Hancock lawsuit puts blame in all the incorrect places


May 26, 2007|By Bryan Burwell


From his customary open-air perch high above the Busch Stadium playing field, Mike Shannon was putting his own folksy finishing touch on another St. Louis Cardinals broadcast Thursday afternoon. It was a beautiful day at the ballpark, full of high skies, gentle breezes and good baseball, and you could hear Shannon's unmistakable voice cackling throughout every loudspeaker in the stadium's broad corridors.

He sprinkled that familiar "Heh, hehh, hehhh," into every segment of the radio broadcast, then finished the day with a big and satisfied grin as the Cardinals completed a series sweep of the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. Shannon capped the post-game show with a few out-of-town scores, before giving a quick and pleasant sign-off to the devotees of Cardinal Nation. Yet as soon as he pulled off his headphones and slipped on his trademark black jacket, Shannon knew there was another story lingering that didn't have nearly the feel-good mood of the 3-1 victory he had just finished broadcasting.

"Naaah," he said, waving his hand like a man brushing dust off a table. "I ain't talkin' about that."

"That," of course, is the lawsuit that Josh Hancock's family has filed seeking to blame someone for the death of the Cardinals pitcher who died nearly a month ago when he plowed his sport utility vehicle into the rear of a tow truck on Interstate 64.

"That" is the story of a 29-year-old man who was drunk, speeding while not wearing a seat belt, had a tin of marijuana in the front seat, was talking on a cell phone and failed to brake before he hit the flatbed with the emergency lights flashing.

Shannon didn't want to talk about this because Hancock's family is trying to blame him, as owner of the restaurant where Hancock spent his final 3 1/2 hours, for the death. So the family is suing Shannon and his daughter, the restaurant manager who tried to persuade Hancock to take a taxi. The family also is suing the driver of the tow truck and the man whose car he was attempting to remove from the highway, in some twisted logic that tries to make all of these folks responsible for a man's self-destructive behavior.

So perhaps this is all part of some new-age grief counseling. Yes, indeed, somewhere between shock and denial, bargaining and guilt, anger and depression, acceptance and hope, there is another means of coping with the grief from losing a loved one: frivolous litigation.

When you cut right down to the most dispassionate, unvarnished and disturbing truths about this lawsuit, all his family has done is commission a fool's errand. There is no true retribution here, only the constant reminder of how Hancock's death was senseless.

Why can't Hancock's family see the disturbing irony in blaming the two people (tow truck driver Jacob Hargrove and Justin Tolar, the man whose car Hargrove was towing) who could have been killed by their intoxicated son? Are they incapable of understanding the madness in blaming Shannon's daughter, the one person we know who vainly attempted to make him take a taxi?

So why are the Shannons being portrayed as the ultimate bad guys in this sad story? Why is the lawsuit claiming that his intoxication was "involuntary," as if they were force-feeding him?

There was nothing "involuntary" about what happened on that fateful night. It was a young man who just didn't know how to say he had had enough. At any point during the night, Hancock could have said "No."

No one other than Josh Hancock is to blame for the disturbing mix of circumstances that led to his death.

In their own misguided way, maybe the Hancocks think this is doing some good. But now, instead of preserving the image everyone meticulously crafted immediately after Hancock's death, they've accomplished the opposite. Do you think all the people being sued won't defend themselves? Do you think they won't dig up any scrap of dirt, every unsavory whisper or damaging toxicology report?

And whom will the Hancocks blame then, the people who made the leather witness chairs?

Bryan Burwell writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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