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Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 1999 /15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Responsibility, RIP --
LEE SANCHEZ JR. was the victim of a terrible accident. He had parked his 1990 Chevy pick-up truck on a hill. Leaving the motor running and the transmission in park (so he thought), he got out of the truck. Somehow, the transmission shifted out of park and into something experts later called "hydraulic neutral." And since the truck was on a hill, it rolled backwards and over Sanchez. He died from his injuries.

Naturally, this being 1990s America, Sanchez's relatives sued General Motors arguing that the company was liable for failure to design a slip-proof transmission. GM countered at trial that the owner's manual specifically mentions precautions a driver should take to reduce the risk of a transmission slip causing an accident. Those measures include engaging the hand brake and turning off the engine before exiting the vehicle. GM also presented expert testimony to the effect that it is not possible, under federal design standards, to build a transmission that does not have an intermediate position between park and reverse.

The jury found for the plaintiffs, awarding the Sanchez family $4 million in compensatory damages and $4.5 million in punitive damages.

"Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to," Mark Twain once quipped. But the blush is an endangered species in our brazen time. Every injury, self-inflicted or utterly unavoidable, is now thought to be a fit subject for a lawsuit. As we were taught in torts class -- "Find the deep pockets."

Sanchez may well have been a fine, upstanding citizen. But he did something stupid and, tragically, it cost him his life. It is simply shameful to attempt to hold a third party responsible for one's own foolishness. You don't need an owner's manual to tell you that it's dangerous to walk behind a running, driverless vehicle on a steep hill. This used to be known as common sense.

But so long as juries return such verdicts, the concept of individual responsibility gets hammered ever lower. The Texas Supreme Court did moderate the verdict, eliminating the punitive damage award altogether and cutting the compensatory damages in half due to the plaintiff's comparative fault. But the Sanchez family still walked away with $2 million of undeserved "winnings."

In another automobile case that defies any concept of honor or fairness, the unfortunate parents of a 3-year-old boy who died after being forgotten inside a van on a 95 degree day have sued the Ford Motor Company.

Samuel Oh attended a day-care center and was to be driven home by the center's owner, Eun Shin Cho. Somehow, Cho dropped off the other children and then parked the Ford Club Wagon without realizing that Oh was inside.

The van sat out in the hot sun for two and a half hours, until the internal temperature reached 180 degrees. The little boy died of hyperthermia.

The parents in this case were obviously well within their rights to sue the day-care center -- in fact, they'd be crazy not to sue under such circumstances. But Ford? According to the plaintiffs' lawyer, James L. Seifter, Ford and every other car maker should make cooling devices standard issue to ensure that when the outside temperature reaches, say, 70 degrees, a series of fans would switch on and blow hot air out of the passenger cabin. "Cars should be designed as cars, not ovens" he told the Law News Network.

Two companies, Mazda and Audi, reportedly experimented with such a system in their luxury cars but abandoned them due to lack of consumer demand. They were expensive and were not marketed as safety devices.

There is something morally corrupt about a society that entertains such nonsense. Smokers are presumed to be passive dupes of cigarette companies who first brainwashed the poor sops into trying the stuff and then roped them into a lifetime addiction to nicotine. Widespread understanding about the dangers of smoking is ignored in this fable of human powerlessness.

Gun manufacturers are said to be next. It won't be long before fat people sue Sara Lee (didn't their advertising intend to overcome people's will power?) Meanwhile, the trial lawyers' wallets grow corpulent, and the populace is increasingly infantalized.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate