Public Safety at Risk: Fear of Lawsuits Changes Common Sense Behavior

frozen-lake-signOne of the things I’d like to do with this blog is share little-known stories about how the threat, reality, and fear of lawsuits has changed America.  I’d also like to ask you to share your stories so we can increase awareness of just how widespread this problem has become.  In my experience, this is one of the most important “quality of life” issues Americans face.

As cold weather’s grip begins to put much of our country into a deep freeze, I would like share a winter-related lawsuit story from my hometown in northern Michigan that I think you’ll find interesting…and disturbing.

This story begins with an odd natural event that occurs in Cadillac, Michigan that is so unusual, it was once featured on the TV show, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.   In this picturesque town of about 10,000, a canal of about a quarter mile long connects two large lakes.  When snow begins to fly, the lakes freeze over, but the canal remains unfrozen all winter.

Snowmobilers who were vacationing in the area and who weren’t familiar with the canal would sometimes get injured when they rode off the ice-covered lake and plunged into the bitter cold water of the canal.  To prevent any more injuries, a volunteer group built a temporary fence on the ice at each entrance to the canal, and they did this for many years.

Then, on a recent visit home, I noticed that the fence was gone, so I called the local newspaper.   A reporter said that the volunteers decided to stop building the fence when were told they could be sued if the fence blew away and a snowmobiler got hurt.

Isn’t this sad statement about how broken the American civil justice system has become?!  The very real threat of being sued has become so widespread and so ever-present that protecting ourselves from lawsuits has taken precedence over protecting the public from very real dangers.   Ripley himself wouldn’t believe it!

How Our Lawsuit-Happy Society Affects Charities, Part Two

kidcrayonIn my last post, I revealed that a Florida soup kitchen could have served 40,000 meals to the needy with the money it spent defending itself against a misguided lawsuit that was eventually dismissed.   Unfortunately, the impact that lawsuit abuse has on charities and community organizations can be as devastating on humanitarian groups as it is on for-profit job providers.

The worse part about trying to run a charity in our lawsuit-happy culture is that just the threat of lawsuits affects its ability to deliver services – whether it’s actually sued or not!   I was reminded of this last weekend when driving around town doing Christmas shopping.

There’s a wonderful charity in my area that raises money to help underprivileged children during the holidays.  The charity’s slogan is: “No child without a Christmas,” and with the money it raises each year, it assembles gift baskets for children who would otherwise find no gifts under their Christmas tree.

The charity, called The Goodfellows, raises money in many metro-Detroit communities at this time of year by selling a special edition newspaper to motorists when they stop at a streetlight.  It’s a tradition that goes back decades.  But in one community, Plymouth, the street sale has been banned.

A couple of years ago, city officials refused to give the Goodfellows permission to sell the newspapers in the streets even though its volunteers had done so for generations.  The reason?  The city was afraid it would get sued if one of the volunteers got hurt.  The Goodfellows even offered to buy costly liability insurance, but the city still said No.  The Goodfellows had to change the way they sold the newspapers on the streets, and it led to a drop in contributions.

As I drove through several neighboring communities that Saturday morning, I saw smiling volunteers standing at intersections selling the Goodfellows newspapers.  Yet when I drove through Plymouth, the street corners were bare.  It was sad.

You might be thinking, “The threat of being sued didn’t affect the volunteers in the neighboring communities, so Plymouth is just over-reacting.”  But I’d say that’s just the problem.  Who’s to say who is over-reacting anymore?

In the United States, it’s a “crap shoot” whether you’ll be sued or not.  All too often, you don’t know how to behave because courts have done such a lousy job setting boundaries for lawsuits.  In addition, too few judges follow the rules that have been established for penalizing personal injury lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits, so anyone can be sued at anytime.  A lawsuit that might fail in one community might cost a charity tens of thousands of dollars, or even millions, in another community. And who’s on the hook for that?  Taxpayers – you and me!

Nowadays, an “irrational” decision to prohibit volunteers from selling newspapers doesn’t look so irrational anymore.  It’s a sign of the times.

Do you have an example of a charity that’s been hurt by a lawsuit, or by the fear of being sued?  If so, share it with us here.  In my next post, I’ll tell you about how a decision by one community group to abandon a longtime practice could cost someone his or her life.  I’m planning to collect these stories and present them to Congress, governors and state lawmakers – and the rest of the nation by my radio commentary.

Making It Easier For Charities To Help The Poor

PiggyBankDuring the holiday season, I think we all listen a little more closely to the appeals from charities that fill the airwaves.  That why I’ve been using my last few weekly radio commentaries to reveal how lawsuit abuse has had a negative impact on so many humanitarian groups — even when they’ve done nothing wrong.

One such group is a Florida nonprofit organization called “Love Thy Neighbor” that has provided meals to the homeless for years.   One day, right out of the blue, the founder of the group was served with a lawsuit.  The reason: a jewelry business in another state named Love Your Neighbor claimed its potential customers might be confused if the charity continued to operate with the similar sounding name.

You heard that right…Love Your Neighbor was suing Love Thy Neighbor.

The charity was forced to defend itself during months of litigation.  Fortunately, the charity eventually won, yet it was anything but a “heavenly” ending.  The founder of the charity told me he could have provided more than 40,000 meals to the homeless with the money he spent on lawyers.

This is ridiculous! It’s hard enough for charities to raise money to help the disadvantaged.  The last thing we, as a society, should be doing is piling lawsuit abuse costs on them, too.  Redistribution at its worst!  This is Robin Hood in reverse – taking from the “have-nots” and handing over to the “haves.”

I discovered this lawsuit when reading through a little-known weekly legal publication.  It’s the kind of newspaper that only lawyers read, and I’m willing to bet I’m the only non-lawyer around who reads it.  However, the reason I force myself to read through the seemingly endless pages of lawsuits is because there are many tragic stories that will never make it to the mainstream media if we don’t help bring them to their attention.

We eventually made a front-page story out of this tragic case, and I was hopeful that the attention would help the charity retain some no-cost, or low-cost, legal help.  A kind-hearted lawyer finally did come to the aid of the soup kitchen, but as I mentioned above, even with the reduced rates he and his firm charged, the legal bills still added up to quite a burden.

Unfortunately, there are a lot more stories like this, and I will share them in the days and weeks ahead.

This holiday season, let’s all resolve to push for changes in our civil justice system that protect charities from this kind of travesty – especially in this economy!