Legally Speaking: We Wish You a Merry Lawsuit

John G. Browning Dec. 17, 2008, 9:59am

The government of Papua New Guinea has an unusual request this Christmastime � it wants more lawyers.

It seems the financially-strapped, South Pacific island nation doesn't have enough lawyers to represent itself in court, leading to a rise in "vexatious claims" by people against the government and judgments by default as a result of no government lawyer being available to show up at court hearings.

The resulting damages awards have been "a major source of lost revenue for the country," say officials with the understaffed Papua New Guinea Solicitor General's office, leading the nation to ask for help from neighboring Australia.

But for most of us, lawyers usually seem to play the role of Grinch at Christmas. When the city of Louisville, Ky., planned to use the beloved Dr. Seuss classic "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," as part of the theme for its annual "Light Up Louisville" holiday celebration, it was stopped dead in its tracks by lawyers for Dr. Seuss Enterprises.

Upon hearing that the city's display would include an area called "Lou-WhoVille" (complete with costumed characters like the Grinch and little Cindy Lou Who), attorney Barbara Orr of the large DLA Piper law firm dispatched a "cease and desist" letter.

Not only did she demand that Louisville and its Convention and Visitors Bureau halt any use of the copyrighted characters for the Christmas display, the lawyer threatened legal action if the city and tourism officials failed to comply. Reluctantly renaming the display "Lou-Ville", Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson said "It appears these lawyers' hearts are two sizes too small."

The same could be said of London's Westminster Council. Environmental health officials for the local government have banned the Christmas carols played by Debenham's Department Store as part of its traditional display, calling the music "noise pollution."

Even though Debenham's offered to turn down the volume of the music accompanying the dancing reindeer and snowmen in its $250,000 display, council officials rejected the compromise.

"If every business was allowed to blast its choice of music and advertising into Oxford Street, a visit would become unbearable and inevitably affect trade," said council member Daniel Astaire.

Gee, Daniel, are you sure your last name isn't Scrooge?

And cities and their lawyers find other ways to dampen the Christmas spirit. This November, the city of Medford, Mass., faced the threat of a lawsuit from Valdosta, Ga.

The reason? Both communities hold an annual "Jingle Bells Festival;" Valdosta's has been held for the past 10 years, and its claim to fame is that James Pierpont the author of the song "Jingle Bells" wrote it while living in Georgia. Medford has its own Yuletide traditions, and the city holds the Guinness Book of World Records distinction for having the most people caroling at the same time.

After an injunction and counter-threats, the warring municipalities worked out a solution that kept the dispute from going "Jingle All the Way" to the courtroom. Medford will get to hold its festival, but next year will call it something other than the "Jingle Bells Festival."

Christmas shopping itself seems to inspire its share of lawsuits. The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently upheld the dismissal of a $600,000 lawsuit filed by Robert and Carolyn Wells against J.C. Penney.

Mrs. Wells claimed that at the retailer's after-Christmas sale, she was verbally and physically attacked by another shopper during an argument over two crystal bear figurines. Wells alleged that she had suffered injuries to her shoulder, back and neck, and that Penney's should have protected her from the other woman.

The court of appeals rejected her arguments, noting that the unfortunate episode "demonstrates the dangers of the cutthroat arena of after-Christmas bargain shopping."

For the tragic consequences of out-of-control Christmas shopping, one need look no further than this year's "Black Friday" incident at a Long Island Wal-Mart. Temporary employee Jdimytal Damour was trampled to death by a stampede of frenzied shoppers as he and other Wal-Mart staff attempted to unlock the doors at 5 a.m. that Friday at the Valley Stream store.

An autopsy showed that Damour died of asphyxiation, and Nassau County Police Detective Lt. Michael Fleming stated that the employee was "stepped on by hundreds of people" even as other workers attempted to fight their way through the crowd.

The horrific event, naturally, drew plaintiffs' personal injury lawyers like blood in the water. Damour's family has already filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart, Vornado Realty Trust (the owners of the mall), mall management and the mall's security firm. Attorney Jordan Hecht also filed a notice of claim against Nassau County, preserving the family's right to file a lawsuit against the police department.

The lawsuit alleges that Damour's death was the result of "wanton disregard for public safety and gross negligence of the defendants."

Hank Mullany, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, released a statement that read, in part, "We have been in communication with members of his family to do what we can to help them through this difficult time. We will continue to work with local law enforcement officials so that together we can implement even stronger safety measures going forward."

Lawsuits have also been filed by two customers who contend they suffered neck and back injuries from "being caught in the surge of people" who rushed into the Wal-Mart.

With these kind of events, you might wonder why lawyers don't use the holidays to improve their public image. Actually, some do.

A Dallas personal injury law firm, the Payne Mitchell Law Group, uses tongue-in-cheek marketing to convey their holiday greetings. Their card wishing the recipient a "safe and happy holiday season" arrives immersed in bubble wrap.

And the spirit of giving is alive and well at Fort Worth's Moncrief Oil International: The company and its lawyers are involved in a high stakes breach of contract case with Russian oil giant Gazprom, over disputed interests in one of Russia's largest natural gas fields. In an unusual move, Moncrief has pledged 25 percent of the net proceeds of the case, if it wins, to the University of Texas. Given the claims in the case, that promise could be worth up to $500 million to the University.

As an admittedly biased Longhorn, I have just one piece of advice for the jury: Hook 'em.

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

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