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    What happened to personal responsibility?

    (See separate pages for firearms, product liability, tobacco, workplace litigation)

    Overlawyered.com commentary [through mid-June 2003. Items after that date collected here]:

    Tipple your way to court, 2003: "Shouldn't have let him get so drunk" (Australia), May 12.  2002: "'Woman freezes; sues city, cabbie'", Sept. 18-19; "Wasn't his fault for lying drunk under truck", Aug. 16-18; "Hey, no fair talking about the pot" (highway rollover), Apr. 12-14; "European workplace notes" (employer responsible for vodka overdose), Feb. 25-26; "'Drunken Driver's Widow Wins Court's OK To Sue Carmaker'", Feb. 25-26. 2001: "'Teen hit by train while asleep on tracks sues railroad'", Dec. 12; "'Man suing after drunken driving crash'", Aug. 20-21; "Don't rock the Coke machine", Jul. 20-22; "Court says tipsy topless dancer can sue club", Jul. 3-4; "Jury: drunk driver hardly responsible at all for fatal crash", Jun. 15-17; "It was the bar's fault", Apr. 13-15; "'Court upholds workers compensation for drunk, injured worker'", Apr. 6-8; "'Woman who drove drunk gets $300,000'" (Ontario), Feb. 7-8 (& see Sept. 24, second case: $18 million); "'All you can drink' winner sues over fall", Jan. 31-Feb. 1.  2000: "'Fla. DUI Teen Sues Police'" (should have arrested him, he argues), Nov. 14; "$65 million Texas verdict: driver at twice the legal blood limit" (estate sues automaker), Mar. 28 (& Oct. 13, 2003: reversed on appeal); "Zapped pylon-climber sues liquor-servers, utility", Mar. 6.  1999: "Personal responsibility wins a round" (judge rejects case from Pa. man who got drunk and climbed high voltage catenary), Sept. 17-19. 

    Maybe crime does pay, 2003: "'Robber sues clerk who shot him during holdup'", May 6; "Not an April Fool's joke", Apr. 1; "'Burglars to be banned from suing victims'" (U.K.), Mar. 10-11; "'Family of electrocuted thief gets $75,000'", Feb. 26; "Tried to outrun Coast Guard in chase", Feb. 14-16; "'No suits by lawbreakers, please'", Jan. 27-28 (& Jan. 31-Feb. 2).  2002: "'Mom who drugged kids' ice cream sues'", Nov. 1-3; "'Patient sues hospital for letting him out on night he killed'" (Australia, psychiatric case), Oct. 16-17; "'Crime pays for teenage lout'" (Australia), Sept. 3-4; "'After stabbing son, mom sues doctors'", May 31-Jun. 2; "'Barbed wire might hurt burglars, pensioner warned'", May 28-29; "Hospital rapist sues hospital", May 22-23 (& Mar. 5-7, 2003: court dismisses case); "Lawyers say taxpayers owe $41 million to smuggled illegals' survivors", May 10-12; "L.A. police sued, and sued" (by family of gunman killed in shootout), Apr. 12-14; "Should have arrested him faster" (frostbite in the open), Mar. 1-3; "Vandal's dad sues store over blaze", Feb. 6-7; "Paroled prisoner: pay for not supervising me", Jan. 4-6.  2001: "Firefighter's demand: back pay for time facing criminal rap", Aug. 29-30; "'Man suing after drunken driving crash'", Aug. 20-21; "'Criminals could sue their victims'" (U.K.), Jul. 26; "'Woman who drove drunk gets $300,000'" (Ontario), Feb. 7-8; "Crime does pay" (Denver burglar shot by police gets $1.2 million), Feb. 2. 2000: "'Burglar sues for compensation'" (Australia), Nov. 21 (& see Apr. 1-2, 2002); "'Fla. DUI Teen Sues Police'" (should have arrested him, he argues), Nov. 14; "Killed his mother, now suing his psychiatrists", Oct. 2; "Not my fault, I" (woman who murdered daughter sues psychiatrists), May 17; "From the labor arbitration front" (disallowed firing of employee who pleaded no contest to larceny), Mar. 28; "Crime does pay, cont'd" (North Hollywood, Calif. bank robber killed in police shootout), Feb. 23 (& update Mar. 23: mistrial declared after jury deadlock); "County to pay 'mountain man' burglar $412,500", Feb. 15. 1999: "'Two men shot in suspected drug deal win $1.7 million'", Dec. 15 (& update Jun. 6, 2001: appeals court overturns); "California's worst?" (bank robber sues after hidden tear-gas device goes off in loot), Dec. 14; "Drunks have rights, too", Dec. 1 (& update Jul. 24-25, 2000: appeals court throws out award).  See also our editor's article on New York's "mugger millionaire" case

    Pools & swimming, 2003: "'Lawyers spoil fun'" (Ga. water park), May 19; "'Florida jury awards $100M for pool accident'", Feb. 13.  2002: "Australia's litigation debate", May 24-26.  2001: "Australian roundup" (bodysurfer), Nov. 23-25; "Needed: assumption of risk", Jul. 27-29.  2000: "'How's the pool?'" (Las Vegas Strip's Frontier Hotel recommended for its pre-big-lawsuits deep end), Feb. 23; "Latest shallow-end pool dive case", Jan. 24 (& update Oct. 13, 2003).  1999: "Razor wire on the pool fence" (homeowner finds it too big a legal risk to let local kids swim), Jul. 27. 

    "Should have watched his step answering call of nature", Mar. 8-9, 2003.

    Couldn't help eating it, 2003: "Give me my million", Jun. 20-22; "Judge tosses McDonald's obesity case", Jan. 23 (& Jan. 27-28); "Anti-diet activist hopes to sue Weight Watchers", Jan. 13-14.  2002: Letter to the editor, Oct. 23; "Claim: docs should have done more to help woman quit smoking and lose weight", Sept. 18-19; "Personal responsibility roundup", Sept. 12; "Fat suits, cont'd", Jul. 26-28; "'Ailing man sues fast-food firms'", Jul. 25; "Sin-suit city", Jun. 10; "McArdle on food as next-tobacco", May 27; "'Targeting "big food"'", Apr. 29-30; "Life imitates parody: 'Whose Fault Is Fat?'", Jan. 23-24.  2001: "'Diabetic German judge sues Coca-Cola for his health condition'", Nov. 18.  2000: "'Caffeine added to sodas aims to addict -- study'", Aug. 18-20.  1999: "Toffee maker sued for tooth irritation", Nov. 5-7; "Not just our imagination" (calls for class-action suits against fast-food, meat purveyors), Sept. 25-26.

    Warning labels and disclaimers, 2003: "'Wacky Warning Label' winners", Jan. 13-14.  2002: "Satirical-disclaimer Hall of Fame" (Australian humor magazine), Oct. 28-29; "'Warning ...'" (Dave Barry humor column), Aug. 16-18; "Read the label, then ignore it if you like" (flammable carpet adhesive), Jul. 12-14; "Pitcher, hit by line drive, sues maker of baseball bat", Apr. 19-21; "Injured in 'human hockey puck' stunt", Mar. 18; "'Before you cheer ... "Sign here"'", Mar. 15-17; "Didn't know cinema seats retracted", Feb. 13-14; "Warning on fireplace log: 'risk of fire'", Jan. 25-27.  2001: "Et tu, UT?" (Utah will not enforce parent-signed release forms for children), Nov. 16-18; "Disclaimer rage?", Oct. 15; "Needed: assumption of risk", Jul. 27-29; "Quite an ankle sprain" (failure to warn of gopher holes in parks), Apr. 20-22; "'Wacky Warning Label' winners", Jan. 19-21.  2000: "Columnist-fest" (Girl Scout horseback riding disclaimer), Apr. 6; "Rise of the high school sleepover disclaimer", Mar. 22; "From our mail sack: skin art disclaimers" (tattoo consent form), Mar. 1; "Weekend reading: columnist-fest" (Laura Pulfer on warning labels), Feb. 5-6; "Never iron clothes while they're being worn" (Wacky Warning Label contest winners), Jan. 18 (& letter to editor, Jan. 21-23).  1999: "Christmas lawyer humor" (Yuletide greetings consisting entirely of disclaimers), Dec. 23-26; "Weekend reading" (disclaimers "creeping into nearly every aspect of American life"), Jul. 31-Aug. 1. 

    Blamed for suicides, 2003: "'No suits by lawbreakers, please'", Jan. 27-28 (& Jan. 31-Feb. 2).  2002: "The blame for suicide", Sept. 25-26; "'Addictive' computer game blamed for suicide", Apr. 3-4. 2001: "Utah: rescue searchers sued", Nov. 26, 2001; "'Shooting range sued over suicide'", Sept. 27; "$3 million verdict for selling gun used in suicide", Sept. 17; "'Suicide- Attempt Survivor Sues'" (department that issued cop his gun), Jan. 24-25. 

    Excuse syndromes, 2002: "Blue-ribbon excuses" (sex on train), Oct. 7-8; "So depressed he stole $300K", Mar. 19; "Rough divorce predisposed him to hire hitman", Feb. 13-14. 2001: "Stories that got away" (multiple-personality defense), Jul. 23; "'Pseudologica fantastica' won't fly" (judge's fibs on resume), Jun. 7 (& Aug. 20-21); "Judge buys shopaholic defense in embezzling", May 25-27; "The malaria drug made him do it", Mar. 28.  2000: "Blue-ribbon excuses" (baked goods mutilator, lawyer pleading incompetent self-representation), Oct. 6-9; "Predestination made him do it" (Pope's assassin and Fatima prophecy), June 6; "Victim of the century?" (misbehaving school principal collects disability benefits for sexual compulsion), Jun. 2-4; "Prozac made him rob banks", Mar. 1; "Blue-ribbon excuse syndromes", Feb. 12-13; "Latest excuse syndromes", Jan. 13-14.  1999: "Doctor sues insurer, claims sex addiction", Oct. 13. 

    "Lightning bolt in amusement park's parking lot", Jun. 23, 2003; "'Woman attacked by goose sues county'", Jan. 27-28, 2003; "Quite an ankle sprain" (watch where you're going in parks), Apr. 20-22, 2001. 

    "MIT sued over student's nitrous-oxide death", Feb. 25, 2003; "By reader acclaim: 'Parents file suit over student's drug death'" (abuse of Oxycontin), Jul. 25, 2001. 

    "Take care of myself?  That's the doc's job", Feb. 14-16, 2003; "Claim: docs should have done more to help woman quit smoking and lose weight" (Pa.), Sept. 18-19, 2002.

    "Satirical-disclaimer Hall of Fame" (Australian humor magazine), Oct. 28-29, 2002; "Tobacco: Boeken record" (The Onion parody), June 19, 2001; "Jury orders 'Big Chocolate' to pay $135 billion to obese consumers" (parody), Aug. 3, 2000; "This side of parodies" (fictional account of self-inflicted icepick injury), Oct. 5-6, 1999. 

    Sports risks: "Sis-Boom-Sue" (cheerleading), Jan. 15-16, 2003; "Skating first, instructions later", Sept. 25-26, 2002; "Pitcher hit by line drive sues maker of baseball bat", Apr. 19-21, 2002; "Australian roundup" (Perth bodysurfer), Nov. 23-25, 2001; "Needed: assumption of risk" (baseball thrown into stands, skydiving), July 27-29; "'Lawsuits could tame ski slopes'", Feb. 6, 2001; "Promising areas for suits" (foul-ball cases and other stadium injuries), Dec. 7, 2000; "Teams liable for fans' safety" (Colorado: hockey puck hit into stands), Aug. 15; "'Skydivers don't sue'", May 26-29; "Trips on shoelace, demands $10 million from Nike", April 7-9, 2000. 

    Gambling: Letter to the editor, Oct. 23, 2002; "Personal responsibility roundup", Sept. 12; "Sin-suit city", Jun. 10; "'Next tobacco' watch: gambling", May 20-21, 2002 (& May 31, Jun. 28); "'Gambling addiction' class action" (Quebec), June 20, 2001.

    Hot beverages: "Litigation good for the country?" (Carl T. Bogus), Aug. 19, 2002; "British judge rejects hot-drink suits", Mar. 29-31, 2002 (& Aug. 10, 2000); "By reader acclaim" (Illinois case; complainant sues mother), Jan. 11, 2001; "'Court says warning about hot coffee unnecessary'" (Nevada Supreme Court), Jul. 18, 2000; "Now it's hot chocolate", Apr. 4, 2000. 

    "'Family of boy injured by leopard may sue'", Jul. 18, 2002; "Skinny-dipping with killer whale: 'incredibly bad judgment'", Sept. 21, 1999 (Oct. 7 update: case dropped). 

    "Wasn't his fault for lying drunk under truck", Aug. 16-18, 2002; "'Win Big! Lie in Front of a Train!'", Jun. 26-27, 2002 (& Jul. 12-14); "Australian roundup" (graffiti artist on train), Nov. 23-25, 2001; "Hit after laying on RR tracks; sues railroad", Oct. 23, 2001. 

    "'Man awarded $60,000 for falling over barrier'", Mar. 5, 2002. 

    "Utah: rescue searchers sued", Nov. 26, 2001. 

    "Suit blames drugmaker for Columbine", Oct. 24-25, 2001. 

    "Mosh pit mayhem", Sept. 7-9, 2001. 

    "Urban legend alert: six 'irresponsibility' lawsuits", Aug. 27-28, 2001. 

    "Don't rock the Coke machine", Jul. 20-22, 2001. 

    "Tobacco: Boeken record", June 19, 2001. 

    Scary!: "From dinner party to court" (U.K. hypnotist), May 22, 2001; "Hypnotist sued by entranced spectator", March 3-14, 2001; "Girl puts head under guillotine; sues when hurt", March 8, 2000; "Haunted house too scary", Jan. 6, 2000; "'Scared out of business'" (decline of community Halloween haunted houses), Nov. 5-7, 1999. 

    Stop having fun (children's recreation): see schools page

    "Tendency of elastic items to recoil well known", Mar. 6, 2001. 

    "By reader acclaim" (sues alleged crack dealers over own addiction), Jan. 11, 2001. 

    "Smoker's suit nixed in Norway", Dec. 18-19, 2000; "Personal responsibility takes a vacation in Miami" (Engle tobacco verdict), July 8, 1999. 

    "Highway responsibility" (Derrick Thomas suit), Nov. 28, 2000. 

    "Fat tax proposed in New Zealand", Oct. 31, 2000. 

    "More things you can't have: raw-milk cheeses", Oct. 3, 2000; "More things you can't have" (unpasteurized cider, New England square dances), Sept. 27, 1999; "More things you can't have" (rare hamburgers, food sent to summer camp), August 9, 1999.

    "Smoking and responsibility: columnists weigh in" (after Florida verdict), Jul. 28-30, 2000. 

    "'"Whiplash!" America's most frivolous lawsuits'" (book collects cases), Jul. 14-16, 2000. 

    "Inmate: you didn't supervise me" (horseplay alone in cell), Jul. 7, 2000. 

    "Can't sue over affair with doctor" (court rules it was consensual), Jun. 13, 2000. 

    "Risky?  Who'da thunk it?" (currency speculator sues over losses), Jun. 9-11, 2000. 

    "'Jury awards apparent record $220,000 for broken finger'" (hurt while dancing), May 22, 2000. 

    "Videogame maker agrees to furnish safety gloves", Mar. 13, 2000. 

    "Letourneau scandal: now where's my million?" (boy sues), Apr. 20, 2000. 

    "All dressed up", Apr. 19, 2000. 

    "Down repressed-memory lane I: costly fender-bender" (eggshell-psyche plaintiff), Dec. 29-30, 1999. 

    "Down repressed-memory lane II: distracted when she signed" (separation agreement), Dec. 29-30, 1999. 

    "GM verdict roundup" (lawyers shift drunk drivers' responsibility to automakers), Dec. 16, 1999; "Drunks have rights, too", Dec. 1, 1999. 

    "Rolling the dice (cont'd)" (Internet gambler sues credit card companies that advanced him money), Dec. 7, 1999; "Rolling the dice" (same), Aug. 26, 1999. 

    "Responsibility, RIP" (columnist Mona Charen), Nov. 2, 1999. 

    "The art of blame" (death of child left in hot van), Oct. 20, 1999. 

    "Nominated by reader acclamation" (killer's parents sue school district, lawmen for failing to prevent Columbine massacre), Oct. 18, 1999. 

    "Block PATH to lawsuits" (fall out of tree in yard, sue your employer), Sept. 1, 1999. 

    "To restore individual responsibility, bring back contract principles" (Cato Institute paper by Prof. Michael Krauss), Aug. 16, 1999.

    "Somebody might trip" (NYC condemns prints-of-the- Hollywood-stars sidewalk as slip hazard), Aug. 13, 1999. 

    "All have lost, and all must have damages" (huge award to salesman who hawked bad insurance policies since he's a victim too), Aug. 3, 1999. 

    Through much of American history, courts discouraged lawsuits arising from risks that individuals were deemed to have assumed in the course of going about familiar activities, such as the risk of being thrown while horseback riding, of slipping on toys underfoot while visiting a house with children, or of being hit with a foul ball while attending a ball game.  (Stored search on "assumption of risk": Google). Under the doctrine of "contributory negligence", they often dismissed, as a matter of law, cases where a complainant's own negligence had helped cause an accident.  They were even less likely to entertain cases in which someone's knowing or deliberate dereliction had placed him in physical peril, such as cases in which people sue over injuries sustained in the course of committing crimes or attempting suicide.  And finally, they gave broad respect to express contractual disclaimers or waivers of liability: if a party was on notice that the other side in a transaction wasn't willing to assume a responsibility, it wouldn't be easy to tag them later with that responsibility in court. 

    By the 1950s all these old barriers to liability had come under sustained attack in the law schools, where they were viewed as insulating defendants' misconduct from legal scrutiny and impeding the forward march of liability law as a (high-overhead) variety of social insurance.  Most states moved from contributory negligence to comparative negligence, which allows a plaintiff whose negligence helped cause an accident to sue over it anyway, though for a reduced recovery.  Waivers and disclaimers began to be struck down as unconscionable, against public policy, not spelled out with sufficient clarity, etc.  And assumption of risk was whittled down by way of a dozen techniques: the most influential torts scholar of the postwar period, William Prosser, took the view that "that implied reasonable assumption of risk should not be allowed to reduce a plaintiff's damage in any way" (Chase Van Gorder, "Assumption of Risk Under Washington Law"). 

    The result is today's American legal environment in which plaintiffs routinely try their luck at suits after being injured climbing high-voltage utility structures while drunk, skinny-dipping in icy pools with captive killer whales, trying "wheelies" and other stunts on industrial forklifts, and smoking for decades.  Some of these suits succeed at obtaining settlements while others fail, and it's important to bear in mind that assumption of risk and related doctrines have not disappeared entirely.  Their general decay, however, has been important in bringing us today's hypertrophy of such areas of law as premises liability, product liability and recreational liability. 

    The website of attorney D. Pamela Gaines has useful resources on assumption of risk as it applies to such areas as premises liability, recreation and amusement parks. At the International Mountain Bicycling Association site, Tina Burckhardt explains "recreational use statutes" which grant some protection from liability lawsuits to landowners who allow free recreational use of their property.

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