The Lawsuit Society

Americans seem to have a very legalistic approach to life – the polar opposite of Italians’ very relaxed attitudes towards the actual law, let alone life in general.

Boarding the CalTrain to go back to San Francisco, I had no idea where to put my big suitcase. On the way down I had put it on a seat, and wondered if that was allowed, but there were many seats free at the time. This train was more crowded. This bag wouldn’t fit under the seats, and there are no overhead racks (I couldn’t have lifted it up there anyway).

The first car was marked as being capable of transporting bicycles, so I got on that one and found a big open space right at the front of the seating area, completely unoccupied. I wondered vaguely if this was where people were supposed to put bikes, but didn’t think too hard about it (it had been a long week, I wasn’t thinking or noticing much at all). I put my suitcase in one corner of that open space, and sat down in a nearby seat where I could keep an eye on it.

An old lady with a wheeled walker got on some time later, and the conductors very solicitously parked it alongside my case as they helped her on board.

Then one of them asked: "Whose luggage is this?"


"Well, ma’am , did you see this sign that says it’s against federal law?" (I hadn’t, though it was a large one – tired, remember?)

"We could get a big fine."

"Where would you like me to put it?" I said this as non-aggressively as I could, though I was thinking: "You could get a fine? That’s just weird."

"There’s a baggage car two cars back."

Unlike the accomodations for bicycles and ‘passengers in need of assistance,’ the fact that there was a car designated for baggage had not been clearly denoted along the platform. I would have had to walk back two cars, dragging the suitcase. The conductors did not insist on this, but I found it amusing – and somewhat irritating – that my wrongdoing was chided in terms of "we could get fined." Why not just say: "If this space is needed for a handicapped passenger, you’ll need to move your suitcase." Which of course I would, gladly and immediately – surely that would be the minimum of civilized behavior?

However, the way the rebuke was phrased made me feel that the assumption was that I would behave like a jerk unless bludgeoned by threat of a fine (though there was an interesting twist: they, the railway employees, would get fined. Was this supposed to engender sympathy?)

America lives by legal threats and lawsuits. An outdoor dinner was given for attendees of another event at the hotel where we were having a conference. One of the guests fell down somehow. A server rushed inside to a lobby phone and called security: "He’s not hurt, but I have to report it." Two security guys in dark suits, with walkie-talkies, converged on the scene, one carrying a clipboard with a questionnaire that he required the guest to answer. I suppose the point was to get an immediate statement and signature, before the guy had time to think about how to turn a minor accident into an opportunity to sue somebody. The Cover-Your-Ass nation: Whatever happens, make sure you can’t be blamed for it.

What do you think? am I reading this all wrong?

6 thoughts on “The Lawsuit Society

  1. James

    I picked up “Atlas Shrugged” (by “Fountainhead” author Ayn Rand) recently to reread after seeing a number of articles about its 50yr anniversary, and am amazed how much it is starting to seem “more ‘realer’ than life”. In any case much more real than I would have hoped to immagine as I read it years ago with a neo-graduate’s enthusiasm for the future. Then I thought “This is so off the wall, it could never happen” (the same way I did reading 1984 in the 80’s). Now I just shake my head “How have we fallen so far so fast?”. And I don’t really think that Italy is really as far behind as you seem to express. It’s playing catchup in a lot of areas, but isn’t really so far behind.

  2. webmaster

    Uh oh. You mean I’m finally going to have to break down and read Ayn Rand? I have resisted her all these years…

  3. vangie

    You’re reading it right. You can ‘t say “boo” around here (US) anymore without someone getting “offended” and threatening to have others beat you up, figurativley speaking. Particularly, it seems that the “takers” have found ways to work the system to keep the “givers” (read taxpayers and responsible citizens who foot the bill for themselves and everyone else) under control. Ugh, I’ll stop here.

    It’s interesting to note that on my trip to FVG a few weeks ago, a 30-something Triestino said he thought that one thing good about the US is that we have a legal system with consequences – that people are apprehended and punished for their crimes, whereas in Italy, his observation was that people could get away with all sorts of things. The US legal system of 20 years ago was probably close to what he was thinking about, but these days, anything goes in court. The guilty often walk free due to some technicality of the law.

  4. Eva

    Great post. Well, this is how I see it:
    After living in Italy for 13 years, I actually MISS being in a place where people fear the law. It may sound insane, but it seems to work better than the Italian way = total dismissal of law and regulations.
    I mean the fact that I can get on a train here and someone will actually be SMOKING (I kid you not) in one of the cars, and after I hunt down the ticket collector and tell him, he shrugs and says “Che ci posso fare io?”. This really gets my goat. Now if he feared being fined or sued, maybe he would actually take his job & duties seriously?! No? Maybe it’s extreme to use fear tactics but I think Italy could use a good shaking up.

    An observation on the same note: A friend of mine (born & raised in Italy, never left the continent) recently went to USA for the first time and though he was rather impressed by the smiles, courtesy, and customer service, he felt it was fake and forced. I thought about it and he’s probably right. BUT I’d rather have fake niceness and courtesy than “genuine” rudeness, inconsideration, and lack of customer service which I see each day in Italy.

    James- I don’t know what part of Italy you live in BUT in the South the law is a joke. I have been in the process of trying to resolve a court case for the past 7 years and it’s ridiculous. I am 100% in the right yet because people have no respect for the law here, I am forced to dish out money and waste time while hoping justice will prevail in the Italian court system- which is very unlikely (my lawyer himself said so).

  5. John Helm

    Slip and fall accidents, some time ago a “friend/attorney” told me they were typically good for a quick $5,000 to $10,000. As an architect it’s one of the reasons I’d rather be in Italy. Though Berlusconi is famous for suing anyone who dares to critisize him.

  6. kataroma

    I agree that tort law in the US has gone too far (IMO this is because the US has jury trials for tort cases unlike just about every other country in the world) – however, there are no shortage of trivial court cases here in Italy – they’re just different. From what I’ve seen amoungst our Italian friends, almost every family has a nasty court case somewhere – usually over inheritance. We also have friends who are suing the condominio administrator of their building for building a faulty elevator, suing neighbours for water leaks etc. It just seems silly to spend years and thousands of euros of legal fees for such trivial problems – but apparently suing people here is the only way to get their attention.

    I would like it if hospitals at least had more fear of the law. I can tell you some terrible stories about hospital negligence and dirt.

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