Fall and Rise

Burt Hanson just may be the unluckiest man alive. But he's not giving up.

As Burt Hanson sets out to recount the past 15 years of his life, he knows how it sounds: How could anyone have such a run of bad luck, such a cascade of disasters? "It's like a novel," he confesses, pronouncing each word with care. But Hanson's story is true. And it didn't start with his accident. No, it began before he knew more than he wishes he did about traumatic brain injury and legal terms like spoliation, competency, and mediation. Before remembering things was such a blasted struggle. Before he felt like his head might blow plumb off his shoulders.

Hanson's miseries began on July 4, 1986, with a phone call from his daughter Debbie, when he asked her, "How are you doing, kitten?" and she told him she'd been to the doctor, and she had cancer. For the next year and a half, Burt watched her fade away. "It was the most awesome time of my life," he says, then falls silent. "She was 28 when she died."

After that, terrible things kept happening to Burt Hanson. The next year brought the deaths of four other family members, including his mother and eldest brother. And 11 years ago, of course, there was his accident. More on that later, though; right now Hanson wants to display the evidence of his most recent woe. He pauses. He wants to make sure there's no breach of etiquette in baring his flesh to a relative stranger. "Please, I don't want to offend you or do anything inappropriate," he says. Manners are important to Hanson, and he often prefaces his remarks with such courtly inquiries. Having received reassurance, he peels aside his shirt. A long, thick scar, still red, stretches diagonally across the pale expanse of his belly, reminiscent of the famous photograph of Lyndon Johnson after he had his gallbladder removed, only Hanson didn't have an irksome gallbladder. It was a kidney, riddled with cancer. "The blasted thing was as big as a regulation football. Weighed four and a half pounds," he says. Then he re-snaps his shirt, sits down, and catches his breath.

At age 62, Hanson wears what's left of his wispy gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. He has thick, bifocal glasses, two hearing aids he constantly fiddles with, and a handlebar mustache. He has a slightly pinkish complexion, and a kind-looking, open face. The kidney surgery was barely a month ago. After he went home, he was having trouble breathing. It turned out to be a blood clot in the lung, and he had to spend a week in the hospital. Even before that, there was the heart attack, two days before Christmas, and a subsequent angioplasty. In a strange way, that heart attack was a blessing. Hanson was scheduled to have the kidney surgery. If he hadn't had the angioplasty, the kidney operation might have killed him. But there are other ailments, too: A few years ago, after a terrifying attack of vertigo, Hanson was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that can prove fatal.

But it's the accident he wants to talk about. The accident. The lawyers. The court system. The room where he's sitting, a small bedroom in his split-level Anoka home, is full of cardboard boxes brimming with legal documents--the legacy of the personal-injury lawsuit he brought after the accident put an end to his career as a long-haul trucker. In legal terms, Hanson's case came to a close in 1995, when he reluctantly agreed to a settlement that netted him $121,000. All but $18,000 of that money is long gone, eaten up by medical bills, a divorce, maintenance on the Peterbilt he no longer drives.

Under the terms of the settlement, Hanson isn't supposed to talk about his case. That has never stopped him, however. He believes he was bullied by the system, cheated out of his right to take his case to a judge and jury by lawyers whose aim was to wrap up the matter quickly, quietly, and cheaply. So he has kept copies of the documents, and now he pores over them daily, stubbornly searching for clues embedded in the minutiae.

Copies of letters of complaint he has written are laid out in neat piles on the bed. Two years ago Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch got one. (The first draft, handwritten, was 53 pages long; a sister-in-law helped Hanson boil it down.) A deputy in Hatch's office sent a response: Sorry about your misfortunes, we can't help. Plenty of other public officials have received Hanson's plaintive screeds: U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, whom Hanson admires for rendering one of the few favorable decisions in his battle. Kathleen Blatz, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. State Rep. Jim Abeler. The Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. Hanson also maintains files of newspaper clippings, most of which recount cases of legal malpractice and attorney misconduct. He has carefully annotated them in the margins, citing similarities or connections to his situation. For a man everyone thought would spend the rest of his life as a vegetable, Burt Hanson has immaculate cursive.

"One might think I'm a little obsessed. I guess I have to admit I have been," he confesses. "But if you'd been screwed like I've been screwed, you might be a little uptight, too."

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