Friday, April 18, 2008

Elevators and the American Legal System

It's a long and storied history. Cookies to the first person who finds me the oldest case. But remember Portee v. Jaffee? I do, because my 1L memo was based on it--the Hubble Memo, we called it, about a mother's claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress over watching her son die, only our twist was that the mother was not actually present and observing.

This is circulating the blogosphere, but I'll post it anyway. Here's a great article by Nick Paumgarten on the history and future of elevators. But most interesting is the story weaved throughout of BusinessWeek's Nicholas White, who spent 41 hours trapped in an elevator.

Watch him go (quickly) insane here:

Whatever happened to Nicholas White? Well (SPOILER ALERT):

At a certain point, Nicholas White ran out of ideas. Anger and vindictiveness took root. He began to think, They, whoever they were, shouldn’t be able to get away with this, that he deserved some compensation for the ordeal. He cast about for blame. He wondered where his colleague was, why she hadn’t been alarmed enough by his failure to return, jacketless, from smoking a cigarette to call security. Whose fault is this? he wondered. Who’s going to pay?...

Caught up in media attention (which he shunned but thrilled to), prodded by friends, and perhaps provoked by overly solicitous overtures from McGraw-Hill, White fell under the sway of renown and grievance, and then that of the legal establishment. He got a lawyer, and came to believe that returning to work might signal a degree of mental fitness detrimental to litigation. Instead, he spent eight weeks in Anguilla. Eventually, Business Week had to let him go. The lawsuit he filed, for twenty-five million dollars, against the building’s management and the elevator-maintenance company, took four years. They settled for an amount that White is not allowed to disclose, but he will not contest that it was a low number, hardly six figures. He never learned why the elevator stopped; there was talk of a power dip, but nothing definite. Meanwhile, White no longer had his job, which he’d held for fifteen years, and lost all contact with his former colleagues. He lost his apartment, spent all his money, and searched, mostly in vain, for paying work. He is currently unemployed.

Looking back on the experience now, with a peculiarly melancholic kind of bewilderment, he recognizes that he walked onto an elevator one night, with his life in one kind of shape, and emerged from it with his life in another. Still, he now sees that it wasn’t so much the elevator that changed him as his reaction to it. He has come to terms with the trauma of the experience but not with his decision to pursue a lawsuit instead of returning to work. If anything, it prolonged the entrapment. He won’t blame the elevator.

I may not blame the American legal system and our culture of litigiousness, but man, I don't blame Nicholas White that much either. Well, maybe a little. He wanted to be made whole after his harrowing experience, but improperly defined what meant to be "made whole." Instead of embracing freedom, he boxed himself into a corner.

I live in a mostly flat, building-height controlled college town where I never have to go more than a couple of stair flights anywhere. I live on the first floor of my building. While I don't have an elevator phobia, being trapped for even an hour would certainly give me one. It's just an existential nightmare.


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