City Lawyers Land in Barstow Time Warp to Try Cases

BARSTOW – Stopping off in Barstow is like stepping into a bygone era, with its mom-and-pop cafes, crumbling motels with neon signs boasting “air conditioning rooms” and miles of cracked pavement along what once was a heavily traveled stretch of Route 66.

Recently, though, the little outpost in the middle of the Mojave Desert dust bowl has gotten a taste of bright lights and the big city, with a host of heavy-hitting lawyers trying high-profile and big-money cases at Barstow’s tiny courthouse.

Barstow is more than a 100 miles from home of many out-of-town practitioners whose cases have lasted weeks or months. With no Hyatt Regency, Embassy Suites or Crowne Plaza, lawyers bunk at such places as Motel 6 and the Ramada Inn. The more adventurous can get a blast-from-the-past by bedding down at the rugged, historic El Rancho Motel, a 60-some-year-old cluster of white-washed cabins.

For meals, there’s Pegy Sue’s Diner, Molly’s Country Kitchen or the Idle Spurs Steakhouse – a roadhouse on the edge of town surrounded by tumbleweeds and decorated with wagon wheels and photos of drunken celebrities. “It’s a different world out there,” said Los Angeles attorney Marshall A. Caskey, who tried a medical malpractice case in Barstow earlier this year. “It’s an old railroad town with cowboys and lots of old buildings.”

Barstow was good to Caskey. A jury awarded his client, Joseph Solomon, $5.4 million in September, finding that a High Desert medical group improperly treated Solomon for asthma and cause him brain damage. Barstow juries have delivered other generous verdicts. Just last year, a panel at the five-department courthouse awarded plaintiffs $10.6 million in negligence damages against the California Department of Transportation for injuries sustained in a highway accident.

In another high-stakes Barstow case, jurors have been hearing arguments in the state’s first trial against Ford Motor Co. involving alleged suspension defects in the Ford Explorer. “It seems fascinating that we get such major cases out here,” said Judge John P. Vander Feer, the court’s only civil judge. “There’s really nothing else between us and the Nevada state line and Needles.”

For attorneys more accustomed to major metropolitan venues, trying a case in this desolate desert town has caused culture shock. “It’s completely different from [courts] in Los Angeles or San Diego,” Ventura attorney Thomas E. Beach said. Beach, a partner with Beach Procter McCarthy & Slaughter, defended Desert Valley Medical Group earlier this year in Caskey’s malpractice case. “You don’t have any law libraries [in Barstow] or attorney services nearby. The courthouse has old-style courtrooms, with no amenities and services for teleconferencing or meetings,” Beach said. “We basically set up an office at the hotel we were working out of, and used a copy service in town.”

Beach’s co-counsel, Melinda B. Owen, explored nearby Calico Ghost Town one night. “She was a little more adventurous,” Beach said.

Caskey said one benefit of trying a case in a desolate area is that it forces greater attention to the job at hand. He and counsel for the defendants stayed at the Ramada Inn during the monthlong trial. “By being in Barstow, I was very focused on the trial,” he said. “Every day, I’d go from the courthouse to the local gym and then eat dinner and read depositions. The next morning, I’d prep witnesses at the local coffee shop” before proceedings. Caskey said he got “lots of card punchers” at Coco’s and had a few dinners at the Idle Spurs.

Garo Mardirossian, a Los Angeles lawyer whose clients, Catherin Gozukara and her husband, are suing Ford over their Explorer’s allegedly faulty suspension and chronic shaking, said his stay at the Ramada for the past several weeks has been “less than five star but a cozy, friendly place” He said that his room doesn’t have good air-conditioning or heating and that rolls of carpet are stacked outside his door. Nevertheless, Mardirossian said he has experienced a “quiet, small-town friendliness” in Barstow that’s absent in other cities.

On a recent day, Mardirossian needed to deliver a videotaped deposition of an expert witness to Los Angeles by midnight – but had no way to get it there. “I asked the court clerk, and within 15 minutes, she had her boyfriend out front, and he took the tapes. I asked how much we owed him, and he said, ‘Whatever you can pay me'” Mardirossian said. “By 9 a.m., the tapes were back here and ready for the trial.”

“Unlike lots of other courts, the [court-house] staff was incredibly helpful,” Robinson, a partner with Robinson Calcagnie & Robinson, said. “And the people of the town treated us like a million bucks.”

Barstow jurors “seemed like a very eclectic mix of people,” Robinson said. “It takes a unique kind of person to live in such an extreme area in the desert,” he said.

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