MANY YEARS AGO, WHEN I toiled for an insurance company, sending checks to widows and orphans, not to mention negligence lawyers with initials for first names, I was called Cohen of Claims. It is on account of my vast experience in civil law (especially as it applies to plate glass, auto fenders and whiplashed necks) that I propose to you that the case of Francisco Marino is one you should know about. After being hit by a subway train in New York City, he lost an arm. What America lost is beyond calculation.
'Twas April 17, 1980, when Marino ventured into the subway station at 183rd Street. 'Twas there that he fell off the platform and into the path of an oncoming train. 'Twas there, also, that Marino was drunk -- not allegedly so but open-and-shut so. Nevertheless, this past September, a jury awarded Marino $9.3 million in damages. His lawyers argued -- and the jury agreed -- that subway workers should have stopped Marino before he got to the tracks.
Cohen of Claims agrees. Cohen of Claims settled many a case by saying, "Maybe my guy is at fault, but your guy is at fault too." This is sometimes called "contributory negligence" and I would not have objected if it were applied in the Marino case. But it was not. Instead, the size of the award -- a surprise to almost everyone involved -- suggests the jury thought Marino was in no way responsible for the loss of his arm. It's for that reason that I think that, like Hooker and Boycott, Marino will lend his name to something other than himself -- in this case the idea that no one's responsible for anything they do. Marino means it's open season on common sense.
The Economist of London is a magazine that views the United States with much affection and not a little bemusement. Recently, it published an editorial titled "America's Decadent Puritans." Among the American trends that had the Economist scratching its head was this one: "If a prominent citizen becomes an alcoholic or is caught indulging some illegal appetite, he all too often claims he is a victim, not a fool." Marino, of course, is neither prominent nor, for that matter, a citizen. (He lives in Pueblo, Mexico.) But in every other way he fits the Economist's bill. For losing his arm through his own fault, he becomes a millionaire.
I am the very model of the very modern columnist. I do not dismiss out of hand the notion that people have obsessions, mental illnesses, addictions and the like. I have lived lo these (almost) 50 years and I have learned much. And unlike the Economist, I do not automatically dismiss the notion that alcoholism is genetically based and therefore a disease. I think Marino should have gotten something.
But "something" is not $9.3 million, of which only $17,055 was for medical expenses. A proper "something" would have been a whole lot less. It would have recognized that the primary responsibility for Marino's condition was Marino's. My payment would have been based on the notion that no person can rely on others to do what he ought to do himself -- make sure he doesn't fall in the path of subway trains. Maybe subway workers did not do what they should have when they spied a drunk in the station, but if Marino had not gotten drunk in the first place, no subway worker would have had to do anything for him at all.
But a Marino -- the concept, not the man -- recognizes nothing like that. In its total unwillingness to acknowledge anything less than complete victimhood, the Marino Principle has become something like a national ethic. Where once victims were almost universally blamed for situations not of their own making -- everything from poverty to insanity -- they are now blamed for absolutely nothing. The Marino Principle has certainly been spilling out of the mouths of people both famous and humble. Marion Barry blamed his self-proclaimed alcoholism for lying to the press -- and for much, much more as well. Richard Berendzen made obscene phone calls because he was sexually abused as a child. Eleanor Holmes Norton blamed her tax troubles on her husband and news about those troubles on the press. When it came to accountability, she was nowhere in sight. She was, instead, a victim twice over. Poor booby.
A similar sort of victimhood is proclaimed by certain poor people who seem not to recognize they are poor because of their own behavior. Of course "society" is often at fault too, but just once I'd like to hear a poor person acknowledge that the difference between himself and someone born into similar circumstances, is, at least in part, the choices he made. But the Marino Principle absolutely forbids that.
In all the accounts I read of the Marino case it was said that the judgment was preposterous and would be reduced or reversed on appeal. But what cannot be reversed (and can hardly be reduced) is the mind-set of that jury. It believed -- against all reason -- that Marino was nothing less than a victim, pure and simple. It accepted a view of him as an infant, as someone who did not know what drinking could do, that it could be dangerous, that someone who drank too much ran the risk of coming up against incompetent subway employees or ones who were otherwise occupied, and that someone could, as sometimes happens, fall onto the tracks and before an oncoming subway train. An infant would not know that, but a man (or a woman) would. C'mon, Marino, give back some of the money. Then the term Marino will have an even newer meaning: someone who is willing to take responsibility for what he does.