Legally Speaking: Summertime � The Silly Lawsuit Season

John G. Browning Jul. 5, 2007, 11:51am

Ah, summertime. For many of us, the very word conjures up images of fun and relaxation, a time of backyard barbecues and lazing by the pool, or enjoying the entertainment options provided by the local multiplex showing the latest and greatest in summer blockbusters and sequels galore.

But for lawyers, summer also offers entertainment of a decidedly different type (and with a much smaller special effects budget), because that's when the silliest of lawsuits seem to be filed.

We've already seen Judge Pearson and his ridiculous $54 million lawsuit against a drycleaner over an allegedly lost pair of pants; thankfully, that case ended with the greedy Pearson getting nothing and being ordered to pay the drycleaners' costs. However, the cases keep on coming, and just seem to get crazier than ever.

Take, for example, Victoria McArthur of Romero, Mich. She's suing candy maker Mars, Inc., maker of Starburst Fruit Chews�, because they're, well, chewy. According to Ms. Romero and her attorney Brian Muawad, she sustained personal injuries after biting into one of the chewy candies in 2005.

Ms. Romero claims she had "maybe about three chews and it literally locked my jaw ... and it just literally pulled my jaw out of joint." McArthur says that the candies caused her to develop temporal mandibular joint dysfunction, and as a result she has trouble chewing, talking and sleeping since her confectionary nightmare.

Mars has refused to pay for Ms. McArthur's sweet tooth. McArthur hopes to give the candy company something to chew on in return, vowing to press on with the lawsuit until Mars puts a warning label on its Starburst wrappers. Wait a minute - wasn't the big word "Chew" enough of a clue?

Like some of us, Larry Lemay of New Hampshire has gotten his share of speeding tickets � OK, maybe more than his share, since he's had four so far this year. But Lemay has chosen to fight his speeding tickets in a unique way - by suing the state Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit.

Apparently, Mr. "I Can't Drive 55" Lemay feels that speed limits are set intentionally low so that the state can cash in on speeding tickets (it couldn't possibly have anything to do with those accident fatality rates, could it?). Consequently, Lemay wants the state to pay for all of his legal fees and fund a traffic feasibility study to look into raising speed limits. Good luck with that, Larry.

Of course, the United States doesn't have a monopoly on silly lawsuits. In the Netherlands, Helene De Gier filed a lawsuit claiming that she was traumatized because she didn't win the country's National Postcode Lottery. In this lottery, which benefits charity, zip codes are chosen randomly and people who live in those codes can enter and win prizes ranging from a few dollars up to millions.

According to De Gier, when seven entrants in her small town of Heusden won the equivalent of over $18 million each in January 2006, she couldn't escape the media attention or the constant reminders from her lucky neighbors, one of whom had the nerve to rub it in by parking his new Porsche in front of his house. De Gier became obsessed with the loss, especially when writing her postal address and the thought of upcoming lotteries felt "like a noose around my neck being tightened," she said.

Unfortunately for Ms. De Gier, her case didn't win her any jackpots, either; the Amsterdam District Court judges threw out her lawsuit. It seems there was one teeny tiny problem with Ms. De Gier's claim - she didn't actually enter the lottery, while her neighbors did. That makes it kind of tough to win, in the lottery or in court. Don't worry, Ms. De Gier. We've got some sour grapes for you.

In Sagsjon, Sweden, female prison inmates have filed a civil rights lawsuit, demanding the right to wear bikinis in order to get a tan. Citing their inalienable right to get as good a tan as Swedes who aren't incarcerated, the women prisoners are demanding that bikinis be added to standard prison clothing. Describing the current situation as gender discrimination (since male prisoners can just take their shirts off), the inmates are demanding their human right "to enjoy the sun."

I have just two questions: 1) Are they going to call George Hamilton as an expert witness? and, 2) how long will it be before this is made into a bad late night movie on Cinemax?

Sometimes, lawsuits come with their own measure of poetic justice.

Conservative legal scholar and former U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork made his reputation speaking out against judicial activism and railing against excessive damages (especially punitive damages). In scholarly articles and opinion pieces alike, Judge Bork criticized the "expensive, capricious and unpredictable" American civil justice system. In one article, the conservative jurist compared the treatment of a modern business owner in civil lawsuits to "the treatment that his ancestors experienced with the Barbary pirates."

So, it came as a bit of a surprise last month when Judge Bork filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Manhattan against the Yale Club of New York City. Bork is seeking over $1 million (including punitive damages) for an incident in June 2006 when he tripped and fell while ascending a dais at the club to give a speech (hopefully it wasn't on tort reform).

He claims that he suffered excruciating pain, and injuries that not only required surgery and months of physical therapy, but that have left the judge with a limp as well. Judge Bork's lawsuit calls the Yale Club grossly negligent for failing to provide steps or a handrail between the floor and the dais.

But could some of the responsibility for Bork's unsteadiness rest with him? After all, he has been known to lean pretty far to the right.

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