Legally Speaking: The Good, the Bad and the Funny

John G. Browning Jun. 10, 2009, 5:57pm

I spoke recently to a lawyers' organization, and an audience member asked me if I ever found it difficult to incorporate humor into my presentations.

I told her that I actually felt it was pretty easy, especially since so much of the legal system seems to come ready-made with humor: some intentionally so, and some that are not quite so intentional.

Personally, I find even the otherwise dry newspaper headlines about lawsuits lend themselves to a punchline waiting to be said, almost as if the news editor and I had a tacit agreement for him to serve as my straight man. By way of example, consider the following:

From the Des Moines Register (May 13, 2009): "Judge Drops Class-Action Suit on Teflon Cookware" � I guess the charges didn't stick.

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (May 13, 2009): "Bounty Sues Brawny in Paper Towel Tilt" � I hope they can absorb the legal costs.

From The Recorder (June 3, 2009): "Court Dumps $86 Million Verdict Against Starbucks" � I suppose there weren't any grounds to the controversy that had been brewing.

Of course, sometimes the names of the law firms involved are enough to provoke a chuckle or two.

Could personal injury law firms like Payne & Fears, LLP or Slaughter & Slaughter have picked better names?

How about the husband and wife family law firm of Bickers & Bickers?

While the law firm of Smart & Biggar may convey a positive impression, the same can't be said of Low, Ball & Lynch, or Boring & Leach.

Every now and then, the law clerks who help research and write a judge's opinion let their comedic streaks shine though.

In an earlier column, we've looked not only at judges who employ humor in their opinions, but also at the occasional law clerk (usually a recent law school graduate) who sneaks some funny references into his or her work for a jurist.

A classic example is the "Talking Heads" fan who managed to work the titles of multiple Talking Heads' songs and albums into an opinion, purportedly in an effort to win concert tickets.

One such prankster, during his days as a clerk to the late U.S. District Court Judge David Belew was Dallas attorney Bob Bragalone (in the interests of full disclosure, Bob is one of my law partners).

In the 1991 case of Irion v. Prudential Insurance Company, the dispute centered around an insurance carrier's group medical policy and whether or not it should cover the costs of a wig, er, "full cranial prosthesis," for a woman suffering from the disease alopecia areota totalis (which is characterized by hair loss).

Bob couldn't resist the temptation of slipping in some puns, such as how the court's order would "put an end to the hairsplitting," how the court was "intrigued by� hair-raising testimony," and how the insurance company that had denied coverage could make such a "bald assertion."

Bob also decided to immortalize himself as only a federal court law clerk could. At first glance the opinion in the 1990 case of Meridian Savings Association vs. Bill Sadler and Ronald Savitz seems to be no different than a typically dry discussion of the obligations that accompany a suit on a promissory note.

Upon closer inspection, however, sharp-eyed readers will notice that the beginning letters of each paragraph in the opinion spell something � in this case, "B O B B R A G A L O N E." Trust me � nearly 20 years later, Bob still has his sense of humor.

But for me, the number one source of legal laughs remains with the litigants and lawyers who file some of the most unintentionally hilarious cases out there. A great example of this is the lawsuit tossed out on May 2 by U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. of the Eastern District of California.

In Sugawara v. PepsiCo, Janine Sugawara sued the makers of Cap'n Crunch cereal for $5 billion, claiming that she had purchased Cap'n Crunch with Crunchberries because she thought "crunchberries" contained real fruit.

Apparently annoyed that the product contained "no berries of any kind," Ms. Sugawara made a federal case out of it � literally. She sued under the California Unfair Competition Law and Consumer Legal Remedies Act on behalf of herself and "all similarly situated consumers" (though no one else has come forward believing that somewhere out there are actual crunchberry bushes).

The court pointed out that "a reasonable consumer would not be deceived into believing that the Product in the instant case contained a fruit that does not exist," since "so far as this Court has been made aware, there is no such fruit growing in the wild or occurring naturally in any part of the world."

Dismissing the case was appropriate, reasoned Judge England, since allowing the case to continue "would require this Court to ignore all concepts of personal responsibility and common sense."

What kind of lawyer would take such a case, you may wonder? Well, the same plaintiffs attorneys had previously brought similar claims against Kellogg's, the makers of "Froot Loops" cereal, arguing that it didn't contain real "froot."

Ms. Sugawara, let me break this to you gently, and spare our beleaguered court system a little mileage. Count Chocula is not a real vampire, Lucky Charms are not "magically" delicious, and going "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs" won't give you the basis for a mental health care claim � although you may be dangerously close to that already.

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