Newsday by ROCCO PARASCANDOLA - March 9, 2009
It's not every day that a judge calls a plaintiff a crook even before a trial starts. But that's what happened recently in Queens Civil Court, where Judge Duane Hart lit into bus rider Paul Hightower, accusing him of concocting a tall tale so he could sue New York City Transit. "What I am saying is, in this case, and I am telling Mr. Hightower on the record, I am recusing myself because I think you are a crook," Judge Duane Hart told Hightower in court in January. "I cannot give you a fair trial. It seems like you live on files, claims for accidents, real or imagined or set up." Hart declared a mistrial and referred the case to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown for possible prosecution on fraud. That office is investigating, and for now the civil case is on hold. Hart, who didn't respond to requests for comment, is no stranger to controversy, having been censured twice by the state Judicial Conduct Commission. In this case, Hart seemed troubled that Hightower, now 37, had previously sued the city after a city garbage truck in 1994 ran him over on his bicycle, Hightower's lawyer Michael Singer, told Newsday.
Hightower, the only passenger at the time, with no other witnesses, needed surgery to repair a herniated disc and fuse his right wrist, injuries that left him unable to work, court papers say. He said in the lawsuit that he spent the $17,000 insurance money he received from NYC Transit, then fell behind on the rent at his home in Jamaica. His electricity was shut off, the suit says, and he was forced onto welfare. With the trial about to start, Hart spoke up. "If you are not guilty of anything I apologize to you for striking this matter from the calendar, for the thoughts that I have of you," he said, according to the transcript. "But if you are guilty of what it appears you might be guilty of, you should be able to take a nice long vacation in another part of the state." firstname.lastname@example.org
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