Judiciary

The Price of Crazy Lawsuits

You can’t get your oil checked in Sea Isle anymore.

Heading back from the Jersey Shore for the start of another school year, we stopped at Sea Isle’s only service station for gas.

With a seven-hour trip ahead of us, I asked the station’s attendant (Jersey banned self-service gas pumping in 1949, so every station has an attendant) to check the oil. The station wasn’t busy and he was just standing around, waiting for the gas pump to automatically click off at sixty dollars or so.

"I can’t," he said, referring to the oil check.

"Some lady came in here in a junker and broke down on the way home and sued us for $10,000," he explained. "We put two quarts of oil in her car. Her car was worth $1,500 — tops. Her lawyer said it was our fault she broke down because we were the last ones to look at her car."

He continued the story as I popped my hood and got out of the car to check my own oil. "She won. I don’t know how much — if it was the whole $10,000 or not. But the boss says we’re not in the business of checking oil anymore."

So now we have a mandated-by-law "full service" station with no service.

There’s also no seesaw in our local playground. "They are rapidly disappearing, going the way of merry-go-rounds, diving boards and other joys of childhood," explained Philip K. Howard in USA Today. "Even the innocent game of tag has been banned in some New Jersey schools because a pupil might end up getting hurt and a parent might bring a lawsuit."

School discipline is also rapidly disappearing, as are hugs. "Talk to teachers," says Howard, founder and chairman of Common Good, a nonpartisan legal-reform coalition. "Keeping discipline is hard when students can threaten that any decision might violate their presumed rights. Forget about putting an arm around an upset second-grader — someone might claim it was an unwanted sexual advance."

Last winter, we stayed at The Breakers in Palm Beach. Henry Flagler, more than a century ago, picked the hotel’s location and its name because he said his guests wanted to stay "by the breakers." They wanted rooms where they could hear the sound of the waves at night and feel the breezes coming off the water.

The windows used to open back then. Now they’re bolted shut or open only two or three inches. So you’re stuck setting the air conditioner at 70 degrees when the fresh air outside is 70 degrees, stuck listening to the hum of a motor instead of the sound of the ocean. The owners are afraid they’ll be blamed if we jump.

Two blocks from the White House, it was the same thing. The view from our hotel room was inspiring, the outside air was cool, and all our windows were bolted shut.

First thing, before I unpack, I usually call the front desk with a deal: "I just checked in. I’ll come down and sign a waiver if you unbolt our windows. It won’t be your fault if I jump."

It never works, not in places where there’s a "Do not use in shower" sticker on the hair dryers and the hotel-provided shower caps include a bold-type "Fits one head" warning.

Find two electrocuted nuts squeezed into one shower cap, and who can say that a jury can’t be persuaded that a deep-pocketed hotel "should have known" about the dangers?

And so we’ve ended up with baby strollers with "Remove child before folding" warning labels and "Do not drive with sun shield in place" warnings on those cardboard shields that keep the sun off dashboards.

To protect mouths (and protect manufacturers and retailers), cleaning brushes for toilet bowls now say, "Do not use orally," and electric routers for carpenters have stickers that warn, "This product is not intended for use as a dental drill."

For really crazy people, there’s now "Do not eat toner" warning labels on cartridges for laser printers and "Not for highway use" stickers on wheelbarrows.

Howard argues that lawsuits are important to prevent abuse but that lawsuits themselves can constitute an abuse. It’s about common sense and where to draw the line.

"Lawsuits turn into a weapon for extortion," he says, "if the law doesn’t draw the boundaries of who can sue for what."

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