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90'S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Has Litigation Taken the Place of Civility?

November 24, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The mother's voice on the phone was polite. She had asked me to call her because she had driven my daughter home from school several times. "You didn't know me," she said. "I didn't know you. I wanted to have your permission."

Permission? I must have sounded taken aback. Our daughters are in high school.

"I'm an attorney," she explained. "I think about those things." Without official authority, she said she was worried she might be unprotected in a lawsuit.

It's a sign of the times, she said. "We're living in a world where if we don't know a person, we don't know what they'll do."

She's not alone. If kids are being raised by a village, for many of them that village is a litigious, mutually suspicious sort of place.

Tom Cordova, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance Co. in Los Angeles, said parents commonly sue other parents. "It's kind of incredible sometimes," he said.

"We've had situations where people will have a birthday party for kids at a park and the kids are playing and one kid will fall and break an arm and the parents will sue the other parents for having a birthday party."

Recently, Cordova said, more people than in the past have called to raise their liability insurance before throwing a wedding or a bar mitzvah. "People are inviting friends and family and are getting increased protection in case one of them sues them," he said.

A policeman in my neighborhood said it's common for angry parents to call up wanting to know if they can charge other parents with a crime. They are upset, for instance, if a parent drops off a kid at an empty home. Or, if the kids go out during a sleepover and toilet-paper houses in the neighborhood. Or, if they are sheltering a runaway whose parents don't seem to care.

In the extreme, a Pennsylvania mother, Rosa Hartford, was convicted last month of a felony for having taken someone else's 13-year-old daughter to have an abortion. She's liable for a seven-year prison sentence.

I began to think of all the times over the past 15 years that I might have been sued for what seemed like everyday events. I've taken other people's children to movies, had them for sleepovers and given them rides. I've had to discuss sex and death when these issues came up. I've yelled at them for throwing food in the living room. Once, I even took them toilet-papering.

On the other hand, I also thought about the times I let my child go with other parents without knowing if they insisted on seat belts or if they had an unsecured gun in their house. What would I have done if anything went wrong?

Most of the time, parents don't need lawyers or insurance adjusters to resolve their disputes. Indeed, most of the problems would never have arisen in the first place if parents weren't afraid to talk to one another or ask those tough questions.

Still, many parents would rather report each other or take each other to court. Or, more commonly, they avoid problems by not getting involved with other people's children, often the children who most need a ride home, a hug or a party invitation.

Laws are intended to deal with extreme cases, said Ira Lurvey, a Century City attorney and chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s family law section. Now, he said people are afraid to look after one another without protection of the law.

"You can no longer take common civility for granted," he said. "Maybe that's the tragedy."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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