High Tide

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Review: Cape May Court House: A Death in the Night

courthouse-bookIf one lives down here, one is prepared to not like anything written by outsiders about our little world. Why, you landlubbers may ask? Because they never get it right, that’s why. It’s like Hollywood trying to make a movie about the working class. The world of the working stiff is either over-romanticized or downright insulting. Lawrence Schiller does not make that mistake in his recently published book,  Cape May Court House – A Death In The Night.

The book details events surrounding the death of the wife of a prominent Cape May Court House dentist, Dr. Eric Thomas, in a car accident late one winter night in 1997. Thomas, who was also in the car along with their young daughter, sues the Ford Motor Co. for the wrongful death of his pregnant wife Tracy who was driving the Ford Explorer at the time. Ford turns the tables on Thomas alleging Tracy Thomas did not die from a defective air bag but rather from strangulation.

The town itself is really not a focal point in the book, except to portray how small a community Cape May Court House is and how important one’s stature in that community can be when one’s reputation is disparaged. One reason the town is basically AWOL is because no one who lives in Cape May Court House would talk on the record and very few spoke at all about the man or his family.

Just how small a town Cape May Court House is becomes an issue as the case proceeds. At one point according to the book, attorneys for the dentist plead with the judge to seal the records regarding Ford’s accusations of “wrongdoing, misdeeds, or foul deeds” against their client. In making his case, Tom Mellon of Mellon, Webster & Mellon, Doylestown, Pa. asserts that Cape May Court House “is a very small community. It’s a very tight-knit community. Everybody knows everybody. This man is a minority in a very small community. If you don’t seal those expert documents for those who are in and out of this courtroom … somebody is going to get them.” The motion is denied.

What is most fascinating about the book is the intimate look it provides the reader inside the heads of Ford’s legal team, who were obviously far more forthcoming than attorneys for the plaintiff, therefore making the book list a bit. But Ford won, so naturally they would be a bit more “chatty.” Bill Conroy, at that time representing the Philadelphia firm of White & Williams, led Ford’s legal battle. The games begin when Conroy notices certain inconsistencies with Thomas’ original deposition. When he calls on experts regarding airbag deployment, he receives an opinion from one particular expert that he is not expecting — Tracy’s death was caused not by airbag deployment but by strangulation. As a result, Conroy decides to take on criminal lawyer Glen Zeitz to assist him in investigating the Thomas suit. Among Zeitz’s clients: Philadelphia mob boss Ralph Natale; a high school principal convicted of murdering a teacher and her two children; and Robert Marshall, convicted of murdering his wife in an insurance scam — the subject of the book Blind Faith.

In answer to their move, Mellon comes back with a criminal attorney of their own, Carl Poplar, with 30 years of experience in the criminal defense area.

The most likable character and the one the reader most likely to identify with is Judge Joel B. Rosen, a federal magistrate in Camden County who heard all motions and pretrial matters in the case. The poor man starts out thinking he’s dealing with just another Fortune 500 company liability case and is anxious to get matters dispatched as efficiently and expeditiously as possible without too many courtroom ploys. Boy, is he in for a surprise!

No criminal charges were ever brought against Dr. Thomas. He dropped his suit against Ford in July of 2001.

The back and forth between attorneys, as well the doggedly determined work of investigation are well detailed making Cape May Court House a good read — especially on a chilly winter evening.