One of the standard methods of column writers, such as myself,
is the reductio ad absurdum -- taking policies, statements and proposals to
their logical conclusion. For example, it is easy to show that the principle
of taxation leads logically to confiscation and, hence, slavery. After all,
if the government can take a third of one's earnings, as is presently the
case, then what logical constraint is there to prevent it from taking 100
percent, at which point one is a slave, for all intents and purposes?
Another reductio ad absurdum is to ask whether there is a point
at which every single thing one can possibly do for a living entails a legal
liability so extreme that everything one has may eventually be confiscated
by the courts. Unfortunately, that is already happening. Increasingly, it
appears that there is no limit to liability. Moreover, it is so capricious
that there is virtually no one who may not suffer its consequences.
In recent days, McDonalds has been sued by some New York
teen-agers for contributing to their obesity. According to their court
filing (as posted at www.thesmokinggun.com), one of the plaintiffs is 5 feet
9 inches tall and weighs 380 pounds. For this he blames solely McDonalds, on
the grounds that he has been going to its restaurants three or four times a
week for the past 7 years. No other evidence is presented.
It would be too easy to laugh off such a ridiculously thin
lawsuit. But the cases against the tobacco companies were no less
insubstantial, yet billions of dollars were awarded to the lawyers who
brought suits against them. The alleged victims got almost nothing. So, too,
with the alleged victims of asbestos.
I don't deny that millions of people have suffered the
consequences of obesity, smoking and asbestos. But the question of
responsibility has been glossed over much too easily. In the cases of
tobacco and obesity, the responsibility of the supposed victims has been
completely ignored, while in the case of asbestos its benefits have been
Furthermore, the connection between liability and the production
or sale of the damaging product has been expanded to such an extent that
even the most tenuous connection is sufficient to bring forth vast monetary
damages. People perfectly well aware of the dangers of smoking have been
awarded billions upon billions of dollars from tobacco companies. Of course,
if they were actually to obtain such awards, all those similarly injured
would get nothing, because there would be nothing left to give them. The
well would be empty.
What keeps this process going is not the pain and suffering of
the alleged victims, but the greed of their lawyers. According to the Rand
Corp., less than half of all asbestos awards have gone to victims, and 65
percent of that has gone to those with no visible symptoms of asbestos
damage. The result has been that very little is left for those actually
suffering from asbestos-related illnesses.
In any case, neither the companies involved nor anyone else had
a clue that asbestos contact was harmful at the time it occurred. Everyone
thought it was safe. Moreover, no effort whatsoever has been made to gauge
the benefits to society from the proven fire protection provided by
asbestos. Those living today because they were protected pay nothing, while
the companies that provided the protection are bankrupted. And those who
sued first got huge settlements, while those who came later are mostly still
waiting to see any money.
It would be a relatively easy matter to devise legislation that
would compensate those truly suffering from asbestos-related problems in a
way that recognizes both the costs and benefits of its use. But that would
deny the trial lawyers an opportunity to enrich themselves off the pain and
suffering of others. Hence, there is no fix -- as Democrats, who receive 70
percent of lawyers' largess (according to www.opensecrets.org), block any
effort to do so.
Like good entrepreneurs, the greedy lawyers -- apologies for the
redundancy -- are looking for virgin territory. Now they are suing McDonalds
for making its customers fat. On Nov. 20, some of the stupider and greedier
of their ilk filed a suit in New York claiming damages on behalf of Julian
Tawfik (5 feet, 9 inches, 380 pounds), Jazlyn Bradley (5 feet, 6 inches, 270
pounds) and others. Apparently, McDonalds is solely and exclusively
responsible for their condition. Neither they nor their parents bear any
It's too easy to laugh at such greed and extravagance. But given
the nature of our court system today, one cannot assume that the plaintiffs
may not win billions of dollars from some idiotic jury -- most going to the
lawyers. At some point, personal responsibility must rule, lest our entire
economic system collapse from the weight of an out-of-control legal system.