Trial system rewarding irresponsibility

By Mona Charen: Syndicated Columnist

The Heartland Institute (Chicago) does its bit for the gross national blood pressure by tracking the outrages of the world’s trial lawyers. The May newsletter offers the following examples:

A jury in New Jersey has awarded $850,000 to a man who got drunk on New Year’s Eve and passed out in a snowbank. It seems that two local police departments responded to a 1 a.m. call from an anonymous observer who thought he had seen a man collapse outside a restaurant. Police searched the area and found nothing. Nine hours later, in daylight, a passerby found Frederick Puglisi, who was then revived by police and rushed to a hospital.

As Mike Kelly reported in the Bergen Record, “. . . police considered charging Puglisi with drunkenness, but opted not to. Ramsey Police Director Joe Delaney said in a newspaper account at the time that Puglisi had probably learned a lesson already.” Not quite. Puglisi sued both police departments, claiming that frostbite damage to his right hand was their fault for failing to conduct a more thorough search. The jury had originally awarded Puglisi $1 million but decided to reduce the prize by 15 percent due to his contributory negligence. Another judge later reduced it by half.

So there it is. You get blind drunk, wander outside in 22-degree cold to find cigarettes, pass out in a snowbank and then sue the police for not finding you sooner. Is this a great country or what?

Actually, that’s a serious question.

If a drunk can get almost a million bucks, how much do sympathetic plaintiffs pull in? In Milwaukee, an 84-year-old man who was paralyzed in a car accident received $17 million. Who was to blame? Well, the driver of the car was a volunteer for the Legion of Mary, a Catholic lay organization. He was delivering a statue of the Virgin Mary to an invalid at the time of the accident. Lawyers persuaded the jury that the volunteer was an employee of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and assigned damages accordingly.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, federal prosecutors are racking up indictments against individuals who falsely claimed to have been harmed by the drug Fen-Phen. The Clarion-Ledger reports that Gregory P. Warren recruited clients for Schwartz and Associates — that is, he recruited people who would claim to have been harmed by Fen-Phen even if they had never in fact taken the drug. Twelve others have already pleaded guilty to filing false claims.

In California, a train conductor who claimed that his drinking problems were exacerbated after a crash won $8.5 million from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company. Patrick Phillips, a 52-year-old conductor, received minor head injuries when a Burlington Northern train crashed into the commuter train he was driving. After the accident, he was treated and released from a local hospital after two hours. But Phillips claimed that his alcoholism worsened in the years following the crash, leading to alcohol-related dementia. Burlington Northern agreed to settle the case out of court.

The tort system is corrupting. By rewarding — in cold cash — irresponsibility and a tendency to blame others for unavoidable misfortunes, we are eroding our national character.

We are not alone, of course. Great Britain, the home of the stiff upper lip, has plowed new ground.

Walter Olson (overlawyered.com) describes a recent case:

Carl Murphy, 18, of Merseyside, England, has received 567,000 pounds for injuries sustained while criminally trespassing on the roof of a private warehouse in 1996, from which he fell 40 feet, sustaining multiple injuries.

Murphy, who has convictions for robbery, burglary and assault, received his compensation after suing the company that owned the warehouse. He claimed that if the perimeter fence had not been in disrepair, he would not have been able to gain entry and suffer his injuries.

Although groups representing victims of crime expressed anger at his getting a sum 50 times higher than a murder victim’s family could expect to receive from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, Murphy was unapologetic about his windfall, saying he planned to buy “a few houses and a flash car.”

Murphy was expelled from two schools in just over two years after his recovery, and his family blamed the fall for his bad behavior.

It sounds like a joke. Would that it were.

Mona Charen writes for Creators Syndicate. She may be contacted through the Web site: www.creators.com