Legally Speaking: Legal weirdness knows no borders

As many readers know, many of my columns point out the stranger goings-on in our legal system, with an occasional sprinkling of the odder moments in civil and criminal cases in foreign countries thrown in for a little international flavor.

But this week, just to show you that legal weirdness is truly global in scope, I’d like to feature nothing but the strangest from legal systems other than our own.

Several of these examples echo similar cases in the U.S., proving that when it comes to bizarre cases, laws, and litigants, it’s a small world after all.

The Sleeping Judge


There have been numerous instances in U.S. courts of judges falling asleep on the bench.  But recently, a Russian judge caught napping on the job made national headlines.


Judge Yevgeny Makhno of Blagoveshschensk City Court in far east Russia was caught sleeping on the bench just before he woke up and sentenced an outraged defendant to five years in jail for fraud.


The defense lawyer posted several videos online of Judge Makhno asleep in court, and the videos went viral, making their way onto Russian state television.


In his defense, Judge Makhno claimed he was not sleeping, only “listening with his eyes closed” (Yevgeny, I’ve tried that excuse with my wife, and it doesn’t work).


The judge was fired, but under Russia’s system, he can be reinstated after taking an exam.  Fortunately for the defendant, justice may be blind but she at least stays alert: he will get a new trial.


Let’s hope he also gets a well-rested judge.


Medical Malpractice, German Style


One common stereotype is that Germans are very efficient about everything.  Apparently, their medical malpractice cases are bigger and better than everyone else’s, too.


The family of a man who died following a routine surgery for prostate cancer is suing, claiming surgeons left 16 different items inside his body during the surgery.  Sixteen objects—that’s practically a hardware store!


Seventy-four-year old Dirk Schroeder complained of extreme pain for months after the operation, and went to another hospital during a visit with relatives in Hanover, Germany, where a shocked nurse saw a large gauze pad protruding from his wound.


Surgeons then removed a total of 16 items, including a needle, a 6-inch roll of bandage, a 6-inch long compress, several swabs and a piece of a surgical mask.


Schroeder passed away in 2012, after his cancer had spread, and his family is now suing for over 80,000 euros.


The hospital claims the objects must have entered his body “post-operatively,” but that seems pretty hard to believe.


I don’t think I’ve seen that many objects in one patient since my siblings and I played that old Milton-Bradley board game “Operation” growing up.


Too bad Mr. Schroeder’s nose couldn’t light up red and buzz to let his doctors know they’d erred.


Mortgage Reform, Swiss Style


A farm owner in the northeastern canton (state) of Glarus, Switzerland, is breathing a sigh of relief these days.  That’s because a court recently wiped out an ancient debt attached to the farm, requiring an annual payment of 70 Swiss francs (about $76) stemming from 1357.


That year, a previous landowner named Konrad Mueller killed a man and, in atonement, he promised the local Catholic church he would keep an eternal lamp lit.  The obligation was handed down through the centuries in the form of an annual payment for oil and candles.


But the current owner finally balked at the yearly payment and took the church to court over it.  The Swiss court agreed that Swiss mortgage reforms back in the mid-19th century had invalidated the procedure, so now the church will have to “get its flame on” some other way.


Canada’s Beauty Queen is a Riot–Literally


Everyone knows that Canadians take their hockey seriously, and apparently their beauty pageant contestants are no different.


After the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the 2011 NHL Finals, rioting broke out in Vancouver with cars being set on fire, widespread looting and violence.  So far 173 people have been charged with crimes related to the riots, and over 100 have already pleaded guilty.


Among them is 21 year-old Sophie Laboissonniere, who competed in the 2011 Miss Coastal Vancouver pageant.  The beauty queen entered a guilty plea in January to a charge of “participating in a riot” (another charge of breaking and entering will likely be suspended).


What makes this especially ironic is the title that Ms. Laboissonniere won at the Vancouver beauty pageant—“Miss Congeniality.”


That’s irony for you, eh?


From Ireland, A License to Drive Drunk


I know—it sounds like the punchline of a joke, perpetuating the stereotype of the Irish and their love of drinking (and I’m Irish myself).  But I can’t make this stuff up: the City Council in County Kerry (located in southern Ireland) passed an ordinance in late January allowing rural drivers to legally drive while under the influence of alcohol.


Now, in all fairness to my Irish cousins, Irish authorities in recent years have made dramatic improvements in reducing drunk driving by lowering the legal blood alcohol limit (it’s now .08 like in many U.S. states), increasing the number of mandatory checkpoints and adopting other stringent laws. As a result, the overall number of road deaths has fallen by 56 percent over the last five years.


But the County Kerry Council passed its measure, arguing that citizens driving while intoxicated in rural areas don’t present the same risk; one council member even defended the law, saying that it would prevent loneliness and lower the risk of suicide in Ireland’s rural areas.


The council’s measure would give special permits to individuals living in rural areas who want permission to have a few pints at the local pub and then drive home on Kerry’s remote countryside roads.


The Irish Department of Transport, Alcohol Action Ireland, and Ireland’s Road Safety Authority have all voiced opposition to the law.


A Girl, By Any Other Name, Is Still a Girl in Iceland


Fifteen-year-old Blaer Bjarkardottir of Iceland was, until recently, a girl with no name—literally.


Iceland has official rules about what a baby can be named, since names are supposed to fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules (for example, names like “Caroline” would not be allowed because the Icelandic alphabet has no letter “c”).


The name “Blaer” (meaning “light breeze”) was not on Iceland’s official list as a proper feminine name.  Blaer’s mother, Bjork Eidsdottier, waged a legal battle that culminated in a recent ruling from the Reykjavik District Court that her daughter and other girls could now use the name “Blaer.”


The court rejected the government’s argument that the request should be denied in the interests of “protecting the Icelandic language.”


It sounds like when a determined mother stepped in, this “light breeze” became a “fierce storm” instead!

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