Lawn and order

June 1, 2000
A few weeks ago, I stopped at a Sears Hardware store to look at lawn mowers

A few weeks ago, I stopped at a Sears Hardware store to look at lawn mowers.

As I inspected the various models on display, a young man, maybe in his early twenties, came over and asked if I needed help. I told him what I was looking for, pointing to it on a sale flyer, but the kid said he had something better for me.

He showed me a self-propelled mulching mower with a 6.5-hp, single-pull Tecumseh engine. Without getting too technical, he explained all the features and options and how the engines were as good as any on the market. But then he said he had some bad news.

He flipped the mower on its side to reveal the underbelly and almost apologetically broke it to me that the engine didn't have an oil drain plug. Soon all gasolinepowered lawn mowers will be this way, he said, because of liability concerns.

I looked, and sure enough, there was no drain plug. The drilling flat was still there, but if I wanted a hole, I'd have to drill and tap it myself – and then find a plug.

"So how am I supposed to change the oil?" I asked.

"You'll either have to take the mower in for service," the clerk replied, "or you can lay it on its side and drain the oil from the filling port. I've also heard that some people are using turkey basters to suck the oil out." He was serious.

"What if I get oil on my driveway or in my gravy?" I joked.

"Well, it's better than getting your hands cut off," he answered.

Then the clerk explained how an unfortunate customer inadvertently started his lawn mower while changing the oil. Although the drain plug was out and spark wire disconnected (as instructed), the dangling conductor somehow made contact and there was just enough compression in the engine to allow it to fire up.

Oh, to have an engine like that, I thought. I've used dozens of mowers, but I can't remember any starting without at least three or four hard pulls. And that's with plugs installed and wires firmly attached.

Anyway, the clerk went on to tell me something I'd heard before, but had dismissed as rumor. "This is like what happened when safety release bars came along. I wasn't here then, but I'm told somebody got hurt trying to trim his hedges by lifting his mower. He sued us and won," the young man said in disbelief.

Though this clerk's incredulity is probably shared by many, there's another side to the apparent stupidity played out week after week in our courtrooms.

It's no secret that a lot of money changes hands every day because of the abuse of our justice system. All it takes is someone to spill a little coffee in his or her lap, and the money starts to flow. A few hundred thousand for the injured, a few hundred thousand for the attorneys, some for the judge, some for this guy, some for that guy, and some for Uncle Sam. It's an industry. And the greater the cash flow, the bigger and richer the industry becomes.

Product liability cases just happen to be one of the more dependable streams of revenue, having all the ingredients any litigator would want. Take the lawn mower case. In one snatching motion, a good trial lawyer can get his hand into the pockets of Sears, Toro, Briggs & Stratton, and perhaps three insurance companies. I imagine it’s like being a mosquito in a cow pasture.

Besides an inexhaustible supply of cash, product liability cases also come with an object of sympathy, a "victim" whose rights have been violated, to capture the emotion of the jury. This is a real plus for prosecutors because the technicalities of liability actually center on subtle design and manufacturing issues – which are often beyond the comprehension of the average juror.

And that's what's most alarming about this whole thing.

Because if jurors from all walks of life can get together and, in a few days, convince themselves beyond a shadow of doubt that they know more about design and manufacturing than the best and most earnest engineers, then almost anything can be pushed through our court system and into law under the guise of protecting someone's rights.

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