Recognizing SNAFU in Personal Injury Law

SNAFU is an acronym of uncertain origin, but most commonly credited to United States military personnel in the 1940s, standing (euphemistically) for SITUATION NORMAL ALL FOULED UP.   What may have begun as an expression of a soldier’s beleaguered acceptance of the frustrations of military life, also captures a recognition essential to safety planning, and, not coincidentally, to personal injury law:  All fouled up is a normal state of affairs, so reasonable safety planning, and reasonable conduct as defined by negligence law, requires anticipation and avoidance of foreseeable dangerousness.

Anyone who has driven in the Boston area has earned an understanding of SNAFU and hopefully adjusted their driving habits accordingly.  When we are driving this is commonly referred to as “Defensive Driving,” which the National Safety Council defines as “driving to save lives, time, and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others.” In other words, this means reducing the risk of driving by anticipating dangerous situations, including adverse conditions and even the negligence of other drivers.   Motor vehicle negligence law does not permit a driver to presume perfection on the part of other motorists, but rather to keep a lookout and maintain the ability to avoid foreseeable hazards.

The need to plan for foul-ups is evident in the engineering of today’s vehicles for crashworthiness, as well as in occupant protection – seat belts, airbags, are two examples. Externally, the presence of highway guardrails and the design and location of potential roadside hazards such as utility poles are the products of anticipation that accidents will occur.

In business and industry safety planning is a more formalized process with regulations or industry standards guiding the process.   Most, however, boil down simply to expecting experienced, safety-conscious professionals to think about what bad things could happen – to recognize SNAFU – and respond reasonably to avoid or minimize a danger.  No responsible person would quarrel with the proposition that tolerating a recognizable danger is unreasonable if the risk of harm could be cheaply and easily reduced or eliminated.

For example, operation of a construction site requires advance planning for worker safety and public safety.  OSHA sets forth requirements for a general contractor to plan for the safety of all workers on the site, its own employees and subcontractors’ employees.   Similarly, most contracts and building codes specify a general contractor’s responsibility to plan for public safety.  Industry standards provide an outline of how to do this. Hardhats, lifelines, guardrails, toe boards, audible alarms on moving equipment and protected pedestrian walkways are a few of the countless examples of SNAFU recognition in construction operations.  Established negligence law will hold a contractor liable for failing in its overall safety responsibility to protect against foreseeable danger to workers or the public.

Product manufacturers of course must think about the safety of their products’ intended uses, but the law, recognizing SNAFU, requires more.  A manufacturer’s safety planning must include all foreseeable uses and misuses of its product, including carelessness or inattention on the part of the product’s users.   The law holds a manufacturer strictly liable for harm and injury caused by an unreasonably dangerous product.

Business owners and merchants must consider SNAFU in conducting their operations.  “Situation normal” in a supermarket is that customers will drop the proverbial banana peel or spill something and thereby endanger other shoppers.  A Merchant must be vigilant to identify and rectify such hazards.  They must set up their premises in recognition that their patrons will not always look where they are going, and that looking where one is going is different from looking just at the ground in front of one’s feet.

Injuries caused by dangers that might be evident (legally termed, “open and obvious”) or of which there has been a warning may give rise to liability if, for example, a premises owner should foresee that a warning or the obviousness of the condition might not be sufficient to prevent harm.  In other words, the danger presented by a hole in a sidewalk should be repaired with cement, not just highlighted with spray paint.    Similarly, a product manufacturer must design a product so as to eliminate, not just warn of, avoidable dangers.  Courts recognize that a warning may not be effective in eliminating injuries due to instinctual reactions, momentary inadvertence, or forgetfulness on the part of product’s user.

Where the law expressly imposes a safety duty it also implicitly imposes an obligation to understand SNAFU.  After all, the term SNAFU simply describes the human condition – that to be human is to be imperfect.  Safety rules and the accountability produced by personal injury law exist so that we all have a right to be humanly imperfect and still be safe from preventable harm.  When there is a failure to recognize and plan for the inevitability of things getting all fouled up  — whether recognizing that someone might drive into the rear of a Ford Pinto, or considering a failsafe in the event that the blowout preventer on a BP oil rig might not function perfectly – the results, (which some might term FUBAR), can be deadly, catastrophic, and socially costly.

            Our job at Kenney & Conley is to fully understand the safety rules and how following the rules prevents foreseeable, avoidable injuries. When the safety rules are not followed and our client is needlessly harmed, we bring our knowledge to bear to enforce the rules in settlement or at trial.