Loren and Eva Schlabach lost their only son in a traffic accident on a clear summer day more than two years ago. Today, their pain remains so unbearable that they might be willing to risk losing their community to find justice.
At 12:17 p.m. on July 9, 2012, while Loren was at work, Eva, then 25, was driving the family’s horse-drawn buggy east on SR 120, about three miles north of Shipshewana, with their two daughters and son. They were moving through an S-shaped curve in the road, marked with “NO PASSING” signs, when a semi-tractor trailer struck them as it attempted to pass from behind, sending their buggy into a roadside ditch. Eva and her daughter, Nichole, then 3, were flown to a hospital in Fort Wayne and were later released. Darla, then 4, was taken by ambulance to a hospital in LaGrange and also survived.
But their 7-month-old son, Jaedon, was killed in the crash.
The LaGrange County Sheriff’s Department initially reported that that the buggy had pulled from the road’s shoulder out into the path of the semi, driven by Jerry Hendrick, then 68, of Bronson, Mich. That was the story that was reported in the news media, too.
But contrary to that initial report, a subsequent investigation by an Indiana State Police crash reconstructionist found that Hendrick was at fault. Since then, LaGrange County Prosecutor Jeffrey Wible filed a misdemeanor criminal recklessness charge against Hendrick, along with citations for driving left of center, failure to obey signs and markings, and improper passing, according to court records.
Hendrick has filed an initial plea of not guilty and requested a jury trial. The charges are still pending.
Hendrick’s employer, White Pigeon, Mich.-based Sevison Transport Inc., has refused to compensate the family for its medical costs.
The Amish don’t carry health or auto insurance, said Rick Crowder, a Goshen attorney who is representing the family in a lawsuit they’ve recently filed against Hendrick and Sevison Transport in the United States District Court for Northern Indiana.
Turn the other cheek
Filing lawsuits is “highly unusual” in the Amish community because it runs contrary to their religious belief in “non-resistance and defenselessness,” said Steve Nolt, a Goshen College history professor who studies Amish culture.
Specifically, Nolt said the Amish aversion to the courts comes from 1 Corinthians 6:1-20, a Bible passage that begins, “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?”
Nolt noted that the Amish have been plaintiffs in cases brought by third parties around religious freedom issues, such as the right to educate their children in Amish private schools. In those cases, the most famous of which was Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Amish were initially defendants but were allowed by their church to appeal rulings that first went against them.
“In terms of Amish-owned businesses, I know of some Amish firms that would not file suits even when obviously taken advantage of by an unscrupulous supplier or customer,” Nolt said. “It is not unusual for them to absorb an unjust loss rather than file suit in court.”
Amish scholar Edsel Burdge, research associate at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietest Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, agreed.
“Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, he says don’t resist evil if someone harms you,” Burdge said. “If someone wants to take you to law, you are supposed to try to do whatever you can to quickly settle and meet their demands. It’s a teaching based in the New Testament and a traditional kind of Anabaptist way that you approach things.”
Burdge said he would be surprised if the family has the blessing of their bishop.
“It would be hard for me to think that that’s OK,” Burdge said. “But I don’t know, sometimes people in groups, even the Amish, will make exceptions, but I doubt it. I would guess that if they continue with this lawsuit they will be put out of the church.”
Burdge said he regularly reads three Amish newspapers, and they frequently report on buggy crashes, but he’s never heard of an Amish person filing a lawsuit over a crash.
“In some sense normally it’s fatalistic,” he said of their attitude. “This is God’s will and we need to accept what’s happened. They grieve and they have a whole community that supports them.”
Crowder said he and the Schlabachs have agreed that the couple should not be interviewed by The Elkhart Truth. He said the Schlabachs have not told him whether their bishop approves of their lawsuit. The Elkhart Truth’s attempts to contact their bishop were unsuccessful.
“I’ve talked to them briefly about this and they’ve said they’ve talked to someone in their hierarchy, and they’re pursuing a matter about this, and that’s all I know,” Crowder said.
Because Amish culture is so closed off from the outside world, being removed from their church congregation, which typically measures 75 to 100 members in this area, is seen as a severe ramification. But Crowder said the still-grieving family wants justice for their son.
“When I was approached it wasn’t so much an issue of compensation, it was that this is wrong,” Crowder said. “This report and what this trucking company is saying is not correct. What can we do about it? ’They said we turned into the semi and the horse turned, and the horse had one little abrasion on its hindquarter.’ They said, ’This doesn’t make any sense.’ They know they didn’t turn left. They know the tractor-trailer came up and clipped them and flipped their buggy over. This isn’t right. What can be done about this?”
In their reply in court, Hendrick and Sevison Transport have raised the defense of “comparative negligence,” meaning Eva, and even possibly the horse, were at fault.
Hendrick’s and Sevison Transport’s Indianapolis attorney, Christoper Whitten, declined to comment when contacted by The Elkhart Truth.
A trial date has yet to be set in the case.
As is common in federal civil litigation, the parties have been ordered to undergo mediation, a process by which a mediator attempts to establish fault and compensation if it is owed by the defendants. If the mediator finds Sevison was at fault and the company refuses to pay damages at a level the Schlabachs believe is adequate, the case will proceed to trial.
Meanwhile, Crowder said the family is struggling to move on from Jaedon’s death.
“You can imagine anyone who’s gone through the loss of a child, for any reason, the amount of grief,” he said. “There’s certainly, in addition to extensive grief and depression, the inability to sleep, things that come up that trigger reminders of the incident and loss of the child.”