Lawyered to death

Lawyered-up students are harassing teachers and administrators, writes George Will.

A 2004 survey reported that 78 percent of middle and high school teachers have been subjected to legal threats from students bristling with rights. Students, sensing the anxiety that seizes schools when law intrudes into incidental relations, challenge teachers’ authority.

Someone hurt while running at recess might sue the school district for inadequate supervision of the runner, as Broward Country knows: It settled 189 playground lawsuits in five years. In Indiana, a boy did what boys do: He went down a slide head first — and broke his femur. The school district was sued for inadequate supervision. Because of fears of such liabilities, all over America playgrounds have been stripped of the equipment that made them fun. So now in front of televisions and computer terminals sit millions of obese children, casualties of what attorney and author Philip Howard calls “a bubble wrap approach to child rearing” produced by the “cult of safety.”

In Washington state, students are entitled to a lawyer at a truancy hearing, an appellate court has ruled.

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Comments

  1. Margo/Mom says:

    I recall a study some time ago that indicated that the one thing that doctors can do to prevent lawsuits from patients is to work at building better relationships. This meant focusing on the patient and listening to their concerns.

    I would imagine that every one of the examples that Will cites has more to it than is revealed in his column (certainly the kindergarten arrest has been raked over the coals multiple times and viewed on You-tube enough to substantiate that the police, on arrival, were asked to arrest a 40 pound five year old, who by that time was sitting in a chair–the five year old btw, was previously doing what five year olds do–having a tantrum). Just as the McDonalds folks don’t tell the public that their coffee was 40 degrees hotter than that typically served in restaurants and that they were sued by a customer only after they refused to assist in payment for several days hospitalization and skin grafts (and that they had not heeded numerous previous complaints from previous customers); so Will is unlikely to provide comprehensive details that will detract from his point.

    But, in the end, having a decent relationship with community members and parents might just be the ticket to better understandings, and problem resolutions without attorneys. That is, along with ensuring things like adequate supervision of children (am I the only one bothered by trying to figure out how someone fractures a femur by going down a sliding board head first?).

  2. speedwell says:

    I thought the Constitution guaranteed every citizen due process rights and right of redress to the courts. Have we suspended or revoked the citizenship rights of children?

  3. I agree with the commenters above. One, Will’s almost certainly cherry-picking the most egregious examples, and he’s certainly not providing enough context to really make his case convincing. And even if he was right about the new playground fascism, he’d still have to do way more to argue that’s a significant contributing factor to childhood obesity.

  4. If Broward County settled 189 lawsuits in five years stemming from playground incidents, the problem is likely not with the parents or the lawyers, but with the way the school runs its playgrounds.

  5. “In Washington state, students are entitled to a lawyer at a truancy hearing, an appellate court has ruled.”

    Well, I should hope so.

  6. So no one above thinks that perhaps, just maybe, people might be looking for deep pockets?

  7. Darren, that’s certainly possible, but the hacky column Will wrote is no indication of it. I’m reacting to his apparent inability to ask really obvious questions of his evidence.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    Anyone who claims that: “if you do everything the proper way, you will not be sued” is a fool. Lawyers can pick apart anything and can always find blame. I wonder how many of the 189 lawsuits were filed by the same law firm. My guess is that the schools settles the lawsuits for a small amount without thinking about how it would encourage lawsuits.

    I once attended a conference when the law firm that defends nuclear power plants spoke. Nuclear power plants are almost ever sued because their insurance company refuses to settle anything. Thus, plantiffs attorney’s know that suing a nuclear power plants means years of litigation and appeals before any money can possibly be made.

    Maybe if schools contested lawsuits instead of settling, they could still have slides and monkey bars.

  9. The problem of whether to settle or fight comes down to what’s a responsible use of the taxpayer’s money. If it’s going to cost more to fight a suit than settle it, the school district is more likely to settle than not. Adn if the incident is entirely covered by insurance, then the call is up to the insurance company, not the school district.

    So fighting instead of settling is frequently not an option.

  10. Something else that could be done is to have specific release forms (as opposed to a general release form) that the parent would have to sign before little Johnny is allowed on the playground. Administrative hassle, to be sure, but wouldn’t it be better than the current wussification of our youth?

  11. Doing everything right all the time might not ensure that one is never sued–however, settling 189 suits tends to indicate that a whole lot of things were close enough to the mark to warrant a settlement as opposed to a trial (and I would guess that their insurance company has a pretty good idea of when they are better off settling).

    I tried to find some information on the web about either the Broward Co or the Valparaiso situations but kept coming up blank. The 189 suits is oft quoted, but seldom with any indication of what was going on. One suit, however, was for ADA violations and settled, not by paying anything to the plaintiff, by by agreeing to install accessible pathways so that wheelchair bound parents can supervise their children from within the park. There may have been some design flaws (equipment place too closely together) that led to the “no running” sign.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    rex,

    the problem is settling one case for $25K is that there will be ten more tomorrow. A Nuclear Fuel Cycle facility spent about $2 million fighting off a $400K claim because they only had to spend the $2 million once but they would have spent the $400 K over and over again is they would have settled. That is why I asked is 189 claims for playground injury were filed by the same law firm. And is that law firm paying for advertisements telling people to sue to school district?

  13. Miller T. Smith says:

    Do what my system did-removed any items or shut down any program that a lawyer sues you for. A cheerleader broke her foot during practice and the parent sued the school system. Before we even made it the first court date the school system greatly restricted the program. Now they just cheer. No more dancing. Nothing but walking on the floor. They are only allowed to run. They used to compete nationally but that came to and end last year.

    When some kids got hurt during a middle school sports activity and lawyers showed up the school system ended middle school sports for the entire system. That was over 20 years ago. We are just now getting a few sports back for the middle schoolers.

    We don’t have any vocational or tech ed courses anymore due to lawsuits. We don’t even cook or sew in home ec.

  14. No law firm has to “advertise” so people will sue anyone. Suing anyone for anything hs become part of the American way It’s ridiculous. If a boy slides down a slide in his own back yard and breaks his femur, no one accuses the parents of not properly supervising their child. When I take my kids to the playground, there are mothers and fathers either sitting or standing in a cluster chatting with each other. So, if their child gets hurt do they have the right to sue the park for their child’s injury, or does the park have the right to sue the parent for improper supervision?

    “I recall a study some time ago that indicated that the one thing that doctors can do to prevent lawsuits from patients is to work at building better relationships.”

    I don’t buy into the premise that there is some “touchy-feely” solution to every problem. Doctors now often work for big conglomerates – they are like employees. More often than not they are under a “quota” system, and types of visits are given time limits – some as little as 15 minutes. If you’re speaking of surgeons, their schedule is ruled by the hospitals where they operate. Besides, I believe doctors with the highest malpractice insurance, such as Obstetricians, only see their patients for a limited amount of time.

  15. Lots of lawyer-lovers here. I started to write that I was surprised, but–on second thought–I’m not.

  16. “No law firm has to “advertise” so people will sue anyone. ”

    I see lots of ads on TV searching for plaintiffs for class action suits. I see ads on TV and in the papers for personal injury lawyers. I do not think they are wasting their money looking for clients.

  17. Anyone who claims that: “if you do everything the proper way, you will not be sued” is a fool.

    And no one is claiming that.

    Lots of lawyer-lovers here.

    Um, no. Try again.

  18. The world of torts has always been strange. Over 25 years ago, when I was in law school while in my ’30’s, I was amazed in 1st year torts class, when I learned that if I, about to enter a building and seeing a scaffold erected, chose to walk under it, and a brick was dropped on me, that it wasn’t my own fault, but the fault of the constructors for (1) dropping the brick, (2) not having some sort of safety netting up, and (3) not having a warning sign posted.

    At that time, I said, “Hey, whatever happened to common sense?” I was told that it did not apply.

    And don’t get me started on the idea that a landowner owes the same duty of care to a trespasser as to an invited guest.

    Needless to say, I’m not a plaintiff’s attorney.

  19. I think that everyone here would object to evidence of unfounded lawsuits – but Will provide no examples of egregious suits in his somewhat deceptively written article, which suggests to me that he doesn’t have any examples of clearly frivolous lawsuits. Look at the text:

    >A 2004 survey reported that 78 percent of middle and high school teachers have been subjected to legal threats from students bristling with rights. Students, sensing the anxiety that seizes schools when law intrudes into incidental relations, challenge teachers’ authority.Someone hurt while running at recess might sue the school district for inadequate supervision of the runner, as Broward Country knows: It settled 189 playground lawsuits in five years.In Indiana, a boy did what boys do: He went down a slide head first — and broke his femur. The school district was sued for inadequate supervision.<

    I tried to find something about this case on the internet, but the only other bit of information I found was that the boy was 6. I can think of at least three possibilities for this case – I’m sure there are more – but Will doesn’t give us any real details.

    Poss. 1. Normal kid falls when teacher’s back is turned. Frivolous suit.

    Poss. 2. Kid is special-needs kid who is supposed to get extra supervision according to a school board policy (some special needs kids at this age have a one-on-one aide) but it isn’t provided. By the school. Not frivolous, esp. if the inadequate supervision violated school board policy.

    Poss. 3. Normal kid is left outside when the other kids go in and injures himself. This doesn’t strike me as very likely, but …not frivolous.

    Again, there may be plenty of frivolous suits against schools – but Will should have pointed some out, since that is kind of the point of his article.

  20. You don’t settle a lawsuit for the same reason that you don’t negotiate with terrorists or hostage takers.

  21. My kneejerk tendency when students and parents challenge teachers’ and schools’ authority (whether it is a challenge to disciplinary measures, school rules, or frivolous lawsuits) is to side with the teachers and the schools. But, if the responses here are an indication of educators’ attitudes about frivolous lawsuits, then my knee should stop jerking in the teachers’ direction.

    What I sense in several of the posts is a “knee jerk” reaction to the author of the column, George Will, not the content of the column.

  22. I have had kids threaten to sue me. I ignore it. Nothing has ever come of it — occasionally I’ll get something threatening from a parent, but people who do that are generally just trying to bully me into doing something unethical.

    So, I wonder if that 78% number is the usual nonsense we deal with or more serious actions in which lawyers are actually consulted. ‘Cuz kids and parents talk smack all the time.

  23. What I sense in several of the posts is a “knee jerk” reaction to the author of the column, George Will, not the content of the column.

    Will has written an unsupported polemic. I’d be interested to see the facts here, but he’s made an assertion, not an argument. The commenters here have treated it as such. Who he is has nothing to do with it.

  24. Margo/Mom says:

    Peter:

    There are some further possibilities:

    1) The slide was a known hazard, due to location over a hard surface, extreme height, improper installation (ie, able to tip over).

    2) The slide was appropriate for older kids, but this kid had somehow been able to escape the little kids playground and mingle with the older kids.

    3) There were coercive factors–kids daring one another to do stupid things–that the adults knew, or ought to have known about and intervened in.

    FYI–the oft quoted figure for Broward County was beginning to sound like an urban myth, since it was being talked about just about everywhere except Florida, according to Google searches. I did, however, come upon the following link: http://www.centerjd.org/archives/issues-facts/HellHoleFictionFL.pdf. This is a publication from a lawyer’s group, apparently. But it is responding to a designation of South Florida as a legal “hell hole,” by a group supportive of (and funded by) big corporations seeking to put limits on class action suits. This would mean that if a population surrounding, say, a nuclear plant, and subject to real risks, wanted to band together as a group to attack the “no settle” policy of a corporation with a paid staff of attorneys (or parents whose children had died due to known contaminants in infant formula, or Pinto owners, etc) and endless time, they wouldn’t be able to, or would face severe limitations to doing so. This oft-quoted Broward County number of lawsuits apparently traces back to this group–and the web site of the guy who wrote the book (do you think that they are connected).

    What is interesting to me, is the number of news organizations and columnists who have picked up this factoid–combined with the “no running” signs on the playgrounds–and with very little examination have commented on the litigious nature of our society and the unwillingness to accept risk. It is just possible that there were some real playground risks (such as hard surfaces, poorly situated equipment, location or other factors that contributed to poor supervision), that were unremedied despite numerous indications of the hazard (ie: “accidents”) and that the “no running” sign was nothing more than an attempt at CYA, that either took the place of, or augmented, real solutions.

    I did run across a legal explanation of the guy who got hit by a volunteer. It’s not what you think–not about deep pockets. As I understand it, it really had to do with some poor wording of an insurance policy that DID cover the acts of volunteers–and a really old pedestrian who as a consequence of the accident will be bed-ridden and paralyzed for the rest of his life.

  25. Richard Nieporent says:

    Clearly Overlawyered is not the favorite website of most of the people commenting.

  26. Ah, my beloved Broward County. And just when I started thinking where I work on the criminal side of the courthouse was the real hell. 😉

    “…I would guess that their insurance company has a pretty good idea of when they are better off settling.”

    I doubt the Broward County School Board HAS a liability insurer. Who would be crazy enough to write a policy for them, given that they’re apparently never NOT being sued? What they do have, which I know many local government entities in some states lack, is qualified sovereign immunity: any judgment against them is capped at $150,000 unless the state legislature passes a claim bill for the excess. And the Florida Legislature passes only a handful of claim bills a year at most.

  27. I thought that an American’s full Constitutional rights didn’t begin until their 18th Birthday. Before then, aren’t they a minor, with only basic, unalienable rights, under the protection of their parent/guardian?

    Anyway, who is surprised by this? One of the major reasons 2/3 of all teachers in the U.S. quit within 5 years of starting said careers is because they get tired of being threatened with lawsuits by parents, students, and administrators on a regular basis. But then again, when teachers have been established as the ultimate scapegoats of the education system in this country, what do you expect?

  28. “But then again, when teachers have been established as the ultimate scapegoats of the education system in this country, what do you expect?”

    Oh.

    I thought parents were the universal scapegoat.

  29. “I see lots of ads on TV searching for plaintiffs for class action suits. I see ads on TV and in the papers for personal injury lawyers. I do not think they are wasting their money looking for clients.”

    I have seen the same ads and I know that lawyers DO advertise for clients. My point is they don’t HAVE to advertise for clients. There are plenty of lawyers that don’t advertise or participate in class action lawsuits against drug companies and such that do very, very well – including those that prosecute cases against schools, home owners, restaurant employees – their clients come to them.

    In reading the rest of the replies it makes sense that, without knowing more information about the example of the child getting hurt on a slide, it is rather foolish and “knee-jerk” as someone else said, to just assume it’s a frivilous lawsuit. However, I believe we are all aware that there are too many frivilous lawsuits in general clogging up the courts.

    As far as parents or teachers becoming scapegoats, I believe a case could be made for both of those as well – it’s just when teachers are made the scapegoat everyone knows about it. I’ve been to quite a few teacher blogs and I don’t think I’ve read one positive thing about parents. Maybe there are no good parents at those particular schools.

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