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There is nothing wrong with torts as a field of the law per se. There is nothing wrong with suing companies for your pension while executives crying poverty play musical chairs with a concept called accountability. “Oh, the horror! We had to let Joffrey the butler go and now we pick up our welfare checks ourselves.” There might even be nothing wrong with garnering $18 million for a woman who was killed by glass falling from a building. (Still, what about all those construction workers who supposedly die per each mile of highway constructed?) Torts is about suing people, which means that the plaintiff should gain (money) in addition to the defendant losing something. In criminal trials, the wronged party gains from knowing the defendant will suffer non-monetarily — criminal law may be more natural than civil law on that score. The frustrating aspect of torts is that anyone who wants to sue someone can find any excuse. And in law school, that concept was troubling. Oh, at first, we didn’t judge the law; we only worried about mastering it before it would master us right into a PI job. The idea then was to be the first kid to get serious. And it happened pretty quickly. There was one freak who brought two laptops into class: one for note-taking, and one for outlining. I thought he was just being forthcoming about not being human. Getting serious does two things: It gets everyone around you serious, and it eclipses thinking outside the box about whatever it is you’re being so serious about. The plague spread pretty fast. 3Ls would brag to us 1Ls about the complimentary gold-coated Valium their firm would provide (only after the first heart attack — but hey, who can’t fake those!). 2Ls would caution over ever slipping with the mean profs or getting labeled a favorite through interacting with the soft profs. Then a transfer student you met at the library might mention that the 50th percentile and 15th percentile were separated by a few tenths of GPA. Pretty soon, “The Paper Chase” just didn’t go far enough. Feeling lost in the sudden Hobbesian world, students formed cliques. First semester, friends were based on who got along with whom. Second semester, alliances were based more on complementary academic strengths. If, for example, you were acing contracts but could make no sense of property, anyone with the converse situation would suddenly be your best friend. Why else was Mohawk Mikey suddenly holding the door open for Bow-tie Bob? It was a race to the bottom of dignity, only with our axes turned upside-down. The more carnivorous we became, the less we cared about everything we were sacrificing. There was no longer humanity in the law. You know that feeling you get from “La Traviata” ? This was the opposite. Little wonder that it was hard to worry about things like ethics. We wouldn’t be tested on that for another two years. (Ahh, so that’s how shysters get to be how they are.) Then one day, a piece of common sense came unbidden into Cyrene’s mind, where it exploded out in the middle of torts class. “What’s with this? Why is everyone suing everyone? This has become such a joke. That woman that sued that mechanic because she slipped on the oil in the garage … well … I was like … ‘Bitch, just be careful!’ … Doesn’t anyone care about how ridiculous all this is?” Suddenly, that’s all we cared about. Because it was OK to care. For one glorious hour, law students proved themselves to be human and we all wanted common sense, fairness and for all of us to land phat firm jobs. I’m going to point out now that Cyrene, while popular outside of class, had never spoken inside of one. But it worked. What she lacked in structure, eloquence, rhetoric and diction, she made up for with a montage of oratory and affect. Pretty soon the brainwashed swung the other way, nodding about the ludicrous nature of trivial suings. Professor C. had an imbroglio on her hands. (I got bored during class, so I looked up words online.) “I’m glad you’re considering these issues. As the future policy-makers of America, it will be up to you to decide to do something about the status quo if you somehow find it dissatisfactory.” Let me commend my prof here and now: It was very hard to tell that she had memorized that speech. Professor C. destroyed our enthusiasm against the system by making it part of the system; sympathy became as ordinary as greed had once been. Since greed could at least get us something, we went back to it. If you’re going to be ordinary and systemitized, you may as well get rewarded for it. And greed was not hesitant in taking us back — she was never one for being choosy. In that one shining hour, we really did want suing to be about justice. We knew that much. It was the justice part that threw us off. Whatever torts should have been about, it certainly wasn’t the opportunistic version going on in the headlines of your newspaper’s Metro section where you found out what sprained ankle at what Walgreens garnered millions. In college, I read Nietzsche, who argued that people in power were secretly waiting, hoping for some poor schnook to break their rules so that the strong would have the great pleasure of punishing. I think Mary was protesting the Robin Hood version of this doctrine: poor people hoping that rich people will do nothing but bad, provable wrongs to them, causing demonstrable, pathetic suffering. Now, there are a lot of dead and dying asbestos victims, and I’m not talking about them. Nor am I talking about some plaintiffs in tobacco suits whose testimony is taped early on, in case they do not survive the case’s outcome. I’m talking about anyone who is dumb enough to drive with a cup of coffee between her legs but hires a lawyer capable of finding 12 people dumb enough to reward her with $18 million for the burns she suffers. It doesn’t take a sensitive male like me to appreciate the pain of second and third degree burns in the crotch’s vicinity. But in an age seemingly ruled by the heightening stupidity of individuals and the ever-increasing taste for big numbers — whether that be the federal budget, “Titanic,” the number of rain forests destroyed every time Danielle Steel decides she needs to express herself — the concept of inept plaintiffs seeking oodles of money has become cultural, psychological and even normal. You get food poisoning from the dollar Chinese place around the corner and your main concern is remembering to keep your hair pulled back at the right moment. You get food poisoning from McDonald’s and pretty soon, vomiting is as traumatic as fighting in war under your stepfather’s command. Americans went from land speculation to the railroad to the Gold Rush to rum-running to the lottery to suing, soon to inspire the hit show: “Who Wants to Sue a Millionaire?” Ah, but surely I exaggerate? I wish that were true. Here are some sterling examples of American Dream Shortcuts: � A man in “The Tonight Show” audience sued the show, NBC and Jay Leno after he was struck in the face with a souvenir T-shirt. Claiming pain and suffering, disability, lost wages, emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment (and the difference between these two is?), the man asked for $25,000. ( Los Angeles Times, online edition, Dec. 5, 1999) Think he would’ve sued if the same thing happened to him at a strip club? � After experiencing 28 seconds of turbulence on an airline flight, 12 passengers filed a lawsuit over their “fear of dying.” They won $2 million. ( Miami Herald, July 25, 2000) I suffer fear of dying all the time. I just don’t think it’s a particular airline’s fault. � In Tennessee, a woman sued a McDonald’s for $110,000 after a hot pickle from a hamburger fell on her chin. (Reuters, Aug. 2, 2000 and The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 8, 2000) I should get sued for the metaphor I’m thinking. After I found these gems, my instinct was to upset you, the reader, over how much this excrescence is costing you. You have the American Tort Reform Association telling you that frivolous lawsuits cost every American $1,200 annually. But I got suspect of statistics and it wasn’t long before I came across a study by the Public Policy Institute in New York claiming the same, only at $616 per year. Whatever the number, our Big Macs should cost less but the consumer ultimately foots his share of the bill. There’s your American Tragedy. Lawyers might also run cheaper in a less sue-happy world; less demand should translate to smaller hourly rates. Maybe some lawyers keep up these lawsuits so that everyone will want one of their own. Meanwhile, our courts are clogged with lottery suits as the masses hope to become rich overnight, and it’s harder for real plaintiffs with real grievances to get their day in court. Know who I want to see in court? The Desert Storm soldiers who still don’t know why they’re twitching; the blacks who were secretly injected with syphilis by the U.S. government at Tuskeegee for 50 years; Native Americans over any of the 500 contracts the U.S. government broke with them … it’s enough to make me liberal again. Big Business meanwhile tells its government the economy suffers from frivolous lawsuits. The government decides to enact tort reform and soon enough, big companies are harder to sue, plaintiffs aren’t any safer and we’re all more jaded, more selfish, more enraged. Combine these qualities into one desire: Sue someone. Free-lancer Mitch Artman lives and writes in Chicago.

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