A Pro Bono Victory

By Chuck Geerhart, Paoli & Geerhart

I enjoy providing “bite-sized pro bono” at the Justice & Diversity Center’s walk-in legal clinic because I can give people brief advice instead of full representation.

But one day an older couple came in because “Edwin” had been sued for a hit-and-run auto injury. A witness reported a red Toyota Corolla striking someone and gave Edwin’s license plate number. Nationwide Insurance paid for injuries then sued Edwin for subrogation. But here’s the rub: Edwin owned a green Honda Accord.

Edwin is a Spanish speaker and not well-versed in the law, so when he didn’t hear from his own insurance company, Geico, he assumed he had no coverage. Nationwide got a $15,000 default judgment against him then seized $11,000 from his bank accounts. Edwin hired a lawyer who charged him $10,000 to set aside the default then wanted $6,000 more to defend against Nationwide’s lawsuit. The family couldn’t pay that.

Wheels turned in my head. They needed a lawyer but there was no money in this case and it was doubtful a lawyer would get involved. Unless I took it. When I said, “I’m going to be your lawyer,” Edwin’s wife burst into tears. I realized I had relieved them of unbearable pressure.

I contacted Geico and demanded that it provide a defense. I also urged Nationwide to refund the seized $11,000 and, surprisingly, it did. After I engaged in discovery, the Nationwide lawyer said he may drop the case if it truly resulted from witness misidentification. Then Geico agreed to provide a defense and assigned counsel. I stayed on to push Geico for the $10,000 in attorney fees the first lawyer charged, and ultimately, it paid. It was a great pleasure to tell the family they were getting back to even financially, and their gratitude was sufficient payment for me.

This case gave me as much pleasure as any multi-million dollar case I’ve handled. I helped real people who were in a big jam. I righted a legal wrong. I fought a big insurance carrier. It doesn’t get any better than this. I urge everyone to do pro bono work, either full representation as in this case, or “bite-sized” in a legal clinic. It’s not only a moral responsibility for us who have been given so much, it’s a pleasure.

If you’re intrigued about pro bono but have questions, you’re welcome to contact me to at cgeerhart@gmail.com.

Learn more about the Justice & Diversity Center’s pro bono legal services programs at www.sfbar.org/probono.