Take me out to the courtroom: Hancock’s death everyone’s fault

by David Nieporent on May 24, 2007

Score another one for personal responsibility: 29-year old St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock killed himself in April when he drove — faster than the speed limit, drunk, on a cell phone, and not wearing a seat belt — into a tow truck stopped on the side of a road. Obviously, we ought to blame… everyone except Josh Hancock for this. Three and a half weeks after the accident, his father has filed suit in St. Louis against: the restaurant where Hancock was drinking, the manager of the restaurant, the tow truck driver, the towing company, and (!) the driver of the stalled vehicle that the tow truck was assisting, for having the temerity to get his car stuck on the side of the road.

So far, he hasn’t sued the Cardinals or Major League Baseball, but, while praising the team, his lawyer pointedly refused to rule out suing them.

Clearly, his father’s attorney isn’t all that creative; think of all the other people responsible for this accident:

  • The cell phone manufacturer; Hancock couldn’t have been talking on the phone if they hadn’t been so negligent as to invent it, or if they had placed warnings on the side of the phone about not using it while driving.

  • Hancock’s girlfriend — she was on the other end of the phone. Plus, he was driving to meet her.
  • The owners of the bar he was driving to in order to meet his girlfriend. If they had been closed, he wouldn’t have been driving there; if they were easier to find, he wouldn’t have had to give his girlfriend directions.
  • The car rental company; Hancock was driving a rented SUV… because he had just had an accident in his own car. If they hadn’t rented him the SUV, he couldn’t have been driving it.
  • Anheuser-Busch, it goes without saying; no alcohol, no accident.
  • The Cardinals, for not trading him to another team; if he hadn’t been in St. Louis, he couldn’t have crashed.

While it’s hardly unusual nowadays to blame bars for injuries caused by serving drunk patrons, those suits typically involve injuries to third parties. It’s not clear to me from a quick perusal of Missouri statutes that the bar can be liable for injuries caused to the drinker himself, but the key may be in this sentence from the Post-Dispatch story, quoting the complaint filed: “The intoxication of Joshua Morgan Hancock on said occasion was involuntary.” Yes, they forced the alcohol down his throat.

I wonder if the tow truck company will countersue for the damages Hancock caused to their truck by crashing into it. That would be poetic justice, at least.

Update: KMOV has a copy of the complaint. (PDF)

{ 26 comments }

1 Lenka 05.24.07 at 7:45 pm

I think this suit falls under the “textbook definition” of chutzpah.

2 Ted 05.24.07 at 8:19 pm

Don’t forget the marijuana and pipe in Hancock’s car.

3 allonthefield 05.24.07 at 8:20 pm

I appreciate your humorous approach to the topic. To pile on to the cell phone company, why the heck did they give him coverage when he was driving drunk, not wearing a seatbelt, and speeding. They should’ve known better!

In all seriousness, though, I think this is just a father trying to deal with his grief. I just wish he would channel it toward educating other would-be drunk drivers about the danger you put yourself and others in when you sit behind the wheel after too much to drink.

4 Todd Rogers 05.24.07 at 8:51 pm

I imagine his father is grieving. But in assigning causation for the suit, I’d say it’s more likely a predatory attorney who’s trying to capitalize via this man’s grieving.

5 James Huff 05.24.07 at 10:01 pm

Makes as much sense as a captured bank robber suing a bank for not having adequate security measures in place, thus allowing him to rob it…

6 Rob 05.24.07 at 10:58 pm

When I see these types of lawsuits, all I can think of is that this man’s father is glad that his son died.

I don’t buy that grief is clouding his vision. While grief can make you do some stupid things, this is beyond that– this is greed, pure and simple.

Just like the ball player is truly the one responsible for his own death, the father is ultimately responsible for this lunacy, not the lawyer.

7 Melvin 05.25.07 at 1:40 am

Don’t forget the construction company who built the road, all of the suppliers of materials to the construction company, the company who made the Jersey barriers, the state and county Departments of Transportation (who designed the road), and the state patrol for not being there behind the stalled car and tow truck.
Did I miss anyone?

Seriously, is there any recourse for anyone listed in this insanity of a lawsuit to contersue for damages and ask for summary dismissal, as this is almost a classic case of a frivolous lawsuit (especially to the car owner and towing company named).

8 Insomniac 05.25.07 at 7:12 am

Don’t forget the marijuana and pipe in Hancock’s car.

Posted by: Ted | May 24, 2007 08:19 PM

Sue the agriculturalists for developing hydroponics…and the manufacturers of the grow lamps!

9 Tom T. 05.25.07 at 7:51 am

The question ought to be, does suing any of these defendants further the goal of keeping a drunken man from driving and harming himself or other people? As to the restaurant, they may know how many drinks he had, and their judgment may well have been better than his, as he got drunker. Of course, there may be case-specific facts that defeat these assumptions.

Similarly, it’s entirely possible that the other driver bears some responsibility here. Note that David’s account of the facts differs significantly from that of the newspaper article and the complaint: David asserts that the car was on the side of the road, while the newspaper article and the complaint state that the other car hit a median wall and came to rest in the left lane of traffic on the interstate. If the other driver’s accident was caused by circumstances within his control (had he been drinking? was he talking on his cell phone?), why is it unreasonable to expect that driver to be responsible for the consequences of his poor judgment? Again, the facts of the case may bear out differently, but a car doesn’t hit a median wall for no reason.

The case against the tow truck driver seems the hardest. I suppose one could argue that he should have put flares farther in advance of the stalled vehicle as a better warning to oncoming traffic, but that strikes even me as a thin thread on which to hang a case.

10 Jim Collins 05.25.07 at 8:35 am

So why isn’t Hancock’s Mother and Father named in the lawsuit? If they hadn’t concieved him then he couldn’t have died. If that won’t work then name them for providing the defective DNA that contributed to Hancock’s stupidity eventually leading to his death.

11 Chris 05.25.07 at 8:36 am

In the grieving process it is common to have anger and want to direct this anger outwards. I think the thing about these suits that is the most concerning is that he has found an attorney so willing to file them! I hope that the growing movement to counter sue plaintiff’s attorneys jumps all over this case.

12 Chris 05.25.07 at 8:36 am

In the grieving process it is common to have anger and want to direct this anger outwards. I think the thing about these suits that is the most concerning is that he has found an attorney so willing to file them! I hope that the growing movement to counter sue plaintiff’s attorneys jumps all over this case.

13 Dick 05.25.07 at 10:00 am

The “blame” for this lawsuit is simple … the judge! The judge should have required the father to “prove” the son was not at fault, BEFORE even recording the lawsuit against the prospective defendants. If he can’t prove it was not his son’s fault, how can you justify making anyone else pay to prove they were not responsible.

14 Tex Mex 05.25.07 at 1:15 pm

While not defending the father here, and I can only guess what his motivations may be, but there are those ballplayers who simply would never have gotten into the majors without a substantial investment of time and money from “dad”.

15 nevins 05.25.07 at 1:25 pm

The parents will get more than they bargained for in terms of the legacy of their son. Their kid was no angel, and his death was completely his own fault. Every driver on the road must assume that there are forseeable road hazards present. In this case the road hazard was marked with flashing yellow lights that even a moderatly drunk person could have seen and properly reacted to.
The defendants will in their investigations find much interesting about Hancock’s life, his name will be drug through the wringer. What salacious facts are discovered about his life, though not all admissible in court, will be run through the press. His baseball legacy will be even more clouded by his off-field life.

16 Amy Alkon 05.25.07 at 8:32 pm

Shouldn’t the father be suing himself, since it seems the son had little sense of personal responsibility — the one thing that would have made it unnecessary for allll those other people to swoop in and take responsibility for him.

17 Richard Nieporent 05.26.07 at 9:14 am

Similarly, it’s entirely possible that the other driver bears some responsibility here.

No, Tom, not in a legal sense. Unless the driver hit the side of the road and spun out into your path as you were driving by, you are required to be able to drive in such a manner that you are able to stop in time to avoid hitting a car that is stopped in the road. If you are driving at highway speed and suddenly traffic in front of you slows to a stop, you are responsible if you hit the car stopped in front of you.

It is interesting how we are always trying to find someone else to be responsible for what happens to us. If we get into an accident it must be someone else’s fault. What I am waiting for is for someone to file a lawsuit against a company when they get into an accident after being required to work overtime. After all if the person had left from work at his usual time he would have avoided the accident. Yes I know that the result of the action has to be foreseeable, but I am sure that an enterprising lawyer can get around that inconvenient fact. For example the lawyer can charge that by working late the person was more tired and therefore less able to avoid the accident. In other words there is nothing that happens that one cannot find some tenuous thread of events that conceivably has some bearing, however small, on what happens afterwards.

18 Tom T. 05.26.07 at 10:42 am

Richard, the law of that situation would be much more fact-dependent than you’re suggesting. We have no clue as to the visibility, lines of sight, intervening traffic. There may indeed be conditions where it is reasonable to expect that a car my be stopped in front of you on the interstate, but there may be circumstances where it is not.

Why should the other driver be so easily permitted to shift his responsibility onto others? And for that matter, why shouldn’t we put incentives on the tow truck driver to set out flares or other indicators at a distance that easily allows for safe stopping or avoidance? Punishment of the morally guilty is for the criminal law; the civil tort system ought to be about discouraging dangerous behavior — in everyone.

And David, I think, does a disservice to his readers by changing the fact of the other car’s location without noting that he has done so.

And Ted, as the linked article also points out, toxicology tests found no marijuana in Hancock’s system. So yes, forget the pipe.

19 Richard Nieporent 05.26.07 at 6:05 pm

Tom I have to hand it to you. You are nothing if not persistent. All of the facts are against you, yet you won’t admit that you don’t have any basis for your claim that Josh Hancock was not at fault. Instead you attempt to come up with circumstances that could mitigate Josh Hancock’s responsibility for the accident. I could understand, but not agree with, someone trying to blame the bar for allowing Josh Hancock to get drunk. However, once he decided to drive he was 100% at fault for what happened.

We have no clue as to the visibility, lines of sight, intervening traffic.

Yes, Tom we don’t know any of these things but we do know that Josh Hancock was drunk.

Toxicology tests made public Thursday from Hancock’s autopsy reconfirmed his blood alcohol at 0.157 — almost twice the legal maximum to drive — and revealed no other drugs in his system.

Who forced Josh Hancock to drive when he was drunk? If you are driving drunk don’t you think that makes you responsible for an accident that occurs? However, not only was he drunk, but he was also speeding.

Police said their investigation showed he was not only drunk but driving 68 mph in a 55 mph zone

If you are driving drunk and speeding don’t you think that makes you responsible for an accident that occurs? However, not only was he drunk and speeding but he was also inattentive.

and talking on a cell phone when he died. They said the wrecker’s warning lights were flashing.

If you are driving drunk and speeding and inattentive don’t you think that makes you responsible for an accident that occurs? If not, just what would it take for you to believe that Josh Hancock was at fault?

20 Random Numbers 05.26.07 at 11:32 pm

When I first heard of Hancock’s death, I had some sympathy for his family.
Not anymore!

Dean Hancock is far more responsible for his son’s death than anyone named in this fisking lawsuit!

21 ArtK 05.27.07 at 12:52 am

Richard, the law of that situation would be much more fact-dependent than you’re suggesting. We have no clue as to the visibility, lines of sight, intervening traffic. There may indeed be conditions where it is reasonable to expect that a car my be stopped in front of you on the interstate, but there may be circumstances where it is not.

I doubt that, very much. The good old “basic speed law” is that you drive no faster than conditions warrant. If visibility is low, or the lines-of-sight are insufficient, then you must slow down!

22 Bill Alexander 05.27.07 at 12:43 pm

At least here in California, and I expect most or all other states, the speed limit on the sign is an upper limit, the actual speed limit is a “safe speed” for the conditions. So, it doesn’t matter if it is raining, snowing, foggy, or a rain of frogs, you are supposed to go no faster than is safe. So, if you can’t stop in time, you were speeding.

23 Tom T. 05.28.07 at 1:35 am

Richard, we’re arguing comparative vs. contributory negligence. In some states, you’d be right; in others, I would.

I don’t mean to suggest that Hancock should escape liability entirely. All I’m saying is that liability should be shared if (and only if) other people acted carelessly as well.

Here’s why I’m taking the comparative side: Suppose the other driver, whose car Hancock hit, had also been drinking and talking on his cell phone, and that’s what caused him to hit the median wall. There aren’t that many ways in which someone who’s driving responsibly and attentively hits a median wall hard enough to leave his car undrivable in the left lane of traffic. As I see it, barring Hancock’s estate from suing for part of the damages would allow the other driver to escape any responsibility for his behavior.

Think of it this way: imagine that two drunk drivers hit each other. Which one is responsible? Or do they share responsibility? That’s all I’m trying to say. I don’t mean to suggest that Hancock is not responsible at all; I’m just suggesting that the actions of others may have contributed to this accident.

I also recognize that Hancock Sr.’s suit may get thrown out of court. It may be that he doesn’t have any facts to suggest that anyone else acted carelessly. I’m just not prepared to dismiss the suit as frivolous from the outset.

24 ben tillman 05.28.07 at 10:24 am

“If you are driving drunk and speeding and inattentive don’t you think that makes you responsible for an accident that occurs?”

Absolutely not. You are responsible only if your negligence causes the collision.

25 gitarcarver 05.29.07 at 12:38 am

There aren’t that many ways in which someone who’s driving responsibly and attentively hits a median wall hard enough to leave his car undrivable in the left lane of traffic.

One of those ways would be to have another car come into your lane, forcing you off the road into the median wall, resulting in your car coming to rest in the left lane and unable to move.

In fact, that is what happened here.

Secondly, no one has alleged that the driver of the car was intoxicated or talking on a cell phone. We know for a fact that Hancock was.

Thirdly, it is important to note that the suit alleges that Hancock was served drinks at the restaurant and became intoxicated “involuntarily.” This accusation is important because Missouri has a statute that prevents frivilous suits like this unless the intoxicated driver became intoxicated against his will.

Think of it this way: imagine that two drunk drivers hit each other.

Which would be an interesting discussion for another thread. As it does not apply to this case, it is an attempt to move the goalposts without regards to the facts.

26 Charles 05.29.07 at 4:42 pm

I blame Charles Darwin.

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