Monday, September 1, 2014

"It Was My Fault"

A few years ago I was leaving Wichita after a deposition, in my just-purchased new car, talking on the phone to my partner.  While driving down the unfamiliar road, on my cell phone, I notice the sign to the interstate.  I was passing my exit to the right and I was in the middle lane.  As I look to my right, there is a tractor-trailer passing me.  I wait until the tractor, then the trailer, pass ahead of me and swerve my car to the right to cut over to the exit.  Crash!  The truck had two trailers and I rammed into the second one.  Fortunately, I was not hurt, but my right fender and door were bashed in.  I pull over, followed by the truck driver.  As he gets down from the bed of the truck, I instinctively said five words that I have been proud of, "It was all my fault!"  I am a lawyer and I used to defend insurance companies and I know that insurance companies tell their insured not to apologize, not to say much, and certainly not to saw those five words, "It was all my fault."  Yet, when I made my declaration, I felt relieved.  No pretense, no bullshit.  I did it and I was stepping up.  The truck driver smiled at me, asked me if I was hurt, and then helped me with the police officer, who did not give me a ticket, even though I told him, also, that it was my fault.  I got the car fixed, the truck had no damage, and everyone wanted to help. That wreck was a revelation.  When I apologized for my mistake, when I made it clear that it was all my fault, I and everyone else was relieved.  They wanted to help me because I was honest and I said the truth although we all knew that an insurance company would not want me to do so.  The driver and the cop went out of their ways to help me.

I have often thought about the, "It was my fault" way to bring a claim or to defend a claim. If you are a reader of this blog, you know that I represent people who bring claims of employment discrimination. Just like most of us in life, most clients, and most defendants, do not want to admit any fault in the dilemma that occurred at work.  Sometimes, my clients, won't made that they had made a mistake at work, or were tardy, or disobeyed a directive.  My clients want to feel like they did nothing wrong, who doesn't?  But, I know of no one in life who is perfect.

Likewise, the employer, or heaven-forbid a harasser, denies any racist, sexist, ageist conduct. They are never to blame.  Either they did not make the racist comment, or it was a joke, or the plaintiff said things much worse.  No one ever means it and the termination had nothing to do with my client's complaints.

I'm just thinking out loud now, but what would happen if everyone accepted responsibility for the part of the mess they created.  My client might say, "I was late for work.  It was hard for me to get my kids moving and I will make them get up earlier."  The boss might say, "I know that joke was racist and I am embarrassed.  I thought I wasn't a racist, but I need more work.  Let's get training for me and others on this.  I am so sorry."  There can be a whole variety of scenarios, but I hope you catch my drift.  I like people who own up to what they do.  I feel good about myself when I admit mistakes, because making excuses is a lot easier.  

Maybe if we all own up to our imperfections, our mistakes, our biases and bigotry, we could work our problems out at work and reduce lawsuits about unlawful discrimination.  To take matters a step further, what if we spent an afternoon reversing roles with the opposing party, putting ourselves in their positions, understand how they may think, what may really be going on, not merely emphasizing, but figuratively living in their shoes.  If we could lose our fear and insecurity and lose our inhibitions, and go imagine what  is going on with the other side, what things would happen?

I think there is a reason I did not get a ticket, even though the wreck was my fault.  I owned up to what I did.  I have had only a few cases but some where the company essentially says, "Yup, we were wrong.  We are fixing the harassment.  No one should have to go through what she did."  Those are the cases where I have had great satisfaction, although my clients ended up with much less money.  Admitting wrongdoing with contrition eliminates the desire for juries to punish employers.  In fact, if everyone would admit his or her part in whatever happened, I suspect we could get cases settled and people back to work.  We might even begin to put a dent in unlawful discrimination, once everyone saw the other one as a human being like themselves.

We watched the "Railway Man" a movie about a British soldier in Burma who was tortured and water-boarded horribly during World War II.  He was plagued by PTSD and lived a haunted life until he confronted one of the soldiers who had survived the war.  The British soldier planned to kill the Japanese solder, but instead forgave his tormentor.  The Japanese soldier was haunted  by what he and the other had done to the captured and devoted his like to making amends.  He admitted his sins to the British soldier and the British soldier forgave him.
There is such a profound and basic lesson in this story.  Most of us want to forgive others.  We want to be herd and understood.  We want to be treated fairly, but justice is different from revenge.  Revenge brings mo comfort.

I wonder what what happen if we had, instead of mediation, am honest and frank discussion of what really happened from everyone's perspective and we looked into our souls, and decided  what part we played.  Then we admit that part and ask for forgiveness.  What would happen with that lime of thinking in litigation?  I wonder.


  1. In todays world being honest as well gets you reprimanded. Fact, I am licensed by the county for the operating of certain things in the county and I made a decision on what to do in a situation since I was the leading authority on location. The co workers there who were all less than 4 months experienced refused to follow orders from someone who has 44 years experience in the field of operating said operation. In the end they did it their way and the next morning before my side was ever heard the GM wrote me up for being rude to the other employees. So truth, justice and doing the right thing really did me a lot of good. I signed the write up as stating I didn't agree with and now trying to figure out how to do a formal complaint on the whole thing.

    So in your case doing the right thing made things go smoother for you and in my case it back fired in my face.

  2. What was that your first time being honest? Have you been an attorney so long that just the simple act of telling the truth makes you feel that you should write a book about it? WOW. You guys(attorneys) never cease to amaze. Keep up the good work honest Abe.

  3. 1st Mistake Lady was talking on your cell phone while Driving and I don't care how Professional Job you think you have !!!!

  4. Did you really have to go back " a few years ago" to recall an instance in which you told the truth?