Sunday, August 21, 2011

Show Me the Money

Show Me the Money

This week we're contemplating a dangerous trend that's crossed the Pond:


After last week’s horrific stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair (which killed 6 people), the first of the lawsuits is already in.  Janeen Beth Urschel lost her partner Tammy Van Dam and has hired a lawyer, claiming that more should have been done to get audience members to safety.

Since Indiana state can’t be sued for more than $5 million, the claim is against several companies believed responsible; a claim of $50 million is being sought on behalf of the deceased’s 17 year old daughter, and $10 million in punitive damages for her partner, Urshcel, who says her “emotional pain is indescribable.”

While most would not argue against a claim by the daughter, many balk at the amount. Fifty million? In my day, such claims were calculated based on the future earnings of the deceased. I know the cost of attending college here is ridiculous, but even with inflation factored in, it’s not going to cost $50 million. And ten million in punitive damages for her 49 year old partner, (who will first have to challenge Indiana State law barring life partners from recovering damages in wrongful death claims)? Seriously?

Yes, the pain of losing someone is hard to describe, but will ten million bucks ease that pain? And what the heck do people mean by “punitive damages” anyway.  I know, I know.  It’s intended to punish rather than compensate, but again - ten million? Really?

I also know that the numbers have to be initially high because those poor ambulance chasers lawyers need to take their cut, but does this strike anyone else as a tad greedy? 


One of the things that really used to frost me*when I lived in America was the way we would sue at the drop of a hat.  And I’m sure that, somewhere, someone probably did try to sue someone for dropping a hat, perhaps because it resulted in severe cocklaphobia.  (No, I am Not making that up.)

To my mind, litigationphilia (yes, I DID make that up) was something ugly and detestable that slithered into our national psyche when we weren’t paying attention.  Before we knew it, it had bludgeoned Rugged Individualism senseless, trussed him up and tossed him in the basement with his old friend Common Sense.  Suddenly, no matter what mishap befell anyone, someone ELSE was at fault and they MUST PAY.  Dearly.

I went out with a woman (for a, thankfully, short time) who told me that the only way to get rich in America was to inherit, win the lottery or sue someone.  (Really?  What happened to the Protestant Work Ethic, and exploiting the masses?)  Not having much hope of the first two, she was actively pursuing the final option against an unfortunate woman who had bumped her car from behind at a traffic light.  At the lawyer visit I accompanied her to, I heard tales of whiplash, pain and suffering, unspecified fears and debilitation.  Her litany of agony caused the lawyer’s eyes to glow with dollar signs.  Never mind that all of it was rubbish.

This belief—that hurting yourself was the ticket to untold riches—had the effect of practically wiping out things like church picnics, town fairs and the like due to the rising probability that someone might stub their toe and sue the pants off of the organizers.  And I found that very sad.

It was a relief, therefore, when that attitude did not appear to be as prevalent over here.  Sure, there was the odd frivolous lawsuit, but for the most part, people seemed content with the idea that they were responsible for their own actions, and their consequences.**

However, over the years, the Health and Safety laws (and legends) have done a fair job of producing similar results without the help of pesky lawsuits.  Instead of becoming a litigious society, we have become a “risk adverse” society, where every action—no matter how benign—is subject to scrutiny.  This has led to the cancellation of pancake races, forbidding the childhood game of “Conkers” and the abolishing long-standing traditions, such as The Annual Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Competition.

Organizations, large and small, can find their plans for a benefit concert, church fete or company picnic stopped cold by those three little words: “Health and Safety.”  If you do this, someone might get hurt, and we can’t have that, can we?

Different attitude, but the same result.  And I find that very sad.

* Another thing that used to frost me was spending the night in a walk-in freezer, but that’s another story.

** That said, there is an appalling sense of entitlement developing within the younger generation but, that too, is another story.

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  1. Amazing, at 62 years old I survived my youth -- conkers, bike rides down "the coast road", impromptu games of footie, seesaws comprising of a log over a barrel, swinging round on a metal "maypole" -- why didn't we pull our arms out of their sockets?? And it was all such fun, much more so than sitting in front of a computer playing video games or a hand held game player. The youth of today is missing so much with the "technological" age. Anybody under 50 agree??

  2. But Britain is becoming more and more litiginous, isn't it? I had a car crash in 2006. Bad one, car written off, I was ok but had whiplash for a while. Within the first 24 hours, I'd had a couple of phone calls asking me (encouraging me, I'd say) to pursue a personal injury claim. It wouldn't have occurred to me otherwise. (I did, in the end, though it did go against the grain a bit, so I suppose I'm guilty of increasing the litiginous culture.)

  3. Iota: I agree, Britain is becoming more litigious, but it isn't as bad as the US. Yet. I am seeing more and more commercials on TV in the "Have you been injured at work--call us and we'll get you a barrel of money" vein. It's a slippery slope; one I encourage the Brits to avoid.

    Anon: I managed to survive childhood without the help of H&S, too. But with all the H&S regulations and fears of lawsuits these days (someone owns that tree you fell out of, ergo, that someone must pay you for damages), maybe the younger generation has little choice but to sit in their rooms playing video games. Just a thought--and perhaps a topic too big for a comment thread; maybe a future post?

  4. Here's a blog by a mother (American) who thinks that parents are too overprotective and that kids should have more freedom:

    Fear of lawsuits is one of the issues, as well as others like concern on kids sometimes having too much homework and the "perceived" crime rate being high when in reality (according to the statistics she's using) it's lower than it has been in decades.

  5. I remember a quote by (of all people) Jeremy Clarkson where he reckons that the 4 most dangerous words in the Uk are "Health and %@*^£&# Safety"

  6. I agree that people here in the US sue companies, etc, for ridiculous amounts of money and for even more ridiculous reasons, but I think part of the reason is because healthcare is so expensive. Millions of people here either don't have any health insurance at all, or they're under-insured and can't afford whatever treatments they need after an accident. Granted, I don't think that people should sue one another for an accident that was no one's fault (or that was their own fault to begin with). I just think there's more to it than "let's see how much money we can make."

  7. We joke that with all the health and safety rules in England, it is incredible that anyone dies here :)

  8. Amy - quite honestly, I don't have a problem with people suing to recoup the money they have to spend on medical treatment, when it's someone else's fault. There also isn't the umbrella of paid sick leave over here the way it's available in the UK, so if you have to use personal days and then take unpaid leave, I think people should also be able to recoup that.
    But again - $50 million??? And $10 million punitive damages. That's another thing entirely.


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