How far do we go to protect people from themselves?
That’s the question at the heart of the lawsuit filed by a grieving mother after her son – a 28-year-old medical resident – slid down banisters at the Tralf Music Hall after a 2014 show and fell off, killing himself.
At first glance, this seems like a more tragic replay of other infamous cases: an adult doing something obviously risky, followed by an attempt to shift the blame and exact financial solace.
At second glance, it seems that way, too.
The suit seeking at least $2.5 million blames the Tralf, as if a young man smart enough to be a first-year medical student at the University at Buffalo couldn’t figure out that he should have walked down the stairs.
Why is the Tralf at fault? Because no one tried to “prevent concertgoers … from sliding down the staircase.”
But at the same time, it’s at fault because it allegedly applied a “sticky substance” – though I saw no evidence of it Wednesday – to try to deter people from sliding, thus causing him to fall. Oh, and it’s also at fault for not anticipating that someone riding the banister would fall into the space between the stair and wall and then redesigning it.
Seriously? We’re now at the point where businesses – and, by extension, public facilities – are responsible for predicting all of the dumb things people might do and making facilities idiotproof? And then pass the costs to the rest of us through higher prices, taxes or insurance premiums?
Granted, the “attractive nuisance” concept makes property owners responsible for safeguarding hazards like swimming pools that might attract kids. That makes sense because an 8-year-old cannot fully grasp the consequences of doing something dumb.
But a 28-year-old?
Of course, the mother’s attorney doesn’t see it that way. Paul Paray says that businesses don’t have to prevent every conceivable hazard, “just the things that are reasonable,” and that a court should decide what’s “reasonable.”
“The same people complaining about the case would be the first to seek redress if it happened to them,” he said.
Paray no doubt is right. But that’s a reflection of a litigious society in which a culture has developed that everything is someone else’s fault. According to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, we have higher liability costs as a percent of GDP than any other nation.
The danger is that suits like this will further fuel the push for “reforms” – such as mandating that judges impose sanctions, or eliminating contingency fee arrangements – that make it harder for victims with legitimate claims.
Nor are such cases flooding the courts, as critics assert. A National Center for State Courts analysis found that they make up only 6 percent of civil cases. Still, evidence of the costs they impose is everywhere. A sleeping pill box has to warn that it “may cause drowsiness,” and a chain saw cautions users to “not hold the wrong end.”
Now, the Tralf is supposed to warn concertgoers not to slide down the banisters, or redesign its staircases and pass the costs along to us?
At some point, we have to get back to the concept that you pay for your own mistakes.
Tragically, some people end up paying a lot more than others.
But that doesn’t mean the rest of society should pay, too.