Thursday, February 25, 2010

Milking Tragedies For All They're Worth

Day 9 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Somebody, please make it stop!

On Monday, lawyers for the family of a Dallas police officer killed in the line of duty filed a lawsuit over his death. The officer was riding in a motorcycle escort for Senator Hillary Clinton when she visited Dallas as a presidential candidate in 2008. He wiped out in a freak, one-vehicle accident, and now his family wants the City of Dallas, the manufacturer of his helmet, and Clinton’s former campaign to pay up.

Also on Monday, the wife of the IRS employee killed when nutty taxpayer Joe Stack flew a plane into an IRS building filed a lawsuit against Stack’s distraught widow, claiming she knew her husband was unstable and could have stopped his ill-fated flight. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Motorcycle Cop Dies During Clinton Motorcade

A 20-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, Senior Cpl. Victor Lozada - Tirado had only recently graduated from the department’s motorcycle training course when he was assigned to the motorcade detail during Clinton’s visit. Lawyers claim that Clinton’s campaign staff gave the police less than 24-hour’s notice when requesting a police escort for her visit.

You’ve probably watched funeral processions where motorcycle cops “hand-off” the tail end of the motorcade to another cop while one of the cyclists zooms on ahead to block another intersection. Well, apparently that’s what Lozada was supposed to be doing – zooming on ahead in the procession. Lawyers estimate he was going about 70 mph when he failed to negotiate a turn. Lozada clipped the curb and flew off his bike, the strap of his helmet detatching during his high-impact roll along the pavement. Upon hearing news of the tragedy, Clinton cancelled her appearances for the day and visited the officer’s family in the ER.

Two years to the day, Lozada’s widow and her lawyers with the firm of David A. Schiller decided to make their move in the courts. Schiller’s team claims the City of Dallas did not provide enough training for Lozada, the Clinton campaign didn’t request an escort in a timely fashion, and the helmet’s construction was faulty.

Now, to be fair, the helmet claim may have veracity. Experts may find a defect in the helmet, and if that’s the case, prudence would dictate attempts at preventing future failures. However, for a helmet strap to withstand the physical forces deployed by an adult male crashing into concrete at 70 mph, my guess is that the strap’s durability to accommodate such stress would make it significantly more uncomfortable and unwieldy than most cops would tolerate. Besides, common sense says any helmet’s protection only goes so far.

That still leaves us with the curious claims against Clinton’s campaign and the police department itself. For their part, Schiller’s firm has obtained a document in which Lozada's motorcycle trainer purportedly expresses skepticism about Lozada's proficiency on a bike. According to the Dallas Morning News, this document, written a month before Lozada’s death, describes one of his trainers as being scared by all of the mistakes Lozada was making on his motorcycle. However, upon questioning by the Morning News, both the author and recipient of the letter say it was a joke in which they were simply poking fun of Lozada, as part of the cop’s code of camaraderie. If they really thought Lozada was a menace to the driving public and himself, they wouldn’t have signed-off on his final training papers.

Of course, the DPD may need to re-examine their protocols for handling training documents, particularly those that deal with an officer’s suitability for a particular task. I’m not sure the documents Schiller’s team found are the proverbial “smoking guns” that prove Lozada was improperly certified. If they’re just practical jokes, however, this may be a prime example of how practical jokes can be dangerous.

In the very least, having the widow hear how officers made fun of her husband’s motorcycle aptitude after his untimely death while riding one is something that may shame his trainers into being more careful in the future.

Blaming Clinton Is Too Easy

Which leaves us with the celebrity factor in this case: Hillary Clinton, current US Secretary of State, and former presidential contender. No matter what you think politically about Hillary – we don’t need to call her “Mrs. Clinton”, do we? – you can’t dispute the absurdity of blaming her campaign for Lozada’s accident. So what if the campaign didn’t file a motorcade request 24 hours in advance? 911 callers don’t plan out their emergencies 24 hours in advance, do they?

You can’t logically blame Clinton’s campaign without also criticizing the crisis calls police officers respond to all the time. Are you and I now going to have to notify DPD on the off chance that we might need their services in the future?

“Yeah, Dallas Police? I’m going to be driving through on LBJ Freeway this afternoon, and I might get carjacked, or somebody may hit my car, or I might cause a wreck, or my tire might blow out. Just wanted to give you a head’s up before I come your way so that you won’t sue me… Oh – I’m supposed to give you more than two hour’s notice? Sorry. Let me file my notice now so I can drive through LBJ next week”.

Stupid, right? And that’s what suing the Clinton campaign is. I understand that the DPD might have liked all the advance preparation in the world, but they’re a police department, not a Presbyterian church committee. Sure, the Clinton campaign may have made some unwise plans - hey, these are politicians we’re talking about. But as long as they weren’t expecting their motorcade to scale the side of downtown’s tallest building, what’s the problem?

Beating A Widow When She's Down

When I read about Valerie Hunter’s lawsuit against pilot Joe Stack’s widow, I couldn’t believe it. Here I’ve just been writing about stupid lawsuits, and then another one pops up on CNN. One widow blaming another for the tragedy that killed both of their husbands. Good grief – I’m getting a headache.

Apparently, Hunter wants to suck money from the widow of a guy who's in debt to the IRS, been unemployed for ages, and just burned down their house! Hunter says Stack's widow should have known her husband was out for blood, so she's reponsible for not stopping him.

Does Hunter think Sheryl Stack, his widow, should have run out onto the tarmac and laid down in front of her husband’s plane as he was trying to take off? Should she have locked him in a closet and fed him through the keyhole? The man set fire to his own home; don’t you think his wife would have tried to stop him if she could?

And even if she only vaguely knew her husband wanted to carry out a vendetta against the IRS, do you think Mrs. Stack would have known how he was going to do it? A plane, are you kidding me? The IRS isn’t even headquartered in Austin. Can’t “pound of flesh” mean all sorts of things, meshed as it was in that rambling Internet message?

What would the cops have said if she called them up with a tip about her husband's smoldering anger? He hadn't yet done anything criminal. Ahh, that old "innocent until guilty" thing can be such a pain in the neck.

I know grief can make people do weird things. But something tells me it took a personal injury lawyer to cook this one up.

Trying to Milk the Cash Cows

It didn’t take much digging on the Internet for me to find a similar case that the Lozada family’s lawyer brought to trial. Back in 2007, Schiller represented an alarm technician who sued his employer after he fell while descending a ladder. Apparently, the technician was trying to carry too much in his trip down the ladder, one of his hands missed a rung, and he tumbled 10 feet, breaking both wrists.

Fortunately, the jury saw right through the case, and figured that with 13 years as an alarm technician, the plaintiff should have known how to descend a ladder. No damages were awarded, and a motion for a new trial (!) was denied.

Would you ever think of suing your employer if you injured yourself performing a basic function of your job for which best practices are widely known and proper equipment is available? If you were new to riding a motorcycle, why would you intentionally approach a sharp curve at 70 mph? Do you need extra training to know that isn’t smart? And if your spouse was killed by a genius-level software engineer, would you blame the wife who couldn’t read his mind?

Come on, people – stop it already. Aren’t you taking our legal system for a joy ride? Is tragedy now the secret word for “cash cow”?

If it is, I think the dairy cows in my late great-uncle Arthur's barnyard in Maine smelled better.

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