Jewish World Review March 3, 2003/ 29 Adar I 5763

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Consumer Reports

This is what's
called legal grift


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | It wouldn't bother me a whit if every McDonald's in the country shuttered their doors, although my kids would go nuts, but anyone with a sense of pure justice has to sympathize with the besieged company. Not only are profits in the toilet, with the rise of the Subway chain, but the avalanche of newspaper stories sympathizing with fat children who blame Big Macs for their youthful spreads is a travesty. And let's not forget the constant stream of lawsuits.

The most ridiculous one recently occurred in Panama City Beach, FL, where a couple sued the local McDonald's for more than $15,000 because the husband bought a bagel that wasn't to his satisfaction.

An attorney, no doubt working on contingency, whose shingle is probably above a Toys "R" Us in some strip mall, dreamed up a dandy of a complaint in trying to extort some dough from the local franchisee. According to a Feb. 4 Associated Press report, John and Cecelia O'Hare said an allegedly bum bagel "damaged the husband's teeth and their marriage... The suit alleges the wife 'lost the care, comfort, consortium and society of her husband.'"

This is what's called legal grift.

Messed-up bridgework is no fun, but if that relatively minor medical malady is enough to break up a marriage, the O'Hares' must not have a very strong union to begin with. The lawsuit's an insult to all the couples who cope with real problems-Alzheimer's, ovarian or brain cancer, heart disease, just for starters-and stick together, "for better or worse," as the traditional wedding vows go.

The O'Hares' abuse of the courts, it must be said, is minor compared to the guilty verdict slapped against Manhattan hotelier Leona Helmsley-admittedly an extraordinarily obnoxious woman-earlier this month. Charles Bell, a former employee at Helmsley's Park Lane Hotel, was awarded the obscene amount of $11.2 million after suing "The Queen of Mean" for sexual discrimination. The gay man, who worked at Park Lane for four months, was awarded $1.17 million for lost wages and compensation and an astonishing $10 million in punitive damages.

It may be that Helmsley was guilty as charged, and who's to quarrel with a jury deciding that she fired Bell simply because he's gay. But where in the world does the $10 million in "punitive damages" come from? The 48-year-old Bell hit the jackpot. He worked a mere four months, allegedly endured his employer's disgusting taunts and emerges not only a multimillionaire (minus his lawyer's fees) but an instant hero in the gay community. Not bad for less than a year's labor.

One assumes the jury's ridiculous judgment will be reduced on appeal, but considering Helmsley's reputation, probably not by much. The real villain in this case is Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Walter Tolub, who told the jury before their deliberation that Helmsley, 82, had a net worth of between $3.2 and $4 billion, an utterly irrelevant fact. The man should be prosecuted himself for jury-tampering, but I suppose he was sent bottles of champagne from grateful trial lawyers across the city.

Oh, one more. Last Friday, according to the Associated Press, a kindergarten teacher in Kansas City, MO was sued for $25,000 for allegedly "binding [a student] to his chair with tape." The moronic teacher, DaMara Lashley-aptly named-along with principal Rick Mills, "a staunch believer in corporal punishment," were both suspended.

If true, there's no defense for Lashley and Mills, and both ought to be fired immediately. But what's with the lawsuit?

You'd think that the young victim, who was probably humiliated by the incident, would gain revenge if the Kansas City School District acted responsibly and purged its system of both the defendants and any other teacher who uses corporal punishment as a means of behavior control. Just imagine if the United States was as litigious a society generations ago when parochial school students were routinely subjected to degrading treatment by nuns. The docket of lawsuits would be backed up to this day.

One of my uncles, for example, regularly had his knuckles rapped with a ruler because, as a lefty, he couldn't adapt quickly enough to the enforced rule that penmanship was performed only by the right hand. But it never occurred to my grandparents, Irish immigrants raising a family in the Bronx, to sue the school system.

It's a reminder that once upon a time in America, the phrase "trial lawyer" wasn't an obscenity.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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