Abdicating all responsibility

If you dress up in an inflatable rubber suit and engage in a pub fight, you may cause yourself harm. But, according to the increasingly sympathetic law, it is not your fault.

SBHD: If you dress up in an inflatable rubber suit and engage in a pub fight, you may cause yourself harm. But, according to the increasingly sympathetic law, it is not your fault.

Simon Barton is a 39-year-old pub manager from North London. Two years ago, he pulled on an inflatable rubber costume weighing 50lbs and resembling a deep-sea diver’s outfit. Next, he hurled himself across the room at another party who was similarly attired.

Today Mr Barton walks with a stick, is classified as partially disabled, and is suing the suppliers of the outfit. No one told him, you see, that the human frame is not designed to be encased in inflatable rubber and brought violently into collision with another Michelin man. In short, he is a victim. He is one among a growing number of litigants who were somehow relieved of responsibility for their own actions.

Notwithstanding that it was Mr Barton who made his way to the venue, who put on the suit, who threw himself about, and who broke his knee, it was someone else’s fault.

Perhaps I ought to explain that Mr Barton was pretending to be a sumo wrestler in what was billed as a “fun day”. Apparently mock sumo wrestling is all the rage among a certain class of pub-goers. It says much for Mrs Bottomley’s powers of exaggeration that few, if any, Britons – not even those who drink copious quantities of beer and eat pub grub – weigh 28 stones and have buttocks like a shire horse. Hence the requirement for inflatable costumes.

I assume that what happens next is the contestants grapple together with the aim of being the first to throw, push, pull, or slap the other onto the floor or out of the ring. If so, it stands to reason that the experience is likely to be at best uncomfortable, at worst hazardous. The power of reason, however, amounts to no more than a small flickering wattage among a certain class of pub-goers. Consequently, their sumo-related injuries run from torn ligaments to broken collar bones, mostly caused when contestants are catapulted into the air by the padded suits, or squashed by an opponent’s belly flop.

In some instances, the carnage has been notable. Last August, at a pub in Coventry, Richard Williams, 44, another litigant, tore a ligament, rendering him unfit for work to this day. On the same fun occasion, the landlady hosting the event cracked her head on the pavement, and a teenage boy parted company with his front teeth on a neighbouring patch of ground.

In the opinion of the legal profession, these unfortunate people were victims. Michael Blandy, representing Williams, says: “These injuries were sustained because people were not aware of the sort of things they should or should not be doing. They were trying to wrestle and trip each other up.”

Well, well, there’s a funny thing. You go along to a mock sumo wrestling contest, don a mock sumo wrestler’s outfit, and then do a bloody silly thing like wrestling. It should have been obvious all along that the 50lb inflatable rubber suit was a folly, a talking point, a jeu d’esprit.

Or perhaps an aide mmoire. Ah yes, I am standing here in my local public house dressed in a three-stone condom. I am a dick.

Blandy says that the problem is more widespread than has yet been revealed. Up and down the country there are unreported cases of ruptured spleens, hernias, varicose veins and detached dentures, all caused by people bouncing around the snug room in a rubber straitjacket.

“The majority of people this happens to will think `it’s my own stupid fault’ and do nothing about it,” he says. “Few of them understand the law on negligence.” Which shows yet again the huge gap that lies between everyday common sense and the law. Of course it’s your own stupid fault if you do something silly and get hurt. But the law thinks differently. It argues that the defendant, in this case the manufacturer of mock sumo wrestling outfits, foresaw that his actions could lead to injuring someone and that he had a responsibility towards the person whom he harmed.

The courts, both here and in the US, are applying an increasingly generous interpretation of this duty of care, with the result that people who do extremely foolish things can come away with a windfall in damages. In this country a photographer who fell off a self-evidently slippery jetty and badly injured himself successfully sued the local authority on the ground that there was no warning notice in the vicinity. In the US, a drunk who fell under a train was awarded $4m (£2.6m) in damages.

In this country, cigarette smokers have been granted legal aid to sue the tobacco companies. No one told them smoking was bad for their health. Can it be long before cirrhotic drinkers sue the distillers? Or heart-diseased carnivores the butchers?

With so much litigation about, companies are getting nervous. I picked up a box of matches the other day and was astonished to find on the label detailed instructions on the correct way in which to strike a match and the dangers attendant upon failure so to do. Sainsbury’s now adorns the walls of its stores with ten-point guides in the correct use of the supermarket trolley. It cannot be long before knife manufacturers warn that their products can cut, or ladder makers that theirs can be fallen from.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are fast becoming a nation of minors, that is irresponsible, helpless infants who cannot be held accountable for their own actions and to whom the world owes a duty of care. And yet, when a 44-year-old man thinks it fun to put on a big rubbery romper suit and do belly flops, the world of the nursery seems to be uncomfortably close.

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