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We often turn irresponsibility into legal actions against others

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 15, 2001


Recently, two events in Tampa Bay caught my eye; and while they seem to have nothing to do with one another, I see a thread.

The first was a July 4th fireworks display in St. Petersburg that took place even as a lightning storm was rolling in. The city received a flood of criticism for going on with the event despite the apparent dangers.

The second was a settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Nicole Ferry against the University of South Florida, in which the state of Florida agreed to give her $25,000. Ferry, an art major, brought suit after viewing a black-and-white photograph of a black man and a white woman who appear to be having sex, in a class on controversial art. (Before class, a warning had been issued to students, giving them the option of skipping the class without penalty.)

What do these two things have in common? Both cases reveal the weak-willed, sniveling side of American society.

Somewhere along the way we went from pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps to suing the shoemaker because we got our bootstraps caught on something and fell down.

We no longer take responsibility for ourselves, our judgments or our actions. Everything, and I mean everything, is someone else's fault.

In St. Petersburg, the city's response to the criticism of its fireworks display in the face of lightning was refreshingly right-back-at-you. Leisure Services Administrator Lee Metzger said that while he understood the concern, "(the viewing public) didn't pay a ticket; we didn't make them come. They were free to come and go, and most people did go seek shelter."

If only Florida's response to the hypersensitive art student was anywhere near as clear-headed. Instead the state rewarded Ferry's baseless complaint by agreeing to pay her off -- disserving USF's faculty and academic freedom in the process. Apparently, to be compensated in our pacifier-and-blankie legal system, one's injury doesn't have to be real or even be objectively reasonable, it just has to exist inside the litigant's head.

But Ferry's whiney lawsuit doesn't come close to being the worst excess. On the Web site Overlawyered.com, editor Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, documents the way predatory lawyers help people turn their personal failings into lawsuit fodder.

On a page titled, "What happened to personal responsibility?," Olson lists dozens of cases where litigants have filed suit claiming they should have been warned about an obvious risk, or that someone should have stopped them from doing something idiotic. The cases are linked to the news articles where they first appeared.

For example, as reported by the Arizona Republic in April, a woman in Tuscon was awarded $450,000 by a jury after she tripped into a small animal hole in a public park and twisted her ankle. How was this the city's fault? It failed to post signs warning about burrowing animals and provide safe pathways for pedestrians.

We have gotten to the point where no amount of common sense can be taken for granted. As proof, a group called Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, sponsors an annual contest for the most absurd warning labels. The winners for this year include a shin guard warning that reads: "Shin pads can not protect any part of the body they do not cover;" and a rotary tool with a caution against using it as a "dental drill."

And remember, McDonald's coffee is hot.

But the cases on Olson's Web site that I find most appalling are those where a victim of his own stupidity blames it on another. Cases such as that of Richard Garcia of Bradenton who sued the city after a police officer allowed him to drive home after he had been drinking. Minutes later the teen was in a serious car crash when he drove into a tree on a curve.

Lawsuits that strain credulity are an American invention. Since our legal system doesn't require the loser to pay the legal costs of the winner, as do most other Western democracies, plaintiffs have little to lose by going forward. This structure, which has allowed those with legitimate claims to get to court, has had the unhappy side effect of making conditions fertile for frivolous suits.

Settlements, such as the one offered to Nicole Ferry from her charges against USF, are common even for the most out-of-bounds claims, since they're often far cheaper than going to trial.

There are ways these abusive practices can be better policed, through court sanctions against attorneys and stricter enforcement of professional rules. But the real change will only take place when Americans renew their commitment to personal ethics and responsibility. When we start saying, "the buck stops here," rather than "pass it on."

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