To save on the cost of raking and bagging the leaves that fell every autumn, Southern Michigan University policy was to have the groundskeepers mow over the leaves in place, mulching them into a fine dust that would naturally fertilize the grounds. It was touted as a cheap and green solution to the problem, the hydrocarbon-spewing leafblowers and mulchers aside.

Then, ten years after the policy was enacted, SMU found itself in the crosshairs of a class-action suit.

Attorneys representing the groundskeepers claimed that the fine particulate generated during the annual fall leaf mulch had given their clients “leaf lung.” Characterized by shortness of breath, chlorophyll poisoning, halitosis, winter lethargy, and PTSD, “leaf lung” was said to have cost the groundskeepers any chance of earning a livelihood in the future. Their attorneys asked for a million-dollar settlement for each victim.

Horrified at the prospect of bad PR, SMU paid immediately and resumed the old practice of bagging leaves to be hauled away and become someone else’s problem. The doctor’s reports came in one week after the settlement checks cleared: there had been no sign of anything harmful in the groundskeepers’ lungs, and the physicians at the University Hospital cheekily prescribed facemasks and goggles for the condition, including a pair (total cost: $2) with the report.

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