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Honolulu Lite

CHARLES MEMMINGER

Sunday, August 19, 2001


Someone’s in the
kitchen with Dinah:
Her Lawyer

Silly lawsuits have become so commonplace they aren't even fun to write about anymore: The guy who spills lava-hot coffee down his crotch at the McDonald's take-out window, the kid who finds a severed finger in his morning cereal, the old lady who finds the body of Jimmy Hoffa squeezed between the mattresses of her brand new, deluxe adjustable bed.

We are a nation waiting to be offended. Praying, in fact, to be offended so that we can sue the hell out of somebody and make a ton of money.

In the old days, you had to lose a limb or a significant chunk of brain matter to win a major damage award. Now, with the right lawyer, if a bottle of seltzer water squirts you in the eye upon opening it, you can collect millions for pain, suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, undue surprise, bubble-cornea irritation and, I suppose, inadvertent inhalation of inert gases.

The latest silly suit involves a woman who set her house on fire by leaving Pop-Tarts unattended in a toaster.

The Philadelphia woman started the Pop-Tarts cooking, then left the house to drive her children to pre-school. When she got home, not only were the Pop-Tarts done, but so was the kitchen, living room and garage.

The woman, who I promise you will never receive the Martha Stewart Distinguished Cooking Award (or the Julia Child Extinguished Cooking Award, for that matter) is now suing not only Kellogg for daring to sell such a combustible comestible but also Black & Decker for selling an appliance capable of actually cooking food.

Her legal actions really are a model of restraint when you consider she also could have sued Philadelphia Gas & Electric, for daring to provide her house with dangerous electricity; Acme Counter Tops for negligently selling platforms of destruction; Ford Motor Co. for providing her with a means of transport away from her house; Tiny Tots Preschool for setting unreasonably early school starting times which caused her to make life and death decisions on less than one cup of coffee and the City of Philadelphia for not having a Hose and Ladder Company on hand to nip the toaster fire in the bud as soon as it flared up.

There is only one sure way to stop these kind of lawsuits, but I doubt that voters will ever approve the death penalty for civil justice. But can't we all agree that anyone who leaves anything cooking in the kitchen should at least be flogged? At the very least, leaving Pop-Tarts cooking alone in a toaster should be considered an act of terrorism and prosecuted in The Hague.

The way to stop these lawsuits is not to limit the amount of money plaintiffs can win. As long as there is money to be won, lawyers, working on a contingency basis, will pursue the case. The thing to do is to give lawyers and plaintiffs as much to lose as they have to gain. This is done in England, where the loser in a civil suit has to pay the other side's legal fees, no matter who filed the action.

This is a wonderfully self-regulating system. If it worked that way in America, when a guy went to a lawyer complaining that he spilled hot coffee in his lap, instead of yelling "We'll sue!", the lawyer likely would say, 'Get over it."




Alo-Ha! Friday compiles odd bits of news from Hawaii
and the world to get your weekend off to an entertaining start.
Charles Memminger also writes Honolulu Lite Mondays,
Wednesdays and Sundays. Send ideas to him at the
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 7-210,
Honolulu 96813, phone 235-6490 or e-mail cmemminger@starbulletin.com.



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