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From a nation of risk takers to a nation of litigators
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A baseball fan turns away from the action at a minor league game in Idaho to chat with a friend. Suddenly, the crowd around him starts yelling. He turns back toward the field and is hit in the eye with a foul ball. Ultimately he loses vision in the eye. He sues.

Earlier this month, NASCAR fans at Daytona sitting feet from the track where cars are racing at speeds approaching 200 mph catch part of the excitement they’ve paid to see - a spectacular crash unfolding in front of them. Within seconds their excitement changes to screams as parts from a race car that just smashed into the wall come flying over a protective barrier injuring more than two dozen fans. Some are already preparing to sue.

In July of 2009, a 9-year-old from the Bay Area is hiking a trail at Lassen Volcanic National Park with his family when he sits on a two foot high retaining wall keeping a stretch of the trail in place. The walls gives, he hits his head, and dies shortly thereafter. The family sues the Park Service.

Watching a ball game, sitting in close proximity to tons of metal being propelled around a track at speeds approaching 200 mph, and hiking in the mountains all carry risks.

Yet here are three cases among tens of thousands each year that make their way into courts because people believe they should be risk-free or that all risks should be mitigated.

The United States, back in 1900, had a death rate of women delivering babies approaching nine per 1,000 births according to the Centers for Disease Control. By 1997, the death rate for women during delivery plunged 99 percent to 0.1 per 1,000 births.

Hospitals and physicians weren’t sued in 1900 for women dying while giving birth. Today it is almost a given there will be a lawsuit.

If there is negligence on the part of the physician or hospital, that is one thing. But many lawsuits occur even after the patient was informed they had a high risk pregnancy.

Things go wrong.

Everything has a risk to it. Some things are riskier than others.

A week doesn’t go by in the summer without someone getting into trouble in the Sierra while hiking. In the vast majority of cases the individual was not prepared for reasonable eventualities. They may have ventured out on an all-day hike on treacherous trails wearing smooth-bottomed shoes. They may have relied on a GPS device or a cell phone that doesn’t work when they are in the wilderness. They sometimes wear inappropriate clothing, carry only one bottle of water, or venture out without telling anyone where they are going.

But it is not only a matter of people being naive.

As we as a civilization reduce risk, many of us take on more risk.

Yosemite National Park, despite having more than 4 million visitors annually, isn’t Disneyland. It is still the wild. And it is still risky.

Thirteen people died there last year by ignoring basic warnings as well as setting aside common sense.

Too often we lull ourselves into a sense of invincibility.

Modern football helmets are a prime example. As more advances were made to protect the head players got bolder and started using their heads as battering rams.

Now there are retired NFL players suing for head injuries.

What did they expect? Big paydays and the limelight may have blinded them to the obvious but it was a conscious decision to play a game that is loaded with risks.

And simply because something is physical as a sport doesn’t mean head injuries have to be accepted as the norm.

Rugby players who are constantly in motion and do not wear pads or helmets are arguably engaged in a much more grueling and dangerous sport. Yet head injuries are extremely rare. The reason is simple. Players know to protect their heads since they don’t  wear helmets. They don’t use them as battering rams.

Life has risks whether it is being born or walking down the street. But there are certain behaviors where risk skyrockets. Such is the case with watching baseball that is known to have a high number of foul balls, going to races, or hiking mountain trails.

Suing because your participation in such high risk behavior didn’t go well is denying your own culpability in the outcome either by simply participating or enhancing the risk because of your actions.

We have gone from a nation of risk takers to one where we believe all risks should be neutralized to allow us to engage in dangerous behavior without any consequences.

That doesn’t bode well for innovation or our ability to enjoy relative freedom.


This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.