In 1982, the circus came to Calvin College and tethered its performing elephant to a large steel stake—which had been inadvertently driven through underground wiring. A powerful electrical current surged through the stake and into the 4,000-pound pachyderm; he shook, jerked his trunk, and tumbled to the ground, dead.

Calvin College shook as well—particularly when the circus sued it and its electrical contractor. Some months ago Calvin resolved the case with a large cash settlement.

I write of this bizarre event not only that we might commiserate—it is not every day that a two-ton elephant meets such a grisly end on campus—but because the case is symptomatic of a growing crisis in America.

The crisis involves liability insurance, the kind designed to provide protection from people who want to sue you—over electrocuted elephants, malpractice, faulty products—whatever.

The number of product-liability cases filed in federal courts rose from 1,579 in 1975 to 10,745 in 1984. Although most cases are settled before trial, the volume of jury awards in such suits roughly tripled during the same period.

As a result, insurance rates are skyrocketing. A Long Island obstetrician, living in one of the most litigious regions in the nation, pays $100,000 a year for insurance.

Doctors are not alone. Skating rink owners find it next to impossible to buy insurance. City governments are sued if anything untoward occurs within city limits; according to an article in The Economist, some coastal cities closed their public beaches after parents successfully sued San Francisco for $1 million “for allowing their son to jump into a watery death from the Golden Gate bridge.”

Last year Americans paid $9.1 billion in liability insurance premiums, 60 percent ...

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