Friday, June 1, 2012

Hello! How May I Sue You Today?

It's no secret that America is a sue-happy country.  I mean, any nation where you don't even blink twice before you sue a restaurant for making your coffee too hot...needless to say things have gotten a little out of control.

No one really talks about it, but it's a worry for us all.  If you get into an accident, you're not only worried about your insurance but also if the other party will sue you for things you haven't even thought of.  If the sidewalk in front of your house hasn't been shoveled within a certain amount of time, you run the risk of getting sued by someone slipping and falling on what is considered your property.  People sue for emotional distress, minor injuries, and occasionally something they actually should be suing for.  The point is:  It seems like when something happens - like life - the first thing many people think of is how they can get some extra cash out of it.

But is cash all they're looking for?

I was just reading a story in the May 2012 issue of O Magazine about an incredibly sad and life-altering accident that happened to some sorority sisters at Ole Miss.  I was riveted by the article, a story about friendship, sisterhood, tragedy, and loss.  I cringed when I read how, during a fundraising walk along a 2-lane highway, 5 girls were killed when a truck hit the car one of the girls was driving behind the walkers with her hazards on, warning cars (who could drive that road at 55 mph) that there were people ahead.  The girls had participated in this walk for years, but that particular year, the highway patrol advised them not to, saying it was too dangerous.  The wreckage was unimaginable, knocking into some of the walkers and changing the lives of the survivors forever.

Like I said...I was glued to this story.  And then, towards the end, the writer mentioned that the families of the girls who were killed filed a lawsuit against the company who owned the truck and employed the driver.

Wait.  What?

After the police found that the driver was not at fault at all - no alcohol or reckless driving, he just came upon the car that was virtually standing still on the road with no warning - the families still sued the company and the driver for damages.

And I found that part of the story almost as heartbreaking as the deaths of the young girls.

Of course, I knew that the money wasn't what the families were looking for.  After all, most of those girls came from pretty well-off families.  What those families were probably looking for, but had no idea of it at the time, was for someone to feel as bad as they did.  Something had happened that they couldn't explain because it never should have happened.  The nature of the accident was almost too much for anyone to wrap their minds around.  And in the absence of an answer to the question "why"...they needed someone to blame for it.

I've been there myself .  Actually, I haven't.  But I've witnessed it.  When my husband was in his accident - for which he was at fault, by the way - and I initially talked to him in the ER, would you like to know the first thing he said to me as he was laying on a gurney completely immobile?

"Shit.  We're going to get sued."

I worried about that a little myself, but I never voiced that concern.  And I can't tell you how much I HATE that that was one of his first (and last) thoughts in the hospital.  I hated that he was worried about it.

Now, I'm no dummy.  I know that if the accident had been someone else's fault...I would have wanted to sue the shit out of someone.  I would have had someone to blame, someone to be angry with, and someone I could make pay.  And I probably wouldn't have realized for a few years that all of the litigation in the world wouldn't have mattered.  My husband would have still been gone and a few grand in the bank really wouldn't make me feel any better about it.  And now, years later, I have a twisted sort of gratitude that my husband was the one at fault.  Because if it had been someone else's fault, I'm very much afraid I would have carried that anger with me for a long time, if not the rest of my life.

I watched several members of my family and his, after we found out he wasn't going to make it, pour over CT scans that they didn't understand and test results that made no sense to them, demanding the medical staff explain to them how this could happen.  They were angry and wanted someone right there in front of them to blame.  Maybe we could sue them and make them pay.  But I didn't.  I took what was going on at face value:  That my husband had been in an accident - it was an accident - and as much as we all wanted to blame someone, that someone didn't exist.

Believe me.  I've been around the widow block long enough to know that litigation is sometimes necessary.  There are incompetent doctors who need to be selling used cars somewhere, negligent drivers who need to be off the road, and people in general who need to pay attention to what the hell they're doing.  And often the best way to get them to pay attention is to go straight for their wallets.

I also know that there are families who enter into legal battles over things like ashes, cemetery plots, past debts that everyone forgot about until the spouse is gone, homes, children, and just about everything you can think of.  And it's all about anger.  It's all about blame.  It's all about trying to explain what none of us can by pointing a finger and saying, "You.  This all happened because of you"...whether it's true or not.

But the truth is, I wish more people would consider why they're picking up a phone and calling a lawyer.  What do they want the outcome to be?  Will it solve anything, make anyone's life better, stop someone from doing something they shouldn't, help people in the future from going through the same thing?  Or is it because we're personally looking for some resolution or closure and think it can be found in a legal summons?  Is it that we make someone else pay for our misery by making them just as miserable? 

And in the end...what good does that do anyone?

Widow Chick (aka, Catherine Tidd) is the owner of and the author of the upcoming memoir Confessions of a Mediocre Widow (Jan. 2014).  She is also a writer for The Denver Post's Mile High Mamas and a contributor to several books on grief and renewal.

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