A southbound Manhattan subway car ran over Seong Sil Kim on May 3, 2000. While she survived, her right hand did not, save for her thumb. According to the New York Law Journal, she also endured skull fractures and facial lacerations. Kim sued New York City and won $9.9 million.
But don’t cry for Seong Sil Kim. She did not slip onto the tracks from a rickety platform, nor was she shoved into harm’s way by convicts who fled state custody.
In fact, Kim was lying on the tracks, inside a tunnel at least 30 feet north of the 34th Street Station, awaiting the E Train. After consulting her family and dismissing her denials, the NYPD concluded that Kim suffered post-partum depression and was attempting suicide.
Kim’s actions were criminal. As Section 1050.6 of New York’s Public Authorities Law states: “No person may…interfere with the safe and efficient operation of the facilities or conveyances of the Authority.” Section 1050.7 prohibits “any act which causes or may tend to cause injury or harm to oneself or to any other person…”
Kim embodies a small but important aspect of America’s runaway lawsuit culture: People who break the law, get hurt, then sue for huge jackpots. Shuttering this shabby corner of the litigation casino would be a fine way to launch the tort-reform revolution.
Meet a few more lawless litigants:
• Disturbed, Angelo Delgrande shot and wounded his parents and himself in a June 1995 dispute. He then received surgery at a Westchester County, New York hospital. That night, he yanked the tubes and monitoring devices from his body, then leapt off the second story of an adjacent parking garage in a suicide bid. He is now paraplegic. Delgrande sued the hospital for failing to treat his depression and keep him indoors. Last October, he won $9 million.
• Neither a fence nor a lock could keep Ed O’Rourke from breaking into a Tampa Electric substation in 1996. He drunkenly climbed aboard a transformer that greeted him with 13,000 volts. In March 2000, he sued the power company, plus six bars he says got him hammered.
• Snohomish County, Washington police caught Mincho Donchev breaking into mountain cabins while armed with knives and handguns. When this Bulgarian escaped murderer resisted arrest, a police dog mauled his foot, costing him two toes. He sued and scored $412,500 in February 2000.
• An Oakland, California bank robber was unaware the bag of cash he stole contained a time-delayed tear-gas canister that went off, scorched him and sped his arrest. He sued the bank and the cops for $2 million for burning him.
“Idiotic! Unaffordable!” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, denouncing the Kim case. He told the American College of Trial Lawyers last October 18 that Gotham’s $560 million “tort tax” for Fiscal Year 2001 represented a 2,300 percent increase in judgments and settlements since 1978.
Bloomberg proposes “Predominance of Fault” legislation to stop plaintiffs from receiving damages when they are more than 50 percent responsible for incidents in question. Great idea. Dreadful phrase. Why not “Balance of Blame?”
This entire situation “defies all logic,” says Catherine Crier, Court TV anchor and author of The Case Against Lawyers. Foiling criminals who collect is “an excellent piece of the puzzle,” the former Texas state judge adds by phone. “It will probably be more effective to start out slowly and address obvious wrongs on the overall path to tort reform.”
This problem shrivels beside bigger tort outrages, like the bankruptcy of 67 companies that have paid out $54 billion through 2000, the RAND Corporation estimates, much of it to plaintiffs in asbestos cases who show no symptoms of asbestos-related ailments. Still, this jailhouse-millionaires phenomenon has profound moral significance.
“If you can cash in after committing a crime,” Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Walter Olson asks, “why should people injured by garden-variety recklessness hesitate to cash in, too?” Olson’s website and his brand-new book, The Rule of Lawyers chronicle the legal profession’s termite-like impact on America.
“It is important for courts to send the message,” Olson adds, “that if you have broken the law, you may have to live with the consequences, even those you didn’t plan on.”
— Mr. Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.