A Question of Lawsuits

Originally posted to my LJ, February 8, 2008.

For a historical aspect, Huntsville suffered a tragedy a couple of years ago (end of 2006). A busload of school kids went off of a bridge. There were many injuries, some deaths, and a great deal of shaken nerves.

James O. Garth, one of about two dozen Lee High School students injured when a school bus careened off an Interstate 565 overpass in 2006, is suing Laidlaw Transit Inc., the bus driver and another motorist involved in the crash. (from this article)

The article goes on: The lawsuit claims that the bus company was negligent and careless. Garth is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

My stance on lawsuits is what I consider pragmatic. I think most civil suits should be broke in two. On the first hand, if Person A is responsible for a loss of Opportunity Cost B to Person B, then A should have to make up the difference of OCB to B. However, I feel that if there is anything actually punitive about the case, this should fall into criminal hearings.

A test case might be a car company that uses an untested brake pad leads to a woman suffering enough injuries to likely keep her out of work for three years. The monetary amount of the suit should be set to the amount of her hospital bills, her three years salary, and some additional amount (say 25%) which would help to compensate for loss of hobbies and pain she suffers. It will not make up for her pain. It will not ease her pain. There is no way to apply a formula to her pain.

However, the company that set out those brakes that ruined someone's life? If there is no reason to think they had any direct part to play in it, then a stiff fine payed out to the government (and treated as taxpayer money to repair road conditions or improve area hospitals) would be levied. If it is found out that some executive forced these parts out, that is criminal.

Our current lawsuit system is broken in four basic ways:

1) It fails to criminalize activity that is criminal. Overlooking safety inspections is a criminal act when a person's life is on the line. Lying to the public about the affects of tobacco is a criminal act. Putting out a product without testing even though you tell people it is safe is a criminal act.

2) It treats the act of being a victim as something worthy of financial repayment. Those people who "luck up" (and yes, that is meant to be irony quotes) and get in a wreck before the recall find themselves in possession of a cash payout equal not only to their loss but to some unknown millions due to "emotional damage". This may seem like I am being an ass, here, but it feels to me that the idea of "victims get a lollipop" can only lead to worsening conditions. Not only does that lollipop treat nothing, it helps to inspire more and more cases of intentional victim-hood.

3) Many lawsuits are pushed against indirect parties. Someone slips down because a customer spills a drink in a mall and the mall gets sued. Someone goes boating and hits a dock and gets whiplash and the person who sold the boat gets sued. Someone buys a jar of bad baby food from a store and sometimes the store is sued, sometimes the warehouse is sued, sometimes the manufacturer is sued, sometimes the farmer is sued, and so on.

4) It seems like many suits are now filled with a combination of "but someone should pay me for pain" and, worse, "what the hell? why not?" attitude.

I suppose we should add a #5, here:

5) Most lawsuits are for such ridiculously high amounts and involve such legal tedium that companies will often rush through settlements just to quell everything. In fact, many lawsuits that I have heard about have been very much so for the settlement. There were never so much about justice as getting money through intimidation.

I am not saying that all lawsuits are evil, or pointless, or destructive. I think there are good reasons to have them. But I do think we have to decide where an outpouring of money begins and justice ends.

This case made me think about all of these things. I have not heard many of the developments, but as I understand a student lost control of their car and either snatched in front of the bus or rammed the bus. The bus driver then either lost control or jerked the wheel or some combination of both. The somewhat lacking concrete barrier was struck, and the bus went over the edge.

The bus could have been made, possibly, to include seat belts and air bags (but would the school system have purchased such an expensive thing in the a state where schools are regularly short on money to buy text books?). The bus might have been made to take impacts better (ditto). The bus might have been designed to keep better control (less of a ditto, but the situation was sort of an unfortunately mass of events). The driver could have plowed through the young driver, instinctively. The driver could have been trained what to do with front collisions while on overpasses.

In other words, there are ways that the accident could have been potentially avoided, but so many of them are based on spending a good deal of time and effort for a hypothetical that is fairly rare. Yet the lawsuit stipulates that the bus company was negligent and careless, implying that the bus company knew the accident was a strong possibility but did nothing to stop it.

And this is not the only case against this bus, this bus driver, and the car's driver. There about 30 according to the article.

Tragic? God, yes. That was a horrible accident. Where people injured? Yes, no doubt some kids will spend the rest of their life with some sort of scar. Worthy of millions of dollars in lawsuit damages? I seriously don't know. If the bus company or either drivers led to the accident by their own will or lack of will, then put them in jail. Treat them as criminals. If the kids who survived need councelling, then get them councelling. If everything that could have been done was done, then why is a lawsuit going on?

Written by W Doug Bolden

For those wishing to get in touch, you can contact me in a number of ways

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".

"The hidden is greater than the seen."