Stella Case No. 057, Originally Published: 25 June 2003
Amy Woods, 14, and a friend were crossing the street in Springfield, Mass. Roger O’Neil, a Nynex telephone repairman, saw her cross the first two lanes of traffic. Fearing the girls might step right in front of him, he stopped his van so they could pass by. Indeed, aren’t we all taught to stop for pedestrians?
Postal clerk Jeffrey Felix was taking his wife to the bookstore. He didn’t see either girl until he hit Amy. “It looked like she jumped on my hood,” he said.
Amy was severely injured. Seven years later, she is unable to take care of herself, walk or even communicate. She lives in a rehabilitation hospital.
Because Amy was crossing in front of the van, Felix was unable to see her until she popped out in front of him — without looking, witnesses say. Yet Amy’s parents, Kay and Gary Woods, sued him anyway. The case against Felix has already been settled.
End of the story? Not when there are other pools of money lying around!
Nynex, now part of Verizon, is a big company with big pockets. But just a second: Nynex repairman O’Neil stopped for Amy! How could he or his employer have any portion of the blame for what happened to her? Because, her parents claim, he waved at Amy to cross in front of him.
O’Neil says no, he absolutely did not motion to Amy to cross, let alone somehow communicate that she could step into the next lane without looking. The driver behind him says he saw O’Neil wave the girls by, but he, from his poor vantage point, is the only witness to report it.
Even if he did wave her by, how does that make him responsible for her safety for the duration of her crossing? Does that mean that every time any driver — you, for instance — motions to another that you are taking responsibility for what happens when they move forward without looking?
By their lawsuit, Kay and Gary Woods certainly seem to think so.
Massachusetts Superior Court Judge C. Brian McDonald threw the lawsuit out, saying there was no evidence Amy saw O’Neil wave her along or, if she had, that she “relied” on it to reasonably believe it was safe to continue on.
But the State Appeals Court overturned McDonald’s decision. “We cannot rule as a matter of law that his signal to the girls could only be interpreted as allowing them to pass in front of his van or that his duty to the girls extended no further than the front of his van,” wrote Appeals Court Justice Scott J. Kafker in his opinion. The court has ordered the lower court to let a jury decide the issue.
Obviously the accident was tragic; that’s not the issue. This is: waving a driver or pedestrian along is a courtesy. It indicates to them that you see them and you’re letting them go before you go. It does not mean that you vouch for every other driver on the road, nor does it mean they don’t have to watch where they’re going.
The Woods want to take that courtesy away. If they win, drivers would be insane to take on such a responsibility for anyone, adult or child. Out goes courtesy; in comes “everyone for themselves” — a legal reinforcement of selfishness. That turns Amy’s tragedy into society’s tragedy.
- “Jury to Decide Liability in Accident”, Boston Globe, 22 June 2003.
The appeals court decision is easily available online, but the obvious next question is, “Then what happened?” The problem is, I find no other mentions after that. No jury trial coverage, no decision, no settlement. Obviously, something became of the case, but I was not able to find out what.
Meanwhile, what was Nynex (New York/New England EXchange) is now part of Verizon.
My 2021 Thoughts on the Case
While the lesson some may take from this case is don’t wave pedestrians to cross in front of you, remember that O’Neil was adamant that he did not do so. It still really seems a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of case.
A bit of extra detail, from the appeal: “O’Neil was not negligent in stopping as he was required to slow his vehicle and yield pursuant to” by Mass. General Laws Chapter 90, § 14, the Superior Court judge ruled (emphasis added). Again, tragic, but I just don’t see O’Neil as responsible for this incident.
The case of a woman suing because she was not allowed to proselytize on a county transit bus — and was “escorted” off when she refused to stop — brought quite a bit of mail. And the vast majority of it expressed the same opinion from different angles. Some samples:
Laura in Tennessee: “As a saved by the grace of God bible believing Christian, I must say she was behaving in a most unchristian manner. First, I don’t think God wants us to force people to believe in Him. Second, that was a very bad display of rudeness. In the book of I Corinthians, we are told to not sue our brothers in court. I think if the driver asks you to sit down, you should. You also should not sue the county for punishing your bad behavior.”
Josh, location not given: “The lady who is suing because being escorted of the bus is humiliating needs to get a reality check. I just spent two years as a missionary doing similar work. And you know what would have happened if a bus driver asked me to stop proselyting on a bus? I’d stop, because he’s right. Yes, I have a right to free speech, but other people also have a right to not listen. By proselytizing on a bus (or in a stadium, or any event) I am robbing them of that right, because they can’t leave. Remember, I HAVE RIGHTS! But so does everyone else, so that lady needs to find a new method.”
Linda in Wisconsin: “The women is obviously not reading her own literature. The beatitudes in the 5th chapter of Matthew speak of persecution. Other places tell of turning the other cheek. Paul writes of rejoicing in his trials. I’ve not found any verses advising one to sue those who persecute you. She is not acting according to the Biblical teaching she is passing out claims to espouse.” Mike in Missouri: “Regardless of whether her first amendment rights were violated, I think Ms Anderson is wrong to sue. As a Christian, I think she makes a more powerful witness by gracefully accepting the ‘humiliation’ of being thrown off the bus. (After all, far worse things have been done to Christian proselytizers through the centuries.) Though he could be argumentative, contentious and a bit hot-headed, I don’t think the apostle Paul would have resorted to the courts to make his point.”
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