BY DAVID OWEN
THE CUSTOMER WAS LOOKING FOR SOMETHING IN A herniated disk. He wanted some inflammation— but not too much inflammation—and some agonizing pressure on the spinal cord. You know the kind of agonizing pressure I mean? Down in the lumbar region? He wanted it right away.
Fortunately, Stephen Appelbaurn had just the thing. He carries a full line of herniated disks, some with complete prolapses and some without. His deluxe model, which costs $75, was exactly what the customer was looking for. It comes with two vertebrae, three interchangeable disks in different stages of deterioration, and a viewing stand. The customer took it with him.
Appelbaurn is the proprietor of The Evidence Store, in Union, New Jersey, just west of Newark International Airport. He likes to describe his business as “the only fullservice walk-in retail store for trial lawyers” and “Toys R Us for attorneys.” He sells and rents not only detailed plastic models of herniated disks (his most popular item) but also models of pelvises, legs, jaws, hearts, knees, eyes (two sizes), spines, wrists, shoulders (from five different manufacturers), hands, brains, and other body parts. Lawyers use the models to create compelling courtroom exhibits in personal-injury lawsuits.
Appelbaurn also sells a lot of other things, including a full-color poster called “Normal female abdominal anatomy post CO2 gas insufflation,” scale models of traffic accidents, coffee cups covered with humorous sayings about the legal profession, The People’s Court board game, a set of false teeth called Mr. Gross Mouth (which has fake gum disease and spits real tobacco juice), bumper stickers that say MY LAWYER CAN BEAT UP YOUR LAWYER (these are free), and a diagram illustrating that standby of the personal-injury trade, “whiplash cervical misalignment.”
A typical Evidence Store customer is a lawyer from Newark whose attempt to settle his client’s $20 million medical-malpractice suit for $40,000 has just collapsed. He now finds himself going to trial with nothing to show the jury. So he calls Appelbaum or, as often happens, drops in to browse. If he has a carpal-tunnel-syndrome case, Appelbaum may sell him a model of a wrist that a surgeon can dissect in front of the jury. If he’s representing a woman who fell off a barstool and hit her head on a cigarette machine, Appelbaurn may rent him a halo traction brace with a padded plastic jacket, so the jury can get an idea of what it’s like to have a broken neck. If the lawyer plans to introduce an x-ray as evidence, Appelbaum may suggest making a dramatic enlargement. One such enlargement, depicting the bones in someone’s leg, is tacked to a door in The Evidence Store. The bones are held together by eight screws and a metai plate. Written in black ink at the top of the picture is “$350,000!!!”
Every now and then a curious non-lawyer will spot Appelbaum’s sign and wander in to find out what a store called The Evidence Store could possibly sell. Appelbaum likes to kid around with these people. He tells them, “Figure out what we do and win a prize.” They look at the skinless leg model. They look at the sign that says YOUR SPINAL CORD INJURY. . . WHAT HAPPENS TO BLADDER AND BOWEL CONTROL? They look at the x-ray of a bullet lodged in a spine. They look at the mildly pornographic light-switch plates (popular with legal secretaries, who often shop for their bosses). Then they give up.
STEPHEN APPELBAUM DIDN’T GROW UP WANTING TO sell copies of The Slip and Fall Handbook to lawyers in eastern New Jersey. In fact, in the early 196Os, as a grumpy teenager attending summer camp in Nyack, New York, he didn’t want to do anything at all. He didn’t like sports. He didn’t like outdoor activities of any kind. His exasperated counselor—the novelist Chaim Potok, incidentally—suggested that he take up photography. This he did with a vengeance, returning to camp the following summer with his own portable darkroom, which he set up in his bunk.
After earning a degree in photographic illustration at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Appelbaum held a number of jobs that involved either taking pictures or selling cameras. Nothing captured his imagination, though, until his cousin, an insurance-claims adjuster, called him one day and asked if he’d like to photograph some fire damage. Appelbaum found that he enjoyed photographing fire damage. In time he branched out into traffic accidents.
Soon Appelbaum was receiving inquiries from lawyers who had seen his fire-damage and traffic-accident pictures in courtrooms and wanted him to photograph bungled face-lifts and slippery floors. His business grew. In addition to taking pictures, he began blowing up x-rays and medical charts. Then he began selling easels to hold the enlargements. Then he began selling cases to hold the enlargements and the easels. Then he heard from a friend who had just opened a skeleton-rental service in Atlanta. A pretty nutty idea, renting skeletons—but didn’t lawyers sometimes need skeletons? He bought a full-sized plasticskeleton and named it Fred.
Except when he’s rented out, Fred still stands in a prominent place inside The Evidence Store. When I visited, not long ago, Fred was smoking a pipe and wearing a leather cap, sunglasses, a skeleton necklace, and a red Tshirt that said I’M FRED. . . . TAKE ME TO COURT. Beside him was another skeleton, also for rent. Two days before, Appelbaum had sold a deluxe skeleton (all the bones numbered, muscle origins painted in red and blue) for just under $1,300. The skeletons are shipped in big cardboard boxes that look like coffins.
Taking pictures of other people’s misfortunes is still a key source of income for Appelbaum and his three assistants. (Their photographic business is called Garden State Legal Photo Service.) Appelbaum does much of his photographic work in a cluttered studio that adjoins, and occasionally overflows into, The Evidence Store.
“You should have been here a couple of weeks ago, ” he told me. “I had one guy who had been beaten up by the cops, and another guy who had what they call an external fixation device. All his bones were being held together from the outside, with all these pins going through his leg. So he’s sitting here, and over there is some other guy with crutches and lacerations and scabs. It looked like a hospital waiting room. Next!”
On the day I paid my visit, a well-dressed man dropped by to look at some photographs that Appelbaum had taken of his face, which had a scar on it. The man had filed a lawsuit concerning this scar, and his lawyer wanted the photographs as evidence. While the man looked at the pictures, Appelbaum made small talk.
“I just heard of a case where a guy got twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars for extensive facial injuries,” he said cheerfully.
The man looked up. “Twenty-two five?” He sounded surprised and disappointed. Twenty-two million five hundred thousand would be more like it, said the tone of his voice.
Well, even if he doesn’t win anything, the man will still have those pictures. Appelbaum told me later that this was the second time he had dropped by to look at them.
“I’VE GOT A BIG PROBLEM,” APPELBAUM TOLD ME. “I happen to enjoy what I do.” Appelbaum is thirtynine years old. He is of medium height and has short dark hair. His hairline has traveled so far north that it is on the verge of moving south again. He has a beard. He likes to eat and, over the years, has put some distance between his own skeleton and his clothes, which are nice. Lately he has been trying to make his male assistants understand the importance of wearing neckties at work, but they hate wearing neckties, and when Appelbaum looks the other way, they hang them over various doorknobs.
One thing Appelbaum particularly enjoys about his work is the occasional opportunity it gives him to emulate his hero, Paul Drake. You remember Paul Drake—the private detective who works with Perry Mason. Paul Drake is always rushing into the courtroom just before the end of the show. Perry Mason says, “May I have a moment, Your Honor?” Then Paul Drake whispers something into his ear and hands him a little piece of paper. Perry Mason steps up to the witness stand and reads from the little piece of paper. When the witness hears whatever is written on the paper, he falls into a fit of lunatic sobbing and blurts out a detailed confession of the crime.
Of course, everyone knows that the legal process doesn’t really work like that. Most cases don’t even get to court, or if they do, they tend not to stay there very long. My wife once served on a jury in a case that ended in a plea bargain after the defense attorney inadvertently referred to his client, in front of the jury, as “Mr. Guilty.” Next!
Still, trials happen, and Appelbaum occasionally gets to live out his fantasy. Once he was hired by a lawyer who was representing someone whose car had been hit head-on at ninety miles an hour by a car that was being chased by a police car. Appelbaum’s job was to re-create the chase on movie film. He did this and brought the film to court. Then he spent about two hours on the witness stand answering questions about how he had made the film (by mounting a camera in a car and shooting a forty-five-milean-hour chase at half the normal camera speed). When he finished, the judge ruled that the him, though it involved trick photography of a sort, was admissible as evidence. On hearing this decision, the other side offered to settle the case.
Another case that Appelbaum worked on involved a voting man who had been arrested while sitting in his Corvette on a street in New York. Appelbaum was hired by the young man’s attorney, who hoped to prove that the police couldn’t possibly have seen what they said they had seen before they arrested him: a gun sitting in plain view on the passenger seat. A Corvette’s seats are very deep—like real buckets. Appelbaum took some pictures and brought them to court.
In the course of the trial some new point came up that hadn’t been mentioned in the original testimony or documented by the photographs. Appelbaum put down his newspaper and tapped the young man’s lawyer on the shoulder. ”If you’d like,” he said, “I could try to get some more pictures before this afternoon.”The lawyer said to go ahead and try.
It was noon in lower Manhattan. Appelbaum’s office is all the way over on the other side of the Hudson River. He called his assistants and said, “Find me a Corvette.” Then he took off for the Holland Funnel. While Appelbaum was racing back to New Jersey, his assistants frantically tried to track down a Corvette of the proper year and model. They called Chevrolet dealers. They called used-car lots. They called mechanics. No luck.
Appelbaum by now was almost back to Union. Suddenly, up ahead, he saw precisely the kind of Corvette he was looking for. He turned on his headlights, flashed the high beams, and blew his horn. “The guy pulled over. I was surprised.” Appelbaum told the driver he could have anything he wanted if he would just let Appelbaum take a few pictures of his car. The guy said that would be okay.
It wasn’t until after he had finished that Appelbaum got around to explaining why he needed the pictures. “So I explained, and the guy said, ‘Hey, I can prove that you can’t see a gun on the seat of a Corvette.’ I said, ‘How can you do that?’ And he said, ‘I’ve got a gun in the car.’ So we took a few more pictures.”Appelbaum then drove to his office, processed the film, printed it wet, and raced back to Manhattan. He got to the courtroom just as the afternoon session was beginning. Total elapsed time: an hour and forty-five minutes.
“So what happened?” I asked him.
“Well, some dummy came up with the bright idea of bringing an actual Corvette to the courthouse and having everybody go down and see for themselves,” he said. “The case did not go well for that kid.”
YOU CAN NEVER TELL HOW THINGS ARE GOING TO GO at The Evidence Store. Some days are slow. On slow days Appelbaum’s assistants tend to spend a lot of time going out for coffee and forgetting to remind Appelbaum to pick up his nine-year-old daughter, Carly, at school. But other days are filled with action. Recently Appelbaum had to go out and crawl around in some muddy, rat-infested tunnels under the foundation of a new building. The ground under the foundation had been sinking. Appelbaum’s job was to take pictures of broken pipes and electrical connections. (“I felt like I was escaping from Nazi Germany. With camera equipment.”) Over the weekend he had taken pictures at a lake where someone had dived off the end of a dock into two feet of water and become a quadriplegic.
While Appelbaum was telling me about these and other assignments, the telephone rang. It was a lawyer who was representing a hospital that was being sued by a woman who had broken her hip while doing volunteer work in the hospital’s chapel. The lawyer wanted Appelbaum to take pictures of the chapel.
Appelbaum loaded some camera equipment into the trunk of his car, a three-year-old Mercury Cougar with a hundred thousand miles on it, and we drove to the hospital. Stuck to the Cougar’s sun visor was a lapel button that said I LOVE LAWYERS. The ornament on Appelbaum’s key chain was a little plastic spine. We passed a flagman who was guiding traffic around a road-repair crew.
“I do a lot of cases where a guy like that will get hit by a car,” Appelbaum said, nodding toward the flagman. “They can’t sue their employer, because of workman’s comp, so they’ll try to find somebody else.” During the twenty minutes or so it took us to get to the hospital, we drove past what struck me as an unusually large number of traffic accidents. “I used to stop for serious accidents, but for the most part you’re just eating up film.” Still, he keeps a carefully cross-referenced photo file of dangerous roads and intersections. (Accidents tend to happen repeatedly at the same places.) The best times to photograph busy streets are Thanksgiving morning, Christmas morning. and Easter morning, because there’s so little traffic.
The hospital chapel was small and pleasant. There was a modernistic pulpit in the front—really just a lectern. It stood on a broad, carpeted platform. One ascended to this platform by climbing a broad, carpeted step. Six inches up to the step, then six more inches up to the platform. This was where the accident had taken place. While Appelbaum was walking around checking readings on his light meter, I pretended to stumble on the step. A funny joke!
Shortly after we arrived, a nun came in and knelt in one of the pews. I assumed that she was praying for our early departure from the chapel, but it turned out that she was praying for the early and favorable resolution of the lawsuit. It was she who had supervised the litigious volunteer. “All I said to do was dust the tabernacle,” she told me. Instead the volunteer had attempted to dust a sconce. It was while doing this that the volunteer had fallen. According to the nun, the lawsuit accused the hospital of failing to train the volunteer sufficiently before permitting her to ascend the carpeted step.
Appelbaum used up three rolls of film, shooting the scene of the accident from dozens of angles. I held an auxiliary Hash for him during some of the shots. The auxiliary flash wasn’t connected to his camera by any sort of wire. It was triggered by a photoelectric sensor that picked up the burst of light from the other flash. (Some people might think there would be a noticeable delay between the two flashes. If you are one of these people, I suggest that you go to your local library and see what the encyclopedia has to say about the speed of light.)
ON OUR WAY BACK TO UNION, APPELBAUM GOT A CALL on his car phone from one of his assistants. The assistant said to drop by a certain law firm in Newark and meet with one of the lawyers. We did this. The lawyer wanted Appelbaum to make a big chart of some kind. (I had to wait out with the secretaries while they were discussing it.) He said he needed it right away. There are well-known legal-graphics firms that make the kind of chart he was looking for, but they don’t work on such short notice. Appelbaum said he could do the job, and we left.
Appelbaum doesn’t think much of the dramatic instincts of most lawyers. In preparing a case, he believes, your typical lawyer will spend many months piling up and poring over thousands of documents and deposing dozens of witnesses. The photocopying bill alone would be enough to put many people in the poorhouse. When the case comes to trial, the lawyer will scrutinize potential jurors and attempt scientifically to weed out those who might have a predilection for not awarding millions of dollars to people who stumble or get stumbled upon. Then, with all the pieces finally in place, the lawyer will use the months of careful preparation and the mountain of photocopied documents to put the scientifically selected jury to sleep.
“The law by tradition is a profession of words and abstract ideas,” Appelbaum told me. “It’s not visually oriented, and lawyers aren’t trained in law school to work in the courtroom.”
Appelbaum tries to teach lawyers what law school didn’t. If the case hinges on a few crucial documents, he may suggest copying them and placing the copies in attractive binders, so that the jury can follow along. (The ideal number of binders, according to Appelbaum, is half the number of jurors; sharing helps people stay awake.) If the case involves crippling injuries, he may suggest making a day-in-the-life video tape to show how much trouble the plaintiff has tying his shoes and combing his hair. (The ideal length of a day-in-the-life video tape, according to Appelbaum, is twenty minutes—roughly the length of a half-hour television show minus the commercials.)
Walking into a courtroom and seeing a movie projector, Appelbaum told me, produces in a juror a feeling of elation that should be familiar to anyone who ever attended school. Yet few lawyers take advantage of this powerful human emotion. Some seem to forget about the jury altogether. One reason companies lose big lawsuits, according to a recent article in The New York Times, is that they are “represented by obnoxious counsel.”
Of course, a system of justice that turns on whatever it is that gives Tolstoy a smaller following than The Brady Bunch may be nothing to celebrate. The same could be said of our habit of paying people millions of dollars for not knowing how to use a ladder. But if you, like me, enjoy criticizing lawyers, you won’t hesitate to find fault with their tendency to be less interesting than television.
Appelbaum is trying to help. He has invented a magnetic display board, called the Mini-Map, that lawyers, police officers, and others can use to reconstruct traffic accidents. The Mini-Map, which sells for $100 (including magnetic cars, marking pens, a drawing template, and a carrying case), was recently featured in the new-products section of the Cincinnati Court Index.
Even better, several people have approached Appelbaum about franchising The Evidence Store nationwide. Soon you may not have to go all the way to Union, New Jersey, to rent a leg. Trials could eventually become so interesting that people might refuse to settle out of court, simply for fear of missing the movie. □