Monday, September 19, 2005

Remembrance of slights past...

Since I'm reminiscing, here's one for the hopper. When I first moved to California, I almost immediately crashed my car, because I wasn't used to rain making the roads ice-slick. Insurance in California is expensive if you have a clean record; if you have accidents on your record, it is impossibly expensive - to own a car under those circumstances is a genuine commitment, more expensive than renting a nice apartment. So I got rid of the car and got a motorcycle. It's a long story, but the bottom line is that they're lots cheaper to buy, insure, and maintain.

Anyway, one day I'm riding down the hill on my bike, going to some meeting or other - I can't remember what. This kid, probably fourteen, is riding alongside the road on his bicycle. Just as I get to him, he darts out in front of me. I try to avoid him, but I can't, and we go down together on the hard pavement. The damage to my bike is probably $2500. His front wheel is trashed, but probably fixable. Neither of us is seriously hurt - he's maybe a little scraped up.

He realizes that the accident is entirely his fault. He recognizes the mistake he made - he saw my wheel turn to the right, and expected me to turn to the right, but I did not turn to the right, because like bicycles, motorcycles countersteer - if you turn the wheel to the right, you go left. I was turning to make more room for him, but he thought I was going to hit him.

So anyway, he goes home with the intention of figuring out how to fix the damage. I try to comfort him, to let him know that I'm okay and that there are no hard feelings. I have this idea in my mind that maybe he'll help me fix the bike, and learn how things work a little while helping to undo the damage he did. I know even at the time that this probably isn't what's going to happen, but I naively never expected what did happen.

What did happen is that his family threatened to sue me.

I'm sure they had every good intention. They heard their son's story, and not having been there and not knowing me at all, they misunderstood what happened, and concluded that the accident was my fault, and that their son was mistaken. With every intention of protecting their son, they circled the wagons and called the lawyers.

Now one of two things might have happened with their son as a result of this. One is that he may have concluded that in fact he was not at fault, that he had been mistaken in thinking that he was. Another is that he learned that you can and should make every effort to shirk your responsibilities, because that's what the other guy is going to do. I have no idea how this kid turned out, but I worry about it. By now he's an adult, living in the real world. Does he take responsibility for his actions, or does he now believe that the way to get by in the world is to always defend yourself aggressively, even if you are at fault?

If he believes the latter, he's probably not far from right. The conventional wisdom these days seems to be that if you ever admit to having done anything wrong, you can expect to get taken to court and reamed. I don't know how true this is - it seems counterintuitive to me. If you do some damage and then try to correct it, it seems like a reasonable person would appreciate that, and furthermore would tend not to have any reason to sue you, since you've done what you can to address the problem. But of course an unreasonable person might try to take advantage of someone's deep pockets, so that explains why people would be paranoid about this. I don't know how often it happens that you wind up with an unreasonable person instead of a reasonable person, but given the posting that started this blog, I suppose planning for people to be unreasonable isn't unreasonable.

However, I will say looking back on this that their decision could easily have backfired. And I suspect the kid probably wondered for a long time whether the other shoe was going to drop. The problem with not doing the right thing is that you know you didn't do it, and you know the other person knows, and now you have to wonder whether the other person is going to let it slide, or come after you and try to make you do the right thing, now at great expense, since you have to hire a warrior to defend yourself, and the other person's going to hire a warrior to attack you. Did I say warrior? Of course I mean lawyer. :')

When this happened to me, I was very upset. I seriously thought about taking the family to court. And my state of mind was a wish to punish them for what they'd done, so I would have asked my warrior to do damage rather than just getting compensation. And you know that when you hire a warrior, there's going to be damage anyway, because they want to get paid for their trouble.

So my point is that in an ideal world, which this admittedly is not, we would not employ warriors to settle our differences for us. Instead, we would behave like adults and take responsibility for our actions. And we would also behave like adults and not demand excessive recompense for the damage that others do to us. If someone bites their thumb at you, you do not run them through with an epee. I don't know how to get there from here - I'm just sayin'.

Oh, by the way, if you're the kid, or his parents, and you're still worried about me coming after you, stop it. Pay it forward. Do something to help someone in need. I don't care about the bike anymore.


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