Danger lurks everywhere these days, even in 5-gallon plastic tubs of feta cheese. One day the containers of feta delivered to our restaurant that previously were embellished with pretty blue ink sketches of the Parthenon, began to arrive with drawings of a baby falling head first into a bucket. The cheese, which is preserved in liquid, now comes complete with grim warnings of possible drownings in English and Espanol. Has anyone really ever drowned in a bucket of feta, I wondered, as I stood in our walk-in cooler and stared at the toddler going head first into a bucket, or is this warning just the product of a paranoid bucket manufacturer who's afraid of being sued?
The warning label, which at first seemed bizarre, turned out to be an enlightened compromise between bucket manufacturers and the federal government's Consumer Product Safety Commission, which did a five year study and considered all sorts of options --- one of which was to require bucket manufacturers to make buckets with holes in the bottom. As it turned out, toddlers were indeed falling into buckets and drowning when the containers were empty and later used for things such as diaper pails. Buckets with holes in them, of course, created all sorts of problems of their own, primarily that they couldn't hold any liquids, so warning labels were used instead.
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But business owners are nervous these days. No matter what goes wrong, it is our fault. Like citizens of a police state, we wait for the knock at the door. In reaction to the McDonald's case, in which a jury awarded a woman $2.9 million for spilling hot coffee on herself as she bounced along in her grandson's Porsche, an award later reduced by a judge to a mere $640,000, Wendy's International decided that it was too dangerous to sell hot chocolate in America. In New York City, the Russian Tea Room no longer takes the risk of selling steak tartare. The Las Vegas Hilton, too, was sent a costly message by the legal community, a profession that sends more messages to businesses these days than Western Union. For not recognizing that the full-grown fighter pilots of Tailhook needed a babysitter, the Hilton was fined more than $7 million in only the first round of Tailhook-related lawsuits. At Dow Corning, the plethora of silicon breast implant lawsuits, based on faulty science, produced a massive bankruptcy, despite the fact that numerous studies showed the ill effects of breast implants to be nil. These cases make businesses feel that it's time to move somewhere business-friendly like Red China or Iran.
Stereotypes and biases, unacceptable if directed at any other groups, are tolerated, encouraged and handsomely rewarded when directed at businesses. Whenever an incident, accident or human relations problem occurs, it's now almost a certainty that if a business is minutely or peripherally involved there will be an attempt to blame the business. And those who run the legal system think in big numbers, believing that anything under six figures is jelly-jar change. In the funny-money world of the legal scam where serious money flows like water and the plundering and pillaging of businesses occurs on a daily basis, $300,000 is viewed by the silver-tongued legal-beagles as a trivial sum. Ellen Vargyas, senior council at the National Women's Law Center, said the $300,000 in damages, per incident, awarded to victims of sexual harassment, as specified in the 1991 Civil Rights Act, "are not exactly what I would call a pot of gold."
While business people were running their pizza shops and stores, hiring people and staying off welfare, the law schools of America were teaching lawyers like Ellen Vargyas how to stack a deck while dripping with moral sanctimony. Her scornful attitude reminds me of an old poker buddy of mine who would call a big pot by tossing his money on the table, contemptuously announcing, "I'd pay $300 to watch a dog pee."
To me, $300,000 is not only a pot of gold, but it equals the bottom-line value of approximately 480,000 grape leaves, stuffed and rolled. When you roll and stuff grape leaves for a living, or toss pizza crusts for ten hours a day, money has a way of taking on new meaning. "Let's see, you mean if I lose this lawsuit, I will have to roll and stuff grape leaves non-stop from now until I'm 68?" It's like some diabolical punishment from Dante's Inferno or Paradise Lost, one of those parables about the seven stages of Hell where you're stuck repetitively doing for eternity that which you hate.
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To protect ourselves from a sexual harassment lawsuit like the one at an Eat 'n' Park restaurant in Pittsburgh where an impolite customer asked a waitress out too many times, we're planning to inscribe our bar stools with a warning to patrons: "Caution: Anyone sitting here too long may be subject to unwanted sexual advances." So far, none of our bar customers are taking the discussion seriously. Everyone just laughs and says that's why they sit there in the first place. They just hope the harassment will come from someone they like. The problem is that what sounds funny to a bunch of barroom dart players at 2 a.m. is no laughing matter to a courtroom full of serious litigants and a kook-show jury. They have no sense of humor in criminal court.
In the end, it's a safe bet that the lawyers will end up with all the money. I only wish I could offer some words of cheer to my fellow restaurant owners to relieve their fears. I'm reminded of the song Fred Rodgers sang when we were kids, afraid of going down the bathtub drain. "You'll never go down, you'll never go down, you'll never go down the drain," he sang. I'd like to sing that song with gusto and conviction to my fellow small business owners, to reassure them that this is America and good citizens have rights and aren't hauled off in the night and destroyed by their own government, but it would be a lie. The only phrase that has more meaning for us now, I'm afraid, is the one that says, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."