Re: Covering all the bases (Re: SERIOUS: Formal vs. informal organizations)

Subject: Re: Covering all the bases (Re: SERIOUS: Formal vs. informal organizations)
From: Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- CHISP -dot- NET>
Date: Mon, 8 Mar 1999 14:37:44 -0700

Matt Ion replied:

>> That is the danger of "just in case" documentation: continually
>> trying to head off imaginary or trivial disasters led to enormous
>> waste, delays, and generally poor products in the few cases when
>> the project wasn't canceled because we didn't strike when the
>> iron was hot.
> Unfortuantely, in the overly-litigious society we live in today
> (especially in the United States), where everything is always
> someone else's fault, we see court cases where a someone can
> intentionall whack himself in the head with a hammer, then win a
> lawsuit against the hammer's maker because it didn't have a
> bright yellow label warning of the possibility of brain damage
> from such actions.
> Okay, that exact scenario hasn't happened yet, to my knowledge...
> but from some of the stories I've heard the last few years, it
> can only be a matter of time. Recall the woman who spilled the
> McDonalds coffee in her lap, sued the restaurant claiming it was
> "too hot", and won a large settlement. Golly, coffee that's hot?
> What will they think of next? And yet many coffee shops
> (Starbucks, for example) now have printed warnings on their cups:
> "WARNING! The beverage you are about to enjoy is hot!"

Excellent point, and it brings up something I've wondered about
for a long time: how often do these silly law suits really
happen, and how often are they successful? If anyone knows, can
you please post about it or post a URL?

I was actually thinking about potential law suits when I added
that little instruction about not taking measurements in the
middle of the street. (I also said not to point the laser
range-finder at people.) And I was wondering if I was being

My suspicion is that these law suits are actually very rare and
that most of them are thrown out of court. I don't have any real
data, hence the uncertainty, but I do have two strong reasons for

The first reason is that by and large, the legal system is
reasonable. The news media, however, does not report on the
millions of sensible decisions that get made in the legal system
each year. They report on fiascos like the O.J. trial and the
coffee suit. I was in L.A. during most of the last several major
earthquakes, and there was pretty much no damage anywhere. But
watching it on the national news, you'd think that the city had
been reduced to rubble, since that's all they showed on TV.

The second reason is that lawyers have considerable financial
interest in scaring the bejeezus out of people with deep
pockets. I don't approve of lawyer-bashing and I don't think
that most lawyers are sleazeballs, but every profession suffers
from the need to justify its existence to clients who don't
understand the profession.

For example, most tech writers are not sleazeballs, but witness
the many warnings on this list about the dire consequences of
using the verb "displays" intransitively. I see these as
not-fully-conscious attempts by people to justify their existence
by claiming to possess highly esoteric knowledge and by
exaggerating the dangers of acting without this knowledge. I'm
sure that lawyers suffer from the same temptation.

Also, many of the lawyers I've met personally seem very similar
psychologically to that fellow who was worried about all sorts of
imaginary or trivial potential disasters. That is, many seem
more like accountants than demagogues: dedicated, detail-oriented
drudges who believe (rightly or wrongly) that many people's
welfare depends on their doing everything exactly by the book.
Add the financial incentive for scaring customers to a psychology
with a tendency to believe scare stories and you have great
potential for exaggeration of the dangers of silly law suits.

But as I said before, I don't really know. Does anyone else?

Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- chisp -dot- net>
Author, _Practical Software Requirements: A Manual of Content & Style_

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