TCS Daily

'The Protection of the Foolhardy or Reckless Few'?

By Scott Norvell - October 2, 2003 12:00 AM

LONDON -- To an expatriate accustomed to the excesses of American trial lawyers and the courts that indulge them, it is a novel notion -- a panel of senior British judges says it's high time people stop whining and start to take responsibility for their own actions.


In an opinion decrying the culture of blame and compensation creeping across the Atlantic, the judges said it's time to stop belly-aching when your coffee is too hot. Time to stop crabbing when you trip on a cracked sidewalk. It's time, they said, to stop suing at the drop of a hat.


The scolding came in an opinion in the case of John Tomlinson, who in 1995 was paralyzed when he ignored No Swimming signs and dove into a lake in Cheshire County. The judges agreed that Mr. Tomlinson suffered a terrible tragedy, but refused to accept the idea that the county was to blame and should pay up.


"It is not, and never should be, the policy of the law to require the protection of the foolhardy or reckless few (and therefore) to deprive, or interfere with, the enjoyment by the remainder of society of the liberties and amenities to which they are right entitled," the Appellate Committee from the House of Lords opined.


The judges aren't the only ones concerned about the expansion of what here is called "the compensation culture." Scurrilous lawsuits make headlines almost daily. A woman sues a travel agent after a coconut falls on her head on a remote beach. A homeowner who shoots and wings a burglar breaking into his house is then sued by the criminal. A cop sues a widower because he was traumatized by seeing the man's wife die in a car crash. You can't make this stuff up.


Some of the fear of money-grubbing plaintiffs run amok may be just that: fear. The Institute of Actuaries last year put the annual costs of liability claims at £10 billion a year, increasing 15 percent annually. But another report by Datamonitor found the number of complaints declining more recently.


Most here blame the 1995 introduction of no-win, no-fee litigation for the proliferation of ambulance-chasing lawyers, along with changing public opinions. It is now acceptable -- even expected -- that people will sue when something goes awry. The mere fear of these lawsuits, warranted or not, is tangible enough to be quickly sapping the country of some of the things that make it so special.


For a father of three young children coming from America, one of the more remarkable things over here is the playgrounds. A new adventure playground in Central London's Holland Park, for example, is full of the sort of amusements that can -- and probably do on occasion -- smash little fingers, sprain little ankles and bloody little noses. There's a massive tire swing with room for about half a dozen kids. There are rope swings and a spider web-like maze of wires and platforms dangling four feet off the ground. All sorts of things that make a playground great; things that would never fly in America.


Holland Park's new fantasyland notwithstanding, the U.K. is well on the road to replicating the regime of America's safety police. A survey by the Children's Play Council last year found that many public playgrounds have banned such stalwarts as tree-climbing, skateboards and tag. Rugby is being removed from some school programs, and a game called conkers, in which players whack at horse chestnuts dangling from a string, is being sidelined.


And it's not just schools. Fireworks displays are being cancelled because insurers won't cover the liability, costs of which have risen five-fold since the mid-1980s. Even an event in which locals chase wheels of cheese down a hill in Gloucestershire was said to be scuppered because of safety concerns.


The Appellate Committee judges must be fans of cheese-rolling or conkers, because it is precisely this sort of outcome to the spreading compensation culture that they fret about. If John Tomlinson wants to do bone-headed things, they said in their opinion, that's quite all right. But don't come crying to us when you crack your noggin.


Scott Norvell is the London Bureau Chief for Fox News.

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