Litiginy

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A lot’s been written and said about our national litigiousness, a sue-their-socks-off attitude that says: If your life takes a bad turn, it’s somebody’s fault and you should present that somebody with a whopping bill for your pain and suffering. People nonchalantly assume that it’s only the insurance companies who get hit, but the companies pass the costs on to all their clients. You end up paying for those big settlements.

We also suffer a lot of the effects— your daycare center folds because they can’t afford increased liability insurance. The cost of seeing your doctor goes up because malpractice coverage has gone through the roof.

There have always been lawsuits, of course, and some of them make a lot of sense—they can be a fairly effective way to push institutions into doing their best—lifeboat space for every passenger on the ship, extra checks on clean-liness at the cannery, that sort of thing. And there are private losses that can rightly turn into lawsuits.

Say, an airplane engine falls through the garage roof, crushing your new Jeep. OK. If the manufacturer didn’t bolt the engine onto the airplane right and the airline’s maintenance people didn’t tighten the bolts, it’s certainly fair to sue for the costs of a garage and a Jeep, if they’re dumb enough not to offer without being sued.

But our cultural attitude says, Go for pain and suffering. You can get a bundle if you tell them this scared you so badly you may never again be able to overcome your fright, get into a vehicle and drive to a place of meaningful employment. Hire a hardnosed lawyer quick.

You’re over the line now, but friends and relatives aren’t appalled, they cheer you on. Hey, you’ll never have to work again. You can trade up from the squashed Jeep to a Range Rover. And it’s not hurting anybody. The money just comes from insurance companies.

Attractive, isn’t it? I once was tempted to go for it myself.

When my younger son was 6, he was seriously injured when we were far from home. The local surgeon who patched him up made some gross errors that cost us dearly. There was a year of real pain and suffering for my son and intense worry for me, then expensive surgery to correct the errors.

I could have used some help paying the bills. But the attorneys who got onto our situation said it had to be an extra $300,000 for pain and suffering or they wouldn’t play.

So I thought about it. After the lawyers took their third and I paid the medical bills, there would still be a handsome sum for my son’s education. He could go to a really good college and I could stop trying to figure out how I was going to pay for it. Plus he'd had a terrible year and I wanted to do something wonderful for him.

But the country doctor had come to the hospital fast, in the middle of the night, to save a dying child. Yes, he had messed up. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he wasn't the best doctor in the world. But he did save my son’s life.

If I sued, he might not race to the hospital and save the next person who needed him. If I sued, my son would be learning that life came with a money-back guarantee. That he should be paid for any hardship he had to endure. That someone other than himself was responsible for making it all better.

I couldn’t do that. I paid off all the bills slowly. I still don’t know how to pay for a good college. So he'll get a less impressive degree—one that was not financed by suing an imperfect man who once saved his life.

The danger of pain and suffering lawsuits is far greater than the dollars drained from all our pockets to feed some people’s greed. The greater danger is in what it does to our spirits, to our society, to buy into the illusion that life can be, must be, without risks. Being alive is inherently dangerous. Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, shouldn’t we be tall enough to accept that simple reality?