Legally Speaking: A Swing and a Miss on Personal Responsibility

John G. Browning May 30, 2007, 9:00am

Everyone copes with the grief of losing a loved one in different ways. On the road to what will hopefully be acceptance and hope, we go through stages of shock, denial, guilt, anger, and sadness over such loss. Some people, however, add another stage that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross would never have imagined: frivolous litigation.

Noel Dean Hancock, father of the late St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Josh Hancock, is one such person.

On May 23, 2007, Mr. Hancock filed a wrongful death lawsuit against several businesses and individuals that he claims "contributed to the untimely and preventable death of Josh," who died on April 29 when the pitcher's sport utility vehicle plowed into the rear of a flatbed tow truck that was stopped to assist a stalled vehicle.

According to the lawsuit filed in Missouri Circuit Court, the 29 year-old baseball player died not because of anything he did, but because of what others did.

Justin Tolar, whose car became stalled when it spun out after being cut off by another vehicle, was "negligent" for allowing his vehicle to be involved in an accident that left it stalled and blocking a lane of Interstate 64 in St. Louis.

Jacob Hargrove, the driver of the tow truck who stopped to help Tolar, was "negligent" for stopping behind Tolar's Geo Prism and blocking the left lane while failing to "provide adequate notice and warning to approaching motorists," say lawyers representing Mr. Hancock and his late son's estate. Apparently, in the five to seven minutes that police believe Hargrove was on the scene, he put his emergency lights and flashers on as he attempted to move the stalled vehicle out of the way. Hancock's lawyers fault him for not doing more as he reacted to the emergency: putting out flares, taking out a giant "Don't Hit Me" billboard, or erecting a force field that would repel drunk drivers (okay, so I made those last two up).

Hargrove's employer, Eddie's Towing, was to blame for employing Hargrove in the first place.

Hancock's lawyers are also suing Mike Shannon's Steak and Seafood, the restaurant where Josh Hancock had been earlier that evening, and Patricia Shannon Van Matre, the restaurant's manager. According to Hancock's lawyers, the baseball player became "involuntarily intoxicated" at the restaurant, and both the business and its manager are to blame.

Give me a break – "involuntary intoxication"? We're talking about a grown man here, not an innocent altar boy or fraternity pledge being force-fed alcohol.

As creative with the facts as Hancock's lawyers are, here are a few things they neglected to say in the papers they filed with the court. According to the autopsy report, Josh Hancock had a blood alcohol level of nearly twice Missouri's legal limit when he crashed into the back of the truck. As far as what else may have been in his system, there was no evidence of drugs; however, police found marijuana in the pitcher's SUV.

The accident took place at 12:30 a.m., and the night was still young for Hancock; he was driving to meet with four of his Cardinals teammates in nearby Clayton. How do authorities know that? Because as he was driving, Hancock was apparently using his cell phone to call and/or text message.

He must have been in a hurry, too, since he was speeding-driving 68 in a 55 mph zone. If you need more evidence of Hancock's carelessness, try this one on-he wasn't wearing a seat belt. The police report also indicates that Hancock made no attempt to brake before the collision.

Moreover, this wasn't Hancock's only episode of problem drinking or driving. Just three days before the accident that took his life, Hancock was involved in an accident at 5:30 a.m., mere hours before he was due to arrive at Busch Stadium for a game against the Cincinnati Reds.

Hancock had edged his GMC Denali into an intersection, when a tractor-trailer struck it, tearing off the SUV's front bumper. Although no one was injured, reported accounts say that after the accident, Hancock showed up "too hung over to play" in that day's game, infuriating Cardinals' manager Tony La Russa.

So, when you follow the twisted calculus of Hancock's father and his lawyer, the self-destructive behavior of Josh Hancock counts for nothing.

Being drunk, speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, using a cell phone, having pot in the car, and failing to apply his brakes before plowing into a stopped vehicle with its emergency lights flashing, do not matter not at all.

Instead, blame the restaurant where he drank, and the manager who offered to get Hancock a cab (which he declined); sue the individual whose only "crime" was having the misfortune to be stalled after an accident shortly before, and the tow truck driver who showed up to help. But, charge Josh Hancock with responsibility for his own conduct? Perish the thought.

There are also indications that Hancock's lawyers aren't through blaming others, since they've stated that others "could be added" as defendants, but declined to say whether this might include the St Louis Cardinals or Major League Baseball. But sue them for what? For paying a grown man an absurdly high salary to play a child's game?

It makes about as much sense to sue the cell phone manufacturer-after all, there was no warning on the phone that its use might distract you from all those other cars buzzing about on the highway.

Or why not sue the car rental company whose SUV Hancock was driving? Applying the sort of logic that the plaintiff attorneys have applied, if the car rental company hadn't rented Hancock that vehicle, he couldn't have been driving it.

I'm sorry for Noel Hancock's loss, but suing everybody and his cousin won't bring his son back. And, while I disagree with his decision to blame everyone but his own son for what happened that night, Mr. Hancock and I agree on one thing: it was a senseless death.

It made no sense for Josh Hancock to fail to exercise self-restraint and say no; it made no sense to drive at an excessive speed, especially without a seatbelt; it made no sense to do all this with the added distraction of cell phone use; and it made no sense to ignore the warning lights of a stopped vehicle and slam into it. Unfortunately, blaming everyone else for the accident makes no sense either.

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