Legally Speaking: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

John G. Browning Nov. 6, 2008, 4:44am

The civil cases that get the most media attention, it would seem, are those that reside at the opposite ends of the spectrum: the very good ones, where liability is obvious (think of the doctor amputating the wrong leg sort of situation); and the highly questionable ones that give the legal system a bad name and make you wonder if the concept of personal responsibility has completely eroded.

A case filed in September in Kentucky makes a great example of the first category. Sixty-one- year-old Phillip Seaton is not quite the man he used to be after a visit to Dr. John M. Patterson. According to Seaton's lawsuit, he went to Dr. Patterson and Commonwealth Urology for what was supposed to be a routine circumcision, only to have his penis amputated by mistake.

Although the doctor's post-surgical notes show that he thought he had detected cancer and therefore removed the member, Seaton's attorney claims that tests revealed no sign of cancer.

"It was not an emergency," he said. "It didn't have to happen that way." If it's an all-male jury, look out Dr. Patterson.

There is no shortage of candidates for the other extreme, unfortunately.

Take for example Steven Chalem and Veronica Miranda of Evanston, Ill. The two former employees of the Neiman Marcus store in Northbrook, who worked as loss prevention investigators for the upscale retailer, had a habit of having sex with each other – at work.

When the store manager installed a hidden camera and found himself with videotaped evidence of the workplace trysts, Mr. Chalem and Ms. Miranda were summarily fired in October 2007.

Rather than skulk away quietly in shame, the two decided this year to sue Neiman Marcus and their former manager for daring to invade their privacy by videotaping them at work. Now that's chutzpah.

You've probably heard the saying, "you mess with the bull, you get the horns." Maybe we should update that to "you mess with the mechanical bull, you get a lawsuit."

New York screenwriter Aaron Schnore visited Johnny Utah's, a Manhattan "urban cowboy" bar that features the only mechanical bull in the city. The bar holds a weekly bull-riding challenge sponsored by a tequila company, and rodeo wannabes are required to sign a waiver of liability before they hop into the saddle. There's also a sign warning riders not to get on if they're intoxicated.

But none of this was enough to keep Mr. Schnore from taking his chance on the mechanical bull (even while admittedly drunk), and none of it was enough to keep him from filing a lawsuit alleging serious personal injuries and claiming the bar was negligent for allowing "an inebriated individual to use and ride the mechanical bull."

With all due apologies to the picante sauce commercial, there are some things that have no right coming from New York City - and bull riding is one of them. In a Texas court, Mr. Schnore's lawsuit wouldn't last 8 seconds.

Another lawsuit that strains credulity is a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by 37-year-old musician Samuel Bartley Steele, who claims that rock star Jon Bon Jovi stole the lyrics and chorus from a song Steele wrote in coming up with the Bon Jovi work "I Love This Town."

Steele maintains that his song "(Man I Really) Love This Team" was written in the fall of 2004 as a "love song" to his beloved Boston Red Sox, just prior to their first World Series title in 86 years.

I'll leave it to a jury to decide if the two works have any suspicious similarities, but what earns Mr. Steele his spot in this column is the amount he's demanding: an eyepopping $400 billion dollars. Putting aside the fact that that Bon Jovi song couldn't have earned more than an infinitesimal fraction of that amount, the outrageous demand makes me wonder if he's being represented by Dr. Evil.

As hard a time as Mr. Steele will have explaining why he's entitled to such damages, Charles Privette of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will have difficulty explaining how he allegedly got hurt in his recently-filed lawsuit in Broward County.

According to Privette, he was patronizing the aptly named Florida strip club the Booby Trap, when a stripper's high-heeled shoe "flew up in the air and struck the mirrored glass ceiling during a pole dance," causing the broken mirror and shoe to strike him. Forget the dance – I'd have paid to see that strange chain of events.

If that strikes you as a strange event, how about a lawsuit alleging an enema by Sea-Doo? In a lawsuit filed this summer in Orange County, Texas, Megan Norris claims that she (along with 3 friends) was riding her Sea-Doo watercraft when she slipped off the rear of the vehicle directly into the path of the water thrust upwards by the jet pump.

According to her lawsuit against Bombardier Recreational Products, Inc. (the maker of the Sea-Doo), the high pressure stream of water "penetrated her orifices causing massive mutilating injuries to her lower abdomen."

While it's unclear how that could've happened if she was wearing a swimsuit, Norris is seeking damages for the "great shock to her nervous system."

Charlotte Feeney of Bridgeport also claimed that a serious wrong had changed her life. She sued L'Oreal, alleging that a tube of blonde hair color actually contained brown dye causing her naturally blonde hair to darken. Feeney claimed that the change in color destroyed her social life, causing her anxiety and depression.

"I can never go back to my natural blonde hair," she said. "I feel fake about that. Also blondes do get more attention than brunettes. Of course, emotionally, I miss that."

Evidently, Judge Richard Gilardi didn't agree with her "blondes have more fun" lawsuit: he dismissed it for lack of evidence. I guess you could say he went to the root of the problem.

As bad as these samples may be of lawsuits that probably shouldn't have seen the light of the day, at least they don't inspire the kind of outrage that the case of Charles Coughlin does.

Now-retired Navy Commander Coughlin received a Purple Heart for injuries that he claimed to have suffered during the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001; according to government records, Coughlin claimed a "partial permanent disability" after falling debris struck him. Coughlin's injuries were so severe, he said, that he couldn't perform even simple tasks and activities that required "abrupt turning of my head or raising my left arm above my shoulder for any length of time."

He received $331,000 from the Victim Compensation Fund.

Strangely enough, however, Coughlin was able to keep playing basketball and lacrosse; he even ran the New York City Marathon in under four hours, roughly two months after the terrorist attacks.

This aroused the suspicion of government investigators, as did the fact that Coughlin's description of the injuries – including the medical terminology used – was virtually identical to language that a doctor had used to diagnose Coughlin's history of neck and shoulder ailments back in 1998.

The U.S. Attorney's office has filed a civil lawsuit against Coughlin, and is seeking the court's permission to seize the $1 million house, Mercedes-Benz and minivan that Coughlin purchased with the monies from his disability award.

Are the days of taking responsibility for one's own actions and well-being truly fading into a mere memory? Judging by cases like these, one would think so, but I hold out hope that they're more the exception than the rule.

And I take heart from the humor displayed by poet David Allen Sullivan, who bemoans giving up ridiculous warnings that stand out in "the blinding glare of the obvious."

In his poem "Warnings," Sullivan laments:

"What would I have done without: Remove infant before folding for storage, Do not use hair dryer while sleeping, Eating pet rocks may lead to broken teeth, Do not use deodorant intimately?

Goodbye to all those sentences that sought to puncture the illusory world - like the warning on the polyester Halloween outfit for my son: Batman costume will not enable you to fly."

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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