High-flying judge crashes to earth

By James Quiggle
December 10, 2008
Judge JoyceFunny thing about car collisions, how even a mild 5 mph bumper bender can inflict such painful injuries. Or so elected Pennsylvania Superior Court judge Michael Joyce said.

The Erie-area jurist claimed a Ford Explorer bumped into his Mercedes in a low-speed dust-up. He was left with continuous back, neck and arm pain, he said. He also suffered numbness and a cloudy mind. He couldn’t golf or swim, and barely even hold a coffee cup.

But it was all a ruse to haul down insurance money. Joyce claimed his injuries were so severe that he was virtually crippled. He extracted $440,000 total from his auto policy and the other driver’s coverage.

In fact, Joyce was quite the man of action.

Passed flight test
How could someone so physically and mentally injured obtain a pilot license, let alone fly a plane more than 50 times? prosecutors argued.The supposedly impaired judge earned a pilot’s license after the accident. That gambit came back to haunt him in court.

Joyce nearly aced a difficult pilot’s licensing exam, despite claiming the collision damaged his brain and left him so confused that he had to work 12 hours a day and on weekends to keep up with his judicial workload.

He had a doctor clear him medically for his pilot license, and filled out a federal form saying he had no medical barriers to flying. Yet that same day Joyce told a neurologist that he suffered from invasive tremors that made it difficult for him to even holding a coffee cup.
When filing the large insurance claim with Erie, he didn’t mention that a doc had cleared him for flight.

The high-flying jurist stopped going to physical therapy after pocketing $390,000 from his insurer Erie Insurance, and took a scuba-diving trip to the Caribbean about two weeks later.

He went golfing at world-class resorts, worked out at a fitness center and went in-line roller-blading.

Deeply in debt

Joyce also said the injury ruined his career; he was too hurt to run for re-election despite gaining the Republican Party’s endorsement. The party actually had endorsed someone else.

In fact, Joyce needed the large insurance payload for a variety of non-medicinal reasons. He was in such debt that he lived in a room in his judicial chambers, prosecutors charged.

The money also helped finance a princely array of luxury items. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle, hot tub, cosmetic surgery for his girlfriend, and down payments on a home and Cessna airplane.

The little collision had inflamed an earlier injury, Joyce argued in court. If anything, he was hypersensitive and sincerely believed he was a medical basket case, he insisted.

The federal jury didn’t bite. Joyce was convicted of breaking the law that voters had elected him to uphold. He’s scheduled for sentencing in March 2009.

"How many lies do you have to tell before you're not capable of being believed anymore?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said in his closing argument.

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