Legally Speaking: The Justie Awards Are Back! (Part 2)

John G. Browning Jan. 20, 2011, 3:21am

Last week, we presented some true contenders, genuine oddities of the legal system that are strange but true.

This week's group is just as entertaining, in its own bizarre way.

This Judge Is A Seinfeld Fan

California jail inmate Malcolm Alarmo King wanted healthier meals than the frequently-served salami sandwiches he and other prisoners were getting, so he requested double portion kosher meals on religious grounds.

That request was denied by the sheriff's department; after all, King wasn't Jewish.

When asked to specify a religious affiliation to justify his "dietary restrictions," King made up "Healthism"—that was rejected as well.

He continued to raise the issue, though, and ultimately came before Superior Court Judge Derek Johnson. Johnson conferred with King's counsel, Fred Thiagarajah, and the county prosecutor, and asked what religious belief could be cited in an order that would resolve the issue once and for all.

Thiagarajah suggested "Festivus," the made-up holiday popularized on the TV comedy "Seinfeld." That was good enough for Judge Johnson, who signed the order recognizing the fictional religion ("Festivus for the rest of us," as George Costanza might say).

However, the county prosecutor—in an "airing of the grievances"—managed to get the order overturned. By that time, though, King had already been transferred to a federal facility.

Be Careful Next Time You Use the Restroom

Sheri Schooley of Michigan may just become a new poster child for those calling for more tort reform. The 58-year-old administrative assistant claims her life was ruined—by a toilet paper dispenser in a restaurant bathroom.

The bizarre tale began on New Year's Eve 2007, when Schooley and her husband visited a Texas Roadhouse restaurant in suburban Detroit. In the restroom, she "reached and the cover of the toilet paper dispenser fell down on my hand."

At first, Schooley thought it was just a bruise, but the diagnosis later came back as a broken bone. The woman sued the restaurant, claiming that she had to quit her job because she couldn't type, use a stapler, or make copies. She also maintains that she can't crochet anymore, and that her bowling has suffered.

The restaurant sought to dismiss the case, arguing that they only had a duty to prevent accidents that were reasonably foreseeable, and that a "rogue toilet paper dispenser" hardly constitutes a "dangerous condition."

But the trial judge and a court of appeals refused to dismiss the lawsuit, and it came before the Michigan Supreme Court. In a 4-3 vote, a liberal majority of that court ruled that Schooley's case could go forward.

One of the more conservative justices who dissented wrote sarcastically that Texas Roadhouse now "apparently also had a legal duty to inspect for hazards that could not reasonably have been anticipated such as a toilet paper dispenser opening unexpectedly."

In Michigan now, regardless of how bizarre or unforeseeable an accident might be, a business owner or property owner will somehow be held responsible.

An alien spacecraft landed on your car in the parking lot? Sue the restaurant.

Here's a suggestion: if you're so inept that you injure yourself while cleaning up after yourself in the bathroom, you should be too embarrassed to bring a lawsuit.

Some People Would Call This Fitting

In other toilet-related news, lawyer Bruce Freitag recently had a unique honor of sorts bestowed upon him. No, a road or school or park was not named after him. Instead, the longtime lawyer for Porta-John Industries had a portable lavatory named after him.

But not just any portapotty—the Freitag Model 4848E Comfort Station sells for $5,800, and comes complete with hardwood floors, a skylight, working sink, and a ceramic toilet that flushes.

Porta-John, based in Utica, Mich., sells about 2,000 Freitag models a year, to customers who include Arab sheiks and the president of Haiti.

The CEO of Porta-John Industries, Earl Braxton, says that when deciding on a name for the new model, he simply thought of "the classiest guy we know," his lawyer, Bruce Freitag.

Of course, less kind observers might say it makes perfect sense to associate portable lavatories with lawyers, since both have a reputation for being full of crap.

The Runaway Groom Forgot the Bride Was a Lawyer

They say that "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." If that woman is a lawyer, you may be in for even more trouble.

When Vito Salerno called off his wedding to Dominique Buttita four days before it was to take place in October, the jilted bride and Chicago-area lawyer decided not just to get mad, but to get even as well.

In December, Buttita filed a lawsuit against Salerno in Cook County Circuit Court, claiming breach of promise to marry and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

She's seeking more than $95,000 in damages related to wedding expenses, including $30,000 for the banquet hall; $11,000 for lighting and flowers; $10,000 for an orchestra; $7,550 for a photographer; and $5,000 for the wedding dress and accessories.

A number of the expenses included non-refundable charges, including a wedding planner deposit, bridal shower and bridesmaids' luncheon.

Buttita's complaints aren't confined to being left at the altar, either. The lawsuit also alleges that Salerno engaged in "lewd acts" at his bachelor party, held at an adult establishment known as The Pink Monkey.

How will the jilted bride fare against the runaway groom in court? Unfortunately for him, several states, including Illinois, have "breach of promise" to marry laws.

In Georgia, which has such a law, a jury in 2008 returned a $150,000 verdict against Wayne Gibbs after he broke off his engagement to RoseMary Shell three days before their wedding (in fairness, Shell had moved from another state to be with her fiance and took a substantial pay cut in the process).

Getting "cold feet" over impending nuptials can be heartbreaking enough, but it can be downright expensive when the bride you're dumping happens to be a lawyer, too.

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