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Breakfast with the devil

My tax professor at Washington & Lee, the late great Tim Philipps, had a saying for that moment when you think you have found a loophole in the federal tax code: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Earlier this month, in the debate over the “Castle Doctrine,” a delegate told a story from the floor of the House of Delegates.

The Castle Doctrine holds that a man’s home is his castle. Several measures before the General Assembly this session would give a homeowner immunity from prosecution or from civil liability if he harms someone trying to break in to his home. There are some different nuances to the bills, but that’s the nut of it.

Del. Anne Crockett-Stark, R-Wytheville, took the floor Feb. 9 to speak in favor of one of these measures.

“We need this bill,” she said, and Crockett-Stark proceeded to relate a story of an 82-year-old constituent from one of her counties in Southwest Virginia.

One night, about 2 a.m., the elderly woman heard the sound of glass breaking. She grabbed her pistol – the woman is a sharp-shooter, Crockett-Stark said, to chuckles in the crowd.

The woman caught the intruder as he was entering a window. She put the pistol to his chin, and asked him, “Do you want to eat breakfast with the devil?”

As the man ran off, she fired a shot in the air to scare him.

Here’s the “sad part,” according to the delegate. “He took her to court for shooting at him and he won!”

Her Republican colleagues applauded with delight and gave her a partial standing O. The castle doctrine measures passed the House overwhelmingly and are now with the Senate.

Back to the lady packing heat. I ran across women like her when I practiced law in Southwest Virginia. If we’re in a street fight, I want feisty ol’ gals like her on my side.

But we watch for stories like that at this newspaper. If an intruder brought a lawsuit and actually prevailed, it likely would be page-one stuff.

Lawyers would take great interest in such a case. What were the exact facts? What was the theory the winning lawyer used? What defenses? Did the lady’s homeowner’s insurance kick in?

We wanted to know more about this case. My colleague Peter Vieth and I started making phone calls across the delegate’s district, which includes all or part of three counties — Wythe, Carroll and Smyth. About 15 calls later: No one had ever heard such a tale.

We talked to the circuit clerks of all three counties. Nope. Hayden Horney, the Wythe County clerk, asked, “When did this happen?” He said he’d been in his position 27 years and had never heard of it. A bailiff in Wythe had been on the job since the late 1960s and could not recall such a case.

Jack Harris, executive director of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, posted a query on the VTLA listserv, trolling for information; several hundred plaintiff’s lawyers are members. Nothing.

Vieth finally got a sort-of response from Del. Crockett-Stark’s office. Her legislative aide, John Matthews, said the delegate does not know specifics. Matthews added, “She does not have any information to share with us. She was told the story by the lady, who has cancer.

“That’s all there is,” Matthews said.

So we can’t say this story isn’t true or there isn’t a pistol-packing senior citizen out in Southwest Virginia. We can say we tried to get independent confirmation of this tale and further information and we could not do so. As any good lawyer will tell you, it’s hard to prove a negative.

Let me simply send out this call: If anyone knows anything more about this lawsuit by the intruder, please let us know.

We’re not the only ones interested. One of the clerks asked that I call back if I got additional details. “I’d like to know about that one,” the clerk said. “That’s a good story.”

12 comments

  1. Nice reference to Professor Phillips. My favorite “Timmy Tax” proverb was: “Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.” Works well in tax and business issues. God rest his soul!

  2. Nice reference to Professor Phillips. My favorite “Timmy Tax” proverb was: “Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.” Works well in tax and business issues. God rest his soul!

  3. How would this be possible in light of Zysk v. Zysk? Isn’t recovery barred by the housebreaker because when he was injured, he was engaged in an illegal act?

  4. How would this be possible in light of Zysk v. Zysk? Isn’t recovery barred by the housebreaker because when he was injured, he was engaged in an illegal act?

  5. Well….as we say over here in Roanoke: “The truth screws up many a good story.”

  6. Well….as we say over here in Roanoke: “The truth screws up many a good story.”

  7. I have practiced law in Crockett-Stark’s district for 20 years, much longer than she has even been a delegate (about 7 or 8 years) and I can tell you for a fact that this story is not true. This is not Richmond, Fairfax or Norfolk. Every lawyer in a 100 mile radius knows each other and any kind of major or significant case is well discussed by the local bar. Those of us here in Annie B’s district know she is just simply making this up.

  8. I have practiced law in Crockett-Stark’s district for 20 years, much longer than she has even been a delegate (about 7 or 8 years) and I can tell you for a fact that this story is not true. This is not Richmond, Fairfax or Norfolk. Every lawyer in a 100 mile radius knows each other and any kind of major or significant case is well discussed by the local bar. Those of us here in Annie B’s district know she is just simply making this up.

  9. Thank you for actually investigating this story. It’s one of those urban myths that people are so quick to believe because it plays to the public’s sense of irony and it plays on their distrust of lawyers and the legal system. Another variation of this tale is when a burglar sues a homeowner because he hurt himself while trying to burglarize the home. It’s amazing how the public is so gullible and quick to believe certain tales.

  10. Thank you for actually investigating this story. It’s one of those urban myths that people are so quick to believe because it plays to the public’s sense of irony and it plays on their distrust of lawyers and the legal system. Another variation of this tale is when a burglar sues a homeowner because he hurt himself while trying to burglarize the home. It’s amazing how the public is so gullible and quick to believe certain tales.

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