Without a doubt you've heard about at least one of the ridiculous lawsuits floating around America.
Maybe you've laughed about the man who sued a dry cleaning facility for losing his pants.
Or perhaps you've heard about the two teenage girls who sued McDonald's for making them fat. When we hear of these scenarios, it's hard to imagine being personally affected by the lawsuit-culture that has developed in America.
When we see it on television, it's easy to write it off as something that will ultimately serve to keep us safer or more informed. Unfortunately for us, though, people don't stop at trying to ensure safety and knowledge, and there's always a lawyer hovering to take any case presented.
I recently returned from a trip to Santa Barbara, Calif., where I had the opportunity to go horseback riding at a little ranch tucked away in the mountains. In talking to our guide, a man who had spent the last 20 years working at the ranch, he mentioned his biggest fear about the ranch -- that it wouldn't survive another lawsuit. Anyone who gets on a horse, no matter how well trained the horse is, assumes some responsibility for his or her own safety. It is impossible to remove all risks associated with horseback riding -- short of using mechanical horses on a predetermined path.
The idea that this little ranch has to deal with opportunistic guests and lawyers just trying to make a buck is enough to make any small business owner jaded.
The notion of personal responsibility seems to have been lost on many Americans. Sure, there are valid and important reasons to sue another individual or company; sometimes they really do deserve it. But a lawsuit should not be filed every time something goes wrong.
As Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS correspondent puts it, "Somehow we think we're entitled to perfect lives. And if some imperfection intercedes, there will be no shortage of lawyers who will not only take the ridiculous case but also argue passionately that there is absolutely nothing ridiculous about it!"
Some may still defend the lawyers who take these kinds of cases, claiming they do more for the common good than they do harm. Sure, they may just force some businesses to place extra warning labels on products, but what about those groups that can't risk a frivolous lawsuit? The Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute says that in 2002, "a dozen states experienced medical emergencies because doctors and hospitals could no longer afford malpractice insurance."
With America being overrun with lawsuits from people who want to blame someone every time something goes wrong, we all pay the price. As ABC's John Stossel points out, there are many life-enriching products that aren't being put on the market because of fear over litigation. One company developed a fire-resistant substitute for asbestos but is too afraid to release it to the public.
Vaccine companies are also on the defensive in order to avoid lawsuits. Perhaps you visited Schiffert Health Center this past fall to receive your annual flu shot. We're lucky it's still being offered, because with vaccine makers being sued for millions of dollars each year, there are only a few companies still willing to produce the flu vaccine.
Many companies have developed life-saving vaccines but are afraid to put them on the market for fear of being sued and put out of business.
As Stossel points out, the FDA has approved a vaccine for Lyme disease but no company is willing to take the risk to distribute it. Another company invented a portable kidney dialysis machine. Instead of trekking to the hospital regularly, people with kidney disease could have the procedure done at their convenience.
Shouldn't informed individuals be able to assume the risks of these drugs and products if they so choose? And shouldn't companies be able to provide these life-enhancing products without fear that the few who do not benefit from them might put them out of business?
It is up to our generation to turn the tide back on America's culture of frivolous lawsuits. We need to take responsibility for our actions and carefully weigh the risks without depending on a monetary reward from a lawsuit if something goes wrong.
For those of us who might go on to become lawyers, hopefully we will appreciate the long-term benefits and rewards of choosing cases honestly and judiciously instead of merely seeking the highest financial reward.