Absurd lawsuits may make for amusing headlines, but they're no joke to the target

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management
August 18, 2002

Sometimes these columns write themselves. I open a newspaper and the shock and outrage jump directly from the Associated Press to my keyboard. You have to wonder if the people involved in the story realize how stupid they look.

In Ashland, Ohio, Phillip Shafer is suing Delta Airlines for breach of contract, claiming embarrassment, severe discomfort, mental anguish and severe emotional distress for Delta's reprehensible actions. It must have been some horrible deed the giant airline company forced upon the poor, helpless Mr. Shafer. I can only imagine. Did they strip search him in front of children? Shove him out the door with a parachute at 30,000 feet?

What did Delta do? They sat Mr. Shafer next to a fat guy.

Seven years ago, I was 90 pounds heavier than today. At 360 pounds, I was the fat guy. I had been the fat guy my entire life. Even after shedding the equivalent of a small person, I am still almost always the biggest guy. But as far as I know, sitting next to me never caused anyone any emotional distress or embarrassment. I'm certain no airline or movie theater was ever sued because I was undertall.

We can joke about personal responsibility. We can make fun of Mr. Shafer for his childish behavior. ('Teacher, teacher! Johnny pushed his paper onto my side of the table!') We can complain about airline seats and service. I don't even mind if you make fun of people who are fat or 'volume displacement challenged.' Make all of the thyroid jokes you want. The problem is that too many people in our society today are looking for a free payday.

There is an entire generation of lawyers who have done nothing their entire career but sue companies for asbestos related claims. They get out of college, go to work for an asbestos litigation firm and work there until they retire. They aren't just suing the people who manufactured or sold asbestos; those people have long since been driven into bankruptcy. These lawyers are suing companies that built buildings with asbestos. Or even rented them.

Last month in New York, Caesar Barbar filed suit against the entire fast food industry for causing his obesity. (I wonder if he flies Delta?) He blames his obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure on drive-thru windows. In an interview, Mr. Barbar says, 'I trace it all back to the high fat, grease and salt, all back to McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King ' there was no fast food I didn't eat, and I ate it more often than not because I was single, it was quick and I'm not a very good cook.'

Maybe he should sue his parents for not teaching him how to cook, or the girl who spurned his marriage proposal. But their pockets aren't nearly as deep as Ronald McDonald's.

The something-for-nothing phenomenon really caught on with the class action lawsuits against the tobacco companies. But those were just the tip of the iceberg. The states' successful lawsuits against the tobacco companies then encouraged more lawsuits. When you negotiate with high-jackers, you just encourage more terrorism.

Find a deep pocket; identify a way to sue them. Create enough negative publicity that the company or industry is willing to pay you money to go away. (This business model has worked for Jesse Jackson for years.)

It is no different than people trying to get something for nothing in the stock market or Las Vegas. In a zero sum game, someone always loses.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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