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Editor's Notebook

The Teeter-Totter

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The earth stopped rotating on its axis Jan. 22. Time stood still. Sub-zero Ohio went

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sub-tropical. Animals spoke. Athletes rejected gazillion dollar contracts. Tiremakers turned away mass merchants.

In an unbelievably lucid legal moment, a judge threw out a frivolous lawsuit that claimed McDonald’s food caused health problems in two well-overweight New York girls.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet, in dismissing the suit, said consumers "cannot blame McDonald’s if they choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of super-sized McDonald’s products. If a person knows … that eating copious orders of McDonald’s products is unhealthy and may result in weight gain … it is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses."

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Sweet also waved off a plaintiff claim that fast food was as addictive as nicotine. "Nobody is forced to eat at McDonald’s."

My God, how long we have waited to hear those stirring words?

For one gleaming moment, a McNugget of common sense prevailed. The door to tort reform finally cracked open, if only a tiny bit.

Now, can we bust that door wide open?

Most people use frivolous lawsuits as an example of why we need tort reform. Heck, I just did it six paragraphs ago. But these lack-of-responsibility spectacles are just an easy-to-grasp picture of a complex matter.

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Real tort reform must tackle multiple issues, including a costly and ponderously overburdened court system; compassionate yet technologically ignorant juries; a civil law system that presumes guilt, not innocence, and totally disregards the concept of common sense; flim-flam "expert" witnesses; and greedhead attorneys who try to generate their own paydays.

And tort reform must also address the innocent people who do get hurt. Fly-in-the-face-of-reason awards and blackmailed settlements hide the fact that there are injuries and injustices that deserve compensation.

For every well-warned smoker there is an unwarned worker exposed to hazardous material. For every lap scalded by coffee there are a thousand pounds of tainted meat. For every business sued for icy sidewalks, dozens more cheat people with home improvement scams. For every kid "hooked" on Happy Meals, there’s a company selling dangerous products.

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The conundrum is how to pick and choose between the two. Who has the supreme power to determine that fine line between idiotic and injury?

If ludicrous lawsuits were the only thing needing attention, we’d have blown through tort reform like a fat man through French fries. In a perfect world, the first 30 seconds of these crazy lawsuits would sound like this:

"Yes, your honor, I’ve been drinking coffee for over 50 years. And, yes, I know that coffee is very, very hot, and maybe I shouldn’t have been holding it between my knees in a moving car."

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"Sure, judge, I heard all the warnings that cigarettes can make you sick. And, nobody held a gun to my head and made me smoke two packs a day."

"No doubt, judge, I shouldn’t have bought that flimsy-looking used tire from that muffler place, especially after I saw all them holes in it."

"Air? You put air in tires? Jeez, oh man, you’re supposed to check air pressure? My bad, your honor."

Of course, in a perfect world, simple self-pride would keep these bozos off our court dockets.

For whatever reason, Americans feel entitled to a fail-safe life encased in bulletproof bubble wrap and stocked with unlimited do-overs – and we will sue anyone to protect that right. But our insatiable appetite for free money (whatever the cost) threatens the reason we have tort law to begin with.

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It is not a just world we live in. Life happens, but some just won’t accept that fact and certainly won’t accept responsibility for their negligence. So they use tort law to create artificial fairness, leaving unbalanced the scales of justice. More teeter, less totter.

A White House-blessed study by actuary Tillinghast-Towers-Perrin said the U.S. tort system cost American companies some $179 billion in 2000. That’s a hell of a lot of teeter.

I wholeheartedly agree with the dozens of tire execs and dealers who have called for tort reform. And we badly need mass and velocity to bring this question to a head, a concerted effort from all sides to crash through that door.

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But while we’re trying to chase away those who are two fries short of a Happy Meal, the system must still protect those truly hurt. That is the only way we can bring much needed balance to this unbalanced issue.

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