A Footnote on the Road to Oblivion

March 16th, 2006 by

The Insider often looks at risk management issues from a personal perspective. It’s one thing to talk about confined spaces, ladder safety and personal protective equipment, and quite another to look at the myriad decisions we make from day to day that might have a lasting impact on our lives. Lift a box carelessly, you might face years of back problems. Forget to ask a subcontractor for a certificate of insurance, you might own the sub’s mistakes. And climb behind the wheel of your car after too many drinks, you crank up the engine and drive straight to oblivion.
We have been following the saga of Thomas Wellinger, a software account executive at Unigraphics Solutions in Michigan. He was driving 70 miles per hour in a 40 mph zone when he plowed into a car stopped for a left turn. He did not touch his brakes. His car demolished a small sedan, instantly killing a wife and her two sons. Wellinger’s blood alcohol level at the time was an astonishing .43. The biggest mystery is how he was able to function at all after that much drinking. Indeed, he put in a few hours at the office prior to the crash. He was either very good at masking his intoxication, or his fellow employees were so engaged in work that they somehow failed to notice his state. Then again, maybe they just thought in passing that Tom was hitting the bottle again.
Much about this sad saga is still unresolved, but we do know where Wellinger is going to be for the next few decades. The 49 year old pled no contest to three counts of second degree murder and will be sentenced to 19 + years in prison. Take a few moments to read about his victims. A once talented and generous family lies in ruins. Having survived the crash, Wellinger will have the leisure (that’s not exactly the right word) to contemplate how his drinking binge brought a sudden end to a wonderful family, along with his own career and his freedom.
In the coming months we will learn whether his auto insurer, Home-Owners Insurance, successfully cancelled his policy two days prior to the accident. Our many readers in the insurance field know that this will come down to following state procedures to the letter: providing notice to the client in the right form at the right time. We often see judges bend the rules to bring insurers and their deep pockets into the situation. We’ll also learn whether Wellinger’s employer knew about his drinking on that particular day. If a supervisor or manager was aware of his intoxicated state and did nothing to stop him from driving away, the company will be hammered under their liability policy.
The courts will ultimately put a dollar figure on this sad story, but the story itself transcends finance. There is no indication that Wellinger was a bad person or that he ever intended to harm anyone. Not many people end up in prison for their poor judgment behind the wheel. With Wellinger’s stiff sentence, he will meet a lot of folks who harmed and killed others intentionally, with hardly a second thought. I wonder how they will view Wellinger and his week-long binge to oblivion.