American (olive)pit-falls on innovation

Today, Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Rep., launched a lawsuit against a House of Representatives cafeteria, the cafeteria’s operator and two other food suppliers because of an "unfit and unwholesome" sandwich that contained an olive pit. Yes, an olive pit. A sandwich that claimed having pitted olives, came with the seed and allegedly caused "sustained serious and permanent dental and oral injuries requiring multiple surgical and dental procedures, and has sustained other damages as well, including significant pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment." How hard can you bite it if it is in a sandwich? Anderson Cooper from CNN 360 showed videos of the Ohio Rep a few months after the date the event happened and Kucinich doesn’t seem injured or harmed as he speaks in the video. As for the “loss of enjoyment” we can’t tell. How much is he suing for? $150,000 USD, even though he has a governmental dental plan and even though surgical procedures are way under that amount. Another thing, when did the event happen? On April 2008, almost 3 years ago. I’m sure it is not a pleasant experience biting on an olive pit, but in my opinion this is too much.

The US has a list of lawsuits that seem excessive, some of them are won by the “offended”, others are lost, but still it shows the American propensity towards law suits, specially to well-known companies from which they can take advantage of. Let’s remember Stella Liebeck vs. McDonalds, the 79 year-old lady who in 1992 bought a 49 cents hot coffee and spilled it on herself, causing skin burns. ABC News called it "the poster child of excessive lawsuits" although she did spend 8 days on the hospital and lost nearly 20% of her body weight. A New Mexico jury awarded her $2.9 million USD in damages. Thanks to Stella Liebeck the “Stella Awards” were created and you can read some much more ridiculous cases on from people suing Nike "for defamation and permanent injury" because of being confused for Michael Jordan to Mazda being sued for "failed to provide instructions regarding the safe and proper use of a seatbelt" or a policeman suing Teasers after killing a man because of confusing the stun gun with a real gun.

So how does this affect innovation? One word: fear. It is true companies should be responsible for their products and services, and extensively investigate and test them before release and continue doing so for the product’s life cycle. There is no doubt about that, and it should be part of the innovation process. Companies should also be punished for their lack of responsibility or negligence and it is absolutely favorable that government and other institutions protect the less powerful, such as a client against large corporations. But an extreme law-suit oriented culture can be harmful for everyone. It’s not about doing things entirely safe and even fool-proof (Pokeyoke), it turns out fools are very clever, to the point they want to take advantages. The other day I was hearing a conversation where Mexican doctors said some American doctors feared risk taking, even when needed, because of lawsuits, in this case being cautious to the extreme can have damaging results.

In Latin America and other developing countries we don’t have a law suit propensity as in US. We are probably closer to the other excessive harmful side where corporations have the upper hand and where you don’t even want to think of getting into a legal mess with them. An over-freely and permissive approach can cause risky innovations to emerge, causing harmful products i.e. toys in China with high levels of lead.

The best context for innovation is having responsible corporations with informed clients that demand high quality (therefore better products), with an objective and efficient legal system that does respect both ends equally and other institutions that support and inform both of them (i.e. consumer’s reviews). Can this middle-term be reached or is it utopia and the legal balance will always be on one side or the other?

As for me, I wouldn’t like having a cafeteria and being sued $150,000 USD for an olive pit. You are not even safe doing simple sandwiches… now imagine doing nuclear reactors! That’s why I’m calling this case an American (olive)pitfall towards innovation.

No comments:

Post a Comment