Stella Case No. 065, Originally Published: 17 September 2003
Melissa Gosule called upon the American Automobile Association (now simply called “AAA”) when her car broke down on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A tow truck arrived but, when the driver learned she wanted to be towed all the way to Boston, 60 miles away, driver John Cubellis told Gosule he was too busy to be gone that long and she would have to wait three to four hours before he could take her.
He left Gosule at her car, but it was hardly in the middle of nowhere: she was in a busy parking lot surrounded by restaurants, a gas station and a fire station. But Gosule, 27, apparently decided not to wait, and instead accepted a ride from a passerby, Michael Gentile.
Eight days later, Gosule’s body was found in a shallow grave. She had been raped. Gentile was convicted of her murder.
But finding out who was responsible for Gosule’s death — and seeing him convicted and imprisoned for life — is far from enough for her parents, Leslie Gosule and Sandra Glaser, or her stepfather, Peter Glaser. “Had AAA done what they tell the world they do — provide reliable and reasonable emergency roadside assistance — Melissa would still be with us,” Leslie Gosule says. The trio filed suit against AAA; its regional organization, AAA Southern New England; and Cubellis, the tow truck driver, seeking unspecified damages.
The wrongful-death suit claims AAA, which has more than 46 million members in North America and dispatches help to about 30 million motorists per year, was “negligent” in not doing more for Gosule. “AAA is not who they say they are,” her father complains. Legal observers say it’s the first case of its kind.
Maybe there’s a reason this is the first such case: why should AAA be responsible? Gosule was an adult. When she asked for an extraordinary level of service and completed negotiations for them, she had a variety of options, including relaxing in her choice of restaurants while she waited. She made her own decisions — and one of them happened to be particularly bad: she very unfortunately trusted the wrong person.
If the case succeeds, the precedent it sets will surely spawn other cases. How much more will each of AAA’s members have to pay in annual dues to insure AAA against the bad decisions of a few of its members?
And isn’t it the parents’ job to equip their children with the tools they need to make their own decisions when they go out into the world? Is it reasonable for the parents to second-guess the decisions their children make long after reaching adulthood? Surely it’s unreasonable for us all to pay when their choices turn out to be spectacularly wrong.
It was impossible for any reasonable person to have known Gosule was in mortal danger at such a busy public place. And she wasn’t: the murder occurred elsewhere, and she left her safe haven on her own free will! Taking the responsibility for her fate out of her own hands demeans every other adult decision she ever made, turning her into something less than a competent human. Her mistake was just that: hers, not AAA’s.
- “Kin Sue AAA in Slaying of Massachusetts Woman”, Associated Press, 9 September 2003.
An extraordinary kicker came in an update: Golsule wasn’t even a member of AAA! When she broke down she called her stepfather, Peter Glaser (whom you might remember is one of the people who sued), and he’s the one who called AAA.
Yet the “Benefit Guide” for members notes that members are covered “in a [sic] eligible vehicle in which you are riding or driving.” It certainly does not cover other people in their own cars when the member isn’t even present — AAA’s guide notes that “Roadside assistance benefits are not transferable.” Yet the AAA driver went out anyway, and provided her service, and agreed to the lengthy tow. How could anyone think that AAA and the driver didn’t go far beyond the “call of service” to help this stranded motorist? And her parents still sued them?!
But on the third day of the trial AAA, not wanting the bad publicity of fighting a murder victim’s grieving parents in court, gave the parents an “undisclosed settlement” to drop the case.
Here’s an idea to reduce the outrageous abuse of courts, which you should remember are a branch of the government (and by definition, the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people” — or, if you will, “owned” by the people): once a lawsuit is filed in court, there should be no secret settlements. You want to use our courts to get justice? Fine, that’s what they’re there for. But if you want The People to enforce justice, The People should have a right to know the outcome of the action. The settlement should be part of the open court record for anyone to see.
Sadly, AAA considered it politic to settle. Awarding outrageous behavior with cash only does one thing: it encourages the same sort of behavior. By settling, insurance companies, including AAA, simply invite more of the same.
Update Source: “Family Settles Suit Against AAA, Driver”, Boston Globe, 11 September 2003.
My 2021 Thoughts on the Case
I wrote the update shortly after the case was sent out in the newsletter in 2003. Why “Sadly,” regarding the settlement? Because far too often “deep pockets” organizations choose to settle cases because it’s often much quicker, easier, and less expensive than fighting it …which is encouragement to those who file frivolous cases.
Comments and Letters
I skipped the previous week’s newsletter because I had to quickly fly to New York City twice to appear on Fox News for a whole five minutes.
I shared the stage with a judge who was there to provide commentary on one of the cases TSA covered some time back (the people suing fast food chains for not “warning” them a diet consisting solely of burgers and fries wasn’t healthy). The latest attempt to push that suit through got thrown out of court in a stunning victory for common sense and personal responsibility. The judge, Fox commentator Andrew Napolitano, was a tad cold to me at first, but before the show came back from commercial he asked me if I was a lawyer. “No,” I told him, “that’s why I don’t wear a tie.” The very well-dressed judge laughed and warmed right up and, after he heard what TSA was doing, told me to “keep up the good work.”
On the other hand, a third guy on with us told about his “favorite” case, and I had the uncomfortable duty to reveal the case was an urban legend. Then Napolitano jumped in to tell how the frivolous lawsuit trend “got started”: with the case of an old lady who sued after she tried to dry her freshly bathed poodle in a microwave, and it “exploded.” I mean, really! The only thing that story might have started was the trend of claiming made-up urban legends are “true” (“No, really! It happened to my brother’s fiancee’s mother’s hair dresser’s neighbor!”) Sheesh.
Case 063 dealt with a theoretically intelligent lawyer who, while cleaning his swimming pool with a long metal pole, thought he’d use the pole to knock a palm frond out of the overhead electrical wires. His widow sued the electric company when he was electrocuted, as well as the pool supply company because the pole didn’t say not to do that.
Ed in Florida: “I share the nation’s sympathy for Mrs. Kincannon’s loss. No amount of money can bring back the loss of a loved one. That being said, should not some of the accountability for this ridiculous lawsuit be placed on [her attorney] Wylie (what an appropriate name for an ‘ambulance chaser,’ yet an insult to our beloved Coyote friend from the Roadrunner cartoons) Aitken? Would not an ethical, practical man remind the widow of her husband’s own choices involved in his untimely demise?
“If ever there was a solid case for a ‘loser pays’ rule in our nation’s judicial system, this, most certainly is it! A case like this almost makes you want to stuff your hand under a running power mower so you can sue Sears, Briggs and Stratton, and the power mower blade manufacturer for putting a discharge chute on the mower large enough for a person’s hand to fit in, and the print on the warning label was not of a large enough font and did not flash brightly when you approached the machine! Our system is truly run amok! When you die due to your own stupidity in an act that would most certainly qualify you for a ‘Darwin Award’, then your family attorney should have the sense to let his (self-inflicted) humiliation die with you!”
It’s hard to say whether he tried or not. While I’m not sure that Aitken, who was only described as the “family attorney”, was involved in filing the suit or not, it’s probably a reasonable conclusion based on the article I used as a source.
Bill in Massachusetts: “The 16 ft. ladder in my garage has no less than 16 warning labels on it. Seems to me that if lawyer Kincannon’s pole was proper labeled against usage near wood chippers, large trucks, window glass, barbeque grills, small pets, children, and all the other things it’s so obviously stupid to use it around, it would be insulated enough to use on power lines! Seriously, the legal system is way too busy for these kind of frivolous suits. I propose that all judges be empowered to level a $5,000+ fine on the attorney that presents one (not to be paid by the client).”
Brad in Queensland, Australia: “Being an Australian, I have only relatively recently realised the ‘sue and be damned’ attitude that many Americans seem to have is now commonplace here. However, TSA makes me realise we’re still only amateurs in this game. Surely a real estate attorney would be well aware that electricity, metal poles and water just don’t get on well together and will at some point take out their anger on the entity holding the pole. The actions of this person were pure, unadulterated stupidity. Was this man ever at school? Didn’t his parents warn him of the dangers of live wires? If Kincannon wasn’t warned of the dangers of electricity as a child, then I’d suggest his partner should be suing the U.S. education system and his family for breach of duty of care. She may also wish to visit her analyst to ascertain exactly why she married an intelligent but grossly foolish human.”
John, a minister in Kansas: “A lawyer generally is quite sharp (though you might not know it from all the frivolous lawsuits that get filed without even a shred of common sense to support the claims made) and understands the basics of nature, such as the fact that electricity will look for the easiest (and shortest) path to reach the ground. How this gentleman could have thought that he was ‘above’ the laws of science and decided to chance his fate by using a metal skimmer to get something of a high-tension power line is beyond me!
“I showed this latest article to a roommate, who just so happens to be a very liberal bleeding heart Democrat who sees conspiracies everywhere and thinks that individuals should be protected from their own actions but even he agrees that the lawsuit filed by the lawyer’s widow is completely without merit and should be thrown out straight away. If this does not show that the standards for the filing of lawsuits needs to be raised immensely, then nothing ever will.”
Keep in mind, folks: John said that, not me!
George, a liability claims adjuster in Scotland: “I have enjoyed your newsletters with reactions ranging from amusement to despair at the frivolity of suits and abuse of your legal system. One thing that always puzzled me, however, was why (presumably) intelligent lawyers would bother to pursue such cases when their legal basis was at best shaky and on occasion non-existent. Surely, I thought, not even the most glib lawyer would be able to convince a jury that any award of money was merited. After all, juries are made up of ordinary people, and ordinary people should possess enough common sense to be able to stop these cases in their tracks. Then I read the comments of Joel from Minnesota. His carefully reasoned argument to show that Taser is partially to blame for the gross negligence of a police officer has convinced me that with a jury room filled with others of his ilk, any case, no matter how ridiculous, is worth pursuing.”
Exactly right, George: many juries feel sorry for the “victims” of their own actions and think it’s OK to award compensation since “the insurance company will pay for it” (or “that big corporation can afford it”), not stopping to think that what’s wrong is wrong no matter who pays for it — and forgetting that the policyholders and shareholders and customers end up paying the judgments (to the tune of 2.33 percent of our Gross National Product).
When someone is truly damaged by negligence and the guilty culprit doesn’t pay, it’s right to sue to force that compensation. But when the damaged was caused through no fault of the defendant, such lawsuits are simply more examples of the abuse of our courts and our society.
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