Got a beef with your neighbor, your boss, your TV repairman? Want to sue? Go right ahead, if it'll make you feel better, but if your case is going to D.C. Superior Court, be prepared to be patient.
Civil suits filed in Superior Court today generally will have trial dates set for late 1984 or 1985. And those are optimistic estimates: The more complex civil cases are taking an average of three years to resolve, compared with slightly more than a year in 1978. Those averages include cases dismissed or settled before trial, so the actual time for reaching trial is usually even longer than three years.
Each day last year, an average of two cases set for trial were not heard because no judge was available.
Judges said it's all the result of an extensive number of both civil and criminal cases swamping the court, an overwhelming burden that shows few signs of abating.
Last year, 16,569 civil suits were filed in D.C. Superior Court, 10 percent fewer than a record level the year before but 60 percent more than 10 years ago. While increasing in numbers, those suits have also become more complex: the number of motions filed by attorneys has doubled in the last decade.
"We live in a world where everybody tries to sue everybody," said Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I. "People are suing for anything and everything."
Last year Congress, at Moultrie's persistent urging, allotted the court three additional hearing commissioners to handle preliminary criminal matters. That freed two judges for duty elsewhere, but Moultrie assigned them to conduct criminal trials and help battle the growing backlog there.
Moultrie said he decided against placing those judges in the court's civil division largely because drug arrests and other criminal cases at the time were increasing dramatically.
"It was a question of trying to rob Peter to pay Paul," Moultrie said. "At the moment last fall I had to make a judgment call, and all I can tell you is it was a judgment call."
Some attorneys said they make special efforts to avoid the congestion in Superior Court.
"If there's any way I can figure out not to have a case heard there, I'll do it," said attorney Daniel Grove. "I'll go 80 miles out of my way if I can file somewhere else."
Another attorney, Robert Cadeaux, said he files about 200 civil suits a year. Cadeaux used to file virtually all of his suits in Superior Court but now, because of the lengthy delays there, he is filing as many cases as he can in U.S. District Court, where cases take an average of five months to be resolved.
In one case pending in Superior Court, attorneys involved in a contract dispute waited five months for a judge to issue an order compelling the defendant to answer pretrial questions from the plaintiff. Attorneys for the defendant are appealing the judge's order and the case is no closer to trial than when it was filed a year ago.
Local attorneys say delays and extra court appearances not only increase the cost of litigation but pressure plaintiffs to settle out of court for far less than they would hope to get from a jury and may actually deserve.
In frequently bitter divorce and custody disputes, the frustration of waiting can turn into psychological trauma. Judges said they are most concerned about delays in resolving those cases.
"When people are in domestic turmoil, it is the most anguishing period in their lives, for the parties and especially for the children," said Judge Gladys Kessler, head of the court's family division.
Although several divorce lawyers said the court recently has begun to handle less-complicated divorce and custody matters more quickly than in the past, contested divorce cases now take an average of a year to resolve. Complicated cases can take even longer.
In one case, a Washington physician who agreed to be interviewed if his name were not used said he filed for a divorce in February of last year. The couple had no children, and the only point of contention was possession of their home.
The first trial date was set for that June, but his former wife's lawyers asked for a continuance and a new date was set for September.
The doctor said he spent the weekend before the trial date preparing with his lawyer and canceled his appointments for three days to be ready. The case was seventh on the court's list and was not reached because no judge was available. A new date was set for January of this year.
In January, all the lawyers were there along with several witnesses, including one from Illinois. The wife, who lived in New York, came down for the trial. Again the doctor cleared his calendar for the anticipated 2 1/2-day trial. Again no judge was available to hear the case.
A new date was set for February, but a snowstorm forced a postponement, this time to March. The trial was delayed yet another morning because the judge was busy with other matters, but it was finally held and the property divided.
"The system just suffocates everyone in the sheer volume of it all," the doctor said of his year-long delay. He estimated that his legal fees were between $25,000 and $30,000. His other costs, in witness fees and time lost from his practice, amount to thousands more, he said. "I could have saved half of that if the system had run smoothly," he said.
Seeing some civil cases through to the end takes more than money--it takes youth, health and stamina.
Vivian Patterson, for example, was 57 and suffering from a heart condition on July 17, 1977, when a fire broke out in her home at 911 Decatur Pl. NW. She was temporarily overcome with smoke as she fled the house.
Patterson, who contended she saw flames leaping from behind her refrigerator, sued Montgomery Ward & Company Inc. and the refrigerator manufacturer, Admiral Corp., in December 1978. Her insurance company, which paid $17,563.21 to cover the cost of repairs to her home, joined her in the suit.
Patterson sued for $7,500 in damage to valuables in her home and was willing to settle for another $12,500 in compensation for mental anguish and distress, her attorney said. In court papers she contended that the refrigerator was not functioning properly and was running hot.
Montgomery Ward and Admiral Corp. both denied liability, saying the refrigerator was not defective and had not caused the fire.
The case was set to go to trial March 30, 1979. The lawyers agreed to continue it to January 25, 1980. After that, the trial was put off seven more times, five times because no judge was available to hear the case. Each delay was for months.
In all, eight Superior Court judges dealt with one or more aspects of the case as it continued through the system. By request of the lawyers on both sides, the case was put on the court's calendar for the most complicated civil disputes and a trial date set. But last September, five years after the fire, Vivian Patterson died, leaving no legal heirs.
When the case came to trial June 13, the judge directed a verdict in favor of Montgomery Ward and Admiral Corp. The insurance company intends to appeal.
"The judge said, 'Providence intervened,' " said Patterson's attorney, Charles Parsons. "But that wasn't it. It was the court system that allowed this to happen."
In another case, James R. Hoffman, 47, a radio dispatcher for the Eastern Cab Association, severely injured his back in December 1977 when he slipped and fell in an excavation site near the association's office. He underwent two operations on his back and was unable to work for months.
In May 1979, Hoffman sued the Citadel Corp., a gasoline-wholesale company that was constructing a gas station near the cab association's office, for negligence, contending that the company failed to adequately barricade the area or post signs warning of the hazard.
The company denied any negligence, and the case was set for trial on May 15, 1980. Eighteen months later, in December 1981, after the case had been set for trial five times and never reached, lawyers for Hoffman and the company sent a highly unusual letter to Judge John Doyle, chief of the court's civil division.
The case had been set for trial five times, the lawyers wrote--in May 1980, September 1980, January 1981, September 1981 and December 1981--and each time it had been put off because no judge was available to hear the case.
"Because of the number of times . . . set for trial, plaintiff has expended considerable sums to reserve his physician's and other experts' time," the lawyers wrote. "Both counsel and their clients have spent many hours in preparation for trial only to have the case continued." They asked Doyle to assign the case to a specific judge and set a firm trial date.
Four months later, in March 1982, Doyle wrote back, saying he would not specify a judge, but "in view of the numerous times which this case has not been reached for trial," Doyle said he would order that it go to trial on March 23, 1982.
After seven days of trial, a jury awarded Hoffman and his wife $680,000 in damages. Hoffman later agreed to settle for $500,000 rather than risk waiting another two years while the company appealed the jury verdict, his attorney said.
Hoffman, who is 53 and suffers from a heart condition, said his three-year ordeal "does kinda discourage you . . . I thought I wasn't going to live long enough to see it go to trial."
Next: Building the backlog.