William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Nannying the ninnies on the last frontier

South Africa is cowboy country. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, law abiding instincts are poorly developed here, on the southern tip of the continent.

But the upside of being the last frontier is that we are not yet cocooned in that regulatory cobweb that has reduced much of the world’s citizens to quivering ninnies, reliant on the nanny state to protect them from any conceivable harm that might befall them. Anywhere. Ever.

Hence the many absurd product warnings, as manufacturers scramble to protect themselves from the litigiousness of the terminally stupid consumers who buy their products. Like the warning ‘never iron clothes on the body’ on a British iron, the ‘do not use while sleeping’ warning on a Japanese hair dryer, and the one on an American lavatory plunger, ‘do not use near power lines’.

America, once the home of the brave, is at the forefront of these pathetic and futile attempts to create a zero-risk world. There you sue the takeaway outlet when you spill your hot coffee on yourself and the council when you trip over a slightly raised curb stone.

Oh, and the pain and suffering that had to be compensated for when a Pennsylvanian man was forced to subsist on dog food for eight days in a locked garage because the automatic garage door malfunctioned during his attempted burglary. He didn’t manage to steal anything but it at least netted the thief $500 000 for his anguish from the hapless insurance company.

Britain is not far behind. A couple of years back soldiers in its elite paratroop regiment sued — and won — damages for injuries sustained during a training exercise carried out in rough weather. Poor diddums. Afghanistan must have come as a helluva shock.

South Africans are not immune to the trend of behaving stupidly and then blaming others in order to extort money from them. Litigiousness is increasing apace, as we take our cues from indulgent mollycoddling societies elsewhere.

So three cheers for Acting Judge Jan Hiemstra. In a ruling this week he struck a blow for the concept of self-responsibility and for the reality that life has serrated edges which, unless one exercises a modicum of common sense, will send you snivelling home to Mummy.

A former Grade 10 schoolboy in Pretoria sued Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool for R838 375 because he lost an eye following an injury received while larking about with friends in the hostel grounds. Jan Veenstra blamed his accident on the negligence of the school, saying that it allowed children to ‘play on their own and misbehave’, according to a report in the Pretoria News.

What a shocker! The school assumed that left alone for an hour or so, well-educated sixteen-year olds at one of the country’s most prestigious schools would not poke out one another’s eyes? How can we as a society tolerate such institutional nonchalance? Someone must surely be made to pay.

From the evidence before Hiemstra it transpired that however unfortunate the incident, the fault lay entirely with the young men involved and not because there were ‘insufficient discipline and rules’. Veenstra had climbed onto the roof of a shed to retrieve a ball. He also found a stick, which he slung down at his mates. One of them threw it back. The sharp end struck him in the eye.

Sadly, that’s what happens with pointy sticks, as your Mum no doubt warned you as a child. It’s one of those home rules — don’t throw stones, look both ways before crossing the road, don’t choke your little sister — that society is entitled to assume that you will have internalised by age of 16.

Judge Hiemstra consequently ruled that the school should not be punished for the teens’ silly behaviour. In a rather unfortunate choice of words, Hiemstra said, “This incident must have occurred in the blink of an eye. I cannot see how the school authorities should have anticipated this.”

A rare victory for common sense.

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  • http://none Lyndall Beddy

    About time we brought Roman Dutch law back and dumped American/British litigation dramas.

  • Reducto

    There is actually a lot more to the coffee case than those who cite it as an example of a frivolous lawsuit will tell you. Firstly, the temperature of the coffee was actually a lot higher than you would normally serve coffee. Secondly, the woman got third degree burns and required skin grafts.

    Also, the story about the Pennsylvanian man who was forced to subsist on dog food is a fabrication.

  • Rory Quinn

    And whilst paying out absurd claims for ‘pain and suffering’ for self-inflicted injuries, the insurance companies are denying legitimate medical claims for bone marrow transplants and chemo-therapy for cancer patients maintaining that these treatments are ‘experimental’- despite nearly 50 years of chemo and nearly 30 for bone marrow transplants. It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.

    Spot on about the ‘nanny state’ mentality, William. If people cease to use the accumulated wisdom of the human race (formerly referred to as ‘common sense’), they will continue to regress toward an entirely infantile society. Why is there such a taboo against THINKING and acting intelligently?

  • Dan

    This the general sad trend these days. In the UK both businesses and local authorities are so afraid of being held liable that they go to silly lengths. The real issue is that when you treat people as infantile they cease to be able to do their own risk assessment and stand on their own. Instead we’re reaching the point where the government wants to make all our decisions for us because we might hurt ourselves or do something stupid.

  • http://none Lyndall Beddy

    There was a “coffee” type case years ago, which was a brilliant example of how REAL law, none Nanny state, opperates.

    A lady claimed she was burned by an urn in Grote Schuur Hospital Staff Canteen and claimed loss of earnings.

    The hospital offered a settlement but the lady (who was a visitor not an employee and should not have been in the staff canteen in the first place) claimed she had lost massive earnings from loss of income from baking and selling cakes at home.

    Her attorney, a friend of mine, said that fine she would take it to court but did her client realise that SARS sat in on all court cases, and had she declared these “earnings” on her Income Tax Returns?

    The lady took the settlement.

    I hope that SARS still sits in on all court cases.

  • Dan

    @Reducto – sorry, but there is no such thing as normal serving temperature for coffee. My parents taught me to treat potentially boiling liquids with caution. Someone hands me a cup of coffee and I presume until proven otherwise that spilling it on myself will burn me. People need to be expected to exercise good judgement on their own, otherwise they turn into idiots that can’t look after themselves. And they need to take responsibility for their own involvement in any misfortune that befalls them.

    It is unquestionably the case that the general push these days is to make the world risk-free. Sometimes with unintended consequences. As in the case of bicycle helmets which protect against very specific low speed impacts, but increase the risk of neck and rotational brain injuries.

  • Paul Alvarez

    William I’d like to use poetic licence and take us down another more important road, which could easily have followed your opening paragraph. This piece is reality but is simply the stupidity of the modern world and the sad path of the law. Discipline is where I was hoping you were going. We have very little in SA; it starts on the roads, extends to our schools where even a primary facility was trashed in Durban last week, then the universities where a minority of trouble makers disrupt classes and clash with police annually, then into politics ala the ANCYL, and so I could go on. Let’s have a look at successful nations and the one thing you will find they all have in common is discipline, a real work ethic and respect for fellow citizens and facilities. Look at the crown jewels in this category since WW II, Germany, Japan, Singapore and more recently China and India.

    Ill discipline will get this country no where, and neither will shady deals, nepotism, corruption, fraud, and all the other rubbish we put up with in our beloved country on a daily basis. Until we place discipline on a higher level than the rights of the perpetrators of ill discipline, we are on the slippery slope to a failed state. There is 1 futurist / scenario planner, call him what you want, that really understands SA. Clem Sunter is now including the failed state / banana republic / basket case as a possibility for our future. It may be a small probability right now, but we should all be very…

  • MLH

    The only real place the nanny state should have space to function is in food labelling and there, it needs to do far more to communicate and educate. The differences between saturated, trans, momounsaturated, polyunsaturated fats are gibberish to all but a few. The levels of sugar (cane sugar is the sweetest in the world) in baked and processed food is high and should be reduced, along with the health minister’s determination to drop salt levels.
    Bryce Courtenay’s ‘The Power of One’ relayed that the Nats came into power on the promise of introducing white bread. I’ve never checked that fact, but the ANC could do this country a huge favour by banning it in this era. Did you know that any food that is boosted by added vitamins and minerals is likely to be really bad for you?
    Well, then, how do we expect Mr and Mrs Average to know it?

  • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

    What utter garbage to spew out sensationalist examples without conducting even the most basic research on the topic. For example, the famous McDonalds coffee lawsuit is anything but trivial http://www.slip-and-sue.com/the-famous-infamous-mcdonalds-coffee-spill-lawsuit-revisited/

  • The Praetor

    Yep, sometimes the law borders on the rediculous, and I always wonder how learned men of the law can perpetuate this. There was a program on SABC about stupid laws and lawsuits in the US.

    One lawsuit that comes to mind, is when a domestic stole some candles from her employer, only for the ‘candle’ to explode when it was lit. She succesfully sued her employer because the candles turned out to be fireworks, and her employer was negligent, as it was not clearly marked as such.

    Another one was of a woman who also sued a supermarket successfully, because while she was shopping, she tripped over a child, and sued the shop for not taking due care and allowing children to run around the shop, causing a potential danger…It however turns out that it was her own child she tripped over.

    The Praetor

  • http://none Lyndall Beddy

    Unfortunately the ANC has been black American from the beginning, Pixley ka Seme, so now we are all having to put up with American culture.

  • Curious

    I am curious to know where the information about Judge Hiemstra was obtained. I have it from a reliable source that it was not him on the bench for this Affies case (or is the case fictitious?)

  • Mike Edwards

    Dave Harris once again selectively quotes a website that he thinks supports his arguments.
    http://www.slip-and-sue.com/the-famous-infamous-mcdonalds-coffee-spill-lawsuit-revisited/
    Yes do indeed go to the website and read the lead article and then read all the comments that follow it. The average person commenting is also of the same opinion, – you have to be an idiot to do what she did. – Sorry old girl!!

  • WSM

    @ Curious: The full court report appeared in the Pretoria News last Thursday, as per the attribution in the column.

  • http://none Lyndall Beddy

    The law in SA works for the Rich (who can afford to litigate) and for the Poor (who qualify for Legal Aid) but not for the Middle Class.

    Which is why the Close Corporation Act was passed – to make small business simpler.

    And Small Claims Courts established, run by attorneys acting as commissioners working for free.

    And also why so much pro-Deo and pro-Bono work was done by the legal profession.

    (pro-Deo means “for God” and pro -Bono means “for Good”)

    Mbeki trashed a lot of the legal system by passing over 1000 new laws.

  • Juaninno

    Oops – the garage story is a hoax – as a friend pointed out. The Stella Award site looks like it could be as much fun as the Darwin Awards though…

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/2005-01-30-tort-reform_x.htm