Akst: Stop me before I stray again

Tara Obenauer arrives at Family Court in Westbury.

Tara Obenauer arrives at Family Court in Westbury. (May 17, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Let's play "Jeopardy!" for a minute. Here's the first clue: "Protect me from what I want."

The answer, of course, must be in the form of a question -- in this case, "What's the shared motto of Jenny Holzer and Tara Obenauer?"

Holzer is a famous artist whose work employs provocative texts -- like "protect me from what I want," which at one point she put up in lights in Las Vegas.

Obenauer is the Massapequa woman who hosted a married, on-duty Nassau County cop at her home dozens of times and later, after he was caught, informed the county she planned to sue. The county's shortcoming? It should have supervised the cop more effectively, thereby preventing the "severe . . . emotional and psychological damages" she's apparently suffered.

Obenauer, whose name may someday become a synonym for chutzpah on Long Island, apparently wishes the county and its police department had protected her from what she wanted -- which, for a while at least, was Officer Mike Tedesco.

To what extent government should protect us from what we want is a serious and important question that has given rise to much more plausible lawsuits than this one. My favorite was filed in British Columbia, where a few losing gamblers sued both the province and local casinos on the ground that they shouldn't have been allowed to gamble. It sounds crazy, but these people had enrolled themselves in a self-exclusion, anti-gambling registry mandated by the government and maintained by the casinos, which let them in anyway. True to their own worst fears, they proceeded to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

In the realm of romance, there's unfortunately no counterpart to the gamblers' self-exclusion registry, although some medieval nuns avoided bathing in order to make themselves repellent to the opposite sex. If only one could go to court and get a restraining order, as Obenauer's attorney says she has done against Tedesco, but against oneself. Imagine being able to have yourself legally required to stay away from that no-good boyfriend of yours -- or face arrest.

In resorting to legal action against the county and the police department (Tedesco is also named in the "notice of claim"), Obenauer has catapulted herself into the very highest levels of blame-shifters, an elite class that includes burglars who sue the homeowners who shoot them and the aide to then-Gov. David A. Paterson who failed to pay five years' income taxes. His attorney blamed "non-filer syndrome."

The courtroom is a familiar arena for these individuals, who typically are defendants but sometimes, and more controversially, appear as plaintiffs. People accused of doing something wrong will understandably tend to claim they'd been in the throes of passion, addiction or some other irresistible force. Most of us are all too ready, even in more prosaic settings, to point the finger at someone or something else to explain away our troubles.

But for those who show up in court seeking money for harm they inflicted on themselves, there is only scorn. Too many of us know of dubious cases that brought a settlement because it was cheaper for an unlucky defendant to pay something now than pay lawyers for years and risk a huge judgment. Americans file far more lawsuits, and have more lawyers and judges per capita, than most comparable countries. Ours is a litigious society.

What we really need are more suits like that of Robert Lee Brock, a Virginia inmate who in 1995 sued himself for $5 million, claiming he'd violated his own civil rights by getting himself drunk and arrested contrary to his religious beliefs.

Sign up for The Point and go inside New York politics.

The funny thing is, he had a good case.

Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

Comments

Newsday.com now uses Facebook for our comment boards. Please read our guidelines and connect your Facebook account to comment.

You also may be interested in: