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From Fame to Shame
William Nack
April 19, 1993
Bill Shoemaker, a casualty of his own drunk driving, has lost respect by launching lawsuits to shift the blame for his tragic folly
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April 19, 1993

From Fame To Shame

Bill Shoemaker, a casualty of his own drunk driving, has lost respect by launching lawsuits to shift the blame for his tragic folly

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Indeed, the first that Caltrans learned about Ford's talks with Papiano came when the state's principal attorney on the case, Christopher Hiddleson, received a letter in December from one of Ford's lawyers, Keith Sipprelle, advising Hiddleson that the company and Shoemaker had reached an agreement and requesting that the state agree to keep the terms of it a secret. Hiddleson flatly refused. "My client, the People of the State of California, will not enter into any agreement which prohibits public disclosure of the terms of the settlement between Ford Motor Company and the Shoemaker family," he replied in January.

Hiddleson says that if the Bronco does have a design defect, as Papiano had charged in his March 18, 1992, letter, then the people ought to know about it. Ford then challenged Caltrans in Superior Court, filing a motion requesting that the terms of its settlement with Shoemaker remain secret. The motion was denied.

The news of that settlement exposed Ford to precisely the sort of public censure that it had been trying to avoid. Under the terms of the deal, which has yet to be approved in court as required by California law, Ford would give the Shoemakers $1 million outright—$900,000 to Bill, $75,000 to Cindy and $25,000 to Amanda—and then guarantee him another $1.5 million if he pursues his suit against Caltrans. Should he prevail in his other suit, against the health-care providers, the amount of any award would be deducted from the $1.5 million. There is also a provision that the guarantee from Ford would be "reduced to zero" if Shoemaker either 1) reaches any settlement with Caltrans or 2) drops the suit against Caltrans. Hiddleson says that while the state has no intention of settling, he is outraged that should Shoemaker drop the suit against Caltrans he would get none of the money from Ford. In essence, Ford is giving Shoemaker and Papiano a $1.5 million incentive to sue the state, thus deflecting attention away from any alleged defects in the Bronco and toward alleged defects in highway design.

Thus Ford became Papiano's partner in going after the state, the hospital, the doctors and the ambulance company. In fact, Ford's motion for settlement, filed in February, reads in part like a battle plan for Shoemaker's case against everyone else—complete with highway design specifications and medical records. Asserting that Ford bears "no real responsibility for Shoemaker's injuries," the motion goes on to say that the injuries "resulted from a combination of his own negligence in driving his vehicle while intoxicated, the State's creation of a dangerous condition at the accident location by failing to install guardrailing adjacent to the roadway's north shoulder, and the failure of the Medical Defendants to meet the standard of care with respect to their treatment of Shoemaker...."

A year ago Papiano was threatening to sue Ford. Now his firm is allied with the automaker. Nowhere is that shift more graphically illuminated than in the juxtaposition of two documents, both emanating from Papiano's firm. In his 1992 letter to Ford, Papiano wrote (italics added), "...we have conducted an extensive investigation which has revealed that the defective design and manufacture of the Ford Bronco II was a substantial factor in causing Mr. Shoemaker's injuries." By December, Ford and Papiano had reached an agreement, and now they were ganging up on the others. On March 4, one of Papiano's law partners, Arnold Larson, declared to the court in support of the settlement (italics added): "Based on the information presently known to this firm, we do not believe the Ford defendants to be the parties who are most culpable for Shoemaker's injuries. To the contrary, the combined shares of fault of the non-settling defendants appear to exceed that of the settling defendants by a substantial margin."

After the L.A. Times broke the story revealing the settlement's terms, Shoemaker once again took a public pounding remarkable for its fury and scope. Bill Dwyre, the Times's sports editor, says, "We got more letters on Shoemaker in those two spurts [last April and this February and March] than we got when Magic Johnson stood up and said he had the AIDS virus or when he retired and unretired. And it wasn't an organized campaign. People were mad."

In a batch of five letters carried in the Feb. 27 Times, a reader from Saugus scolded Shoemaker—"Accept it, Shoe, you screwed up"—and denounced Ford as "gutless" for settling. In a state so utterly dependent on the automobile and at a time of heightened public condemnation of drinking and driving, Shoemaker's lawsuits touched off tremors of uncommon intensity.

Few people are openly critical of Shoemaker for suing the health providers. Virtually all the wrath has been directed at the suit that Ford is pushing him to pursue, the one that will cost the taxpayers if he wins. Citing the Ford motion for settlement, in which the company blamed everyone but itself, Papiano says that the state violated its own standards in not putting a guardrail at the stretch of road where the accident occurred, particularly with so precipitous an embankment beyond a "modest" nine-foot shoulder. Says Papiano, "Without question, if there had been a guardrail there, [Shoemaker] would not have gone over the embankment. He would have bounced back onto the freeway."

Whether Shoemaker was drunk or sober, says Papiano, the blame for the accident lies with the state. "Overpervading all of this," he says, "is the fact that drunk driving, though it may be emotional, has absolutely nothing to do with this case."

Hiddleson has been outspoken about Shoemaker's drinking, and Papiano says that the state has attempted to raise the issue to divert attention from the guardrail. Says Papiano, "They're saying, 'He was drinking. We don't have to look out for his safety, so let him die.' They're trying, immorally and unethically, to incite the public against him. Clearly, if the state had a guardrail, Bill would be walking today; it has nothing to do with drinking."

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