, and though they had a temporary victory, the costs had been great.

The wounds were raw, the battle scars still very fresh.

The gas gauge showed less than a quarter of a tank, something that Wes would have barely noticed two years earlier. Now it was a much more serious matter. Back then he drove a BMW-Mary Grace had a Jaguar-and when he needed fuel, he simply pulled in to his favorite station and filled the tank with a credit card. He never saw the bills; they were handled by his bookkeeper. Now the credit cards were gone, as were the BMW and the Jaguar, and the same bookkeeper was working at half salary and doling out a few dollars in cash to keep the Payton firm just above the waterline.

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