High Dives and Lawn Darts
When I was a kid growing up in Canton, Connecticut, the Mill Pond town pool installed a high dive during the summer of 1978. It was awesome. For one glorious summer, we would climb the heights of the 10’ ladder and plummet recklessly into the depths of the awaiting waters below us. Few of us attempted dives, having seen plenty of the agonizing, bright red markings on the backs of our friends who had dared to do so and over-rotated only to land squarely on their backsides, but there was nothing better than the feeling of flying ten feet through the air and watching the amount of water it allowed our scrawny 75 pound bodies to displace with a cannonball done from that height. It was truly the magical stuff that the summers of youth are made of. And then Charles Riley had to go and ruin it for everybody.
Charles, dumbass that he was, went to climb those stairs, made it halfway up, and just let go. I’ve never known why someone would let go of the handrails of a high dive ladder, but suffice it to say, Charles made the definitive case for why you shouldn’t. Falling straight backwards, he cracked open his head, spilling blood and a whole lot of brain matter he was clearly already in desperate need of. His parents, of course, sued, suggesting that the town was somehow negligent for not adequately foreseeing the blatant stupidity of their son. Worse yet, they won, sending the town’s liability insurance soaring through the roof. The high dive was gone by the end of the summer.
Ah yes, the wistful days of the 1970’s, the last fleeting moments before the erosion of the assumption of the risk doctrine came in and ruined everything. “Just what is the assumption of the risk doctrine?” You ask? Well, assumption of risk is a defense which bars or reduces a plaintiff‘s right to recovery if the defendant can demonstrate that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly assumed the risks at issue inherent to the dangerous activity in which the plaintiff was participating at the time of his or her injury. In other words, the assumption of the risk doctrine basically says that if you see the inherent dangers of a particular activity and decide to do it anyway, you can’t sue when you then get hurt. It’s what keeps ski areas free from liability when snowboarders hurl themselves off the sides of halfpipes. And it is what has allowed us all to continue to do lots of potentially dangerous activities that also happen to be a hell of a lot of fun.
That is until the state of California came along and decided to ruin everyone’s fun. There must be a whole lot of stupid people in California (ok, not as many as Florida, but…) because in a series of judicial decisions in the 1970’s, California courts, long-known for being preposterously plaintiff-friendly, chipped away at the assumption of the risk doctrine. No longer was it sufficient that the inherent dangers of the activity were patently obvious. Suddenly, it became necessary that each and every specific potential danger be explicated for the participant, lest they suggest that they didn’t know that could happen to them. As such, many experience providers moved to those liability waivers we all love filling out so much. But even those became pretty much worthless because California courts then ruled that unless the specific cause of the injury was detailed in the waiver, the provider was still liable for damages. In many cases, the liability waivers just got longer and longer, like some sort of Faustian bargain where we relinquish our rights to just about everything. In many cases, the activities went away altogether.
Take for example, jarts. Now an ancient relic of the early 1970’s that my spell check doesn’t even recognize, jarts were a game of lawn darts where one tossed the dart in the air and tried to land it in the hoop provided. Needless to say, some people, take my throwing-deficient daughter as an example, are not going to be as highly accurate as others. Jarts, as any reasonable person could foresee, are bound to go awry. And given that they are made to penetrate the ground and stick where they land, one should be able to logically surmise that they might have the same impact on one’s foot and move judiciously away when someone else is tossing. But of course, some idiot did not apparently foresee that highly likely inevitability and took one to the foot. They sued. And thus the reason my spell check, and many of you, now have no idea what the hell I am even talking about.
Ok, I get it, jarts are hardly some great cultural casualty, but think of all the crazy shit we used to do back in the 70’s that would never fly today. Riding in the bed of a pickup truck. Jungle gyms. Nude dumpster diving. Even worse, how many activities have become prohibitively expensive because of the escalating costs of liability insurance? Let’s just say that the world is a whole lot less enjoyable without the ability to make bad choices.
Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place for holding companies and individuals accountable for acts of gross negligence. For example, in the recent case of a 6 year-old girl who plummeted to her death on the Haunted Mine Drop ride at Glenwood Caverns after operators overrode the safety mechanism intended to alert them to the fact that she was not properly buckled into the ride, there was no way that her parents should have foreseen the possibility of her fatal injuries on an amusement park ride, and it is necessary for the court system to act accordingly, not so much to assuage the sadness of the grieving parents, but to assure that the amusement park take legitimate steps to make sure something like this never happens again.
But more often than not, we are being deprived of our ability to make our own decisions about the chances we are or are not willing to take, all in the name of providing restitution to a bunch of dumbasses that should have generally known better and lining the pockets of the ambulance chasers that enable them. Life is inherently dangerous, and there is no way to hermetically seal ourselves off from the world, and even if we could, how much fun would that be anyways? By once again permitting stupidity to triumph over basic common sense, we are depriving ourselves of much of what makes life worth living in the first place. Like high dives and jarts.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com