Sometimes, nobody is at fault for a tragic accident
A school bus plunges into a frozen lake in the 1997 movie "The Sweet Hereafter," killing most of a small town's children.
A lawyer comes to town, hoping to profit from the tragedy by tapping into the parents' anger and launching a class-action lawsuit. He admits that he has no idea what sort of negligence to base the suit on, but keeps at it.
"Someone died, so someone else has to pay," he explains.
Last week's school-bus tragedy in Huntsville is no movie. Four students died and several remain injured. Relatives and friends are grieving. Parents face medical and burial expenses, although the private bus company is required to carry $1 million in liability insurance for every student injured in a bus wreck.
With the investigation ongoing, it's too early to place blame for the four deaths and multiple injuries, but some in the community are reportedly making death threats against a teen driver whose car collided with the bus before it plunged off an Interstate 565 overpass. People also are scrutinizing the bus driver, who apparently was not wearing a seat belt, as required by law.
As expected, lawyers are already on the case, asking questions.
Did the private bus company contribute to the accident through training, hiring or maintenance? Is the government to blame for improperly designed ramps and barriers? Is the teen driver, who may have experienced a mechanical malfunction in his steering system, at fault? Could the bus driver have maintained control if he had been buckled into a seat?
Lawsuits can tear people apart. They can tear communities apart. But, they also can serve a higher purpose by penalizing the negligent.
"There is no such thing as a simple truth," says the tagline for "The Sweet Hereafter."
In the Huntsville case, let's hope authorities can determine a simple truth. If that truth involves negligence, the appropriate party should be held responsible. If it's nothing more than a terrible accident, parents and their attorneys should search themselves and consider forgiveness.