Beliefnet
Everyday Ethics

broken coffee machine.JPGIs it ethical to sue? And if so, when?

My husband and I were discussing this issue last night. I promise I’ll get to the reason for the picture you see to your left in a second, but let me preface the story first:
It started with us comparing scars. I lost 3 fingers in a high school shop class-type accident (two were reattached, but my nickname is still ‘Stubs’), while he got his hand smushed in a pizza dough roller while working to put himself through college (he’s fine now). In my case, my family sued. In his, he didn’t feel comfortable, because ‘that’s just not how he was raised,’ and anyhow, he said, the injury didn’t ‘permanently’ damage him. Yet it turned out that another, later employee of the pizza parlor was much more badly injured by that same machine–maimed for life.
As the daughter and granddaughter of attorneys, I grew up hearing stories from both sides of the lawsuit aisle. Greedy plaintiffs, unscrupulous insurance companies… there are no shortage of unethical bastards out there clogging up the courts. But it seems to me there’s a deep and abiding anger against ‘litigious’ people (and lawyers), and I wanted to explore the other side of that… when it’s actually more ethical to sue.
For instance, when I sued the high school for failing to properly safeguard me from harm, the judge agreed they were negligent, and as a result, the school now does not allow unsupervised use of power tools. (Wouldn’t it have been nice had they never done so in the first place? I might need a new nickname, but I’d get over that…) Had my hubby sued after his hand-flattening incident, the guy after him might not have been crippled.
And this morning… the question of suing as a possible means of preventing future dangerous situations from occurring came up for us again, in a rather frightening and unexpected manner.


As he does every morning, Hubby was brewing coffee in his special latte-making machine, the steam valve of which has always been a bit touchy. (We’ve had to replace it at least 3 times, and in fact, the last time, the company sent us an entirely new machine.) After a suspiciously long interval of time had elapsed, he noticed the milk wasn’t steaming as usual, and went to investigate. Suddenly, a huge hissing noise erupted from the kitchen, like what I would imagine a Victorian railroad explosion sounding like, and I rushed in to see the entire stove area (and husband) drenched in coffee, with steam and smoke billowing into the hall. Thank goodness, he wasn’t scalded, but he easily could have been. The valve would have burst right in his face had he arrived a moment sooner, and I don’t know what would have happened, but based on the amount of superheated steam and boiling coffee all over our kitchen, it would not have been good.

All this is to say, I was mighty steamed myself–at the coffee machine manufacturer. And I thought, well, I might not necessarily sue in this instance, but shouldn’t we at least make them aware of the dangers of their faulty product? Isn’t that the ethically correct thing to do? I was all for contacting the company (in some righteous indignation, for sure) but hubby said no, they’d only just send us another of their dangerous contraptions. Instead, he settled for leaving the machine out by the garbage pick-up, with the note you see above. Since it was his machine, it was his choice. 
What would you have done? Sue the jerks or sit on your hands?
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