Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Assigning Blame for Bluffton

The NTSB has finally come out with its report regarding the March 2007 bus crash that killed five Bluffton University baseball players, the bus' driver and his wife:

Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board say confusing highway signs, driver error and a lack of passenger safety features contributed to the deaths of five college baseball players in an Atlanta bus crash last year . . .

. . . Investigators said the bus driver thought he was getting on an HOV lane when he drove onto an elevated exit ramp, plowing through a stop sign at highway speed and hurtling from an overpass onto the interstate below . . .

. . . NTSB investigator Dave Rayburn said Georgia officials changed the layout of the signs after having trouble with their mounting. The change deviated from federal guidance about placement of certain exit signs to make them more clear, he said, but the change did not amount to a violation of federal regulations, which allow for some exceptions. Rayburn said nine accidents have occurred at the site between 1997 and 2007, including three fatal collisions. The drivers in all of the crashes were from outside the Atlanta area.

NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker called it "an accident that didn't have to happen."

Last year, after survivors and victims' families filed lawsuits over the crash, I waxed philosophical about the human need to assign blame in situations like these. I noted how our legal system, despite doing the best it can, is incapable of healing wounds, is hamfisted when it comes to punishing certain types of misdeeds, and is wholly incompetent in assigning meaning to life's tragedies. This is the case even when the wrongdoers are blatantly obvious, but it's especially true when blame is, at best, an ambiguous matter.

Which seems to be the case here. Based on the NTSB report, any number of things could have prevented this accident. The highway could have been marked better. The driver could have paid greater attention. The bus could have been made of stronger materials. It didn't happen that way, however, and seven people died.

Based on their statements, the families of the victims are still angry and still wounded and I can't say that I blame them. I'd probably feel the same way. I just hope that they're not expending all of their energy on litigation and investigation and remediation and all of the other 'ations which are part and parcel to our legal system. A legal system that, while it has ways of allocating damages in these situations, does so in a way that is wholly unsatisfying to just about everyone. The end of the 'ations in this instance will be unsatisfying as well, no matter how long they go on and which direction they ultimately lead.

Last year these thoughts led me to the conclusion that the problem isn't a system incapable of rationally addressing tragedy as much as it is our own problem for feeling like we can address tragedy rationally in the first place. I still feel the same way. Rationality plays little or no role when the death of a loved one is involved. Neither does the fantasy known as "closure."

It is my hope, therefore, that as the Bluffton survivors await the next deposition and next court date, as they await the next public hearing during which they can address the safety of bus windows or the proper marking of roads, they're taking the time to do less, well, rational things. I hope they are spending as much time as possible searching for the perspective necessary to accept life without their sons and brothers. I hope they aren't becoming consumed with punishing people for allegedly taking those sons away in the first place.

Ultimately it is my hope that as time goes on, they're moving forward more than they're looking back.


tadthebad said...

Heavy stuff, man. It is strange how we as a culture attempt to find peace by going through the judicial system in order to establish blame. In the end, assigning responsibility generally does not make it any better b/c, as you alluded to, the loss persists forever. There is no closure.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

It's easy for you to see the larger picture and say they should move on, gain perspective and not become embittered. But you aren't the one who lost a son/brother/grandson/etc. Your blog is terrific generally but unless you've been in their shoes at some point in your life, I think it's unhelpful and somewhat inappropriate for you to offer this kind of advice.


Craig Calcaterra said...

Anon -- I'm not offering any advice. I said in the post that if I were in their shoes I'd probably be doing the same.

I have in my career seen how litigation and affiliated activities fails time after time to bring the peace that people need. In light of that, I am offering my hope that, as they do what they feel they need to do, they are also searching for alternative ways to find peace.

That's all. Nothing else. No judgment here.

Ethan said...

Lovely. Really well felt, and well said.

David said...

Craig, couldn't agree more.

As a fellow lawyer, I've seen plenty of folks use litigation as a means to assuage feelings of hurt/anger/sadness/revenge. Never once have I seen any of these people satisfied emotionally with the outcome of a case.

RoyceTheBaseballHack said...

I'll add my thanks for your observations on this, Craig. Nicely done. Ironically, I had literally just left the office of a colleague where we were discussing the recent death of her 35 year old brother, right before I read this. Tragically, he suffered from Cerebral Palsy. She spoke at length about his life and how, while his death ended his suffering, his family will carry the burden of it for the rest of theirs. My point is that there is no way a Jury and 10 million or 100 million dollars would ever ease that in their hearts, mush less erase it. The peace they need will manifest itself to everyone in his family differently, but I have serious reservations that it could ever be routed through a bank.