For any free society to be successful, there must exist not only individual liberty, but also individual responsibility. Sadly, both qualities are dissipating in America today and the standards of personal choice and responsibility that once were applied in the common law have been eroded to alarming levels under our current tort system. Too often, human parasites, ambulance chasers, and even criminals are seeking to benefit from their own negligence or bad luck. Ironically, they are increasingly petitioning the very judicial system that is supposed to protect our rights and freedoms and administer justice — and winning.
It was a tragedy when 86 year-old George Russell Weller drove his automobile through several barricades into a crowded farmers' market in Santa Monica, California this July, killing 10 people and injuring dozens of others. Mr. Weller's guilt was obvious and his insurance is sure to be wiped out as a result. Therefore, victims of the accident are already lining up to sue the city of Santa Monica, which has much deeper pockets. Five suits have been filed to date against the city. That's right, if successful, Santa Monica taxpayers are going to foot the bill for Mr. Weller's negligence because, according to some of the victims, the city contributed to the crime by not erecting stronger barricades or otherwise doing more to prevent a man from driving into a crowd of people. Complains Sonia Moriel, who is seeking $500 from the city to cover acupuncture treatment for leg injuries allegedly suffered when a table was thrown into her, knocking her to the ground, "The city of Santa Monica has not come forth and taken any responsibility for this at all." It seems that it never occurred to Ms. Moriel that this is because the city does not bear any responsibility for the accident, and that her sense of justice should be properly directed toward the driver who caused the accident.
Imagine if every driver who had been the victim of a fender bender sued the local government for not constructing roads that allow for more traction, or the federal government for not requiring auto manufacturers to install stronger bumpers! Each time you stub your toe on the coffee table, perhaps you should sue the manufacturer of your furniture or shoes for making their products too sturdy or not sturdy enough. Maybe you can bring legal action against your local weatherman, who did not adequately warn you that the sun's rays would be especially strong today, and that your sunburn could have been prevented by applying sufficient amounts of sunscreen.
Another example of gratuitous litigation recently caught my eye. On an episode of MSNBC's "The Abrams Report," host Dan Abrams was interviewing Johnnie Brown and her attorney. Mrs. Brown is suing the Argosy Casino in Indiana. Did the casino's slot machines steal her quarters, you ask? Was she mistreated by a casino employee? No, Mrs. Brown is suing the casino for not preventing her husband from (gasp) gambling there. It seems Willie Brown, 53, had been frequenting the slots and blackjack tables too frequently and had frittered away most of the money for their mortgage, car insurance, gas and electric bills, and retirement funds — more than $80,000 in total over four years. Indiana, like several other states requires that casinos provide a program that allows gamblers to place themselves on a banned patrons list. If those that put themselves on such a list are caught in the casino, they are subject to fines or even imprisonment. While it may seem silly to subject oneself to punishment for not breaking any real law, and even more so to punish someone for entering a casino by taking away his money (at least the average gambler gets to enjoy playing the games while losing their money), nevertheless, Mr. Brown did not enroll himself in such a program. He has refused to attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings, so Mrs. Brown decided to sue to recoup the money that was (surprise!) lost at the casino. Asked by Abrams why she did not simply separate her funds from her husband's, Mrs. Brown responded, "We've had one account as long as we've been together and I just feel that's the way it should be. These people should not be able to destroy me." Huh? Unfortunately, this is not the first such suit, and numerous others are destined to follow.
Lest you think these are simply isolated incidents, here are some other examples of frivolous lawsuits brought by irresponsible plaintiffs over the past couple of years:
- Last August, Maggie Smith filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Dr. Franklin Price, physician for her husband, Lawrence, who died of a heart attack at age 54. Mr. Smith, at six-feet, two inches and 260 pounds, smoked, exercised little, and had a poor diet, the last of which had triggered high cholesterol and diabetes. While treating Mr. Smith for prostate cancer, Dr. Price advised Mr. Smith to stop smoking and see a cardiologist. For her husband's sloth and general neglect for his body, resulting in his death, Mrs. Smith won a verdict of $4.7 million.
- Even bad weather is now grounds for legal action. Yes, now the anger of the gods can be your windfall jury verdict. In Ohio, the Perkins family is suing Paramount's Kings Island amusement park because Mr. Perkins was struck by lighting in the park's parking lot. He suffered significant brain damage as a result. It seems that the park's folly was in failing to warn patrons of an approaching electrical storm. Drake Ebner, attorney for the Perkins family, dismissed the notion that the park was being sued because of its vast economic resources and argued, "They could have told the people not to go to their cars, which are large metal objects that can attract lightning." Added Ebner, "Safety is not common sense." Apparently, neither is Mr. Ebner's practice of law.
A Sacramento Bee story published earlier this year reported some similar gems of jurisprudence:
- "Disturbed, Angelo Delgrande shot and wounded his parents and himself in a June, 1995 dispute. He then received surgery at a Westchester County, N.Y. hospital. That night, he yanked the tubes and monitoring devices from his body, then leapt off the second story of an adjacent parking garage in a suicide bid. He is now paraplegic. Delgrande sued the hospital for failing to treat his depression and keep him indoors. Last October, he won $9 million.
- "Neither a fence nor a lock could keep Ed O’Rourke from breaking into a Tampa Electric substation in 1996. He drunkenly climbed aboard a transformer that greeted him with 13,000 volts. In March 2000, he sued the power company, plus six bars he says got him hammered.
- "Snohomish County, Wash., police caught Mincho Donchev breaking into mountain cabins while armed with knives and handguns. When this Bulgarian escaped murderer resisted arrest, a police dog mauled his foot, costing him two toes. He sued and scored $412,500 in February 2000.
- "An Oakland, Calif., bank robber was unaware the bag of cash he stole contained a time-delayed tear-gas canister that went off, scorched him and sped his arrest. He sued the bank and the cops for $2 million for burning him."
Scores of similar examples can be found at the Web site www.Overlawyered.com.
In the current legal climate, where overweight diners sue fast food restaurants for contributing to their obesity, gamblers sue casinos for having the gall to allow them to gamble, and criminals sue the police and their victims for injuries sustained while caught in the act of their crimes, individuals and business owners have become so fearful of frivolous lawsuits that they have resorted to costly and drastic measures to avoid them. Thus, it should come as no surprise that a Seattle restaurant owner has mockingly resorted to forcing patrons to sign a waiver before eating the establishment's new fatty, sugary dessert. When such lawsuits do arise, it is usually cheaper to settle than to fight them in court. The results are higher insurance premiums, doctor's bills, and other goods and services for the rest of us.
It may be that some of the aforementioned plaintiffs are simply scared and confused by tragic circumstances. "Something bad has happened, so I must be compensated," they reason. Who must do the compensating, and why, are secondary concerns. But although circumstances surrounding one's misfortune may not be due to any fault of one's own, they are not necessarily the fault of the casino owner, the local government where the farmers' market took place, or the taxpayer, either. Other plaintiffs are clearly just plain malicious and opportunistic.
Tort reforms, such as a "loser-pays" provision to force plaintiffs to take into account costs as well as the potential benefits for pursuing legal action, and which thus encourage only plaintiffs with legitimate cases to bring suits, would be a step in the right direction. A little common sense in the jury room wouldn't hurt, either. Only when people begin to once again take responsibility for their actions and properly assign blame for their misfortunes (even when the blame lies on their own shoulders or when no one at all is at fault) can we restore a truly just and free society.
October 24, 2003