Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Friday, February 04, 2005

A fine perversion of the law

I dragged myself off my sick bed for this one:

Two teenage girls decided one summer's evening to skip a dance where there might be cursing and drinking to stay home and bake cookies for their neighbors. Big mistake. They were sued, successfully, for an unauthorized cookie drop on one porch. The July 31 deliveries consisted of half a dozen chocolate-chip and sugar cookies accompanied by big hearts cut out of red or pink construction paper with the message: 'Have a great night.' The notes were signed, 'Love, The T and L Club,' code for Taylor Ostergaard, then 17, and Lindsey Jo Zellitti, 18. Inside one of the nine scattered rural homes south of Durango that got cookies that night, a 49-year-old woman became so terrified by the knocks on her door around 10:30 p.m. that she called the sheriff's department. Deputies determined that no crime had been committed. But Wanita Renea Young ended up in the hospital emergency room the next day after suffering a severe anxiety attack she thought might be a heart attack. A Durango judge Thursday awarded Young almost $900 to recoup her medical bills. She received nothing for pain and suffering. "The victory wasn't sweet," Young said Thursday afternoon. "I'm not gloating about it. I just hope the girls learned a lesson."
Yeah, I hope those girls learned a lesson too -- not to be sweet, spontaneous, and kind. And there's this:
The families had offered to pay Young's medical bills if she would agree to indemnify the families against future claims. Young wouldn't sign the agreement. She said the families' apologies rang false and weren't delivered in person. The matter went to court. Young said she believes that the girls should not have been running from door to door late at night. "Something bad could have happened to them," she said.
And something bad did happen to them: they ran into a person of such greed --um, I mean delicate sensibilities -- that they ended up in court. Here's where I clear my throat and deliver a little lecture, not only about how idiotic the woman who sued was but, based on the bare facts available in the article, how disgraceful the judge was. Torts are claims in which the plaintiff contends that the defendant harmed him or her in a way that was neither criminal nor the breach of a contractual obligation. Obviously, torts cover a lot of ground and a lot of conduct. Aside from torts created by the legislature, torts tend to fall into two categories: negligent and intentional. That is, either you carelessly breached some obligation you owe to those around you, or you purposefully intended to commit a wrong against the people around you. Here, I'm at loss to see what the girls did that constituted either an intentional or a negligent act. The judge, indeed, essentially conceded that the girls hadn't committed an intentional act: "The judge said that he didn't think the girls acted maliciously but that it was pretty late at night for them to be out." Well, last I heard, absent a curfew, there is no law against young adults being out at 10:30 at night (especially with their parents permission). There is simply no intentional wrong attendant on ringing a doorbell and dropping off cookies. As for negligence, I don't see that either. Where is the negligent disregard for the rights of others inherent in knocking on a door at night? Do we owe a duty of care to our fellow Americans not to do so? Last I heard, we were not living in a police state where no one knocks on doors at night, and the only knocks must inevitably come from KGB or Gestapo types. Finally, I'll acknowledge that there is a legal principle in tort law that can be summed up as, "you take your victim as you find him." This principle actually goes to damages. That is, if you rear end a car, it's your problem that you had the bad luck to rear end a $120,000 Mercedes, and not a $2,000 clunker. This principle does not mean that someone can be accused of a tort because they had the misfortune to come into contact with a greedy, weak-minded person, who perceived manifestly innocent conduct as a threat. Things like this really steam me. Too often, the mere fact that someone makes the effort to go into Court results in a judge thinking "there must be something there." Indeed, many years ago, I had the dubious pleasure of appearing before a judge who told me, "Well, I know there is no law supporting this claim, but I think there's something there." Spare me the activist judges.