Saturday, May 26, 2007

Tragedy Made Trivial

I was among the thousands of St Louis Cardinals fans—and baseball fans in general—saddened last April 29 by the death of relief pitcher Josh Hancock in an alcohol-related traffic accident. Hancock was legally drunk and talking on a cell phone when his SUV ran into the back of a tow truck that had stopped to help a motorist on US 40 in St Louis. He was killed instantly; the tow truck operator and the driver of the stalled car weren’t hurt.

The saddest part of the story for me was that the Cardinals won the World Series last October, and Hancock, a key member of the bullpen, only got to bask in that glory for a few short months. This kid—just 28 when he died—only had from October to April to tell people he was a member of the world championship team.

That was the saddest part of the story up until a couple of days ago, when the St Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Hancock’s father is filing a wrongful death lawsuit seeking damages “over $25,000.” And here’s where it gets goofy: The defendants in the suit are the restaurant where Josh had been drinking, the owner and driver of the tow truck, and—get this—the driver of the stranded vehicle.

Mr Hancock’s suit alleges that “The intoxication of Joshua Morgan Hancock on said occasion was involuntary.” According to the Post-Dispatch, one of Hancock’s lawyers said “It's understood that for the entire three hours that Josh Hancock was there, that he was handed drinks. It's our understanding that from the moment Josh Hancock entered Mike Shannon's that night that he was never without a drink.”

Wow. Apparently when Josh Hancock walked into Mike Shannon’s restaurant that night, they jammed a funnel in his mouth and emptied several bottles into his protesting gullet. They couldn’t hear him saying “No, stop, two’s my limit,” because the funnel was in the way.

I’m just speculating, of course. I don’t know how else to explain the term “involuntary intoxication.”

It seems to me that a person has a number of choices when he’s handed drinks for three hours. He can say No at some point, or he can accept and enjoy them all. If he chooses the latter, he can find an alternate ride home or he can hop drunkenly his SUV and go barreling down US 40 while chatting on a cell phone.

Hancock made the wrong choice. But it was his.

Missouri’s dram shop law was repealed in 1934, but there are still statutes that allow someone to file a suit if an establishment knowingly serves “intoxicating liquor to a visibly intoxicated person.” I don’t know enough about law to speculate if there’s a case here. I do know that the manager of the restaurant offered to call a cab for Hancock, but he told her he was heading to a hotel three blocks away.

I can understand Mr Hancock’s pain. But I can’t understand the desperation, the grasping, the greed that would cause him to name the tow truck operator and the motorist in this lawsuit. “The guy should have known not to drive a car that might stall while my son was being forced at gunpoint to drink too much—and the tow truck operator should have known better than to stop and help.”

Hell, as long as you’re throwing defendants in right and left, why not include whoever makes the schedules for major league baseball? If the Cardinals hadn’t played in St Louis that night, this tragedy wouldn’t have happened.

Josh Hancock made a bad mistake. But this lawsuit trivializes his memory, and I hope a judge dismisses it quickly.

* * *

This is a poem I wrote a few years back.

On the Old Mill Road

On the Old Mill Road the trees squeeze you in on both sides
And the curves surprise you with impossible angles
From a time when life didn’t move so recklessly fast

Deer and rabbits wander up and eat the memorial flowers
Freshened weekly by the survivors
Who write their congressmen and demand
A wider road running straight through the woods

The message being that the state is responsible
For providing safer roads
For our drunken children to drive on

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