Warning: No One is Responsible for Anything
by Jan Baughman

One day, at the moment between cutting our umbilicus and spanking our bottom, doctors will take our iris-prints and tattoo the sole of our foot with the following: "Warning: Life can result in certain death". And we'll still sue when it happens.

Before I go any further, I should warn you that I do not guarantee that you will understand and/or enjoy the contents of this commentary. This may not make you feel any better, but it takes the pressure off of me to be coherent and creative. You don't like it, it's not my fault. Nothing is anyone's fault anymore. Just don't sue me!

Both sides of the sun visors on my car are plastered with air bag warnings. (I thought air bags were there to save me.) "Death or serious injury can occur", they read. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association's 1998 crash statistics, 41,471 people were killed as a result of motor vehicle crashes and 3,192,000 were injured in that year. The airbags saved an estimated 4,758 people and killed 146. So the savings are minimal, but the cost is minimal. Of the 146 killed, 66 were children not in rear facing child safety seats (the car seats must not have carried the proper warning) and 40 were adults who were not properly restrained, i.e., not wearing seat belts. This means that over two-thirds of the deaths were due to driver/parental error. Despite this fact, every time I'm driving I see just above my line of vision "Death or serious injury can occur". The distraction of the warning is more likely to cause an injury accident than the airbag. Why don't car manufacturers simply paint a large warning on the outside of the car: "Driving can cause serious injury or death"? At least that would cover every possible moving part therein. And we'll still sue. Someone must be blamed.

A group of airline passengers recently sued for "emotional distress" during severe turbulence, though they weren't hurt physically. Suffering, or even its potentiality, can and should be compensated, many believe. An eye-for-an-eye, with profit. Mea culpas with a collection plate. And landing the big lawsuit award can be like winning the lottery. Out-of-court settlements to avoid fighting a protracted legal battle only perpetuate the inanity of it all. We model our lives after moneymakers, not great thinkers.

Our knee-jerk mentality is omnipresent. Some one or some thing outside of our control is always responsible for our actions. Money can buy us happiness, and it can soothe our pain. We're fatter than ever, but rather than eating less fat and sugar and exercising more, we wait for the magic pill that will let us have our cake and eat it, too. When that fails to materialize, we'll first sue the pharmaceutical companies, then simply return to an era where obesity was a sign of wealth.

But from where did this powerful lack of personal responsibility arise? One can always turn to The Constitution, where "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is a pretty big and unconditional entitlement. It doesn't even require us to vote. Or is it a more recent outgrowth of the consumer revolution that led us all to behave like individual businesses, with profit our primary motive? It is certainly true that a competitive personal approach to life does not value distribution of wealth, medicine and food. After all, you have to keep the competition out of business in order to get ahead. Thus, you can always blame the poor for not working hard enough or not being smart enough. Every man for his own. Survival of the fittest. Just another day at the office.

What is the solution? I'll let you know, once I've figured it out. In the meantime, I'm considering suing the estates of the founding fathers, because my pursuit of happiness has left me empty handed. Someone must be held accountable.


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Published October 31, 1999
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