Televised Stress

Dorothy Storck

September 11, 1990|By Dorothy Storck | Dorothy Storck,Philadelphia Inquirer

LONDON. — THE TRAVELER arrived in my living-room still shaken but gripped by a resolve that seemed to steady his nerve.

His plane from Los Angeles had lost an engine. They'd been forced down in Minneapolis. He'd lost hours in transit to London. He was going to sue.

Had the plane with the wonky engine landed safely? Yes. Was anyone hurt? No.

Did the airline provide adequate accommodation during the delay? Yes. Was his subsequent passage over the Atlantic comfortable? Yes -- he'd been upgraded from economy to first class.

Did the airline reimburse him for his fare? Yes, fully.

Then what was the basis of the suit?

Post traumatic stress disorder.

I beg your pardon?

Post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD. The ''what-if'' syndrome. Shivers of remembrance. Nightmare alley. The favorite new lure for trauma-fishing lawyers who have given up ambulance chasing for an easier catch.

Ever since the American Psychiatric Association sanctified PTSD few years ago, the law courts have been full of it. It had its roots in aviation cases, the concept of ''pre-impact terror'' suffered by passengers in the moments before an accident. If you survive the accident, the theory goes, you may still be subject to the wobblies.

There was a time when this was called ''relief,'' as in ''Whew, I'm sure glad to get out of that one!''

No longer. Since the discovery of stress -- when was it, sometime in the '70s? -- the notion that life is full of ups and downs that you just have to tough out as best you can is considered old hat. Stress is not life, goes the new theory. Stress is life gone bonkers. The good life is stress-free. Stress management is what we should be about. And one way to manage stress is to blame it on someone else.

Enter Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the courts of law.

I'm not saying that airlines that paste on engines with glue shouldn't be sued for negligence, nor that doctors who remove a kidney when the liver needs repair shouldn't be hauled into malpractice court. But trawling for trauma in every dicey situation not only damps the inherent excitement of risk, it also releases us from the responsibility for our own judgment.

Everything that goes wrong in life does not necessarily stem from somebody else's neglect. It could, of course, be a species of divine testing. There are stoics who believe this, and vast religious orders have been founded on it.

Or it could be just the breaks.

A recent high court ruling in England, called a legal landmark by solicitors agog with its possibilities, has its roots in the American post-traumatic stress decisions.

On April 6, 1989, in the South Yorkshire town of Hillsborough, 95 people were crushed to death when the crowd at a soccer match got out of control. The police were blamed for allowing too many unticketed fans to push into the stadium, for losing control of the exits.

Injured survivors are suing the police for incompetence. But the ruling by the English high court judge this month goes much further.

The judge ruled that close relatives of the victims, including parents and sisters and brothers, who had watched the event on live television -- relatives who had not even been at the stadium that day -- had legitimate damage claims against the police for psychiatric stress. Watching the carnage on television, the judge said, was the same as being there (a claim, let it be noted, that the networks have long made in promoting their product to their advertisers in a more salubrious context).

Questions abound.

What if the coverage were on radio rather than TV? Is the psychiatric stress more or less as the imagination conjures with the hideous images? Could the media one day be judged equally responsible -- and liable -- for covering the event in the first place? Would the claims be equally valid if the television cameras went in only in the aftermath of the tragedy?

What other grounds for trauma compensation might there be in the future -- the aesthetic shock of garbage in the street, the nightmare shock of a Stephen King novel, the indignity shock of a job demotion?

The world is full of pits as well as pleasures. The trick is to guide past the one and fall into the other. If you happen to mix them up, it might well be a chance for learning, not for litigation.

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