Is this "Justice"?

According to this CNN article, Valerie Hunter, the widow of the IRS employee killed in last week’s airplane crash in Austin, TX, is suing Cheryl Stack, the widow of the airplane’s pilot, for negligence, among other things.

Let me start by saying that while I have never experienced the sudden and tragic loss of a spouse, I can empathize a little bit. As a seventeen year old high school senior, I watched my mom deal with the sudden death of my father to leukemia. So I first want to express my sympathy to Valerie Hunter, the wife of Vernon Hunter, the IRS employee killed last week when Joe Stack flew his airplane into a government building in Austin, TX.

The operative issue in this story is the issue of justice. In fact, you’ll notice at the top of the article that it’s filed in their ‘Justice’ section. But just what is justice?

justice (n.) - fairness or reasonableness; validity in law; sound or good reason

I would argue that suing Joe Stack’s widow fails all three of these definitions.

Is it fair or reasonable that, in addition to losing her own husband, Cheryl Stack should lose money to Valerie Hunter? Both women lost their husbands; why should one lose everything else in addition?

Under Texas law, is it a valid argument that Cheryl Stack is either responsible for her husband’s actions, or responsible for not alerting authorities that he was a danger to others? Legally, there may be a precedent here. I’m not familiar enough with legal issues to know. I do know that each person is legally held responsible for their own actions, even when their own action is actually non-action. From what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t look like Cheryl Stack had any reason to believe that her husband would fly his airplane into a building.

Is it sound reasoning for Mrs. Hunter to sue the widow of the man who caused the death of her husband? Doing so might eventually pad her bank account a small amount, but it will accomplish none of the following: bringing her husband back, bringing closure to the situation, helping her overcome her grief, helping return her life to normal, reconciling and aiding forgiveness for all the involved parties (including Joe Stack). The most likely outcome will be that this tragedy will stay fresh in the minds of Mrs. Hunter and Mrs. Stack, and that months (possibly years) of bitterness, frustration, and anger will ensue (no pun intended).

The larger issue at work in both of these lives is that of dealing with pain, loss, and grief. I don’t know if Mrs. Hunter or Mrs. Stack are Christians or not. I do know that the Biblical model for dealing with these things is not to seek retribution. Rather, Jesus told his disciples that they should forgive people “seventy times seven” times. The intended meaning, I believe, is that there should be no end to our forgiveness, just as there is no end to God’s forgiveness. Joe Stack’s widow, as far as we know, had nothing to do with her husband flying his airplane into a government building. What good will come from this lawsuit? It won’t facilitate forgiveness, reconciliation, or healing in any way.

To put it another way, I don’t believe this lawsuit is about justice. Has our culture really come to this point, where the loss of a loved one is an occasion to try to win money from someone who has also lost a loved one? How is that justice? How is it fair, reasonable, or valid that Mrs. Hunter lost a husband, so Mrs. Stack should lose her husband and also a large sum of money? If it can be proven that she had knowledge of her husband’s plans, then it shouldn’t even be a matter for civil courts; she should be brought up on criminal charges. But the simple fact that no criminal charges have been filed leads me to believe that she is not legally liable for what her husband did.

It breaks my heart that these two women and their families are having to go through what they are going through. But it breaks my heart even more that, rather than seeking to forgive and asking God for peace and understanding, Mrs. Hunter feels like the only way she can find “justice” is to reach out and seek to further harm Mrs. Stack. That, in my opinion, is every bit as tragic as the way in which her husband was killed.

It would be remiss of me, of course, not to mention the possibility that Mrs. Hunter is filing this lawsuit as a way to provide for herself in the absence of her husband. While that is certainly more understandable and reasonable than a quest for retribution, and I pray that this is her actual motivation, it still does not amount to justice. If justice is fairness, reasonableness, or equity, then let’s look at what each of these women has lost. Both lost a husband, peace of mind, probably their sense of security, and possibly their income. But in addition to that, Mrs. Stack also lost her home (her husband set it on fire shortly before he took off), and will always have to deal with the public stigma of being Mr. Stack’s wife.

The point is that both of these women are victims, as well as their kids and families. Both of these women lost their husbands to the actions of a man who was so angry or hopeless that he couldn’t see any other option than to fly his airplane into a building in an apparent effort to send a message. It simply doesn’t amount to justice, by any of the above definitions, that one should be forced to suffer more than the other.

  • David Dunham

    Joseph,

    Thanks for your contribution. Let me suggest two things:

    (1) It’s easy to talk about rationality, but very hard to be rational in the face of complete loss

    (2) It’s very hard, if not impossible, to judge motivations and very dangerous

    Just two thoughts for you to consider, friend.

  • Matt

    I think questioning her motives is the point of the article. Justice is the official motive. Greed/consolation/fear could be the real motive. In actuality it is probably some combination of all of those.

    Motives are important, and while I don’t believe we should pass any kind of judgement on Mrs. Hunter, and I think this story can be a valuable “case study”.

  • http://pofgblog.com Joseph

    Thanks for the comments, David and Matt! I totally agree that judging a situation from afar is dangerous ground to tread on. What I was trying to do more than that was to examine the idea of justice in our culture, and whether or not suing a fellow-victim, from whatever motivation, qualifies as justice. I think there’s plenty of precedent in the news that, for many people (in America especially), anything that happens is an opportunity to sue someone for damages.

  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Mr. Poet

    I found this article:

    http://www.kvue.com/home/The-family-of-plane-crash-victim-files-lawsuit-to-prevent-release-of-autopsy-information-85151597.html

    According to this, Hunter’s widow wanted to keep the results of her husband’s autopsy out of the news. The only way to do that was to file a wrongful death suit against Stack. So except for that, maybe there would have been no lawsuit.

  • Anon Anon

    As someone from outside the USA, I must say that the material that we receive on the media here about what goes on in the US legal system tends to give the impression that in the US, law and justice seem to have very little to do with each other.
    What a pity that is, coming from the country that once presented itself as a champion of human rights, but now does not even seem to remember what that phrase means.


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