Laying blame for money: It's legal way of life

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 29, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the legal section of the Daily Record newspaper comes maybe my favorite headline of the year, to this point: "Cooked Cat, Spanked Secretary Make '92 Bad Year for Maryland Bar's Image."

And yet, even with its hint here of every reporter's dream -- juicy stories that are just short of being libelous -- there is also a certain misleading quality to the headline.

It implies all the wrong things that lead to lawyers' having such a low public image that it actually approaches that of journalists. It's not the microwaved cat or the lawyer who spanked his secretary, though we'll get to those in a moment. These incidents, after all, could happen in any profession and not just one that fuels itself by turning neighbors against each other.

Remember the Harford County attorney, last January, who microwaved a cat to death? Terrible, of course. But it's strictly coincidence that the guy was an attorney.

Same thing with the spankings. This Easton attorney was charged with taking some former clients and a secretary over his knee and spanking them. But the lawyer part's strictly an aside. We'd be snickering even if the guy were as professionally honorable as a newspaper columnist.

Where the Daily Record headline misses its point is this: '92 is a bad year for attorneys because they keep doing things to make us dislike them as part of their jobs.

In this spirit, we come to the case of Tawana Hammond, a nice young lady by all accounts who has had a three-year run of bad luck and guidance, now culminating in a lawsuit intended to undo all her troubles.

On Aug. 25, 1989, when she was 16, Tawana decided she wanted to play football for Francis Scott Key High School in Carroll County. At 145 pounds, she wanted to play fullback.

"Yeah, I know, it sounds a little light," said William Hyde, assistant superintendent of administration for Carroll County schools. "I was a big, fat fullback myself. . . . I think we still had leather helmets in those days."

Things change, including our notions of sexual equality. Somebody gave Tawana Hammond the idea she could play football with the boys. She showed up for summer conditioning drills, then suited up when Key scrimmaged with Brooklyn Park High, in Anne Arundel County.

On a running play, she was tackled, fell to the ground and stayed there for long moments, then walked off the field on her own. That night, in pain, she was rushed to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center with a damaged pancreas and spleen.

She stayed in the hospital for four months and had medical bills around $100,000.

Three years later, Hammond's attorneys, William Kurtz and Daniel Green, filed suit on her behalf, asking $1.5 million from Carroll County. Last week, the county said it would fight it in court. Neither Kurtz nor Green returned two days of telephone calls.

"It's a very sensitive issue," William Hyde said. "Here's this strong, fast, aggressive girl who's entering the last bastion of male supremacy. We have a responsibility not to put the kid at risk, but the family has a responsibility, too. Look, there's risk with every kid who comes to school and wrestles, plays balls, or walks."

Here's the rub: Tawana's lawsuit says Carroll County's at fault because nobody warned her of the physical dangers involved in playing football.

Everyone knows the dangers of playing organized football. Let's drop the pretense. Tawana's problem is medical coverage. The county doesn't allow kids to play without insurance, but Tawana's father dropped off the insurance money literally minutes after his daughter was tackled. The insurance people say: Too late.

What happened to Tawana is terrible. What's happened to the American mind-set is also terrible: When something bad happens, we look for somebody to blame.

Forget the microwaved cats and the spanking, which could happen to jerks in any profession. This business of blaming for money is the real trouble we have with lawyers.

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