Liability vs Real Safety: How Insurance Issues Contort Our Lives

Hi Folks! Here’s this weekends thought to chew on, from frequent commenter Kenny Felder:
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Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m not sure how many readers will see the connection between this story [the lifeguard fired for trying to save a man beyond his official area] and Free-Range issues, but it is huge. A lot of the problems we’re running into come when people worry about insurance and lawsuits, and dress up those financial fears in “safety” clothing.
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At my high school, for instance, we spend a staggering amount of time and money lining up parent volunteers to drive our students to field trips. These
same students drove themselves to school, and will drive themselves home. “Can’t they just drive themselves to a field trip?” “No, that’s not safe.” “Then are they in mortal danger every time they drive to school?” “That’s not our responsibility.” Translation: We’re not worried about their safety, we’re worried about a lawsuit.
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And of course, it isn’t an entirely irrational fear. Crazy lawsuits happen all the time. Somehow we have to figure out why they didn’t used to happen, and get
back there. Until then, these problems will not get better. – K.F.
LENORE HERE: I agree with all of this except the idea that  “crazy lawsuits are happening all the time.” I have another guest piece I’ll be running here in a few days explaining how those “crazy lawsuits” are sort of like predators: We HEAR about them all the time, but in actuality they’re rare. But Kenny is totally right: The fear of them distorts our world view. And of course, insurance companies LOVE for us to worry about every angle, so their ridiculous rules don’t seem so awful. Which brings me to this other comment, that appeared on the post below, about parades forbidding people on floats from throwing candy:

Dear Free-Range Kids: Actually I have a different take on the whole matter. I have help run several of the Gay Pride Parades here in Houston — which, by the way, have lots of families, with young kids, in attendance. It costs more to hold a parade where you toss items. You have to insure against anyone running out onto the parade route and being struck by a float. You have to have a rider on your policy to protect against someone suing because they were injured (being pushed, falling, and or struck by fast projectiles) while trying to obtain said object. Then you have to pay extra money to have the items that are not taken home cleaned up the next day by the sanitation department. So it might have been a purely budgetary item to eliminate candy, and they blamed it on “We don’t want the kids to get squished.” The Houston Pride Parade instructs (yes each entry in the parade has to attend class) on how to toss items into the crowd. Each float that tosses items has to have walkers on each side to watch for people going in front of the floats. This is on a parade route with metal barricades on each side of the road to prevent people from entering the route, and it still happens. Is it a sad excuse, yes. However, it shows the window into the world we live in today where everyone is sue happy and has no common sense. So it might have been because the organization that ran the parade could not budget the insurance policy to protect itself, so they had to ban thrown items. – Milo Moon

31 Responses

  1. There is a new documentary out called Hot Coffee which talks about the lawsuits, how the media distorts them and what they cost us.

  2. Huh, I find the parade throwing comment funny. My husband’s family has ridden in the New Orlean’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade for years and there are no instructions on how to throw each item.

    There was a ban put into place on throwing the cabbage after a nun in the crowd got hit some years back, now they have to hand the cabbage out. But as “happy” as the guys on the float tend to be, it’s best they not throw large vegitables anyway.

  3. @ Brenda What is true for you is not automatically true for everyone else.

    Now, what the frick does being gay have to do with what gets thrown or whether they should or shouldn’t throw it?

  4. Now, what the frick does being gay have to do with what gets thrown or whether they should or shouldn’t throw it?

    I think you’re confused.

    I believe she means “happy” as in drunk, not gay. It’s an Irish thing.

  5. When I was in high school, my year was the last year to have OAC, which stands for Ontario Academic Credit, which used to be simply called “Grade 13.” Anyway, it’s basically a university-prep year, in which classes are only offered at the Advanced level (up to that point, there were three streams–Basic, General, and Advanced), and not everyone makes it that far, but most people who do go on to college or university afterwards. However, it required a bit of flexibility on the part of the school, because OAC students were typically eighteen years old, which is, of course, the age of majority. So, pretty much every rule and policy at our school had an exception for “adult students.” For example, students who had reached their eighteenth birthdays were allowed to sign themselves into school late or out of school early if something came up, write their own notes to excuse absences, and yes, drive themselves on field trips. The flip side of that, though, was that OAC was a difficult year academically, and teachers didn’t “chase” OAC students to get work done–they had to be self-motivated.

    However, the waters got a bit murkier on band trips–there was a hard-and-fast rule that we had to be in groups of five all the time, and by that year, I was just sick of all the drama among my friends, so when we went to New Orleans on a concert tour, I pretty much just stuck with my good friend Leah (who was in grade eleven at the time), during our “sightseeing time” when we weren’t performing. The chaperones hated that–I told them that I was of age, and they knew perfectly well for themselves, from having seen me playing in the band for the past four or five years, that I was a responsible person, but they just didn’t care. Leah and I would often “compromise” by joining another group, and then doing our own thing when we were away from the chaperones, but it was still insulting to be told that, while I was an adult, I wasn’t “adult” enough to enjoy New Orleans the way I saw fit, on the trip that I’d worked hard to be able to go on. We weren’t drinking or going to stripclubs or doing anything outrageous; we just wanted to have a break from doing the Big Group thing, and spend some time with just us, since I knew I was leaving for university in the fall, and I wouldn’t have much more time to hang out with Leah.

  6. Yes, the liability thing has really toned down what was to be a great program at my daughter’s school (which is an ALE – Alternative Learning Environment that caters to home schooling families.)

    Next year, kids in grades 6-8 have the option of being in the STEAM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.) This program would be led by one certified teacher and one very good engineering parent coach, with some other staff (art, English) involved as needed.

    The main part of this program that appealed to my daughter, is that about 1/4 yo 1/3 of her time was to be spent on a project of her choice. She would do research, write up a proposal, then, if approved, she would build her project, see if it worked, then evaluate it for changes to make it work better and rework it as needed.

    This process has been used in some STEM classes that were about an hour a week, and the kids have learned a lot. Some made electric guitars from scratch. Others have done various electronic things. But the one project that had the principal very proud, was that the students researched, designed and built a drip irrigation system that was to be installed in the school/community garden that other student classes had planted, with the goal of the vegetables being harvested by the community.

    So, the principal had been showing off all the work to anyone who came to visit, until the meeting right before my daughter was to sign up for her STEAM class. That morning, some members of the school board came. When the principal showed off the almost completed irrigation system, the school board members had a fit. Long story short, they told him that students could not use tools – and could not even use a shovel!

    So, my daughter is still going to do the class. But the building of her project will not happen at school with the highly qualified engineer aiding her. Her process will stop at the proposal stage. And leave out all the really important engineering steps. Because kids can’t use tools anymore. Gone are the wood and metal shops, the Home Ec, with sewing and cooking in middle school.. Kids in school can’t do those things anymore. What once looked so promising, now sadly, looks like it will be a glorified arts and crafts class, with no real projects at the school. All the real stuff will be done at home. I hope, at least, they will allow the kids who are able to do their projects, to bring them in and share them.

  7. To bring it back around to a topic we talk about a lot on here: I’ve told the story of my old job before. I worked at a tiny museum that attracted a ton of families with children because of its subject matter, and because it had a carousel you could ride. I was one of a paid staff of four, and we relied heavily on volunteer labor to keep the place running. We had a great group of volunteers, too.

    But several of the board members couldn’t let it drop there. They kpet pushing for expensive background checks, even argued for credit checks (the volunteers managed a small amount of money), and of course, Pedophile Awareness Training. They had to raise $200,000 to keep the roof from falling in, quite literally, and this was what they were concerned about. It came up at every single board meeting I attended, and several times in between.

    Not once did the safety of a child come up. It was always, “We could get sued.” They weren’t trying to prevent it from happening, they were trying to prevent (in their minds) the entire organization from going under if it did happen, so they could say, “Hey, we did background checks and we trained everyone.” And, as is often predicted on this blog, they lost sight of the forest for the trees, with this and many, many other tiny things that obscured the big picture. They lost the grant for my position, and laid off my boss a few months later. I don’t think they ever raised the matching funds, and four years later, I’m not sure if they ever rehired either of our positions..

  8. ^That’s sad. My elementary school was insane, but we were allowed to use real scissors, Exacto knives, needles and thread, hand saws, band saws, scroll saws, weird groove cutter things for making linoleum tile prints (I don’t know what they’re really called), and other “dangerous” tools in art and technology classes, on the rare occasions when we had them. Also, from high school on, I carried a nail file (for sanding down waterlogged corks, and breaking in stiff reeds) and a small screwdriver (for fixing screws that came loose), in my clarinet case, and nobody thought anything of it–in fact, it was my music teachers’ idea. As for the STEAM class, is there any way that the engineers could make house calls, in order to assist the kids with the more intricate parts of their projects, so that the projects can actually happen, without causing liability problems at the school?

  9. @CrazyCatLady – can’t the parents get together and make a big stink? Or start a recall campaign? Or take their children to personally lobby each and every school board member? Protest at the school board meeting where the change is on the agenda? It sounds like they are making a new rule, not enforcing an old one. At worst – have the building part of the class at a community center? Don’t give up.

  10. @CrazyCatLady, the sad thing is that this mentality carries over into college and even adult life. I’ve known actual engineers, both mechanical and electrical, who have never built something they’ve designed. I worked with one in particular who was in charge of designing these large cabinets for commercial grade electronic systems, and the doors never fit the first time. Either you couldn’t close them, or you couldn’t open them, and you couldn’t reason with the guy either. According to him, because it worked on paper, it couldn’t be wrong. This is what happens when we only focus on theory and not on real life.

  11. I wonder why companies just go along with some of this “insurance company” stuff. Like in the lifeguard situation. They had to know that this was likely to come up (and maybe this was not the first time it did). They had to know that individual humans in general do not feel right watching another human die if they can help it. Why would they agree to something that they had to know would be violated sooner or later? Why was it not an option to push back and demand a contract that reflected realities and basic human values?

    Couldn’t they have had a clause in the employment contract saying, if you leave your post to go help someone out of your “zone,” then at that moment, you act as an individual and not as our employee.” And if the issue is that they had to have a certain number of people dedicated to guarding a certain area of land, they could have written it into the contract that an exception is allowed where a lifeguard is actually providing emergency assistance to a human near but outside the covered area at that particular moment.

    I dunno. Maybe it isn’t really an insurance issue at all. Maybe the company just wanted to bully the authorities into paying for the maximum lifeguard coverage on the beaches.

  12. In my middle school art class, we did a stained glass project. We used glass cutters and soldering irons and our tables were covered with bits of broken glass. Only injury I sustained? Someone opened the cafeteria door suddenly as I was walking to art class and the metal handle slammed into my finger, breaking the skin.

    I hope when my daughter’s old enough for school and summer camp she’s able to do the same “risky” projects I did. I bet they don’t even let kids launch their own egg drop projects off the roof anymore.

  13. Emily, what’s nuts is that in the U.S. they *don’t* make exceptions for 18+ kids in the public schools. Most kids here are 18 before they graduate, and with it becoming more common to delay starting kindergarten, many are 19. My own son just graduated at 19, and I got mightily sick of signing permission slips by the end — like the one I needed to sign so he could participate in the traditional “Seniors’ Last Day Slip ‘n Slide,” that contained the line: “Please be aware that your child WILL get wet.”

    Meanwhile a guy he grew up with who’s several months older has already been back from his tour in Afghanistan for about a year. But I had to sign a permission slip so he could slip ‘n slide, and still had to write excuses when he missed a day of school.

  14. The film “Hot Coffee” is put out by those who favor the lawsuits. Some comments challenging the film include
    http://www.pointoflaw.com/archives/2011/10/questions-for-s.php
    and
    http://www.pointoflaw.com/archives/2012/01/cjd-still-lying-about-hot-coffee.php

    My own take:
    If customers can’t be trusted to choose their own temperature for coffee, the decision should be made by their elected and accountable representatives, not by twelve random people (out of 300 million) with no responsibility or accountability.

  15. About the STEAM program, there is not much I can do unless I can get the whole district to change. The ALE programs, by law, must be “substantially similar” to what the rest of the school district does. So, instead of being a trend setter for the district, we have to follow what the rest is doing. No money may be used for things that “regular” school kids do not have access to.

    I did look it up. There are “Technology” and “Computer” classes in our district for middle school kids. No more Home Ec, Wood Shop or Metal Shop. The parents I have talked to who have middle school kids are largely not aware that the kids no longer have those options, they assumed that they did, and the kids just were (as per a normal conversation about school) not telling them. At high school level there is auto mechanics, but as far as I can tell, that is about it. There may be a cooking class or two (which, having known adult products of foster care, is a sorely needed class.) Our district has no carpentry, plumbing or other classes that might lead to a well paying trade after apprenticeship.

    This “substantially similar” stuff also has other fall out. When I was in elementary and middle school we did stuff like gymnastics, square dancing and such in gym. I don’t know what happened to dancing, but apparently they don’t even do the lastest stepping stuff (that I can’t at the moment remember the name of, but is popular at all the commercial gyms for kids to be enrolled in.) As far as gymnastics, as much as I can tell, they don’t do that, rope climbing or even tumbling any more. All that I have seen is soccer this spring when I took my kid to speech therapy at a strange time and got to see that. When I ask my friends to ask their kids, they are all very non-committal about what they do in PE.

    So for us in the ALE, we get an allotment to pay for curriculum for our kids. But, because of liability, we can’t pay for gymnastics class as that was too dangerous for school kids to do. We can’t pay for dance or ballet because the district doesn’t offer that. (Who cares if the next district over does offer it – it doesn’t matter for us in ours.)

    So yes, as a homeschooler, I do expect to pay for certain things out of my own pocket. What makes me mad is that I am an educator (yes, I did the training, am certified to teach,) and I would like for the ALE that I am in to be a trend setter for the rest of the schools. Some of the classes that we have SHOULD be in every school, and would increase knowledge, would help prevent drop outs, would increase student buy in to what they are learning. But no, we have to follow the lead of the district. I guess when my kids are done with school and I have some time, I will lobby for changes in the local district. Right now, I need to focus on my kids. And part of that is getting that engineer to look over her plans on the engineer’s off time, and perhaps hooking up my daughter with a local plane manufacturer to serve as mentor for the project that she wants to do. At a scale model size because I don’t have the finances for full size, and don’t want her test flying a replica glider from “Nassica Valley of the Wind.” (Because, I suspect like the person who commented about the doors that never fit, that it will take a few, maybe an Edison light bulb few, changes to get something that actually works the way she wants. But, I do want her to try, because that is how we learn.)

  16. I’ve posted this notion before – in that thread about the trampoline, I believe –

    I think the reason that the fear of being sued is so high in your country is due to the lack of public healthcare and the distressingly high cost of healthcare. Basically, if someone gets injured or ill and needs treatment, somebody IS going to get sued, probably for a LOT of money. If the damaged party is uninsured or not covered by insurance, quite possibly their only realistic option to keep their heads above water is to sue somebody. If the damaged party IS insured, there’s a very good chance their insurance company will sue somebody, because, naturally, the company wants to make a profit and will not wear the cost of the treatment when they can push it onto somebody else.

    So, basically, the safest position is to ensure that you can’t be seen to be “providing an environment where somebody could get hurt”. Remember that a lot of the type of organisations that you’re talking about have very limited budgets. Schools do not have much money, and having to shell out for one child’s lost eye could be disasterous to their ability to operate as, you know, a school.

  17. “So, basically, the safest position is to ensure that you can’t be seen to be “providing an environment where somebody could get hurt”.

    But somebody could get hurt ANYWHERE. When you go to a baseball game, you need to watch out for balls. If you have a problem with that, DON’T GO TO BASEBALL GAMES. But still we get this:

    http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/06/22/new-jersey-woman-hit-with-baseball-sues-little-league-player/

  18. You should try being a volunteer in a Catholic parish if you want to see the nadir of lawsuit terror, absurd insurance requirements, and psychotic paranoia about children left with adults.

    Any employee or volunteer has to fill out an intrusive and lengthy personal info form. At first they demanded our social security numbers, and many of us refused, in part because dioceses in panic have in the past turned over all private info in their files when sued. Nobody trusts a Catholic diocese to be looking after anyone’s best interests now except their own (this goes triple for priests, who have learned that ‘zero tolerance’ means a diocese will throw them to the wolves over a single accusation, but that’s a different rant).

    Anyone who has contact with children must attend a day-long workshop on preventing child sexual abuse, and retake it every three years. These are only held occasionally on a rotating basis through the diocese, so whenever it’s offered where you live, you’d better cancel your plans and get there. With the fee. Eucharistic ministers, who do nothing but stand at the front before hundreds of people and distribute communion, have to take it too, because children receive communion from them.

    As a CCD catechist (Sunday school teacher), I must always have no fewer than two adults present. In theory, that means when a child has to go to the bathroom, two adults would have to escort him, and two adults stay in the classroom. In reality, we can barely get one catechist per classroom (in part due to the intrusive and annoying security requirements), so we just pretend this requirement isn’t there.

    Last year my teenage daughter taught CCD. She had to have an adult present in the classroom – not doing anything, just there – because there were technically only children otherwise. (Strictly speaking she should have had two adults sitting in the room for her protection, of course.) When they tried to make her take the sex abuse workshop, I pointed out that having a minor sit through a presentation of such explicit material in itself violated the diocesan abuse prevention policies. So all year she received alternating notices that she must take the workshop ASAP, and assurances that she should not.

    All children must be signed in and out by a related adult. The catechist can’t leave the classroom until all the kids have been signed out. We asked, what happens when a parent is also a catechist? Then when one catechist is stuck waiting for a late parent, another is stuck, too. No exceptions, we were told. So when my daughter was in confirmation class, she would have to hang out with the catechist for her class endlessly until I could get free and personally escort an athletic teen four inches taller than myself away from her classroom. For her safety.

  19. I forgot to add, last year we were told that parents could no longer sit in the back of the classes (as had been a common practice), unless they took the abuse prevention workshop too. Yes, to protect children, you may not come sit in the back of a classroom, with another adult present, to see what’s going on with your own child. Even though we’ll all be sitting much closer together an hour from now at Mass, where toddlers roam freely in the back pews while parents pray and total strangers help keep them quiet and occupied. Just wait until the insurance company finds out.

  20. @Pentamom, you raise something interesting that I was wondering about the other day – how in the world does the U.S. manage to find recruits for its armed services, if kids are not even allowed to handle simple tools like knives at school, are considered in danger from thrown candy at parades, and, according to various other sites I browse at times when I’m in the mood for a bit of light relief, not even allowed to walk to the letterbox by themselves?

    Seriously, how can kids go from not being allowed to do anything much for themselves, to being shipped overseas to kill or be killed, with actual lethal weapons? Or is it different kids we’re talking about here?

    Obviously, as evidenced on this site, there are still some of you in the States raising your kids to be self-reliant individuals. While I certainly wouldn’t wish harm on any of your children, I shudder to think about an army comprised of helicopter kids – what use would it be to anyone? So is it kids like yours who are signing up?

    Imagine ringing home when you’re under fire, asking Mum what to do…..

  21. Actually, if kids can’t even walk to school on their own, how would they navigate their way around a completely foreign environment….The mind boggles.

  22. My daughter volunteers as a dog walker at our local animal shelter. The rule require that an adult also have the dog on leash. This leads to the following situation:

    My daughter, who completed 20 miles of an endurance event with a 35 lb pack, has to have my wife, who is a tiny marathon runner, hold the leash as well. All to comply with some insurance regulation regarding minors…

    If a dog is agressive or hard to control, my wife doeasn’t have the body weight or physical strength to hold the dog. My daughter does. But common sense does not apply.

  23. @Catechist, and others…here is what I don’t understand about rules like “you can’t sit in the back of the classroom and observe”, or about background checks to pass out cupcakes at the class party, or needing multiple adults in the company of children at all times, or all men who want to coach their son’s soccer team are pedophiles until proven otherwise.

    All these parents are taking their *own* kids home at the end of the day, right? Seems like if it’s assumed that a parent is an abuser until they’ve taken a class/had a background check, it should be assumed (by the “authorities”) that they’re abusing their own kids too. But generally, AND WITH GOOD REASON, it’s not. So why the extreme worry about everyone else’s children?

  24. I suspect darker motives for the “can’t sit the back of the classroom without the background check.” The school that my daughter went to had the policy that it was not allowed, unless the principal gave permission.

    The teacher that my daughter had for kinder was not appropriate for my son. The school had what was called an “Environmental Placement Form” which parents could fill out to help with teacher placement. No names were to be used on the form. So, I wanted to go see the other two teachers as my son had an IEP. The speech therapist agreed this would be good. But, the principal said that I could only go and sit in IF I got the speech therapist to come to. Since she worked at a different school, this would have been hard for her to do.

    Basically, the one kinder teacher was old school and not good for active boys or kids with speech issues or other issues. She disciplined by belittling in front of the class. The principal knew this teacher was an issue, and couldn’t do anything, so she did all she could to prevent parents from choosing. Parents, one time, could transfer after 3 weeks of school. This teacher would loose a slew of boys at that point. Because the school was a “good” school, parents wanted to transfer in. They were not told who the teacher might be or even if they would be getting morning or afternoon kinder. They were told “once you come here you will not be allowed to transfer out this year.”

  25. Some people are lawsuit mad. I know of a fella who stopped letting any of his children have any friends over to visit because the last time he did, the young lad fell and got a scratch. This scratched lad’s father threatened to sue if that happened again to his boy. So he went off to his lawyer for legal advice and was told that he could be sued for any accident in his property regardless of how small the injury is. Hence, his children banned from having any friends over.

  26. I teach engineering at the university level. In the US, if you want to get ABET accreditation in mechanical engineering there MUST be a hands on design and build experience in the curriculum. Fortunately our school starts hammering (no pun intended) the hands on stuff into them as early as possible freshman year. But even so, there are people who sit back and want to let everyone else play with the tools, while they play with computers. I know which one I want building my airplane, thank you very much.

    We used to freak out other parents at the fact that we taught our kids to use power screwdrivers at 6, and dremel tools at 10. But I’d much rather have a kid who says, “I want a basketball hoop. I’m going downstairs to build one.” than a kid who says “I want a basketball hoop. Drive me to Dick’s Sporting Goods!”

  27. @hineata: there is a reason why the military recruits disproportionately from the poor and country. It’s not just economics; many of those kids are more independent than urban middle class kids.

  28. @Catechist – I think that is a good example of reality v imagined risk. You are talking about an institution that has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and is viewed by the public as allowing the sexual abuse of children to go on without check for many years. Of course, they are going to go over-the-top now. While the situation involved very few parishes and the majority have always been fine, the Catholic Church has a really bad rep as far a child safety now. It absolutely cannot afford more scandal, settlements or negative publicity. They need to be seen as doing everything possible to protect children. Much different stance than an organization that has never had a problem and doesn’t have a highly negative position in the world on this issue. As annoying as it is, the current parishes are paying for the sins of their fathers not dealing with uber-safety for no reason.

  29. Awombatsweb, I hope that the father at least will let his kids meet other kids at the public parks, pools and such. That is so sad that he feels he has to do that.

  30. I disagree with the free-range school trip driving. Evidence-based studies have shown that teenagers are less likely to pay attention to the road with other teens in the car. They’re more likely to get into car accidents, not just fender benders but fatalities.

    I think it makes sense to have an adult volunteer driving. It would be horrible for a school to lose a car full of its students, especially during a school trip.

  31. So, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot especially how it relates to public schools. Has anyone ever thought of going to their school board and asking them to hand out no liability paperwork for parents to sign? I would happily agree to sign one of these (just as I do whenever we do any activity that involves some risk like rock climbing or horseback riding) if it meant that my kids could play on the playground even if there is snow on it! Just curious what you all might think about that.

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