Best of Legally Speaking: I Can't Make This Stuff Up

John G. Browning Nov. 25, 2009, 1:43am

Editor's Note: Following is a "Best Of" Legally Speaking column which first appeared in the Southeast Texas Record on Nov. 25, 2008.

As readers of "Legally Speaking" know, I have a fondness for chronicling some of the oddities that pervade the legal system, to the point of recognizing some of the strangest moments in a year-end wrapup.

Some of you have even expressed disbelief at some of the weirder cases and litigants populating the legal landscape. But I promise, I can't make this stuff up; if I were that creative, I'd be giving John Grisham a run for his money. And just to show you how serious I am, here's the latest rundown of the legally bizarre.

The Dog Who Got a Law Degree This year, Amy Jones was among the students who graduated from Baylor Law School. It was the culmination of a long journey for Jones, who was left a quadriplegic by a 2002 skiing accident. In 2004, the wheelchair-bound young woman was paired with her service dog and constant companion � a black Labrador retriever named Skeeter.

With Skeeter at her side, Jones completed her undergraduate degree in construction management in 2005, and the faithful Lab accompanied her to Baylor Law School shortly thereafter. Both Jones and Skeeter made a lasting impression on the law school community.

As Dean Brad Toben puts it, "Amy has busted through brick walls, and Skeeter has been faithfully by her side every step of the way. Skeeter has become a part of our community and part of our family here at the law school."

So much so, in fact, that at graduation Skeeter received his own degree � a "Juris Dogtor." The diploma reads in part "WHEREAS Skeeter Jones...attended faithfully with Ms. Amy Jones all prescribed law school classes... [and] showed uncommon bravery in yawning loudly in abject dog-boredom... Baylor University School of Law confers upon Skeeter the Labrador this HONORARY JURIS 'DOG' TOR DEGREE."

Ms. Jones plans to pursue a career in construction law or business litigation; as for Skeeter, well let's just say that like a lot of recent law school graduates his bark is worse than his bite.

Chimp My Ride Of course, not everyone is a dog person. British personal injury barrister Simon Carr is more of a chimpanzee person. For that reason, and to help show the public that lawyers have a fun-loving side, Carr had his Porsche spraypainted with pictures of chimps. Now people look for "the Chimpmobile" at court, but Carr insists that when it comes to his law practice, he doesn't monkey around.

Starving For Attention If there's one environment where you'd least expect to find someone with an eating disorder, it would probably be a television cooking show. At least that's what producers of Rachael Ray's program probably thought until they were served with a $1 million discrimination lawsuit by one of their assistants.

Aaron Ferguson claims, in a suit recently filed in Manhattan's state Supreme Court, that he has suffered from anorexia for about six years. He maintains that during his time working for Rachael Ray's popular show, he was subjected to discriminating statements like "Anorexics are sick in the head" and "Anorexics should not be able to work," before ultimately being fired in October 2007. CBS officials had no comment on the pending litigation.

When Is A Gun Not a Gun? U.S. attorneys in Nebraska were faced with a puzzling situation during a November 2008 trial. Wanting to show that convicted felon Lawrence Ray Cook was in possession of a firearm, the prosecutors couldn't prove that the gun was a gun.

Cook was apprehended after a hit-and-run accident with an American double-action revolver manufactured sometime after 1880. The indeterminate production date was a problem: federal statutes define a "firearm" as being manufactured after 1896.

But all's well that ends well � found with live ammunition on his person, Cook was convicted of being a felon in possession of ammunition and for making a personal assault on an officer. As a result, he faces 15 years in federal prison.

The Ringer Lawyers are competitive by nature. Some apparently play just as hard as they work. Troubled New York class action law firm Milberg Weiss really, really wanted to win the Lawyers Athletic League basketball championship.

So rather than fill one of their two allotted "non-attorney" team member slots with a paralegal or an attorney's spouse, the firm recruited 6-foot-8-inch Devone Stephenson, a former college and pro basketball player.

But Stephenson wasn't warmly welcomed by opposing players. In fact, in one game lawyers for charitable organization The Food Bank of New York City were downright uncharitable, fouling Stephenson repeatedly and punching him in the face, breaking his jaw. Stephenson's time spent in the company of lawyers evidently rubbed off, because he promptly filed a personal injury lawsuit.

The case was dismissed because Stephenson had signed a liability waiver (got to hand it to those lawyers). And you thought the 400-meter ambulance chase was our only athletic event.

Assuming the Risk Speaking of liability waivers, leave it to defense attorneys to think of everything � and then some. At their recent annual convention in New Orleans, members of the Defense Research Institute (a national group of civil litigators) made sure that it wasn't all work and no play, so the conference included a 5K "fun-raiser" run to benefit charter schools in the New Orleans area.

Lawyers being lawyers, the convention brochure included a full-page "Assumption of Risk and Waiver of Rights." Before joining in the "fun" run, participants were required to agree that there might be "numerous risks and dangers including, but not limited to: acts of God; civil unrest; terrorism; ...high altitude; accident or illness..." etc.

Okay, it is New Orleans, so I understand the "acts of God" part and even the "civil unrest." But "high altitude?"

Reach Out and Touch Someone Lawyers can be as creative with their marketing as they can be with waivers. Avvo, a lawyer directory and ratings site, just announced a new application for iPhone users.

Dubbed "Last Call," it enables iPhone users to calculate their blood alcohol levels (based on one's body size and number of drinks consumed), obtain phone numbers for local cab companies, and if they're stopped for DWI, find a lawyer right away.

Of course, the application does have one tiny little flaw � it assumes you're sober enough to correctly operate an iPhone.

A Magazine Named Sue There are 370,000 female attorneys, approximately 85 percent of the 300,000 paralegals in the United States are women, and thousands more women work in litigation support and legal technology fields.

Such figures were enough of an inspiration for Chere Estrin to start a magazine targeted at women in litigation. Her new publication, a bimonthly magazine launching in January 2009, promises "stories of remarkable individuals along with expert advice, cutting-edge data and emerging trends to help readers gain more recognition, more equity and opportunity in the legal workplace."

The name chosen for this magazine? "Sue." Like I said, I can't make this stuff up.

The Snoring Should've Tipped You Off Australia's highest court has just overturned the convictions of two men because the judge presiding over their trial slept through most of the proceedings. Overruling a lower appellate court that had ruled that it "is not a fundamental requirement" for a judge to be "constantly attentive," the High Court of Australia called the result a "miscarriage of justice" for the defendants facing drug-related charges.

The court was swayed not just by evidence that the trial judge slept through large portions of the case, but that some members of the jury "found his behaviour amusing and even emulated it."

Adding Insult to Injury Finally, Karel Pravec of the Czech Republic didn't expect to be struck by a car while walking home from a nightclub. And I'm sure he didn't expect the car's driver, Petr Neisser, to load him into the car's trunk before dumping the gravely injured Mr. Pravec (he had 2 broken legs) in some nearby woods.

But after Neisser was convicted of attempted murder, it's a sure bet that Pravec didn't expect to face a civil suit for the property damage his body inflicted on Neisser's car (about $3,000 U.S.). Yet such a through-the-looking glass lawsuit is in fact working its way through the Czech legal system, even as Neisser serves his 12 year criminal sentence.

The car's owner insists that the civil suit is "moral and right," claiming that Pravec was negligent. Plenty of cars now come equipped with GPS navigation systems � too bad this one didn't feature a moral compass.

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