By Walter Williams
Literally hundreds of readers informed me that in last week’s column I fell victim to an urban legend. My reference to a Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City — who set his 32-foot Winnebago on cruise control, left the driver’s seat to brew a cup of coffee, crashed, then sued Winnebago for not having a warning against the dangers of doing so and received a jury award of $1,750,000 plus a new motor home — was false.
My having fallen for this urban legend points to more due diligence to fact-checking. Without making any excuses whatsoever for my lapse in due diligence, let’s look at it.
Thirty, 40 or 50 years ago, no one in their right mind would have believed the Merv Grazinski urban legend possible, but not so today. Personal responsibility has taken a back seat in our increasingly immoral and litigious society. Consider some actual lawsuits researched at
• The wife of a hockey fan who crashed his car after drinking too much at a Minnesota Wild game has sued the team, saying her husband who was paralyzed in the Feb. 8, 2002, auto crash shouldn’t have been served so much alcohol.
• According to the July 10, 2002, Akron Beacon Journal, “Two carpet installers who admit they read the label of an adhesive they used, admit they understood the adhesive was flammable and should not be used inside, used it inside anyway, caused an explosion, were burned badly, sued and won $8 million dollars.”
• According to the April 18, 2003, Indianapolis Star: “A convicted robber is suing the convenience store clerk who shot him as he fled after a holdup. Willie Brown, 44, claimed the clerk acted ‘maliciously and sadistically’ in firing five shots as Brown ran out of Zipps Deli with money from the store’s cash register.” Brown, who has earlier convictions for robbery and burglary, pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to four years in prison.
• In Galveston, Texas, a jury awarded $65 million to the parents and estate of a woman who drowned after her car rolled off a boat ramp. She couldn’t disengage her seat belt. The jury found Honda of America Manufacturing Co. Inc. and Honda R & D Co. Ltd. 75 percent responsible for the death of Karen Norman, even though her blood-alcohol level measured at nearly twice Texas’ legal limit (.17). Fortunately, an appeals court threw out the award, which a trial judge had previously reduced to $43 million.
• Then there’s the infamous McDonald’s case, where Stella Liebeck purchased hot coffee, placed it between her legs, spilling it and scalding herself, and was awarded $2.9 million for her troubles. Clearly, she was at fault, but George Mason University Law Professor Richard Bernstein points out that a proximate cause for her injury was the fact she was wearing a cotton sweat suit that absorbed the coffee and held it close to her body. However, if she were wearing a Gore-Tex suit, or some other liquid resistant material, she would have suffered no injuries. Bernstein asks what’s the tort principle that holds McDonald’s responsible but not the sweat suit manufacturer?
None of these cases, and many others, differs in principle from the Merv Grazinski urban legend. What’s common to all of them is the absolution or the attempt at absolution from personal responsibility.
Are people to be held responsible for their actions? In the case of tobacco use, it’s not the smoker who’s responsible for his illness, it’s tobacco companies. In the case of obesity, it’s not the individual, but fast food companies and food manufacturers who are responsible. It’s the same with criminal violence — the gun manufacturer is partly to blame.
What does all this say for the future of our nation?
Walter Williams writes for Creators Syndicate.