About a month ago, we discussed Martin Joel Erzinger, the Solomon Smith Barney money manager who ran over a surgeon and then fled the scene—only to have his felony charges dropped by the Eagle County district attorney, who helpfully explained that he didn’t want to hurt Erzinger’s ability to make money. Those charges have since been re-filed, presumably as a result of massive outrage rays bombarding the Eagle County DA’s office and making the coke stick to the hookers. Recognizing that their client once again faces a PR disaster, Erzinger’s attorneys have constructed a new defense: his Mercedes was so new that its overpowering new Mercedes smell messed him up. Now to sit back and let the sympathy roll in.
Erzinger’s lawyers claim that he has sleep apnea and “dozed off” just before hitting Steven Milo, a 33 year-old transplant surgeon who was riding his bicycle along the highway. Exactly when Erzinger woke up again is unclear. Presumably, it was sometime between hitting Milo and driving to the Pizza Hut in the next town, although it’s possible he didn’t wake up until he finished putting his side mirror in the trunk.
That’s not important now. The important thing is that an accident reconstructionist believes that the fumes coming from the wood-grain dash and fine Corinthian leather of Erzinger’s month-old Mercedes caused him to lose consciousness. Basically, Erzinger’s car was so fuckin’ sweet that he passed out. Nuanced legal arguments like this one can’t be paraphrased, though. It’s best to quote the accident reconstructionist directly:
“Harmful and noxious gases emitted from the upholstery can infiltrate the driver’s compartment and potentially alter the driver.”
Now that is some carefully-worded explaining, right there. Notice that the “gases” emitted by new car upholstery don’t “impair” the driver, as that would leave some room for negligence. No, Erzinger was “altered” by the interior of his car. Stepping into his new Mercedes didn’t just make him funnier and more attractive; it also put him in a dreamlike state that prevented him from realizing that he ran over a man on a bicycle.
Additional style points go to the phrase “harmful and noxious gases,” which sounds much better than “smells,” especially in context of the connotatively cramped and airtight space of the “driver’s compartment.” Points must be deducted, however, for the too-showy “infiltrate.” I know we’re casting the odor of leather as an insidious nerve gas that makes men unable to perceive their own actions, but it’s hard to infiltrate the place where you have been physically located for your entire existence. The peanut butter does not infiltrate the jar.
But these are semantics. The real beauty of this argument lies in its utter deafness to how ordinary people might see Erzinger’s case. From the standpoint of a disinterested observer, Erzinger seems to be What’s Wrong With America. He manages billions of dollars in portfolios for Solomon Smith Barney, which maybe helped cause our ongoing recession but certainly recovered from it a lot quicker. He’s a rich guy, and he’s the bad kind of rich guy: the kind who makes his money using arcane techniques to make even more money for other people who are already even more rich. He managed to run over the other kind of rich guy: a transplant surgeon who stacks that paper because he is one of very few people who can use his specialized knowledge to prevent other human beings’ deaths. Or at least he could, until Erzinger’s Mercedes ran over his brain.
Knowing that Mercedes was brand new is not likely to move a jury. It’s hard not to feel bad for Erzinger, who surely hit Milo by accident, panicked, and made a bad situation worse. His new car defense appears to be the product of a man desperately trying to prevent his life from being unmade by one mistake. I can imagine nothing worse than that feeling, except maybe the feeling of a 2010 E Class running over me from behind while I sit on a bicycle. You can’t blame Erzinger for trying every defense at his disposal. You can’t blame him for an unequal American society in which an increasingly entrenched aristocracy bends law and government to its own interests, either. It sure is tempting, though.