Lawsuits, whether won or lost, shape our society

June 15, 2009
| By Bill Rohn |
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On a warm February night, 13-year-old Jason Beggs left his father’s Florida home on a skate board. At about 10:30 p.m., he arrived at a Sarasota Kmart. Later, he climbed atop a soft drink vending machine and began to rock it back and forth.

Exactly why Jason rocked the machine is unclear. However, the unit swayed back and forth before toppling forward.

Jason, who weighed 133 pounds, attempted to jump to safety. One of his feet may have gotten caught in a chute used to dispense cans of pop. When the machine struck the ground, Jason was trapped beneath it. He suffered crush-type injuries and died that evening.

Jason's parents hired lawyers. The lawyers filed suit.

At trial, the Plaintiffs argued that Kmart negligently positioned the vending machine — without an anchoring device — on a sloped concrete slab. They said it was foreseeable that someone might do what Jason did. They requested reimbursement for medical expenses and pain and suffering related to Jason's death. They also demanded compensation for the amount that Jason would have earned during his lifetime.

The Plaintiffs also sued the owner of the shopping center, the builder of the vending machine and the machine owner. Those parties settled before trial for undisclosed payments.

At trial, lawyers for Kmart pointed out that Kmart didn't own or install the vending machine and that no one ever suggested bolting it down. They argued that Jason was improperly supervised by his parents and had caused his own death.

When I first read of the Jason Beggs lawsuit in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, I thought it was the type of case that people highlighted in suggesting that the legal system is out of control. I wondered how anyone could confidently argue that a store owner must worry over whether a 13-year-old will jostle a vending machine until it falls. After all, I did dangerous things when I was a kid (like trying to put a car engine fire out by sticking my head under the hood and spitting on the flames) but I never thought about tipping pop machines over.

It should also be noted that I typically represent defendants. Maybe a talented plaintiff's lawyer would argue that teenage mischief is predictable and that it is therefore not advisable to allow vending machines to sit on inclined cement slabs without bolting them to the ground.

And I suppose that there is also the argument that lawsuits like the Jason Beggs lawsuit make society safer “one step at a time” by focusing on the types of accidents that can happen in the real world, thus putting people on notice of the chance to prevent them in the future.

The Beggs/Kmart jury deliberated for three hours before finding Kmart not liable for Jason Beggs' death. One juror said that the accident was Jason Beggs' fault because he had jumped up and down on the machine. However, two of the six jurors sided with the Plaintiffs when deliberations began.

Jason Beggs' parents were stunned by the verdict. They told assembled media that the decision was not at all what they had expected.

The Jason Beggs trial is history, but I often remember it when I use vending machines at local golf courses. Right above the coin slot on many machines are stickers stating the following:  DO NOT TIP OR ROCK THIS VENDING MACHINE. TIPPING OR ROCKING MAY CAUSE SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH.

Jason Beggs died at age 13. Had he lived, he would now be old enough to have completed four years of college, three years of law school and a couple years of legal practice.

And the beat goes on: I recently read a presentation by the president of a group known as Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch.

The group's activities include drawing attention to what they believe are stupid, silly and wacky warning labels that allegedly are the product of our litigious society. For instance, the group is critical of a label that says, "Not for use when vehicle is in motion," which appears on a portable toilet seat that outdoorsmen can attach to a vehicle's trailer hitch.

The group is also critical of a lawsuit in which a New Jersey college student sued a bunk-bed manufacturer after falling out of a bed and dislocating his shoulder. The plaintiff argued that it never occurred to him that he could fall out of a bunk bed, and that a warning label would have made him aware of a potential hazard — known to many of us as "gravity."

So maybe it's true that lurking behind every silly warning label is a prior outrageous lawsuit.

In any event, I still don't have much “legal sympathy” for the Plaintiffs in the Jason Beggs lawsuit. But lawsuits — even those in which Plaintiffs are unsuccessful — do generate change. They shape our society and they shape our lives. 

Perhaps the warning sticker that I saw at the golf course last week is evidence that Jason Beggs' death will not be forgotten.

Bill Rohn is a trial partner in the law firm of Varnum.

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