Updating our item of Oct. 2006: a Pennsylvania federal judge has declined to set aside a $24 million jury verdict “against two railroad companies for injuries suffered by two teenagers climbing on a train car parked near Lancaster in 2002.” U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence F. Stengel lambasted attorneys for defendants Amtrak and Norfolk Southern for having at trial “‘demeaned’ the two young men ‘for their lack of intelligence, judgment and common sense in choosing to climb to the top of the boxcar.'” Stengel upheld the jury’s assignment of all the blame for the accident to the railroads and none to the youths, who were both 17 at the time. (Janet Kelley, “$24M verdict upheld in railroad burn case”, Lancaster New Era, Apr. 2).
I want to thank Walter Olson and Ted Frank for honoring me by giving me an opportunity to guest blog here while Ted is away this week.
First, I guess I should introduce myself, for those of you wondering who the heck I am. I’m an attorney licensed in New Jersey, with a practice which focuses on commercial litigation. Aside from myself, I have several relatives who are attorneys, so it should be clear that I have nothing against lawyers. (In fact, despite all the evidence to the contrary here on Overlawyered, I happen to think we perform a useful function.)
My axe to grind is with those (such as the folks over at the website Ted affectionately calls “Bizarro-Overlawyered”) who want to use the courts, not to enforce agreements or to compensate the victims of wrongdoing, but merely as a way to transfer wealth from corporations to trial lawyers, ostensibly on behalf of consumers.
One of my first close encounters with overlawyering was in the early 1990s, when a classmate of mine got drunk, climbed up on a train, and electrocuted himself; coincidentally, this old incident was mentioned on Overlawyered just a few weeks ago. At the time, I was perhaps naively shocked to find out that someone who was so obviously in the wrong could successfully point a finger elsewhere (or in this case, a lot of fingers) and cash in. The case had everything: a grossly irresponsible plaintiff, innocent defendants whose only fault was having deep pockets, and even the failure of immunity laws to prevent abuse of the tort system. Since then, I’ve become less naive, but I’m no less shocked at these types of stories.
Oh, and I used to blog about politics more generally at Jumping to Conclusions, although I haven’t updated that in quite a long while. In any case, I’m happy to be here.
As their dating progressed, Ms. Wu researched Mr. Nobay online and learned that in 1998 he sued Princeton, unsuccessfully, for defamation after the university notified medical schools he had applied to that his applications contained misrepresentations and altered his academic record. (In court, he admitted misstatements but says he still believes some of what Princeton presented was inaccurate.)
—that obviously merited further investigation. Sure enough, AP reported in 1998:
The graduate, Rommel Nobay, had admitted he told numerous lies and half-truths in applying to Princeton and later to medical school. He claimed that he was part black and a National Merit Scholar and that a family of lepers had donated half their beggings to support his dream. … Nobay, 30, a computer science teacher from New Haven, admitted that he was not, in fact, a Merit Scholar and that a family of lepers had not helped send him to school. He also acknowledged that he doesn’t know whether he has any black blood.
Bonin notes an early 1990s suit by Princeton student Bruce L. Miller, who received $5.7 million after getting himself drunk and losing three limbs in a climb-a-train-plus-touch-high-voltage-wires-electrocution accident. (Regular Overlawyered readers know that this sort of suit doesn’t require a Princeton education.) But Bonin forgets to mention the drink-and-fall-off-the-Princeton-bell-tower lawsuit.
Ted mentioned this one in his roundup yesterday, but it merits a post of its own, duly assigned to our “personal responsibility” archive: Jeffrey Klein and Brett Birdwell were 17 “when they trespassed onto railroad property and climbed atop a rail car” because they wanted to see the view from there. They were shocked by a 12,500-volt wire and severely injured. The incident took place in Lancaster, Pa. but through the miracle of forum selection the lawsuit against Amtrak and Norfolk Southern landed before a jury in Philadelphia, a locality notably more favorable for plaintiffs than Lancaster. An attorney said the railroads should have posted signs for the benefit of trespassers warning of the overhead hazard and also should have had the electricity turned off at the time. As Ted pointed out, Birdwell, who was awarded $6.8 million, had injuries transient enough that he’s now serving with the Army in Afghanistan. (“$24.2 million for men burned atop rail car”, AP/MSNBC, Oct. 27; Brett Lovelace, “Verdict: $24.2M”, Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Oct. 27; Janet Kelley, “A $24.2M question”, Lancaster New Era, Oct. 27)(& Coyote Blog). Update: railroads appeal (AP, Nov. 15).
One of our favorite clichés is repeated in a tale of a lawsuit over a tragic electrocution. Because it’s BGE’s fault Gary Dart’s trailer caught on fire, because, after all, powerlines never go down during a snowstorm without negligence. Good thing it’s not about the money, or they might have asked for a lot more than $175 million. The attorney is Dave Ellin. (Joseph M. Giordano, “BGE Is Sued Over Electrocution”, Dundalk Eagle, Mar. 27). Because BGE is a regulated utility (whose maintenance budget is set in negotiations with the governmental public utility commission), the expenses of the lawsuit, including any damages, will eventually be passed on to local ratepayers. (Update: or not. See comments.)
The new WSJ Law Blog summarizes (Jan. 16) Lawyers Weekly’s annual compilation of cases. As Lawyers Weekly tells it, the top verdicts this year were both somewhat lower and more closely linked to actual damages (i.e., less crazy) than last year’s. Among the ten: the Miami bus shelter electrocution discussed by Ted Jul. 10 (and linked to by the WSJ); Coleman v. Morgan Stanley, discussed in this space May 18 and Nov. 17; the $253 million verdict in Ernst v. Merck; the $105 million verdict against beer servers at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium (Jan. 21 and Feb. 2); and Hall-Edwards v. Ford Motor, involving an Explorer rollover.
Another interesting case on the list: Baker v. PrivatAir, in which a pilot forced out of his California job at age 63 won $64 million for age discrimination, wrongful termination, emotional distress and defamation. Some other employees with whom the pilot had had conflicts had joined forces to get him fired; one of the steps they took against him was to get him written up on safety charges, which the employer then did not adequately investigate.
Twelve-year-old Jorge Luis Cabrera Jr. was found dead next to a Miami bus shelter in October 1998 after he took shelter there during a rainstorm. Weather data shows a lightning strike near the bus shelter at the time the boy would have been there; the defense claims there were several signs of an indirect lightning hit on the Cabrera’s body and clothing. Accusations were made that faulty wiring in the bus shelter electrocuted the boy, but employees of Eller Media, which owned the bus shelter, were acquitted of manslaughter charges.
Civil lawyers resuscitated the argument on behalf of Cabrera’s father, noting that Victor Garcia, who wired the shelter, was unlicensed. A jury agreed, and awarded $4.1 million in compensatory and $61 million in punitive damages; Cabrera’s mother settled separately. “Jose Irizarry, the jury foreman, told The Herald on Friday that he and his fellow jurors did not believe lightning could have killed the boy.” (David Ovalle, “Firm to pay millions in boy’s death”, Miami Herald, Jun. 25; “Jury: Eller Media should pay $65.1M”, South Florida Business Journal, Jun. 27; Chrystian Tejedor, “Jury awards $65.1 million”, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Jun. 25; “Company Found Negligent In Boy’s Electrocution Death”, WTVJ-TV; “Unlicensed Electrician Admits ‘Regret’ In Boy’s Electrocution Trial”, Local 10 News, May 3; Colson Hicks Eidson press release; verdict form for Serrano v. Eller Media Co., Case No. 13-1998-CA-023808-0000-01 (Dade Cty. Fla. Cir. Ct.)).
Risibly unclear on the concept: the Miami Herald reports that “Today, more than 850 Miami-Dade Transit Authority bus shelters are lit by roof-mounted solar panels instead of electricity.” (I think they mean to say that the new bus shelters are lower voltage.)
If you’re here in search of Ted’s post on the West Covina, Calif. chimpanzee attack, it’s here (given its popularity, maybe we should start up a regular chimp-attack beat). If you’re looking for the item about the Boston family that wants $740,000 for its electrocuted dog, it’s here. And if the story that attracted you was the one about the lawyer who accidentally sued himself, it’s here.
Last year it was reported that Dr. Kirk Kooyer, who had come to Mississippi to serve the poor, was leaving the state after being sued by a patient who later said she didn’t want to file charges against him but was talked into doing so by her lawyers (see Aug. 1, 2002; Dorothy L. Pennachio, “Why Dr. Kooyer Had To Move”, Medical Economics, Dec. 23, 2002). Now Kooyer has published a memoir/essay on the tort mess which really shouldn’t be missed, at this link. Brief excerpts follow:
“I watched as a litigation mentality crept into the Mississippi Delta, fueled by a favorable judicial environment. I have had to personally deal with the harassment of unmerited litigation along with its consequences to my family, my practice and, ultimately, my idealism. …
“[A] jury in Sharkey County, where I lived and practiced for eight years, awarded $10 million to the family of a man who had electrocuted himself by touching a pipe to a power line. As the treating physician in that case, as well as a resident of the county, I was interested in knowing what culpability the jury felt the defendant electric company had in the electrocution. One of the jurors told me, ‘Oh, we didn?t think the electrical company did anything wrong, but this way the children will be taken care of.’ …
“Perhaps no individual has suffered more [from the state’s medical liability crisis] than Dr. John Lucas III from Greenwood, Miss. Dr. Lucas, a fourth-generation Mississippi physician, is a trauma surgeon who was instrumental in setting up Mississippi?s statewide trauma network to speed victims of trauma from rural areas to appropriate medical care. In the past year, Lucas has been forced to witness the dismantling of the trauma network because of declining numbers of trauma surgeons in Mississippi. Additionally, he has had to personally deal with three distracting medical malpractice lawsuits, which he considers frivolous. And this past spring, his oldest son sustained a critical head injury in an automobile accident near Greenville, Miss. Last year, Greenville had well-established neurosurgical services. This year the last neurosurgeon providing emergency services in Greenville left the state. After his accident, vital neurosurgical care was delayed while Dr. Lucas’ son was transported 100 miles to the University Medical Center in Jackson. Dr. Lucas, a well-respected surgeon who worked diligently to improve trauma care in his state, who was personally dragged into Mississippi?s lawsuit frenzy, helplessly watched his precious son linger in a coma for several weeks and die for lack of expedient medical care. …
“I don?t think we should be distracted from what is at the heart of our nation?s tort crisis: a crisis in personal morality. We were taught from an early age not to accuse falsely and not to take something that doesn?t belong to us. When litigation is pursued in cases where there has been no negligence and where there has been no injury, not only is tort law not fulfilled, but an important moral teaching is also forgotten.” (Kurt Kooyer, “New Crisis in the Mississippi Delta”, The Spark (Calvin College), Fall). In its next issue, the Calvin College magazine runs a response from an Emory law prof who finds it just fine and completely understandable that people should file lawsuits demanding large sums as a way of “seek[ing] answers” after sudden and unexplained medical catastrophes — which tends to confirm Kooyer’s last point, so far as we can see. (Paul J. Zwier II, “Another Look at a ‘New Crisis in the Mississippi Delta'”, Winter) (& see Dec. 17).
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: “Zapped pylon-climber sues liquor-servers, utility“, March 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.), July 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; “$65 million Texas verdict: driver at twice the legal blood limit” (drunk driver’s estate sues automaker), March 28; “From the labor arbitration front” (disallowed firing of employee who pleaded no contest to larceny), March 28; “Crime does pay, cont’d” (North Hollywood, Calif. bank robber killed in police shootout), Feb. 23 (& update March 23: mistrial declared after jury deadlock in suit by robber’s family); “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 June 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. 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; “Personal responsibility roundup“, Sept. 12, 2002; “Sin-suit city“, Jun. 10; “‘Next tobacco’ watch: gambling“, May 20-21, 2002 (& May 31); “‘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.
“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.
“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, Alta Vista). 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.