Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bite The Helping Hand

I'm still alive but busy. I've been sinking a lot of time into learning another language of late. Really.

Today my son, my Dad, and I went bowling together to commemorate Father's Day. It was the first time my son ever really bowled. He'd gone to the alley and chucked balls down the lane at birthday parties, but with no structure, rules, or scorekeeping. Today we kept score. On his first string ever, he rolled a 94. I don't think I've broken 90 more than a couple of times in my life.

I'd think we might have the bowling equivalent of Tiger Woods on our hands, but he declined to roll another string afterward. Dad and I went a second round, but my son only wanted to sit at the score table and keep score instead of bowling any more. He did a pretty good job at that, too. Good addition practice.

On to a news story.

So this guy, Gilles Blackburn, and his wife went on a ski trip. They decided that they were not only expert skiers, but apparently infallible in other matters as well. They crossed over the ski resort's clearly marked boundary lines into the wilderness, ignoring posted signs saying, "Don't go past here or you will get lost and freeze." They went past, and proceeded to get lost and freeze. She died, but he got rescued a few days later.

This is a sad story. It's more of a "too bad" than a tragedy, because these people were victims of their own hubris, but they still went through an experience that couldn't be wished on anyone.

Once Blackburn began to recover and make public statements, he of course expressed his profound regret for his poor judgement, thanked his rescuers profusely, and apologized to all concerned for having caused the situation in the first place.

Oh, wait. That was in Imaginary Utopialand. In real life, he blamed his rescuers for taking so long, demanded an apology from them, and threatened to sue. At this point the word "prick" isn't nearly strong enough, but I try to keep this blog PG-13 or lower. Here are some highlights from the linked article:

"I lived in Alberta and in B.C," (Blackburn) said. "I know the ski slopes."

Blackburn said it is not unusual for experienced downhill skiers familiar with expert runs to ignore warning signs and to go off into unpatrolled areas.

Blackburn said he is only partially responsible for what happened.
I was going to say "emphasis added" and bold or italicize some of that arrogance, but I realized I'd have to emphasize all of it.

I've been tracking this story since it broke back in March, and there were a few times that I started drafting up articles about it. However, there came a point when I started feeling sorry for the guy and couldn't bring myself to slam his actions. He's been through a horrible experience. He watched his wife die in front of him. I don't even like to think about how traumatic his experience must have been, and the fact that it was his own fault only compounds it.

So, I could excuse his ranting for a while. He's projecting, unable to deal with the fact that he effectively killed his wife. She was, I assume, a willing participant, so she shares responsibility for her own death, but unless he's a completely emotionless sociopath, that's probably of little comfort to him. I couldn't hold him fully accountable for everything he says during his grief.

If I had written about it back then, I hope I would have been compassionate about it, but I suspect not, so I chose not to write. I saw a few other articles and editorials about the matter expressing the position that Mr. Blackburn needs to stop blaming others and start into therapy to figure out how he's going to get through this. This one was my favourite.

Now I find myself wondering how far that sympathy should go. Mr. Blackburn has officially filed lawsuits against the people who risked their own safety to come rescue him when he did something stupid. If I were of less generous spirit, I'd note that they may have done well to wait a few more days before hauling his butt out of the snow. Frozen corpses don't hire ambulance-chasing bloodsuckers with law degrees.

These lawsuits had the results you would expect: search-and-rescue organizations, which are operated by volunteers, are shutting down. It seems that people aren't particularly interested in signing up for arduous, exhausting, hazardous, uncompensated duties. Actually, lots of people are interested in that sort of thing, because they care that much about helping others. However, when the others they help turn out to be ungrateful wretches who file lawsuits because their rescuers don't show upon demand like magical genies, the bloom falls from that rose.

Here's the problem with the whole idea of suing volunteers. There's a contractual concept called "consideration". Consideration is a necessary element in any contract. It means what’s in it for each party. Volunteers with search-and-rescue organizations get no consideration for their efforts. As a general rule, without consideration, there is no valid contract. Without contract, there is no (legal) obligation. One can argue moral obligation, but that’s not what this is about.

As an illustration of the distinction between legal and moral obligations, suppose I'm visiting a public pool and notice a child obviously struggling then slipping below the surface. For whatever reason, the lifeguards and / or his adult supervision haven't noticed the situation, and are far enough away that they may not be able to react quickly enough. I'm a strong swimmer, and there are no life preservers or ropes readily at hand, so I should dive in and help him out of the pool. My moral obligation to do so is obvious, although some would probably (and depressingly) argue otherwise. My legal obligation to do so is nonexistent.

A volunteer organization bears no individualized responsibility toward the beneficiaries of its activities. Those beneficiaries have no basis to sue if unsatisfied with any services – free services, remember – that may be rendered. This does not absolve government agencies or businesses, both of which are compensated for their services, or situations where an explicit legal relationship with according rights and responsibilities exists (parent and child being an obvious example). If you're dissatisfied with the free service you receive from an all-volunteer organization, then by all means feel free to decline their services and take care of the situation yourself the next time around.

For Mr. Blackburn, this means that the next time he ignores warnings and takes a family member out into the woods to freeze to death, he shouldn't expect any help from search-and-rescue (assuming he hasn't managed to chase every volunteer out of the search-and-rescue field with his malicious lawsuits). He should feel free to be out there completely on his own. Well, with a companion, until his arrogant actions kill them too.

I hope that once Mr. Blackburn's mental state returns to normal (assuming and hoping that it does), he'll drop these foolish lawsuits, apologize to his rescuers for having spit in their faces, and condemn the opportunistic sharks around him who encouraged (or even failed to warn against) this shameful behaviour. If he's still holding this childish position, continuing to blame others for his own error and failure, even after his grief subsides... well, then, maybe that's the type of person he was all along. More's the pity.

Enough rambling. Here's the left side of what I'm arbitrarily designating bookshelf # 1 in my house. We saw the stuff on top of it last time out. The handprints up the side are my son's. Unlike his handprints all over the walls, windowpanes, and television screens in our house, these ones were made with parental approval.

1 comment:

RebelAngel said...

Well, if they had not been he could always have blamed the monkey.

Why do I find myself commenting more on your extra snippets than on the actual articles? I suppose because you generally say all that I could think to say (and a great deal more.)