At times, living in the countryside of Humptulips County has its own peculiar challenges. Indeed, I suspect this is true of anyone living in the countryside anywhere in the world. But some of the challenges of doing so are truly bizarre and, perhaps, unique to inherently litigious societies.
We have a natural gas pipeline which passes by adjacent to the house. It is a main distribution line for natural gas which, I believe, originates in Canada and feeds Seattle and points south. A couple of years ago, the pipeline company upgraded the line by digging up the old one and replacing it with new and larger pipes. They took a construction easement from us for the privilege or working on our land and paid us well, but the greater payment for us was the knowledge that the pipeline was new and installed in accordance with much stricter current regulations than the ones that governed the installation of the old line.
The pipeline owner is determined to be a good neighbor, so yesterday we received a letter telling us how to contact them in the event that certain conditions apply. For example, we are to call them and evacuate if we hear a “hissing, blowing, or loud roaring sound.” Another hint given to us is to evacuate if we see “dead or dying vegetation near the pipeline (OK so far), dirt blowing in the air, fire coming from the ground.” And, of course, if we smell a strong petroleum scent or rotten eggs, we are also instructed to beat it as fast as we can.
I attribute all of this good advice to a lawyer sitting somewhere in the home office attempting to justify his or her existence on the payroll. We lawyers are notoriously risk averse on behalf of our clients, and he or she must have read about the MacDonald’s case of a few years ago wherein a customer sued MacDonald’s for handing them a cup of hot coffee which subsequently spilled in their lap and caused harm (I have always hesitated to consider the nature of that harm, because the very thought makes me shudder). I don’t remember how the case eventually turned out (it was probably settled in order not to set a precedent), but lawyers everywhere were instantly agog over the startling clarity of the notion that merchants must warn of the obvious in order to avoid liability. After all, there is at least the remotest possibility that the tried and true principles behind the act of god defense might no longer apply in a digital world!
So it seems to me that we ‘consumers’ need to provide our own warnings to the merchants that serve us, if we are to maintain our legal rights when harmed by their goods or services. So here goes: I hereby promise the pipeline company on behalf of Helen and myself that a couple of things are certain to be true: (1) if either of us hears a roaring sound or sees fire coming from the ground anywhere near the pipeline route, we will immediate run like hell if we are given a few moments to do so; and (2) if either of these things ever happens or the pipeline explodes, there is certain to be a lawsuit no matter what warnings you’ve given to us and no matter whether we die in the escape attempt (Don and Peter: read and heed! There is money in them there litigations).
As the founder of The Men’s Wearhouse used to be fond of saying before he was relieved of his role with the company: “My name is Stephen Charles Ellis, and I guarantee it!”
So, Williams Northwest Pipeline, consider yourself warned in the best traditions of the American legal profession.