Imagine two guys mowing their lawns. One's a CEO. The other's a teenage skate punk. Suddenly, both their mowers explode, and both get their arms blown off. (Okay, so we're struggling for a good example here, but just play along.)
In court, they discover that the manufacturer knew its mowers were prone to impromptu fireworks, but sold them anyway.
Under Ohio law, both can sue to recover medical bills as well as lost income. The CEO obviously wins more money; he already had a lucrative career. But since the skate rat wasn't earning, the law says that he can sue for non-economic damages -- all the pain and suffering that comes with a lifetime disability. He may also sue for punitive damages, which are supposed to make the manufacturer think twice about selling exploding lawn mowers.
Yet insurance companies and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce aren't particularly fond of these rules. So they've launched new legislation, which will insert a little executive privilege into the law. Under the bill, people can still sue for medical bills and lost wages. But non-economic damages would be held to $350,000 and punitive damages to $100,000.
This might be a good deal for the executive -- he can still collect a lifetime of wages. But for the skate punk, a senior citizen, a stay-at-home mom, or anyone else without a handsome paycheck? Even $450,000 won't last long when you're confined to a wheelchair.
"Can you imagine a devastating injury to a child who is rendered a quadriplegic?" says Peter Brodhead, president of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers. "That child has the longest to live and will suffer the most. They want to cap those damages. Does that make any sense?"
Businesses say the current system is too unpredictable. "Awards for the same type of case can range from a few thousand to a few million dollars across the state," says Tom Fiore, a policy director at the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
Seen from another perspective, though, there is some predictability. If you're of modest means and the legislature is messing with legal reform, you can predict with certainty that you're about to get screwed.
George gets a break
Ohio Senator George Voinovich breathed a sigh of relief last week when Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter eked out a narrow win in the Republican primary.
The race pitted centrists, who were with Senator Specter, against the hard right, which backed Pat Toomey. The GOP's Idi Amin wing made no secret that if Specter lost, Voinovich was next in its crosshairs.
In a New York Times story before the primary, Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth -- which spent nearly $1 million on negative ads against Specter -- was positively giddy as he ticked off his hit list. "If we beat Specter, we won't have any trouble with wayward Republicans anymore," Moore crowed. "It serves notice to [Rhode Island Senator Lincoln] Chafee, [Maine Senator Olympia] Snowe, Voinovich and others who have been problem children that they will be next."
Since Specter's victory, Moore has re-enrolled in parenting classes.
Déjà vu all over again
Last week, the Free Times featured a cover story called "Cleveland on the Couch." Author Michael Gill asked psychiatrists to diagnose Cleveland's mental-health problems.
It was a clever idea -- nine years ago.
In 1995, The Plain Dealer's Michael Heaton wrote a virtually identical story, right down to the headline: "Clevelanders on the couch."
"If there is one thing that defines Clevelanders, it is self-doubt," Heaton wrote. We're so inured to losing that we're "suspicious of victory," he added, then spent the rest of the piece asking psychiatrists to explain Clevelanders' collective case of low self-esteem.
Gill, on the other hand, begins his piece by saying, "Cleveland is a city with a collective self-image problem," then spent the rest of his piece doing exactly what Heaton did.
Since the Free Times has made a cottage industry of dogging The Plain Dealer, it seemed odd that it would run an old PD story on its cover. So Punch called Gill to see whether he had pirated Heaton's piece or simply lacked originality. Gill didn't call back, further lowering Punch's self-worth.
Yet Heaton waxes philosophical: "Is it great minds think alike? Or do all ideas become new after five years?"
In the meantime, look for the Free Times to launch a series on Cleveland's troubled economy sometime around 2009. Working title: "The Soft-Spoken Emergency."
We're No. 15!
It isn't often that Cleveland counts itself among such elite cities as Los Angeles, Washington, and New York. But that's where Our Fair City found itself, on a recent list that included America's most fabulous cities.
Unfortunately, this compilation, by the American Lung Association, chronicled areas with the worst smog problems. The Greater Cleveland-Akron-Elyria Empire finished 15th, edging out those punks in Pittsburgh, who managed a weak-ass 17th. Cleveland might have scored higher had California not hogged seven of the top spots.
All of which prompted the Growth Association to convene an emergency meeting to plot strategy for making it into next year's Elite Eight. Go team!
Move over, Drew Carey. Cleveland's about to get a new media spokesperson, albeit a reluctant one.
Kevin Miller, the gold-medal-winning producer of the 1993 documentary Let Truth Be the Bias, is about to go prime-time with a new one-hour talk show about alternative medicine. "It will be kind of like The MacNeil-Lehrer Report," Miller, the show's producer-writer-casting director, says modestly. "Only more people will watch it."
Miller, who's shopping his show to cable channels, estimates that there are between 160 million and 170 million alternative-medicine users in the country, but they've been "treated like pinheads. It's a problem," he sighs. "The Cleveland Clinics of the world dominate everything."
He returned to Cleveland to be near his kids, but he's not exactly happy to be here. "There are very half-assed nonvisionary people in media here," he says. "What are you going to do, though? Cleveland is Cleveland."
The upside: We do have doctors capable of pulling that very large stick out of his ass.
Scene writer Kevin Hoffman has been honored with a Unity Award in Media, part of a national competition that recognizes excellence in coverage of minority and disabled people. Hoffman won in the politics category for his story "The Gayby Predicament" [January 22, 2003], which illustrated how Ohio law prevents gay parents from seeing their children.
Other winners included Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The Detroit News, prompting Scene management to warn Hoffman about hanging out with a lower class of people. A letter has been placed in his permanent record.