The Business Rusch: A Lawsuit Waiting To Happen
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I knew I’d get ideas for this blog while I was here in Germany. I just didn’t realize I wouldn’t have time to write them. Tonight, after I finish this, I must make notes about Nuremberg and maybe try to get some sleep.
I learn a lot about myself and my own country when I travel. Even though I try to do a one-size-fits-all business blog, I’m acutely aware that one size does not fit all when we’re talking about a worldwide readership, which this blog has. I think of it most in the areas of taxes, which are different in every country, and health insurance, which also differs from country to country.
But I forget about the little things, until I come to Europe. I’ve noticed this before, but forgot it, and then thought about it again once I got here on Sunday: The tort laws are different here. Now, before you American folks go all nuts in the comments section about tort reform, I am not going let this blog devolve into a political conversation. So keep your opinions on tort reform to yourself.
Tort laws are the laws that govern what is and is not a legal injury. A legal injury might have to do with an actual injury, like the kind you would get in an automobile accident. Legal injury might be libel or slander. It might be product liability. Like so many things in the law, it is broad and encompasses too many things to deal with here. Remember too that I am not a lawyer, and am often wrong.
What I mean by tort law here, though, is the kind that deals with things like personal injury which happens in a public place. Let me give you today’s litany.
In the middle of the night, I hit the bathroom doorstop with my heel and fell backwards—the toilet literally saved my ass. Had I fallen another way, I would have seriously hurt myself. The doorstop in this hotel bathroom is exactly between your feet if you’re using that toilet (male or female). The stop sticks up two inches from the floor, and is impossible to see in the dark.
The offending doorstop below. Looks a tad rude in this photo, but I assure you. It is a doorstop.
Because I am an American (seriously!), I do not expect a doorstop in the middle of the bathroom floor where I might trip over it.
I also stepped out of a store today and caught myself before falling a foot to the sidewalk. I used a handrail every time I am on stairs here because the stairs are often uneven, particularly in older buildings.
Germany is actually better than other countries I’ve been to. The bathroom appliances are fairly uniform, and so are the stairs in newer buildings. Most new things (less than 60 years old) are in some sort of uniform shape.
But one of the reasons that businesses here do not follow some kind of uniform code is age. Are you going to monkey with a 500-year-old building so that it comes up to a building code designed in the 21st century? I think not.
Other examples though don’t have to do with buildings. Here the water for my tea arrives exceedingly hot, but no one gives me a goofy warning on the label that tea water is hot. There is a kind of buyer beware attitude throughout Europe that as an American, I simply do not expect.
My culture babies me. And not because it thinks I am stupid, but because the lawyers think—and they’re right—that if someone doesn’t give a warning before the bad thing happens, someone else will (and note I stress “will”) sue when that bad thing does happen. You can argue all you want that people understand that tea water is hot and putting a cup of hot water between your legs while you drive is stupid, but someone did just that (with coffee) and sued. Lawsuits in and of themselves are expensive, win or lose. They take time. So in America, we do everything we can to make sure the lawsuit never gets filed.
Which leads to warning signs and perfectly flat sidewalks, and uniform stair lengths.
It also leads to a kind of hazard thinking. In France a few years ago, I went down a flight of stairs a restaurant and noticed that not only could I have hit my head, but I could have fallen onto a pile of glassware if I missed a step. I mentioned it to my friends when I got back. (I was at a convention.) The Americans expressed disbelief. The French people at the table wanted to know what was wrong with that? I should watch my head and make sure I don’t trip. And where else would the glasses have been stored?
Won’t someone sue? I asked. My friend gave an eloquent shrug. “Let them sue,” he said. “It is stupid. People will think them stupid.” As if that is the worst thing in the world.
In the States, we live our lives trying to prevent a problem. Here, they seem to understand that problems are a part of life.
I’m not saying one or the other is better. Now that I’ve been here a few days, I move like a little old lady going in and out of buildings and up and down stairs. I turn on the bathroom light rather than stumble around in the dark. But at home I don’t because I know someone has already made sure there is nothing to trip on or to hit my head with.
This puts me in mind of all the protection I do for my own business and makes me wonder if I would do the same if I had come of business age in Europe. I have a business rider over the top of my homeowner’s insurance that protects me from lawsuits, frivolous or otherwise. Whenever Dean and I do work on our offices or on the house, we’re constantly asking if someone will get hurt because of the design. We have a missing railing near one of our staircases now—we want a special design, and since we’re the only ones in the house, we think it doesn’t matter until we buy the railing. But our friends always comment on how dangerous that missing railing is. (And we always warn them if they go anywhere near the stairs.)
I see something in a blog or on twitter—a comment that’s possibly libelous—and I often mutter, “That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.” I censure myself when in the public arena to avoid just that.
There are countless other ways I protect my business by altering my behavior or altering speech. I have a hunch this may also creep into my fiction as well.
I wonder how different I would be if I lived in Europe, if I had grown up in Europe, if I weren’t constantly looking over my shoulder, wondering if there is a lawsuit coming at me. In America, I consider that part of the cost of doing business. But is it?
I know that there is tort law here in Germany. I saw reference to it when I double-checked myself on Google a minute ago. (I’m going through a German server, so I get German results.) I have no idea what German tort law is and how pervasive it is.
And I have no idea whether or not German business owners worry about those lawsuits waiting to happen. I wonder what makes them stay awake in the middle of the night. Not hot water, and not building design. There’s probably something else equally scary, something I’m unaware of.
Which is one reason I like to travel. It makes me think about such things. And honestly, as a science fiction writer, I should be thinking about such cultural differences all the time.
Today’s post is purposefully short because I’m out of time (and still have jet-lag brain). I have made a list of nearly a dozen possible topics for the blog while I’m here, and I’m sure I’ll think of more when I get home. Please feel free to suggest some as well. Also, I’ve put up the donate button. I’m keeping track of which posts generate the most comment/donations, so if you particularly like something, send me a few bucks to keep me going in the write direction. Thanks!
“The Business Rusch: A Lawsuit Waiting To Happen” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.