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Some people believe that trial lawyers do not believe that people should take personal responsibility for their lives and actions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Trial lawyers are in the business of enforcing personal responsibility on people and businesses who try to avoid being held accountable for their conduct.

The notion that trial lawyers are at war with the concept of “personal responsibility” comes from a warped concept of what that term means. These days, the person shouting “personal responsibility” the loudest, is all too often the person trying desperately to AVOID being held responsible. We hear the litany of “personal responsibility” from negligent doctors, careless drivers and irresponsible manufacturers. They say that people “ought to take personal responsibility for what happens to them.”

This sounds good, but there is a subtle distortion in this statement which has profound consequences. I make choices and decisions in my life, and I am perfectly willing to be accountable if I am wrong. But what if I am wrong because I have been lied to, or someone has withheld information crucial to my decision? Am I personally responsible for other people’s choices as well? What happened to the personal responsibility of the liar? If I have to take full responsibility for what happens in my life, what happens to the accountability of others?

I may make a free will decision to proceed through an intersection, believing that I have the right of way.  If I am wrong, it’s my fault.  But if someone else runs a red light and destroys my car and my health, should I “take personal responsibility’ for what has happened in my life?  What kind of logical or ethical principle holds me responsible for the bad decisions of others not subject to my control?  What benefit is there to excusing the negligent, and blaming the victim?

Some people seek the benefits that go with high paying, responsible careers, but seek to avoid being held accountable when they fail to execute their responsibilities competently and carefully. Wall Street CEOs who drive companies into bankruptcy, and walk away with “golden parachutes.” They think investors should take personal responsibility. Doctors, who enjoy the deference and respect paid to their profession, but think they should be excused when they fail to live up to the trust patients put in them. They think patients should “take personal responsibility for their health.” But when a professional claims the high salary and prestige of a position where people will rely on them, the professional cannot complain when people hold him or her accountable for not being reliable. Personal responsibility for health is all well and good, but relying on the advice and guidance of one’s doctor is how we as individuals meet that responsibility. The quality of the medical services and advice is the doctor’s responsibility, not the patient’s.

If you get paid to have people rely on your advice, you shouldn’t complain when they DO rely on it. Don’t whine if they hold you accountable for carelessness. Don’t complain that the consequences of seeking education and responsibility are that you are held to a higher standard than a layperson. You took on the “personal responsibility” when you chose the career.

When I was a child, my parents taught me that taking responsibility is only part of what is required. If I broke a window in my neighbor’s house, it wasn’t enough to own up to it. I needed to make amends for my carelessness by paying for the window out of my paper route money. It is not enough to be responsible – we need to be accountable as well.  Too many of the folks who cry “personal responsibility” these days are simply trying to avoid accountability. And that, from a moral, ethical, and logical viewpoint, is simply wrong. As a trial lawyer, I LIKE the concepts of personal responsibility AND accountability – so long as they aren’t being used as cynical excuses by the negligent to avoid their own culpability!

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