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It’s Long Past Time For Tort Reform

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

It’s become as American as apple pie. When something awful happens, someone gets sued.

It’s one thing when there is obvious fault or negligence, but we’ve gone from being a nation of individual responsibility to a culture that seeks a payday out of any tragedy.

I am not ascribing a motive to the family, and the hell they’re going through is unimaginable. But I just watched a segment on TV about the tragedy of the toddler who was killed by an alligator at Disney World. One of the lawyers was talking about liability and Disney potentially being on the hook for quite a bit of money. That may be true.

But should Disney be on the hook here? Was it Disney’s fault a wild animal attacked and killed a child? How can you assign blame for that?

I think of a story I heard as a kid about why lawnmowers started to have the cut-off handle that stops the engine the moment you let go of it. It was a pain as a kid because you’d always stop for something or other, let go of the handle for a second and have to restart the clunky thing.

I’d heard this “innovation” was created because someone thought it would be a good idea to trim their hedges by picking up the mower from the bottom and sliced off his fingers. What should have been met with a, “Good lord, you’re an idiot,” was instead allegedly met with a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the mower.

The way I heard the story – and I don’t know if it’s true – is the stubby-handed horticulturist won the suit because the mower could be picked up while running and the manufacturer should have foreseen this and protected against it. In essence, the mower manufacturer had to pay a moron because it didn’t do enough to make the product moron-proof.

That’s the norm now.

Some washing machines come with a label warning against putting a person inside and turning it on. Chainsaws carry warnings against holding the wrong end. There was even a label directing people not to eat their iPod Shuffle. You can find all of these online and marvel at the fact that for someone, somewhere in the world, this was an issue at one point. And, most likely, this led to either a lawsuit or the threat of one that ended in a settlement.

I’ve been hungry. In fact, I’ve been very hungry. But I’ll never be so hungry that I’d look at a circuit board and a plastic case and think, “Hmm, maybe I’ll give that a go.” That’s on the person who does it, not the company that produces it.

Yet there are lawyers out there who would take that case, in spite of the warning label. Why not? The worst thing that could happen is it gets dismissed. All it costs is a little temporary embarrassment for the plaintiff and some time for the lawyers who, if they do take cases like this, obviously have some free time on their hands.

We all remember the suit against McDonalds for serving coffee that was “too hot.” What would have been laughed out of court 50 years ago, if you could even find a lawyer to take the case, ended up with a huge payday. After that it was “game on.”

Burglars now sue homeowners they were trying to rob if they’re injured attempting to rob them. People resisting arrest sue police because police fought back “too hard.” And stupidity is rewarded every day by companies that settle these suits to avoid the cost of defending themselves. It has to stop.

We need a “loser pays” system, where the plaintiff has to cover the cost of the person or company they sue if they lose. It shouldn’t be universal – sometimes you have a legitimate case and simply lose on a close call – but there should be boards of experts created who, after the case is done, can be petitioned to determine if the suit was frivolous or simply didn’t meet a legal threshold.

If it’s determined to be frivolous, the loser should pay. Maybe not the whole bill, but at least some of it. A punishment must be created for wasting the court’s time and taxpayer’s money.

And not just the plaintiff, but the plaintiff’s attorney as well. Even bad lawyers should know junk cases when they see them. If they could be on the hook for filing a frivolous lawsuit, they will begin to think twice before bringing one.

Stupid people are always going to be with us, and a user manual the size of “War And Peace” with all the warnings in the world won’t stop them from playing with the business end of a chainsaw. Society has to step in and tell them and their lawyers “no more.”

Either that or be prepared to pay a lot more for things or be required to cloak yourself in bubble wrap when you leave the house. At least until someone suffocates because of it and the family sues the manufacturer out of business.

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