Special Report

Bad Dog, No Settlement

Lose a pet and you get to take your lawyer for a walk.

By 3.8.05

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BOSTON -- A terrible thing happened in my neighborhood last week: A young boy named Kyle DeVito was walking his one year-old boxer, Cassius, when the dog stepped in a puddle charged with "leaked electricity" from a nearby telephone pole. This resulted not only in the death of the dog, but also in a nasty bite to the boy's hand when he tried to save his scared and convulsing pet.

Now, animal lover and sissy vegetarian I am, I wouldn't dream of downgrading this boy's suffering. But as a veteran of both the heartache of losing a pet and the doubly worse pain of accidentally hitting someone else's pet with my car, I have to say word that the family rejected an offer of $200,000 in "comfort money" from electric conglomerate NStar made me feel a bit uneasy.

That unease transformed into something approaching distaste when the family paraded their crying son out for a press conference to elicit some Old Yeller-esque pity. Sample sound bite: "I think he bit me to tell me, 'Don't touch that spot. You could get electrocuted, too.'" (Trust me, kid. That's not what he was thinking.) In perfect modern form, the family's lawyer followed up the tears with a demand that the big, bad electric company hand over $740,000 or they would -- surprise, surprise! -- sue.

Watching all of this forced me to face opportunities I squandered in my youth. After all, when I was about the same age as this DeVito boy, a neighbor ran over my cat. All I got was an apology. At the very least, I should have forced him into bankruptcy. I was in his trailer once; I know that he could have liquidated some of his collectable snow globes and other assets to pay up. I could be standing in front of my kitty's grave right now, comforted in the knowledge that she had not died in vain, but, rather, laid down her ninth life so I could go to college without having to sell books and make sandwiches to get by. If only I had understood the phrase "cashing in" back then!

The DeVitos used a simple formula to arrive at their exorbitant demand: NStar chief executive Thomas May's annual salary roughly equals one dog. It's all very scientific -- except for the fact that there's no rational basis for it at all. If May had beaten this dog to death himself, I'd lead the posse to string him up one of Boston's few trees this very night. But he didn't. This was an accident, sans any malicious intent. And accidents cannot be outlawed.

IN AN OSCAR WORTHY PERFORMANCE at the press conference, the family's lawyer John Swomley explained that he and the family had "tried to come up with an offer that had some poetry to it," as if poetry were a synonym for fairness, and stressed that the proposal was "not designed to make the DeVitos a wealthy family." Their original demand of $1.4 million, based on May's most recent bonus, had been dropped. "We didn't want the DeVito family to appear greedy," Swomley said, without a hint of irony.

All the family wants is $200,000 and enough money to put both of their kids through four years of college, he added, with the rest going to animal charities. Not to impugn on the reputation of the DeVito family -- well, not impugn on it any further than my contention that they are greedy and their claim that this is not to benefit them financially is dishonest -- but how exactly does an accidental pet death reasonably entitle them to free college for their children? If the point is not to make money, why not donate the whole amount?

Granted, this is the third dog killed by "stray voltage" in the past five years, and that is unacceptable, as NStar itself openly admits. Still, the unpleasant truth is pumping electricity 24 hours a day into every nook and cranny of a city will never be a foolproof enterprise. Accountability is necessary, but it should be done with some iota of perspective and reason. If the DeVitos were using their press time to honestly end this problem rather than openly extort money from a corporation, I'd applaud them.

The only change they're actually affecting is now other greedy people are probably hesitating to keep their dogs out of those dirty puddles. It's sort of like hitting the lottery when the payout gets this big. Or the plot of Indecent Proposal, just with dogs and puddles instead of wives and rich guys.

Earlier, I pointed out, in jest, my own failure to extort my own neighbor. But it brings up a legitimate point about the American psyche these days. If I were to go quite insane and march back in time to demand one year's salary from that poor repentant neighbor who killed my cat, it would be a lonely walk indeed. (I can also assure you it would have been nowhere near $200,000 or $740,000.) When the money is there, however, a preposterous demand of $740,000 suddenly becomes quite sensible. The attitude becomes; "If we can get it, let's take it."

This has become socially acceptable, partially because of the pervasiveness of the entitlement society, but also partially as a correlative of the unrelenting, simplistic demonization of corporations. That the entire community will pay this bill seems not to have crossed the Devitos' minds. It is not unreasonable to expect people to pay somehow for an accident -- my neighbor paid with an apology; NStar offered $200,000. But simply demanding money because there's money to be had is an altogether uncouth business. If common sense didn't stop the DeVitos from milking the litigation cow for all it's worth, then shame should have.

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