Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Lawyer's Lawyer

I unwrapped my Austin American- Statesman this morning as I walked into the house for breakfast, and a headline caught my eye. The front page reported that the Texas Supreme Court had ruled that dog owners have the responsibility under Texas law to stop, to at least try to stop, their dogs, from attacking a member of the public once the attack begins. I recognized the case as one being handled, on appeal, by my friend J. Bruce Bennett. A case I had had talked to him about many times over the course of a year. Indeed, there was a quote in the article, from the afore mentioned Bennett, immediately above the fold to wit: “We’re ecstatic with the result. It’s your dog, you have the responsibility to try to stop the attack, that’s what the court recognized here.”


That’s what a Court (fortunately, the last court) recognized here. They recognized it only because Bennett had the legal knowledge and the moral certainty that was needed to keep the case alive when others would have dropped it. He, and the public, have now been rewarded for his fortitude, as he and his client  won through to total victory. The facts are simple, but apparently not so simple that they could  not escape the notice of a state district judge sitting in Gillespie County and a panel of three judges of the 4th Texas Court of Appeals, all of whom had held that it is perfectly permissible,  under Texas law, to stand aside and watch your pets tear a fellow human being to shreds. Ms Bushnell was delivering some health products to the mobile home of the Motts. When Ms Mott opened the door to receive the goods, which she had ordered, three dogs pushed through the door, pulled Bushnell down the porch steps and proceeded to collectively bite her more than fifty times, a mauling which required over 30 stitches to close the wounds. As the dogs attacked Ms Bushnell, Ms Mott looked on from above, rendering no aid and adding insult to injury by advising Ms. Bushnell to get up because she had not been bitten.



Upon first hearing this story, over a year ago, I asked Bennett if the dogs had ever bitten anyone before. In Texas, as in most places, every dog is entitled to one bite. I, like the four judges I castigated in the immediately preceding paragraph had all asked the same thing. The problem was, that was the wrong question to ask. It should not matter if your dog has been the pet guide dog to the Home for the Blind and, has always been as gentle as Lassie, once you see it attack someone, you have an obligation to try to help out. As Bennett put it in the paper this morning “It’s your dog.”



To me, of course, the interesting part of the case is not the rule of law promulgated. Possibly (and I say just possibly ) some court, years  in the future, might have recognized the logic of the position that Bennett and Bushnell espoused, and the law would have been straightened out. But it would not have helped Ms. Bushnell. It  took a lawyer who would take on an appeal of a case against a trailer owner with a lousy  $50,000 insurance policy to help Ms Bushnell. It took a lawyer who would not say die after the first appeal, but continued to battle against the odds in the hope that a higher court would find interest in a dog bite case, and feel strongly enough about it to pay attention. It took a lawyer acting in the  finest and highest traditions of the bar, which are  that at the end of the day, that it is justice and not a fee which should motivate a lawyer. It took my friend Bennett.



The title of this piece is “A Lawyer’s Lawyer”. That is a term that you don’t hear very much  anymore. Part of it implies that the lawyer so described, comes in to help out in a case which has been lost or is threatened, an appellate lawyer. But part of the term refers to the type of person who will freely give of his /her time and wisdom to help a fellow member of the bar in a tough case. Now many lawyers will “give of their time” it is that “freely” part which  separates the Lawyer’s Lawyer from just another hired gun. Usually, a Lawyer’s Lawyer will be the type of person whose generosity in spirit is not limited to the law, but overflows into all aspects of life. A person like Bennett who spends his free time coaching moot court teams, serving at the very highest positions in his church, and working tirelessly to try to find ways to provide real education and moral upbringing to those in our community who can least afford it. For nearly  thirty years now, I have been watching J. Bruce Bennett do all these things and more. He is the most decent and giving member of the bar in which I practice, and is possibly unique in our world of conflicting egos in that he does not have one enemy. In fact, I don’t know of any lawyer who is even neutral on the subject of Bruce Bennett. Everyone likes him. Everyone likes him a lot. The Bushnell case is the perfect example of why he is admired. There are thousands of lawyers in my town who read that  headline in the mornings paper, and felt secretly ashamed that they had not taken the kind of time needed from their practices in order to help someone like Ms. Bushnell, and simultaneously straighten out the common law of Texas. It is why we are here. It is what we are supposed to be doing. I am glad that at least one of us understands that. That is why he’s a “Lawyer’s Lawyer”, because sometimes the rest of us need a little reminder from a wiser member of the profession as to what our job is supposed to be.




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