If You Are Irresponsible, Why Should We Pay For It?

Posted: April 08, 2000

My Uncle John's wife, Marie, set a great table - one that would have put an NFL training camp to shame.

Uncle John had a particular affinity for rare steaks with side orders of pasta, creamed spinach and cottage fries. He disdained salads, opting instead for a loaf or two of French bread slathered with butter - usually a pound or more. He washed his meals down with copious amounts of beer in summer and red wine in winter.

For 36 years, Uncle John's doctor warned him: "You're 85 pounds overweight; your cholesterol level is higher than a weather balloon; your blood pressure is ready to boil over . . . you gotta reduce your consumption and eat healthier." Uncle John kept on eating. "One of life's pleasures," he said.

In the hospital after his massive coronary, my Uncle John asked my Aunt Marie to welcome him home with one of her famous Beef Wellington dinners.

He died two weeks later, at age 57.

I thought of my Uncle John the other day when I read about Leslie Whiteley. Whiteley is a 40-year-old California mother of four who was a heavy smoker for 25 years. Last month, a 12-member San Francisco jury awarded her $20 million in punitive damages from two major cigarette manufacturers.

Whiteley was the first person to win damages who started smoking after the U.S. Surgeon General's 1964 order requiring warning labels on cigarette packs. Every time Whiteley pulled out a cigarette, she likely was aware it was hazardous to her health. Cigarette producers have defended themselves against lawsuits by pointing to that label. Smokers, they noted, are motivated by their own free will. If they have concerns after reading the warning label, they can quit smoking or cut back. That, after all, was the point of the label.

Despite 36 years of health-hazard warnings, Whiteley's lawyer managed to convince jurors that tobacco companies deliberately misled the public about those dangers.

It set me to wondering about Uncle John. Why shouldn't he have sued some of the most egregious purveyors to his gluttony? He ordered boxes of steaks from a specialty firm in Omaha - in the days when cholesterol and fat contents weren't even listed. And he had to be one of the most valued customers in the history of Land 'O Lakes butter. No warning labels there, either.

Uncle John's attorney could have argued that his client had no idea that a steady diet of steaks and butter eventually would clog his arteries. Leslie Whiteley, on the other hand, could hardly make that argument. If she smoked only a pack of cigarettes a day, that amounts to 182,500 cigarettes in a lifetime - each with a warning.

My Uncle John didn't sue anyone after his heart attack. No lawyer approached him. He grew up and lived in an era when Americans actually believed in the concept of personal responsibility.

If you knowingly engage in something that can hurt you over a long period of time, you have no one to blame but yourself. Uncle John accepted the tradeoff. I suspect that Leslie Whiteley enjoyed smoking as well. She accepted the risk until she became sick with a dreaded disease and a personal-injury lawyer arrived at her doorstep.

Few people, including me, have much sympathy for Big Tobacco. But the same lawyers who have turned the law on its head against cigarette makers now are taking aim at guns, beer and wine, SUVs, fast-food, HMOs and any other politically incorrect product they can find. If they prevail, all Americans will suffer by paying higher prices and higher taxes and having fewer choices in the marketplace.

We shouldn't have to pay that kind of price to subsidize someone else's lifetime of irresponsibility - or to enrich already obscenely wealthy personal-injury lawyers. It's high time to reform a legal system that no longer delivers justice.

Whitt Flora covers national legal affairs as an independent journalist.

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