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Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2000 / 14 Kislev 5761

Don Feder

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Consumer Reports

High Noon for a lawyer-slinging culture -- IN THE OLD WEST, men wouldn't venture out without a six-gun strapped to their hips. Today, we pack lawyers instead.

For the past month, both sides in the presidential race have been blasting away with their legal artillery. At various times, cases were pending in Florida's Leon and Seminole County Circuit Courts, the Florida Supreme Court, U.S. Court of Appeals and United States Supreme Court -- that Judge Judy wasn't dragged in is a minor miracle. Litigation over the election outcome has kept more than 100 lawyers working nonstop.

To say we're a litigious society is no less true for being cliched. Every two seconds, a lawsuit is filed somewhere in America.

Between 1964 and 1999, law school enrollments climbed from 46,666 to 125,627 -- four times the rate of population growth. In 1994, tort costs represented 2.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product in the United States., compared to 0.8 percent in the United Kingdom and 0.5 percent in Japan.

In the land of pleadings, every action produces an equal and opposite legal action. When injured, offended or thwarted, our first impulse is to sue.

Last week, Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist responded to a sexual harassment complaint by an ex-aide. (Norquist claims they had an affair.) The mayor's attorney released a letter from the complainant's lawyer offering "to put this painful matter to rest for the amount of $275,000."

There's nothing like a six-figure settlement to help us cope.

  • Here are a few examples of litigation lunacy from the American Tort Reform Association.

  • A Knoxville woman is suing McDonald's for $125,000, claiming she was permanently scarred after a hot pickle fell off a Big Mac (a "dangerous and defective product") onto her chin. Did someone say Mc-lawsuit?

  • In Florida, a woman who was struck by lightning on the beach is suing a city because its lifeguards failed to warn her of the approaching storm. You'd think dark clouds and rain would have given her a hint.

  • In Columbus, Ohio, inmate Frank Spisak is suing prison officials for refusing to refer to him as Francis Anne Spisak, his preferred identity, causing him/her emotional distress.

  • A Texas man is suing a topless bar, alleging he sustained neck and back injuries when a dancer bumped him with her ample bosom. Will the trial include a courtroom re-enactment?

Creative as these suits are, they could succeed. After all, a Massachusetts judge recently ordered a high school to allow a 15-year-old boy to wear girl's clothing to class. Failure to do so would "stifle his selfhood," the court ruled. The decision was upheld on appeal.

In July, a Miami jury took four hours to bring back a $145 billion judgment against the U.S. tobacco industry -- more than the companies' combined net worth. Defendants were found to have misled the public by arguing against a connection between smoking and cancer, thus deceiving everyone who's been in a coma for the past 35 years.

Fueling the litigation explosion is the flight from personal responsibility and embrace of victimology. If something bad happens to us, it couldn't possibly be our fault. Blame the damned auto, insurance, (fill in the blank) industry. Make 'em pay.

Besides, we're all victims --women with breast implants, smokers, consumers. The law has become an all-purpose device for overriding legislatures and righting society's perceived wrongs.

The Clinton administration has intervened in, or encouraged, class-action suits against tobacco companies and gun manufacturers, and salivates at the thought of hauling HMOs into court.

Vice President Al Gore's lead attorney, David Boies, is donating his services. Given Gore's opposition to federal tort reform, Boies doubtless considers the pro bono work an investment in his future.

But lawyers -- even "uber-litigators" like Boies -- are only partially to blame for the mess we're in. (When flies are drawn to garbage, do we blame the garbage?) Our greed, contentiousness and lust for vindication or revenge have created a climate where everything is litigated.

Someone should invent a sawed-off lawyer we could carry around in holsters. Then we'd be prepared for any contingency.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate