It was the first week of law school, Torts class. We were studying negligence, and on this day, the question was whether or not a witness to a car accident should be able to recover damages for emotional distress from the party at fault.
On this point, we discussed Niederman v. Brodsky, a 1970 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case. To make a long story short, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overruled about 150 years of legal precedent and allowed the plaintiff, Harry Niederman to recover damages for his emotional injuries (the car had struck Niederman’s son, who was standing right next to him).
After class, for some reason, I decided to get further insight. Most cases in law books are abridged versions of the original opinions, so I looked for and found the full Niederman opinion in the law library.
By doing so, I discovered a lot more than I had bargained for. Full opinions usually list the lawyers arguing for both sides, so I was astonished when I saw my father’s name listed as one of the attorneys for the losing side.
I called Dad as soon as I could and asked him if he remembered the case. “Wonderful,” he said ironically in his distinctive gravelly voice. “You find the case where I argued a century and a half of legal precedent and still lost.”
This response was typical of Dad. Even though he was highly esteemed in his distinguished career, he preferred to stay out of the limelight. He was able to find humor in the case, and in his wisenheimer son commenting about it decades later, because to him, it was all part of his vision of life as an ever-evolving puzzle that he loved to experiment and play with.
This interpretation was quite useful to him in his 43-year career as an attorney. I could go on and on about his career achievements, such as being affectionately known as the “Dean of Zoning” amongst his colleagues in Philadelphia and elsewhere or his involvement in most of the major real estate developments in the City of Philadelphia over the final 20 years of his life as publicity-free as one can possibly achieve in that situation.
I could mention that at one point he was offered a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, that he was called to travel all over the country in support of various zoning matters, and even spoke in Russia on his area of expertise.
I could also talk about the equal zeal he had for helping the less fortunate, such as the client in a poorer neighborhood who merely wanted to keep groceries in her home for elderly neighbors after the large chains had long since abandoned the area, or the hot dog vendor who just wanted to remain on the same street corner after he had inadvertently let his license run out.
Or maybe I could mention that he was always eager to guide younger attorneys and colleagues in his area of the law under the philosophy that there was more than enough work for all of them, so competition was unnecessary and “ridiculous”.
Or that he would regularly give impromptu talks at his favorite restaurant in South Philadelphia every Saturday morning and illustrate concepts on whatever drawing surface was available (which over time became known by many as his “napkin art”).
Or that his ethics were so strong that he believed he could only represent clients who sought variance from the zoning laws in front of the City’s Zoning Board and never their opposition. To him, it was not consistent to argue fervently for an applicant in one matter, only to switch sides and argue the opposing principles for a different client or group in another.
Or how when he was dying, he sweated profusely and was probably in agony as he watched me argue my first case in front of the Zoning Board. I was unaware of any suffering at all when he literally leapt for joy and put his arm around my shoulder with pride upon the immediate positive verdict.
Or how during one rough stretch, he encouraged me to stay in law school by telling me that the world looks differently at you if you have a law degree, and how completely accurate that advice has turned out to be.
Or how no matter what was going on at work, he would always answer phone calls from my sisters or me when we had some kind of concern, and how he would always give us well-reasoned and thoughtful advice.
Or how he immediately welcomed my then-girlfriend now wife when she first came around to visit.
Or how he never wanted to find out his prognosis because he didn’t want to be distracted by it in his everyday life.
Or how he adored his young grandchildren to the point where even though his melanoma was visible on his forehead, he would still sit on the floor and actively play with them.
Or how while he was completely bedridden in the final hours of his life with no hope of leaving his house ever again, he was still on the phone advising clients.
No, instead, I’ll just remember him fondly as I do every day, today, the 10th Anniversary of his death. I can’t believe you’ve been gone this long, Dad. I wish you were still around. I love you and miss you.
Carl K. Zucker, Esq. (1934-2002).