038: Pursuing a Deep Pocket

Stella Case No. 035, Originally Published: 19 February 2003

Police in Clemson, S.C., received a report that a man in a vehicle had tried to run down a pedestrian near an apartment building. When officers arrived they spotted Ron Brown, 23, racing away from the scene. They gave chase, but Brown refused to pull over.

Obviously not Brown’s crash: there isn’t a photo of that. But driving off an unfinished highway bridge was a plot point in the 1980 smash (see what I did there?!) film, The Blues Brothers. For comic effect, they used a skycrane helicopter to lift the “White Power” Ford Pinto to 1200 ft and dropped it in Chicago. And yes, that’s comic actor Henry Gibson of Laugh-In fame as the head Nazi. Just before they hit the ground the driver tells him, “I’ve always loved you.” (Definitely click to see this one larger!)

With police hot on his tail during the 4:00 a.m. pursuit, Brown drove into a construction area — and drove off the end of a bridge under construction. He was killed in the resulting crash. No police car ever hit him: he crashed completely from his own actions after choosing his own escape path.

But his father, Bob Brown, has filed a wrongful death suit against:

  • The City of Clemson, whose police chased his son and “forced” him to drive into a “dangerous construction zone.”
  • The Thrift Brothers Construction Co., which did not anticipate the need to have sufficient signs and barriers to stop a crazed man who was fleeing the police at high speed.
  • The South Carolina Department of Transportation, for failing to properly “inspect and supervise” the construction company working on the highway bridge.
  • The apartment complex where the chase started.
  • The apartment complex employee who called the police in the first place.

So there’s a great way to set public policy: anyone who sees a potential crime occurring, say someone trying to run a pedestrian down, they shouldn’t call the police to report it because they might be sued for appealing for help?

The father’s suit asks for unspecified “actual and punitive damages.” By running from the police, Ron was trying to escape responsibility for his own actions. Gee… where do you suppose he learned a lesson like that?

Source

  • “Clemson, State DOT are Sued: Father Files Lawsuit over Son’s Deadly Police Chase,” Anderson Independent-Mail, 1 October 2002

Case Status

It’s difficult to find lawsuit filings when the plaintiff is Bob Brown (or maybe even Robert Brown), and indeed I didn’t find any mention of the case whatever, not even the original newspaper report.

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

I have to believe the case was thrown out, at the very least the ridiculous attempt to spread the blame so widely. The bad precedent that would make, as I alluded to in the conclusion, would be breathtaking. The police didn’t “force” Brown to drive off the end of an unfinished bridge: they wanted him to stop. His decision not to was exactly that: his decision.

And yes, I certainly did have fun putting that Blues Brothers montage together! They actually had to get a special permit from the FAA for the stunt, which was issued only after they did a test-drop to prove the car would go straight down, and not drift laterally and maybe hit a building. Which, you know, might result in a lawsuit! Here’s the scene:

Letters and Comments

Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric, one of the largest corporations on the planet, was in Denver this morning. I figured this was my best opportunity to talk to him, so I popped down there. (He name-dropped that he “spent 30 minutes with Secretary [of State Colin] Powell” yesterday, which establishes him at a certain position in the pecking order. By contrast, Immelt gave me 30 seconds….)

Anyway, my question for him was: is the level of frivolous lawsuits against GE up to a point where he has to pay attention to it, and how does he deal with them? His reply: “Oh yes, and it bothers me a lot. I don’t think we’ll get a massive tort reform through [Congress] — the politics are just too involved. It has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, such as asbestos.” (Congress is working on legislation to stem asbestos lawsuits — now that virtually every company that was ever part of the asbestos business has been bankrupted by lawsuits.)

On the other hand, in response to someone else’s question, he stressed very hard that “in America, consumers power the economy.” My corollary to that: “in America, voters power politics.” It is clear to me that to get Congress to address lawsuit reform, consumers — voters — need to force the issue. TSA is one of the voices that leads the charge, but to do that more people need to pay attention to the problem.

About the case of the high school student (and son of a lawyer) who sued the school for not recording the A+ grade his mother gave him for “work experience” in her office, but rather recorded a mere “A” as per its long-standing policy, brought several letters.

Brand in Texas: “I have to wonder if this kid really earned his A. Taking a class where your mom is doing the grading seems a little dubious to me. And, given how much that grade apparently mattered to this kid’s mom, how objective could she be when grading him? The whole thing stinks, and I applaud that school board for doing the right thing. And it had to be a difficult choice, because they must have known what would happen when they crossed a lawyer.”

I don’t think we can ever know whether he earned that A or not, but the school board indeed knew they were facing a legal threat when they decided not to make a rule change to let the kid have the A+.

Amy in Michigan: “I’m 17 years old, and I don’t live very far from the school that Brian goes to. Getting ready for college myself, I still do not understand why some of my peers are so obsessed with their grades. It is obvious that they will get into the college of their choice anyway. My school also does not recognize the A+ grade. I don’t think that suing the school district shows maturity on Brian’s part. I think it makes him look more like a whiney little kid. What college would want to accept a kid that might sue it over his grades?”

I think Amy is a lot smarter and more mature than …uh… some other high school kids.

Last, there was also a response to a letter from Tom, a lawyer in Washington who ranted that I was “a bunch of idiots [sic] instead of a voice of reason” because I pointed out that asbestos does have positive uses.

Marsha in Colorado: “I knew there was a problem when I read Tom started his complaint with: ‘You know, as a lawyer, I have enjoyed your good-natured poking of fun at the legal system.’ How condescending. As a charter subscriber I have never thought of your newsletter as an attempt to poke fun at the legal system. You present serious, fact-based cases that illustrate abuses of the legal system. The ‘fun’ aspect is supplied by the idiotic circumstances under which some attorneys accept cases. Give my best to Tom — obviously a founding member of the ‘Doesn’t Get It’ club.”

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3 Comments on “038: Pursuing a Deep Pocket

  1. I think that if it happened today, there would be rioting and looting going on following this incident, depending on the race of the “victim”.

    Regarding the asbestos case, during the 80’s and 90’s I worked on a device that was part of the Space Shuttle (the fuel cells). It is a battery-like device that generates electricity from hydrogen and oxygen in an environment that goes from normal gravity to launch acceleration to no gravity. Asbestos was used in making the “cells” that were the heart of the system. We had a special arrangement with the government to use it at the time. So yes, there were definitely positive uses of asbestos.

    Incidentally, I never heard of anyone who was involved having asbestos related issues, but I am pretty sure there were deaths that were due to the nickel powder and catalysts that were also used in the process.

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  2. Amazing this was in 2003, I would more suspect this to happen today in our crazy world. This is a prime example of ‘lack of personal responsibility’ on both parts of the father and son. And yes, a lack of common sense on parts of the son, and more so that father. The worst part is that fact that a lawyer even TOOK the case or the time to put it together. Amazing. The lawyer HAD to know there was NO chance any of it would ever succeed, but was doing it for the money. Ethics = 0. Common Sense = 0, and finally, Morality = 0.

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