A pair of recent pleadings in a personal injury case have taken on a life of their own as lawyers coast to coast have e-mailed them to friends and colleagues for their sheer entertainment value.
So what’s causing all the belly laughs? It’s a fight over whether a lawyer who also happens to be a magician should be allowed to perform magic tricks for the jury.
In a motion in limine in Blash v. ABA Construction Group, the plaintiff’s lawyers begged the judge to forbid their opponent, Steven G. Leventhal of Reger Rizzo & Darnall, from performing magic tricks or even mentioning that he is a professional magician.
Leventhal’s response (the cause of most of the laughter) asked the judge to use his or her own sleight of hand to make the plaintiff’s motion disappear — with prejudice.
Now that the case has settled for $1.2 million, the motion will never be ruled on by a judge.
But, like a viral video for lawyers, the pleadings have become popular as e-mail entertainment for legal professionals, often being sent to large lists and then forwarded again and again to an exponentially larger audience.
In the motion, plaintiffs attorneys William J. Coppol and John T. Dooley complained that a lawyer performing magic tricks is “highly prejudicial, confusing, misleading for the jury” and has “absolutely nothing to do with the substantive issues.”
In his response, Leventhal called the plaintiff’s motion in limine “the most insane, silly and frivolous pleading the undersigned counsel has ever seen.”
Although Leventhal conceded in his brief that he does perform magic tricks regularly in trials, during his opening and closing speeches, he insisted that there’s nothing wrong with doing so.
Every trial judge, Leventhal noted, has a standard jury instruction that makes that point.
And innovative lawyers, Leventhal argued, know that they must “hammer their trial themes home” by using tactics that illustrate and entertain such as anecdotal stories or references to pop culture icons.
“That the undersigned counsel opted to travel the globe to learn a special set of performance skills rather than wasting his brain cells drinking his summers away at the Jersey Shore should not be held against him,” Leventhal wrote.
“No degree of showmanship can change the facts,” Leventhal argued, and juries are “smart enough to understand that the facts make or break a case.”
Dooley, in an interview, said that he and Coppol decided to file the motion to “bust his [Leventhal's] stones,” and to throw Leventhal off his game.
But Dooley also said he believed the law was on his side and that a judge would likely agree that performing magic tricks during a trial is improper.
“You can’t get up there and do something to make the jurors say, ‘I’m going to vote for him because he entertained us,’” Dooley said.
But Leventhal, in an interview, said he has been doing magic for decades as a trial lawyer and that his illusions are designed to illuminate his arguments. Most often, he said, the tricks accompany portions of his closing that accuse the other side of hiding the truth or trying to use smoke and mirrors to create a false reality.
In one trick, Leventhal, who works exclusively for defendants, said he slowly folds a $1 bill while explaining to the jury that the parts of the plaintiff’s case just don’t tie together. When he unfolds the bill, he said, the astonished jury sees a bizarre bill that appears to have been cut apart and pasted together the wrong way, with the corners in the middle.
In another trick, Leventhal said, the slowly folded $1 bill is revealed to be a $100 bill and then, to the jury’s collective amazement, changes back to a $1 bill.
Leventhal said his interest in magic started in his childhood when he would perform tricks for guests of his parents’ hotel in Bucks County.
The interest has clearly grown to the level of an obsession for Leventhal, whose nameplate outside his office on the 13th floor of the Cira Centre identifies him simply as “Magic.”
Leventhal said he has performed in more than 65 countries for audiences that have included Quincy Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger and a prime minister of Israel.
As an adjunct professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, Leventhal said he had nearly perfect attendance at his night class because he would demonstrate the weekly themes of his lectures with Vegas-quality head scratching illusions.
Dooley, when asked to assess Leventhal as an adversary, offered some good-natured criticism, saying: “I like Steve. But let’s just say that it seems that he much more enjoys magic than practicing law.”
Attorney Jeffrey H. Quinn of Dickie McCamey & Chilcote, who represented other defendants in the suit and who filed no response to the in limine motion, could not be reached for comment.