Next-door neighbour's burglary ruined my life, `passive sufferer' tells court

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TWO WEEKS ago I brought you an extract from a trial in which a postman was accused of biting a dog in self-defence. The item aroused unusual interest - at least, I received a fax from a TV producer at NBC News in New York, longing to know how the trial turned out, which goes to show that the Americans are still on the ball, even if it's the wrong ball.

Last Friday I followed this up with an extract from another trial, this time a case in which a woman is suing her neighbour for damage caused by passive suffering, and as I think passive suffering is the sort of concept likely to appeal to the Americans, I am bringing you another extract today....

Counsel: So, Mrs Whittaker, because your neighbour kept talking about her burglary, and her narrow escape from violence, you claim that YOU started having bad dreams about HER experience. Do you really think it is possible to be emotionally affected by other people's experiences?

Plaintiff: Of course. The whole of the world of art is based on that premise. If I weep after reading the death of Little Nell, it is not because I knew Little Nell personally, or even because I believe she existed, which I do not. It is because of the power of the author's narrative. If I cry because of a fictional sadness, how much more so because of a real one? A brief smattering of applause from the jury.

Judge: One moment, one moment. Who is this Little Nell ? And if she is dead, why is she relevant to this case?

Counsel: She is a well-known fictional character, my Lord. She features in a famous quotation from Oscar Wilde, to the effect that anyone must have a heart of stone who can read the death of Little Nell without laughing.

Judge: Oscar Wilde, eh? Are you calling him as a witness?

Counsel: I had hoped that would not be necessary, my Lord.

Judge: Pity. I liked him in the film. He was very good in the court scenes. Carry on! Counsel: Very well, Mrs Whittaker. Let us look at it another way. Let us suppose for a moment that you ARE affected by the suffering of others, that your natural sympathy is bruised by the world's troubles around you. Does this in fact give you any right to sue the world for it? You cannot sue the weather for ruining your holiday! You cannot sue India and Pakistan for reviving the arms race and thus bringing depression to all those who watch the news! Indeed, you cannot sue the BBC for bringing you gloomy news!

Plaintiff: I agree. I don't want to sue them. I only want to sue Mrs Norman next door for going on and on and on and on about her bloody burglary! It's ruined my peace of mind. Her verbal preoccupation with it has affected my mental state as surely as a brick wall would affect my light. Her conversation has turned into an intellectual version of a fast-growing Leylandii cypress! Another smattering of applause from the jury.

Counsel: Was that striking phrase suggested to you by your counsel?

Plaintiff: He may have mentioned the parallel with Mr Leyland's pervasive tree, and he may have coached me in that last speech. I cannot now remember.

Judge: Who is this Mr Leyland? Will you be calling him as a witness?

Counsel: Not if it can be avoided. Now, Mrs Whittaker, let me put it to you that if we adopted your principle of passive suffering, life would be impossible!

Plaintiff: But life IS impossible - at least, it is if you live next door to Mrs Norman. Counsel: I am thinking on a somewhat grander scale, Mrs Whittaker. I am thinking of people like policemen and doctors and psychiatrists, who encounter distress on a nine-to-five basis. I am thinking of counsellors and therapists and social workers, whose daily life IS other people's suffering. I am thinking even of lawyers and judges, who daily have to endure heart-rending recitations of gruesome suffering!

Judge: Do we? Did I miss something? Counsel: Are we not affected too? Yet can a doctor sue his patient for causing him distress? Should a psychiatrist sue the man on the couch for insisting on telling him his memories, false or otherwise? Should I perhaps sue you for forcing me to share in YOUR passive suffering caused by Mrs Norman? Can a Christian sue God for His heartlessness? Can God, even, sue his erring subjects for causing Him pain through their sins? Has political correctness finally reached the apotheosis of lunacy? A small standing ovation from the jury. Several of them ask counsel for his autograph.

Well, what do YOU think ? If you think Mrs Whittaker is right, phone the YES line to the court. If you think counsel is clearly right, phone the NO line. Your decision is final.

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