Social Question

ETpro's avatar

Should I be able to sue others for not being smart enough to stop me from doing something incredibly stupid?

Asked by ETpro (34550points) September 1st, 2010

In other words, why should everyone else have a legal responsibility to be smarter than me? Here’s what got me thinking about this.

Recently a high school boy here near Boston hooked himself up to 120 VAC electrodes in electrical class and shocked himself to make a cute cell phone video. The experience has left him with potentially permanent brain damage. Now his parents are suing the school, saying the teacher and school authorities should have made the danger of such behavior clearer. Maybe, but doesn’t a high school kid have some responsibility to exercise common sense? Is it right to hold everyone else responsible for my own stupid behavior. Why should they be any smarter than me?

This may not be the best example. There is a level of responsibility for supervision expected of teachers. It is reasonable to expect a teacher to be smarter than the students they are teaching, and exercise due diligence in ensuring that any dangers within a classroom are well understood and not easily misused while they are not watching.

But it got me thinking about society’s drift from personal responsibility to litigation, pushing the responsibility for everything one does from self to all others. Is it possible to turn back the clock on diffused responsibility to a setting where each of us understood that the primary person responsible for personal safety and well being is that person themselves? How might we go about doing that? How do we ensure we don’t dial back too far? If too many parents are failing to teach personal responsibility and its importance, should schools pick up the slack?

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38 Answers

ucme's avatar

No! Just another example of the compensation culture which seems to have blighted the landscape as it were.

kevbo's avatar

I’m with you on this one. It reminds me of homeowners who are required to surround their swimming pools with 10 ft fences, because they are “attractive hazards” or some shit and otherwise open the homeowners to liability if kids hop their normal, yard fence to go swimming.

john65pennington's avatar

Life carries a certain amount of danger in everything we do. the experiment you have described appears to leave the school in some form of liability. there will probably be a grey area here, since the student should have had some reasoning or common sense of the possible outcome.

I smell a lawsuit down the road.

Coloma's avatar

No. Big boys and girls know they and they alone are responsible for their actions/choices.

wundayatta's avatar

Your premise is a vast exaggeration, if not completely wrong. This idea that people shirk personal responsibility has virtually no data to support it. It is based on two things. The first is a few litigations that appear to be ridiculous on the surface, but in fact, when the details are looked at, turn out to have reasonable merit. The second is the notion of people living on welfare permanently.

Just as conservative propagandists take legitimate issues and turn them into scandals by conveniently leaving out important details (the woman who was fired for racism, for example, then rehired when the whole story came out), so does the same thing happen with litigation. Hmmm. Usually by conservative commentators. Is there a pattern here?

The vast majority of people, including those on public assistance, want to take care of themselves. For the most part, they only blame others for their problems when the blame is deserved. There are very few who try to make a living out of blaming others, but they are the ones who get all the press.

marinelife's avatar

I don’t think the school bears any responsibility for this incident.

skfinkel's avatar

Umm, if this happened in school, where was the teacher? Did he/she just watch this “experiment” unfold? was she out of the room? was this one of 100 kids crammed into a space and she didn’t see it, I mean, what actually happened in there?

Seaminglysew's avatar

I agree witht skfinkel, we would need more information. I do agree that there seems to be a trend towards blaming other for our misfortune. I feel that we are responsible for our own actions, as adults.

nikipedia's avatar

I think the premise of your question is faulty. No one is being sued for not being “smart” enough to stop someone from doing something stupid; the potential lawsuit is because someone may have been negligent.

I do think there is a difference between what “should” be legally the case versus what, ideally, “should” be good human behavior. I would rather live in a world where we treat each other as interconnected pieces of a complex social organism, and we look out for each other and take care of each other and try hard to protect each other. But I am not sure I would go so far as to say this should be codified in law. Our moral obligation to one another and our legal obligation to one another are related, but not the same.

To actually answer your question, I do think that people should be both legally and morally obligated to protect each other within reason, but I would have a hard time going much beyond that without examining specific cases. Here, based on what you’ve said, it does sound like the teacher was being negligent and bears a good amount of responsibility for the incident.

Ben_Dover's avatar

Sure. You should be able to sue anyone for just about anything. However, you shouldn’t be able to win such frivolous lawsuits.

CMaz's avatar

Right, it is about negligence.

iamthemob's avatar


There have to be standards for lawsuits, though. Otherwise, you’ll have courts flooded with lawsuits for one thing or another.

That is in essence what negligence is an example of…gatekeeper standards. But we can’t really say they should be allowed to so broadly. I’d hate to deal with that docket.

zen_'s avatar

Just shaking my head, and what @ucme said.

KatawaGrey's avatar

The example you gave is an odd one since a teacher should have been present and since the person in question is a minor, but I know of the concept of which you speak.

Fat people suing McDonald’s, smokers suing big tobacco, drivers suing car companies when they ignore recall notices, these are all examples of people absolving themselves from all responsibility without reason or cause. You’re fat because you chose to eat a bunch of McDonald’s, not because McDonald’s held you down and forced burgers into your mouth. You can’t breathe because you chose to continue smoking, not because big tobacco tied you up and forced a lit cigarette between your lips. You got into that car accident because you chose to ignore the recall notices, not because the car company deliberately sabotaged your brakes.

I see this kind of backward thinking in warnings on everyday products as well. Hair dryer labels have warnings to keep the dryers away from water. Halloween costumes have warnings saying the costumes don’t imbue you with special powers, or give you the ability to fly. Bleach containers have warnings telling you not to drink it. It’s friggin ridiculous that people don’t use common sense and then get rewarded for not doing so.

iamthemob's avatar


The smoking example is good if you didn’t start back in the day. Or saw the ads marketing to kids in the 80s, etc. The cigarette companies were dirty marketers, suppressing a lot of research, increasing the addictive aspects of their product, and looking to teenagers as “replacement customers” for those that were dying. The company should not itself be relieved of responsibility.

McDonald’s is not as sinister…but there are problems there too. The food is at a cheap price due to, partially, corn subsidies. It’s so cheap it’s often the only food that a lot of low-income people can afford. A lot of them live in urban areas. A lot are minorities. And a lot aren’t provided any education about health. So, urban markets get a lot of fast food places in low income areas and these people are exploited. Less direct…but still, suggests culpability on the company’s side as well.

Unfortunately, we end up inappropriately blaming the victim in these scenarios. Yes, we need to ensure personal culpability. But it needs to be on all sides.

We also need to know how the culpability should work. There was a case of a woman who, to commit suicide, locked herself in the trunk of her car. WHAT. Yeah… Then, she decided “I want to live!” but was trapped. She eventually got out, and sued the car company for not having a release in the trunk. She lost, thank god…however, the court stated that she couldn’t win because it was an unforseeable harm. Unfortunate…because this was a time when a lot of kids were getting locked in refrigerators and dying. Shouldn’t the harm be forseeable? Yes, at this time. However, she should have lost based on the fact that she was not the victim that one would think could be harmed. Seriously, that someone would suffer harm for an indecisive suicide attempt? No.

ucme's avatar

@zen_ You did mean to say and, or did you mean at? Fairly important to clarify I feel

KatawaGrey's avatar

@iamthemob: Yes, I do know that advertising factors into it, but still, those people made the decision to eat that first burger, smoke that first cigarette and made the decision to continue to do so. I’m not for blaming the victim, as you said, but people need to learn to take responsibility. What’s McDonald’s going to do, raise it’s prices so people buy less? No. The examples I gave with the smoking and becoming obese are gradual things. This isn’t as if you smoke one cigarette and bam you’ve got cancer or you eat one burger and bam you’re morbidly obese. People need to learn to take responsibility instead of saying, “It’s not my fault, the company made their product look so good!”

iamthemob's avatar

My grandmother was prescribed smoking – that’s how messed up it could get.

Smoking is addictive, and fast food is the only affordable option for some people. You choose to start, but if you’re told it’s not bad, or not as bad as you think…and you start…well, after that, it’s not the choice to be addicted.

But it’s case by case….you seem to be saying that because of their choice they always share culpability. If someone flat out lies to you and you start doing something, and you find out later the truth, are you culpable? Probably not. That’s where the determination lies.

KatawaGrey's avatar

@iamthemob: When nobody knew smoking was bad, that was one thing, but now, people do know smoking is bad and when has anyone said that a McDonald’s hamburger is actually healthy for you? Even if fast food is the cheapest there is I’m not disputing that there are somewhat healthy alternatives to having a burger and soda for every single meal. I am one of those few people who believes that people should take responsibility for their actions rather than finding every reason not to.

iamthemob's avatar


Sure…but now people know. Now it’s a choice.

And knowing that it’s not the healthiest alternative is not knowing how unhealthy it actually is (the fast food industry fought tooth and nail to PREVENT their food from being nutritionally labelled – it’s a recent phenomenon). And if you’re poor, overworked, and underinformed…you don’t necessarily have the time to play info catch-up.

So it’s the same scenario…figure out what was known at the time, and how widely, and what the industry did – who and what populations were targeted. It’s no coincidence that obesity and diabetes is a huge problem in U.S. minorities. It’s a number of factors that should be considered when the idea of personal choice to do something harmful is addressed.

DominicX's avatar


I don’t know, I think it is somewhat human nature to want to blame others for your problems or for things that were more clearly your fault. How many people here have a relative or friend that can never be blamed? My grandfather was like that. Something would go wrong because of something he did and he would immediately try and blame it on someone else. People don’t like to admit that they made stupid or harmful choices; it hurts their “pride”. So I do believe that many people will automatically project blame for their problems on someone or something else, even if they should really be looking inward.


I never get how people say fast food is the “only affordable option”. Fruits and vegetables are cheap. Why aren’t people ever living off of that? Fast food is never the “only affordable option”. It’s the only affordable option for people who don’t want to look any harder. (And you honestly don’t have to look that hard…)

KatawaGrey's avatar

@iamthemob: I don’t think that means people can sue large companies for what they put in their own bodies. It’s one thing to not know if something is unhealthy or not. It’s another thing entirely to decide that you’re entitled to a few million dollars from the company that “caused” it.

iamthemob's avatar


Not automatically, of course. But it’s ALWAYS case by case. So yes, they should be able to sue a large company for millions of dollars if they’re suffering from diabetes because of a marketing and misinformation campaign that screwed over their health, shouldn’t they?

KatawaGrey's avatar

@iamthemob: Did McDonald’s lie about what was in their burgers or simply make it a little difficult to find out? Active lying warrants a lawsuit but simply not bothering to find out what you’re eating does not.

iamthemob's avatar


not fully briefed I’ll admit. but what if they made it more difficult, even a little as you say? knowing the potential harm associated with a junk focused diet, and not providing the information needed, that should be actionable right?

Jeruba's avatar

This is a special case of the absurd notion that if something bad happens to you, somebody owes you money. Apparently it expresses the specific expectation that others are responsible for preventing a person from making a mistake.

No one, not even a patient in custodial care, should expect to be monitored and supervised every single instant, much less have the possible outcomes of all their actions computed by others, foreseen, evaluated as beneficial or not, and interfered with accordingly. This is the job of a parent toward a small child and declines gradually in early youth as the child learns to take care of himself or herself. Typically teens finish the job by declaring their lives off limits to routine parental judgment and interference. No institution with many individuals in its charge should be expected to take greater care of each than parents can take of one.

This foolish youngster had probably seen too many movies where electrical shock is played for laughs. The unrealistic expectations created by entertainment media are a whole other subject.

I agree that it would be good to turn back the clock on this and other types of entitlement behavior, but it won’t happen while we are on hard times and many people are looking for any avenue to financial windfall that they can find.

iamthemob's avatar


Yeah, the specific example sounds like EPIC stupid. But I’ll wait for more facts.

If that’s pretty much it…well…I’m sorry, that’s tragic, but it’s not anyone’s responsibility to take care of it but the parents at this time.

ETpro's avatar

@wundayatta This was more about litigation than welfare. I agree that the right drastically overplays the supposed “welfare queen” story. It is largely a myth. We reformed welfare during the Clinton Administration, changing from it to Workfare. Now, unless you are truly unable to hold any gainful employment due to some disability or mental impairment, you must transition from welfare to work within a fixed time. That time is set by the states, and in most is 5 years or less. The right can always find some example to puff up into a full-blown welfare queen, but it is rather like the Tony Rezko or ACORN or Shirley Sherrod “outrages”, just another of the constant stream of manufactured scandals.

That said, I agree with the right that we do need to work at designing welfare to more effectively lift people out of poverty. Education and job training would probably be a more cost effective approach than just providing basic subsistence. It would cost more for the short term, but save a great deal in the long term and enhance American productivity and prosperity as well. There is something to be said, I think, for the value of personal responsibility. And I do agree with @Seaminglysew & @DominicX that there is a human tendency to blame others for our own failures and troubles.

@skfinkel, @Seaminglysew & @iamthemob you will find a link to the full story about the incident right at the beginning of the second paragraph in the details above. That, unfortunately, is all I know. But it does indicate the teacher was in the class at the time it happened, but apparently out of sight of what was going on.

@nikipedia I agree in this specific case the teacher should have done more to inform students of the risks. In a class on electrical wiring, that seems like step one before you ever connect the breaker to put power on the test clips. As I mentioned in the details, this wasn’t a prime example. It’s just the one that got me thinking of the issue.

@KatawaGrey Thanks for seeing past my poor choice of examples. Your argument about smokers who choose to start now is quite valid. For those who started before knowing it was harmful, and while science was fighting big tobacco to prove it was harmful, I have to agree with @iamthemob. When big tobacco devoted many millions of dollars to disinformation, junk science and lobbying of lawmakers, they put profits ahead of people’s lives and took on massive liability in my eyes. If Global Warming does turn out to start killing large numbers of people, look for another wave of lawsuits against big oil and big coal, because they have done the same thing big tobacco did but put far more money into the dissinformation and lobbying campaign.

@Jeruba Great answer, beautifully explained.

iamthemob's avatar


I love these mass summaries!

KatawaGrey's avatar

@ETpro: You are absolutely correct but, at this point, the only people who have a right to sue big tobacco for this kind of thing are people my grandmother’s age because everyone else has had ample time to either quite smoking or never begin in the first place.

ETpro's avatar

@iamthemob Thanks. I appreciate sayong that, because it is time consuming to do. :-)

@KatawaGrey I don’t know your grandmother’s age, but totally agree there is a cut off point where the science was solid, big tobacco’s disinformation campaign had failed, and personal responsibility at that point should begin to weigh against manufacturer liability.

Still, however, I am unwilling to absolve the manufacturers of all liability. They do now know beyond a shadow of doubt that they are manufacturing a product which, when used as directed, kills 350,000 of their customers a year. They continue to use subtle advertising, sometimes aimed at young, impressionable minds, to recruit a constant supply of replacements.

KatawaGrey's avatar

@ETpro: My grandmother is in her eighties but I was talking more about her generation than her actual age. I agree that there is some responsibility with big tobacco but now everybody knows what cigarettes do to you so I believe that anyone who starts up, no matter how subtle or clever the advertising, should not sue big tobacco. No disrespect meant to you, but the “when used as directed, cigarettes kill” argument is getting old. I don’t just mean from you, I mean from everybody. People deliberately poison themselves every day. When used as directed, caffeine can shorten your life. When used as directed, Botox is still a poison. Even when someone uses a car as directed, all it takes is for one person to not use their car as directed and that’s fatal. Hell, when guns are used as directed, they kill too.

wundayatta's avatar

@DominicX I guess I’d have to be shown some evidence that it is human “nature” to blame others for your mistakes. I’m also sure what that means in terms of responsibility. There are a lot of disputes about who is responsible for something, and it seems to me that a lot of it must be legitimate. Only the most fractious of these disputes ends up on the front pages of the news.

I’m sure we have all, when children, tried to blame someone else for what we did. It’s part of the learning process. Most of us learn we can’t get away with it. There are consequences for not owning up to the things you are responsible for.

Some, of course, think they have gotten away with something, and continue this practice throughout their lives. Perhaps it becomes a habit. But I don’t believe this is human nature. I think it is learned behavior. Most of us learn it really isn’t helping our cause (in the long run) if we blame others for what we have done.

I agree that most people don’t want to admit to stupidity or to hurting others. We don’t want the shame. However I think that most people figure out, sooner or later, that accepting responsibility is the best way to handle a mistake. You accept responsibility, say you learned from your mistake and won’t do it again, and act as if that is true, and most people stop holding the mistake against you.

If you keep on lying (which you can only do if you know you were responsible), you eventually lose people’s respect. You dig yourself into a social hole you can never get out of. I think people mostly understand this—some consciously and others intuitively and others because they learned the hard way.

But I understand what you’re getting at, and it certainly is an area that could have more light shined on it before we know whose characterization of reality has more merit.

ETpro's avatar

@KatawaGrey You seem to have quite a bit of emotional charge about smoking. I am appalled that 25% of Americans still smoke and more so that the decline in percentage has now pretty much leveled off. I see your point that those who decide that’s a great idea don’t deserve a fat check for that decision.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Fact from fiction, truth from diction. In the case stated the parents just want to blame and get paid for their own stupidity, or at least apathy in raising their kids. Parents seem to want their cake and eat it too. If a teacher seen their child doing something wrong or hanging with the wrong kids the parents want to step in and say that teachers should just teach and leave the parenting to them, yet when they fail to do it and such a thing happens here, then they don’t want to own it and put in on the teacher, incredible.

KatawaGrey's avatar

@ETpro: I do have a quite an emotional charge about smoking but not necessarily for the reasons you think. I think it’s stupid for people to blame someone else for their problems, no matter what those problems are and smoking just happens to be an example that everyone here will understand.

My momma’s a smoker so I can get pretty nasty when someone displays their, “all smokers should be drawn and quartered” attitude around me.

iamthemob's avatar


Awesome clarification! Thanks for bringing the point back (I think we were getting lost).

I would summarize my disagreement just as it’s difficult to tell when someone’s just being stupid and wanting to blame others and more often a lot of gray area (although there are times when that gray can be a WHOLE lot of either the black or white. ;-))

Ron_C's avatar

Remember the woman that spilled hot coffee in her lap and she sued McDonald’s? Americans seem to think that stupidity is somehow an extenuating circumstance that protects you from the consequences of your own actions. I was in a jury pool when a 50 year old woman sued her doctor who performed a hysterectomy because he didn’t tell her she wouldn’t be able to have children. Of course I was immediately excused when I said “why is that idiot taking up my time?”

We can only hope that the kid’s brain damage prevents him from getting some poor girl pregnant.

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