Fall and Rise
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."
For the better part of the past decade, Hanson says, he struggled to "overcome emotion." He uses that phrase a lot. For a long time, when he became frustrated or agitated, Hanson would sob like a child. Other times he'd throw a tantrum. Sometimes he would drop to the floor, crawl under a table, and curl up in a fetal position. Once, he'll tell you, he did just that during a mediation meeting, and he was carted off to the hospital in ambulance. He saved the bill for that ambulance call--which he refused to pay, out of the belief that his attorneys caused his breakdown.
Another time his own court-appointed guardian had him declared incompetent. That hurt. A lot of things hurt. His wife leaving. Losing his home. Losing his job. Losing everything. Still, Hanson remains consumed by one question: What happened to him? And he believes answers are here, in this room, buried somewhere in the depositions, or in the medical reports, or maybe in the faded photographs of the loading dock where he nearly lost his life.
The youngest of four sons of a carpenter and a homemaker, Burton W. Hanson spent his early childhood in Montevideo before the family moved to Minneapolis when he was 13. After graduating from high school in 1957, he attended the University of Minnesota for a year and then, following in the footsteps of his brothers, he enlisted in the service. In 1963, while still in the army, he married Lois and adopted Debbie, her daughter from a previous marriage. The couple had two more children, Darla and Brett.
The army's Combat Engineers had given him a taste for working around heavy equipment, and after a succession of warehouse jobs Hanson found work driving a truck. He drove for a friend who had a blacktopping outfit in Bloomington and later took a job with the Hennepin County Highway Department. But he didn't care for "the regimental life," and by the early 1980s he was in business for himself: an owner-operator.
On May 6, 1991, Hanson was scheduled to pick up a load at Anoka County's largest employer, the FMC Corporation in Fridley, a major defense contractor now known as United Defense. He didn't want the job. He'd just returned from a trip halfway across the continent and would just as soon have spent some time at home with his wife, who was still raw over Debbie's death. But he had a business to run. His company, which had boasted a fleet of 15 trucks at its peak, had suffered when he took time away from work during his daughter's illness, and for a time he'd even fallen behind on his house payments. By 1991 Hanson owned only one truck, a 1973 Peterbilt Model 352 he called Critter. Hanson prided himself on his safety record: He'd logged more than two million miles in Critter without an accident. "He'd been around heavy equipment all his life, and he knew enough to be cautious," recalls Jerry Reiter, owner of Midwest Diesel, a truck dealership in Blaine where Hanson did business for decades. "He was a perfectionist. Kept that truck in immaculate shape."
At around noon on that May day, Hanson signed in at the guard gate at FMC. He backed his rig into an indoor loading bay, Door 6, and waited for the riggers to return from their break and load him up. They didn't get under way until four o'clock and didn't finish until quitting time, so Hanson was left alone to strap down the load and tarp it over.
His memory of what came next is spotty. He remembers seeing a sheet of plastic material hanging down from a box atop a dumpster in the loading zone. He stuffed the plastic into the box, but a draft in the cavernous warehouse kept blowing it out down into the narrow walkway beside his truck. He recalls ratcheting down the straps to hold the cargo in place on his flatbed. "I got up on top of my trailer with my sledge to pound down the corners of the crates so they wouldn't rip my tarps," he says. "And I remember getting off the trailer."
From that point on, everything is vague. "I remember for a split second somebody standing in front of me. I can't tell you why," Hanson continues. "And then I remember talking to the Boss Upstairs and thinking, 'If you want me, take me--I'm ready. If you don't, throw me back.'"
Sometime between 5:30 and 5:45 p.m., according to depositions later taken in connection with the accident, an FMC employee who worked in the plant's paint shop happened to walk past Door 6 and spotted Hanson staggering around the front of his semi. The staffer, who was deaf, tracked down another employee, a janitor, and scribbled a note indicating that Hanson looked as if he may have suffered a heart attack. In his deposition, the janitor stated that he escorted Hanson to a restroom and noticed he was bleeding from the nose and seemed disoriented. The janitor summoned the company nurse, who noted in her deposition that one of Hanson's eyes was swollen shut and that he couldn't tell her what month it was or recall his home phone number.
At 6:58 p.m., more than an hour after Hanson was found, someone at FMC called 911 for an ambulance. Upon arriving at Unity Hospital in Coon Rapids, he was given a CAT scan and transferred to the intensive care unit. Dr. Daniel Alhberg, the neurosurgeon who was summoned, would later testify that Hanson had suffered a series of fractures on both sides of his skull, indicating that his head had struck the concrete floor with considerable force. There were also extensive hemorrhages, Alhberg noted, and bruising on the brain.
Brett Hanson and his mother were at the family's home in Ramsey waiting for Burt to come home for dinner when the call came. "When my mother picked up the phone, she went ashen-faced," recalls Brett, who's now 30. "I knew right then it wasn't good.
"What I remember most was the waiting," Brett goes on. "There was a lot of pressure on his brain, and it was causing damage. The doctors said they couldn't do anything about it. At that point he'd gone into a coma. We were told that if he lived, there was a good chance he'd be brain-dead."
Later that night Brett went to FMC to lock up his father's truck. At the time, he says, he was overwhelmed with emotion: "Have you ever been in a car wreck? There's just that moment where you're lost, you're within yourself, and that's all there is. Just a daze. It was like that." Still, he noticed a few things, including a sheet of plastic and a pile of boards in the walkway next to the semi. He didn't think much of it. Given the severity of his father's injuries, he assumed Hanson had fallen off the trailer while putting a tarp over the crates.
Brain injuries come in an infinite variety. Sometimes the effects are quite mild, barely detectable to outsiders. Other times they're nothing short of bizarre. Neurologist Oliver Sacks made a career out of documenting unusual cases. Many of his subjects suffered curious deficits: An artist injured in a car accident was unaffected, save for a total loss of the ability to discern color; a man lost the ability to recognize faces and thus mistook his wife's for a hat; a railroad worker whose frontal lobe was penetrated by a steel rod in a freak accident survived but lost his moral reasoning. In the popular 2001 film Memento, the protagonist suffers a brain injury that makes it impossible for him to incorporate new experiences into his long-term memory, putting him in a constant state of forgetfulness. The affliction lent itself to nifty plot devices, as the story unfolds backward. But it too is grounded in the medical literature.
The majority of brain injuries, though, have less exotic consequences. Of the estimated 94,000 Minnesotans who live with brain injury, most return to work and resume a relatively normal existence, says Tom Gode, executive director of the Minnesota Brain Injury Association. But for those who sustain more severe injuries, the aftermath can be ruinous. Divorce is one very common outcome. A recent British study of 131 people with traumatic brain injuries found that 49 percent divorced within eight years. That figure may be on the low side, Gode says.
Financial problems often play into the marriages' failure. Even among less serious injuries, planning and organizational skills frequently deteriorate, which can translate into a lost job. "If they don't remember to stay on task, they can't keep their jobs," Gode observes. "So job loss is pretty consistent. The economics are just devastating. We see people who max out their private insurance in their first year. At that point the only help is medical assistance, and you've got to spend yourself into poverty to qualify."
For spouses of people afflicted with brain injuries, profound personality changes are usually the biggest factor. "There's frequently a loss of inhibition. Poor judgment skills. Behavioral outbursts. Impulsive behavior," says Gode. "The individual who comes home from the hospital isn't always the individual you knew before." While such changes may be baffling and unnerving to spouses, the loss of memory can have terrifying consequences for the injured person. As an example, Gode cites the case of a woman who has emerged from a coma and is about to go home from the hospital: "The doctors say, 'Your husband is going to take you home now.' And she doesn't have a clue who this person is."
Not surprisingly, severe episodes of depression are common among people who suffer brain injuries, notes Robert Karol, director of neuropsychology at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. "Some of it is similar to what you see in cases with spinal-cord injuries and cancer," Karol says. But there's a key difference: "You have to cope with this with a brain that is not functioning very well. That makes it very, very challenging."
When Burt Hanson emerged from his coma two weeks after his accident, he wasn't the same person. His speech was profoundly impaired; the simplest utterance, "I am Burt," became "I me." He stuttered terribly. And his memory was shot. "He didn't remember who his wife was. Who his kids were. Who his brothers were," his son Brett recalls. While memory gradually returned, Hanson struggled to manage his anger and despair. For the next six years, he was in and out of hospitals. "He had just enough self-awareness to know he couldn't do what he used to do," his son says ruefully. "It was almost like the terrible twos, with the temper tantrums, the lack of reason. It was way too much for my mother to deal with."
Though he and Lois would not divorce until 1996, the marriage fell apart quickly after Burt's accident. Part of the problem was financial. Hanson's disability insurance had lapsed before the accident, and it wasn't long before the couple fell behind on their house payments once again. "The long and the short of it is that we finally lost our house a year and a half after I got hurt," Hanson says. "Lost our equity, lost everything. And that was tough on my wife: No house. A husband with the blazes of a head injury. Half crazy. I guess for that reason, I'm not angry with her for leaving me."
Lois Hanson says the decision to split was a mutual one, but the changes in her husband were overwhelming, more than she could bear. When he came home from the hospital, he was either angry, depressed, or hopelessly confused. And to him, she felt, she'd come to represent all that had been lost. "In the blink of an eye, the man I married no longer existed," she says. "We had plans for the future. We were five years from having our home paid for. And then our whole world was blown apart."
In 1994 Hanson underwent a battery of tests at the Noran Neurological Clinic in Fridley. In a nine-page report, psychologist Gary Krupp offered a bleak assessment: The patient showed poor tracking abilities, poor concentration, impaired speech, and a "pronounced psychological regression." Given that more than three years had passed since his injury, Krupp concluded that no additional recovery was to be expected, and that it was "extremely unlikely that Mr. Hanson will ever be able to return to competitive employment."
Despite his disabilities, Hanson found himself increasingly preoccupied with understanding how he'd been injured. "I thought a lot of different things," he says now. "Maybe I got hit by the loading crane coming down the track above me. Maybe I got hit by somebody sneaking up behind me. Spooky things--the mind can play tricks on you, can cause you to imagine things that aren't true."
At first Hanson and his family had settled on a more benign explanation: He must have fallen off his trailer while attempting to affix the tarps. That was the explanation FMC favored, and with good reason: If Hanson had slipped off his own vehicle, the company might be relieved of any legal obligation to compensate him for his injury. But over time, Hanson began to consider another scenario, one that he now believes was the true cause of his injury: He'd slipped on the loose sheet of plastic he remembered seeing dangling in the loading dock. This theory of unsafe working conditions was the basis of a lawsuit the Hansons brought against FMC in U.S. District Court in 1993. Owing to the severity of Burt Hanson's injuries, a lot of money was at stake: The family sought $4 million.
Shortly after Hanson was hurt, his wife contacted an Anoka law firm, Soucie, Buckman and Bolt, to investigate. According to attorney John Buckman, the case was problematic from the outset, chiefly because there had been no witnesses to the accident. It wasn't long, the attorney says, before he became convinced that he wouldn't be able to establish a theory of liability that would hold up in court, and so he withdrew from the case.
The family proceeded through a succession of lawyers. First they turned to Philip Leavenworth, a St. Paul criminal defense attorney with scant civil litigation experience. Leavenworth brought another lawyer, Robert Espeset, on board, and Espeset handled the bulk of the depositions and interrogatories. But in May 1995 Hanson rejected an initial settlement offer, and Espeset withdrew from the case, whereupon Leavenworth teamed with Marlon O. Haugen, an attorney from Excelsior. Unfortunately Haugen, who would be Hanson's last attorney of record, came to the case while under investigation by the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. In 1996 the board found that Haugen had mishandled clients' funds and suspended his license indefinitely.
FMC, meanwhile, secured the services of one of the state's most renowned law firms: Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi.
Hanson complains that his lawyers failed to highlight the hourlong lapse before an ambulance was summoned. "You don't have to be a brain surgeon to know that wasn't a good idea," he quips. Other troubling mysteries include the fact that Anoka County failed to record the 911 call; a tape, Hanson maintains, might have contained some information about how he was injured. (In a 1995 letter, Anoka County communications supervisor John Tonding attributed the failure to an unknown equipment malfunction.) Additionally, Hanson points out that a forensic engineer his attorneys hired had reconstructed the accident and concluded that the most plausible explanation was that Hanson had slipped and fallen on the loose plastic sheeting--a scenario that was supported by the testimony of Dr. Alhberg, the Unity Hospital neurologist, as well.
Hanson maintains that his attorneys, outgunned by FMC, were focused on a quick exit strategy. (That view is shared by his ex-wife Lois, who says the pressure to settle always seemed paramount.) But the legal mismatch may not have made a big difference, asserts Robert Hauer Jr., a local attorney who specializes in brain injury cases. Hauer is familiar with Hanson's case: After Hanson rejected the initial settlement offer, Hauer was appointed by the court to serve as his guardian ad litem--an unpaid role intended to protect the interests of a vulnerable party. "Burt had one hell of a bad injury. No question about that," Hauer says. "But the question was how the injury occurred. The issue for me was: Should Burt take the case to trial? The only thing Burt could prove is that he fell on FMC's property."
Resolving Hanson's other contentions would not necessarily strengthen his legal claim, adds Hauer. "You would have to be able to get a physician to say with reasonable medical certainty that the delay in treatment worsened his condition," he says of the 911 call. "And I think that would be next to impossible." And what of the plastic sheeting? There was no independent testimony to verify that it was on the floor, Hauer replies.
In March 1995, after reviewing the case, Hauer told U.S. Magistrate Judge Ann Montgomery that Hanson should be required to accept a settlement of $150,000. Montgomery agreed. In a written recommendation to U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, she noted that the plaintiff's desire to "have his day in court" appeared "strong and heartfelt." But she also determined that he'd have only a slim chance of prevailing in a jury trial, and she urged that Hanson be required to accept FMC's offer.
During the settlement talks, Hanson had felt bullied--by FMC's lawyer, by the mediator, and by his own attorneys. In one mediation meeting, he suffered a nervous breakdown. "I was down on the floor, bawling like a baby. My attorney was saying, 'Burton Hanson, you accept this offer.' I was screaming, 'No, no, no!'" he recalls. Darla McGrath, Hanson's daughter, became so alarmed that she called an ambulance and had her father taken to the hospital, where he remained under observation for a week.
But in Judge Davis's courtroom, Hanson managed to, as he puts it, "overcome emotion." Though Hauer argued that he wasn't competent to make a decision on the settlement, Hanson was able to state his case. "When he was upset, he used to hold his head and rub it, like a five-year-old," Brett Hanson says of his father. "I thought he was going to break down and have a tantrum. But he controlled himself. And Judge Davis said, 'Mr. Hanson, you seem quite competent and reasonable to me.' I was very proud of him at that moment."
Though the victory was cathartic, any pleasure Hanson took in Davis's ruling proved short-lived. In November 1995 he finally agreed to settle, for $200,000. His take, after the attorneys got their cut: $121,333. Following his divorce the next year, that figure dwindled to about $80,000--"a puny, paltry sum," Hanson calls it.
Almost immediately, Hanson regretted his decision to settle. Within months he was cold-calling lawyers, hoping to find a way to back out of the deal. He says he'd been emotionally fragile during the final settlement conference, which was held in the Duluth courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Raymond Erickson. He thought he was on the brink of another breakdown, and under pressure from his wife, attorneys Haugen and Leavenworth, and even Erickson, he felt he had no choice but to accede. "It was an opportunity to get out of the immediate situation. I was overwhelmed. I needed a break," Hanson recalls. "I was afraid of the repercussions. The judge leaned into my face, he just flat leaned into my face, and he said, 'Mr. Hanson, I guarantee you ain't never gonna win in court.'"
The attorneys involved in Hanson's settlement--including his lawyer Robert Espeset, FMC's counsel Jim Behrenbrinker, and mediator Sheryl Ramstad Hvass--declined to discuss the case in detail, owing to the provisions of the final agreement. Still, one of Hanson's attorneys, Philip Leavenworth, has this to add about the confidentiality stipulation: "Am I uncomfortable with that? Yes, I am. Confidentiality agreements prevent important stories from being told, and I think Burton has such a story. But I am bound by that agreement, so I can only speak in the most general terms. I'll say this: The civil litigation system is a real mess. If I say any more, I'm going to feel I've done wrong by my word."
In February of this year, the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board dismissed Hanson's most recent gripe, declining to investigate his allegation that his first attorney, John Buckman, had a conflict because he'd previously worked for FMC. Board director Edward Cleary noted in his written explanation that Hanson had expressed "displeasure with nearly every other lawyer involved" in his case, and added that "even if there were evidence of improper conduct, the passage of time would make it extremely difficult to investigate any allegations." (Buckman denies ever having worked for the firm.)
Hanson knows the clock is running out for any legal redress. "The only thing I know is to keep plodding along, keep trying, keep trying to cope," he says. "I wanted to be happy in this life. I'm as happy as I can be. I believe I'll be a little happier if I can force them people to take me to court and have somebody for once listen to my side of the story. I don't feel my attorneys, the courts, ever listened to my side of the story."
Not that he hasn't found people willing to lend a sympathetic ear. Joann Johnson met Hanson shortly after he received the initial payment on his settlement. A sales and service representative at the TCF Bank in Anoka, Johnson took a shine to her new client, though at first he seemed like a deeply troubled and damaged man. "He still had a hard time getting his words out, but he was pushing himself to get back in good health. He needed some moral support," Johnson says.
Hanson was living alone in an apartment in downtown Anoka at the time, and because he had neither a driver's license nor a car, the bank was the most handy place to make photocopies. Gradually he began to share his story with Johnson and her husband Orall, a former attorney who'd quit his practice to become a high school teacher. Convinced their new friend had gotten a raw deal, the Johnsons were soon helping Hanson draft letters to attorneys and public officials.
Though he's disappointed at his friend's setbacks, Orall Johnson sees a bright side to Hanson's travails. "Sometimes I'm concerned that Burt's become so involved in this that it's going to be devastating if he fails. But it's kept him going," Johnson says. "He's had something to fight for, and I think that has really helped his recovery."
Darla McGrath worries that her father dwells too much on the past. A critical-care nurse, she notes that a certain rigidity of thought can be a side effect of brain injury. "He's ruminated over this for so long, I don't know how well he'll be able to let go of it. It looms over his life." Still, she observes, her father has come further in his recovery than anyone--family members or doctors--ever expected.
Among neurologists, it's commonly believed that the physical healing of a brain injury tends to plateau within a year. "After that you usually decide the person has back most of what they are going to get back," says Bethesda Hospital's Dr. Robert Karol. Though some patients do beat the averages, Karol says it's more common to see people appear to continue to recover brain functions, when they're actually just getting better at compensating for what has been lost. At any rate, the distinction between recovery and compensation isn't always clear to either doctor or patient, Karol notes. "There is a lot of controversy about what kind of recovery should be expected as you get into year two, and year three. But a lot of people with brain injury say they are getting more brain function back," he says.
Adds Brett Hanson: "There's my old dad and my new dad. My old dad was a meat-and-potatoes guy. Work your tail off to get ahead. Very old-school. Good business head on his shoulders. Now he's definitely more open. I've developed a friendship with him."
This past August Burt Hanson remarried. His met his new wife, Mary, at United Methodist Church in Anoka. Mary didn't know Burt before his injury, but she marvels at her husband's relentless will to recover. "He always to tries to improve himself," she says. "I don't think there's an end to how much he can regain."
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