U.S. has become litigation nation

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist

It happens every time.

Every single time I think I’ve seen the absolute bottom, the skankiest, stinkiest behavior of which human beings are capable, along comes a Clarence Stowers to prove me wrong. In fact, from here on in, I think “Clarence Stowers” will be my synonym for all that is vile and low.

As in, “Man, I’m having a real Clarence Stowers day.”

Or, “Dang, I just stepped in some Clarence Stowers.”

So, OK, now you’re wondering who Clarence Stowers is and why I’m heaping such lavish abuse upon him. Well, it’s simple. He’s the guy who kept the finger.

Our scene is Wilmington, N.C., two weeks back. Twenty-three-year-old Brandon Fizer is working the custard machine at Kohl’s Frozen Custard and Jumbo Burgers when it severs his right index finger at the first joint. Somehow the digit ends up in a cup of chocolate custard that is sold to the aforementioned Clarence Stowers.

He takes a spoonful and finds something in his mouth that is definitely not chocolate custard. He pulls it out and is horrified. The owner of the store asks him to return the finger so that it and Fizer can be reunited.

Stowers says no.

The doctors treating Fizer make the same request. There is, they say, about a six-hour window during which reattachment is still possible.

Again, Stowers says no.

And why does he say no, boys and girls? Here’s a hint: Less than a day later, he was interviewing lawyers.

I’m no advocate of violence, but why someone did not put this nitwit in a headlock and forcibly relieve him of the digit, I’ll never know. Instead, Stowers stores Fizer’s finger in a freezer — the cold kills cells, which, in turn, kills any lingering chance of reattachment — and, once in a while, pulls it out for TV cameras.

Stowers’ lawyer, Lee Andrews, tells reporters his client kept the finger because he wanted to have it tested for disease. The attorney also lays groundwork for the lawsuit he claims Stowers has not yet decided to pursue. “He’s upset to the point that he’s been debilitated to some degree,” Andrews says. “Emotionally, it’s been very upsetting to him.”

Poor baby. And in the meantime, Brandon Fizer loses his finger. Wonder how upsetting that is for him?

There’s a postscript, too. Last week, Stowers announced he had changed his mind and would give Fizer’s finger back. Of course, it’s about two weeks late for it to do any good.

I’ve been skeptical of President Bush’s calls for tort reform. The idea of a medical or other professional wrecking or ending a life through negligence or misconduct then paying a relative pittance has never sat well with me. But on the other hand, who can hear this sorry tale without believing something has to be done about our litigious society?

Consider the recent record. A blind man drives a car into a concrete barrier and sues. Two prison inmates shoot themselves with a smuggled-in gun and sue. A woman sees a man reading Playboy and sues. Kids get fat eating a steady diet of Big Macs and sue.

Sue, sue and sue again. Welcome to the litigation nation.

So who can be surprised that Stowers looked at Brandon Fizer’s finger the way you would a winning lottery ticket, gazed upon the American legal system the way you would a Vegas slot machine? Who can be surprised that he could so easily and so readily check his humanity at the door?

And you know the hell of it? He could have sued and saved Fizer’s finger. Could have sued and been a human being.

But he was blinded by his own greed. There’s a lot of that going around.

Clarence Stowers is a miserable excuse for a person. And now he wants to give the finger back? It’s not my decision to make, but I’d tell him to keep it. In fact, I’d like to give him one of my own to go with it.

I’ll bet you can guess the one I have in mind.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com