When people start talking about Peter DeTroy’s biggest cases, the great “Hockey Dad” trial of 2005 probably won’t make the list.

DeTroy – whose sudden death Saturday still comes as a shock – practiced law in Portland for more than 30 years and was involved in some of the state’s most important cases.

He was on the winning side of multimillion-dollar civil verdicts, and stood beside defendants who were looking at life in prison. He represented banks, businesses and motorcycle gang members. When lawyers needed a lawyer, he was the one they wanted to hire.

But the “Hockey Dad” case is the one I’ll always think of when I think of DeTroy, and the way his dignity and sense of proportion could take over a room, calming everyone down while their emotions were about to tear them apart.

The case began in 2002 with a hard hit near the end of a Pee Wee League hockey game. One 12-year-old was handling the puck, and a kid on the other team knocked him hard into the boards.

After all the players left the ice, the father of the boy who had been hit, a doctor, charged into the opposing locker room and confronted the young player, cursing at him and menacing him with the butt of a hockey stick.

Witnesses heard him say, “Keep away from my (expletive) kid!” and “I’m going to get you next time!”

The boy’s family sued the doctor, saying their son had been terrified by seeing an adult lose control like that. The case went before a jury, and the plaintiff’s attorney put on witnesses who described the scene in the locker room and the doctor’s confrontation with the boy. The boy’s father testified how at first his son seemed OK, but in the coming days he could see him become tentative on the ice and afraid to play hockey. When his teachers and coaches started asking if something was wrong, the family sent the boy to a counselor.

The family’s lawyer said that this was an opportunity for jury to send a message to parents who are ruining youth sports with their destructive passion. He called on the jurors to find that the doctor acted with malice, which would open the door to punitive damages and letting them deliver an award that would show all sports parents that abusive behavior won’t be tolerated.

Then it was time for the defense and Peter DeTroy. In his questioning of the witnesses and in his statement to the jury, DeTroy focused on the hit that preceded the incident, not the incident itself. How hard was the hit? How long did it take the boy to get back on his feet? How did he feel afterward? What did his family in the stands think?

This looked strange because that’s not what the case was supposed to be about. Everybody knows there is hitting in hockey. No penalty had been called. The trial was about the scene in the locker room, not what happened on the ice.

The jury deliberated for two hours and came back with a verdict.

They found that the doctor had assaulted the boy and was liable for direct damages. But they found that he did not act with malice, so there would be no punitive damages. Judgment for plaintiff: $330, the price of three meetings with a counselor.

“There are no winners here,” DeTroy said outside, after he clearly won but refused to gloat.

How can you assault someone without malice? DeTroy got the jury there with his focus on the hit. He told them a story about a father who thought his son was in danger and said some things that he later regretted.

The case was not about a problem with youth sports, but a problem with emotional triggers, something that could happen to any of us. What the doctor did was stupid and wrong, DeTroy agreed, but that didn’t make it the kind of dispute that you need a jury to settle.

I remember during a recess in that case, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys complained in frustration, “(DeTroy) calms everyone down.”

That’s bad for an opponent who wants to rile up a jury, but, generally speaking, calming everyone down is a good thing.

We need more people with a sense of proportion who conduct themselves with dignity and who can keep our emotions from taking us to places we don’t want to be.

We need people like Peter DeTroy. That’s why it’s so sad to see him go.


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