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ON THE TOWN

A PASTIME NAMED SUE : Rare, It Seems, Is the Person Who Takes the Fall Without Trying to Profit From It

July 10, 1994|Patt Morrison

Once in a lifetime, each of us should spend a month on crutches.

To be on crutches is a cruelly edifying excursion into the small places in the human heart.

To be on crutches is to learn what it is to be Otherly Abled Like Me.

To be on crutches is to see behavior that may not qualify for the Seven Deadly Sins but certainly ranks high among the Ten Unpleasant Attributes, like:

Callousness. Those who treat you as if you were invisible, letting go of a door as you hobble madly to catch it while it is still open . . . or who resent that you are far too visible and lean on the car horn as you struggle to climb or descend from the curb.

Cruel wit. I've heard everything from "How'dja get that, at the Nordstrom sale?" to "You're too old for the Olympics/surfing/that kind of sex."

And cupidity, cupidity, cupidity.

"Sue 'em," said a couple of lawyers I know (the only lawyers I know). "You should sue those guys," said the attendant, who came out to pump my gas at the self-serve island when he saw my impedimenta.

Lawyers yammered at me from the midday television set, promising that even if my broken foot was my fault, even if I had been driving with a burlap bag over my head or tap-dancing down the stairs of a red-tagged condo in Northridge, someone owes me money. This, after all, is America.

As it happens, it wasn't my fault, and the medical bills are already paid. My only pain and suffering has been answering "What happened to you?" 20 times a day. And once I gave up telling the drab truth and relied on increasingly fanciful answers ("It's nothing, really. Nelson Mandela just stepped on my foot at the South African inaugural ball"), it was rather fun.

What has stayed with me longer than my injury is how the lawsuit has become a part of modern social relations. It is the nasty flip side of our American faith in perfectibility; if something is not perfect, it's somebody's fault, someone must pay.

An old friend broke his ankle dancing at his own birthday party, and even as paramedics carted him away, party-goers were advising him--some not entirely in jest--to sue the hostess who had organized the gala.

Outrageous California lawsuits are what comedians resort to when they run out of jokes: burglars who have sued and won for falling through a skylight or tripping on a skateboard in the places they were burgling, and a motorcycle thief who took a header in a furrow and collected a half-million from the farmer because the plowed field wasn't posted as dangerous.

These absurdities feed the clamor for tort reform and endanger legitimate lawsuits that punish the caveat-emptor practices of the careless and avaricious. Patent medicine was a history of cut-and-run, quick-buck buccaneers until the law and crusading journalism and the FDA arrived on the scene. Sometimes the only way an arrogant company learns a lesson is by counting all the zeros on the check it has to sign.

Still, some things are no one's fault. Not all babies are born perfect, despite the best intentions and efforts. Should a valuable vaccine be abandoned because a statistically, tragically predictable few children get ill and die? How many other children should go unprotected because of that? Where is the trade-off?

Me, I don't think I'll sue.

But a conciliatory gesture would have been nice. Lunch from a different restaurant every day, delivered as I sat immobilized at my desk. And a sedan chair and four strong men to carry me home through the streets like a Restoration duchess. Surely that's not too much to ask, when the right lawyer, the right jury might have gotten me $2.1 million.

I did, however, get something for my pains, something the TV-PI lawyers could never have wrung out of any jury. After a month on crutches, I had biceps like Spaulding tennis balls.

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