With all the bad news on the front pages lately, there was good news for husbands, wives and lawyers a few weeks ago. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that a wife could sue her husband for negligence if he did a lousy job shoveling snow and ice off the sidewalk in front of their house.
The case, and I did not make it up, concerned a Shirley Brown of Wakefield, Mass., whose husband, William, got up at 7 a.m. on Dec. 21, 1978, and shoveled the sidewalk before he went off to work. About 8 a.m., Mrs. Brown left the house and slipped on the shoveled walk, breaking two pelvic bones.
Mrs. Brown charged that William was "careless and negligent in the maintenance of the walks" and failed to leave them in a safe condition for his wife. She also maintained in the suit that it was part of her husband's duties and responsibilities to keep walks clear and to spread sand and prevent them from getting slippery.
For years courts have been reluctant to allow spouses to sue each other for negligence, so Brown vs. Brown opens up a whole can of beans for married couples, the legal profession and insurance companies. If there is a plethora of Brown vs. Brown cases, all homeowner policies will have to be rewritten and the rates could go sky-high.
If a wife can sue a husband for neglecting his household chores, there is no reason a husband can't go to court when a wife neglects hers.
Let me give you some examples based on personal experience:
Under English common law, one of a wife's duties is to put out the trash. Recently I was playing with the dog and tripped over a Hefty bag my wife had carelessly thrown in the driveway. I scraped my elbow badly. Had the Brown vs. Brown case came down earlier I would have immediately called my lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, and started the legal ball rolling. But being ignorant of my rights, all I did was warn her that if she couldn't do a better job with the trash I would no longer permit her to watch television after she did the dishes.
I have always maintained that it is a wife's duty to repair anything in the house that goes wrong. I hate to spend money on electricians and plumbers when it isn't necessary. A month ago I asked her to change the motor on our garbage disposal unit, a simple job that any housewife should be able to do. When I came back from playing tennis all the parts of the motor were on the floor, and she was crying.
I had to pay $250 to get a man in to do it right. This was an open-and-shut case of negligence in maintaining household equipment, and I can't believe that any all-male jury in the land would not have ruled in my favor had I known I could have taken the case to court.
I believe one example is sufficient to make my point. Three weeks ago my wife was on a ladder painting the ceiling when I walked by on my way to the kitchen to get a Lite beer. I happened accidentally to brush the ladder, and the can of paint came tumbling down and fell on my toes, causing me anguish and pain. Having failed to put up a sign warning passersby that she was painting the ceiling made her guilty of violating every safety regulation in the book, and if I had known about the Massachusetts Surpreme Court ruling I would have slapped her with a subpoena on the spot.
There are people who say Brown vs. Brown could endanger the sanctity of marriage. But I believe it could bring people closer together. Many divorces come aobut when one party thinks that he or she has been injured by the other. Now that one spouse can go to court and sue the other, there is no reason to break up. If, as the songs says, "You Always Hurt the One You Love," it's Mutual of Omaha's problem, not ours.