In 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.