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WHO’S TO BLAME? SOMEONE ELSE, FOR SURE

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If you are served a steaming hot pizza, do you immediately stick a slice of it in your mouth or do you wait a minute for it to cool? And if you do stick it in your mouth and burn your tongue, whose fault is it?A few days ago, in Albuquerque, N.M., a jury awarded $2.9 million to a woman who was burned when she spilled a cup of McDonald's coffee on herself.

She was riding in a car when she put the coffee between her legs to remove the cover. It spilled and she was burned. A juror said he and his fellows were trying to send a message to the fast-food industry that "the coffee's too hot out there."Do not think for a moment that I do not sympathize with the woman for her pain and suffering. But is it not the case that we are taught to go out of our way not to spill hot coffee on ourselves for the very good reason that we might get burned?

If you are served a steaming hot pizza, do you immediately stick a slice of it in your mouth or do you wait a minute for it to cool? And if you do stick it in your mouth and burn your tongue, whose fault is it?

I am sure that McDonald's, contemplating a spate of lawsuits by people who envision instant wealth by the simple expedient of sloshing a little coffee around, already has taken action.

Either, I am supposing, McDonald's has gone to serving iced coffee exclusively (probably not, since the threat of frostbite would be ever-present) or it is putting disclaimers on its coffee cups, reading, "If you spill this on yourself, you may be provoked to yelp."

If it has taken the disclaimer route, it simply is following in the footsteps of the cigarette industry, which has had great success with putting "Our product will kill you" on each pack and letting it go at that. If you put out the word, then there apparently is no liability.

This is the same reason that the highway department has all of those signs reading, "Observe warning signs. State law." I never would have thought not to observe warning signs since I could think of no other purpose served by them than to be observed. But when the state puts up extra signs, specifically telling us to observe them, it's not the state's fault if we don't.

I wondered whether we were seeing a trend. As luck would have it, the great-grandson of the late H.G. Wells is a friend of mine and lent me his ancestor's time machine. I wheeled it into the living room of my modest lakeside estate and set the dial for 100 years from now.

When the whirring and shaking ceased, I climbed out and saw that the old place still looked pretty much the same. There was a couch right where mine had been. I thought I'd rest a moment after my century's journey, then spied a small tag sewn to a cushion. "Warning," it said. "If flame is applied to this couch, it is subject to igniting. If this couch is engulfed in flames, do not sit or lie on it. Serious damage to skin and self-esteem may result."

I rummaged through my old tool drawer and was pleased to see that the basics remained in use. But on a pair of pliers was a notice, "This tool is NOT to be used on the nose or earlobe," and on the screwdriver was another, "Avoid plunging this screwdriver into the thoracic area. Keep away from homicidal psychopaths."

I went outside and was amazed to see a rhinoceros emerging from the lake. Some things had definitely changed. But right on the rhino's forehead was a thin metal plate with this legend, "Poking this animal with a sharp stick may cause undesirable results. If it is necessary to use a sharp stick, consult a professional rhinoceros handler first."

A large bois d'arc tree had grown in the yard, and on each of its hard, heavy, green fruits was the label: "Being struck on the head by a bois d'arc apple may cause you to walk in circles and vote for obscure political parties."

Evidently, there had been a recent windstorm, because there were all sorts of small limbs and dead sticks lying around. I picked up a stick and on it saw the words: "Do not run with this in your hand and never use it to poke a rhinoceros."

So that's how the future looks. Now put this column down before you get a paper cut. I couldn't afford that.