By John K. Fulweiler, Esq.
At the diner where the spring wind comes whistles across an empty harbor and riffles the menus, the waitress called the guy seated catty-corner to me “Greg.” Problem was, and it turned out not to be, his work shirt was embroidered with “Nick.” It’d be hard to miss that red threadwork, making me muse the shirt was borrowed or he wasn’t the kind to take offense at being called the wrong name. Taking offense and getting angry are twin sisters in litigation and even in the maritime lawyering waters I sail, you still see that pair working their evils. Experience and perspective can help.
This isn’t a novel observation and I crib it from an author I don’t know, but all anger springs from a sense of unfairness. As simple as that premise is, it’s damn easy to forget. Remember this premise, and it’ll keep you clear of all kinds of situations that’ll ruin a day or rend a neatly planned sailing weekend.
Take, for example, a dispute with your marina. Maybe it’s a charge being too high or one that shouldn’t exist, or what have you. The reason you’re pissed isn’t the money; it’s the unfairness. That sense of being treated unequally or being disadvantaged is a powerful elixir and it’ll have you punching the manager’s number into your cell phone as you careen down the highway. Maybe you’ll hoot and holler and maybe the matter will get resolved, but there’s probably a better way.
Time, in the first instance, is a good salve to any dispute. Maybe let a little time pass before you start to try and unravel a problem. For me, time lets my mental machinery come up to speed so I can consider the issue from a bunch of angles instead of my initial head-on trajectory. I like to first try and understand where the other side is coming from whether it’s a billing dispute or an opposing attorney pulling a Crazy-Ivan. With respect to a billing dispute, ask yourself: Do the marina’s terms and conditions allow for this charge? Under a fall sky with a child in the back seat, did I pop into the marina office and ask them to do that work and now, half a year later, am I just forgetting? Is there some mitigating circumstance available to argue as a counterweight to this charge; like did this yard just do an engine refit so that the mast storage charge seems sort of overreaching? When you bang your way up to Maine, it’s not all bright screen and no chart work, right? I mean, you’ve picked and plotted a route through Maine’s ledges and it’s the same approach you should use in dealing with a dispute.
So often in litigation, opposing lawyers try and create mini-disputes that threaten to overshadow the big picture. These small battles can take your focus away from the proofs necessary to establishing your client’s claim, i.e. read: make you angry! With 20-plus years of maritime rodeoing, I largely ignore the invitation to battle over anything but the central claim. In a Jones Act personal injury lawsuit, I focus on proving our client is a seaman entitled to the special protections afforded to him or her under the law. In the defective vessel lawsuit, I ignore attempts to argue over whether and what documents we’ve produced; indeed, we tend to take the approach of ‘Here’s every document we have’ in order to cauterize such arguments. With claims involving marine insurers who won’t pay for a vessel owner’s loss, we are laser focused on the terms of the insurance policy, what was and was not conveyed to our client, and how we might argue a legal basis for our client recovering their attorneys’ fees and costs for the insurer’s wrongful refusal to pay.
People hire lawyers for a lot of reasons, but I think it’s mostly because they don’t want to argue. That’s that lawyers do; argue on behalf of another. Yes, they know how the court machinery works and the difference between a pleading and a tort, but their basic job is to tote someone else’s position up the hill. In that role when you’re standing in someone else’s shoes, it’s easy to embrace all the feelings of unfairness you see directed at your client. It’s easy to get angry. Still, what this admiralty lawyer has found to be most effective is to argue from a clinical position untarnished by anger.
Whether you’re in a protest hearing or standing at the marina counter shaking an invoice, remember my observation that what’s happening to you is a sense of unfairness. If you pause, take a beat and take a look at the problem, there’s probably a better, more effective way of treating it than slathering it with anger.
OK, maybe I sound like a salty version of Tony Robbins, but with the boating season about to power up they’ll be plenty of interactions with unfairness lying just below the surface. So, when the anger makes you see red, think about good ‘ol Nick who didn’t mind being called Greg.
Underway and making way.
John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at saltwaterlaw.com.