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Caspers Park Ban on Minors Is Tragic and Unjustifiable

February 16, 1992

I was the trauma surgeon who first cared for Laura Small after the lion attack in Caspers Park. It was a terrible injury. I have great sympathy for the Small family, but I must disagree with them and their attorney about the county plan to close the park to children. The litigation situation in this country has been out of control for 20 years.

By coincidence, I happened to be the surgeon for a woman who was attacked by a lion at the now-defunct Lion Country Safari. She rolled the car window down in spite of warnings at the gate. This and another similar case contributed to the demise of this business in the 1970s.

A year before Laura's injury, I operated on an illegal alien who was walking on the railroad tracks in San Juan Capistrano listening to a Sony Walk-Man. The trainmen tried to stop and blew the whistle for a mile, but he didn't hear or look. He survived with no disability after 60 pints of blood and a lot of hard work. Not long after his recovery he sued Amtrak. The Amtrak defense attorney and I had a laugh when I told him that I had a conflict of interest because if the "victim" won, I might get paid for all my work.

I don't mean to denigrate tragic events like that which befell Laura Small. I see them every day. The problem is to decide where personal responsibility, or chance, end and fault (of someone else) begins.

I don't blame the county for trying to protect itself. The beach cities, like Newport Beach, have lost a number of cases where swimmers dove into shallow water and suffered paralysis. Apparently, signs stating the obvious--don't dive into water when you don't know the depth--have helped with the problem, but common sense on the part of judges and juries would have done even more. The latest outrage is a mugger in San Francisco who successfully sued a taxi driver who apprehended him with "excessive force."

It is time for legal reform to reduce the intolerable burden of legal liability when fault is as tenuous as in the Caspers Park cases. The need for legal reform does not stop there but it would be a good start and might save a few jobs, other than lawyers', in these tough times.

MICHAEL T. KENNEDY, M.D., Mission Viejo

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