078: End Run

Stella Case No. 078, Originally Published: 18 August 2004

Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs football team was good. As a linebacker, he helped the team win plenty of games, and was well on his way to smashing various records. In his first year with the Chiefs, for instance, he sacked opposing quarterbacks 10 times. In his second year, he doubled that number. When asked how he did it, he’d simply reply with a smile, “Speed kills.”

As a person, he gave a lot back to his community. Chiefs president Carl Peterson remembers how Thomas would collect money each year for food drives for the needy. “He would go around the locker room and demand money from his teammates — at least $100, usually more,” Peterson says. “Then he’d come into my office and say, ‘What will the Chiefs do to match this?’ We’d negotiate, because he loved to negotiate, and we’d decide on how much the Chiefs were going to give. And then he’d say, ‘OK, Father, we know what the Chiefs are going to do. Now, what are you going to do?’”

Peterson calls Thomas “the son I never had.”

Thomas at work.
Thomas at work. (Images of Thomas: the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)

A quick annual holiday fundraiser wasn’t all, of course. Thomas’ father had been killed in Vietnam, so he knew the pain of being fatherless. He spent lots of time with kids, helping them learn how to read so that they, too, could break out of the inner city and get to a better life.

Once, during a game against Denver, Thomas got angry, “blowing up” during the game, and was suspended. Rather than blame others, he held a press conference and addressed “the youth of America who look up to Derrick Thomas” and urged them not to make the same mistake he did. The kind of role model sports stars should be, but often aren’t.

In January 2000, Thomas was driving in his car, a large Chevy Suburban sport utility, on Interstate 435 in a Kansas City snow storm. There were ice patches on the road. Witnesses say he was driving too fast. Thomas lost control and rolled the SUV. His friend and assistant, Michael Tellis, was thrown out of the vehicle and killed. Thomas was also thrown out; he landed in oncoming traffic lanes and was left partly paralyzed. Neither had been wearing a seat belt; a third passenger in the back seat was wearing a seat belt and suffered only minor injuries.

In the hospital, Thomas was making progress toward recovery. Two weeks after the accident, however, a blood clot killed him. He was just 33.

“Damnit, D, you had it all, man,” editorialized Topeka sportswriter Rick Dean. “If only you’d just slowed down a little!” Or had been wearing a seat belt.

Another good guy cut down in a senseless tragedy, perhaps complicated by risk-taking speeds and the lack of a seat belt. That’s how everyone saw it. Everyone, that is, except his mother.

Edith Morgan, Thomas’ mother, said her son died because his SUV’s roof was not strong enough to take the weight of the massive vehicle when it rolled over. It collapsed 8–10 inches, breaking his neck, she says. Morgan — on behalf of herself, Thomas’ estate, and the five mothers of his seven children — sued General Motors, the SUV’s manufacturer; the Metropolitan Ambulance Services Trust, the non-profit ambulance company that tried to save his life; and Royal Chevrolet of Harrisonville, Mo., the dealer that sold Thomas the vehicle.

The suit, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court by attorney Gary C. Robb, claimed wrongful death. It said the vehicle’s roof was defective and the ambulance workers were negligent. The dealer? Who knows what they did wrong by selling Thomas the vehicle he wanted.

During trial, several facts emerged:

  • The Suburban’s vehicle class exempts it from federal roof crush standards. However, Suburbans exceeded that standard anyway.
  • Accident reconstruction experts testified that Thomas was thrown out of the vehicle’s passenger window before the roof collapsed. He couldn’t have been thrown out after it collapsed, they said, since the window opening would then have been too small for the linebacker to go through it.
  • There was no blood or other evidence that Thomas’ neck was broken inside the vehicle by the collapsed roof. Defense experts say Thomas broke his neck by tumbling along the highway for 50 feet after being thrown from the vehicle.
  • A traffic engineer calculated that Thomas had been driving somewhere between 63 and 73 mph when he lost control. The posted speed limit was 70 mph but, again, Thomas was driving in a snow storm on icy roads. (Plaintiff attorney Michael Piuze countered that the expert he had hired said Thomas was going at most 58 mph. As if that was a safe speed in a icy snow storm.)

Before the trial started, the non-profit ambulance service settled for $100,000 and was dropped from the suit. The Chevy dealer that sold the SUV also settled; the amount it paid was not reported.

In closing arguments, Piuze, the family’s trial attorney, pleaded with the jurors to remember Thomas’ charity work. He reminded them of his children, asking “What’s it like not to have a daddy?” Then, reporters say, “Almost whispering to the jury,” he urged the panel to award at least $75 million, perhaps more than $100 million, in damages, avoiding a top figure because “he did not want to put an upper limit on it.”

Piuze is a bit of a specialist in rollover crash cases, having taken four of them to trial, three against GM. He won every one of them.

In response, General Motors’ attorney John Hickey urged the jurors to consider personal responsibility. Thomas was going too fast and wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Evidence showed his neck was not broken by the collapsed roof — the roof that actually exceeded federal standards, even though it was not required to even meet them. “General Motors did absolutely nothing wrong,” he said. Rather, Thomas “was driving faster than anyone else on the road and cutting in and out of traffic,” even in the face of worsening road conditions.

With that, the jurors started their deliberations.

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There’s the evidence. So how would you, as a member of the Court of Public Opinion, rule in the case? You can find either side 100 percent at fault, or assign a percentage of the blame to General Motors and their co-defendants.

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After deliberating for five hours over two days, the jury found Thomas was entirely at fault, not even finding GM partially responsible for his injuries and resulting death. The vote was 10-2 against his mother, Edith Morgan. (Missouri’s constitution requires a two-thirds majority of the jury to decide civil trials, rather than a unanimous verdict.)

“The quality of the car made the jury open to what happened and maybe helped them put Thomas’ celebrity status aside,” said GM’s attorney, John Hickey.

“I’m disappointed, because I felt so strongly about the rollovers,” Morgan said. She said she would continue to press for improved roof strength standards.

Attorney Michael Piuze said pretrial publicity was at least in part to blame for the failed suit, in that many of the articles about Thomas’ death noted he was driving too fast and not wearing a seat belt. He said the message of the case is: wear seat belts.

Bull! The message delivered loud and clear by the jury is that people need to be held responsible for their own actions, and they — or their survivors — don’t deserve nine-figure windfalls when they drive like idiots, even if they are normally very nice people who worked hard to help others. Thomas killed himself accidentally — and, not incidentally, he killed his friend. Why should General Motors be responsible for that? The obvious answer: they shouldn’t.

Meanwhile, consider the ambulance company, which surely did nothing wrong. It either had to cough up $100,000 plus legal expenses, or its insurance company did. Who can blame them for not wanting to take the risk that a sympathetic jury would sock it to them in a case of a fallen home-town hero? But no matter who paid its gigantic bill to get dropped from the case, the non-profit organization certainly suffered a setback in its efforts to serve the citizens in and around Kansas City.

Thomas’ death is a sad waste of his potential, both as a ball player and as a human. And the greedy struggle to hold someone else responsible for his actions was a similar, sad waste.

It took four and a half years after the accident to get the case concluded.

Sources

  • “Days of Testimony Detail Seconds of Fatal Crash,” Kansas City Star, 12 August 2004.
  • “Jury Deliberates Thomas Lawsuit,” Kansas City Star, 17 August 2004.
  • “GM Prevails in Thomas Family Suit,” Kansas City Star, 18 August 2004.
  • Various background articles from the “Chiefs Zone” web site, produced by the Topeka Capital-Journal newspaper.

Case Status

As noted, dismissed with zero award. This case was 2004’s 4th runner-up.

My 2021 Thoughts on the Case

Thomas is considered one of the greatest pass rushers of all time. He was posthumously inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2001, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014. The Chiefs retired his number, 58, and named their Player of the Year Award after him (he won it twice himself).

He left a legacy of personal responsibility, wonderfully demonstrated by addressing the kids who looked up to him after “blowing up” during a game, telling the children not to make the same mistake he did. That’s part of being an excellent role model — the kind of responsibility that harkened back to his father, a U.S. Air Force pilot with the rank of Captain.

And his mother stained both of their memories by trying to get someone else to pay for her son’s critical mistake while driving. The 33-year-old professional athlete made the all-too-human mistake of feeling invincible, and he — and his friend — died because of it.

Morgan could have held a press conference warning of the foolishness of driving like an obliviot in bad weather conditions, and perhaps saved lives by prompting those kids to think when they got behind the wheel, spinning it around his own words: “Speed kills.”

Morgan not only threw that opportunity away, she instead taught them a terrible lesson. Thankfully, she didn’t get away with it.

Comments and Letters

Last week’s case was Yet Another Baseball case. (No, I don’t go looking for those! It just seems that “America’s Pastime” — baseball — is in a culture clash with “America’s New Pastime” — suing.)

Douglas, who didn’t say where he’s from, was one of the few to comment: “I’ve played softball since my mid-20s (I’m now in my 40s). I’ve violated the ‘Pete Rose Rule’ once myself and was promptly ejected (the only time I’ve ever been ejected — I have a reputation as being very cool-headed on the field as a player and a coach). I’ve seen the PRR violated a couple of other times, in different parks, and an ejection followed every violation. The fact that the guy wasn’t ejected would have been enough to convince me if I had been sitting on the jury (but that probably would have disqualified me as being prejudicial, eh?)”

Derek in New Mexico: “I liked your [editorial] about how the problem is systemic and multi-factored. I strongly disagree with Kevin the lawyer’s comment [about how a frivolous case failed in court], ‘This is a portrait of the American civil justice system at its finest.’ I would call it a portrait of one time when the system was marginally adequate. I think a part of the problem with our system is the many good lawyers who are satisfied, even enthusiastic, about the all-too-rare moments when the system doesn’t produce gross, direct injustice. They have their faith in the system by cases such as this, and many seem to be generally complacent as a result. As you mention, the indirect costs and burdens on all of us remain, even if the eventual verdict is in the right direction.”

I editorialized: “We as a society must stop looking the other way when ridiculous suits are filed. We must take a stand and tell the litigants it’s not right. When a truly frivolous suit is filed, there must be real and meaningful sanctions against the plaintiffs involved — and, often, their lawyers.”

Burt in California replies: “In principle, I agree completely. In practice, I really have no idea how to have any real impact on the situation. You are doing an admirable job of spreading the word about the problem, but I lack your skills in this particular department. I have told friends about my own Stella Award-style encounter with the court system. As you might expect, they all commiserate and say how bad things are, but that doesn’t really change anything. I have personally talked two people out of suing in the past, so maybe that is a help, but a really tiny one if so. Do you have any concrete suggestions for what we ‘ordinary, non-lawyer citizens’ can do to really change the system?”

Burt, you have done exactly what I was suggesting! You’ve talked to others about your own legal situation and theirs. You apparently listened to the stories of more than one person, and then gave your opinion about their “cases,” and ended up talking two people out of filing frivolous suits. That is, indeed, just what I was talking about: keep your ears open, find out what others are thinking, and give your opinion.

Sometimes the advice will be “Yeah: you were really wronged! I agree that if they don’t make it right, you should sue.” And that’s OK: that’s what the courts are there for. But when they’re saying their son was speeding through a snow storm and not wearing a seat belt, and they’re thinking about suing for $100 million, you can again tell them what you think of their contemplated action. You don’t have to create a publication, or make speeches. Grassroots efforts like yours are in fact very, very effective — as you found out. And good for you.

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5 Comments on “078: End Run

  1. Great take. Derrick passed a few months before I moved to Kansas City, and I’ve always struggled with the narrative around his tragic death. He demonstrated great characteristics in the field, and at times in the community. But I’ve always thought he also sometimes was careless off the field, and his accident is a microcosm of that. Great loss to Kansas City, no question. Greater because it was not necessarily necessary.

    Reply
  2. He is also revered in Alabama where he played at University. Of all the great players to ever wear Crimson in Tuscaloosa, Derrick Thomas is still considered one of the top-two to ever come through. (Cornelius Bennett is the other one.)

    Such a tragic loss.

    Reply
  3. I was waiting and waiting… and I *knew* you couldn’t have overlooked the punchline.

    And then, there it was.

    I’m not sure what you’re referring to. The “Speed Kills” part? -rc

    Reply
    • Yup; that’s not obviously the punchline?

      I knew it was going to be the punchline when I heard it, even before I heard how he died.

      In fact, as soon as I heard he *had* died, I knew how.

      I just didn’t think of it as a punchline is all. -rc

      Reply
  4. If I sue you and I win, you will pay me.
    If I sue you and I lose, I can walk away as if nothing has happened.
    Is this just, especially in merit-less cases that have caused untold anguish and vast expense?
    A penalty in such suits would surely encourage people to think twice.

    Reply

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