“Pay attention,” he commanded, “because I’m going to talk about your particular problem.”
The law of noise, he declared, was increasingly under study by the nation’s courts. Old concepts were changing. New court decisions were establishing that excessive noise could be an invasion of privacy as well as trespass on property rights. Moreover, courts were in a mood to grant injunctions and financial recompense where intrusion–including aircraft intrusion–could be proven.
Elliott Freemantle paused while another takeoff thundered overhead, then gestured upward. “I believe you will have no difficulty in proving it here.”
At the press table, all three reporters made a note.
The United States Supreme Court, he went on, had already set a precedent. In U.S. v. Causby the court ruled that a Greensboro, North Carolina, chicken farmer was entitled to compensation because of “invasion” by military planes flying low above his house. In handing down the Causby decision, Mr. Justice William O. Douglas had stated, “…if the landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere.” In another case reviewed by the Supreme Court, Griggs v. County of Allegheny, a similar principle was upheld. In state courts of Oregon and Washington, in Thornburg v. Port of Portland and Martin v. Port of Seattle, damages for excessive aircraft noise had been awarded, even though airspace directly above the plaintiffs had not been violated. Other communities had begun, or were contemplating, similar legal action, and some were employing sound trucks and movie cameras as aids to proving their case. The trucks took decibel readings of noise; the cameras recorded aircraft altitudes. The noise frequently proved greater, the altitudes lower, than airlines and airport management admitted. In Los Angeles, a homeowner had filed suit against L. A. International Airport, asserting that the airport, by permitting landings on a newly extended runway close to his home, had taken an easement on his property without due process of law. The homeowner was claiming ten thousand dollars which he believed to be equivalent to the decrease in value of his home. Elsewhere, more and more similar cases were being argued in the courts.
The recital was succinct and impressive. Mention of a specific sum–ten thousand dollars–evoked immediate interest, as Elliott Freemantle intended that it should. The entire presentation sounded authoritative, factual, and the product of years of study. Only Freemantle himself knew that his “facts” were the result, not of poring over law reports, but of two hours, the previous afternoon, spent studying newsclippings in a downtown newspaper morgue.
There were also several facts which he had failed to mention. The chicken farmer ruling of the Supreme Court was made more than twenty years earlier, and total damages awarded were a trifling three hundred and seventy-five dollars–the actual value of some dead chickens. The Los Angeles suit was merely a claim which had not yet come to trial and might never do so. A more significant case, Batten v. U.S., on which the Supreme Court had ruled as recently as 1963, Elliott Freemantle knew about but conveniently ignored. In Batten, the court accepted that only an actual “physical invasion” could create liability; noise alone did not do so. Since, at Meadowood, there had been no such invasion, the Batten precedent meant that if a legal case was launched, it might well be lost before it was begun.
But lawyer Freemantle had no wish for this to be known, at least not yet; nor was he overly concerned whether a case, if brought to court, might eventually be won or lost. What he wanted was this Meadowood homeowners group as clients–at a whopping fee.
On the subject of fee, he had already counted the house and done some mental arithmetic. The result delighted him.
Of six hundred people in the hall, he estimated that five hundred, probably more, were Meadowood property owners. Allowing for the presence of husbands and wives together, it meant there was a minimum of two hundred and fifty prospective clients. If each of those two hundred and fifty could be persuaded to sign a one hundred dollar retainer agreement–which Elliott Freemantle hoped they would before the evening was over–a total fee in excess of twenty-five thousand dollars seemed decidedly within reach.
On other occasions he had managed precisely the same thing. It was remarkable what you could accomplish with audacity, particularly when people were white hot in pursuing their own interests. An ample supply of printed retainer forms was in his bag. This memorandum of agreement between………… hereinafter known as plaintiff/s and Freemantle and Sye, attorneys at law… who will undertake plaintiff/s legal representation in promotion of a claim for damages sustained due to aircraft use of the Lincoln International Airport facility… Plaintiff/s agrees to pay the said Freemantle and Sye one hundred dollars, in four installments of twenty five dollars, the first installment now due and payable, the balance quarterly on demand… Further, if the suit is successful Freemantle and Sye will receive ten percent of the gross amount of any damages awarded…
The ten percent was a long shot because it was highly unlikely that there would ever be any damages to collect. Just the same, strange things sometimes happened in law, and Elliott Freemantle believed in covering all bases.
“I have informed you of the legal background,” he asserted. “Now I intend to give you some advice.” He flashed one of his rare, quick smiles. “This advice will be a free sample, but–like toothpaste–any subsequent tubes will have to be paid for.”
There was a responsive laugh which he cut off brusquely with a gesture. “My advice is that there is little time for anything else but action. Action now.”
The remark produced handclapping and more nods of approval.
There was a tendency, he continued, to regard legal proceedings as automatically slow and tedious. Often that was true, but on occasions, if determination and legal skill were used, the law could be harried along. In the present instance, legal action should be begun at once, before airlines and airport, by perpetuation of noise over a period of years, could claim custom and usage. As if to underline the point, still another aircraft thundered overhead. Before its sound could die, Elliott Freemantle shouted, “So I repeat–my advice to you is wait no longer! You should act tonight. Now!”
Near the front of the audience, a youngish man in an alpaca cardigan and hopsack slacks sprang to his feet. “By God!–tell us how we start.”
“You start–if you want to–by retaining me as your legal counsel.”
There was an instant chorus of several hundred voices. “Yes, we want to.”
The chairman, Floyd Zanetta, was now on his feet again, waiting for the shouting to subside. He appeared pleased. Two of the reporters had craned around and were observing the obvious enthusiasm throughout the hall. The third reporter–the elderly woman from the local weekly–looked up at the platform with a friendly smile.
It had worked, as Elliott Freemantle had known it would. The rest, he realized, was merely routine. Within the next half hour a good many of the retainer blanks in his bag would be signed, while others would be taken home, talked over, and most likely mailed tomorrow. These people were not afraid of signing papers, or of legal procedures; they had become accustomed to both in purchasing their homes. Nor would a hundred dollars seem an excessive sum; a few might even be surprised that the figure was that low. Only a handful would bother doing the mental arithmetic which Elliott Freemantle had done himself, and even if they objected to the size of the total amount, he could argue that the fee was justified by responsibility for the large numbers involved.
Besides, he would give them value for their money–a good show, with fireworks, in court and elsewhere. He glanced at his watch; better get on. Now that his own involvement was assured, he wanted to cement the relationship by staging the first act of a drama. Like everything else so far, it was something he had already planned and it would gain attention–much more than this meeting–in tomorrow’s newspapers. It would also confirm to these people that he meant what he said about not wasting any time.
The actors in the drama would be the residents of Meadowood, here assembled, and he hoped that everyone present was prepared to leave this hall and to stay out late.
The scene would be the airport.
The time: tonight.
AT APPROXIMATELY the same time that Elliott Freemantle was savoring success, an embittered, thwarted, former building contractor named D. O. Guerrero was surrendering to failure.
Guerrero was fifteen miles or so from the airport, in a locked room of a shabby walk-up apartment on the city’s South Side. The apartment was over a noisome, greasy-spoon lunch counter on 51st Street, not far from the stockyards.
D. 0. Guerrero was a gaunt, spindly man, slightly stoop-shouldered, with a sallow face and protruding, narrow jaw. He had deep-set eyes, pale thin lips, and a slight sandy mustache. His neck was scrawny, with a prominent Adam’s apple. His hairline was receding. He had nervous hands, and his fingers were seldom still. He smoked constantly, usually lighting a fresh cigarette from the stub of the last. At the moment he needed a shave and a clean shirt, and was perspiring, even though the room in which he had locked himself was cold. His age was fifty; he looked several years older.
Guerrero was married, and had been for eighteen years. By some standards, the marriage was good, if unspectacular. D.O. (through most of his life he bad been known by his initials) and Inez Guerrero accepted each other equably, and the idea of coveting some other partner seemed not to occur to them. D. O. Guerrero, in any case, had never been greatly interested in women; business, and financial maneuvering, occupied his thoughts far more. But in the past year, a mental gulf had opened between the Guerreros which Inez, though she tried, was unable to bridge. It was one result of a series of business disasters which reduced them from comparative affluence to near poverty, and eventually forced a succession of moves–first from their comfortable and spacious, if heavily mortgaged, suburban home to other quarters less pretentious, and later still to this seamy, drafty, cockroach-infested, two-room apartment.
Even though Inez Guerrero did not enjoy their situation, she might have made the best of it if her husband had not become increasingly moody, savagely bad tempered, and at times impossible to talk with. A few weeks ago, in a rage, he had struck Inez, bruising her face badly, and though she would have forgiven him, he would neither apologize nor discuss the incident later. She feared more violence and, soon after, sent their two teen-age children–a boy and a girl–to stay with her married sister in Cleveland. Inez herself stayed on, taking a job as a coffee-house waitress, and although the work was hard and the pay small, it at least provided money for food. Her husband seemed scarcely to notice the children’s absence, or her own; his mood recently had been a deep and self-contained dejection.
Inez was now at her job. D. O. Guerrero was in the apartment alone. He need not have locked the door of the small bedroom where he was occupied, but had done so as an added guarantee of privacy, even though he would not be there for long.
Like others this night, D. O. Guerrero would shortly leave for the airport. He held a confirmed reservation, plus a validated ticket–for tonight–on Trans America Flight Two to Rome. At this moment, the ticket was in a pocket of his topcoat, also in the locked room, slung over a rickety wooden chair.