Stores will often throw at barefooters a fear that the barefooter will step on something like a needle and sue them. Yet, if you look through court cases, such a lawsuit is really, really rare.
On top of that, the lawsuits that one does find, are never that simple. I have an example of that.
The case is Galland v. Meridia Health Systems. Your first clue should be that the defendant is Meridia (which has now been absorbed into the Cleveland Clinic network of hospitals).
Yes, the person stepped on a needle in a hospital.
The story is that 5½-year-old Amanda Galland went to the emergency room in 2002 after hitting her head at school. Here’s the description from the appeal:
This case arose out of an incident that occurred in appellee’s emergency room the evening of January 28, 2002. Dawna Berlin and Russell Galland, Jr., had taken their five-and-a-half year old daughter, Amanda Galland, to be examined because Amanda had fallen and hit her head at school that day. In the emergency room, Amanda’s shoes and socks were removed so the doctor could conduct stability tests on her. Upon completion of the tests, Amanda was instructed to get down from the examination bed. As she stepped onto the emergency room floor, a used suture needle that had been left on the floor punctured Amanda’s right foot. Amanda’s father removed the suture needle from her foot and the nurse treated her wound.
When I first read about a needle, I wondered how it could possibly get into a foot. Most needles are long and thin, so they generally lie flat on any floor. It takes a pretty extraordinary circumstance for it to be there in a position that allows it to go into a foot. (Obviously, the “proper” orientation to be a problem is much more likely in, for instance, something like grass. However, very few stores or other buildings have grass floors.)
In fact, for the picture above, I had to stick the needle into my foot myself to get the picture. No, it didn’t hurt. My skin down there is more than thick enough that the needle never made it to live tissue.
But here we learn that this was a suture needle, something that you’ll pretty much find only in hospitals. Here’s what one looks like.
While it tends to lie flat, I guess I can see how the flattened thread-hole could allow it to twist into a position to prick one.
Yes, the needle did puncture Amanda’s foot. But if you think about it, there was nothing special about getting her foot. If a hospital is losing needles like that (what?!?), it could just as easily have been hidden on the examining room table, and she could have sat on it. So this really doesn’t demonstrate a hazard of going barefooted.
Also note that the wound was treated immediately. So what were they suing about? The hospital already “paid” the cost of a bit of alcohol and the bandage (and the nurse’s labor). Well, there’s more.
They had no idea where that needle had come from. It obviously had been used on some previous patient. Here’s more from the ruling:
Because the suture needle was contaminated with blood from an unknown person and it had punctured Amanda’s foot, the doctor informed appellants of the possibility that Amanda could have been exposed to the HIV virus. Consequently, Amanda had to periodically return to appellee and undergo a series of blood tests for HIV, paid for by appellee, for six months following the incident.
The odds that the previous patient had aids was quite low, so here the hospital was being extra cautious. (It was still a good idea.) From a newspaper story on the incident, there were three blood tests over that six months. Even if each one cost $300, that’s still only $900. And, of course, the hospital paid for those tests. Additionally, all the blood tests came back negative.
So, again, what were the Gallands suing for?
They were suing for something called “negligent infliction of emotional distress”. This is kind of like “pain and suffering”, except in a case like this, how much would pain and suffering be worth? A needle prick that stopped hurting soon thereafter (and probably never hurt all that much in the first place) won’t get you much of an award.
The emotional distress was the fear of having gotten AIDS.
From here the lawsuit depended on rather esoteric points of law regarding the negligent infliction of emotional distress, and turned on whether the trial court had granted summary judgment prematurely (it had), and whether an actual injury was necessary for that negligent infliction. So it went back to the trial court, where, after dotting i’s and crossing t’s, the judge again granted the hospital summary judgment.
And there was another appeal. (But not before the Ohio Supreme Court accepted the case, heard arguments, and then dismissed their involvement as improvidently granted.)
And the Gallands lost yet again. It gets complicated, but basically the court ruled that Amanda was too young to have a real fear of AIDS, not knowing anything about it. And as for her parents, while they were concerned, they didn’t meet a standard of serious emotional stress, with the court noting and quoting, “examples of serious emotional distress should include traumatically induced neurosis, psychosis, chronic depression, or phobia.”
So, how does all this apply to a barefooter and a store’s possible concerns? First, it highlights that the sort of injury one normally gets from going barefoot (which, of course, is extremely rare in the first place, much more rare than, let’s say, a high-heel injury) is quite minor and fixed at a minimal cost. Even if barefooters were prone to doing so (and they’re not), it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Second, even if one pulls out all the stops trying to go for emotional distress, that’s unlikely to do anything, either. Again, it’s not worth a lawsuit.
Let me finish with one more point—should barefooters be concerned about AIDS from a store? AIDS outside of a body dies pretty easily. The only reason that really came into play in this lawsuit was because the suture needle had been freshly used, being in a hospital environment. Anything sitting on the floor of a store or outdoors is not likely at all to be fresh.