In Which I Admire Millions of Tiny German Lawsuits And Annihilate Several Canards About the Law

The U.S. is famous in Germany for its 'runaway' juries which hand down zillion-dollar lawsuits against poor defenseless companies. Yet, as I told my dumbfounded students, Germany is a far more litigious society than the USA. In fact, according to a book-length 1998 study, Germany is the most lawsuit-happy country on earth:

Country Cases per 1,000 Population

• Germany 123.2
• Sweden 111.2
• Israel 96.8
• Austria 95.9
• U.S.A. 74.5
• UK/England & Wales 64.4
• Denmark 62.5
• Hungary 52.4
• Portugal 40.7
• France 40.3

My German students were dumbfounded by this fact. Most of them got their image of the world from the mainstream press. And, as usual, German journalists tended to obsess over the real or imagined failings of other countries, while remaining ignorant of what was going on in their backyard.

But aside from the good clean fun of this tu quoque response, it's interesting to think about why Germany is so litigious. I think there are 4 main reasons:

  • Legal insurance (Rechtschutzversicherung). Millions of Germans have legal insurance policies that pay for lawyers both to file claims and defend against them. This insurance is affordable because litigation costs in Germany are low. Legal insurance is actually an excellent idea, every country in the world could benefit from widespread legal insurance. What it means in Germany, though, is that if you have a policy, you don't have to think twice about filing a lawsuit. Granted, the lawyer is not supposed to file if you don't have a claim, but many do anyway. Legal insurance also provides a lifeline for many small-time lawyers -- they can patch together a decent livelihood by having a constant docket of 40-50 small time cases going on at any time. None of these cases will generate a huge verdict, but a steady stream of small payments is enough.
  • Lawsuits are a fact of life. Nobody really takes them seriously. If your landlord hikes your rent, you use your legal-insurance lawyer to fight it. The landlord uses their legal-insurance lawyer to defend. After all, if you don't sue, you'll certainly have to pay the extra 10% in rent. If you do sue, you might end up with a discount. The landlord would probably do the same thing in your position, and knows this.
  • Close neighbors make bad blood. Germany is a small country packed with people. Everything you do in public is going to have some effect on your neighbors. If a potted plant falls off your city balcony, it's going to hit someone or something below. If your cat likes to relieve themselves on your neighbor's lawn, they're going to notice. And might just take lethal action. Your barbecue smoke is going to trigger someone's asthma 5 houses down. The list goes on and on. Every German state has a long, complex "neighbor law" (here's the one (g) for my state), and many lawyers do nothing else. And once again, these petty squabbles are going to end up in court because it's so easy to go to court because of legal insurance. 

And finally, no lawsuit is too tiny. As Wagner once said, a German is someone who will always do something for its own sake. Which means Germans will file a suit over anything. Why, here's a story (g) from the excellent criminal-defense blog lawblog. Two retirees went fishing for deposit bottles in Munich, a favorite pastime of poor Germans, or just ones who need some way to fill their days in the fresh air.*

They approached a large man-sized glass-recycling container, whipped out their grabbers, and started fishing around inside the container. Recycling containers are supposed to be reserved for bottles which don't have a deposit on them, like wine bottles. But many people don't care or don't know how to tell a deposit from a non-deposit bottle, and just toss everything in.

Sure enough, our two hunters found 15 deposit bottles with a total value of € 1.44. Two other Germans, who were certainly feeling very German that day, called the police and reported the bottle-fishers for theft. Wait, what? Two people minding their own business, helping recycle glass, augmenting their puny incomes, harming nobody, and their fellow Germans report them to the cops? Welcome to Deutschland, my friends.

Now German prosecutors are obliged to investigate every credible accusation of crime that comes to their attention, the famous "Principle of Legality"**. This they did. The first thing they had to determine was what the value of the theft was. Technically, this was a theft -- once you throw a glass bottle into a recycling bin, it becomes the property of the recycling company. So you might think that the amount of the theft was the deposit value of the bottles. But no! It turns out that the recycling company does not separate out deposit bottles from other ones. Scandalous, I know. So all the bottles just get melted down. The prosecutor asked the recycling firm how much value the bottles would have as recycling material, and the firm said: basically, it's too small to even put a number on.

At this time, the prosecutor chose to halt the proceedings (einstellen) based on the idea that there was no public interest in prosecuting the offenders. The writer at lawblog thinks this was the wrong reason to stop the prosecution -- he thinks a better theory is to deny the people had any attempt to commit theft, because they had no intent to take possession of the bottles -- their ultimate goal was simply to transfer them to a different owner. 

Be that as it may, the main thing to notice here is that several different government employees spent hours of their time and used considerable resources to investigate an accusation of a crime which, at the very most, involved the lordly sum of € 1.44. It's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that the German state spent 1000 times more money investigating the theft than it was actually worth in the first place.

Now, am I going to snigger about this? Of course I am, and so are you. But at the same time, I'm not going to go too far. The most important thing to keep in mind about high numbers of lawsuits is that they are an important sign of social health. In the vast majority of societies, lawsuits are prohibitively expensive and courts are woefully underfunded and corrupt, so nobody trusts them. Germans and Americans trust courts to usually resolve legal disputes in a fair and equitable manner, otherwise they wouldn't seek them out so often. They're right to do so; both the USA and Germany have exceptionally fair and efficient legal systems, despite their imperfections. A fair, professional, and generally non-corrupt legal system is one of humanity's most important achievements, full stop. Most countries don't yet have one. If you happen to live in a country which does, take a moment and thank your lucky stars. 

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German Word and Rule of the Week: Knöllchen

A Düsseldorfer on Facebook recently found this underneath her windshield:

Knoellchen

It reads:

"You're parked illegally!

Ticket!

Joke we're just kids playing

we're sorry"

I found this pretty adorable. Almost makes me want to reproduce.

There are a few errors on the ticket, though. For one thing, there's no thorough explanation of your legal rights and the deadline for submitting an objection. For another, they describe the ticket as a 'Knolle'.

Knolle means bulge, lump, or more technically nodule. There is a slang expression for a traffic ticket here in the Rhineland, but that is Knöllchen, the diminutive form of lump. You get a 'little lump' on your windshield if you park illegally. Ain't that cool?

I'd be willing to bet the German kid who wrote this actually no-shit dreams of growing up to be a parking cop. Job security, civil servant status, reasonable hours, a tiny little bit of authority to exercise -- what's not to love?


Weber The Ironmonger

From the Facebook feed Pearls from Düsseldorf, which is pictures of Düsseldorf from local graphic designer and photographer Markus Luigs (g), this picture of an old-school German storefront:

12419106_2185343131494609_1081350606375068115_o

'Iron-Weber' is the name. The store sells Eisenwaren (iron goods), tools, house and kitchen appliances. So, basically, a hardware store. But the name Eisenwaren is satisfyingly antique; from an era in which tools actually were made mostly of iron. So the capture the old-school flair, I'd translate it as an 'ironmonger'.

This picture gives you a good idea of German street architecture. The sidewalk, as you'll notice, is clean. Then you have the underground-access grates. Some of these are for city utilities, but the ones close to the building are for trash: you take your trash downstairs to the cellar, then put it in a special dumb-waiter like contraption under the street. The trashmen open the grate and haul up the square plastic trash can through the opening, or sometimes go down into it. All the while yelling at each other in a mysterious language that probably takes years to learn. Children love watching the trash and the men disappear up and down the magic sidewalk-holes. It's loud, but it solves several problems: first, no trash bins waiting on the street. Second, the garbagemen don't have to enter the store to collect the trash.

Here's one difference between Germany and developing countries. You will never see these grates lying open in Germany, posing a threat to pedestrians. Never. In my many years living here, traveling all across the country, in neighborhoods both haughty and humble, I've never seen one of these things lying open, unattended, unless it was roped off with warning signs and tape. Nor do they ever break. You can walk over them every single time, without giving them a second thought. The average German probably walks over 30 of them every single day, never giving them a second though. Contrast this to basically any developing country, where sidewalk murder-holes are a fact of life. Here's a picture I took in Alexandria:

Alex - Street near Pompey's Pillar

The contrast may help explain why so many people from places like Egypt want to relocate to places like Germany, no?

Then you have the display cases on either side of the storefront. Often, these are only big enough for posters, but these seem to have room enough for small displays. Then the actual display windows. If you want to run your own shop, you will generally go to a vocational school to learn, in great detail, how to structure an appealing shop-window display. This is called Schaufenstergestaltung in German. Of course, since this is a hardware shop, Weber hasn't really put all that much effort into it. Anything too schicki-micki (fancy) would probably drive away customers for these sorts of things.

Then you have the A-shaped ad placards to put in the way of pedestrians, stored safely beneath the chain protecting the door. Of course, since this is Germany, there are detailed regulations (g) for how large these stand-up signs (Stellschilder) can be, where you can put them, and how long you can leave them out. You may chuckle at those crazy Prussians, but you shouldn't. These signs are already an annoyance, and if the rules weren't there, they'd probably clog the sidewalk even more than they do already. Which would lead people to destroy them. So, a delicate balance is required between the needs of the shopkeeper and those of the public. That's what rules are for.

This store is almost certainly going to close soon, to be replaced by an artisanal vegan fair-trade frozen-yogurt studio. If this were Japan, the entire store would be recreated lovingly inside a museum, staffed by animatronic shopkeepers giving tinny mechanical advice to animatronic customers:

DSC_0164

But since this is Germany, 'Eisen-Weber' will probably just disappear forever. At least we'll have the photo.


German Hunters Shoot Thousands of Cats Every Year*

Section 25 of the State Hunting Law in Northern Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) provides (g, my translation)

(4) Those who are entitled to protect hunting conditions (Jagdschutz) are permitted:

1. To detain persons who enter a hunt area without permission or who commit another violation of hunt regulations or who are found equipped for hunting outside the general approved hunting paths, to gather personal information from these persons and to seize from them killed animals, firearms and other weapons, traps, dogs, and ferrets.

2. To shoot and kill dogs and cats which are becoming feral. A feral dog is defined as a dog which hunts, follows, or seizes wild animals outside the control of its master (orig. Führer!). A feral cat is defined as a cat found in hunt area more than 200 meters from the nearest house.... 

According to the German nature group NABU, German hunters in NRW alone kill around 8,000 cats a year (g) under this law. The Green Party in NRW is trying to eliminate this law (g), but the hunters are fighting back, claiming that culling cats protects songbirds and other species. The controversy rages!

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Rules for Cemeteries

No trip to Kassel would be complete without a visit to the Museum für Sepulkralkultur (g), a museum devoted to death and burial. There are coffins from around the globe (including simple boxes for Orthodox Jews and gaily-decorated Ghanaian models), hell money and hell cigarettes, Totentanz sculptures, hearses, monuments, embalming kits, memorial portraits, 'death crowns' for children and young unmarried people, monuments, death masks, and art inspired by death, funerals, rebirth, and reincarnation. Outside, there are innovative grave markers designed by contemporary artists. Of course, there are also programs for kids.

There are also the obligatory information-drenched placards describing the origin and nature of European funeral practices. From these you learn that the practice of burying people in individual, marked graves only became uniform in Europe in the last 200 years -- before that, most poorer citizens were dumped in mass graves. You also learn that modern German cemeteries are facing a space crisis -- they're not running out of it, they often have too much of it, since almost 50% of Germans now choose to be cremated, and those numbers keep growing.

While there, I stocked up on a few back issues of Friedhof und Denkmal: Zeitschrift für Sepulkralkultur (Cemetery and Monument: Journal of Sepulchral Culture). In the 2-2011 issue of this handsome magazine, there is a discussion of the model rules for grave design in Catholic cemeteries that were recently promulgated by the Archbishopric of Cologne:

Basically, the new regulations contain only required dimensions for the grave, as well as bans on some materials that are inappropriate for cemeteries. Completely covered graves are forbidden: the grave-plate can only cover up to one-third of the grave.... [Individual church cemeteries can still] add regulations that servce to express shared religious beliefs. An example is a ban on polished stone, since this prevents natural change in the stone, which itself is an expression of the transitoriness of human life in this world. A ban on snow-white marble and showy (überschwänglich) golden inscriptions serve to prevent excessive ostentation in the religious sense.

The back of the book contains reviews of recent burial-related books, including a 400-page work by Regina Deckers on 'The Testa Velata in Baroque Sculpture' (g) an entire monograph (written at the University of Düsseldorf!) on the motif of figures with veiled heads or faces in funerary sculpture.

Now for some of the odd and delightful things in the museum, hover for info.

Skeleton Sculpture MfSK Kassel
Totentanz Figure Knight MfSK Kassel
Death and the Chinaman MfSK Kassel

Skulls Inscribed with Owners' Names from S. Germany MfSK Kassel
Nietszche Memorial Model MfSK Kassel
General View of 19th Century Embalmer's Kit

Eye-caps from 19th Century Embalmers' Kit MfSK Kassel
Kubach & Kropp 'Stein fuer das Licht' MfSK Kassel
Spinster's Burial Crown MfSK Kassel
Martin Luther Death Mask MfSK Kassel
Beethoven Death Mask MfSK Kassel


Tapez 3615 pour des Entretiens Lubricieuses

Minitel1
This week's German Rule of the Week is French. Matthew Fraser, proud 'Anglo-Saxon' he, splutters at the recent decision of the French broadcast regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, to ban the mention of Facebook or Twitter on French radio and television:

Anglo-Saxons who live in France, as I do, constantly struggle with the puzzling paradox in a society universally admired for its splendid “joie de vivre” — yet infamous for its oppressive bureaucratic culture of legalistic codes and decrees. The term “French bureaucracy” is shorthand for the worst imaginable Kafkaesque nightmare.

In France you cannot put up awnings in your own home without first obtaining permission from some government department, which will officiously stipulate what colours are allowed. One could easily draw up a list of French micro-regulations that, to the Anglo-Saxon disposition, seem utterly absurd, if not totally objectionable.

The latest one doubtless would rank high on that list. This week we learned that France’s broadcasting regulator had just issued another decree: henceforth, hosts of television and radio programmes must refrain from uttering the words “Facebook” and “Twitter” on the air.

If this had happened in any self-respecting Anglo-Saxon country, Fraser states, it would be met with disbelief and mockery, and quickly reversed, but

in France, after the sages inside the CSA bureaucratic bunker handed down their ruling, there was scarcely any reaction at all in the French media. Some newspapers published fairly straightforward news articles on the decision, a couple provided more detailed analysis. Coverage on websites was somewhat more probing, and French bloggers questioned the decision. But the story came and went. No stupefaction, no outrage, no fulminating columns in the mainstream press. Business as usual. 

French regulators, needless to say, were armed with a rationale for their meddling. The CSA maintained that any on-air mention of a programme’s Facebook page or Twitter feed constitutes ”clandestine advertising” for these social networks because they are commercial operations. In a word, French television and radio programmes cannot be seen to be promoting Facebook and Twitter as commercial brands. 

Fraser then argues that anti-Anglo-Saxon bias was probably another driving factor for the decision. And then he provides a delightful historical interlude:

A relevant historical comparison makes my point. Before the explosion of the Internet in the 1990s, the French were infatuated with their leading-edge electronic information system called Minitel. During the 1980s, when I first moved to France, the Minitel was the object of tremendous national pride. Nearly everyone in this country had a Minitel terminal in their home. The plastic terminals were easy to procure because the Minitel was a state-backed technology made available through the state-owned telephone company, France Telecom. I picked up my Minitel terminal (see image below), free of charge at my local Post Office. 

In those days, you couldn’t watch a television programme in France without the host urging you to “tapez 3615” on your Minitel to connect and get more information or express your opinion. The numbers “3615”, for reasons I never understood, were the standard code to access the Minitel system. The French government made billions on the Minitel because time spent logged on was tariffed by state-owned France Telecom. The Minitel’s dirty secret was that text-based porn services like “Ulla” — famous for its lascivious poster adverts on the back of Parisian buses — were by far the most profitable. Through “Minitel Rose”, the French government was in the porn business.

Now, I couldn't let this go without trying to locate one of those famously 'lascivious' ads. Here is one, found in this delightful blog post (f) about advertisements for defunct technologies:

36_15_ulla

My God, what I would give for just one transcription of an Ulla service chat from, say, 1983. If only there was a serious, respectable Histoire de la pornographie francaise that could help me satisfy my lust for knowledge.

To end this rambling post, I can only ask the question that is on every reader's mind: why has the nation which has given us, for instance, Emmanuelle Béart, given its national text-porn service a German woman's name and a Teutonic-looking avatar?


German Rule of the Week: Postmortem Social Control

Serbian cemeteries feature family gravesites with the likenesses of all family members laser-etched into marble, even the ones who are still living:

Family Plot in Gracanica, Kosovo 2010
Jewish cemeteries feature the columns, books, pillars and obelisks you would expect from children of the Enlightenment:

Grave in Jewish Section of Vienna Zentralfriedhof, 2010
French and Belgian cemeteries are studded with Art Nouveau tombs that look like alien eggs. And Latin cemeteries in the swampy sections of the New World feature above-ground crypts that crumble picturesquely in the humidity:

Tombs in Lafayette Cemetery, Louisiana, 2001
And German cemeteries? Suidically dull, thanks to plodding, literal-minded regulations meant to ensure no gravestone will offend even the most tight-assed musty old Spießburger. And since Spießer-Ressentiment can be triggered by even the slightest trace of humor or originality, the list of rules must be long indeed.

Enter the Friedhofsordnung (Cemetery regulations) for the Protestant Cemetery of Falkenstein/Vogtl. It has 45 separate sections, including at least 5 dedicated to telling people exactly what their graves must look like -- including a table (!) specifying the precise volume, in cubic meters, of acceptable gravestones. Cross-shaped headstones are permitted to be up to 20% wider than square ones, you'll be happy to know, as long as the cubic-meter measurement is not affected.

But that's just the beginning. Here's Section 36:

Section 36 Material, Form, and Composition

1.     For gravestones, only natural rock, wood, and cast or sculptured metal is allowed.

2.    The form of the gravestone must conform to the material and must be simple and well-proportioned.

3.     The gravestones must be formed from one piece of material.

4.    All sides of the gravestone must be equally well-worked in a manner consistent with the material.

5.     Finishes and fine engraving are permitted only as a design element in connections with letters, symbols and ornaments which, for their part, may only occupy an area in proportion to the size of the headstone.

6.    Surfaces may not be rounded.

7.     All materials, ingredients, and finishing and design elements that are not listed above are forbidden, in particular concrete, glass, plastic, pictures, engravings, plaster, porcelain, aluminum, etc.

8.    The Church Guidlines on Headstone Design from 15 September 1992 (Exhibit 1) are hereby incorporated by reference into these Cemetery Regulations.

The rules go on, and on, and on. I can't translate the rest -- even the small excerpt above left me profoundly depressed. The English, it seems, are not the only ones suffering from ghastly good taste.


German Rule of the Week: Federal Garden Plot Law

tiny houses for people with tiny lives!

A new series in which we celebrate Ordnung.

What better place to begin than the Bundeskleingartengesetz, the Federal Garden Plot Law. From Section 3:

(1) A garden plot should not be larger than 400 square meters. During use and cultivation of the garden plot, all requirements relating to protection of the environment, the local habitat, and the landscape shall be taken into account.

(2) In the garden plot, it is permitted to construct a simply-furnished small house with a maximum of 24 square meters of floor space, including any covered outdoor seating area. Sections 29 to 36 of the Building Code apply accordingly. The house's overall design, and especially its furnishings and equipment, may not be suited to long-term residence.