Ronnie Polaneczky: Why they didn't sue: Sometimes, it's just the right thing to do

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File photo of Alethea Wright (left) of Creative Steps Inc. and lawyer Carolyn Nichols. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer / File)

"THIS IS the American way - call a lawyer," a disgusted reader e-mailed me last week.

He was peeved over lawsuits filed by Creative Steps Day Camp against the Valley Club, charging that the swim club racially discriminated when it booted campers from its pool.

"Everyone sues," the reader lamented. "It's the way to Easy Street."

It's easy to draw that conclusion, given the preponderance of attorney ads screaming at us that a no-risk lawsuit - "If you don't get paid, we don't get paid!"- will heal our hurts.

But the thing is, the number of lawsuits handled in federal court has declined in recent years by 79 percent and in state courts by 32 percent, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Which made me curious enough to ask some regular readers of this column if they'd ever had what might be considered a winnable legal claim that they chose not to pursue. I was startled by how many folks had walked away from likely windfalls. Their reasons for doing so read like a Manifesto of Reasonableness.


 

Reason #1: I was an idiot.
 

Gerry Barnes, of Roslyn, didn't sue the school where he took swimming lessons after he stumbled over loose concrete on the pool apron and broke his heel. He says that the messed-up area had been cordoned off with yellow caution tape, indicating that it was a hazard. And the instructor had warned the class to be careful.

Barnes stepped on the area anyway, and fell.

"I didn't sue because I could see that there was a hazardous situation," he says. "My attention had been brought to the fact, [but] I chose to take the risk, anyway. I am an adult of average intelligence who believes that adults of average intelligence must take responsibility for the outcomes of their own shortsighted thinking."

#2: It was partly my fault.

A few years back, reader Ruth Cohen was rushing home from work to her kids, after having just picked up sandwiches for dinner at a Main Line hoagie shop. As she dashed out of the shop, blabbing on her cell phone, she tripped on the store's narrow front step and wound up in an ankle cast for six months.

The step wasn't up to code, and Cohen knew that she could've sued the building's owner. But X-rays showed that a pre-existing bone defect in her ankle probably contributed to the severity of her injury. Plus, she believed that her haste and inattention contributed to her fall.

She didn't sue because, she says, "I had to o
 
wn some of the problem myself."

#3: Mistakes happen. Can't we be OK with that?

Sandy Hingston, of Pottstown, didn't slap a lawsuit on the orthodontist who killed her daughter's two front teeth while trying to fix a third one. Her child required eight operations - including multiple bone transplants in her upper jaw - to fix her smile.

"My husband and I talked with other orthodontists who said our guy couldn't have foreseen what happened," says Hingston. "I'm sure we could have sued him all the same. We chose not to. He got an oral surgeon and a reconstructive dentist to donate years of time and services to us.

"I think we taught our kids something America needs to learn: People make mistakes. You deal with it, and move on. It's not a license to not work for the rest of your life."

#4: Count your blessings - and be kind.

When she was 19, Philly school principal Anita Duke was rear-ended by another driver on a snowy night. She was unhurt, but her car was a wreck. When she told her insurance-agent father what happened, she figured that he'd advise her to "sue the pants off" the driver.

But her dad, after learning that the driver worked as a low-paid, uninsured "tray girl" at a hospital kitchen, told Duke, "You should be happy that the car was the only thing damaged. We have a $100 deductible, so you'll pay $50, and I'll pay $50."

"When I complained the accident wasn't my fault," Duke recalls, "my dad said, 'It wasn't mine, either, so get over it and be happy.' It was a real [life] lesson to know that sometimes we have to appreciate what we have."


 

Granted, these folks had adequate personal insurance to cover the costs of their mishaps.

Still, they sound almost heroic, don't they, given the settlements that they surely could've pocketed?

Then again, acting reasonably is bound to look heroic given that only recently some medical centers have begun "encouraging" their doctors to admit their mistakes to patients and to apologize for them. Doing so can soften patient anger and worry, the result being that patients feel less need to sue.

(Once docs started apologizing at the University of Michigan, for example, claims dropped from 262 in 2001 to 83 in 2007.)

Besides, lawsuits can take years to play out. That's a long time to play the victim, says reader Wendy Weinstein.

A few years ago, her dad fell at Disney World and hurt his leg. She wanted him to sue so she could "own Mickey."

He chose not, she sighs.

"It could have been big."

Do you have an I-didn't-sue story? Share it with Ronnie at polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ ronnieblog.