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

Kids Severely Sunburned at School Because They Didn’t Have “Prescription” for Sunscreen

Readers — As much as anything, this blog is dedicated to the idea that we MUST use our brains and compassion and not blindly follow orders that exist only to avoid liability or blame. So take a look at what happened to these girls at their school’s field day. (Warning: The pictures are painful!)

The girls were kept out in the sun and severely burned, to the point where the adults at the school were noticing and commenting. Later, the principal explained her…what’s it called in a war when you don’t stand up and fight for justice? …her that. Her blithe justification for why she didn’t do the right thing:

 Her response centered around the the school inability to administer what they considered a prescription/medication (sunscreen) for liability reasons. And while I can sort of wrap my brain around this in theory, the practice of a blanket policy which clearly allows for students to be put in harm’s way is deeply flawed. Not only does a parent have to take an unrealistic (an un-intuitive) step by visiting a doctor for a “prescription” for an over-the-counter product, children are not allowed to carry it on their person and apply as needed.

TALK ABOUT INSANE!

Folks, I am thinking of writing a book — a mini-one — on this whole issue. The issue of our safety fears becoming so ornate and far-fetched (“What if a child uses sunscreen inappropriately?”) that we not only lose all common sense, we lose our ability to think or even feel. We become stunted.

The principal didn’t frame it this way, but it was her decision to LET those girls burn. Sure, she was “just following orders” — the insurance company’s, perhaps, or the school district’s. But we’ve seen where just following orders can lead. – L.

Oh…does that thing burn?

(Australian) Outrage of the Day: Girl Sues Classmate Whose Tennis Ball Hit Her

Hi Readers! Greetings from Bendigo, Australia where I’m here to keynote this conference. (Gorgeous city!) Anyway, apparently I arrived just in the nick of time. Two girls over here were playing tennis at a private school recently when the ball hit and bruised one girl’s eye. Anything having to do with eyes is scary and distressing, but in a move worthy of the best of America’s ambulance chasers, the bruised-eye-girl’s family immediately sued the ball-lobber, and the tennis school, and the college where the incident occurred. According to this report in The Courier Mail:

The claim says the tennis school failed to provide adequate supervision or protective eyewear…

So from now on, should we no longer assume that everyone understands the basic idea that a ball, once set in motion, can hit a person? At the same time, should we start insisting on protective eyewear every time a moving ball is invovled? Goggles?, I guess?

As the daughter of a man who started and ran a tennis club till he died (Max Skenazy, Northbrook Racquet Club in Illinois!) , I’m hoping this suit will be tossed out of both courts — both tennis and legal. – L

Where Have All The Jungle Gyms Gone? Long Time Passing…

Hi Folks! Here’s a great article from the L.A. Times about one of our recurring themes: The dumbing down of playgrounds to the point where they are, well, pointless. The writer, Gale Holland, reports:

Last fall as state inspector strode into Great Beginnings preschool and declared the tree house and climbing structure too high. They would have to come down or be surrounded by extra padding.

The metal ladder to the playhouse, which had been there 30 years, could pinch the children, said Beverly Wright-Chrystal, a state child care licensing representative. Also, a log worn smooth by generations of boys and girls playing horsy and hide-and-go-seek would have to be sanded and painted because of a potential “splinter hazard,” Wright-Chrystal determined.

How have we evolved to a society that sees splinters, blood and lawsuits every where we turn? Especially in light of my hero Phillip Howard’s contention that (according to the LA Times piece) there is no data showing an increase in playground injuries or lawsuits!

We are drunk on safety and hallucinating pink liability issues. (Elephants are too big to safely be hallucinated anymore.) Time to sober up and let kids have fun. — L.

Adorable “Build-a-Choking Hazard”?

Hi Folks! As a reader named Michele wrote to me last week, “2011 wouldn’t quite be complete without wrapping up the year with another recall for the safety of our children!”

She was referring to the recall of a mere 300,000 “Colorful Hearts Teddy” Build-a-Bears because the material they’re made of is “sub standard,” and hence COULD rip, and if it did, the eyes COULD fall out, and these, in turn, COULD pose a choking hazard. That’s a lot of “coulds,” and the Consumer Product Safety Commission notes on its website that it has heard of no incidents or injuries.

Which is why I am always going crazy.

Yes, it is good to be safe. Yes, it is good to try to keep choking hazards away from small children. But if “something bad COULD happen” is the standard by which we deem things safe or unsafe, first of all we would have to get rid of all pocket change, because a kid could choke. Next? All buttons on all garments, because these could (and demonstrably have in the past) fall off. Just don’t keep a thimble around the house to fix ’em because…well, you know about thimbles. Meantime, we’d have to get rid of cardboard, because a piece could be torn off and choke someone, as could a piece of food — best to empty the fridge, or at least puree all its contents.

I know this recall is probably prompted by a fear of lawsuits on Build-a-Bear’s part: Warn now and deflect any potential suit later. But when 300,000 items are destined for the trash on the basis of no problems whatsoever, I keep thinking we just have to get a grip.

To make a society completely risk-free is not only a fool’s errand, it is wasteful. It’s like the time one of my kids was in the E.R. and the nurse cut a bandage and then threw the scissors away. I’m sure it’s because the standard practice there is to avoid all infections by simply tossing out anything that ever touched anything. But when are we allowed to give a little thought to the flip side? The side that says maybe there’s something lost when we keep tossing out perfectly good stuff rather than figuring out how to safely live with it?

So goodbye, you threatening little plush toy with the incredibly leaden name. (“Colorful Hearts Teddy”? That’s about as imaginative as, “Printed Fabric Friend.”) See you in the junk yard, next to a whole lot of other perfectly good stuff. — L.S.
Picture of recalled Teddy Bear

You Must Be 15 to…

…wear this hat. Or so the manufacturer recommends:

Because a 14-year-old might eat it? (And thanks to reader Sierra for this photo.)

STORIES NEEDED: Has Your Kid’s Camp Become Less Free-Range? Or Even Nutty?

Hi Folks! I’m writing a column inspired by the Maryland law that was about to be enacted that would have prohibited counselors from applying sunblock to kids. The state was, of course, afraid of perverts. But when parents heard about the measure, THEY were afraid of sunburn. So the law did not go into effect (but parents still have to sign a waiver saying they agree to counselor-kid sunscreen application).

Anyway, that got me to thinking about other ways camps have changed and even contorted, in response to parental fears, lawsuit fears, and just fears in general. If you have any examples, I’d love to hear ’em. Especially after just finding the FIVE PAGE health form I have to fill out for my son to go to Boy Scout camp for a WEEK. I know, I know — some kids have allergies to surprising things, but really: I have to check off whether the camp is allowed to give him calamine lotion for an itch or Bactine for a scratch? Yes indeed I do!

And so: I”d like to hear from parents, camp counselors, camp owners and anyone else with any camp connection. As you know, I love safety, but I also love sanity and a soupcon of summer freedom. Hope yours is a happy one! — L

Kids waiting to go to camp in the days before parents had to authorize the use of sunscreen. In fact, the days before sunscreen, period.