031: The Inevitable Spread of American Legal Ideas

Stella Case No. 031, Originally Published: 15 January 2003

Jenny Lawson of Ecceleshall, England, attended Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, as an exchange student. As a member of the school cheerleading squad she was performing a jump and ran into another cheerleader. She fell and broke her leg.

On the face of it, it sounds like it was her fault. Shall we chalk it up to a simple accident? No, she says: the school is negligent for failing to require cheerleaders do their stunts on “absorbent mats” and “encouraging more than one cheerleader to jump at once.” Therefore she has sued the Des Moines School District seeking unspecified monetary damages.

The district’s attorney says doesn’t know of any school that has a requirement for “absorbent mats.” Further, he says, cheerleading is a sport which carries “an inherent risk of injury.” Even in England Lawson should have learned to “look before she leaps” — or isn’t there such a thing as accidents in England anymore?

Sources

  • “Foreign Exchange Student Files Suit,” Des Moines Register, 2 January 2003

Case Status

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Letters

Nick in Ohio: “I’ve been greatly enjoying your Stella Awards newsletters. I am particularly bemused by the number of lawyers who have written in to say that *they* are fine and ethical people and there are just a few ‘rotten apples’ who cause the entire profession to be looked upon with disgust. There was an interesting article published recently pointing out how people who are unaware of their incompetencies *believe* themselves to have above-average competence. I don’t have the citation handy, but I will be more than happy to find it for you if you are interested. The article was not directed at attorneys, but I am convinced that the conclusions of the study are applicable to that profession: lawyers have deluded themselves to believe they behave ethically when in fact they do not. The problem is so extreme that lawyers are unable to recognize unethical behavior by their peers. I am now working as an IT consultant, and I recently adopted the policy of refusing to accept attorneys or law firms as clients. To a one, they have the poorest record in the timeliness of paying my bills — if they don’t try to weasel out of paying the bill altogether. They lie. They break promises. It’s simply not worth the hassle of working with attorneys, so I won’t and I don’t.”

Indeed I wrote about the “people are too incompetent to realize they’re incompetent” study in my other publication, This is True. The study isn’t as recent as you think, though — just over two years! (I won’t venture as to whether that reflects on your competence. 😉 ) The article is here.

Scott in California: “I am an attorney, and I represent injured people and families who have lost loved ones. My basic test for handling a case is this: it has to make sense to me, at a gut level, that the person I am going to represent ought to be compensated for what happened. If I don’t have a visceral connection to the position I am going to have to take, how can I expect 12 jurors to help my client? I have read your newsletter since issue 3 or 4, I think, and I agree that the cases you feature are examples of why a lot of people have trouble respecting the legal system. I gather, though, that many of your readers may assume that the cases are brought by lawyers, which many may not be (California does not allow a lawyer to represent someone bringing a small claims case). Others may very well be handled by attorneys being paid hourly for their work (I’m thinking of the ‘pink flamingoes’ case), rather than contingent-fee attorneys. I also believe you when you say you are not taking sides in the tort-‘reform’ debate, and aren’t trying to push one side’s agenda over the other, though your stories doubtlessly provide more fodder for one side of the debate over the other — that’s fine, it’s newsworthy, and your point is well-taken. Many people complain that lawsuits cost us all money because the insurance companies and/or corporations pass the costs along to their customers. And indeed, they do pass those costs along, but if a company harms enough people, it cannot pass those costs along and remain competitive, and it goes out of business, allowing its more responsible competitors to flourish in the marketplace.”

Very often, yes. But it sure is painful in the meantime, waiting for Capitalist Darwinism to evolve the bad companies out of existence. Then again, I’ve seen some pretty incompetent companies create all sorts of injury, and then erase it all in Chapter 11 — only to start a new life of social harm with a slate wiped clean by the bankruptcy courts. And indeed it’s true that “anyone” can file a lawsuit. However, you should note that most, if not all, True Stella Awards cases have quotes from the lawyers involved. So while it doesn’t take a lawyer to abuse the system, most of the cases I have researched indeed have attorneys involved, so clearly many are doing a poor job as gatekeepers to the system.

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

I’m still highly satisfied with the title (The Inevitable Spread of American Legal Ideas). Judges in England are much more outspoken, and had she pressed such a suit there, I suspect she would have received quite a tongue lashing. We could use more of that here….

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2 Comments on “031: The Inevitable Spread of American Legal Ideas

  1. Alas, she wins only if she can hire Horace Rumpole.

    Perhaps, but the school district would be defended by Perry Mason, so…. -rc

    Reply
  2. I don’t know if the position still exists in the British court system and cannot remember its name but do recall that I read of it in Leon Uris’ epic “QBVII”.

    When a suit is filed there is an eminent jurist appointed to the position for a term or perhaps life who examines the case and decides whether it is worthy of being taken to trial. If he deems it unworthy he returns it to the plaintiff/attorneys with the admonition that, “Some things should not take up the Queen’s time.”

    We could certainly use that in our own system.

    Reply

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