Legally Speaking: I Can't Make This Stuff Up

John G. Browning Jun. 3, 2010, 7:28am

Whenever I'm chronicling some of the more bizarre lawsuits, claims or litigants dotting the legal landscape, some people invariably ask if they're real or fictional.

With all due apologies to John Grisham and other writers of legal fiction, I have yet to encounter any literary courtroom thriller with the plot twists, strange characters and odd fact situations that characterize the real world legal system.

Here's a brief sampling for the start of summer.

If You're Caught Having an Affair, Blame the Phone Company

Gabriella Nagy of Toronto, Canada, had an extramarital affair in 2007, got caught, and her marriage broke up as a result.

At this point, most people would be working through all kinds of emotional issues, including taking responsibility for their actions.

Not Ms. Nagy – she's decided to blame her cell phone carrier, Rogers Wireless Inc., filing suit against the telecommunications giant for "ruining her life."

It seems Ms. Nagy had a cell phone account with Rogers, and had the bill sent to her home address in her maiden name. At the same time, her husband had the family's cable TV service with Rogers in his name at the same address; in June 2007, Mr. Nagy added Internet and home phone service to the same bill.

In July, Rogers Wireless sent out a "global" invoice for all of the services billed to that address, which included Ms. Nagy's cell phone service. When Mr. Nagy saw several lengthy telephone calls to a particular telephone number, he grew suspicious, called the number, and confronted the "third party" who confirmed the affair with his wife.

Mr. Nagy then left his wife and their two children (ages 6 and 7). Mrs. Nagy claims she was so distraught that her work performance suffered and she lost her job as an apartment rental agent a few months later.

Naturally, instead of blaming herself for cheating on her husband, Ms. Nagy chose to blame the telephone company. She's filed a lawsuit, alleging that Rogers Wireless breached its contract with her and invaded her privacy by "unilaterally disclosing to the husband" "previously private and confidential information" without her knowledge or approval.

While Rogers acknowledges that it "consolidated the invoicing of the various services provided to the plaintiff and her husband," it says the company "cannot be held responsible for the condition of the marriage, for the plaintiff's affair and consequential marriage break-up, nor the effects the break-up has had on her."

Some legal observers have called the case "unprecedented in Canada."

Remember the good old days when people actually took responsibility for their own actions?

Where is Wiley E. Coyote When You Need Him?

In more cartoons than I can remember, characters like Wiley E. Coyote would drop a safe on someone (or have the plan go awry and have the safe fall on him instead).

From such animated classics, children like me learned a valuable lesson in the obvious: safes are heavy, and can crush you.

Francine Gelman of Key West, Fla., apparently didn't get that memo. Gelman is the widow of Jewelry Station owner Andy Gelman, who died on Sept. 8, 2009, while trying to move a 10,000-pound, refrigerator-sized safe all by himself.

It was on a pallet jack on the sidewalk in front of his store when the door to the safe swung open, causing its weight to shift and fall on Gelman, according to a lawsuit recently filed by Mrs. Gelman.

She is suing Mutual Safe Co. (the manufacturer of the safe) and Miami Safe Co. (the retailer) for "defects," including a lack of warnings that the 5-ton safe could crush you.

Putting aside the fact that Gelman himself apparently left the safe's door unsecured, allowing it to swing open and cause this tragic incident, how obvious does a risk have to be?

Even if you didn't watch Looney Tunes as a kid, do you really need a warning label on a 10,000-pound safe that it could squash you flatter than a pancake?

It's A Bird, It's a Plane, It's a . . . Foiled Robbery

We move now from cartoon wisdom to comic book superheroes.

I've previously talked about thieves with bad timing, and this incident is right up that alley.

A man in Adelaide, Australia, tried to steal a rare, expensive X-Men comic book edition from a comic book store, only to be thwarted by some real-life superheroes.

It seems the would-be thief decided to try to abscond with the valuable comic on International Free Comic Day, when the store was packed with patrons dressed as their favorite superheroes and sci-fi characters.

Store security video showed a person dressed as Spiderman pursuing and confronting the robber, while another person dressed as The Flash and a group dressed as Jedi knights blocked any escape route.
Police were called, and the would-be thief was then taken into custody.

This Probably Will Get Cut From The Infomercial

Gary Null is a self-styled "nutrition guru" whose advice frequently runs counter to the medical establishment. He is the author of multiple books, and he markets a variety of products, including nutritional supplements like "Gary Null's Ultimate Power Meal."

In late April, Gary Null filed a lawsuit in New York claiming that eating "Gary Null's Ultimate Power Meal" almost killed him.

No, Gary Null didn't exactly sue himself – he sued a contractor that mixes the powdered supplement for him, claiming they failed to do so in the right proportions. Consequently, Null claims, he overdosed on Vitamin D and suffered a variety of painful symptoms.

Since a number of consumers reported similar problems, there may be more lawsuits in Gary Null's future.

Horror in the Produce Aisle – Part 1

Wendy McMahon of Southland, New Zealand, may never be the same, she says.

After purchasing a can of pears at her local Pak'N Save, she opened it one night only to find that one of the pieces of fruit had a demonic face, apparently carved into it. McMahon says her initial reaction was "Oh my God, is that a face . . . it really kind of shocked me."

After taking photos of the "freakish" pear, and posting them to various websites such as Facebook, the New Zealand woman contacted a 1-800 number found on the can to complain.

Despite offers of vouchers in various amounts, Ms. McMahon was not happy with the treatment by various manufacturer representatives.
Who knows, maybe the "case of the demonic fruit" will be the next lawsuit filed.

Horror in the Produce Aisle – Part 2

Dominica Juliano of Erie, Penn., and her mother filed suit against Country Fair convenience stores over a June 2004 incident at their Erie location.

In an attempt to get the then 12-year-old to stop being "grumpy" and smile, a store clerk allegedly briefly flashed his hand-held barcode scanner over her face.

Ignoring the fact that the scanner uses only a harmless LED light (and not a laser), the Julianos claimed that Dominica suffered burns to her face, increased sensitivity to light, and also developed Tourette's syndrome as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

After hearing the plaintiffs' evidence and hearing testimony about Dominica's pre-existing health problems, the judge summarily dismissed the case.

It Happens

Robert Holloway of Poquoson, Va., filed a $1 million negligence lawsuit against Phoenix, Ariz.-based PetSmart recently.

In it, he alleges that he slipped in dog feces in January 2009 at a PetSmart Store in Newport News, Va., and injured his back and head and knocked out four teeth.

Mr. Holloway claims that the store and its management should have been protected from such a dangerous condition.

Of course, assuming Mr. Holloway is a regular visitor to PetSmart Stores, he would know that people are encouraged to bring their pets there, and would presumably be aware that sometimes dogs will have "accidents."

After all, it happens.

Darned If You Do, Darned If You Don't

The people who came up with the Americans With Disabilities Act never saw this one coming. Twenty-four-year-old Emily Kysel of Indianapolis, Ind., suffers from a rare and potentially fatal allergy to paprika.

She nearly died five years ago, and has had to make five emergency room visits since (and has had to inject herself with an anti-allergy shot on 11 other occasions), often just from inhaling paprika nearby (a co-worker eating buffalo wings once caused her to abruptly leave work).

Because of the risks involved, Ms. Kysel eventually obtained a specially-trained allergy-detection dog at a cost of $10,000 – a Golden Retriever named Penny.

After fairly extensive talks with her employer, the city of Indianapolis, Kysel even obtained permission to take her allergy-detection dog to work.

But on the first day with her new service dog, a co-worker who is allergic to dogs suffered an asthma attack. Kysel's employer said she could not longer take Penny to work.

Faced with the prospect of risking her life or going on indefinite unpaid leave (and thus being ineligible for unemployment benefits), Kysel filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, arguing that her employer was discriminating against her by failing to accommodate her disability.

As she put it, blind employees are still allowed to bring their service dogs to work, and "I think I deserve equal treatment."

As for the city of Indianapolis, they're in a situation where – legally – they can't treat one person with a disability as more important than another disabled employee.

Darned if you do, darned if you don't – King Solomon, where are you when we need you?

More News