Skip to comments.Legal predators lay waste to US plains
Posted on 06/05/2003 9:07:19 AM PDT by Constitutionalist Conservative
There's something horribly disconcerting about flying with an airline that has been losing more than $10m a day. Call me paranoid, but the awful question that nags away is: if this company can't make enough money to keep up its own trousers, why should I believe that it'll keep me aloft at 25,000ft?
These were my doubts as I flew to Washington DC with United Airlines last Monday. Fellow nervous flyers will recognise my angst. Mercifully, it was totally unfounded.
Indeed, given United's parlous financial condition - it's in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection - the flight was remarkably good. Certainly the service was much better than that of its rival, American, on which I have had the misfortune of travelling four times this year.
What an extraordinary concept Chapter 11 is. I'll have to try it out on my bank manager. You walk in one door with bag-loads of debt, and then out the other, squeaky clean, having dumped your creditors in Lost Luggage. Marvellous.
I've never been one for in-flight movies; I simply don't have the patience. So en route to Washington, having read all the British press and a couple of US newspapers, I started on the freebie magazines. One carried an advertisement for what was described as "travel essentials". Among the must-have items was an Aerolatte Original Steam Free Milk Frother, "a simple way to make cappuccino", at the giveaway price of $18.
Exactly how this qualified as essential kit wasn't made clear. But the accompanying puff did include a stern warning: "Not for use on board the aircraft." Can you imagine why such a disclaimer was necessary? Are United's punters so gormless that they start whipping up their own frothy coffee with a battery-operated whisk half way across the Atlantic?
Well, perhaps one in 1,000 might have a go. But in a country that's litigating itself to destruction, just about all US goods and services have to be moron-proof. So great is the fear of legal action from rapacious lawyers and their aggrieved clients that products are increasingly packaged with printed messages that would insult the intelligence of a cow pat. One I saw recently was on a box of fish fingers. It said: "Contains fish".
As solicitors, attorneys and barristers tighten their grip on corporate America's windpipe, old-fashioned concepts such as bad luck, misfortune and accidents are in danger of going the same way as the Great Plains bison. The only difference is that the exterminators are not cowboys with Stetsons and Winchester rifles, but sharpshooters armed with a Harvard law degree.
Professional litigators sniff out would-be victims like pigs rummaging after truffles. Having contacted those whose lives aren't as wonderful as they would like, the lawyers then identify potential culprits: people, companies or organisations that can potentially be blamed for the unfortunate plight of others. More often than not the alleged wrong-doers just happen to have the deepest pockets.
Having waged a 30-year war against the tobacco companies, America's fee-hungry courtroom crusaders are now turning their attention to fast-food giants. Visit this country for 24 hours and you can see why. It's no exaggeration to say that there is an epidemic of obesity. Studies suggest that two in three Americans are overweight and one in three chronically so.
It's particularly noticeable among children. At some schools in poorer areas, many kids seem to be carrying more blubber than a Japanese whaling boat. With the danger lights flashing, Wall Street firms have begun to warn investors that companies that sell high-calorie food and drink, such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Hersheys, risk attracting costly lawsuits.
Cynics argue that America's fast-growing corpulent community has only itself to blame. After all, how stupid do you have to be to believe that a behemoth burger, supersize fries and gallon of cola contain the same calories and nutrition as celery soup? But that's not how US law operates. If plaintiffs here can prove even 10 per cent culpability (and that includes insufficient well-displayed information about fast-food ingredients), suppliers could face jumbo payouts.
The landslide of litigation is worrying the White House. President Bush mentioned the perils of "frivolous lawsuits" in his State of the Union address four months ago. Yet everywhere you look there is a culture of blame and claim. And it's not just big companies that face the wrath of hyperactive lawyers. Federal and local authorities are also on permanent red alert.
Only last week, the state of Florida was sued by a Muslim woman, Sultaana Freeman, who claimed that her religious freedom had been violated by a law requiring all drivers to have a clear ID picture on their licences. As a convert to Islam, she insists on keeping her head and face covered out of modesty and would provide only a photo of herself peeping from behind a veil.
Florida argues that photos on drivers' licences are a matter of public safety because they are used to verify identity in road accidents, financial transactions and to prevent fraud. Most Americans, I think, would agree. But the biggest US civil liberties group, which is championing Ms Freeman's cause, insists that Florida is being unfair to Muslim women. Both sides are now calling in experts in Islamic law.
The cost of tort is such that it accounts for nearly 2 per cent of America's gross domestic product. Little wonder that insurance companies and other businesses are campaigning for a limit to medical malpractice lawsuits and personal injury claims (bills to this effect are pending in 20 states). For many defendants, it's fast becoming a case not of Won't Pay, but Can't Pay.
-- Jeff Randall is Business Editor of the BBC
What do airlines and the UK press have to do with the central and mid-west of the US?
FMCDH (is it FRiday yet?)