Legally Speaking: More Silliness in the Courts

John G. Browning Aug. 19, 2009, 8:19am

The parade of bizarre comings and goings in the legal system never seems to end, from strange claims and lawsuits to outcomes one would never have predicted.

For example, in one of those illustrations of life's little ironies, a truck crashed into the front of a building this July in Mesa, Ariz., after trying to avoid colliding with a car. I'm not sure if either driver was injured, but if they want to file a lawsuit, they won't have far to go: the building into which the pickup crashed housed the offices of a personal injury law firm specializing in auto accidents!

Moving on, we find a California plaintiff trying to stretch the boundaries of employment discrimination law. In a lawsuit filed in late July, Tabitha Totah sued Lucasfilm Entertainment (the nice folks who've given us the "Star Wars" films) for race discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

Ms. Totah, who is of Arab ancestry, claims that she overheard her supervisor make anti-Arab comments, and further claims that he called her an "Ewok."

I'm not sure that calling someone an "Ewok" – the cute, cuddly yet fierce teddy bear-like warriors who helped defeat the evil Empire in "Return of the Jedi" – is actually an insult. Now, comparing someone to the annoying Jar Jar Binks, on the other hand – those are fighting words.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we next come to a lawsuit filed this July in state court in St. Louis, Mo., by Gregory McKenna. Mr. McKenna is suing Apple, claiming that two of the company's iPods contain illegal receivers that permit the Mafia to send him threatening messages.

The suit names not only the computer giant, but also the St. Louis Police Department, the FBI, a private investigator and an auto mechanic as defendants. Mr. McKenna claims that in 2005, he purchased an iPod Shuffle on eBay and learned that when he listened to the device, he heard threats that the Mafia was sending him.

Later on, after purchasing an iPod Mini, he purportedly heard death threats being made by the underworld crime organization as well.

Why was he being threatened? According to Mr. McKenna, the Mafia wanted him to work as a fashion model for them at a New York modeling agency ( I seemed to have missed that episode of "The Sopranos," when they took over the modeling world).

McKenna claims that he reported this to local police as well as the FBI field office. Oddly enough, they didn't believe him. This failure to take him seriously, says McKenna, allowed the Mafia to stalk, threaten and even attempt to kidnap him, so naturally he had to sue the FBI and the police.

McKenna further claims that a private investigator he hired to search his home and cars found assorted listening devices everywhere. Yet when McKenna asked him to "confirm" his findings to police, the investigator said he found nothing.

You guessed it – that's why he's being sued.

Mr. McKenna is seeking damages of $14.2 million. Let's hope he takes an out-of-court settlement of some psychiatric help and some medication that's stronger than whatever he's on now.

Next, straight out of the "no good deed goes unpunished" department, comes the story of bank teller Jim Nicholson. The Seattle-area man had worked as a teller for a Key Bank branch for more than two years.

In July, a man in a beanie cap, dark clothing and sunglasses slid a black backpack across Nicholson's counter, and demanded "This is a ransom, fill the bag with money."

Somewhat of a stickler, when he heard the word "ransom" Nicholson asked to see the man's gun. The would-be robber became somewhat flustered and said "It's a verbal ransom."

Suspecting that the robber had no gun, Nicholson lunged at him. When the failed bank robber fled, the 30-year-old teller was on his heels. After chasing him for several blocks, Nicholson knocked the robber to the ground and held him until police arrived. The suspect, it was later found, had a lengthy criminal history, including previous robbery convictions.

So how would you deal with a heroic employee like Jim Nicholson if you were Key Bank? Perhaps give him a reward, a promotion, or at least make him "Employee of the Month?"

Key Bank reacted a little differently; two days after the incident, the bank fired Nicholson. Apparently, he violated bank protocol by not simply handing over the money.

While Key Bank had no comment on the firing, Seattle police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb stated that it's best for bank employees to comply with robbers' demands.

"It is possible that taking action and confronting the criminal may lead to the injury of the victim or other bystanders," he says.

So now Jim Nicholson, the quick-thinking hero teller, is looking for a job. You don't get a much stranger outcome than that.

Speaking of blaming the wrong person, Keith Griffin of Jensen Beach, Fla., probably merited a spot in my recent column about creative excuses for criminal behavior.

Mr. Griffin was charged earlier this month with 10 counts of possession of child pornography after detectives found more than 1,000 pornographic images of children on his home computer.

Mr. Griffin's excuse? He told detectives his cat must have downloaded the offensive material.

According to a statement given to police, Griffin claims he would leave his computer on and his cat would jump on the keyboard; when he returned to the computer, there would be "strange material" on the computer.

Of course, to believe this story, one has to presume that the cat just happened to jump on the computer enough to download over 1,000 images, and that this happened just moments before police arrived with the warrant – yeah, right.

Besides, everyone knows that cats only download kitty porn, not kiddie porn.

Finally, be careful if you get bored in Judge Daniel Rozak's court in Joliet, Ill. He recently sentenced Clifton Williams to six months in jail for criminal contempt.

The contemptuous act? Yawning.

Williams, a spectator, let out a loud yawn as his cousin was being sentenced for a felony drug charge.

Said spokesman Chuck Pelkie of the Will County State Attorney's office, "It was not a simple yawn. It was a loud and boisterous attempt to disrupt the proceedings."

Mr. Williams now has six months to catch up on his sleep.

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

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