Legally Speaking: 'Tis the Season ... For Legal Troubles

John G. Browning Dec. 22, 2009, 1:30pm

Ah, Christmastime. Despite the garland, sugarplum fairies, jolly old St. Nick and all of the other festive trappings of the season, you can always count on the legal system to continue its inexorable march toward justice unfazed.

As far as the civil and criminal courts are concerned, it's no different from any other time of the year – or is it?

In Denmark, a man who works part-time as a Santa Claus sued the Danish Air Force, claiming that one of his reindeer died of a heart attack caused by the low-level flight of two fighter jets over his farm. This posed a big problem for Santa, leaving him short one reindeer to pull his sleigh.

The Danish Air Force investigated the claim, and paid for the cost of a new reindeer as well as veterinary expenses. Smart move – when it comes to Santa, you want to stay off the "naughty" list.

Of course, not everyone is as nice to Santa. In Chicago, Antoinette Basso filed a lawsuit in Cook County Superior Court accusing Santa Claus of negligence and battery.

According to her complaint, on Dec. 7, 2008, an apparently intoxicated department store Santa stumbled into her, knocking her down face first into the pavement. Basso is seeking damages of over $50,000 for "pain, disability and disfigurement."

In other words, Santa, don't bother with presents under the tree this year – just leave a check.

Most people who land on Santa's lap have a wish list; William Caldwell had a bomb threat. Perhaps the first warning sign that this was not typical visit with Santa was the sight of Caldwell, a 45-year-old man dressed as an elf, waiting patiently in line to have his picture taken with Kris Kringle at Southlake Mall in suburban Atlanta on Dec. 2.

The next sign was when Caldwell reached the front of the line and promptly proceeded to tell the mall Santa that he had dynamite in his bag. Santa called mall security, Caldwell was arrested, and the mall was evacuated.

Although no explosives were found, Caldwell is facing charges of having hoax devices and making terroristic threats. It looks this elf may get a chance to make something they don't usually make in the North Pole Workshop – like license plates.

Some people try really hard to spread the holiday cheer. Six lawsuits have been filed against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona by people who think he's trying a little too hard.

The plaintiffs – all inmates in the county jails – accused the sheriff of playing holiday music to such an extent that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Arpaio acknowledges that the jails have been playing holiday favorites for 12 hours a day (including songs by Bing Crosby, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Alvin and the Chipmunks), but maintains that the inmates "should stop acting like the Grinch who stole Christmas and give up wasting the court's time with such frivolous assertions." The judge apparently agreed: all six lawsuits have been dismissed.

For some, the spirit of the season – peace on earth, goodwill towards all – is utterly lacking. Take 57-year-old David Simmons of Murfreesboro, Tenn., for example. Simmons recently pleaded guilty to unlawful photography and criminal impersonation.

Simmons was accused of taking photographs of his ex-girlfriend without her knowledge that showed her performing certain sexual acts on him. As if that wasn't enough to land him on the "naughty" list, after a nasty break-up Simmons used the photos for Christmas cards which he sent to the woman's relatives.

Although she was able to intercept a few of the cards before they were opened, others were received by some very shocked family members.

Sometimes the Christmas presents themselves can bring out the worst in people. Last Christmas Day, 24-year-old Randi Young and 26-year-old Heath Blom of Portsmouth, N.H., were arrested in connection with a domestic disturbance.

Apparently, Blom was upset that Young had given him a Wii game system: he had asked for a remote control airplane instead. He complained; Young started to leave; he allegedly grabbed her by the hair, and she allegedly turned around and slugged him.

After the police were called, a judge ordered the couple to stay away from each other. Although Ms. Young asked the judge to lift the no-contact order since "they just had a bad Christmas," the court refused.

What do you get a couple like that for Christmas this year? How about a gift certificate for an anger management course?

Couples like Randi and Heath just might appreciate the latest offering from Lloyd Platt & Co. This United Kingdom law firm is marketing "divorce vouchers" – certificates entitling the bearer to either a half-hour or full hour consultation with a divorce lawyer.

The vouchers, which start at approximately $250, have proven to be a savvy if somewhat tacky marketing move. The law firm reports that purchasers include not only husbands and wives, but even mistresses using them to suggest divorce as an option. At last, Tiger Woods' girlfriends have something to shop for.

Many of us eagerly await that one special gift that we just can't wait to open on Christmas morning. Some of us really can't wait.

A 48-year-old county judge in Great Britain is such an avid gamer that he spent hours in line waiting for the midnight sale of the new game "Modern Warfare 2." He told news media covering the crowded launch that he felt "like Charlie waiting outside the chocolate factory."

He was so excited, in fact that he wound up playing "long into the night" and had to call in sick the next day. I'm sure that made the taxpayers happy.

One of the objects that many of us tend to associate with the holiday season is the snow globe. With scenes of Santa or Frosty the Snowman tucked away inside their liquid domes, and a flurry of white flakes just waiting to rain down after a gentle shake, few things say "holiday souvenir" quite like the snow globe.

But for the overzealous folks at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), "snow globe" equals "terrorist threat." TSA spokesman Dennis Baird says "snow globes are not permitted to be carried through security checkpoints." The reason is that snow globes contain liquids, and TSA rules mandate that only liquids, gels, or aerosols in containers of three ounces or less are allowed through security in carry-on bags.

Containers must fit into a quart-sized plastic bag, in order to limit the total volume of liquid and reduce the threat of someone using the contents as explosives. According to the TSA, even small snow globes are forbidden because security screeners "can't really determine how many ounces are in there."

This is, sadly, par for the course for TSA; on a daily basis, these screeners manage to keep us safe from oversized nail clippers and undeclared water bottles while utterly failing to detect actual bomb parts when security is tested by other government agencies (I wish I were kidding about that, but it's true). Keep up the good work, TSA; I feel better already, knowing that the world is safe from snow globes.

Finally, what story about Christmas legal troubles would be complete without a modern version of Scrooge? For that, we need to look no further than Houston, where office building owner Harry C. Arthur recently filed a lawsuit against Christ Church Cathedral and The Beacon , a day center for homeless people operated by Cathedral Health and Outreach Ministries.

Arthur is seeking a permanent injunction and at least $250,000 in damages to compensate him for lost office rentals and diminished market value of his building. He claims that the homeless center is a "private nuisance" and a "health hazard" since "the free meals, free laundry and other services" attract "hundreds of disheveled individuals" who "sleep and hang out on the streets and sidewalks" near The Beacon.

The building owned by Mr. Arthur, The Marine Building, is situated diagonally across an intersection from The Beacon. According to the lawsuit filed in Harris County, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (the days The Beacon is closed) are actually "quiet and pleasant," but the problems surface during the Thursday evening through Monday evening period when the center is open.

In a twist that even Dickens didn't come up with, Harry Arthur is not just a property owner and concerned neighbor. He is also a plaintiff's personal injury attorney, one who – according to his firm's Web site – is "operating with the highest moral principles and ethics."

As one legal observer noted, "Nothing says 'moral principles' quite like suing a Christian charity for the crime of feeding poor people."

As these accounts illustrate, the true meaning of Christmas is lost on some people. Here's hoping the spirit of the season is alive and well inside each of you. As Tiny Tim would say, "God bless us, everyone."

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons LLP. He may be contacted at:

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