The Counsellor's Corner
Good news! In late January, the U.S. District Court of Appeals decided that bystanders who witness an airplane crash cannot sue the owner of the plane for emotional distress. Those of you who read this column regularly might wonder if I am making some of these off-the-wall cases up, and if I were you I would wonder too. In December of 1993, employees of a Honda dealership in Santa Ana watched a corporate jet crash to the ground right near their dealership. In court papers, they indicated that they had feared the jet would injure them. They then sued for "serious, substantial and enduring mental anguish" as a result of the crash and fortunately they were turned away.
Believe it or not, there is a 1992 case that led to a different result. In that matter it was held that under California law, one could sue for emotional distress merely for hearing an airplane crash. Needless to say, I much prefer the January ruling. As I have previously indicated, I detest frivolous lawsuits and this one clearly fits the bill. Permitting this case to go forward would lead to all sorts of problems. If this suit were permitted, would there be comparative negligence if a bystander could have looked away but instead chose to watch the crash? If the bystander took time off from work due to this trauma, could he claim loss of income? If he was making a significantly high income, would that also be the responsibility of the owner of the plane? If you are unfortunate enough to see one person rob or worse, shoot, another individual, can you sue the robber or the shooter for your emotional distress? If someone insulted you and there was no one else around (so we don't have slander) and you felt badly because of what was said to you, are you going to take that person to court?
As an attorney of 18 years, I treasure the court system and its place in America but its value is diminished by the abuse of our legal system with cases such as this. I want our system to be as it once was when people could take it seriously. Frivolous lawsuits don't do anyone any good, nor do they help the reputation of attorneys nor the way people view our system of justice.
As the District Court indicated, "A moment's reflection should reveal that there are too many situations in modern life when one can reasonably be scared for one's own safety. Permitting a lawsuit for just that fright would clog the courts and make transportation and commerce impossible." No kidding!
I don't want to live in a world where someone can come up behind me and go "Boo" in a loud voice and have that allow me to take that person to court. I don't want people suing other people because dogs bark loudly and scare them. I don't want people to be able to sue for loud noises or soft noises, whether they come from jets or someone hammering a nail. Whenever I read about one of these cases, I think that I'll never come across another lawsuit as ridiculous as the one I am reading, but this is my nominee in early 1999 for the most absolutely ludicrous, pathetic, and ill-conceived lawsuit of which I have had the misfortune to discover. Accidents happen; deal with it! Just because something upsets you doesn't mean that you have to run to court.
Let the system handle cases that ought to be in it while people learn to tolerate life's little annoyances. People need to stop thinking of court as the remedy for everything that causes us displeasure. Witnessing an airplane crash? Give me a break.
Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.