A recent action by a Minneapolis judge has such a potential for inhibiting economic development of our central cities that, if a decision by a putatively less high-minded apostle of judicial restraint had anywhere near a similar impact, the miscreant would be pilloried from Cambridge to Berkeley for condemning the nation’s ghettos to further impoverishment.

The Minnesota case concerned a McDonald’s franchise opened in 1971 by a local resident on a high-crime block whose other inhabitants were the Fantasy House adult novelty store, a couple of porno theaters, a dive, and a fleabag hotel. The owner had invested generously in remodeling and upkeep on the assumption that, as he put it, “you have a nice place, you get nice customers.” Unfortunately, not all his patrons reciprocated his goodwill. In one incident in 1983, employees ejected two youths who began fighting on the premises. The two continued their quarrel across the street and down the block, where one stabbed the other, causing permanent paralysis. The Minneapolis police, considered by the area’s political and media elites as a model of enlightened liberal administration under Chief Anthony Bouza, investigated the affair and did not arrest the assailant, having concluded that he committed no crime. The story does not end there, however.

Almost two years later, on behalf of the victim’s mother, a leader of the state’s plaintiff trial lawyers association filed a multimillion dollar civil damages suit against McDonald’s, claiming that its employees had been derelict in their duties. A nonlawyer might think that the responsibilities of the restaurant’s workers were limited to the preparation and serving of hamburgers and similar fare. Not so, said plaintiffs attorney Fred Pritzker; the employees should have protected the victim by separating the combatants, ascertaining who was most likely to get injured and providing sanctuary for him while throwing out the other. The complaint did not specify how the waitresses and chefs were to accomplish this against armed adversaries without endangering themselves and other customers (and, incidentally, providing ammunition for more lawsuits).

A few months after the suit was launched, the McDonald’s franchise involved abruptly shut down. The management told the press its reasons were “economics” and “bad memories” of violent “skirmishes.”

The case never was tried because McDonald’s was persuaded to bring about an end to the litigation by forking over $500,000. State District Judge Cara Lee Neville approved the settlement despite explicitly holding that any liability on the part of McDonald’s was “dubious.” She admitted that the injury was inflicted at some distance from the establishment by “an individual who was not in the employ of defendant and over whom it had no control.” Still, she ruled the settlement “fair” because the injuries were “catastrophic.” In other words, in a pinch the nearest deep pocket will do. If anything, the judge implied, McDonald’s should have been hit up for even more because the injuries were “not fully compensated by the settlement amount.”

Judge Neville’s decision no doubt will delight plaintiff trial lawyers and the critical legal studies professiorate as opening glorious new vistas of tort law. Even the most expansive (a la former California Chief Justice Rose Bird) previous tort decisions disregarding the concept of intentional or negligent fault at least predicated the award of damages on the finding of some legal culpability, however attenuated (like “strict liability” for products ruled defective, or activities deemed hazardous). Under the Neville standard, that elementary requirement is a thing of the past.

Others not sharing the particular interests of trial lawyers and academicians have much less reason to welcome the outcome of the McDonald’s case. The immediate business target of the suit, a lone exception to its sleazy surroundings, closed its doors, throwing several people out of work. Moreover, it goes without saying that the precedent established will discourage others from locating businesses in urban ghettos. Those sufficiently foolhardy or civically inclined, if they could obtain any insurance at all, would likely encounter insurance costs even more astronomical than already exist. All the enterprise zone laws in the world would scarcely lure businesses into the inner cities where their owners, simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, would be in constant jeopardy of financial ruin by judicial ukase.

The victim himself gained nothing from the suit. The money he was to receive from McDonald’s was seized immediately by state welfare officials as reimbursement for past medical expenses borne by the public. The case, however, was not a total loss for all concerned. Judge Neville ordered that the plaintiffs lawyer was entitled to his $175,000 cut before the taxpayers’ representatives moved in.

The fiasco should teach some lessons to those willing to learn. Maybe “compassionate” activists purporting to represent the needs of inner-city residents will begin to take a hard look at who actually benefits from the redistribution of wealth wrought by the McDonald’s type of case. Maybe the leaders of our cities will begin to perceive where their interests really lie and encourage businesses assaulted by spurious suits to resist shakedowns for extravagant settlements. As it stands, the courts are as dangerous as the subways.