And They Built A Crooked House, by Ruth S. Martin


"You Need A Litigator"

Civil litigation against men who refuse to accept responsibility is a lose-lose situation. You will not win. You cannot win. Even if you win you will lose. Ruth Martin, this chapter.

We had spent $350,000 on a defective house, one that the builder could not/would not fix. Near the end of February an attorney friend, who lived in the neighborhood, came to look at the house. He heard we were having trouble. We told him the whole story and that we planned to get an independent architectural opinion. Our neighbor saw the problem differently.

"You need a litigator," he said.
His law firm does not handle real estate problems. He recommended we contact Thomas Baxter, a lawyer with a mid-sized downtown firm. "He's excellent, a top lawyer."

On March 10 Larry called Schroeder, who confirmed that Nigel didn't want to get involved in our case. Schroeder agreed that we should find a litigator, someone who specializes in trial work. He recommended several names. "What about Tom Baxter?" Larry asked. "I don't know him but I hear he's good," replied Schroeder.

We had no doubt that Schroeder's recommended attorneys were capable litigators but our neighbor's appraisal weighed heavily. We also wanted a lawyer totally unconnected with any of the parties, including Schroeder, whose conflict of interest over Jake Cooper still rankled. Larry called Tom Baxter the same day. Baxter had heard about our problems. "Oh, yes. [Your neighbor] mentioned that you might be calling." On March 11 Baxter came to the house.

In his mid 40s and dressed in a suit, Baxter seemed the picture of an urbane and capable professional, ready for any legal challenge. We gave him the grand tour of our house and handed over our extensive file, replete with pictures and copies of every document and letter. Baxter perused the file for a few minutes then said, "First, we have to get experts to survey the house. You can't do anything without a written evaluation. I'll start looking for an architect who can help us and is willing to testify, if that ever becomes necessary. We need to know how much all this will cost to fix. If it's only $20,000 it may not be worth it."

Obviously it was going to cost at least that much to pursue the case but we didn't ask his fee. He told us. "My fee is $145 an hour, but some of the work can be handled by my junior associates and their rate is less." What choice did we have? Everything else had failed. Legal pursuit was our only recourse. After Tom left Larry said, "Well, it's in his hands now. There's not much more we can do." It was in his hands but our work was just beginning.

January and February had been truly painful. We were seeking a quick solution but it was not to be. Greater pain was yet to come. Decisions that should take a day took a week, evaluations that could be done in a week took a month. From March 1987 our case could have been resolved in two months but it took two years. We did not know it at the time but civil litigation in a case like ours, against men who refuse to accept responsibility, who would rather pay lawyers than money to fix your house, is a lose-lose situation. You will not win. You cannot win. Even if you win you will lose. But we did not know this at the time. And if someone had told us we probably wouldn't have believed them.

On March 12, 1987 Murdock's personal lawyer (not the one who defended him in court) wrote Schroeder regarding events of the previous week. His letter, a copy of which Schroeder sent us, was our first hard taste of the denial, distortion, and calumny we would be fighting for the next two years. Murdock's lawyer wrote:

It is important that I indicate to you that, notwithstanding your clients are very verbose and have sent many letters, we take issue with the facts set forth therein. I would appreciate it if you could pass on to your clients our request that all further correspondence on this matter be done through counsel inasmuch as they are apparently unwilling to speak to my client on this matter.

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