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Lawsuit industry may mean we never go back to ‘normal’

Look for another epidemic, not long after the one involving COVID-19. The new one will feature lawsuits linked, of course, to the coronavirus.

It may begin when a restaurant owner is sued by a former customer who insists he wasn’t seated far enough away from others to avoid contracting the virus. It may be a factory owner who installed Plexiglas barriers some “expert witness” will testify were too flimsy.

Or it may be some small town that opened a public swimming pool.

Last Tuesday, Steubenville (Ohio) City Council members agreed to keep a municipal pool closed this summer. There would be all sorts of challenges in opening it. Compliance with anti-COVID guidelines would mean limiting the number of people in the pool, hiring someone to enforce social distancing, sanitizing surfaces, etc.

City Manager Jim Mavromatis agreed with closing the pool. “My concern is the safety of the citizens of Steubenville and my employees,” he said.

But, Mavromatis added, “What cinched it for me was when I got an answer back from our insurance company. I cannot recommend we do something (if) we don’t have protection from our insurance carrier. It would be financial suicide.” City Law Director Costa Mastros agreed. Opening the pool would require making it “bullet-proof, knowing full well we’re not covered by insurance,” he said.

Bullet-proof against what? Why no insurance?

Against lawsuits. And there would be no liability coverage because insurance companies are in the business of gauging risk. There’s just too great a possibility for liability suits in this case.

Business organizations have been pleading with state legislatures and Congress to provide some sort of limited immunity against COVID-related lawsuits. The problem is that no one, whether a factory owner or a swimming pool operator, can afford all the safeguards needed to ensure no one at their facility catches the disease. That means the risk of lawsuits is enormous.

Too many Americans today demand absolute security. Get hit by a car while crossing the street? There must be some way to sue the town. And why didn’t that bathroom cleaner manufacturer make the warning about not drinking the stuff larger? Sue!

Rest assured, many in the lawyer community are preparing for the new epidemic. Some are attending “webinars” on how to file COVID-related lawsuits. Others have online courses on defending against them.

Presumably, they’re not learning all this at in-person seminars because the risk of being sued over social distancing at them is too great.

Don’t blame the attorneys entirely. Again, we insist on an unrealistic level of government-enforced safety. And we view lawsuits as opportunities to hit the jackpot. Lawyers have to have clients.

Remember when swimming pools had diving boards? Why do you think so many lack them now? Hint: Insurance companies have a say over diving boards, too. So do plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Unless legislatures and/or Congress come up with something in the way of limited immunity, we’ll never get back to anything approaching “normal.” Public pools will not be the only victims.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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