Danger lurks everywhere these days, even in five gallon plastic tubs of feta cheese. The containers of feta delivered to our restaurant come embellished with sketches of a baby falling headfirst into a bucket of cheese, which is preserved in liquid, and therefore comes complete with grim warnings of possible drownings in English and Español. Has anyone really ever drowned in a tub of feta cheese, I wondered, as I stared at the toddler going head first into the bucket, or is this warning just the product of a paranoid cheese producer or a plastic pail maker who is afraid of being sued?
The federal government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission, it turns out, has been studying the dangers of plastic buckets for the past five years. One of the solutions they came up with was a suggestion to manufacturers that they produce buckets that leak. That solution, swiftly rejected by the Manufacturers’ Association, would produce slippery floors in our walk-in cooler, dry cheese on our salads, and icy floors each winter in the trucks that deliver the cheese.
Business owners are nervous these days. Like citizens of a police state, we wait for the knock at the door. Wendy’s International thinks it’s too risky to sell hot chocolate in America. The Russian Tea Room in New York City no longer sells steak tartare. The Las Vegas Hilton has been sent a message from the legal profession, which sends more messages to businesses these days than Western Union. For not recognizing that the partying pilots of Tailhook needed a babysitter, the Hilton has been fined $7 million in punitive damages in the first of 12 known Tailhook-related lawsuits.
In Pittsburgh, a woman has brought a $25,000 lawsuit against a supermarket which sold her a package of chicken complete with a chicken’s head. Upon seeing the chicken head, she says she collapsed on the floor, became dysfunctional, and was unable to care for her children. A New Jersey lawyer has sued a coffee shop for causing his heart palpitations. It seems a waitress served him double espresso when he ordered decaf. A McDonald’s in Albany has been sued for $600,000 by a woman who allegedly fell off a shifting toilet. And the jury that awarded $2.9 million to the lady who spilled hot coffee on herself while bounding along in her grandson’s sports car, and the judge who later reduced it to a mere $640,000, make restaurant owners think it’s time to move somewhere business-friendly, like Red China or Iran.
Like people who never bother bending over to pick up a penny, those who run the legal system can’t be bothered with nuisance lawsuits. Lawyers think that anything under six figures is jelly-jar change. In the funny-money world of the legal scam, where serious money flows like water and the plundering and pillaging of businesses occurs on a daily basis, $300,000 is viewed by these silvertongued robber barons as a trivial sum. Ellen Vargyas, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, says the $300,000 damages awarded per incident to victims of sexual harassment as specified in the 1991 Civil Rights Act “arc not exactly what I could call a pot of gold.”
While businesspeople were running their businesses, the law schools of America were teaching lawyers like Ms. Vargyas how to stack a deck while dripping with moral sanctimony. Her scornful attitude reminds me of an old poker buddy of mine who would call a big pot by tossing his money on the table, contemptuously announcing, “I’d pay $300 to watch a dog pee!”
To me, $300,000 is not only a pot of gold, but equals the dollar bottom-line value of approximately 480,000 grape leaves, stuffed and rolled. When you roll and stuff grape leaves for a living, money has a way of taking on a new meaning. “Let’s see, you mean if I lose this lawsuit, I will have to roll and stuff grape leaves, nonstop, from now until I’m 68?” It’s like some diabolical punishment from Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of those parables about the stages of hell where you’re stuck doing for eternity that which you hate.
To protect ourselves from a sexual harassment lawsuit like the recent one at an Eat n’ Park in Pittsburgh, where an impolite customer asked a waitress out too many times, we are planning to inscribe our bar stools with a warning to patrons: “Caution: Anyone sitting here too long may be subject to unwanted sexual advances.” So far, no one in our bar crowd is taking the discussion seriously. Everyone laughs and says that’s why they sit there in the first place. They just hope the harassment will come from someone they like. The problem is that what sounds funny to a bunch of barroom dart players at 2 A.M. is no laughing matter to a courtroom full of serious litigants and a kook-show jury. They have no sense of humor in criminal court.
I attended the sexual harassment trial of the Pittsburgh Sports Bar, where songs like “If I Only Had A Brain” from the Wizard of Oz were thought by the bartender to be all in fun. In Common Pleas Court, the singing of that song in front of a waitress was offered as evidence of a hostile environment, and no one, including the jury, thought it was funny. In fact, such songs can be actionable at $300,000 a pop. This bartender also thought it was OK to serve a tray of cheese to a waitress who had reported him for harassment. “Here, Debbie,” he said, “have some cheese. Rat finks like cheese.” This sentence became evidence of “retaliation” in court, also actionable at up to $300,000. The alleged harassment, which the owner knew nothing about, resulted in legal costs and hues of over $500,000. The owner was guilty by what is called the “should have known” standard, which states that an employer should know about everything that’s occurred in his business. In the end, the Pittsburgh Sports Bar closed and 80 people lost their jobs, which many testified were the best jobs they ever had.
A legal system that is soft on crime and tough on business will produce fewer jobs and more crime. John J. Dilulio, professor of public affairs at Princeton, writes in the Wall Street Journal that Norma L. Shapiro, a Philadelphia judge is “one of the worst offenders among that influential cadre of federal judges who has trifled with public safety concerns. Some 67 percent of all defendants released because of her prison cap simply fail to appear in court. And in the past 18 months alone, 9,732 arrestees out on the streets on pretrial release because of the prison cap were arrested on second charges, including 79 murders, 90 rapes, 701 burglaries, 959 robberies, 1,113 assaults, 2,215 drug offenses, and 2,748 thefts.”
Such mayhem is more dangerous to society than McDonald’s coffee, but it’s McDonald’s that gets hit with jackpot damages. The prosecuting attorney said McDonald’s had “known about these injuries for 15 years.” The streets of America have been a hostile environment for at least that long, but who in the criminal justice system can citizens sue for inadequate security?
I wish I could offer some words of cheer to my fellow restaurant owners, relieve their fears, and reassure them that this is America and that good citizens have rights and aren’t hauled off in the night and destroyed by their government, but it would be a lie. The only phrase that has meaning for us now, I’m afraid, is “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
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