Denise Norton’s judgment was swift and it was harsh.
When KOMO reported in early February that the North Seattle woman had lost a $500,000 lawsuit over her barking dog and was on the verge of losing her home, the Internet, as it’s wont to do, pounced. “Someone who cares about no one but themselves finally gets what they deserve,” wrote BH2K on Yahoo!’s news site. (KOMO, ironically enough, discontinued the commenting feature on its site four days after the story ran.) “Good!” opined Krisztinastar on Reddit. “They couldn’t be bothered to care about their neighbors’ ears and now they will pay for it.” And Musicaveld chimed in on AOL to offer Norton some advice: “Next time shut your dog up.”
There is, of course, more to the story. Norton lost on a default judgment because she never responded in court. She took full responsibility for her situation but told KOMO’s Jon Humbert that she’d assumed the suit—a rambling, 36-page screed in which the plaintiff, Woodrow Thompson, argued that the dog was louder than a chain saw and intended to cause him emotional distress—was bogus. So it’s hard to argue that she was entirely without blame, regardless of the veracity of Thompson’s complaint. But of the hundreds of people who weighed in online, the vast majority agreed: She was “dumb.” She was “entitled.” And she—a human being who stands to be cast out into the street because she made a mistake—got what was coming to her.
Sure, Love thy neighbor may be a bit antiquated in our twenty-first-century Thunderdome, but is the next logical step really Actively cheer the downfall of thy neighbor, who in all likelihood thou hast never met, even if said neighbor’s greatest offense is being a bit of a dumbass? And that applies to the online mob with their digital pitchforks and the ragey homeowner who’d rather sue the pants off the lady next door than hash out the problem over a beer. More succinctly: Have we lost all empathy for each other—or have we lost our minds?
As a mediation and court services director at the King County Dispute Resolution Center, Patti Dinsmore sees—and tries to find an amicable conclusion to—squabbles like this one all the time. (Between 10 and 20 percent of all cases the center mediates involve neighbors.) “What’s amazing,” she says, “is that oftentimes the person who filed the suit has never talked to the other person.”
Which is so Seattle. We scold people for a poor parking job by leaving an anonymous note on the windshield. We take those trash cans our neighbor leaves out one day too long and push them just far enough into the driveway that he can’t pull in without moving them. “We aren’t in community with our neighbors the way we used to be,” says Dr. Kathleen Cook, an associate professor of psychology at Seattle University. “So we feel like we can do these passive-aggressive things without feeling like we’ve made ourselves so vulnerable.”
There is some wisdom to that; who’s to say how that dude who tans hides in his backyard will react to your complaint, no matter how calmly you present it? But oftentimes we avoid addressing the issue directly because we just can’t be bothered to. “It takes less work that way,” says Dr. Tony Hacker, a psychologist and columnist for The Seattle Times. “It’s the path of least resistance.” Then, because we don’t know anything about the person who’s trespassed against us, we start filling in the holes with our own assumptions and create a narrative about their motivations. “And once it becomes your story,” Hacker says, “you feel justified about whatever reaction you have.”
The same could be said for the Internet commenter who stabs at the keyboard with a nasty quip. Many of those who thought Denise Norton got what she deserved told of their own fights with dog owners; she was a blank slate on which to project the resentment they still feel. And while Woodrow Thompson’s suit may have been excessive, it’s reasonable to assume he’d experienced some level of distress. But that’s not the case for commenters, Cook says. “They’re just out to cause distress.”
Norton is still fighting to have the judgment overturned, but she faces an uphill battle. The rest of us, on the other hand, can learn a few things from her plight: 1. Answer any lawsuit, no matter how crazy pants it is. 2. Try mediation. 3. As Cook puts it, “Get offline!”
This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.