This is another is a series of vignettes, culled from mediations conducted by the author. They reflect on the practice of mediation and the privilege it really is to be invited into people’s lives. In this vignette, adult children struggle to cope with the tragic death of their mother and cultures clash as teams of PDA armed attorneys meet in a small Midwestern town to mediate the death case brought by the family.
Most of the lawyers were from the east and west coasts; from large law firms in large metropolitan areas. But on this cold January day, they had landed in an area they normally flew over and now gathered is this small Midwestern community for the mediation of a wrongful death case growing out of a large chemical explosion. The explosion had leveled several buildings and resulted in millions of dollars of property damage and business interruption losses and, the subject of this mediation, the death of a sixty year old woman.
The explosion occurred in an industrial coating manufacturing plant and was triggered when a part time employee, Glenn Snyder, drove a fork lift into an electrical pole, causing a chain reaction that eventually resulted in catastrophic multiple explosions. Mrs. Goodman was doing what she did every Sunday evening, visiting a shut-in who lived in a small bungalow which was located within a stone’s throw of one of the explosion sites. Mrs. Goodman had heard the first blast and probably saved her house-bound friend’s life by putting her in her wheel chair in a hall way before going to the front door to see what had happened. The next explosion killed Mrs. Goodman instantly. Although there was massive property damage, Mrs. Goodman was the only death; in fact, the only injury.
Because of the scope of the damage and the number of defendants and third party defendants, there were many more lawyers present at the mediation involving Mrs. Goodman’s death case than one would normally expect. It was about nine a.m. and there was no Starbucks in this little county seat town, so the lawyers had gotten their coffees from a smokey diner across the street and were now gathering around the large conference table in the basement of the local counsel’s law office. As they sat around the table waiting for Mrs. Goodman’s children to arrive, at least half of the lawyers were silent, appearing almost to be in prayer; their heads bowed, their hands folded together just below the conference room table top, thumbs working the little keys of their Blackberries.
The other half of the lawyers were grumbling about the greed and foolishness that would lead the Goodman family to seek millions of dollars for the death of a sixty year old woman with only a grade school education, with no dependant next of kin, no medical bills and no lost wages. The entire Goodman family had not earned in their lifetimes an amount equal to the money demanded of these companies. One lawyer looked up from his PDA; this is like a lottery to this family, he said. We would not see these demands in L.A. Well, said another, there is a lot of anger in the family and in the community because many people believe that these explosions would not have occurred if even simple safety measures had been followed. The fork lift driver was never trained and many in the town are convinced that the companies, especially the foreign parent of the local plant, were trying to save money and that safety checks and balances were eliminated, along with many local jobs. Even if true, said another, which it isn’t, that would not justify monetary demands so far out of proportion to the loss suffered. This is lottery time for this family, repeated another.
There had not been any depositions of the family members so none of the lawyers had met or spoken with the four adult children of Mrs. Goodman, whose husband had died several years earlier. When the children and their lawyer joined the defendants in the basement, they were led by Daniel, the oldest of the children. His two brothers and sister and their lawyer followed Daniel into the conference room. Daniel was tall, about six three, and in his late thirties. Now a sought after finish carpenter, he carried himself with the poise and ease of the three sport star athlete he had been. As I invited them all to have a seat at the table, Daniel asked if it would be all right if he offered a prayer before we started. Of course, I said, and he and his brothers and sister bowed their heads as he said something like this……
“Dear Lord, thank for bringing these busy people together today to help us close this chapter in our family’s life. Lord, guide Mr. Van Winkle as he seeks to help all of us find and reach your purpose for Momma’s death. We know that she did not die in vain and that you had a greater good in mind. Help us all find that greater good and help us not only to bring closure to our family but help us find a result in this matter that will honor your name and help insure that this will not happen to another family. We know that these people have traveled far from their homes today to help us end the legal part of this loss and our family is grateful to them and we ask that you bless them and give them the wisdom to help us find the right path and the right result, a result that will bring honor to your name and to the legal system in which we must work. Most importantly, Lord, ease the heart of Mr. Snyder. Let him know that our family wishes him no ill will, that we are happy he walked from that explosion to be with his family that night and be with him, Lord, as he struggles with that day.
Names and details in these vignettes have been changed or altered to protect
and preserve confidentiality and privilege.
From ADRAC- The Australian Dispute Resolution Advisory Council Blog, organized with Shirli Kirschner ADRAC gratefully acknowledges the suggestions and input of Gaye Sculthorpe who kindly reviewed this paper. This topic is a...By Shirli Kirschner