This article appeared originally in The Orange County Register on November 24th, 2004. The original article can still be picked up in the office for those who would like a copy.
OF A LONG
ON A MISSION
By CHRIS KNAP
It was the RV salesman who dared an old man to sue, saying he’d die before the case went to trial, who helped Aurora Harris find her mission.
The Salesman was right about this: Fortune Brooks, to whom he had sold a motor home with a dry-rotted roof, was not long for this world. But he was wrong about justice.
Harris, then just a few years out of Western State College of Law, invoked a statute that allows for a speedy trial. With Brooks set to testify that the salesman had taken his checkbook and written out a down payment while he lay on a couch, popping heart pills, the RV dealer settled for $80,000. The not so fortunate Brooks died two months later.
He willed himself to live long enough to fight for the respect he deserved, Harris recalls. It was such a satisfaction to help this old man achieve justice.
Twenty years after Fortune died, Harris is still battling car dealers, on behalf of the elderly, single women, immigrants and the disabled.
I know there are a few good dealers, but I don’t hear about those, Harris says. I get people who have been wounded by dealer practices.
Like Kenneth and Catherine Gorman, 85 and 83, who said they were told they needed to trade in their 15,000 mile Honda because rats had nested under their hood and eaten the wiring.
Harris alleged the dealer sold their “unsafe” car that same day.
Or Oscar and Gloria Marrufo, 67 and 65, who complained they were tricked into signing a 66 month lease on a PT Cruiser that they had tried for eight hours to buy.
The salesman belittled us. They broke us down. I feel like they singled us out because of our race. I couldn’t drive past the dealer without feeling small, Marrufo said. Miss Harris has restored my dignity and my pride.
Added his wife, Gloria, We thank God for her.
God will come up a lot in this story.
That may surprise you if you’ve bought into the stereotype of trial lawyers as vultures out for million-dollar verdicts. Aurora Dawn Harris has no mansion. No Mercedes. Never had a million-dollar verdict (or sought one).
Sure, she clobbers car dealers. But she can show mercy too. She calls herself a marketplace evangelist, struggling to show by example and to give God credit when that is due.
Lest you get the wrong idea, Harris hastens to add: I am not saying God is on my side. We all make mistakes, bad decisions, persecute people unfairly. That’s why I like to give people a chance. We need to struggle to make sure we are on God’s side.
A runner with three Los Angeles marathons under her Nikes, Harris appears younger than her 51 years. She drives a used Toyota and lives in a modest home in Orange (the flat part). She practices out of a 1920 bungalow on Chapman Avenue, where the sign reads “Hones Lawyers.” But inside there is only Harris and her paralegal, Ada Gutierrez, a former missionary.
Harris’ one extravagance is a gleaming espresso machine.
I bought that for my Christian singles coffee group, she says, pumping the handles until the black elixir drizzles.
Harris was born in China, the daughter of a Baptist missionaries who built churches in the mountains of Formosa. Her grandparents were also missionaries; her great grandparents before them.
Harris recalls her late father, Dr. Hendon Harris, renting a fishing boat to sail into the South China Sea, looking for Vietnamese refugees victimized by pirates.
After her family returned to the United States i 1967, she began to rebel against her father’s church. It was the male dominance that turned me away .. the fundamentalist belief that women are to play a subservient role.
Harris earned a degree in comparative literature at California State Long Beach. Drove a forklift in a machine shop. Worked for an ad agency. Then battered a three-cylinder Honda across Orange County as a messenger, paying her way through law school.
Although the case of the rotten RV helped Harris find her niche, it would be 15 years before she came to see that work as God’s mission.
The epiphany for Harris came when she split with the father of her boys, a retired Orange County judge. Her legal training had prepared her to fight. But she realized that the battlefield would be her family.
God’s presence was really there. I decided I wasn’t going to fight tooth and nail and it all worked out. Sometimes you have to give it all up to win.
Today there’s an antique Bible on her table. A Psalm on her sign.
If you would be shocked if your lawyer tried to pray with you, Harris may not be your barrister. I will suggest prayer when I see that clients need calming, or sometimes, need to be grateful, Harris said.
Marrufo, the Cruiser customer, didn’t wait for Harris to suggest prayer; he brought one with him.We put on the armor of God, Marrufo recalls, referring to a passage in Ephesians that he has memorized:
|So car dealers are … the devil ?
Harris says no; wickedness is something inside that we all must struggle against.
But the dealers do feel typecast. They accuse Harris of demanding exorbitant payoffs for customers who simply have buyer’s remorse.
Aurora has the ability to generalize too much, says Charles “Mike” Michaelis, a Tustin attorney who represents new-car dealers.
Without a doubt, there are certain individuals in the industry that do engage in aggressive tactics. But my experience is that dealers are honest business people trying to make a fair profit like anybody else.
When Aurora comes after a dealer, she throws in the kitchen sink. Her letters intimidate a car dealer that doesn’t understand what is coming at them.
For that, Harris makes no apologies. I want car dealers to treat everybody who complains with the same respect, and not know if the customer has a lawyer; not know if there is a $300,000 lawsuit waiting, Harris said. I want to show them that our society will not tolerate businesses that victimize vulnerable people.
Harris says those sharply worded letters are the dealers chance to settle upfront, before a lawsuit.
When I was younger, I was a much more brassy type of person. I’ve tried to temper that with mercy. Although I am heavily biased toward the consumer, I try to see the car dealer’s point of view too.
This, some of her opponents acknowledge, is true.
Other attorneys use consumers for their own means, Michaelis says. My impression of Aurora is just the opposite. I think she often forgoes fees if a dealer is willing to settle a consumer’s problems.
But does she ever ask the dealers, or their lawyers, to pray with her ?
Harris is taken aback.
No ! My gosh ! You’re pushing me on that one. Then she adds softly, Maybe I should be.
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