Legally Speaking: Truth is stranger than fiction

By John G. Browning | Nov 1, 2007

I recently wrote that as bizarre as the plots may get on legal dramas like "Boston Legal," the real-life happenings in the legal world are stranger than any fiction. Some readers challenged me to support that argument. Like any good lawyer, I'm happy to do so.

Exhibit A for my case shows how truly strange and contentious some divorce cases get.

Earlier this year, in response to the bickering of Chana and Simon Taub and the mutual refusal of either spouse to move out of their Brooklyn home, the judge presiding over their divorce proceedings took a novel approach. He ordered a white drywall partition built straight down the middle of their richly decorated, $923,000 three-story house.

Mrs. Taub gets the top floor, along with the kitchen on the second floor. Mr. Taub gets the first floor living room and the dining room on the second floor. To avoid running into each other on the second floor, the door between the dining room and kitchen is barricaded on both sides.

Their divorce case has been dragging on for over two years, and has been marked by bizarre allegations of bugged phones and excessive shoe buying. Oddly enough, it's not like they have nowhere else to go; the Taubs also own another home in the same neighborhood only two doors down!

Exhibit B shows just how far the litigious world has gone. Tony Turner, an English clown who entertains at children's parties under the name of "Barney Baloney," has had to change his act. He can no longer blow bubbles, after being refused insurance by several companies concerned about the possibility of lawsuits over children slipping in the soap residue.

"This whole�business has gone too far," says the clown. "Kids eat jelly and ice cream and that gets on the floor and is slippery. Does anyone want to stop them [from] eating that?"

Yes, kids will be kids � unless the hyper-politically correct administrators in charge of many schools have their way.

Enter the officials from Dennis Township (N.J.) Primary School, who are wound way too tightly when it comes to the school's zero-tolerance policy on guns. After second-grader Kyle Walker drew a stick figure shooting what he said was a water pistol, school officials suspended the 7-year-old for violating this zero tolerance policy.

For the record, little Kyle also drew a skateboarder, a tree, King Tut and a Cyclops.
Perhaps just to be safe, school officials should burn all those history books with illustrations of battles and other depictions of guns; or, to avoid children getting the wrong idea, remove copies of the U.S. Constitution with its problematic little Second Amendment.

After all, we don't want children exposed to any mention of guns whatsoever � at least, not in the People's Republic of New Jersey, where some of the nation's most restrictive gun laws haven't kept the state from experiencing some of the highest violent crime rates in the country.

My next exhibit from the archives of the weird concerns a lawyer sued for being, well, like a lawyer.

In Essex County, N.J., attorney Bruce Nagel sued Judith Wahrenberger, his adversary in a medical malpractice case, for allegedly inflicting "grievous emotional distress" by asking "inhumane" questions during a deposition. Nagel claims that the defense attorney crossed the line when she questioned a husband whether he felt his wife had contributed to the death of their infant daughter by shaking her.

The Plaintiffs, Andrew and Phyllis Rabinowitz, sued the hospital that had treated their newborn daughter and the emergency room physician on duty (Wahrenberger's client). Because an autopsy of the child had revealed a brain hemorrhage sometimes observed in cases of shaken-baby syndrome, and because Mr. Rabinowitz had made a police report of negligent homicide, defense attorney Wahrenberger inquired about whether the couple's nanny or Mrs. Rabinowitz had any involvement in the death.

According to Wahrenberger, "I would not be doing my job if I didn't explore these areas�as heartless as he says I was, the last thing I would be is cruel."

While Nagel may have characterized the line of questioning as "beyond any acceptable behavior of a civilized human being," Judge Alfonse Cifelli disagreed. He dismissed the lawsuit in late September, finding that not only were the questions neither "extreme" or "outrageous," but that they were permitted under the litigation privilege that allows lawyers to pursue lines of questioning relevant to their cases without fear of being sued by the opposing party. Attorneys on both sides of the bar applauded the decision, noting the potential chilling effect that such a lawsuit could have had.

If you find the notion of a lawyer being sued for doing her job unusual, then how about a man of the cloth?

Father Luis Alfredo Rios of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Crystal Lake, Ill., was sued for making a "wrongful sermon" by one of his parishioners, Angel Llarona. Llarona left two voicemail messages for Father Rios complaining about the quality of his sermonizing.

The next Sunday, Father Rios allegedly played the voicemails for the congregation, and commented on Llaroma's effectiveness as someone in charge of religious education for the parish. The priest allegedly asked the congregants "what should we do, should we send him to hell or to another parish?" Now, Mr. Llarona wants at least $50,000.

Since the First Amendment precludes judges from inquiring into religious doctrine or belief, only a few courts have taken on such "wrongful sermon" cases.

In 2004, a New Mexico court rejected defamation claims against a priest who denounced the deceased at a funeral service. The judge wryly noted that churches have been "talking about sending people to hell for many a year. People aren't shocked by it."

As for Father Rios and Mr. Llarona, maybe the subject for next week's sermon should be turning the other cheek.

Finally, while lawyers sometimes draw some less-than-flattering comparisons to pitbulls, have you ever wondered who would actually prevail in such a matchup? Boca Raton, Fla., lawyer Paul Geller may have answered that question recently.

By day, Geller is a high-profile securities class action lawyer who's gone after some of America's largest companies. But in his spare time, the 39-year-old litigator is a nationally ranked Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor who trades in the courtroom for the octagon of mixed martial arts tournaments (made popular by the "Ultimate Fighting Championships").

When he saw two pitbulls mauling a pregnant woman and her Schnauzer, Geller leapt into action, kicking at the dogs until they retreated. The woman needed nine stitches for facial lacerations and her dog required over 100, but both made full recoveries thanks to Geller's actions.

Whether it's a case of a house divided (literally) or "man bites dog," the truth really is stranger than fiction. I can't make this stuff up, and thanks to wacky litigants everywhere,

I don't have to.

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