Legally Speaking: The Return of the Justie Awards

By John G. Browning | Jul 9, 2010

Over the years, I've said that some of what goes on in the legal realm is so bizarre that it merits its own recognition – sort of an Academy Awards for the civil and criminal justice systems if you will.

So, instead of the Emmys, the Grammys, or the Oscars, we present the Justies. And despite the fact that we're only halfway through the year, there are already some worthy contenders.

The "No Honor Among Thieves" award goes to the two erstwhile partners in crime of a Mr. Kirkwood. The three criminals had just finished burglarizing a home when they were spotted by police, and they fled.

Kirkwood was driving the getaway car – apparently pretty badly. Less than a mile from the scene, Kirkwood crashed into three other cars; his two cohorts were injured in the collision, and all three would-be robbers were caught and ultimately convicted.

Later, Kirkwood's two partners turned around and filed a civil suit against him for negligence, seeking damages for their personal injuries.

There was just one teeny-weeny problem, as the court pointed out in Espinoza v. Kirkwood; California law states that in a negligence case, "a person may not recover any damages if the plaintiff's injuries were in any way proximately caused by the plaintiff's commission of any felony, or immediate flight therefrom, and the plaintiff has been duly convicted of that felony."

In other words, Kirkwood can't be sued civilly by his criminal accomplices, any more than a fleeing criminal who gets hurt while being pursued by the police can sue.

Next time, pick a better getaway driver.

The "Karma Comes Back to Bite You" award goes to Maryland malpractice lawyer Bradley Schwartz. For several years, the 62-year-old had perpetuated a scheme of bilking funds from his clients. Prosecutors, who pointed out that Schwartz had a gambling problem, said he stole $1.56 million from 21 different clients.

In late June, he pleaded guilty to felony theft and agreed to be disbarred. Schwartz is due to be sentenced in late August, and faces up to 15 years in prison.

But the story doesn't end there. Nineteen months ago, this same crooked lawyer received an e-mail from someone claiming to be with a manufacturing company in Singapore, asking him to do some collection work.

In a scam that has targeted lawyers throughout the United States, the Asian "manufacturing company" arranges to have a substantial check sent to the lawyer; the lawyer deposits it (not knowing the check is bogus), deducts his "retainer," and sends the rest of the money to the "client."

In reality, because the "client's" money is fake, the lawyer is sending whatever real money is in his account.

Schwartz fell victim to the scam, depositing a $383,000 check from a fictitious company into his account, and then sending a check to the "client." Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

The "Creative Excuses" award belongs to an unidentified driver in Fruita, Colo. In late June, the woman was involved in a single-vehicle accident. She claims she was startled by the sight of a vampire in the middle of a dirt road, threw her SUV into reverse, and crashed into a canal.

Colorado state troopers say the woman, who was taken home by her husband who arrived on the scene, was unharmed and that neither drugs nor alcohol are suspected as factors in the crash.

Now, watching too many "Twilight" movies or "True Blood" episodes, that's another story ...

The "This Is What Happens When You Mumble" award goes to James Geremonte of Brockton, Mass. Geremonte was arrested April 13 for the attempted armed robbery of a Dunkin' Donuts, but he and his court-appointed defense attorney insist it's all just a misunderstanding.

They claim that he asked for a honey bun, and didn't actually say "Give me the money, I have a gun."

I guess it could just be a mistake, but I'm a little skeptical – perhaps because Geremonte has been convicted 23 other times for other "misunderstandings."

Will the judge see it as a case of sticky buns, or sticky fingers?

The "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" award goes to 39-year-old Vanessa Joy Long of Christchurch, New Zealand.

A homeowner in that city found the blonde, ponytailed Long asleep in a bed in his house after she apparently broke in and ate some food, drank some alcohol, and tried on clothes.

Long has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, and says she blacked out and has no memory of what happened on that night of June 5. I'll help fill in some of the blanks for you, Joy: the first bed was too hard, the second bed was too soft, and the third bed was just right . . .

The "Stating the Obvious" award goes to the South Dakota Supreme Court. In a 3-2 decision, the justices ruled in favor of a police officer who had seized 15 cats from a woman who was driving with the felines roaming free inside her car (she nearly backed into the police car while in a convenience store parking lot).

The court held that 15 cats running around in a car is distraction that could interfere with a driver's ability to see where she's going. Gee, ya think?

The "Winning Friends and Influencing People" award belongs to Catherin Vaughn, a/k/a Katherine Funk. The Tennessee woman, who had pleaded guilty in 2007 to child abuse and been placed on three year's probation, had her probation revoked in April 2009 after she made comments threatening a juvenile court judge.

A number of witnesses, including an anger management counselor working with Vaughn, testified about various statements and behavior by the woman. These included saying that she would see that the judge "got what she had coming to her;" that she would take away the judge's children; that she and her husband "knew all about explosives and what to do with them;" and that she had followed the judge home and "knew what her children looked like."

Surprise, surprise – Ms. Vaughn's probation was revoked, and a Tennessee appellate court upheld that decision.

The "I'm the King of the World" award goes to the makers of a bounce house who recently unveiled a 40-foot-high model that is in the shape of the doomed ocean liner Titanic.

The inflatable structure depicts the ill-fated ship with its keel raised high in the air as if it's sinking; it even has inflatable icebergs and a slide ("Gee, kids, you can pretend you're sliding to your watery deaths just like the real passengers!").

Critics at a toy trade fair condemned the bouncy structure as being in bad taste, calling it "sick-like having a bouncy graveyard."

Hey, at least the kids won't have to listen to that Celine Dion song . . .

The "You Can Go to You-Know-Where" award is presented to Pennsylvania independent filmmaker George Kalman. In 2007, Kalman tried to register the name of his production company – "I Choose Hell Productions LLC" – with the state of Pennsylvania.

He was refused, because of a 1977 anti-blasphemy law requiring that no corporate name in Pennsylvania contain words that "constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord's name."

Kalman sued on First Amendment grounds, and on June 30 a federal court ruled that the statute was unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson wrote that "Choosing hell may be an irreverent choice for a corporate name, but under the Constitution, this fact alone cannot be the basis for its suppression from the public debate."

Judge Baylson would have loved famed Civil War general Philip "Little Phil" Sheridan. Although put in charge of Texas during Reconstruction, the Union war hero was no fan of our fair state, or its heat.

He once said, "If I owned hell and Texas, I'd live in hell and rent out Texas."

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