- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Two years have passed since that April night, but the terrible drama that began then continues to unfold. Sitting in his sip-and-puff wheelchair, Shoemaker, now 61, trains his horses every morning at Santa Anita, and from his specially built aerie in the clubhouse, he watches them run there in the afternoons. But he finds himself, too, at a place in life he has never been and where surely no one could imagine he would ever be—at the center of a bitter controversy that has turned him from a tragic, sympathetic figure into a target of public condemnation.
Immediately after the accident, friends and fans circled arms and closed around Shoemaker, embracing him with warmth and support. His big owners stuck with him—a testimony, in part, to his capable chief assistant, Paddy Gallagher—and waited for his promised return. A group of friends organized the Shoemaker Foundation and helped to endow it with nearly $2 million. The money has been used to help Shoemaker defray those medical expenses not covered by insurance and to assist other racetrackers with medical bills. The foundation also pays the salaries of Shoemaker's two attendants, Larry Cox and Alvin Lwin. The $9,500 wheelchair that he maneuvers by alternately blowing and drawing on a tube was a gift to him from the manufacturer. Even the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office showed sympathy. Suspecting that Shoemaker had been drinking, police had a blood sample drawn from him one hour and 38 minutes after he entered the emergency room. The sample showed that his blood-alcohol level was .13, or .05 above California's legal limit of .08. Nonetheless, a month after the accident the DA's office chose not to prosecute, as is its custom in single-car accidents in which only the driver is gravely injured.
So the subject of drinking was set aside. The one time it was raised again was almost six months after the accident, upon Shoemaker's triumphant return from rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo. During a well-attended press conference on Oct. 1, 1991, at Santa Anita, he recalled drinking only "two beers." As for the blood-sample reading of .13, he suggested that his medical attendants "had a lot of drugs in me that were alcohol-based...." His handling of the subject was disturbing to those who had hoped he would go public to warn against drinking and driving. But after months of difficult rehab at Craig, he appeared to be leaving the accident behind.
"You could tell he was a man in overwhelming pain, trying to sort out what all this meant and what it would mean," says Indira Lanig, one of his doctors at Craig. "We all define ourselves by things that we do, ways that we think, relationships that we have. Bill was an equestrian. He was beauty in motion. And now he had no motion. He was trying to sort these things out, looking inside himself, trying to figure out how to pull this one off."
While Shoemaker was sorting out his life, events were being set in motion that would redefine that life in the eyes of others. By late April, Cindy had asked the family's lawyer, Neil Papiano, a well-known Los Angeles attorney, to investigate the accident to determine who might be financially liable. That investigation culminated almost a year later, in the spring of 1992, when Papiano began pursuing the whole pharmacopoeia of legal remedies available to the victim of a one-car accident. He filed one lawsuit in California Superior Court seeking at least $20 million in damages from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for not having a guardrail on the highway from which Shoemaker had swerved that night. He filed a second seeking an unspecified sum for negligence from the health-care providers—the company whose ambulance took Shoemaker to the hospital in Glendora, the eight doctors involved in his treatment at that hospital and the hospital itself.
When the suits were reported in the news, the public reacted with outrage. On April 25, 1992, the sports section of the Los Angeles Times ran eight letters criticizing Shoemaker, especially for the suit against Caltrans—ultimately the taxpayers. The first one, from Warren Weber of Norco set the tone:
"As I was reading the sports page on April 18, I was sickened to read that Bill Shoemaker is suing the State of California over his accident.... Willie claims that the State...was negligent because it did not have rubber guardrails along the entire stretch of the roadway to keep drunks from running off the road.... What is it going to take to make this idiot and others like him realize they are responsible for their own actions?"
A San Bernardino man reminded Shoemaker how he had gambled in the 1986 Derby, when he sent Ferdinand along the rail, and then added: "Five years later, Mr. Shoemaker, you took another gamble. You got in your vehicle while having a blood-alcohol level of .13.... Blaming the state for your accident is absurd. I hope you gain back your self-respect and drop this ridiculous lawsuit."
A reader from Glendale wanted to know if a "greedy attorney" was behind the decision to bring suit, and another from Westminster asked why Ford had not been sued: "Shouldn't [Shoemaker's lawsuit] include Ford for not designing, his car to follow the road automatically?"
In fact, Papiano had not forgotten Ford. The Bronco II had been the subject of scores of lawsuits stemming from a claimed propensity to roll over, and now here was Papiano with a hero-victim who could make an embarrassing spectacle of the Bronco at a trial. In a March 18, 1992, letter that one lawyer describes as "a masterpiece of velvet extortion," Papiano advised Ford's general counsel, J.W. Martin, that "world famous jockey Bill Shoemaker was...involved in a serious rollover accident" in a Bronco II, that "any lawsuit in this matter would be one of high visibility and would command national attention" and that "we are convinced the injuries were the result of defective design in the Bronco II." While insisting that the Bronco is not defective, Ford's lawyers obviously saw nothing but high-profile misery in a Shoemaker lawsuit, and they quietly entered into negotiations with Papiano to work out a settlement. "For almost a year there was never an inkling that Ford was in this," says Gilbert Jones, the lawyer for anesthesiologist Paul Waters, one of the Glendora doctors being sued.