On Sunday, July 26th, at about 10 o’clock in the morning, Diane Schuler got behind the wheel of her red mini-van with five children, all under the age of nine -- including her brother's three little girls -- to return home from an upstate New York camping trip. At some point during the drive, Schuler’s young niece, Emma, picked up a cell phone and called her father. “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane!” she is reported to have cried.
Diane Schuler had inexplicably gotten on a suburban highway going the wrong way. The horrific head-on crash that followed -- after she drove the wrong way for almost two miles -- killed everyone in her vehicle except her five-year-old son, Bryan. Three unsuspecting men in the other vehicle, a Chevy TrailBlazer SUV, all died. In a split second, eight people were dead in a pile of twisted and burning wreckage barely recognizable as automobile parts.
Flash forward to the toxicology report on this seemingly happily married mother of two. The coroner’s office concluded that Diane Schuler had a blood-alcohol level of .19 – more than twice the legal limit – plus six grams of unabsorbed alcohol in her stomach. In addition, her blood carried 113 nanograms per milliliter of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The medical examiner said the level indicated Diane had smoked weed as recently as 15 minutes before the fiery crash. Translated: Schuler was very drunk and very high at the time of the accident.
Oh, and police report they found a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka in the minivan after the deadly accident.
Police waited until after the dead were buried to release Diane Schuler's toxicology report. After the information came to light, the grieving husband, Daniel, went before the press to categorically deny his 36-year-old wife had an alcohol or drug problem. He revealed he works nights, and their two children were frequently left with a babysitter, but he insisted some sort of unidentified medical problem must have caused her to lose control of the car. “She was a perfect wife, upstanding mother, a hard worker, a reliable person, trustworthy,” he said through his tears, remembering both his wife and his dead two-year-old daughter.
Denial in the face of reality. And a mourning man is left to nurse his critically wounded young son back to health. Your heart goes out to Daniel Schuler, as delusional as he is in the face of overwhelming forensics.
But that’s not all this new widower must face. A flamboyant New York attorney named Irving Anolik has entered the picture to claim “there’s a strong fragrance of criminality” to the crash deaths. He plans to file a civil suit against the Schulers. Anolik represents the family of Guy and Michael Bastardi, a father and son who died in the SUV. Anolik says it is “inconceivable” that the Schulers were unaware Diane had a drinking and drug problem.
“Any person who was aware that she was drinking is an accomplice … whoever sold her the marijuana committed a crime,” said Anolik. “She didn’t just wake up one morning with a drug problem and capable of drinking that much alcohol.”
Anolik has a point, but the whole idea of blaming the family and making them pay for their dead loved one’s actions doesn’t sit well with me. I completely understand the urge for revenge, the need to make someone pay you back for the awful thing that’s happened. But ultimately, it's empty satisfaction.
We’ve become a society of blame seekers. Someone must take the blame for all the bad things that happen to us in life. One person’s bad judgment can't be merely accepted. For some reason, we need to point the finger of responsibility at others and demand money to ease our hurt and our loss. Of course, money doesn’t do either. The dead are still dead, and we still feel the tremendous loss deep in our souls.
But there’s always a lawyer willing to take the case for the promise of 30% of the settlement amount. Almost all the plaintiffs I’ve spoken to at the end of long, grueling, wrongful-death lawsuits say the same thing. In retrospect, they realize the years-long legal process they endured only served to keep their grief fresh. It prolonged the pain and the time it took to heal. The family of the Bastardi father and son were in court recently asking a judge to name an executor of Diane's estate so they'll have something to sue.
Do I think the survivors of the dead in this case deserve something? Yes. They deserve some peace for the awful event that has shattered their lives.