MASTER SGT. JOHN “JACK” STEELE, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR OF LAW
Continued from March 11, 2003
Fifth Installment: Jody
Paul Green and Tod Barringer were walking towards their seats in Steele’s torts class. Green, looking over his shoulder, asked Barringer, “Did you get to see the Dean yesterday to complain about ‘General Patton‘?”
“No, and I’m pissed about it. His secretary called me on Friday to tell me that he would not be in on Monday. I’m beginning to think the guy is ducking me.”
“That sounds crazy to me. How could he know what you want to see him about? Besides, even if he knew why you wanted to meet with him, why would he duck you?”
“I don’t know, but it seems strange to me that he was not available the two other times I tried to see him. I know where he parks his car, and on a day that he is here, I’ll just camp out in his office until he sees me. I think that the Dean is more likely to fire the guy now than he would be three weeks from now. And, make no mistakes about it, I want this GI-Joe Nutcase fired now.”
Tod Barringer noticed Paul Green looking down at his wristwatch, and said, “Relax Paul; the crazy bastard won’t be here for another five minutes.”
Loretta Kelly, having overheard the conversation, turned toward Barringer and Green and said, “Tod, this is only the third class. Why don’t you give it another week or so before you go running off to the Dean?”
“Holy Christ, Loretta. The guy’s gotten to you! You survived the last class and even got a bit of an ‘attagirl’ so all of a sudden this asshole’s your hero? Or, maybe you figure that you won’t get called on again for months, and now he’s everyone else’s problem. What a load of shit.”
“Gimme a break, Tod. All I’m saying is that, sure, the guy has an unusual style, but he does seem to know the stuff.”
Barringer and Green both laughed out loud. Barringer chided Kelly, “Unusual style??? You really slay me, Loretta. One minute you’re about ready to puke with fear of being called on by the guy, and the next minute you’re ready to sign on to his crazy chicken shit. You may buy into all this military baloney, but I don’t. And, as far as knowing his stuff, I seriously doubt it.”
Josh Schulman, a student seated several seats away, overheard Barringer and offered, “The guy is a bit of a mystery. I looked for him in Martindale, but I couldn’t find him. I also Googled him, but there were so many John Steeles that I gave up. I finally found his name in a Georgetown newsletter on the net, but it only showed him as a contributor to the alumni fund. Other than that I can’t find anything on him.”
Barringer replied, “I don’t much give a damn what Steele’s background or credentials are. I don’t think any of us has to put up with his brand of shit or as Loretta would say, ‘his unusual style‘.”
At exactly 8:30, Steele walked into the lecture hall. “Atenn-HUTT!”
Everyone ceased talking and snapped to attention.
As was the case in prior classes, he stepped to the center of the classroom, put the casebook on the lectern and stood at a brace while he passed his gaze over the students. He seemed to spend a full second or two concentrating on each student’s face. It was absolutely unnerving.
While they were still standing at attention, he carefully removed his drill sergeant’s cap, using two hands so as not to bend the brim, and placed it on the desk. He performed this ritual in a deliberate – almost reverential way. It reminded some of the students of the manner in which a priest handles the communion chalice during a Catholic mass. It was eerie.
He turned back towards the class and yelled, “SEATS!” He was happy to hear one loud thud as all the students sat at exactly the same time.
“Well, I see that you are managing to learn to properly stand at attention and to sit down. Now, if I can just get you to pull your head out of your asses just a little further, you might even learn a little gott-damned law in this class.
Seth Tomkins noticed for the first time that Steele did not bring notes with him to class. Had anyone else picked up on this? All of his other professors used notes. He concluded that he must have been too rattled during the prior classes to notice. What is the deal with this guy?
Seth turned to the page in his notebook on which he had previously sketched the patches that were sewn onto Steele’s sleeves, and he began to draw a schematic diagram of the ribbons on Steele’s uniform, noting the colors and distinctive patterns of each of the decorations. Tomkins reasoned that, if Steele’s background was not in Martindale- Hubble or available in Google, (he also had tried both sources), his uniform might tell his story.
Steele began, with his booming voice, “All right, people. Listen up. Last class, Kozloski and Kelly dragged you sorry asses through the process of figuring out most of the things that go into making up a tort. That will be our jumping-off point today.”
Steele looked at a student in the second row and said, “BERTELLI, Joseph! On your feet!” No one missed it. Steele did not bring the seating chart with him. He had memorized the damned thing!
Joe Bertelli was shocked to hear his name, having been lulled into believing that, given the absence of a seating chart, Steele didn’t intend to have people recite that day. Nevertheless, he quickly rose from his seat, and while doing so, he felt that this was as good a time as any to be called upon. He had read the assignment, and he had thought about it. In fact, he and his study group had extensively bullshat the assignment over the weekend. They had even gone so far as to try to predict how Steele would handle the material. He honestly felt that he was fully prepared and, besides, maybe getting it over with now would keep him out of the bull’s-eye for several weeks, or maybe even longer. He took a deep breath, sucked in his gut, threw his chest out, and carefully lined up his thumbs with the seams of his trousers.
Steele eyeballed Bertelli and said, “Not bad, Bertelli. You almost look squared away. All your dipshits, take a look at Bertelli here. He’s looking like, with a bit more practice, he might actually be able to be a raw-CROOT in my beloved Army.”
The students looked at Bertelli, again not quite believing that someone was being praised in a law school lecture hall for properly standing at attention!.
Bertelli, interpreting Steele’s remark as actually resembling something like faint praise, stood even straighter.
“There’s one gott-damned problem, Bertelli. Do you know what that might be?”
“Bertelli’s short-lived wave of pride and relief faded, as he answered, No sergeant.”
“It’s your ‘gig line,’ Bertelli – your gott-damned gig line!”
Bertelli, not having any idea what Steele was referring to, did not respond, but remained at attention, looking straight ahead.
“Bertelli, did you hear me? Your gig line is screwed up. Fix the gott-damned thing!”
Class had been underway for only a couple minutes and already Steele had everyone, not just Bertelli, in a state of nervous confusion. A gig line? Not one of them had any idea what Steele was talking about.
Steele did not speak again. He stared at Bertelli, until Bertelli could no longer stand it. He mustered up his nerve and responded, “What’s a gig line, sergeant?”
“Gott-dammit, Bertelli, what the hell took you so long to ask? I knew gott-damned well that you wouldn’t know what a gig-line is. You know how I knew that, Bertelli? One, because you’re a gott-damned civilian, and I never – repeat – never met a gott-damned civilian who knew what a gig line is, and two, I sure as shit didn’t tell you in either of our past two classes what a gig line is. I was really interested to see whether you paid attention to what I said in the first class, and do you remember what that was, don’t you Bertelli?”
Bertelli went into brain-lock. He remembered that Steele said all sorts of things in the first class, most of them downright crazy – stow your gear, authorized equipment, stand at attention, at ease, but none of them seemed to be what Steele had in mind now.
“I don’t know what you are referring to, sergeant.”
“You don’t? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? Do you remember that, during the first class, I made myself clear that if you didn’t understand something, I gott-damned well expect you to sound off and ask me. Does that ring your friggin’ bell, Bertelli?”
“Yes, sergeant, I remember that you said that.”
Steele didn’t say anything. He simply stared into Bertelli’s eyes. Bertelli felt himself becoming unhinged.
Steele knew that often a fixed stare and protracted silence was the best way to get everyone’s attention. He played the silence like a maestro.
Assured that he had everyone’s undivided attention, Steele shouted, “SO ASK ME, GOTT-DAMMIT!”
“Oh…I…..didn’t realize that that’s what you wanted. You want me to ask you what a gig line is?”
“Bertelli, I’m beginning to think you have the brains of a piss-clam.”
“What’s a gig line, sergeant?”
“Well, EEEU-FRIGGIN’-REEKA, Bertelli. You finally got it. I was starting to think that maybe you’d been beaten with the Stupid Stick when you were a kid. Your gig line is the imaginary straight line that should run from the edge of your shirt seam, where the buttonholes are, past the edge of your belt buckle, down through edge of your zipper seam. And YOUR gig line looks like shit!”
Bertelli looked down, and his shirt was only partially tucked in, and the part that was tucked in was rumpled over his trousers. What did he say about zipper seams and buckles? How nuts is this guy?
Steele surprised the class by quickly opening the buttons on his “Class A” jacket, exposing his starched shirt, and holding the edge of the casebook to his stomach to show the class how a proper gig line looks. Damned if there wasn’t a perfectly straight line that ran from the edge of his shirt, past the edge of his brass belt buckle through the edge of his zipper seam.
“This is a squared away gig line, Bertelli. You look like a gott-damned unmade bed!” The students couldn’t believe what they were seeing or hearing. It was just too crazy.
Bertelli fidgeted with his shirt, trying to tuck it in with his thumbs, which was not working. He knew that the only possible way to do what Steele seemed to want would require unbuckling his belt, unbuttoning his pants, unzipping his fly and starting from scratch. He wondered, could this crazy bastard want me to drop my drawers right here so I can tuck in my shirt to create a goddamned gig line? Gig line!! This is insane.
Steele returned the casebook to the lectern, re-buttoned his jacket and stared at Bertelli.
Bertelli, not knowing what else to do, began to unbuckle his belt. Steele yelled, “Bertelli, are you out of your gott-damned mind? If you’re thinking of “dropping trou” right here, spare us. Next time you come to class, I would like to see a gott-damned squared away gig line. Just a suggestion. You read me?”
“Yes, sergeant, Bertelli replied, wondering when this would be over. His back began to ache from standing so long at attention.”
“All right, Bertelli. At ease.”
Bertelli welcomed the opportunity to “relax,” to the extent relaxing was possible once Steele had your number.
“You remember what we said about what kinds of things were necessary for there to be a tort?”
Bertelli thought, finally, we’re getting to the assignment. Dammit, I’m ready.
“Outstanding. Give me a one sentence summary.”
“Bertelli collected his thoughts and replied. A tort results when a person’s negligence causes injuries to another person, and it gives the injured person the right to seek damages in court.”
“Well done, Bertelli. And negligence is…?”
Directly quoting Steele’s words from the previous class, Bertelli said, “Negligence is some dumbshit doing something a reasonable person wouldn’t do, or failing to do something a reasonable person would do.”
Steele, having recognized his own words being played back to him, smiled inwardly, and barked, “Now you sound like a gott-damned scholar, Bertelli. OUTSTANDING.” This produced a muffled chuckle from a few students. Steele did not let on that he heard it. He pressed on.
“OK, we’re off to a pretty good start here. Now listen up, Bertelli, and think, gott-dammit.
Steele began, “Let’s say that you’ve stopped at the supermarket to pick up a few things. You’re standing just off the produce aisle, behind the canned peas, but you can clearly see the entire produce aisle. You following this, Bertelli?”
“OK, so you’re standing there, and you see Jody walking down the produce aisle, and you’ve been wanting to kick Jody’s ass ever since you returned from duty overseas. No matter that Jody happened to be a well-respected man in the town – the town librarian, for Chrissakes – you just want to kick his ass, and you have no doubt that this shitheel has it coming.”
“You with me, Bertelli?”
Bertelli sensed another trap, and he was determined not to fall for it again. “I don’t think I completely understand, sergeant.” His mind raced. He mentally ran through the assignment, and he was certain that there was no mention of any Jody, and none of the cases dealt with anyone who had an ass-kicking coming. Where the hell was this going? “It sounds like I need to know about this fellow Jody.”
“Excellent gott-damned question, Bertelli. You’ve just proved that learning can take place, even with only a half a brain. ‘Jody’ is the name we use in my beloved Army to refer to the son of a bitch who is romancing your girl or your wife, and driving your gott-damned Cadillac while you’re away from home on duty. So, you with me now, Bertelli?”
“OK. So, this son of a bitch Jody is walking down the produce aisle. He doesn’t see you. He comes closer. You’re waiting for just the right moment. When he is about five feet away, you step in front of him and hit him with your best shot, breaking his nose and knocking him flat on his ass. You got that, Bertelli?”
“Yes, sergeant.” Bertelli still wondered where this was going.
“Is that a tort, Bertelli?”
Bertelli thought, Jesus, I read all the stuff carefully. I know damned well that these facts are nothing like anything in the assignment. This isn’t fair. “Well, sergeant…I think….”
Steele cut him off in mid-sentence, “Don’t answer this second, Bertelli remain at ease, and think about it.”
“STEVENSON, Edward! On your feet.” Ed Stevenson, the student a few seats down from Bertelli, thought, oh shit, as he heard his name called without warning. Stevenson stood at attention, at the wrong end of Steele’s glare.
“At ease, Stevenson. You heard the facts. Is knocking Jody on his ass and busting his nose a tort?”
Stevenson had read all but a few pages of the material, and, as was the case with the previous assignments, he was having some difficulty seeing the point of some of the cases. That said, he didn’t recall anything in the assignment that was anything like this. He felt himself beginning to sweat.
“I’m not really sure, sergeant.” Hoping with all his being that the key to all this was not in the few pages he had skipped, Stevenson continued, “I read the cases, but I honestly don’t think any of them dealt with anything at all like this.”
“Stevenson, gott-dammit, this is not like the gig line question. You should be able to answer this question. But, guess what, Stevenson. You just might have to think!”
Stevenson knew that he could guess and have a fifty percent chance of getting the right answer, but he also knew that any answer he gave would be followed by a barrage of questions. He froze.
“Stevenson, we don’t have all gott-damned day for you to think about this, so let’s start from the end and work forward. You think we can do that, Stevenson?”
“OK. Was Jody injured when Bertelli knocked him on his ass in the supermarket?”
“Yes, sergeant. He got a broken nose.”
“And, that broken nose will require a doctor’s care. Jody might even have to miss some work at the library, and he may well be in a good deal of pain for a while, correct, Stevenson?”
“And, all those things amount to damages, right Stevenson?”
“Now, was Bertelli’s knocking that son of a bitch Jody on his ass something a reasonable person would do?”
“Well, I would do it, sergeant.”
“I didn’t ask you whether you would do it, or whether I would do it, or whether the man in the gott-damned moon would do it. I asked you if a hypo-gott-damned-thetical reasonable person would do it.”
Stevenson followed Steele’s lead and answered, “No, a reasonable person would not knock Jody on his ass.”
“So, I ask you again. Was Bertelli’s punching Jody’s lights out a tort?”
Stevenson felt he might win points by thinking out loud and proving that he had mastered the analysis. He began, “Well, we have damages that were caused by someone doing what a reasonable person would not do, therefore, we have negligence, and ….”
“NEGLIGENCE?? Did you say negligence?? What the hell are you thinking about? Does that mean that Bertelli did not carefully slug Jody? Maybe he should have hit him harder? Softer? In the family jewels? Jesus Christ, Stevenson, just when I was beginning to think that you might have your shit together, you prove that you’re dumb as a bag of rocks. Take your gott-damned seat.”
Not surprised by being placed back in the line of fire, Bertelli answered, “Yes, sergeant.”
“See if you can help Stevenson here. Do we have a gott-damned tort or not?”
“Yes, sergeant, we have a tort.”
“How do you figure, Bertelli? Because I believe it is clear to everyone in the class, other than Stevenson over there (who should save daddy’s money and apply for a job as a pop-up target at Fort Dix), that we don’t have negligence here.”
Bertelli responded, “We don’t have negligence here, but I think this must be a tort, because intentionally hurting someone seems to me to be even worse than negligently hurting someone, and if negligence is enough for a tort, then purposely hurting someone also has to be enough.”
Steele looked from one side of the class to the other, while saying, “Did all you mutton-heads hear what Bertelli said? SOUND OFF!”
“YES, SERGEANT, the class bellowed.”
“Good, because that’s the correct gott-damned answer! And guess what we call the brand of tort the results when someone’s intentional conduct causes damages? I know that this may be hard for some of you knuckleheads to understand, but we call that an intentional tort. Now, spare me the bullshit. I know damned well that the reading assignment did not specifically deal with intentional torts – those are covered later in the book, but I want you dipshits to learn to work with what you know and use that to figure out the right answer. Hell, if you’re out in the bush and the enemy tries to kill your ass in some way you’ve never seen before, you damned well can’t get him to stop trying to kill your ass by telling him that what he’s doing was not covered in your reading assignment!” ARE WE CLEAR ON THAT?”
The class responded, ‘YES, SERGEANT.”
“Excellent. Give me a gott-damned ATTITUDE CHECK!!”
It took a second or two for this to register from the previous class, but the entire class seemed to get it all at once. They responded, in loud unison, “WE LOVE THIS SHIT!”
“Very well. Take your seat, Bertelli.”
“HOFFMANN, Roger!! On your feet!”
Hoffmann rose and assumed the position of attention, this coming easier to him than it did for some of the students, owing to his having been a Boy Scout for five years.
Steele began, “Hoffmann, let’s put you back in the same supermarket – next to the same produce aisle, behind the same canned peas. You read me, Hoffmann?”
“Yes, sergeant, I do.”
“What’s different this time is that someone accidentally broke a bottle of cooking oil on the floor in the produce aisle. It’s slippery as hell. You know that, because you damned near slipped on it yourself. Got that, Hoffmann?”
“Yes, sergeant, oil on the floor, really slippery.”
“Now, here comes that son of a bitch Jody walking down the produce aisle directly in the path of the oil. The dumbshit is not looking down, and you know that he will damned sure slip on the oil and break his ass. Furthermore, you know that all you would have to do is call his attention to the oil on the floor to permit him to walk safely around it. Still with me, Hoffmann?”
“But you have no intention of warning Jody. In fact, you want to see that rat bastard Jody slip on the oil and break his ass. In fact, you’re enjoying the little drama unfold as Jody the shithook briskly walks closer and closer to the oil. You think, I hope the bastard really hurts himself. Still reading me Hoffmann?”
“So, you remain silent and sure as shit, Jody goes ass over tea kettle, slams his face into the floor and breaks his gott-damned nose. Jody catches a glimpse of you walking out of the supermarket laughing your ass off.”
Hoffmann began to feel the heat, for just the thought of the question he knew was coming tied his brain in knots.”
“So, Hoffmann, is that a tort? Can Jody successfully sue your ass for damages?”
Hoffmann sensed yet another Steele trap, but this seemed like a no-brainer. He responded, with surprising confidence, “Yes, sergeant, that would constitute a tort.”
“Hoffmann, we all know that Zippy the chimp would have a fifty-fifty chance of getting the right answer, so why don’t you tell me (and your buddies in the class, who better gott-damned well be paying attention), how you came to that conclusion. We’ll skip the injury and damages part, because I think it is clear that Jody was pretty well banged up after the fall. I think we can also agree that it was your not warning Jody about the oil that caused him to slip on it, because you are to assume that if you warned him, he would not have fallen. Can we agree on all that, Hoffmann?”
“Yes, sergeant.” Hoffmann’s knees were becoming weak. Every other student in the class was suffering vicariously with Hoffmann, as Steele relentlessly pushed him into a corner.
“In fact, Hoffmann, let’s get right to it. Seems to me that we are down to your decision not to warn that bastard Jody about the oil. If that decision amounted to negligence or an intentionally bad act calculated to hurt Jody, seems to me that he can sue your ass off in tort. So, what is it, Hoffmann?”
Hoffmann was so tense that he was developing tunnel vision. He struggled to gain control of himself, but his voice still shook when he answered, “Well, I think it is an intentional tort, sergeant because I intended for Jody to fall on the oil.”
“An intentional tort?? And just what intentional act did you commit that caused Jody to fall? Did you spill the oil on the gott-damned floor?”
“No, sergeant, but I didn’t warn him.”
“So, Hoffmann, you’re standing there and doing and saying absolutely NOTHING amounts to a gott-damned ACT??. Get your head out of your ass, Hoffmann!”
Hoffmann felt sick. “I guess it was not an intentional tort, sergeant.”
“Good gott-damned guess, Hoffmann. Now, how about negligence?” Steele could see that Hoffmann appeared to be about to crater. “Hoffmann, you look like hell. Take ten seconds to get your shit together, and then answer the gott-damned question.”
Ten seconds passed, and Hoffmann answered, “I think that I should have warned Jody about the oil and not warning him amounted to negligence.”
“So, you’re saying that you had some kind of obligation to warn this rat bastard, shithook about the oil?”
“Yes, sergeant, an obligation.”
“Would you say that you, therefore, had a DUTY to warn this louse?”
“Yes, sergeant, a duty.”
Steele bellowed, “Duty? You didn’t spill the gott-damned oil, did you?”
“You’re not an employee of the gott-damned supermarket are you?”
“So, what’s the basis for this so-called duty?”
“Sergeant, I just don’t know the answer. None of this is making much sense. I’m confused.”
The class expected this remark from Hoffmann to trigger a shit-storm from Steele. That’s why they were all surprised when Steele said, “Well, I’ll grant you this Hoffmann. I guaran-gott-damn-tee you that you’re not the only in the class who is confused by this, so let me lay it out for you and your fellow confusees.”
“Here’s the bottom line. The law does not require that you do anyone any gott-damned favors. It does not require you to ACT, unless you have a legal DUTY to act, and the law (not common-gott-damned-sense) that determines under what circumstances you have a duty.”
Steele continued, “Hell, suppose you’re sitting with your feet dangling in the pool at some hotel, and a toddler falls into three-feet deep water right next to you, and is in the process of drowning. All you would have to do to save the kid is to reach down and pull her out of the pool. You know what your legal obligation is? Let me answer that for you. You have no gott-damn obligation. You have no gott-damned duty. Hell, you can just sit there, finish your beer and watch the kid drown, and no one can sue you for anything.” Steele felt himself losing his temper talking about this, just as he did when he was a 1L at Georgetown when his professor posed the drowning toddler problem to his class. Back then, he ended up apologizing to the professor for having blurted out in class, “You gotta’ be full of shit. That’s the dumbest gott-damn thing I have ever heard!”
“So, in the supermarket example, Hoffmann didn’t have any duty with respect to Jody, but the store owner and the store’s employees had a duty to warn about the oil and to clean it up, because Jody was a customer. In the toddler example, the shithead sitting by the pool drinking his beer could let the kid drown because he had no duty, but a lifeguard or the kid’s parents sure as hell would have a duty to save the kid. The bottom line is that, before you can even think about whether you have a tort you have to first make damned sure that the law creates a duty on the part of the dumbshit you’re trying to sue. Then you have to see if the dumbshit breached the duty, and if so, whether that breach caused the damages.”
“THAT, you lagerheads, finishes up the four ingredients you need for a tort. LISTEN UP!!!” Steele stood erect and in much the same manner he would use to instruct a bayonet class, he barked, “The four elements of a tort are: DUTY…BREACH…CAUSATION… and DAMAGES!!!”
“What are the four elements of a tort? SOUND OFF!!!”
The class responded, “Duty, breach, causation, and damages.”
”GOTT-DAMMIT, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!! WHAT ARE THE FOUR ELEMENTS OF A TORT?”
The class hollered back, “DUTY, BREACH CAUSATION and DAMAGES.”
“And what do you have it one of the elements is missing? I’ll tell you what you have. You have SHIT.”
“What do you have if one of the elements is missing? SOUND OFF!!!”
Some of the students were openly smiling when the class responded in unison, “YOU HAVE SHIT!!”
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!! WHAT DO YOU HAVE IF ONE OF THE ELEMENTS IS MISSING?”
“YOU HAVE SHIT!!” Now, a few of the students actually seemed to be enjoying themselves.
“If you dim lights can remember that every time someone dumps a boatload of confusing shit in your lap, you’ll be more than half way home. DO YOU READ ME?”
“Very well. Now, listen closely to me, because the following is NOT Law 101; It’s gott-damned LIFE 101.” Steele paused for effect, and then stated, “If this drill sergeant ever sees any of you sit back and let a kid drown, this drill sergeant will do two things. I’ll save the kid, and then I’ll kick your ass. DO YOU READ ME?”
“Excellent. If you remember one gott-damned thing from this class, remember this. And, I am as serious as a gott-damned heart attack. And, that is, just because you have the right to do something, does not make it the right thing to do.”
“Have I made myself clear?”
“OUTstanding! Read the next 50 pages in your casebooks for next class. ATENN-HUTT!”
Everyone in the class sprang to their feet.
“Give me a gott-damned ATTITUDE CHECK!”
The class responded, “WE LOVE THIS SHIT!!”
“Nicely done. “DISMISSED!”
As Steele turned away from the exiting students to put his drill sergeant’s cap back on, he overheard several conversations. They were buzzing about the drowning kid. Things are working out just fine, Steele thought.