Saturday, February 06, 2010

Creating rights from hurt feelings

A man went into a Starbucks in Boca Raton, Florida. As it happened, he suffered from Tourette Syndrome, which according to the Tourette Syndrome Association is a neurological disorder which becomes evident in early childhood or before the age of 18 years and is defined by multiple involuntary motor and vocal actions which may include violent acts, as well as obscene words or socially inappropriate words and phrases.

While in the coffee shop the man had a Tourette’s attack and began uncontrollably beating on a wall and cursing loudly. When customers complained, Starbucks employees called the police and had him removed from the premises.

If you’re thinking that the man probably sued Starbucks, go to the head of the class. He claims that workers at the coffee shop violated his civil rights when he began cursing loudly and punching the wall, disturbing and perhaps terrifying other patrons in the coffee shop.

The Florida Commission on Human Relations, which investigates claims of discrimination, claimed there was evidence that Starbucks did not take steps to accommodate the man's disability, but did not say, of course, what an accommodation for a man screaming obscenities and pounding on a wall uncontrollably would be.

Situations like this are troubling on several levels. We don’t want to mistreat people who have problems they can’t control. But, on the other hand, businesses like Starbucks are not therapy centers. They can’t effectively do what they do, and at the same time incorporate accommodations for every conceivable disability that might come through their doors. More to the point, how do you accommodate people who may, without notice, simply break into fits of violent behavior, or begin shouting profanity?

Furthermore, don’t businesses have an obligation to their non-Tourette Syndrome customers – who comprise the vast majority of their customers, including children – to provide an environment without such aberrant behavior?

Life is not fair; people are not equal. Some of us are not equipped to play a particular sport, despite how badly we may want to. Some of us are incapable of becoming an engineer, or a computer programmer or a designer, even though that is the goal to which we aspire. And some of us have specific problems, such as a disease or disorder, which limit what we can do.

Someone with a disorder like Tourette Syndrome does not have a right to go to Starbucks and disturb other patrons by pounding on the wall and cursing loudly, and Starbucks does not have an obligation to accommodate people with Tourette Syndrome.

If you have a medical condition that produces unpredictable disruptive behavior, you simply have to avoid going to public places where your behavior will be offensive or dangerous to innocent bystanders, and you are not entitled to sue for compensation for your disability. That’s unfortunate for people with Tourette Syndrome, but that’s the way it is.

These situations prompt sympathy both for the Tourette’s sufferer and for Starbucks, but they are not legitimate subjects for law suits. To the contrary, such law suits are strong evidence in support of tort reform.

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