New York Stories: Don't mock the lawsuit culture

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The Independent US

This may be the first world, but, in a city of eight million people, fatal accidents occasionally happen - on the roads, on subway platforms, in lifts and on building sites.

This may be the first world, but, in a city of eight million people, fatal accidents occasionally happen - on the roads, on subway platforms, in lifts and on building sites.

It has been almost a year since Jodie Lane, a 30-year-old doctoral student at Columbia University, was killed while walking her dogs down a rain-slicked East 11th Street in the East Village. We were reminded of this tragedy last week, precisely because of a very large legal settlement awarded to her family. But I did not need reminding who she was or how she perished.

This is in part because I am only blocks from the spot where she died, just outside a particularly nice bakery. It is also because our places could so easily have been traded. My days consist always of the same ritual - idly walking my dog around the neighbourhood.

It was her dogs that felt it first, when their paws touched an innocent-looking metal plate in the pavement. They yelped. Jodie made contact next. The dogs survived, but she did not. The plate was covering equipment owned by Con Edison, which supplies the city with electricity, and was electrified thanks to a naked stray wire underneath.

Ms Lane's family, in Texas, sued. Con Ed, meanwhile, scrambled to find out what else in the city might be flowing with unwanted current. They found hundreds of high-voltage leaks. Even lamp-posts were live, one in Times Square.

Even the Lane family have voiced satisfaction with everything else that has happened. The city passed new regulations to force Con Ed to inspect all its equipment in public areas for stray voltage. In October, similar regulations were approved for electricity suppliers across the state.

More will flow from the court settlement. Con Ed agreed to pay out $7.2m (£3.8m) for the death of Ms Lane. Of that sum, $1m (£530,000) will be used to set up a scholarship at the clinical psychology department where she studied at Columbia.

The agreement also creates an independent panel of experts that will monitor Con Edison's progress in improving safety for unsuspecting New Yorkers.

It is easy to mock the lawsuit culture of the US. In so many other cities in the world, the death of Ms Lane would have been dismissed as a freak mishap. Not so in America. Now her death may help to save others.

It inspired a film in Britain. But in Batavia, a city just east of Buffalo in upstate New York, it has happened for real. Instead of Calendar Girls, call it "Calendar Guys". More precisely, we are talking about Mr January through to Mr December - all members of the Batavia Rotary Club.

March features 42-year-old Dennis Dwyer, a shoe shop owner, with a pair of size 17s across his nether regions;in a hammock with the Wall Street Journal on his lap is investment banker Gilbert Mulcahy.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is best watched on television, if at all. Or such has been my philosophy since moving to New York. Consider the statistics: 2.5 million people watching 500 clowns, 800 cheerleaders and 10 marching bands. Why suffer? But last Thursday, I gave in. The reason? One daughter (11 years old) and one addition to the giant helium balloons that are the biggest attraction of the parade.

His name is Sponge Bob Square Pants and his smile was matched only by my daughter's.

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