You're not responsible for your irresponsible behavior


December 10, 1990|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

FRANCISCO Merino was drunk. He admitted it under oath. He says he got drunk on his own, pouring down several beers after a hard evening of work.

That doesn't make Francisco Merino unusual. Every day, when people leave their jobs, a certain number of them stop for drinks to unwind or socialize. Some overindulge, as Francisco says he did.

And of those who have a few too many, some will get into trouble. There's no end to the variety of foolish things they do. The cops will pinch some for drunken driving or brawling. Others will get off easier, with a lecture by an angry wife. An unlucky few will run their cars into light poles or trees and end up in hospitals or hearses.

Francisco was one of the unlucky ones, although he didn't quite make it to a hearse.

The night he got sloshed, Francisco intended to go home by way of the New York subway. He says he stumbled or lurched and somehow fell off of the platform as a train was pulling into the station.

The train hit him, and the doctors had to remove one of his arms.

So whose fault was that? While one can sympathize with Francisco for losing an arm, I think most people would say that he brought it on himself.

But that's because most people aren't lawyers. Or members of the jury that heard Francisco's case.

You see, after Francisco got drunk, fell off a subway platform and lost an arm, he did what most people in our society do when they have a problem -- he looked around for somebody to sue.

Actually, his lawyers probably did the looking, since Francisco, 31, is a Mexican who was working as a dishwasher and wouldn't have had the legal scholarship to reason that his getting drunk and falling off a subway platform was somebody else's fault.

Most of us would wake up in the hospital and moan: "Oh, boy, I got drunk, fell off a subway platform, and now I only have one arm. Am I stupid or am I stupid?"

So that's why we need lawyers -- to explain to us that what we did wasn't really our fault. And to find those who really were to blame for what we did and to make them take responsibility.

That's what Francisco's lawyers accomplished. And a splendid job they did. A jury recently awarded Francisco $9.3 million for his pain, suffering, loss of wages, medical expenses and so on.

And who is to pay the $9.3 million to Francisco? It is to come from the New York Transit Authority, which operates the subway system. Or, presumably, from the insurance companies they pay to protect them when people get drunk and fall in front of trains.

If you're asking why the New York Transit Authority should have to pay Francisco anything, that proves one thing: you aren't a lawyer, or you wouldn't ask foolish questions. Lacking a keen legal mind, you would probably say that if a guy gets loaded and falls off a subway platform, tough luck pal, but next time stick to club soda.

But that isn't the way it is in the World of Law.

There's a rule at the New York Transit Authority that says that if a transit employee sees someone drunk or otherwise messed up, they are supposed to call the transit cops.

As it turned out, the token clerk at the station did notice that Francisco was unsteady, and the clerk made a call. But #i Francisco fell off the platform before anybody could come and get him. Timing is everything, I guess.

So the jury decided the transit system had failed in its responsibility to protect Francisco.

Or, as one of his lawyers put it: "They should have looked out for this guy, because the danger was very great, and [they should have] moved him off the platform."

Of course. What kind of cruel society are we, to let someone like Francisco get himself drunk, buy a subway token, then fall in front of a train? Where were the transit police when Francisco needed them? Or, for that matter, where were you? Where was I? How indifferent can we get?

The transit authority's lawyers were upset by the size of the award. They say it is an outrageous sum for an unskilled dishwasher and will be appealed.

Of course they'd say that. It's obvious that none of the transit lawyers ever tried to get a job as a one-armed dishwasher.

And this should serve as another lesson in why we should never drink and drive.

Nobody ever made $9.3 million by putting his head through his own windshield.

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