Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Placing the Blame

Common sense disappearing.

By Walter Jowers

MARCH 23, 1998:  The other day, at the hardware store, I saw this warning label on a ball of string Do not use in situations where personal safety could be endangered. Never use this product to secure large flat surfaces or objects which could "airplane." Misuse could result in serious injury or death.

I want to know who reads this and thinks, "Well, I was going to use some of this puny-ass string to lash a stack of 3/4-inch plywood to the top of my Yugo. But now, thank heaven and this fine warning label, I know better."

When a ball of string sports a warning label, I see it as a sign that we're just about to stomp out the last embers of common sense in this country. We've already put dead-man switches on every lawn mower, so people won't crank up the motor, let go of the handle, then walk around and stick their hands into the whirling blades.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not in favor of injuries. But what person big and old enough to crank up a lawn mower and read the warning labels can't see the blades cutting through grass and figure out that they'll do the same thing to fingers?

I blame the bottom-feeder lawyers for this mess. They're the ones who established the lawsuit lottery, in which anybody who has been hurt by anything other than pure, undiluted air will go to court and claim that somebody--anybody--should have warned him not to commit the goofy act that got him hurt. The lawyers call this "adequate warning." Of course, if you're the kind of lawyer who takes these cases, no warning is adequate.

"Mister Jones, did you see the warning on the lawn mower that said to keep your hands away from the sharp, whirling blades?"

"Yes, I did."

"Did you understand the warning?"

"Yes, I did."

"But did you really believe the warning? In your heart of hearts?"

"Naw. Not really."

At this point, the plaintiff rests, and he gets cash money for ignoring warnings and sticking his hand into a lawn mower.

A while back, a woman in Northridge, Calif., went into a discount store to buy a blender. She took the bottom box from a stack of four blenders on an upper shelf. When she pulled out the bottom box, the rest of the boxes fell on her. She sued the store, claiming they hadn't warned her not to take stock from an upper shelf, and they had created a hazard by stacking the boxes so high. She claimed that the falling boxes gave her neck, shoulder, and back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome to boot.

When a store has to warn people about the effects of gravity, I say this whole "adequate warning" thing has gone too far. And when things like this happen regularly, word gets out. The notion that there are rewards--but no punishment--for incompetent and goofy behavior spreads like the Ebola virus.

For instance, a California surfer recently sued another surfer for taking his wave. The case was eventually dismissed, because the court couldn't set a dollar value on the pain and suffering that the plaintiff endured by watching the defendant enjoy a wave that was intended for him.

I ran this one by Ray Helmsworth, a Williamson County Realtor and a former surfer.

"This is all clearly defined in surfer etiquette," Ray says. "Every surfer knows that the wave belongs to the person nearest the critical point in the wave." (That's surfer talk for the place where the wave starts to break.) "In the good old days, anybody who cut off the surfer nearest the critical point would've gotten rammed with a board. He wouldn't have had to worry about getting sued."

That does it. When American surfing etiquette starts to erode, when an argument about who takes a wave is settled in court rather than with brutal on-the-spot punishment, we're clearly in a time of crisis.

I say we ought to come up with a recitation for schoolchildren, like the Pledge of Allegiance, but more practical. Something along the lines of:

Hot things burn, sharp things cut, it hurts to fall down on my butt.
If I pull a box off a big high shelf, and it conks me on the head, I blame myself.
Blame myself, blame myself. If I do something dumb, I blame myself.


Visit Walter's Web site at www.nashscene.com/~housesense. Or e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.


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