Lawsuit Abuse Defeats Real-Life Heroes

Published February 1, 2005

Last month, my wife and I took two of our three sons to see the film The Incredibles. If you have no young children begging you to see it and you think it has no message applicable to adults, allow me to correct you. It is a powerful movie in its story line, animation, and moral lessons, and its treatment of legal issues reflects a grim reality of the present-day United States.

Mr. Incredible is one of several superheroes depicted in the film who fight crime and, as you would imagine, do good deeds. During one early incident, Mr. Incredible saves a man who has jumped from a building. It turns out the man did not want to be saved and responds to the good deed by filing a lawsuit.

Eventually, legal action causes all the superheroes to retire and go undercover in a government witness-protection program. The plot of the movie revolves around what it is like to live in a litigious society and have to overcome those who insist that anyone with a special gift or talent must be forced into mediocrity.

The message is striking, although the idea of superheroes saving the day is obviously fanciful. As I thought about the movie, however, I realized that litigiousness and mediocrity are indeed some of the biggest current obstacles in our culture. The propensity to settle every dispute by legal action undermines values, such as trust and forgiveness, that are essential to the maintenance of genuine community. Fear of rewarding or achieving excellence discourages people from fulfilling their God-given potential.

Truth Stranger than Fiction

The story of Mr. Incredible is actually more common than most of us would like to admit. To illustrate my point, I asked a friend of mine to relate his father’s story. He wrote the following:

“My father is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist. He attended Notre Dame for undergrad, then Loyola Medical School. After his residency in Chicago he was offered a terrific position with a hospital in Chicago which would have put him on the cutting edge of obstetrics and gynecology at a time (the late ’60s) when that field was on the edge of extraordinary change.

“My Dad turned down that job. He decided to return to his small hometown of Escanaba, Michigan. Escanaba is a town of 12,000 people located in the Upper Peninsula. There he could give back to the community that raised him and gave him so much. He would be the first ob-gyn specialist that small community ever saw.

“During the late ’60s, the ’70s, and early ’80s, my Dad was the only ob-gyn specialist within a 45-mile radius of Escanaba. He enjoyed long hours, long nights, phone calls at all hours, and the ineffable joy of ushering in new human life to the small town he loved. His commitment to that community was heroic and tireless. And his connection with the community was intimate. He delivered hundreds of babies each year, and he passionately and humanely cared for women in and around Escanaba during some very traumatic moments in their lives.

“In the mid to late ’80s, his malpractice premiums became so onerous (roughly $150,000 per year) that he was forced to consider retirement. The premium problem, along with the new awful reality of having to look at each new patient or case as a potential lawsuit, started sucking the joy and satisfaction right out of the practice for him.

“In the early ’90s, he was sued twice as a tangential defendant in two lawsuits where he had been called into difficult deliveries at the last minute because he was a specialist. In these two lawsuits he was deposed by a plaintiff’s attorney from lower Michigan who treated my father so uncivilly and disrespectfully that my Dad finally had the joy of his practice completely taken away. The premiums were outrageous, the trial lawyers were everywhere, and the demand was for perfect babies, or else.

“Alas, in 1995, my Dad retired for good at age 59. The medical practice he loved became a potential exposure he could not afford; and it became an adversarial environment he would never understand. Escanaba, Michigan, sadly lost one of the finest physicians it has ever, or will ever, have the honor of calling ‘Doctor Bill.’ It was tragic, and it was wholly preventable.”

Dr. Bill’s vocation, his calling, has been taken away from him. No one gains, but the entire population of Escanaba loses.

Abuses Approaching the Ridiculous

The fictional tale of Mr. Incredible comes to life in this doctor’s story. That and thousands of other similar stories are testimony to the profound need for tort reform in our nation. Pastors are afraid to counsel people. Nurses are nervous about giving needed care. Teachers fear to address the issues they know are troubling the lives of their students. Manufacturers raise the cost of their products because of the constant threat of lawsuits. Restaurants warn people that their coffee is hot and shouldn’t be carried in their laps.

At some point, it becomes simply ridiculous, and any sense of fairness is lost.

Of course we need to maintain avenues of justice for those who have been injured by the actions of another. But without some limitation, without the exercise of some prudence, without some appreciation for what we are doing to ourselves and our culture, we are in danger of suing ourselves into oblivion.

Rev. Gerald Zandstra ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Stewardship at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Grand Rapids, Michigan. This article was originally published by the Acton Institute and is reprinted with permission.