Legally Speaking: Lawpocalypse Now (Part One)

John G. Browning Oct. 13, 2010, 2:54pm

With a souring economy, environmental disasters, and global strife, I can understand how some people feel that the end is near.

Being the optimistic sort, I don't agree with them, but I know where they're coming from. After all, in the legal system, I've seen a lot of crazy things lately that may be signs of how bad things are getting.

Let me give you some sense of what I mean.

Taiwan's Intellectual Property Office (IPO) recently held a competition designed to bolster public respect for the intellectual property of others. The winner of the student division of this "Protect Copyright" poster contest was Wu Chih-wei, a student at the National Yunlin University of Science and Technology, whose design showed a paper airplane crafted from a book page plunging out of the sky as letters trailed off from the broken tail like smoke.

There was just one problem with "Work-Shattered," Wu's dramatic portrayal of the damage done by unauthorized copying of the work of others: he copied it from a work by Dutch artist Dennis Sibeijn.

Someone contacted the IPO to let them know that, irony of ironies, the image they were using for their anti-infringement campaign had been lifted from another artist. A contrite Wu admitted the crime, and said he did it because he needed the money. The IPO has demanded that Wu return the medal and cash prize he received for winning the contest.

In another sign that the end is coming, we have one of the most bizarre trademark infringement lawsuits I have ever seen. IHOP (International House of Pancakes) is suing another IHOP, the International House of Prayer, in federal court in Los Angeles.

The 10-year-old church, based in Kansas City, Kan., sends a 24-hour, seven day a week live-streaming broadcast signal telling followers to prepare for the "end times."

The pancake house chain, on the other hand, also operates round-the-clock, but is best known for the "Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity."

Nevertheless, lawyers for the IHOP that serves pancakes wants to put the IHOP serving up prayers out of business, arguing that people will confuse the church with its 1,476-strong restaurant chain.

Lawyers for IHOP (pancakes) maintain that some of the church's branches are serving food, and that the pancake chain has previously demanded that the church mission cease using the famous initials to avoid "great and irreparable injury" and public confusion.

I think most juries wouldn't confuse pancakes and prayers, but just in case there's always a higher authority to appeal to.

I've written about some unusual defenses before, but this was a new one even on me. In Newport, Ky., a man accused of strangling his wife claimed that he was not guilty – by reason of caffeine.

Thirty three-year-old Woody Will Smith's lawyers advanced the defense that excessive caffeine from sodas, energy drinks and diet pills had rendered their client temporarily insane, such that he couldn't have knowingly killed 28-year-old Amanda Hornsby-Smith.

This "caffeine intoxication" defense, combined with a lack of sleep, was also blamed for the statements Smith later made to police confessing to the murder. According to reports and court records, Smith was consuming five or six soft drinks and energy drinks a day, along with taking diet pills -- adding up to over 400 milligrams of caffeine. The American Psychiatric Association actually considers an overdose to be more than 300 milligrams (roughly the equivalent of three cups of coffee).

In fact, the strategy has worked before; in 2007, Daniel Noble mowed down two pedestrians with his car in Washington state, but a judge dismissed the charges against him after evidence showed that excessive amounts of caffeine had triggered a rare form of bipolar disorder.

But for Woody Smith, there would be no such ending. After deliberating for about one-and-a-half hours, the Kentucky jury convicted him of murder. Maybe they all went out for a cup of coffee after the verdict.

A lot of people like to monogram their shirts, but what's the world coming to when a doctor engraves a name on somebody's body? That's the charge in a lawsuit against Dr. Red Alinsod. The California gynecologist is being sued for branding a patient's name on her uterus using an "electrocautery device."

According to the lawsuit filed by Ingrid Paulicivic, she viewed photos of her operation during a follow-up visit, revealing that the doctor had carved "Ingrid" on the organ in inch-high letters. The doctor's excuse was that he "did not want to get it confused with others." Would somebody please buy this guy a labelmaker?

Finally, we all know how we would react if somebody damaged our car: most of us would want to sue. But not Guy McCormack, who returned to his wife's 2008 red Dodge Charger only to find severe damage to the roof and rear window. It probably had something to do with the unusual turn of events that led to the damage.

Twenty-two-year–old Tom Magill tried to commit suicide by leaping from the 39th floor of a building in New York City, only to land on the Charger and have its high strength steel roof break his fall; he survived the 100 mile an hour fall, although he broke both legs. Magill got another surprise – despite the damage to the muscle car, McCormack has no plans to sue.

As he put it, "I could sue him . . . but I'm not going to do that. He has enough to worry about."

Someone in our litigious society passes up a chance to sue? Maybe the end of the world is upon us.

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