Peter W. Summerill

Utah Trial Attorney

September 2020

Hard Cases

When Children Die

I once asked a pathologist (you know, the doc who performs autopsies) what were some of the more difficult cases she had worked on. I intended 'difficult' in the sense of figuring out what happened to the victim. She replied "The hardest cases involve children." As an attorney, I should really know how to ask better questions. But, the answer didn't surprise me. Having worked on many (some high profile) cases involving the death of young children over the years it is true: the hardest wrongful death cases involve children. Regardless of whether you are a parent, hearing about the loss of a young life under any circumstance is a gut punch, can't catch your breath thing. When children die because somebody was being careless, it gets that much harder to grasp. We take particular care to protect children, flagging our school crossings and slowing speed limits during school, putting "Baby on Board" in our car windows, making sure the kid has his helmet on before he goes biking. So, when someone carelessly, negligently, takes the life of a child it's all that much more offensive. The hardest cases involve the loss of a life taken far too soon, before the first school girl/boy crush, before the first kiss, before high school graduation, before they get to chase a dream. On my first child death case, I tried to be clinical, objective, and just-the-facts ma'am in my lawyering. It failed about half way into the case. Even while focusing on the law and theory that would provide justice to the parents, the hard case leaks through and cannot be ignored. So, yes, the lawyering part matters. But equally or perhaps more important was the time spent learning the story of a young life gone and the horrendous toll it took on the family. And, yes, that meant I was often very sad. Years later, when the unexpected answer came from the pathologist, I asked the follow-up question "How do you handle the hardest case, how do you deal with that emotion?" "I take solace in my work of trying to tell the story of why." She, like me, had come to the same conclusion. Her job was to be clinical, apply medicine, do the forensic work, but, also, learn and tell the story of the child in the hope that we could learn and perhaps avoid future mistakes.