Legally Speaking: More weirdness in the courtroom

John G. Browning Feb. 5, 2008, 7:15am

As many of you know, I write a year-end wrap-up recognizing some of the strangest lawsuits and legal stories of the year. However, 2008 is off to such an early start in this department that I just can't wait – there's just been too much weirdness going on in the courtroom.

First out of the gate are some of the silliest warning labels to ever accompany a product. The organization Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch holds an annual contest to find the wackiest warnings, and the most recent winners include some real doozies.

The winner was a label on a small tractor that reads "Danger: Avoid Death." Let's face it, if you need a reminder to preserve your own life, you shouldn't be operating machinery of any kind. The runner-up was a label found on an iron-on T-shirt transfer that says "Do not iron while wearing shirt."

Is this really necessary? Are blissfully ignorant people with iron-shaped chest burns flooding emergency rooms around the country? Or is this simply one more example of the hypersensitivity to ridiculous lawsuits that has led to manufacturers feeling compelled to state the obvious and wallpaper their products with superfluous warnings?

The third place award went to a label for a baby stroller equipped with a small storage pouch – you know, the type that can hold a diaper bag, toys, or mom's purse. The label warns "Do not put child in bag." If you actually need an admonishment like this (listen up, Britney Spears), maybe you shouldn't have kids in the first place.

One of my favorite warning labels, though, only got an honorable mention. The packaging for the Vanishing Fabric Marker cautions that it "should not be used as a writing instrument for signing checks or any legal documents, as signatures will fade or disappear completely." Has there actually been a rash of people trying the old disappearing ink trick? I don't think so.

If you think these warnings are a silly waste of space, then you'll love the rules imposed by Great Britain's Health and Safety authorities, in conjunction with the country's National Operatic and Dramatic Association. Already "armed" with some of the world's most restrictive gun control laws, these English agencies are also out to keep people safe from replica weapons used in stage plays. The result is a ridiculously strict set of rules requiring the registering of such fake weaponry, including plastic swords for a Robinson Crusoe play and a toy gun that produces a flag with the word "Bang" on it. Wow – I feel safer already.

Another bit of legal silliness from across the pond involved two London dentists who were sued for trademark infringement by the French fashion giant Lacoste. Lacoste, of course, is known for the crocodile logo that has adorned untold millions of polo shirts around the world, a mark that originated with 1920s French tennis star Rene Lacoste, nicknamed "The Crocodile."

The dentists, Dr. Simon Moore and Dr. Tim Rumney, chose a toothy crocodile to advertise their dental practice, a move they say was prompted by the natural association of crocodiles with teeth. Lacoste failed on its attempts both at the trial level and in an appeal to convince the UK Intellectual Property Office that consumers were likely to confuse the large clothing company and the two-man dental practice, and was even ordered to pay the dentists' legal costs. I'm not surprised at the outcome of the lawsuit, but I am kind of shocked that there are actually dentists in Great Britain.

From England, we next turn to Spain for an unbelievable lawsuit. Businessman Tomas Delgado killed teenage cyclist Enaitz Iriondo in August 2004 when he hit the boy at nearly 100 miles per hour (in a 55 miles per hour zone) with his luxury sedan in northern Spain. His insurance company later paid Iriondo's grieving parents a settlement.

But in late 2006, Delgado had the nerve to file a lawsuit against the parents, seeking $29,400 for property damage to his car and rental car costs. Iriondo's mother Rosa was shocked, saying "Before the lawsuit, we thought the poor guy would find it hard to live the rest of his life with the thought of having caused our son's death." Well, it seems the gritty conscience caught up with Mr. Delgado.

As we went to press, word came that Delgado had dropped his case just before trial was to begin. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that his lawsuit had spurred a national outrage, with unfavorable media coverage and hundreds of protesters demonstrating outside the courthouse.

But when it comes to the strange, the good ol' U.S.A. takes a back seat to no one. For example, the police department in Lacey, Wash., had a great method of getting speeding motorists to slow down: they marked a police car as a decoy, with "Trevor," a dummy used to convince drivers that the speedtrap was manned. There was just one complication; the police arrived recently to find the driver's side window of the vehicle smashed in and Trevor the mannequin missing. Now the Lacey Police Department would like their lifelike decoy back, no questions asked. It seems to me that police department has plenty of dummies to go around.

A couple of recent cases came straight out of the "You Give Love a Bad Name" department. Jason Fife, a 31-year-old resident of Hunter, Penn., is currently doing community service and serving a probated sentence. His crime? Fife reacted to his wife's adulterous affair by mailing a cow's head to her lover. Maybe Fife should avoid watching "The Godfather" while he's on probation, or else horse's heads might be next.

And if you think that politicians limit themselves to kissing babies, talk to Nathaniel and Krysynthia Rido. The Houston couple recently filed a lawsuit against state Rep. Borris Miles. According to the lawsuit, as well as a complaint filed with the Harris County District Attorney's office, Rep. Miles crashed a party, brandished a pistol, and forcibly kissed Mrs. Rido. Among other relief, the plaintiffs want the state lawmaker tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Doesn't this make you nostalgic for the good old days, when politicians just kissed babies?

Finally, we have a lawsuit that reminds me of the lawyer joke about who wins when lawyers go after other lawyers (answer: we all do). In 2006, stung by the increasingly negative public perceptions associated with the term "trial lawyers," America's longest and most influential trial lawyers' organization changed its name from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) to the more noble-sounding American Association for Justice (AAJ).

Shortly thereafter, a new organization was started, The American Trial Lawyers Association, which has solicited many of the AAJ's 56,000 members to join. While the new organization has denied trying to compete with the AAJ or capitalize on ATLA's longstanding name recognition, the AAJ isn't convinced. In November 2007, it filed a federal lawsuit against The ATLA claiming trademark infringement and attempts to confuse AAJ members.

As if that wasn't enough, The ATLA has also been sued in a different federal court by the Irvine, Calif.-based American College of Trial Lawyers. That organization, a prestigious invitation-only group of top trial lawyers, claims that the ATLA is unfairly encroaching on its turf by marketing itself as an elite organization.

J. Keith Givens, a founder of The ATLA and a law partner of the late Johnnie Cochran, denies competing with either of the other two organizations and contends that his group will continue "no matter what name it has."

So who wins when these trial lawyer organizations turn on each other? The average person on the street would probably say "Who cares?"

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American Association for Justice
777 6th Street Northwest
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