Fourteen years ago, William Murphy was fatally injured in an automobile accident near Hains Point. At his funeral, his mother, Ida Murphy was told of a lawyer named King David who, it was said, could help her seek damages for her son's death.
Mrs. Murphy hired King David, a minister whose long, colorful career as a lawyer was legend in the city courts.But David never brought a lawsuit for her and in 1967, the year her legal claim to damages expired, Mrs. Murphy died.
There began a tangle of legal disputes as Mrs. Murphy's other son, Melvin, and her daughter, Louise, continued to seek compensation for their brother's death. Finally, in 1972, attorneys for the Murphys went to the D.C. Superior Court and filed a lawsuit charging David with legal malpractice charging that he neglected his duty to Ida Murphy in 1964.
Their legal malpractice case slowly made its way through the Superior Court over the years. During that time, witnesses disappeared, docoments were lost or destroyed and new lawyers joined in the dispute. Louise Murphy died in March 1977 and the following September, King David, then 66, died of leukemia.
Last week, it may have come to an end when Judge DeWitt S. Hyde ruled that Melvin Murphy is owed $61,845.99 by the estate of King David.
"Thi is the most peculiar case in the world," said Henry Lincoln Johnson, a lawyer who now represents the estate of King David. "These people aren't owed anything."
Anyway, the lawyer said, there is a "little" money in King David's estate "but nowhere near enough to pay this." Johnson also said that he did not know anything about Hyde's order and said he thought the case was set for trial Monday.
"This has been a comedy of errors," Johnson said.
Melvin Murphy, now 35, said, "I was just glad that it was resolved."
William Murphy, who was 22 years old at the time of the accident, was a passenger in a 1955 sedan early on the morning of Nov. 12, 1964, when the car struck a tree on Ohio Drive. He died three days later of multiple head and body injuries.
Ida Murphy felt someone was responsible for her son's death, and when she heard of King David she went to him for help, said attorney Ellen Callahan, who along with John G. Gill Jr., represented Melvin Murphy.
David was well known in what was then the Court of General Sessions and later in the D.C. Superior Court, where he handled a variety of cases. He had practiced law here more than 20 years.
According to court records, David attempted to negotiate a settlement with the car's owner's insurance company. A firm offer of $1,200 was made, the records said, but David countered with a demand for $2,500, which the company turned down.
David "never took action to file a legal suit," the records said, and in the meantime the time for Ida Murphy to make her legal claim ran out.
After Ida Murphy's death in 1967, David filed a breach of contract suit against the insurance company, claiming they had made a firm offer of $2,500. Two years later, the action was dismissed after David failed to show up in court to defend his claim. A judge later said the suit appeared "to have been a sham action."
In the meantime, Melvin Murphy joined the Marine Corps and went to Vietnam. There he consulted military lawyer about his mother's case.
As the years passed, Murphy recalled yesterday, "A lot of people told me to give up on that case."
"I just decided to keep going because I really thought my family had been done wrong and I just couldn't rest knowing that," said Murphy, now a trucker living with his wife and two children in Southeast Washington.
In 1972, King David deposited $1,200 into the Superior Court registry, money which he contended was an insurance settlement as a result of the Murphy case, according to court records. In addition to family members, the funeral home claimed it was owed $600, so David asked the court to decide how to divide the money.
It was at that point Murphy was represented by lawyers from Neighborhood Legal Services, who filed his claim against David for legal malpractice.
In 1976, David's request to have the court divide the money up was dismissed and a year later, Judge John Garrett Penn found that David had neglected his duty to Ida Murphy.
But the case was not over for Melvin Murphy. His lawyers, now Callahan and Gill, had to show that Mrs. Murphy would have won her lawsuit if David had filed it and then they would have to present evidence to the court on the amount of money to be awarded.
A hearing was scheduled on the first question, but David did not appear and so the judge ruled for the Murphys by default. After it was learned that David was in the hospital that day, the decision was set aside. David had died by the time the next hearing was scheduled but another default judgment was entered when his lawyer and one of his heirs, King David II, failed to appear.
That led to the hearing last week when evidence was presented on what William Murphy would have earned if he had lived, and Hyde made the judgment for Melvin Murphy.