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The Lost Art of Drawing the Line: How Fairness Went Too Far

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2001

    How Fear of Law Suits Harms Us All!

    Mr. Howard is a lawyer, and he points out that potential law suits have become a debilitating factor in our society. The book is filled with many poignant examples of how running scared of the lawyers causes us to suffer harm. An emergency room staff in Chicago left a man bleeding with a gunshot wound 30 feet from the door because they feared being sued by patients who already were in the ER if the staff left to bring the man in. Teachers will not give students a hug for fear of sexual harrassment suits. The governor of a state could not get a new light bulb because of civil service rules designed to avoid unfair treatment of employees and citizens. The examples are strong and will make you more sensitive to the subject. Most of the book's content looks at education, government service, racial discrimination in companies, and bureaucratic rules everywhere. The point of reference is the current state of legal thinking, which upholds having a 'neutral' judiciary that deals with disputes. Unfortunately, a lot of silly suits are started. One of my favorite examples in the book involved a dispute between two three-year-olds in a sandbox in a public park in Boston. A judge took the case and issued a temporary restraining order keeping the two kids apart. The other problem is that juries can make up ridiculous awards, both for the primary injury and for punitive damages. Everyone by now knows the story of the elderly woman who collected over $600,000 for hot coffee she spilled on herself after picking it up in a drive-through at McDonald's. But did you know about the guy whose new car had had its paint touched up, and initially got a punitive damage award of $1,000 for each car that had been touched up to paid to him? One of the things I liked most about the book was the way Mr. Howard tied all of this in to modern ideas about how organizations work best, which is to give those on the spot lots of autonomy to make choices and use their judgment. Otherwise, you get the tyranny of looking at optimizing one area (avoiding legal suits) while suboptimizing the whole area (providing education, government services, or products to customers). He has several examples of teachers and principals who made a difference by doing what needed to be done, regardless of the potential for suits. The book's weakness is that it basically encourages those who may be sued to take a chance anyway. You may be sued, but you will be helping. I agree that in many cases there will be no suits, but to the family who goes bankrupt as a result of an ensuing suit that advice provides little solace. I think he is really describing a society that wants to have a chance to win the lottery -- being injured gives you a chance to get billions! Well, maybe thousands in reality. When the bulk of society wants to have that chance, you have to assume that the laws will favor providing that free run in court with a lawyer who gets paid a contigent fee. If we are willing to give up on our 'right' to win the law suit lottery, we can have a more effective society. Are we ready for that? On the other hand, we shouldn't throw out the right to sue. Many times, there's no other remedy available. Balancing these needs is something that we have to hope our legislators will become better at accomplishing. This book should help raise the alarm. But you will do more good by writing letters explaining your views to your legislators than this book can hope to accomplish. After you read this book, do consider how we can change this system of fear that divides us. Reach out to help all those you can! Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent Solution

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