Beware of Tripping Alligators and Fake Warning Signs

Fake warning signThis sign warning “Do Not Feed Hallucinogens to Alligators” would be amusing if it were real, but it’s not.

Complicating life at, where we love to post interesting warning labels and signs, is the proliferation of fake, Photoshopped samples.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell.  University of Memphis first-year law student George Scoville sent me the alligators picture.  It looked a bit sketchy.  Research led to a Reddit post detailing indicators that the picture is fake, including, for example, a Shutterstock watermark on the mushroom.

Real sign, but fake warningBut George had also sent a second similar photo: “Do Not Give the Bison Psychoactive Substances.”  This one looked real.

Determined not to be fooled twice, George, applying good legal research skills,  wrote to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (the bison are in Golden Gate Park), receiving a reply that explained:

“That sign was put up as a prank. We took it down as soon as we became aware of it.”

So the sign is (was) actually real.  Diabolical!  On the other hand, it is Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, home of “Hippie Hill” and neighboring Haight-Ashbury, so it’s possible a sincerely motivated animal-lover posted the sign.

Before posting anything on Facebook or otherwise, take a minute to check it out.  A quick check over at SNOPES will usually expose widely disseminated fake news, such as the recent viral Facebook post that Mark Zuckerberg was giving away $4.5 million to Facebook users who shared a thank you message.

In the meantime, signs or not, it’s not a good idea to give psychedelics to animals.

Famous Wacky Law Exposed as Not-So-Wacky


Don't tie a giraffe - or any other animal - to a lamp post in Vermont.

Have you ever read about that “bizarre” Vermont statute that prohibits tying giraffes to lamp posts? I’ve seen references to it in books and in far too many forwarded emails.

When David Tartter came across it, he had a novel idea: he actually looked it up. Guess what he found? The statute prohibits tying any animal to a lamp post. While giraffes technically are included, it’s doubtful the law would have assumed its legendary “wacky” status if it were reported as a statute that prohibited tying, say, dogs to lamp posts.

Here’s the actual statute:

A person who wilfully and maliciously breaks the glass about a street lamp or gaslight, or a lamp or gaslight in the grounds about a public building, or, without authority, lights such a lamp or gaslight or extinguishes the same when lighted, or in any manner interferes therewith, or injures any part of the fixtures supporting such lamp or gaslight, or defaces the same by painting or posting notices thereon, or fastens a horse or animal thereto, shall be imprisoned not more than three months or fined not more than $50.00, or both.

13 V.S.A. section 3785

If anyone discovers other legal humor mythbusters, please send them in.

— Thanks to David Tartter.


Plaintiff Sues for Loss of Psychic Powers

crystal ballA $600,000 jury verdict for losing psychic powers sounds ridiculous, and likely the grossly misunderstood McDonald’s coffee spill case, Haimes v. Temple University has been abused as a tool to whip up on trial lawyers and the tort system. But as with the McDonald’s case, Haimes got twisted in the telling.

Plaintiff Judith Richardson Haimes brought a medical malpractice action against defendant after a CT scan allegedly caused her chronic and disabling headaches and prevented her from practicing her occupation as a psychic. A jury awarded her $600,000 after a four-day trial.

Wow! But pro-tort reform accounts of the case omit two critical facts.  First, that the trial judge specifically instructed the jury it could NOT award damages for loss of her psychic abilities, and, second, that the court threw out the plaintiff’s verdict.

Having cleared that up, the most interesting part of the case was the testimony pertaining to her psychic abilities. The plaintiff presented several police officers as witnesses who testified that plaintiffs’ psychic abilities had helped them solve cases. One special agent testified that he sought plaintiff’s advice in solving five to seven homicide cases and that information provided by plaintiff proved to be 80-90 percent accurate. The opinion describes detailed information plaintiff provided to help solve a variety of cases. It’s interesting.

Haimes v. Temple University Hosp., 39 Pa. D. & C.3d 381 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. 1986). Thanks to Cynthia Cohan.

The Birth of Legal Mythbusters

Undocumented reports of weird laws, funny “real life” litigation transcripts, and outrageous lawsuits have been circulating for decades. Some of them are the same stories I read back as a practicing lawyer 30 years ago. People send them to all the time, but we never post them because they lack documentation.

Scott Martin’s email below prompted us to think more about the issue and to start a category for Legal Mythbusters. would love be the Annenberg Fact-Check center for legal humor, but we don’t have the resources. Actually, we won’t have any resouces.  So we’re depending, as always, on you, the loyal reader.

If you have any information about whether famous legal tales are “real” or just “tall,” let us know. Meanwhile, here’s Scott’s thoughtful email:

Dear Professor McClurg:

I would very much appreciate your take on two odd phenomena that have long plagued my sensibilities as a lawyer: strange legal transcript excerpts and strange laws.

As you likely know, the “transquips” are humorous sections taken from the transcripts of “real trials.” They vary from Henny Youngmanish one-liners:

Q. Doctor, did you say he was shot in the woods?

A. No, I said he was shot in the lumbar region.

To those with the long setup and stinging punch line:

Q: Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?

A: No.

Q: Did you check for blood pressure?

A: No.

Q: Did you check for breathing?

A: No.

Q: So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?

A: No.

Q: How can you be so sure, Doctor?

A: Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.

Q: But could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?

A: Yes, it is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law somewhere.

As to “Strange Laws” here are a few attributed to my home state of Florida:

If an elephant is left tied to a parking meter, the parking fee has to be paid just as it would for a vehicle. It is illegal to sing in a public place while attired in a swimsuit. Men may not be seen publicly in any kind of strapless gown. Having sexual relations with a porcupine is illegal.

You can find these things for all 50 states and countries throughout the globe.

The internet is rife with both of these forms of legal humor, and numerous books have been written on both subjects.

To me, these constitute legal humor—really humor of any kind—but only if they are true. However, I never, ever, ever see any accompanying citation to the cases or statutes from which these tidbits are taken. That really bugs me. While we don’t expect a joke to be traceable back to its creator, the very nature of these two types of humor suggests that they could be easily verified. If it’s from a transcript, there is a written record traceable to a particular case. If it is a law, there should be a citation (aside from common law, which I doubt speaks to securing pachyderms to parking meters).

… [W]hy do these claims persist? Is it the same explanation as for “urban legends”— i.e., the more ridiculous the claim, the more likely it is to be believed?


Scott Martin

I agree. If these come from official transcripts and laws, let’s see some proof.

— Thanks to Scott Martin for helping to keep legal humor honest.

Law Professor Exposes Phony Tort Cases

Jonathan Turley

Professor Jonathan Turley exposed phony outlandish tort cases.

Although several years old, Professor Jonathan Turley’s USA Today article exposing phony tort cases remains must-reading for anyone concerned about the tort reform movement. Why? Because people are still circulating these tall tales.

You know those crazy tort lawsuits you read about, the ones that make people indignant about the tort sytem, the ones politicians and tort reformers use to build public support for the movement, the ones that get endlessly forwarded to email inboxes?

They’re crazy, to be sure. But, one problem. A lot of the most notorious cases are fabricated, as Turley explored in his article.

The notorious–but apparently fictitious winning-plaintiffs–and their outlandish “cases” include:

• Kathleen Robertson, a woman who–imagine this–received a $780,000 jury award against a furniture store after she tripped over her own son.

• Carl Truman, who won a $74,000 judgment after his hand was run over by a neighbor. The neighbor could not see Truman because he was kneeling down while in the process of stealing the neighbor’s hubcaps.

• Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pa., a man who received a $500,000 award against a garage-door manufacturer after he almost starved while trapped in the garage of a house he was burglarizing while the family was on vacation.

• And my personal favorite, a Mr. Grazinski, who won more than $1,750,000 against Winnebago when the RV he was driving went off the road after he put it on cruise control at 70 mph to go into the back to fix a cup of coffee.

Turley was unable to track down records showing that any of these, or several other notorious crazy lawsuits, actually existed.

It should be more than a little troubling to people that state legislatures have passed thousands of tort reform statutes throwing out 200 years of carefully considered common law (judge-made law) in part based on sound-bite reporting of cases that never happened.

— Jonathan Turley, Legal Myths: Hardly the Whole Truth, USA Today, Jan. 30, 2005.

Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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