Whenever I attend a social function, people invariably ask, "Mike, what kind of law do you practice?" Next comes the awkward pause when I have to tell them that the majority of my practice consists of wrongful death and catastrophic personal injury cases. People have a natural interest in the topic, but there are always at least a few who express skepticism about my work. For all the folks who politely nod and imagine how they would deal with a job that brought them into daily contact with people who have lost loved ones under sudden, violent circumstances, there is a small, cynical subset that asks, "What good does money do the family if their loved one is already dead? No matter how much you get for them, it can't possibly bring back the person they've lost." I feel that remarks like these miss the point of what I do.
What many who think this way fail to realize about the law, and what's difficult for me to effectively convey in the spur of the moment, is that the overwhelming majority of family members pursuing wrongful death cases aren't terribly concerned about the money itself. They're hurting, know that someone's careless or reckless behavior caused that pain, and want those responsible to pay for what they've done. To be blunt, they just want the accountability that money represents.
Not that long ago (little more than a century ago here in Texas), that accountability would have come in the form of blood feuds between rival families, but our modern sensibilities and justice system force us to seek redress through financial means instead. In short, victims settle for money, because it's the only form of punishment our civil courts can inflict.
In my experience, what people least understand (and quite honestly, what I pray they never have to) is how immeasurably devastating it can be losing a loved one to a senseless, random act, like a drunk driving crash. By talking a bit about a case we're currently litigating, I hope I can give you some small idea of just how painful that loss can be and why, even if money can't bring anyone back, it's still important to hold wrong-doers accountable.
A Death in the Family
Picture the scene: a vibrant young man is driving to his early-morning shift as a maintenance technician at an oilfield services company near Midland. He converses with his mom and dad over the car's speakerphone, the same way he does during every morning commute. The conversation goes on as it has hundreds of time before, when suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the young man screams. His last words to his parents are that another car is in his lane and coming right at him. Before his parents even have time to comprehend what's going on, the call ends.
Think about that for a second: one moment you're on the phone with your loved one, and the next, you have no way of knowing what happened to them. Are they dead or alive? Think about the helpless feeling of not even being able to call for an ambulance, because you don't know exactly where they were when the call ended. You fear that the worst may have happened to them, but at the same time, something inside of you holds out hope that maybe things will be alright, maybe you'll get another call from them.
Put yourself in their shoes for the long, anxious hours that pass as they get into their car and make the drive from Austin to Midland, not knowing what they'll find when they arrive. Is there a longer, more difficult 5 1/2 hour drive?
You finally arrive, only to discover that you've lost, not just your child, but your only child. You're in your 50s, with no one left to take care of you when you're old, spend Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Mother's Day with, or carry on your legacy. All of the hope, dreams, and effort that you'd invested in your son have just been swept away forever.
After enduring every parents' greatest fear come true, there's not really anything that can make it better, but there are certainly circumstances that can make things worse. It's one thing to lose a child to a freak event, like a tire blowout, but it's quite another to lose your child to a drunk driver, which is what authorities told the family happened in this case, 5 1/2 hours after their last call with him abruptly ended. To make matters worse, it appears that a bar, licensed by the state to not serve intoxicated patrons, had failed in that duty. Their law-breaking played a role in your child's death.
It's Not About Money, It's About Justice
This case, and the hundreds more that I've litigated, fill my thoughts anytime someone says that what I do is "all about the money." What I'd really like to do in these situations, if good manners allowed me to, is to tell folks these stories and ask them, "What do you want parents who lose their only child to a drunk driver to do?"
Do we pat these people on the back and tell them, "We're sorry someone screwed up, broke the law, and killed your child, but there's nothing you can do?" Hundreds of years ago, we would have rounded up a group of friends and meted out rough justice to the person who wronged them. Is that the kind of world we want to live in? Society has been down that road and it's not pretty.
Again, it's rare that I have a client who is only interested in money. To be quite frank, many of my clients are really after closure and accountability. Simply put, someone's carelessness took their loved one before their time and they want the community to publicly declare that they were wronged and impose a fair cost on the wrong-doer. That's the justice they seek.
Those who criticize people who file wrongful death suits by suggesting that they're motivated by the desire for easy money rarely consider that, as a society, we've made winning a financial judgement many people's only way to obtain justice. It's rather perverse, when a community passes laws under which money is the only available form of justice, for members of that same community to mock the people who pursue the only legal avenue left open to them. That's why it gets under my skin when someone suggests that a wrongful death lawsuit is all about money.
Of course, I wouldn't want anyone to take a moment's thought for my ruffled feathers, but I do think that people who insist that "lawsuits are all about money" should take a moment to think about whether or not they would be willing to say the same thing to a couple that lost their only child in a drunk driving crash. When you spend as much time as I have with the victims of these senseless acts, you come to understand, as I have, that obtaining justice and accountability is far important than money.