THE LIABILITY DEBILITY

Sketch Me

On Saturday, the Thorold Active Transportation Advisory Committee (TATAC) found they had to cancel their annual Dust Off Your Bikes event, where they have bicycle mechanics tuning up people’s bikes for the cycling season. They were told by City Hall that each of their mechanics would require $2 million in liability insurance as demanded by the City’s underwriters.

It’s hard to say whether this may have been a case of over-zealous interpretation in applying rules, but there’s no doubting that the issue of liability has been a menace to community participation in recent years.

Insurance and a greatly overblown fear of terrorism have worked hand in hand, often together, to make our lives miserable ever since 9/11. While this piece isn’t really about terrorism, I mention it because sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the reason you can’t do something is either or both.

One example is the Welland Canal, where they built a chain-link fence wherever there are locks so you don’t get too close. They even fenced off stairs that took you right up to the locks. Why?  Two reasons: liability (some dummy might fall in) and terrorism (because everybody knows terrorists can’t work a pair of wire cutters.

You can no longer canoe on the lake Gibson system since Ontario Power Generation (OPG) posted the shores with ‘No trespassing’ signs. Why? Liability.

There’s little question of how we got here. In the case of terrorism, it’s the irrational modern tendency to consider even the most unlikely danger as an unfolding crisis. As for insurance, it can be blamed on number of high-profile lawsuits with huge awards that simply confound belief, mostly in the U.S., but some here as well.

I’m sure everyone’s heard of the lawsuit against McDonalds because someone burned their mouth on hot coffee, apparently because there was no warning on the cup and the water was a bit too hot. Most people test it before pouring it into their mouths, but maybe this person was distracted, but now every paper coffee cup in North America warns that the contents may be hot. What exactly did this person expect in a coffee cup?

I have no pity for McDonalds, but let’s face it – not too long ago such a suit would have been thrown out of court as being frivolous and the lawyer representing the plaintiff would have been chewed out by the judge. Instead, millions of dollars were awarded.

The problem is that law of the type we used to sneeringly call ‘ambulance chasing’ has become respectable as people sue every time they aren’t absolutely prevented from doing something stupid. There are no accidents anymore, and God forbid that anyone admit to their own stupidity.

But isn’t just Big Business. Municipalities and other levels of government, as well as Crown Corporations, are also popular targets. The resulting liability insurance charges from companies who make huge profits every year, combined with their power to threaten to deny insurance to anyone who might have to collect on their ridiculous insurance premiums. Just ask those who have been flooded out through no fault of their own. Unlike most businesses, they refuse to sell their product to anyone with a proven need for it and set any rules they like to that end. While insurance is surely necessary, they should be reined – tightly – and the sooner the better, because they are suffocating things like festivals, access to public property and other such things.

Then there is judicial system, which seems happy to find in favour of any moron who isn’t categorically prevented from doing injury to him/herself.

If you walk too close to the edge of a cliff, you might fall off. Common sense, right? A basic survival instinct, right? Well, apparently not, because they now successfully sue the owner of the property for not making it impossible for you to be a moron. So, when did we become our brother’s (and sisters’) keepers?

Yes, I know about Genesis 4:9, where God asks Cain where Abel is. Cain replies rhetorically, “I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?” But God doesn’t say “Yes, you are.” Instead, he ignores Cain’s snarky reply and sets about getting Cain to admit to killing his brother.

Maybe our so-called ‘justice system’, led by lawyers who solely make a living exploiting the miseries of others for their own enrichment should give their collective heads a shake.

And those who delight in seeing a municipality lose money over someone’s lack of common sense should remember a basic truth. The City doesn’t actually have any money – we do – and we’re the ones who have to pay any increase in premiums through taxes and reduced access and activities.

It used to be that burning your mouth on a cup of hot coffee because you didn’t test it first was called a life lesson. Now it’s someone else’s.

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