Legally Speaking: Lawyers - Always taking the fun out of life

John G. Browning Oct. 4, 2011, 4:30am

St. Louis' City Museum is the sort of hands-on urban wonderland that kids love to explore.

Housed in a 10-story brick building, it boasts such interactive attractions as the Monstro City, a five-story jungle gym with two actual jets for kids to climb into and on; a rooftop Ferris wheel; a "ball pit" filled with large rubber balls; underground "secret passageways;" a "Monster Slide" that drops its riders 10 stories; and the "Puking Pig," a huge metal drum that fills up with about 150 gallons of water until the sheer weight causes it to tip over and deluge an adjacent pool.

The City Museum is part industrial playground, part theme park, and part art exhibit. Don't look for cold, antiseptic surroundings cordoned off by velvet ropes—virtually everything can be touched and even climbed, right down to the walk-through whale and other sculptures on the grounds. The attractions appeal to today's kids even as they offer a nod to St. Louis' industrial heritage by recycling things like vintage assembly-line rollers into slides and other features.

The museum is the brainchild of 61-year-old founder Bob Cassilly. A sculptor by trade who made his fortune as a developer of residential and commercial properties, Cassilly bought two downtown buildings (formerly owned by a shoe company) for $525,000 in 1993.

After renovations, he opened the City Museum in 1997, making his vision of a "computer-free zone" where kids could play and experience things in a hands-on, "please touch" environment. Maximum enjoyment in a low-tech experience is the rule here, from the "secret passageways" to the "skateless park" where children run up and slide down wooden skateboard ramps that are now slides.

The concept has caught on, with attendance topping 700,000 visitors annually. This makes it one of St. Louis' most popular attractions, outdrawing more mainstream venues like the venerable St. Louis Art Museum.

But success comes with its own price tag, and not just in terms of the skinned knees and elbows that are part and parcel of childhood. City Museum has been named in over two dozen lawsuits since 2005.

Personal injury attorney Amy Gunn, who's represented a boy who broke his leg on a slide and a college student who lost two fingers on another exhibit, says "I think it can be a really fun place, but my worry is that it's not regulated enough. There are a lot of lawsuits for a reason."

Cassilly counters that "that's life."

"We like to be the devil's advocate for society," he says. "When you have millions of people do something, something's going to happen no matter what you do."

One such inevitability: higher insurance premiums. When the museum started in 1997, its annual insurance cost was roughly $36,000. Now, its insurance premiums are approximately $600,000 each year, amounting to one dollar out of each $12 admission.

What makes Bob Cassilly's approach to the onslaught of lawsuits so refreshing, though, is his refusal to take it quietly. While the museum has settled several cases and lost at least one jury verdict, it defiantly fights back—and not just in the courtroom.

Cassilly believes in "naming and shaming"—a sign near the admissions entrance lists the names and phone numbers of lawyers and law firms who sued the museum, explaining that the trial lawyers and their clients are responsible for a 9 percent surcharge that was added in 2010 to the cost of each ticket.

One lawyer in particular has earned Cassilly's ire.

Prominent St. Louis personal injury lawyer Terry Crouppen (whom Cassilly refers to as an "ambulance chaser" and "mugger") appears at the museum, but not the way you might think; the museum has an effigy of Crouppen locked in a pillory near the ticket window (the pillory, or stocks, were used in days gone by to publicly punish and shame criminals).

Cassilly has called plaintiffs "foolish" and maintains that lawyers "are taking the fun out of life."

Besides the public shaming, the City Museum has fought back against frivolous lawsuits in other ways. Video cameras have been installed to document accidents and to expose fraudulent claims.

As explained on the museum's Facebook page, this is with good reason:

"Just to give you a quick glimpse into what we go through at the City Museum, a couple of years ago our rock fell 4 feet. The next day we had over 12 people call and tell us they were injured when the rock fell. To investigate these claims, we reviewed the video of the rock falling and we posted the video clearly showing that there was no one next to the rock when it fell on our website. When this was brought to several of the callers' attention they either hung up or changed their stories."

Bob Cassilly and his innovative, popular City Museum illustrate an unfortunate truism of American business: if you build a better mousetrap, someone will step forward and claim that it's unreasonably dangerous.

Or, to put it another way, "if you build it, they will sue."

Are the interactive features in this industrial playground completely safe? No—and neither is life.

Send your kid out to play with a helmet, safety pads and wrapped all over in bublewrap, and he or she is going to miss out on many of life's character-building bumps and bruises.

Lawsuits, and perhaps even more accurately the fear of lawsuits, risk turning us into a society of excessively politically correct, risk-averse sheep.

Bob Cassilly is right—lawyers are taking the fun out of life.

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