Pennsylvania's lawyers will protect you against yourself

It is cruel to expect people to be responsible for themselves and for what they do to themselves.

We need paladins like Ralph Bellafatto to protect us from the forces of evil, who lure and seduce us into behaviors over which we cannot be expected to exert control.

This once may have been the land that looked up to self-reliant types like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, Molly Pitcher and Berks County native Daniel Boone.

What barbarism!

Now that we are more civilized, with all the pluck and individualism of a helpless baby kitten, Daniel Boone has been replaced by Bellafatto, an Easton lawyer.

Bellafatto, it was reported Wednesday in The Morning Call, represents John A. Seidel of Allentown in a lawsuit against the Sands Casino in Bethlehem. It seems Seidel was a victim of those seductive sirens in sexy outfits who can be seen at nearly every gambling casino, dispensing free booze to encourage more reckless betting.

I'm not much of a gambler, but my wife thinks it's fun and goes to the Sands now and then. She verified there is free booze, but she prefers the free cranberry juice.

Anyway, it is alleged that Seidel, 37, apparently through no fault of his own, was persuaded to chugalug enough booze to make him nearly triple drunk, when it comes to operating a motor vehicle.

That 0.23 percent blood-alcohol level resulted in a crash (the other car landed on its roof) on Interstate 78. The poor lad was slapped with 135 days of house arrest after pleading guilty in Lehigh County Court to a charge of second-offense drunken driving.

It nearly breaks your heart.

It was Bellafatto who galloped to the rescue, filing a lawsuit on Seidel's behalf in Northampton County Court. The story said the action against the Sands Casino seeks $50,000 plus whatever other goodies the legal system can bestow upon Seidel.

Typically, in Pennsylvania, juries can award unlimited amounts in addition to what is needed to compensate someone for actual losses. The extras are for "punitive" damages or "pain and suffering."

Some states limit such awards, but Pennsylvania is famous for juries with "jackpot" mentalities, and lawsuit targets are often willing to settle a case, even if innocent, rather than spend money on legal costs and risk a disastrous jackpot award.

Wednesday's story said the lawsuit was going after the Sands for the "great bodily pain and suffering" experienced by Seidel in his Nov. 27 crash, which resulted in neck, back and shoulder injuries.

"The accident," the story quoted the lawsuit as saying, "was caused as a direct and proximate result of [Seidel's] excessive intoxication arising from being served alcohol while in a visibly intoxicated state." Furthermore, "most, if not all" of the booze was free while he gambled and Seidel, I gather, was powerless to resist the sirens.

It was Bellafatto's name, however, that jumped out at me when I saw that story.

Twenty years ago, I wrote about another lawsuit Bellafatto filed in Northampton County. It sought $20,000, plus whatever "punitive damages" a jury might be persuaded to award, for a young man.

The young man got into the Café Le Rock bar, near Bath, it was reported, by sneaking through a back entrance, claiming to be a member of a band playing there, although he was 15 weeks shy of the legal drinking age (but older than Daniel Boone was when he helped Gen. Edward Braddock seize what's now Pittsburgh from the French).

Then, according to the bar's owner, the youngster was asked to leave because of atrocious behavior and complaints by other patrons. After being ejected from the bar, the lawsuit said, he smacked himself on the forehead with a beer bottle, through no fault of his own, opening a nasty cut.

All this happened, the young man told me in an interview for a column at that time, less than two years after he had a few other problems associated with booze, including an accident involving a stolen car and charges of underage drinking. Actually, he did not remember the earlier episode at first, but I pressed him on it. "Oh, yeah," he said, "now that I think about it."

In any case, now we have two lawsuits, two decades apart, that involve people getting drunk and then getting hurt and, according to the lawsuits filed by Bellafatto, it's all the fault of the establishments that provided the booze.

I called Bellafatto's office to ask how the Sousa case turned out and to ask if he has filed other such lawsuits in the interim, but he did not get back to me on that.

I can tell you, however, that he is not alone in filing lawsuits that seek jackpots by blaming everyone else when an individual's own behavior creates problems.

Pennsylvania is notorious for its lack of "tort reforms" — reasonable controls to keep lawsuits from running amok. One reform measure was enacted last year, but the state still has no limit on "punitive" or "pain and suffering" awards, while other states, such as California and Texas, have caps of $250,000 or less. So every problem carries the potential for a lucrative lawsuit (with lawyers taking 40 percent or more).

And here, in what was once the land of Daniel Boone, we have become kittens who must be protected by paladins when others make us chase string or do other things not in our own best interest.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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