Friday, November 11, 2016

Beware the Dangers of Grocery Shopping

This AP story comes from Cleveland.  “A woman injured when she was struck by a motorized shopping cart in a suburban Cleveland grocery store has been awarded $1.2 million by a jury.”  Another customer lost control of a motorized cart and struck the 71-year-old woman.  The lawsuit says she was “tossed” 4 feet and sustained head and neck injuries.

Her lawyer agued that the store “failed to show customers how to properly use the store's motorized carts.”  The caring, but misinformed jury probably found in her favor for a couple of poor reasons.  First, they did not think it was unreasonable for the grocery store to hold a short driver-education class for every time someone used their motorized carts.  Second, they figured the store has lots of money and no one is really hurt by handing over $1.2 million to her and her lawyer. 

This reflects the failure in economic understanding and responsibility prevalent in our society.

Another factor is that by law in the US a person or organization found with any small fraction of fault can be assessed full damages, which turns the focus toward persons or organizations with the ability to pay rather than determining the size of their contribution to the problem.  The system in the US is also structured so that anyone can sue anyone else without spending a penny.  Lawyers take on the risk of losing the case in return for a large percentage of any winnings.  What it may cost other parties to defend themselves against possibly spurious accusations is usually of no concern.  Many of these cases are settled without going to trial merely because the cost of the settlement is less than the cost of the long legal battle.

The outcome of this case may be that all grocery stores are less inclined to provide motorized carts.  Another option might be to post a sign at the doorway warning everyone that they enter at their own risk – requiring every shopper to sign a hold-harmless agreement before shopping would be a stretch, but the way things are heading, not completely crazy.

How else does this behavior of juries and these societal assumptions, impact the public in general?  Look at almost any other transaction you enter into.

My heath savings account website agreement has a section on Limitation of Liability. “We are not liable to you for any act or failure to act that is reasonable under the circumstances or that is consistent with any applicable laws, rules, or regulations, or with general commercial practices of banks. “

My credit card has a “Disclaimer of Warranty and Limitation of Liability.”  It begins:  “The information, products and services on this Web site are provided on an "AS IS," and "AS AVAILABLE" basis. [The company] does not warrant the information or services provided herein or your use of this Web site generally, either expressly or impliedly, for any particular purpose and expressly disclaims any implied warranties, including but not limited to” – and it goes on for another 714 words, some in bold and some in ALL CAPS.

Every phone app or new download onto the computer comes with a similar agreement, pages and pages of legal sentences about use and liability.  When you join a gym or sign up for yoga, you sign a hold-harmless agreement.  Even when your child goes on a field trip for school a typical permission slip may read:  “I agree to instruct my child to obey all rules, regulations and instructions given by the teacher and/or authorized school personnel.  I further agree that no teacher or authorized personnel shall be held responsible or liable for injuries or other mishaps caused by my child’s deliberate disobedience of rules, regulations or instructions.”

These are so easy to ignore and just sign the form or check the box.  But remember, each of these paragraphs is there to protect us from each other.   Whether we are a teacher, a homeowner with an icy sidewalk, a manager of a restaurant, a youth sports coach or whatever; even when we are doing the best job possible and being as careful as we can, we are exposed to legal problems.  This is the direction America is going.

Notice that they did not hold the driver of the motorized cart responsible; it was the store’s fault – deep pockets.  Imagine if the shopper who was struck was instead a college football player or the same lady was hit by a privately owned motorized wheelchair in the parking lot.  Would the jury have been so sympathetic – similar circumstances or different players would likely have yielded a different outcome.

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