Legally Speaking: Those 'Believe It or Not' Moments

John G. Browning Sep. 9, 2009, 6:16pm

As children, my brother Michael and I used to pore over paperback collections of the old "Ripley's Believe it or Not" newspaper items, our eyes widening and our mouths agape at the incredible-but-true accounts of oddities from around the globe.

We delighted at everything from tales of amazing coincidences to wonders like the world's tiniest typewriter or an Indian holy man with the world's longest fingernails.

Little did I know that years later I would witness some "believe it or not" moments myself as I learned of strange happenings in the legal system that would make even Robert Ripley himself slack-jawed with astonishment. And so, without further ado, let me present some of these legal "believe it or not" episodes.

Believe It or Not: Court Considers Restoring Parental Rights to Dead Man

In Broward County, Fla., a man who was a "deadbeat dad" and longtime crack addict was declared an unfit father and lost all parental rights. He later died – but that hasn't stopped a Broward County family court from taking up the issue of whether his parental rights should legally be restored or not.

Even if they rule in favor of the deceased, how will they handle visitation – by holding a seance? And to think that Texas courts have been criticized as being inefficient.

Believe It or Not: Attorney Has Heart Attack, But Gives Closing Argument Anyway

California defense attorney Michael Lukehart is one of those lawyers who makes the rest of us look like slackers. In August, while he had been in a week-long trial, he awoke at 5 a.m. with massive chest pains.

Although he knew something was gravely wrong, he decided to skip the hospital and go to the courthouse instead to deliver the closing arguments in his case.

As Lukehart puts it, "You get focused if you're a real serious litigator, and at some point nothing gets in the way of finishing the trial or doing your job and it's not bright. Every doctor who ever hears this is probably cringing to hear it, because minutes matter in such matters."

After giving the closing argument, Lukehart finally returned to the office around 11 a.m. and had a secretary take him to San Joaquin Hospital. There he was rushed into surgery, where a stent was needed in one of his major arteries.

Forget about "Lukehart" – change this guy's name to "Lionheart."

Believe It or Not: Juror Gets Sickened By Closing Argument and Helped By Defendant Doctor

From giving closing arguments while sick, we move to closing arguments that make people sick – literally. In Montana, the state Supreme Court recently ordered a new trial after what it called "extraordinary events."

Amy Heidt had brought a medical malpractice case for the October 2008 death of her husband against his physician, Dr. Faranak Argani. Her lawyer, Steven Harman, was making his closing argument as if he were "channeling" the late Mr. Heidt, describing what he might have been thinking as he died.

One juror, who had a heart condition similar to Mr. Heidt's, felt increasingly sickened as the argument wore on. Finally, she said she was "not o.k.," and either fainted or began to pass out.

Dr. Argani, along with three jurors who were nurses and Mr. Harmon's co-counsel (who was a licensed physician as well as a lawyer), attended to the sick juror.

Although the trial judge denied a motion for a mistrial, the Montana Supreme Court disagreed, holding that such extraordinary circumstances as a defendant getting the opportunity to showcase his medical skills in front of the jury rendered it impossible for the jurors to be impartial.

Believe It or Not: Dolphins Blamed for Slip and Fall

In August, Allecyn Edwards filed a personal injury lawsuit against Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society for an August 2008 incident.

Edwards says she was walking along the floor near the bleachers at the zoo's dolphin exhibit when she stopped and fell, resulting in medical expenses, lost wages, and physical and mental pain and suffering.

Edwards claims that zoo personnel "recklessly and willfully trained and encouraged the dolphins to throw water at the spectators in the stands, making the floor wet and slippery."

I may be jaded, but my extensive Animal Planet research leads me to conclude the following: 1) dolphins live in bodies of water; 2) the area near these bodies of water tends to become wet and therefore slippery; and 3) while dolphins are extremely intelligent, they do not "throw" water, but rather may splash a bit with their flippers.

In any event, these facts ought to be well-known enough by even someone like Ms. Edwards to keep Flipper and his friends out of the courtroom.

Believe It or Not:Tort Reform Leader Brings Class Action Lawsuit

Fred Hiestand has made a career out of arguing that we have too many lawsuits – he's the general counsel for the tort reform group the Civil Justice Association of California.

So it was a little odd, after years of arguing that California's Unfair Competition Law was driving businesses out of the state, to see Mr. Hiestand himself suing a small business using the very same law he had opposed and been successful on limiting.

Hiestand and his family stopped for dinner one evening in downtown Sacramento after his son's basketball practice. He parked illegally in a no-parking zone and came out sometime afterward to find his car had been towed.

Heistand filed a class action suit against the city of Sacramento, the city's police chief, various city police officers and the tow truck company that removed his car.

Heistand maintains that state law mandates that the city post signs warning would-be illegal parkers that their vehicles will be towed, and that no such signs were present where Heistand parked.

While Hiestand has done some backpedaling as a result of his lawsuit ("We've never said that all class actions are meritless," he says), others have seized upon the humor of the situation.

Civil Justice Association of California President John Sullivan chuckled "Fred has been fighting against frivolous lawsuits for decades, and like a doctor fighting malaria, he's become infected himself – and with the worst strain of the disease – class action."

Believe It or Not: Comedian Sued for Mother-in-Law Jokes – By Mother-in-Law

Our final "believe it or not" moment comes to us from a New Jersey federal court, where Ruth Zafrin and her family are suing comedian Sunda Croonquist of Los Angeles because they don't like Croonquist's Jewish mother-in-law jokes – and Zafrin just happens to be Croonquist's mother-in-law!

Croonquist is married to Zafrin's son, Mark (a lawyer), and her stand-up routine (which has been featured on Comedy Central) includes exaggerated stories, in dialect, about meeting and interacting with her husband's Jewish family.

Because Croonquist is biracial (she was born to a Swedish father and African-American mother), some of the humor is derived from the family's supposedly racist remarks toward her.

The family alleges that the comedian depicts them in a false light, and they object to being identified (along with their hometowns and synagogues) by name during the act.

Croonquist's lawyer, Denise Buda, plans to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing out that Croonquist's comments are jokes not intended to be taken seriously and that, legally, "there is nothing to stop someone from saying 'I can't stand my mother –in-law.'"

Buda also says that the family has been in the audience for one of Croonquist's shows, and not only found the routine humorous but even went out to dinner afterward with the comedian.

Maybe they should compromise, and limit Croonquist only to lawyer jokes.

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

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