“I have a stepladder. It’s a very nice stepladder, but it’s sad that I never knew my real ladder.”
— Comedian Craig Charles
By Frank L. Palmeri
When you marry, you not only acquire a partner, you acquire some of their stuff. For example, my lovely wife married into a pair of really nice stereo speakers with woofers big enough to rattle the glass on the family-room windows (though she never let me play them that loud).
Similarly, one of the things I married into was a six-foot aluminum stepladder. This stepladder was always just there; I’m not even sure my wife remembers where she got it. It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done.
So, the other day, I needed to adjust the Christmas lights I’d hung from the eaves on the front of the house. I got out the old stepladder, climbed up, and proceeded to work on the lights. Then, all of a sudden, with no warning at all, the stepladder started to collapse.
Impending injury is one of those things where time seems to slow down. When the stepladder started to collapse, I’d been standing on the second step from the top, about five feet above the ground; then, just like that, I found myself in a mid-air horizontal position. In that initial moment I remember thinking, “This could turn out really badly.”
Now I’m falling, gravity speeding up my descent noticeably, even though I’d not been up all that high, really (it wasn’t like I was falling off the roof). On the way down, my right knee struck something on the stepladder; my pants didn’t rip, but I wound up getting a big ugly scrape on my knee.
The area in the front of my house where I was working has patio block. In other words, I knew when I finally landed I’d be hitting something very hard and solid, not soft like the nearby lawn.
Even though the whole fall probably took, at most, a second or two, I remember trying to stabilize my body so that my back would take the brunt of the force, and not my head. Normally, say, when you watch a football player get tackled, you can see how they kind of bend with the force, to distribute the pressure.
In this case, I knew I was going to be landing on a very hard surface, and I also knew a human head is not made for that. (That’s why I always wear a helmet when I ride a bicycle or motorcycle, no matter what the law of the state I’m riding in happens to be.)
When I finally hit, my left shoulder landed first, and let me tell you, that shoulder really, really hurt. However, as soon as I could, like instantaneously, I bounced back up.
Maybe not such a good idea I know, but I wanted to make sure as soon as possible that I’d survived this unfortunate incident. I wasn’t going to lie there any longer than I had to.
Fortunately, the scraped knee and sore shoulder were the extent of my injuries, lucky for me. The lights never got fixed, but I didn’t care about them anymore after all the excitement.
Whenever I tell this story to anyone, I invariably get the same response: “You need to sue the stepladder manufacturer! A stepladder shouldn’t just fail like that!”
Here’s the thing, though: This stepladder was used when we got it. It was old and rattled then, and I’d never done anything to it other than take it out, use it, and put it away.
Yes, it looked perfectly fine, but I admit I never really looked closely at the steps, the hinges, the rivets, etc. I just used and used it, year after year, without ever thinking about it.
In retrospect, this is a device I’d been trusting my life with; I should have done a much better job of verifying its structural integrity.
Maybe if I’d done that I’d have seen a crack in the metal or a loose rivet, who knows.
One of my favorite people in the town of Guilderland is Town Justice Denise Randall. She is wise, hard working, and fair, all you could want in a judge, and we’re lucky to have her.
Once I had a small-claims court proceeding, and, during the trial Judge Randall said, “Any mechanical device can fail at any time.”
This may seem obvious, but, until she said this, I’d never really realized it. Then I remembered:
— A friend who bought a brand new car, and within one week the transmission was dead;
— Another friend who bought a brand new motorcycle, where the manufacturer didn’t properly install the oil filter. The engine seized shortly after (he’s lucky he didn’t crash);
— I had a pair of riding boots that were fine when I put them away in the winter. When I went to use them in the spring, the zipper was broken, just from sitting in the closet!
It’s just like Judge Randall said — any mechanical device, new or old, can fail at any time. Realizing this, I knew there was no way the stepladder manufacturer can be held responsible for the failure of a decades-old product that had received little or no maintenance; rather, I and I alone am responsible for not making sure this mechanical device was in sound condition before I trusted my life to it. That is just the way it is.
All you hear about these days in the news is the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling and how we’re running out of money. A large part of that is, of course, health care, and a large part of that is caused by the huge insurance premiums medical professionals have to pay.
Are there times when you need to sue? Of course there are.
But maybe if the TV weren’t filled with ads for lawyers, and people took a little more responsibility for their own actions, we might not be in such a pickle.
Let’s put it this way: There are products I want to buy that are not available in this country because the manufacturers can’t deal with our overly litigious society. That is really sad.
I just got a brand new ladder and, for sure, this one will be taken care of properly. Not only that, any time I get on any ladder from now on, I (and you should, too) will make sure it’s structurally sound and set up properly.
Too bad it took me a scraped knee and a sore shoulder to finally realize how true Judge Randall’s words were.