As the Stinson turns (civil edition)
I’m certainly no lawyer, and most of the access I have to issues involved in the David Jason Stinson case comes from articles in the Louisville Courier-Journal. But the more I study the case, the more I think Stinson isn’t going to jail, and the more I think Max Gilpin’s parents won’t collect a dime in their lawsuit against their late son’s high school football coach.
Quick review: Stinson was the football coach at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, Ky., when one of his players, the 15-year-old Gilpin, collapsed during practice during a hot day in late August 2008. A few days later, Gilpin died of septic shock, a result of a body temperature that reached 107 degrees. Based on testimony that said Stinson denied water to players and was verbally abusive (saying he would run players until they quit), the Jefferson County prosecutor charged Stinson with reckless homicide, a Class D felony that carries up to a five-year prison sentence, while Gilpin’s divorced parents united to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Stinson (no longer PRP’s coach), as well as assistant coaches, the Louisville school district and other school personnel.
Stinson’s case has become a flashpoint among youth sports parents and coaches because he is either an example to be made of for coaches going too far, or his prosecution is an example of extreme overreaching and threatens to make every coaching decision an actionable offense. (Perhaps why coaching associations are contributors to a legal fund established for Stinson.)
Back to the latest update in the case.
The Courier-Journal today has a story discussing the deposition of Max’s father, Jeff Gilpin, who was at the last practice. Key to both the criminal and civil cases was that Stinson denied players water — which makes the senior Gilpin’s own statement questionable of help to his own case. From the C-J (the bolding for emphasis is mine):
Gilpin noted that when he arrived at the practice, the running drills had begun and another player was already sitting on the ground with a bag of ice on his neck.
But Gilpin acknowledged that he did not hear Max or any other PRP football player complain that they were being denied water during the practice, where the heat index reached 94. And he said the players were allowed to remove their helmets and shoulder pads as they continued running.
Some players were told to sit down, while the rest of the team continued to run, though Gilpin said he was not sure who instructed them to do so.
There were pieces of Gilpin’s deposition that portray Stinson and the coaches as, at best, unaware of the severity of the situation and ill-equipped to deal with what was going on. Again, from the C-J:
Gilpin said PRP athletic director Craig Webb drove up in a cart, and they loaded Max onto it, taking him to a sideline water station. They disconnected the water hose and ran water on Max, putting ice on his neck.
Gilpin said it was several minutes after Max collapsed when assistant coach Steve Deacon asked him if he wanted him to call 911.
“I replied ‘Well, hell yes!’ ” Gilpin said, according to a transcript of his answers.
At that time, Gilpin said he noticed Stinson standing about 10 yards away with the team. Gilpin said Stinson did not talk to him or offer any assistance.
Bill Hoback, an attorney for Stinson, said the coach had gathered with other players at a team meeting and didn’t know Max had gone down until several minutes after he was removed from the field.
By that point, several people were working on Max, and Stinson observed what was happening, Hoback said.
“You can’t read that as him not trying to help,” he said.
Gilpin acknowledged in court records that Stinson did not notice Max fall down.
By all accounts, Stinson and the other coaches did not distinguish themselves with their understanding of what do once Max Gilpin collapsed. (Hence, why Kentucky passed a law requiring high school coaches to get training for sports-related injuries and illnesses, including what to do in case of overheating. The state’s high school athletic association and medical association are quickly putting together an online course so the 12,000 affected coaches can get trained by August.)
But is it reckless homicide?
The problem, for both the state and defense, is how you make airtight that someone did or didn’t do something beyond on a reasonable doubt for a law that defines reckless homicide as “recklessness when [a person] causes the death of another person.” Stinson ordered running drills, Gilpin collapsed, and he died. That much we know. But if there’s evidence Stinson didn’t deny water, or that Gilpin’s Adderall prescription contributed to his overheating, is Stinson off the hook? Would a jury find the mere act of running sprints on a 94-degree-heat-index day a reckless act. Apparently the Jefferson County prosecutor (and a grand jury) think so, and prosecutors by reputation only try cases they think they can win. But there are truck-sized holes both sides can drive evidence through to sway a jury.
Meanwhile, in the civil case, which has a lesser standard of guilt (as we all know thanks to O.J. Simpson being innocent of criminal charges of murder yet being held civilly responsible for those deaths), still is no easy road for Gilpin’s parents. Presumably, if the Louisville schools thought the odds were against it and Stinson, it would be moving to settle the case. (It’s possible that’s happening and we don’t know it, yet, but the school publicly has not signaled any intention to back down.) Of course, the district could be fighting the case so a precedent isn’t set, and its coaches can run gassers at will.
And like the criminal case, defining “reckless” is going to be difficult for the plaintiffs. Yeah, Stinson might have been a jerk. But is it reckless to do what he did when thousands of coaches have done the same without incident? (Of course, that’s a possible repercussion of the lawsuit and criminal case — to stop coaches from pulling crap so there are no more Gilpin-like incidents.)
I’m going to guess that for both the criminal and civil cases, any jury selection is going to be knock-down, drag-out because the definition of “reckless” can be as wide or narrow as anyone wants it to be. Surely every juror is going to be asked about his or her youth sports experience, whether as a player, a parents, a relative or the guy who parks the ice cream truck by the field and blares the stupid music-box incessantly until the parents submit to the begging of their children just to make it all go away. Presumably anyone with any intensity of feelings about their experiences is off the jury, but you never know.
The vagueness inherent in the definition of “reckless” is going to make the jury pool selection key to winning for either side. Trial lawyer Steve Frederick’s Kentucky Injury Law Blog has a list of a trial consultant’s top five truths about jurors that, to me, seems especially applicable in Stinson’s cases, even though technically these truths are about civil cases:
1. Don’t ask jurors to give your client the “benefit of the doubt” unless you want them to doubt your client.
2. Arguing that the law “only” requires proof “by a preponderance of the evidence” is like telling the jury that the plaintiff doesn’t have a lot of solid evidence.
3. People use their life experiences to fill-in-the-blanks in your case.
4. People don’t enter the courtroom looking for an opportunity to give away money.
5. It’s not what the law allows BUT WHAT JUSTICE REQUIRES that compels jurors to act on behalf of the plaintiff.