MASTER SGT. JOHN “JACK” STEELE, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR OF LAW
(Continued from March 5, 2003)
Third Installment: 3/5/2003
Fourth Installment: The Class Continues – Loretta Kelly Has a Rough Day
Oh my God¸ Loretta Kelly thought. It was as if someone had hit her in the chest with a sledgehammer. She had been terrified at the prospect of being called upon even before she watched Stan Kozloski be badgered mercilessly by Steele. Now, as she attempted to rise from her chair, she felt a rhythmic pounding in her temples and sweat begin to form on her forehead. Her legs were weak and were barely able to push her body out of the chair. Finally managing to get on her feet, she struggled to assume the position of attention. Her hands were visibly shaking.
“At ease, Kelly,” Steele said.
She was frozen with fear. She did not respond to his command.
“Gott-dammit, Kelly, I said, AT EASE!”
She moved her left foot to the left as previously instructed, but faltered momentarily because her legs just would not work properly. She regained her balance, placed her hands behind her back and assumed the proper position.
“Kelly, did you hear my gott-damned question?”
She tried to speak, but she hesitated a split second too long.
“Jesus Christ!! What the hell is the matter with you people? First Kozloski and now you. I’ll bet you have no problem running your mouths outside this class when you’re in the “Five to Four” telling all the townies that you’re on the way to being the next Clarence gott-damned Darrow! Dammit Kelly, SOUND OFF.”
Her voice cracking, Loretta Kelly responded, “Yes….sergeant….I heard the question. You asked me what a tort is.”
“Well, well, Kelly. You do have a voice, after all. I was beginning to wonder if maybe you should drop out while you can still get most of your tuition back and go join one of those silent religious orders.”
Kelly felt the sweat running into her eyes. The pounding in her head grew louder.
“So what’s the answer, Kelly?”
Her throat tightened again, but she managed to say, “It’s negligence, …but… where someone gets hurt.”
“You’ve got to be jerking my chain, Kelly. ‘It’s negligence where someone gets hurt??’ In the last example, when Kozloski, the ‘Five to Four’ swashbuckler, fell over his shoes, he broke his nose didn’t he? I’d call that getting hurt, wouldn’t you? And just two gott-damned minutes ago we agreed that that was not a tort, didn’t we Kelly?”
“Yes, sergeant, but…I mean….it’s where somebody else gets hurt.”
“Oh, I see, Kelly. So every time there is negligence and someone other than the negligent numb-nuts gets hurt we have a tort? Is that what you are saying?”
Kelly was beginning to feel lightheaded. At that moment, she wanted to be anywhere on the earth but standing in Steele’s crosshairs. Say something, she thought, and maybe this torture will end. Just say SOMETHING. “Yes, sergeant. It’s where someone else gets hurt.”
“You read the material, Kelly?”
“Were you also looking for a little multi-colored definition section in the book? Maybe next to a picture of gott-damned Big Bird?”
Steele interrupted, keeping her completely off balance, “Listen up Kelly, and that goes for the rest of you dipshits. Pay gott-damned attention and do your very best to think.
OK, Kelly, suppose you and one of your gal pals are taking a ride to the beach for the weekend. You’re in her car, and she’s driving. You’re riding down the highway within the speed limit, but the only problem is that your dizzy pal is changing the radio station, talking on her cell phone, lighting a cigarette and putting on her makeup while looking in the rear view mirror. In other words, Kelly, she is not watching the road. You with me on this, Kelly?”
In barely more than a whisper, Kelly replied, “Yes, sergeant.”
“Very well. OK, you’re in the passenger seat, your pal is not paying attention, when all of a sudden, the right front tire rolls over a small nail in the road that no one, not even an Indy 500 driver, could have seen. The tire blows; the car instantly spins out of control and rolls over a couple times and you wind up with two broken legs. Are you still with me on this, Kelly?”
“Yes, sergeant,” she managed to reply, but now her panic was replaced by a wave of emotion. Her voice quivered, and she experienced the tightness in her throat and the pain between her eyes that she always felt just before she would begin to cry. God, why won’t he let up?
“So, Kelly, let’s walk through this.” Steele could see the signs that she was about ready to cry, but he pressed on. “Do you agree that your dizz-ball pal driving the car while changing the radio station, talking on the cell phone and putting on her makeup in the rear view mirror was not behaving reasonably?”
Now, barely able to hold back her tears, and audibly sniffling, Kelly said, “No…she wasn’t. I mean….I agree that she wasn’t…behaving…..”
“Do you agree that, in fact, she was gott-damned negligent?”
“Yes….sergeant, she was.”
“And you wound up with two broken legs. I’d call that getting hurt, wouldn’t you, Kelly?”
“Yes, sergeant,” by now clearly crying.
“So, what we have here is ‘negligence where someone else gets hurt,’ right, Kelly? And, according to your half-assed definition, that means we have a tort here, and you can sue the ass off your negligent girlfriend and win a boatload of cash, right, Kelly?”
Kelly didn’t answer. She couldn’t. She couldn’t think straight. She was uncontrollably sobbing.
“Kelly, gott-dammit, answer me!”
Kelly’s crying became more intense. She shook her head from side to side, as she placed her hands on the desk and slowly began to sink back into her chair. She sat, put her head in her hands and wept.
Except for the sounds of Kelly’s sobbing, the room was silent as a tomb. Everyone was dumbstruck by what was happening.
Steele walked from the center of the room and stood directly in front of Kelly’s seat in the first row. The students held their breaths waiting to see what Steele would do, and his walking to within two feet of Loretta Kelly only served to heighten the already-unbearable tension in the classroom.
Steele looked down at Kelly and roared, “Kelly, I did NOT give you permission to sit down. Get on your gott-damned feet and stand at attention! NOW, Kelly!”
The students were horrified. This was not supposed to happen in a law school class.
It took her a few seconds, but Loretta Kelly managed to stand up and even place her hands at her sides, but now she was crying harder than before. Tears were streaming down her face.
Steele placed his face even closer to Kelly’s and he bellowed, “Kelly, let me tell you something, and you gott-damn well better listen. I’ve had 250 pound college football superstars and tough, knife-scarred gang bangers from L.A. and New York in basic training companies stand in front of me and the other people in the company and do exactly what you are doing now – crying. And you know what, Kelly? I didn’t cut them any slack and I’m damned sure not going to cut you any slack either.”
“Jesus Christ,” came a voice from the back of the room. It was Tod Barringer.
Without ever taking his eyes off Kelly, Steele said, “Barringer, shut your gott-damned mouth and KEEP IT SHUT!” Steele’s tone was different from anything they had heard before. It was downright menacing. Barringer decided to remain quiet and to add this incident to his list of complaints to the Dean.
“No, Kelly. You get no slack from me. You can stand there and cry for the remainder of the gott-damned class if you want. But, be advised, Kelly, that we’ll ALL spend the rest of this gott-damned class waiting for you to get your shit together. You WILL advise me when you’re ready to proceed.”
Everyone in the room was transfixed by the bizarre scene – a six foot three Army drill sergeant towering over a 120 pound sobbing woman, who was trying to maintain the position of attention. He never stopped staring directly into her face. No one in the class moved a muscle, wondering when it would end.
Kelly’s crying gradually diminished, as she struggled to gain control. The clock in the front of the room ticked off another three minutes.
Four minutes. Steele never flinched.
Finally, Kelly took a deep breath, stood more erect, threw her shoulders back, and said, “I’m ready, now, Sergeant.”
“Very well, Kelly. At ease.”
Kelly assumed the position of ‘at ease.’ One could almost hear the class resume regular breathing.
Steele returned to the lectern, and said, “So, Kelly, in my example, did your negligent friend commit a tort because ‘someone else’ was injured?”
Her voice returning to normal, Kelly replied, “No, sergeant. She did not.”
“And why is that, Kelly?”
Her voice now strong and confident, Loretta Kelly looked directly into Steele’s face and answered, “It is because it was the car’s running over the nail in the road that caused the blowout that resulted in the accident and the injuries. It was not the driver’s negligence that caused the problem. Even if she had been paying attention, she would not have seen the nail in the road.”
Steele said, “I hope the rest of you dim bulbs were paying attention, because she’s gott-damned right. The idiot driver in my example was a massive accident waiting to happen, but her negligence did not cause the accident – something else did.”
“OK, so, let’s get a fix on our position so far. Pay attention. You asswipes just might learn something. What’s negligence? Negligence is some dumbshit doing something a reasonable person wouldn’t do, or failing to do something a reasonable person would do. If the dumbshit’s negligence causes damages to someone else, we have just about all we need for a tort. There is still one piece missing, and we’ll get to that in the next class.”
Steele looked over the class and saw that the students still had not gotten over the effects of witnessing the exchange between him and Loretta Kelly. He said in his best, drill sergeant voice, “You people look like warmed over shit. It’s time for a gott-damned attitude check!”
Attitude check?? It was obvious that the students had no idea what Steele was talking about, and he enjoyed seeing the puzzled looks on their faces.
From now on, when I call for an “attitude check,” the correct response is, “We LOVE this shit!”
“DO YOU PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THAT?”
“YES, SERGEANT,” the class responded.
“Very well. ……ATTITUDE CHECK!!”
Like a well-rehearsed chorus, the 1L’s shouted back, “WE LOVE THIS SHIT!”
“Outstanding, people. Now, for next week, I want all you horse’s asses to read the next 65 pages in your casebooks. Is that clear?”
‘YES, SERGEANT.” Steele noticed that, for the first time, Kelly’s voice was louder than most.
“Atenn-HUTT.” Steele roared. The class sprung from their seats, and was actually beginning to look sharp.
As the students were filing from the room, Steele, meticulously placed his drill sergeant’s hat on his head and walked smartly out of the room, satisfied that everything was going just fine. He loved this shit.
A group of 9 or 10 students, led by Tod Barringer remained behind. Barringer said, “Do you believe that shit? The way he treated Loretta? The son-of-a-bitch is a goddamned bully. He’s also completely nuts. ‘Attitude check?’ What kind of stupid bullshit is that?”
Paul Green, one of the former backbenchers, asked, “Yeah, the guy is a major asshole, but what can we do about it?”
Barringer replied, “I’m going to the Dean’s office first thing Monday morning, and I’m going to tell him the kind of crap this crazy bastard is pulling. Can I count on you guys to back me up if necessary?”
“Absolutely,” Green replied. The others agreed.
Barringer noticed that Loretta Kelly had already left the room.