Legally Speaking: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

John G. Browning Sep. 13, 2010, 8:00pm

When people ask me what I like about practicing law, the fact that you never know what's around the corner ranks pretty highly on the list.

The sheer unpredictability of a legal system where just about anyone can file a lawsuit about just about anything, and in which inept criminals never cease to amaze me with their stupidity, means there's rarely a dull moment.

If you think I'm exaggerating, then consider these examples.

If you think your kid has a problem spending too much time on the Nintendo or Xbox, remember that it could always be worse – he could be Craig Smallwood.

Craig Smallwood is a Hawaii man who is suing the makers of the online virtual world game "Lineage II" in federal court, claiming the game is so addictive that he is "unable to function independently in usual daily activities such as getting up, getting dressed, bathing or communicating with family and friends."

Smallwood, who maintains that he has logged some 20,000 hours playing "Lineage II" between 2004 and 2009, says he never would have started playing the game had he known "that he would become addicted."

He says that NCSoft of South Korea, which publishes the role-playing game that reportedly has over 600,000 users, "acted negligently in failing to warn or instruct" him of these "dangerous and defective characteristics" of "Lineage II." As ridiculous as the lawsuit sounds, a federal judge has already denied the gaming company's motion to dismiss it, and so the lawsuit will proceed.

That's right, Craig Smallwood – GAME ON!

No one ever confused criminals with Nobel laureates, and Ronald White is one reason. The 25-year-old Camden, N.J., man needed to post bail for two shoplifting charges. But how he chose to do it has landed him in bigger trouble than he was already facing.

After being arrested, White posted bail with $400 in cash. However, the next day, police discovered that five of the $20 bills were counterfeit.

White inexplicably returned to the station, saying he had paid too much money for his bail and "wanted some back." Police then arrested him on forgery charges, and found additional counterfeit bills on his person.

The would-be robber who decided to hold up a Starbucks in New Westminster, Canada, is another reminder that crime doesn't pay – especially if you're an idiot.

According to police, the 43-year-old stickup artist went up to the front of the line, threw a drink at the barista, and demanded money.

Among the customers in the line that the hapless theft cut in front of were two uniformed police officers, who quickly wrestled the man to the ground and arrested him for assault and attempted robbery.

At least that's not as bizarre as the 21-year-old man in Port Angeles, Wash., who was recently arrested for indecent exposure and reckless endangerment.

The young man allegedly exposed himself at a local restaurant, then drove around a neighborhood brandishing a shotgun – all while wearing a banana costume!

Police drily reported "The banana was seized as evidence," and noted that a man and a woman were with "Banana Man" in the car (I guess it's hard to drive wearing a banana costume and holding a shotgun).

The man was questioned, but police let the woman split.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, it was part of the "dog days of summer" for Gary Guy Matthews when an Allegheny Court judge denied his petition to change his name legally to "Boomer the Dog."

Matthews, a 44-year-old unemployed computer technician, is also a "furry" – someone who enjoys wearing an animal costume as a "lifestyle." Pennsylvania law allows a judge to reject name changes "if the name is bizarre or unduly lengthy or difficult to pronounce or possessive of a ridiculous offensive connotation," or if the name change could lead to "confusion in the marketplace."

As Judge Ronald Polimo put it so matter-of-factly in his ruling, "Although Petitioner apparently wishes it were otherwise, the simple fact remains that Petitioner is not a dog."

Many things have forced mistrials – a hung jury, a violent disruption in the courtroom, tampering with evidence, and so on. But what if the acoustics in the courtroom were so bad that the jurors couldn't hear the testimony?

That was the case in August in a 102-year-old Mississippi courthouse. Jurors in Judge Lisa Dobson's court complained that severe echoes kept them from hearing what the witnesses were saying.

One juror said "The sound in there was such a bad echo that you couldn't hear the lawyers, you couldn't hear the judge, you couldn't hear the witnesses. You found yourself trying to infer what everybody was saying."

Acoustical experts say the problems were first noticed last year when the courthouse reopened following extensive repairs necessitated by Hurricane Katrina. Because of the echoes, which have yet to be fixed, Judge Dobson declared a mistrial.

Finally, we have more heavy handed cease and desist letters from companies who are really zealous about guarding their trademarks – perhaps overly so.

First up is a monster dispute between an eatery in Damariscotta, Maine, and Japanese entertainment conglomerate, Toho Co. Ltd., which owns the rights to the venerable movie icon Godzilla.

When the Godzilla folks learned that a little lunch-and-dinner stand in Maine (run out of an old Frito-Lay delivery truck) was calling itself "Grill Zilla BBQ" and using a logo of a smiling green creature wearing a red apron, they didn't send in a huge irradiated lizard to stomp on their city. They sent in something even scarier: high-priced trademark infringement lawyers.

Toho's Los Angeles-based attorneys sent a letter demanding that the tiny eatery stop using the name Grill Zilla "in connection with any 'lizard-like' or 'reptile-like' monsters," or that it change the name entirely.

The lawyers have aggressively gone after anyone they thought posed a threat to their client, from an Arizona rock band to a California winery that once marketed a cabernet sauvignon named "Cabzilla," and like their fictional client the lawyers have left a trail of destruction and crushed hopes in their wake.

The dispute has yet to be resolved, but I just hope the courtroom testimony isn't as badly-dubbed as the movies were.

And speaking of overzealous trademark lawyers, Father Luke Strand may not be driving around doing the Lord's work in his black Volkswagen Beetle much longer. The Fond Du Lac, Wisc., priest for Holy Family parish has stickers on the car with the name, "God Squad" on them (as well as a license plate reading GODLVYA).

Recently he received a cease and desist letter from Minnesota-based electronics giant Best Buy, saying the stickers infringed on the trademark logos for the "Geek Squad" computer technicians used by Best Buy.

Both the church and Best Buy are trying to work out a solution, such as an altered logo that can't be confused with the electronics retailer's trademark.

Maybe they'll work things out. But in the meantime, perhaps Best Buy should remember that as important as their trademark may seem, no one's likely to call them for spiritual guidance by mistake, and their customers aren't likely to ask Father Strand to help install a home theater system.

Remember, Best Buy – there's an even higher power than a federal judge.

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