Stella Case No. 118, Originally Published: 23 May 2007
A few years ago, affected by the events of September 11, Robert Hornbeck interrupted his psychology studies at the University of Michigan to join the military. In January 2006, after a tour of duty in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry (Bravo 269), Robert returned safely to Fort Benning in Georgia.
On Easter weekend, his parents joined him in Savannah to reconnect with him and celebrate the pending completion of his military service. He planned to marry in July and return to school. His father, Eric, told him he was happy he no longer had to worry about him. His son replied, “Dad, nothing ever happens to me. I’m Superman.”
Sadly, that was not true. On April 16, Robert was out drinking and playing pool with Army buddy Jeremy Stone. When Stone decided they were in no condition to make it home on their own from the Hilton Savannah DeSoto Hotel, he called Eric Hornbeck, Robert’s dad, to ask for a ride. Robert apparently didn’t think he needed help, though, and wandered off; he was last seen near the hotel at around three in the morning.
Eric called his son’s cell phone, but Robert simply said he was on the stairs, and as Eric reported, “that was it.” Over the next several days, an extensive police and community search ensued; the family offered rewards, and the usual false reports streamed in.
On April 28, hotel workers who had been trying to track down the source of a foul odor discovered Robert’s body inside a crawlspace containing air conditioning equipment. The police investigation determined that Robert had crawled into the space, where the equipment’s moving parts first cut his arm open, then pinned him. He apparently removed his pants to use them as a tourniquet for his arm, but it was not enough, and he bled to death. His blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit for driving at the time, though the exact count wasn’t reported.
It’s a tragedy, to be sure. To compound the tragedy, in January 2007 the Hornbecks sued the hotel demanding $10 million over their son’s death, though from all appearances the accident was nobody’s fault but his.
The lawsuit alleges that “the defendants had a duty to maintain a safe area in its hotel, and to place appropriate warning signs and maintain locks on doors that led to its electric and air conditioning units.”
Yet when Robert’s body was found, Savannah police spokesman Mike Wilkins pointed out, the service panel in question “had a big sign warning of danger from mechanical parts inside.” It’s difficult to imagine what more warning anyone could hope for.
The police report also says that to enter this crawl space, Robert had to enter a mezzanine between the first and second floors, climb a metal staircase in the hotel’s maintenance area, and crouch to enter. In fact it’s such a tight space that the police had to call in Savannah Fire and Emergency Services because of their training in difficult extrications. This isn’t just another public area of the hotel where you could innocently wander off and find yourself trapped; Robert couldn’t do it without working pretty hard at it.
But even if you could argue that the hotel was “a little bit” responsible for what happened, the Hornbecks still cannot recover. Georgia is a “modified comparative negligence” state, which means that a plaintiff can only recover for his injuries if the defendant is found to be more than 50 percent responsible. If the plaintiff is more than 50 percent responsible, he cannot recover any damages — and it is very difficult to read the facts of this case and imagine any jury finding that Army Spc. Robert Hornbeck was not largely responsible for his own death, however tragic.
So why are they suing?
Sometimes, a lawsuit isn’t about collecting money; sometimes it’s about using the discovery process to learn the truth of what happened. Perhaps that was the Hornbecks’ motivation here. But in this case, the police investigation, the medical examiner’s findings, and the limited footage from security cameras have already provided all the answers we’re ever likely to have. You would have to have been there, watching the events as they unfolded, to know what really took place, and the late Robert Hornbeck is the only one who knows for sure.
The inevitable conclusion is one that we’ve seen many times before — for far too many people, when their loved one dies, they cannot comprehend that it might have been their loved one’s fault. It “must be” someone else’s fault — and that someone else must be made to pay.
- “Lawsuit Seeks $10m after Soldier Died at Hilton”, Savannah Morning News, 20 January 2007.
- “American Hero Found Dead”, Nancy Grace Show (transcript), CNN, 28 April 2006.
- Georgia State Tort Law Profile (for info on modified comparative negligence law).
Yes, tragic, and the result was predictable (and predicted): Chatham County State Court Chief Judge H. Gregory Fowler dismissed the case. And, predictably, “An attorney for the plaintiff says an appeal will be filed,” the Associated Press reported. I found no evidence that there was any appeal filed. Hornbeck was 23 years old.
This case was a runner-up for the 2007 Awards.
My 2022 Thoughts on the Case
One bit of information that was not included in this case: Robert Hornbeck’s body was not found for twelve days. It was a big mystery played up in the local papers. Headlines along the style of “War Hero Still Missing” captured attention and sympathy; besides his parents, a no-doubt-pretty fiancée was waiting for his safe return. No wonder the attorneys thought they had a chance of a $10 million payday. But cooler heads prevailed, not the least of which belonged to Judge Fowler.
As is often the case in tragic accidental deaths, including as we have seen in previous TSA cases, there is truly no winner; just more drama to add to a bereaved family’s heartbreak, so the contributor’s title for this case — “Nobody Wins” — is perfect. There are, however, losers — plural, starting with Hornbeck, whose altered mind made foolish decisions for him. The hotel suffered terrible publicity for something they had nothing to do with, and had to pay attorneys to defend them.
(New in 2022)
This was the first case not written by me (Randy Cassingham), but rather — as I lost steam for the project — I tried asking a couple of attorneys I knew write to write up some cases. This is the first, and the rest will follow over the next several weeks.
While the two contributors did a great job and expertly continued the tone of the publication, there was one big drawback for all of us that made the project untenable: there was next to no income coming in. Even with nearly 100,000 subscribers, the glory days of high newsletter ad prices were over by 2007. I needed to refocus my attention on what did pay the bills, my primary job: This is True (which still continues today).
Meanwhile, I had said everything I really wanted to say in the True Stella Awards book, as discussed last week.
The next several cases are good reading, so savor them and understand that you’re witnessing how the True Stella Awards came to an end. Still, I wanted a complete record to be found online, with (of course!) the denouements, if I can find them.
Oh, and who were the two lawyers? They went on to terrific careers. They loved that writing these cases was interesting and stretched their creative muscles, but there is really nothing to gain for them to have an old side project come up again, so both asked that their names not be used. I am honoring that request, and am glad I am still in contact with both of them.
But why lawyers? I had said from the start that I think most attorneys are noble people trying to do their best for justice, and that even most lawsuits are righteous; it’s a small percentage of lawyers and cases that bring discredit to the legal profession and the legal system that TSA addresses, a problem that has been growing year by year. While there is evidence that the problem is starting to slow down, and I think TSA is very definitely a factor in that slowdown, we have a long way to go. So I wanted to highlight that there really are great lawyers out there who can put their minds behind such a project to help improve their own profession. Thanks, guys.
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