When I was 12, my father woke me up one spring Saturday so I could help him with an errand. The rural mailbox of a woman on his route had been clipped by a snow plow during the winter. At first, I thought fixing it was part of a mailman’s job, but my father explained that we were simply “doing the right thing.” The woman lived alone, and didn’t have anyone around who could replace it for her.
My father reasoned that since he knew how to fix it, had the time and owned the necessary tools, it was something he would do. He dragged me along to help, so I could learn about digging post-holes removing broken posts, and more importantly, helping others. I have had many opportunities as an adult to use all of those lessons.
Partly because of that and other similar lessons, I found myself in a most unbelievable situation in the building in which I work. Several businesses were experiencing an Internet outage due to the failure of a piece of phone company equipment that we all share. The equipment was bouncing between a powered-on state and a powered-off state. When the repairman came on site, a group representing all the companies and the building manager met with him in the equipment room
The repairman suggested that the problem was likely being caused by the building’s electrical circuit. This, despite the fact that other devices plugged into the same circuit, were not affected. Nobody accepted that conclusion, but he would not budge. He said “I would have to see the switch fail while connected to an uninterruptable power supply (UPS), before I could recommend swapping it out.”
I had a brand new UPS in my office, and I offered to let the repairman use it. He said that someone else would have to plug the equipment into the UPS. One by one, the people involved invoked the barrier du jour: “I need to check with legal,” and all the respective legal people decided not to proceed. The rationale, as explained to me, was simple:
“At this point, the problem belongs to the phone company, whether they act on it or not. As soon as we unplug the unit and plug it into our UPS, the problem extends to us.”
Scenarios possible and bizarre were offered: “what if the UPS fails?” “What if the UPS damages the equipment?” “What if the switch fails to power back on when we plug it into the UPS?” No, we weren’t heading down that road, unless everyone agreed to indemnify everyone else. I.e. nobody would seek to recover damages from anyone.
I’m not sure if this is the case for you, but in a lot of companies, indemnification is the third rail of a business contract. I am not even allowed to sign a contract that includes an indemnification clause, until I get permission from our company president.
When did we become so afraid of the litigious spirit of our neighbors that we simply stopped cooperating? Never mind, I gusss it was when our neighbors started suing us for damages caused while we were trying to help.
In CT, we have a Good Samaritan Law (CGS § 52-557b), that protects “certain” individuals while providing “some types” of emergency medical aid. A quick read of the 2,500 odd words making up the law and its caveats didn’t turn up any references to Uninterruptable Power Supplies or Internet connections.
Do we really need to create a Good Samaritan law for problem solving? Do I have to worry about jump-starting a stranger’s car at the grocery store? Is the advice I gave local high school students on Career Day going to haunt me when they don’t get a high-paying job? What if my neighbor needed to have his mailbox replaced?
I wonder if, when businesses send managers and wanna-be managers to problem solving seminars, they tell them “…but always check with legal before actually solving any problems.”
Sadly, I guess they don’t have to; five people, from five different companies, representing a broad cross-section of skills and responsibilities; all knew not to solve the electrical problem described above. We feared the potential cost of doing the wrong thing.
Ironically, nobody – none of us and none of the lawyers – seemed interested in considering the very real cost of doing nothing.
Note: This was revised from a post back in 2012. The phone company eventually replaced the equipment, but I’m still dealing with indemnification clauses in contracts. I decided to also add this post as a response to to the Daily Prompt – Cowardice.