Natural born litigants

Risks are part of life. Resorting to law will not make them disappear, says Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
Cyril Smith did not die on time. He is therefore suing the doctors who, three years ago, told him he had three months to live. He wants compensation for the lack of earnings incurred when, on their advice, aged 59, he gave up his job as a painter and decorator. The doctors say their diagnosis was as accurate as possible at the time and that the ingrate should be pleased that he responded so well to the chemotherapy.

With Mr Smith, the modern tendency to sue when disappointed reaches a new extreme. For Britain, at any rate. There is a lot of it about. The past few days have revealed a father suing the Midlands Examining Board over a GCSE paper in which his son got a poor grade. Then there were the traffic police who threatened to sue the Met because the noise from their motorbikes was making them deaf.

We have still to reach the heights of the absurdity that the United States has. In Manhattan, I came across a woman who sued the New York Times because she came out of her apartment, tripped over the paper and broke her leg; the newspaper made its Sunday edition too thick, she argued. That was 10 years ago. What they have got up to there since defies the imagination.

Nowadays, accidents cannot happen. There is always someone to blame. And if you can't find a direct culprit, you should blame the government.

Sometimes, of course, this reaction is appropriate enough. Who could object to the inquiry into Valujet, the cut-price firm whose plane crashed into the Everglades (killing 110 people), which revealed safety deficiencies so serious that the airline has been grounded? And it is meet to ask why suggestions went unheeded that the Dunblane gunman, Thomas Hamilton, should have had his gun licence revoked years ago. In cases like that, apportioning blame may be integral to the process of establishing systems that could prevent a repetition of the tragedy.

One might even have sympathy with the woman who was paralysed in Louisiana by a couple who went on a killing spree in emulation of the protagonists of Natural Born Killers. She is suing the film's director, Oliver Stone, for pounds 20m. Even if she has slim hope of winning, she has, none the less, found an effective mechanism for chastisement which may help her to come to terms with being paralysed from the neck down after being shot in the throat.

The trouble with litigation is that the results it produces can seem so arbitrary. Fourteen police officers received pounds 1.2m in damages last month for the emotional trauma suffered while helping victims of the Hillsborough football stadium disaster. This happened while the victims' fight for compensation remains unresolved. Some families of the 96 fans who died received only pounds 12,000 in compensation. Others have received nothing since the disaster, which was partly blamed on a lack of police crowd control. The contrast appears grotesquely disproportionate, as may be the consequences on the general morale of the emergency services, whose staff routinely deal with situations that the rest of us would consider well beyond the call of duty.

But the phenomenon goes deeper. The new alacrity with which we resort to law says something more profound about our desperate attempt to re- establish a sense of control in this increasingly out-of-control and insecure society. Even death is not exempt from the tendency, as the trend towards euthanasia reveals.

Yet to assuage this sense of helplessness, the urge to regulate, to repress and to restrict, is now given rein when it is not appropriate. At times, this may be difficult to point out without appearing callous. When 12 children and their teacher died in the M40 minibus crash in 1993, laws were introduced that from next year require children to wear seatbelts on all school minibuses and coaches. Radio 4's consumer programme You and Yours recently claimed that some councils are already making a nonsense of the law by designating coaches as buses, which are exempt from the regulations. But should the rules have been introduced in the first place? Surely it is better for children to travel to concerts in a minibus without seats than to miss out on the enrichment such extramural activities bring.

In the end, it is about a balance of risk and a balance of advantage. When 35 passengers died in the 1988 Clapham rail disaster, moves were made to introduce a system to ensure that trains could not pass a signal at red, and kept within the speed limit. Eventually the Government (to Labour's fury) announced that it was dropping the idea as it would cost pounds 700m to introduce across the rail network. As it was, the cost of improving the signalling system brought fare increases to around twice the rate of inflation. Commuters deserted the railway for the roads. The irony is that they have a far greater chance of a fatal or serious accident in their cars - with 53 deaths and serious injuries per billion passenger kilometres compared with only three deaths on railways.

Balancing risk is something we do unconsciously every day. Yet many of our decisions are uninformed. Most of us have no way of knowing whether it is more dangerous to feed our babies on powdered baby milk or to give our toddlers beefburgers (the beef is dodgier). Most of us might assume that walking is safer than going by car (it isn't; per billion kilometres there may be 53 car crashes but there are 684 serious pedestrian accidents). And we fulminate about minuscule risks to which others might expose us while taking greater ones ourselves with enthusiasm. (There are no accident- by-kilometre figures for bungee jumping or skiing, but the figure for cycling is 902 and for motorbikes is 1,870). No doubt an enterprising lawyer will eventually discover a legal formula by which we might sue ourselves when our folly or negligence places us in a situation where something goes horribly wrong.

But why bother with that when you can cast around for someone else to take to court? There may be long-term consequences, of course. If we legally castigate doctors for giving inaccurate estimates of life expectancy, they will cease to give any such information at all. Then living would become an even more wanton experience. But that is some way off. Go ahead and litigate. You might feel that my advice, however, could be interpreted as reckless. In which case you could always sue.