IN AN EFFORT to keep liability insurance rates from getting out of hand, high diving boards are being removed from most swimming pools. The liability crisis continues to take strange and unpredictable turns, but the removal of the diving boards gives us some idea of how it's likely to proceed in the summer of 1986. We've seen enough to venture this scenario:
Sometime in June a prominent insurance executive comes to the realization that while swimming pools are definitely safer without the high boards, they still aren't as safe as they could be. "They're filled with water," he tells a meeting of the board of directors. "You can drown in that." By early July most pools are drained, and Americans are somewhat reluctantly adopting the new pastime of "dry swimming," which consists of going through the motions of aquatic sport in an empty pool. "How does it feel?" asks a TV reporter kneeling at the side of a dry pool filled with sweaty, irritable children. "It's not so bad," says one boy. "You can do a lot of the same things you could when the pool was filled." By way of demonstration he pushes the head of a smaller boy about a foot under where the water's surface would have been. "Hey, no ducking!" shout 12 of the 65 lifeguards required by insurance regulations.
Meanwhile, a shock wave passes through the food industry as the first malpractice verdict is handed down against a pizza delivery man. "The pizza was cold by the time we got it, which was directly responsible for the termination that very evening of one of the best relationships I'd ever had," says the plaintiff. The jury agrees, awarding her $1.8 million after deliberating only 25 minutes. "Less time," the judge remarks, "than it took to deliver that pizza."
Soon all pizza and Chinese places have stopped delivering. Then restaurants begin to find it difficult to get insurance unless a waiter stands at the table and cuts the diner's meat into little pieces for him. Supermarkets become increasingly wary of the potential for litigation in their products and tend more and more to carry only pureed foods in tamper-proof containers.
Most large gatherings in America are banned because of the high cost of insurance, and television programs become increasingly bland and inoffensive lest they be accused of stimulating someone out of his TV-room torpor and into a litigable action. Bored and homebound in their own land, afraid to travel abroad because of terrorism, Americans find that their only outlet in the summer of '86 is a night at the ballpark, the national game having been inexplicably spared the ravages of the liability crisis. Then a delegation from the insurance industry visits the commissioner of baseball.
"You're setting yourself up for real trouble playing the national anthem before every game," says one of the insurance men. "The stuff about 'the land of the free' is kind of an incitement, but the real problem is the part about the 'home of the brave.' Somebody's going to walk out of the stadium all puffed up with that business and pick a fight in a bar with the first guy he thinks is questioning his bravery. He gets beat up and then comes back and sues you for $50 million."
"So what do we do to keep from getting our rates boosted?" asks the commissioner.
"Simple enough. Just change it to 'the land of the not-responsible-for-theft-damage-or-injury and the home of the very prudent.' "