What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? In one of my current cases, a husband and wife I represent are being sued by the husband’s mother (!) over what she calls a several hundred thousand dollar loan. Mom’s complant is based on a document entitled, “Promissory Note.” The document certainly reads like one. However, the kids and I are arguing that the Promissory Note should be treated as an irrevocable trust agreement. The basis for our argument doesn’t matter for this blog, but the result does. If the document is a trust agreement, the loan isn’t a loan. Instead it’s money mom put in the trust as an asset of the trust. The interest due mom under the document isn’t interest. Instead it’s a distribution of trust assets to mom. Finally, the kids aren’t debtors. Instead they’re the trustees of the trust and its ultimate benficiaries, so when mom dies they get what’s left of the money.

On the radio this morning on the way to work, I listened to the news on KNX, a major CBS affiliate in Los Angeles. The reporter was talking about some aspect of the recent death of our Ambassador to Libya and the destruction of our Benghazi consulate. She attrributed both to, “the demonstration.” That got my attention, because most people (including the State Department) seem to have come around to attributing both the death and the damage to a terrorist “attack.”

There’s a world of difference between a demonstration and an attack, just as there’s a world of difference between a promissory note and a trust agreement. Demonstrations start peacefully, otherwise they couldn’t “turn violent.” When they turn violent, they generally result in attacks on police and property. A demonstration can turn into an attack, but it’s awfully difficult to imagine an attack turning into a demonstration. It seems reasonable to conclude an attack by a large group of people that didn’t start out as a demonstration doesn’t belong in the realm of peace. Instead it belongs in the opposite realm, the realm of war.

The choice between “demonstration” and “attack” as the correct name for what happened in Benghazi is far from trivial. The proper response to a demonstration is most likely negotiation. The proper response to an attack is most likely a counterattack.

I’m surprised by the functional similarity between arguing in court over the correct name for a document, and arguing on the national stage over the correct name for the events leading up to our Ambassador’s death and our consulate’s destruction. Names matter. Happily enough, getting the document in my court case named correctly – one way or the other – isn’t a matter of life or death for mom or the kids. Unfortunately, choosing the wrong name for what happened in Benghazi could be a matter of life or death for many more Americans.

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Stan Prowse

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