DEAR PROFESSOR: I would like to ask you about a story concerning a man who tried to trim hedges with a lawn mower. He injured himself, then successfully sued the manufacturer of the lawn mower for not attaching warning labels explaining how to use the machine properly. Is this an urban legend? - J.T., Stevens Point, Wis.
DEAR READER: "Injured himself," you say? Are you trying to spare my feelings by eliminating the gory details? There's no need to - I've heard this story before. And although such incidents have doubtless happened, this particular story is probably not true.The way the story is usually told, the poor guy tries to pick up his power lawn mower to trim the hedge while the motor is running. He grasps it from underneath, instantly severing the tips from all eight of his fingers.
Sometimes the accident is said to have involved two men working together to lift the mower. They supposedly cut off all 16 of their fingertips.
In either instance, the thumbs on both hands are spared, because as the victim lifts, his thumbs remain on the top side of the mower.
The story typically ends with the statement that the injured party or parties sued the mower manufacturer for not issuing a warning against this kind of misuse. The company lost the suit and paid a massive settlement.
I've heard this one told by lawn mower sales and repair personnel to customers as a cautionary tale about how not to use the machine. And hospital workers tell it as an example of the terrible home accidents that sometimes show up in the emergency room.
For example, J.D., now a mailman in Auburn, N.Y., heard the story in that context 20 years ago.
"In 1967-68 I was a student nurse in training at Tompkins County Hospital, Ithaca, N.Y.," he recounted in a recent letter. "While working in the emergency room, I was told by a hospital employee about a bizarre lawn mower accident involving a professor at Cornell University (located in Ithaca). He was going to trim his hedges and decided to do it with the power mower."
The story, which J.D. calls "a true nursing horror story," continued as outlined above. The description of the injured party as the stereotypical absent-minded professor adds another folkloristic element to the telling.
Incidentally, J.D. apologized for possibly offending me - a professor - by sending a story about an overeducated klutz. But I'm far from offended: For us professors, absent-mindedness seems to be an occupational hazard.
Even when the victim is a professor, the most common context for the story is in discussions of huge settlements made in courts of law. "You wouldn't believe the big payoff this guy got when he sued," people will say.
No, I wouldn't believe it, and neither would lawyers who have tried to look up such cases in the literature on product-defect and liability suits.
In the legal profession such unverifiable accounts of extravagant litigation are sometimes called "atrocity stories."
As for this particular story, legal scholar Anita Johnson debunked it in 1978 in the journal Forum, in an article entitled "Behind the Hype on Product Liability."
"No one can verify that this case actually occurred," she wrote. "Nevertheless, it is often repeated and doubtless confirms the impression of rate setters that insurance rates must anticipate the wildest judgments. In this atmosphere, the perception of reality is more important than reality itself."
This notion of a "perception of reality" outweighing the facts really sums it up for urban legends. To put it differently: The truth never stands in the way of a good story.
Jan Harold Brunvand is the author of "The Mexican Pet," a collection of urban folklore. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.