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Last Updated: Friday, 21 March 2008, 16:34 GMT
A grape of wrath

By Clive James

Sometimes along comes a legal ruling that reaffirms your faith in the law's good judgement, says Clive James.

Last week the man who wanted 300,000 because he slipped on a grape in the car park of his local branch of Marks and Spencer lost his case.

Good news for the rule of law, perhaps, but bad news for those of us whose lives have been blighted by injuries which were never our responsibility.

I wept for the man who slipped on the grape, because 300,000 grand was the least he had coming. Here was an accountant who, before his shoe made contact with the grape in question, was able to charge 225 an hour for his financial services.

Clive James
I typed this without using my thumbs, and here is why

After he descended from the lofty parabola into which the grape contact had thrown him, he sustained a rupture to his quadricep tendon.

This rupture led, he said, to a "loss of confidence", which in turn led to "adverse psychological effects and depression", which in turn meant that he was unable to recruit new clients and contacts and charge them 225 an hour.

On top of that, he was no longer able to ski, play football or play tennis. He was probably also unable to play Monopoly, which can put a terrific strain on a ruptured quadriceps tendon, especially when you are losing.

The accountant lost in a big way and ended up having to pay his legal costs. I have been brooding about this for some time and would now like to tell him that I share his pain, even in the area of my quadricep tendon, which was practically the only part of my body that I didn't injure in the accident that still haunts my life.

Interesting that the grape victim should mention skiing, because it was while I was skiing in Switzerland that I sustained an injury entirely due to the carelessness of an organization from which one might have expected more.

Not more than 300,000 perhaps, but something. I typed this script without using my thumbs, and here is why. About 20 years ago, both my thumbs were almost dislocated in a skiing accident.

Black run

If the accident had not happened, I could have typed this script more quickly, and could have typed another in the time saved, thereby restoring my confidence, not to say replenishing my bank balance.

I shall be telling the full story of this accident in my fifth volume of unreliable memoirs, a work which I am currently composing, to a deadline which I have set according to how quickly, or rather how slowly, I can compose 100,000 words using eight fingers.

But a short version of the story will sufficiently indicate that I was blameless in the matter. I was on a black run at Davos and it could be argued that I shouldn't have been there, owing to my inability to turn in any direction at any speed.

But no attempt was made by the responsible authorities to ascertain this fact before I started my descent. And the run was open to the public.

There were signs to say that the run was open and the signs had been placed by those in charge of the resort.

High Court in London
The law doesn't always work
The run was needlessly steep. Those in charge had bulldozers available and it was their responsibility to level the mountain during the night.

They had not done so and I was doing 75 miles per hour when I took off from a bump and landed on my nose a hundred yards further on.

The manufacturers of the ski bindings had done their job. With those manufacturers I have no quarrel. The skis came off as they should have done.

But the loops of my ski poles failed to detach themselves from my thumbs as I hit the snow, which was packed tight. No attempt had been made to loosen it and I therefore continued going downhill at high speed in prone contact with the snow, my cries ignored.

Instantly I felt an acute loss of confidence, compounded by a searing pain in both thumbs. The loops, which should have been designed to detach themselves like the bindings, put a severe strain on both the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of each thumb.

My case was thrown out by a Swiss German judge who spoke no English except the phrase "In your dreams"
In both cases, the first dorsal interrosseus was irreversibly inflamed, and the flexor pollicis longus was impacted with the extensor pollicis brevis, thereby permanently inhibiting my capacity to reach for my wallet whenever it was my turn to pay for something.

I had legitimate hopes that the owners of the resort would be doing that for me from then on, but my case was thrown out by a Swiss German judge who spoke no English except the phrase "In your dreams".

The British judge who so cruelly dashed the hopes of the grape-treading accountant was not necessarily under the influence of the Swiss legal system. The British legal system is still capable of reaching sensible decisions on its own account.

Let me overcome my throbbing bilateral pain for a moment and say that the law still has enough majesty to remind us that we are lucky to live in a country with functioning institutions.

Nothing will remind the public that if they lived in a country with no laws at all they would be inconceivably worse off than they are now. Most of us have had no experience of living in a lawless society and we therefore find it difficult to imagine.

The British live in a country that has been ruled by law for a long time. What they can't help noticing is that the law doesn't always work.


When Dickens, in his great novel Bleak House, painted his immortal picture of the chancery court in which your case would remain unresolved forever, with more and more lawyers taking your money until it was all gone, it wasn't the law he was against. He was against the law not working.

But the law not working can be quite frightening enough. Admittedly there are newspapers that specialise in encouraging such fears.

Often when I read the tabloids I wonder if we might not be living in the last days of the Weimar Republic, until I remember that sometimes when a drunken joy-rider wipes out a family waiting at a bus-stop he gets picked up by the police and spoken to quite severely, and might even have his licence withdrawn for a whole year.

Mohamed Al Fayed
Will the Diana inquest tell us anything new?
But what sometimes saps confidence, inducing an adverse psychological effect, is when the legal system consumes vast amounts of public money in proceedings that seem very slow to proceed.

A highly vocal cleric, the enemy of his own religion along with every other aspect of British society except its benefit system which he drew upon to support his large family, ate up hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money before it was finally decided that he was guilty of incitement to murder. But he had declared himself guilty of that years before.

The present inquiry into the death of the Princess of Wales will get through at least 10m of the taxpayer's money before it reaches its decision.

It was a good sign when the court rejected Mr Fayed's demand that the Queen should be called as a witness, so as to make up for the absence of testimony from Ming the Merciless of Mongo, Emperor of the Universe.

But otherwise the inquiry has been an expensive way of establishing that there was never very much to inquire into except an accident.

Whatever happened to those poor children in Jersey plainly wasn't an accident, and getting to the bottom of the matter will be worth all the money it costs, but how much money will be left over for such a necessary thing when an unnecessary one is allowed to cost so much?

Copycat claim

Or am I all wrong about the public money?

Perhaps it is being continually replaced with the limitless funds generated by schemes to charge people for using their cars to deliver passengers at Heathrow when the passengers should be using the Heathrow Express which will be jammed to the roof because millions more people every year will want to cram themselves into an Airbus A-380 and fly somewhere that doesn't allow an ex-wife to even think of charging 125m for four years of marriage.

In the end, Lady McCartney was not awarded quite that much of Sir Paul's money, but she certainly wasted a lot of the court's time.

Don't even think about it...
If the well really is bottomless, it would be reassuring to be told so. It might be timely if someone in the government could address the House of Commons on that issue.

On that issue, and with that scope: the state of the law, in a state where law rules, or anyway it should. While we're waiting, we must content ourselves with these occasional outbreaks of what sounds like sweet reason, and base our hopes on those.

The latest outbreak we owe to the judge who, in a blessedly short time, concluded that the man whose shoe hit the grape had been subject to an act of God, or let's call it a grape of wrath.

Certainly that judgment put paid to my own planned venture on the same lines. I had it all worked out. In my local supermarket there is a bin that is always shedding a few blueberries on the floor as clueless people pick up the plastic box by the lid and scatter the contents.

Having flagrantly neglected to seal the box shut, the supermarket is incontrovertibly responsible for the spilled blueberries. One of those spilled blueberries was fairly aching for contact with my shoe.

I had the trajectories all worked out. Hit the blueberry, up in the air, and I would fly feet first into the manager's office with the word "compensation" already forming, indeed foaming, on my lips.

But the law has spoken, and now I must think again.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Thank you for this brilliant piece, I laughed until I cried! Which makes me wonder if my health and safety has been compromised by Clive James and if I should seek compensation from the Magazine for allowing me to read it.
ZR, London

Clive you may still go to the ball. There are 10 million potholes in the UK and by their own admission, the councils' are paying out more in compensation for damage to property and bones than it costs to repair them. So forget mangos, sausage skins, small furry animals, gooseberries & artichoke hearts. Get that old pair of bicycle clips out and that bike you've had tucked away in the garage for the past 10 years and off up the road for a good spoke-breaking, frame-bending crash. There's at least a Spanish holiday for four in a good pot hole pile-up.
Mark Farley, Brighton

Hallelujah. At long last there is someone out there that has grasped the severity of the courts wasting public money on a grand scale. Though the article is somewhat satirical it does point out the ease that members of the public have been able to leech huge amounts of money from a flawed legal system. We are in the age of litigation. Genuine cases should be heard and compensated properly, time wasters and easy money seekers should be thrown out of court immediately and made to realise just how much they are costing the public. Come on all you people out there that carry influence, put your weight to this just cause. Otherwise money from the public will continue to be handed out to those USING the system.
Steve Bowman, Onchan, Isle of Man

A sad man ranting, that's essentially what this boils down to. A speech more suited to John Osbourne's Look Back in Anger than a reputable news website. The majority of the public is aware that the legal system is sometimes ineffectual, offer an alternative and this has some reason to exist.
Marcus Platt, London, England

Are none of us responsible for our own actions any more? I applaud this one sane judge who has decided it is about time that we take care of ourselves when venturing out into the big wide world. Are we to blame, and sue, our mothers for giving birth to us? Did they immediately endangered us to a lifetime of possible accidents and should therefore be held responsible for anything that befalls us?
Liz, London

In the United States, there have been some excellent rulings which have favored the victim and then we've had many rulings which are in fact, frivolous. These dishonest frivolous rulings set precedents for many others. As a result, many states have presently set up laws termed "Frivolous Lawsuits". Why? Countless millions have been spent and in cases most of what is decided ends up in the coffers of lawyers. Many of these frivolous suits have been made against municipalities, large privately owned businesses, insurance companies as well as publicly held corporations. These new laws which have frivolous lawsuits presently have ceilings as to just how much money can be set in a judgement. Lawyers will receive an amount (or percentage) as per the judgement with court costs. The balance goes to the victim.
Alexander Mitchell

While I agree that a lot of time is undoubtedly wasted with courts hearing cases which are far better dealt with in other ways, or indeed not at all, I think that it is fundamental to the British legal system that anyone can bring a case to court, no matter how ridiculous it seems to others. To place restrictions on the cases that come to court is to start restricting the freedoms of the British people.
Tim, London

When I was a small boy I would charge around, full of energy. Inevitably, I would fall over. Sometimes I would run into things. Each time, my mother would give me this sage advice: watch where you're going! That advice, coupled with sensible shoes, has meant no matter what fruit or vegetable has rolled underfoot, or how many cracked and crooked pavement slabs I've walked over, I've not fallen over since. And that's all there is to it.
Jams Aldous, Coventry

Sir, I agree with your comments that trivial, non-common-sensic requests should be thrown out. BUT, please remember that there should be a clear standard of conduct. In my country, that is one of a "bonus pater familias" (or good parent / owner). Such an owner does not let his produce lay idle on the floor, ready to become a danger.
Ioan-Luca Vlad, Bucharest, Romania

As the late Linda Smith wrote, mocking adverts for 'no-claim no-fee' lawyers: "I slipped on a banana skin, and successfully sued the Dominican Republic."
Dave H, Cambs UK

I can't quite see how someone injured skiing at their own risk (as is determined in the terms and conditions when buying a ski pass) should be granted compensation either. Whilst I agree that the modern litigation is running amok, this story hardly causes empathy for the writer.
Matt W, Bristol


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