An incident on the Berlin Express

July 1, 2004
Here and abroad, everyone wants their day in court

I'm sitting in the buffet car of the Berlin to Basel ICE train, cruising along between Hildesheim and Gottingen at about 125 miles per hour, when the train rocks abruptly as it enters a construction diversion. A passing female passenger is violently thrown across my table, tipping over my water glass and spilling it across my food plate.

Recovering nicely from the shock of the incident, I coolly invite her to join me for lunch. She accepts.

I'd sought refuge in the buffet car because the only seat reservation I could get on this train was in the smoking car, and, valuing what few years I have left, I opted to abandon the smoke-filled car for a safer haven.

Lest you think this narrative is going to be one of those man meets woman on a train leading to a jewel heist or a romantic interlude, think again. She was a German lawyer, and she too had escaped the smoking car, where each smoker seemed to be trying to outdo the others by seeing how many cigarettes they could consume between city stops.

She spoke and understood English perfectly, more than I do German, and I complemented her on this. What she didn't understand, she very pointedly told me as our conversation rambled on the three-hour trip, was how litigation oriented we Americans have become.

Generally I make an effort to defend my country, or at least to try and explain the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of American culture and lifestyle. But my very short exposure to business law in my management courses at the university had not covered frivolous litigation practices, so I was reduced to anecdotal exposition that I at least tried to make humorous.

The problem was the more I talked the more I too became appalled at the court structure in the United States where, it seems in many cases, everyone is suing everyone else, for what seems, in my view, the silliest of reasons. The local paper I read has a column titled "suit du jour," selecting the most outrageous lawsuit of the day.

It's ironic that, while visiting a German company, I heard about a lawsuit, related to a supposed illegal employee termination. Seems that German labor laws lead to countless litigation, much of it quite enervating in terms of time and effort. In fact, I am told that it is literally impossible to fire and employee in Germany and England. So either the U.S. has successfully exported its litigation penchant or people everywhere are seeking redress in the courts.

The train journey was broken with a change of trains in Mannheim, where we learned that the planned connection to Stuttgart was to be delayed by two hours due to that train being stopped because it was involved in a successful suicide, not an uncommon event my lawyer companion informed me. Just think of the litigation prospects this will incur she said, with Euro signs flashing in her eyes. And I just sighed, because it was so much like home.

As I later reflected on the absurdity of headline-making lawsuits, I thought about the cost such actions incur, drawn for the most part from company profits. Too bad other countries haven't realized this is another of those less-than-desirable U.S. exports.

David A. Belforte
[email protected]

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