A while back I posted a picture of a coffee cup, reportedly from Canada, that made fun of U.S. tort law and, indirectly, poor Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff in the infamous McDonald’s coffee spill.
Now Chris Fergus, a professor in Australia, sends along this photo showing another coffee cup maker having a grand old time with the case by including a warning on its cups stating, “Avoid Pouring on Crotch Area.” I don’t speak French, but can guess the French version amounts to something like “Don’t Pour It on Your Oolala.” Chris said he received the photo from one of his students and is unsure where it originated.
Hilarious, unless you happen to end up like Ms. Liebeck. Sorry for the graphic pic, but this is actually one of the milder pictures of her burn injuries:
And so here we are more than a decade later continuing to distort the American tort system with a case in which dangerously hot coffee sold through a drive-thru window caused third-degree burns to a 79-year-old woman who accidentally spilled it while a passenger in a stopped vehicle trying to add cream and sugar. Consult the original post for links to some eye-opening information about what really happened in the McDonald’s coffee spill case.
–Thanks to Chris Fergus
Randy Maniloff explores Halloween tort cases.
Insurance expert, stand-up comic, and friend of Lawhaha.com, Randy Maniloff, penned an interesting article in his latest issue of Coverage Opinions about whether people who get frightened at Halloween haunted houses, with resulting injury, can sue.
On any other evening, presenting a frightening or threatening visage might be a violation of a general duty not to scare others. But on Halloween at trick-or-treat time, that duty is modified. Our society encourages children to transform themselves into witches, demons, and ghosts, and play a game of threatening neighbors into giving them candy.” Bouton v. Allstate Ins. Co., 491 So. 2d 56 (La. Ct. App. 1986) (also noting that the Louisiana legislature has recognized Halloween as a special occasion by exempting it from the statute which prohibits the wearing of masks in public places).
But does this “Halloween rule” apply to haunted houses? All sorts of duties are imposed on property owners to maintain a safe premises. Do these same rules apply when the premises are advertised as having, as their only purpose, to scare visitors? Indeed, many visitors will leave a haunted house disappointed if they were not frightened while there. That being the case, can the visitor of a haunted house now turn around and sue for injuries sustained in the process of getting what he asked (and paid) for?
His research turned up five reported judicial decisions in which visitors of haunted houses sought recovery for injuries “sustained on account of being scared.” Notably, the plaintiffs lost every case based on assumption of the risk analysis and the social utility of keeping haunted houses scary and darkly lit. In one case, a startled plaintiff in a pitch-dark house turned to run and ran smack into a brick wall.
Hate to be a party-pooper, but I think there’s a duty to act reasonably to prevent highly foreseeable injuries at premises open to the public. The goal of a haunted house is to terrify, the expected result is that customers will be terrified, and the instinctive response to terror is to run. But no one can see! Give them helmets, maybe even put flashlights on them, or scare them outside where they can run into the cushy-walls of cornfield mazes.
“Eerily,” as Randy notes, all five cases are from Louisiana.
A student from my very first Torts course a million years ago sent me this brilliant flow chart for the tort of nuisance, which comprises substantial and unreasonable interferences with the use and enjoyment of one’s property. The most interesting thing about it is that it actually summarizes the law pretty well, assuming one has dropped acid before studying it. Credit on the chart attributes this work of art to one Margaret Hagen. Well done!
A 1L sent me this “Torts Illustrated” image, sort of a grown-up version of Garrett v. Daily, a famous case that all law students study in which a five-year-old was sued for pulling a chair out from under an elderly woman. If anyone knows the original source, please send it along so we can give proper credit.
In the meantime, one can only imagine what the swimsuit issue would look like.
A former student from Golden Gate law school who lives and practices in Hawaii sent this picture of a true torts-loving person’s car.
We will engage in outrageous speculation that it belongs to a plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer. If you think about it, who else would get a “TORTS” license plate? Maybe geeky law professors with nicknames like Tortman or pattisiers who can’t spell, but really no one else. Insurance defense lawyers wouldn’t do it because it would violate the industry position that torts do not actually exist.
The car owner obviously loves tort law, but any challenger to the “Most Crazy in Love with Torts” still has to contend with the guy who got Judge Learned Hand tattooed on his arm. On the other hand, that guy may have simply loved Judge Hand or even barges.
–Thanks to Laura Ozak.
One of the milder pictures of Stella Liebeck’s coffee burn injuries.
Any mention of lawsuits and hot coffee invariably invokes the grossly misunderstood “McDonald’s coffee spill” case of Stella Liebeck, a 79-old-woman who suffered third-degree burns after spilling a stryrofoam, takeout cup of McDonald’s coffee on her legs.
I apologize for the gruesome picture, but a large part of the misunderstanding of this case comes from people not appreciating that Ms. Liebeck suffered extremely severe injuries. There are much worse pictures of her injuries available on the internet. There is also a ton of information, and misinformation, out there about the McDonald’s case. Here (scroll down to “Public Perceptions: The McDonald’s Coffee Spill”) and here are a couple accounts of the facts. You might also want to check out the movie, Hot Coffee.
Sideways on purpose. Click to expand.
At least one Canadian coffee seller found the idea of warning consumers about hot coffee to be amusing:
“If this was another country, we’d have to tell you this coffee may be hot. Good thing this is Canada!”
UPDATE 2-26-14: Received a comment today saying this picture is Photoshopped, but with no supporting explanation or evidence. Looks real. We like to get things right at Lawhaha.com so if any techie out there can help us figure this out one way or another, please write.
Are you in law school? Do you consider yourself to be a dedicated law student? Not sure? Measure yourself on McClurg’s simple 0-100 scale, with 0 being “I’m not totally thrilled with Judge Learned Hand” and 100 being “I aspire to be like the guy in this picture.”
Years ago, a student of mine at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law took a trip, to Philadelphia, I think. He struck up a conversation with a tattoo artist in a bar. When the artist learned he was in law school, she asked, “Have you ever heard of a judge named Learned Hand?” “Of course!” the student replied. All law students know and remember Judge Learned Hand.
The artist said the young man above came into her tattoo parlor with the accompanying picture of Judge Hand (the picture is from the famous Prosser, Wade & Schwartz Torts casebook used at 124 law schools) and asked to have Judge Hand, wearing a jester cap, tattooed on his arm. As proof, she followed up and sent this photograph to my student, who entrusted it to me.
For non-legals, Judge Hand was a famous judge who in a famous case–U.S. v. Carroll Towing–set forth a famous algebraic economic cost-benefit formula for determining whether injury-causing conduct was reasonable or unreasonable. If reasonable, the defendant is off the hook. If unreasonable, the defendant is liable for negligence and must pay damages. The formula is B < P x L. B stands for the burden of avoiding a risk of harm, P is the probability that the risk will actually cause harm, and L stands for the severity of the harm if it occurs. The formula states that if the burden of avoiding the harm is less than the probability of the harm occurring multiplied by the severity of the potential harm, the conduct is unreasonable (i.e., negligent). Conversely, if the burden of avoiding the risk outweighs the probability times the severity of harm, the conduct is reasonable (i.e., non-negligent).
The back of the picture is stamped with “Tattoo & Photo by Sherry Sears, Creative Images, Des Moines, IA.” So if you want to impress your professors and university’s counseling department, book a ticket to Des Moines.
Two drink minimum; No packages wrapped in newspaper.
A student of mine posted this pic on Facebook of “Cardozo’s Pub” in Chicago. Is “Andrews’ Billiard Hall” next door by any chance?
For non-legals, Judge Benjamin Cardozo is one of the most famous American jurists. He authored several judicial opinions read by law students, including the majority opinion in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad. Judge William Andrews wrote a famous dissent in the same case.
Palsgraf, studied by every first-year law student, is the improbable tale of a set of scales allegedly knocked on top of the plaintiff, Mrs. Helen Palsgraf, as a result of an explosion that occurred when a man running to catch a train dropped a package of fireworks while being helped onto the train by railroad employees.
For the completely true fake inside story behind these opinions, check out Palsgraf Uncovered). Other posts related to the famous case are here, here, and here.
No known connection exists between this Chicago pub and the real Judge Cardozo.
A former student sent along the complaint below, which a friend of his suggested might be “the new Palsgraf for our generation.” Hmm, this might not be a good generational sign given the allegations.
For non-legals, Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad is a famous tort law case all law students read involving a bizarre accident at a train station, where the court ruled that a tort defendant owes a legal duty to act with reasonable care to another only if the other is a reasonably foreseeable victim of the defendant’s conduct. More Lawhaha.com posts involving Palsgraf are here, here, here, and here.
A national Greek fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, apparently held a “house party” at their frat house at a West Virginia university. The complaint alleges that many of the participants consumed intoxicating beverages. No surprise so far. But one of the guests surprised at least one person (the plaintiff, allegedly) when he decided to light up–literally–the party by shooting bottle rockets from … er, I’d rather let the Complaint explain it:
Warning: Allegations are Disgusting
8. Defendant Hughes was highly intoxicated on this date and time, and decided in his drunken stupor that it would be a good idea to shoot bottle rockets out of his anus on the ATO deck, located on the back of the ATO house.
9. Upon information and belief, there were several other ATO fraternity members on the deck at the time of this incident, including one or more officers of the fraternity. Plaintiff and his girlfriend were also present on the ATO deck.
10. Defendant Hughes placed a bottle rocket in his anus, ignited the fuse, but instead of launching, the bottle rocket blew up in Defendant’s rectum, and this startled plaintiff and caused him to jump back, at which time he fell off of the ATO deck, and he became lodged between the deck and an air conditioner unit adjacent to the deck.
11. There was no railing on said deck at the time of the incident. Upon information and belief, the lack of a railing had existed for at least several months, if not years, before the incident. Upon further information and belief, the deck never had a railing when it was installed, or any time thereafter. The subject deck was approximately 3-4 feet high.
12. The subject deck was in the exclusive custody, maintenance and control of the ATO fraternity at all times relevant hereto.
Here’s your Palsgraf test: Was the plaintiff within the zone of foreseeable danger of the bottle rocket-defendant’s alleged conduct? Probably, although perhaps with some contributory negligence thrown in. Assuming the plaintiff was standing close by he could have been injured in any number of ways from someone setting off fireworks in such a dangerous, uncontrolled manner.
The more interesting question is the fraterity’s liability. Was it foreseeable to the fraternity that an intoxicated fraternity member would ignite fireworks in such a bizarre manner and cause a startled bystander to fall off the deck? Probably not, but it is foreseeable that during social or other gatherings on a deck with no railing (which the complaint alleges violated building codes, likely making it negligence per se) someone would fall off it. Generally speaking, the precise manner in which the harm occurred need not be foreseeable so long as the same general kind of harm was foreseeable. The injury that occurred–falling off the deck-is the risk that makes it negligent to not have a railing on a raised deck.
Just an off-the-cuff analysis of the facts as alleged. As always, it will come down to the facts as proved–or, more likely, to a settlement.
—Complaint, Helmburg v. Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity, Case No. 12-C-57, Circuit Ct., Cabell County, West Va., filed Jan. 23, 2012.
Judge Carlin LOVED this guy.
A unanimous Strange Judicial Opinions Hall of Fame opinion is Cordas v. Peerless Transportation Co., penned in 1941 by Judge Carlin (no relation to George) of the New York City Court.
The defendant was a chauffeur and the victim of an armed car-jacking by a fleeing robber who threatened to blow the chauffeur’s brains out. In fright, the chauffeur slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the vehicle, which kept moving and hit the plaintiff pedestrian and her children (fortunately, injuries were slight).
The case stands for the unremarkable principle that under the basic negligence standard of reasonable care “under the circumstances,” people aren’t expected to exercise as much care in emergency situations as in non-emergencies where they have time to weigh and deliberate. It also stands as a literary masterpiece of judicial opinion writing.
Full appreciation of this classic can come only with a full reading, but here’s how it starts:
This case presents the ordinary man–that problem child of the law–in a most bizarre setting. As a lowly chauffeur in defendant’s employ he became in a trice the protagonist in a breath-bating drama with a denouement almost tragic. It appears that a man, whose identity it would be indelicate to divulge, was feloniously relieved of his portable goods by two nondescript highwaymen in an alley near 26th Street and Third Avenue, Manhattan; they induced him to relinquish his possessions by a strong argument ad hominem couched in the convincing cant of the criminal and pressed at the point of a most persuasive pistol.
Carlin apparently was a learned Shakespeare fan. In excusing the chauffeur from liability for jumping out of the moving vehicle, Carlin said:
If the philosophic Horatio and the martial companions of his watch were ‘distilled almost to jelly with the act of fear’ when they beheld ‘in the dead vast and middle of night’ the disembodied spirit of Hamlet’s father stalk majestically by ‘with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger,’ was not the chauffeur, though unacquainted with the example of these eminent men-at-arms more amply justified in his fearsome reactions when he was more palpably confronted by a thing of flesh and blood bearing in its hand an engine of destruction which depended for its lethal purpose upon the quiver of a hair.
Translation: It’s not negligent to react in fright when a carjacker has a gun pointed at your head.
— Cordas v. Peerless Transp. Co., 27 N.Y.S.2d 198, 199, 201 (City Court of N.Y. 1941). Thanks to all the folks who sent in this classic.
More appropriate publication vehicle than the Northeast Reporter?
A lawsuit brought by a woman who got a fishbone lodged in her throat while eating a bowl of fish chowder at a Boston restaurant moved the Massachusetts Supreme Court to write an opinion devoted more to the joys of New England fish recipes than actual law.
The legal dispute is an old one: To what extent is food containing a harmful ingredient a defective product when the substance is a natural one as opposed to a foreign one?
Most modern courts apply a reasonableness test that looks at whether the substance was one a consumer would reasonably expect to find in a prepared dish, but the Massachusetts Supreme Court in this 1964 case adopted the older approach that there is no liability for harm-causing natural substances (i.e., bones as opposed to pieces of glass) in food.
Reading the opinion, it wasn’t hard to predict the defendant was going to win in the end. The court reminisced fondly about the history of fish dishes, recounted several recipes for the same, and included statements such as “we consider that the joys of life in New England include the ready availability of fresh fish chowder.”
The court went so far as to note that “[a] namesake of the plaintiff, Daniel Webster, had a recipe for fish chowder which has survived into a number of modern cookbooks and in which the removal of fish bones is not mentioned at all.”
The court concluded:
[W]e consider a dish which for many long years, if well made, has been made generally as outlined above. It is not too much to say that a person sitting down in New England to consume a good New England fish chowder embarks on a gustatory adventure which may entail the removal of some fish bones from his bowl as he proceeds. We are not inclined to tamper with age old recipes by any amendment reflecting the plaintiff’s view of the effect of the Uniform Commercial Code upon them.
This is a must-read opinion for all products liability lawyers and anyone looking for a good fish-chowder recipe.
— Webster v. Blue Ship Tea Room, Inc., 198 N.E.2d 309, 312 (Mass. 1964). Thanks to Daniel Green.
A large guy (280-90 pounds) ironically won a one-week trip to Hawaii as a reward for selling more than $20,000 in diet products. But in a lawsuit against Hanes, the underwear maker, he alleged his “dream trip” went awry due to allegedly defective briefs which “gaped open and acted like a sand belt on my privates,” causing injury.
We’ll let the court elaborate on this interesting products liability case:
Plaintiff testified that by the second day in Hawaii he was in debilitating pain. However, … he ignored the pain until he returned to Pensacola two weeks later. He explained he was able to ignore the pain because he was enjoying himself so much on this long anticipated vacation that he did not dwell on or focus on the pain to any degree.
Plaintiff testified he believed sand that he picked up in his swim trunks while enjoying the Hawaiian surf had irritated his penis. Over the next few days he and his wife “walked all over the place” until his condition worsened to the point that he “could hardly walk.” Plaintiff testified his inability to walk was caused by defendant’s defective manufacturing of his underwear which caused his “fly” to gap open. The gap resulted in his penis protruding from his underwear, whereupon the edges of the opening abraded his penis like “sandpaper belts.” …
Under cross examination plaintiff admitted he never examined his penis to assess the problem and/or treat the problem. He testified he is a “belly-man” and his “weight” prevents him from looking down and seeing his penis. He further testified he declined to use the hotel mirror to view the “injury” because that is “not something he would do.” He also testified he did not ask his wife to examine his penis because he would never ask her to do such a thing, nor would he want to let her know about his pain because it would have “ruined her vacation” as well. …
So how does one prove a complex products liability case like this one? How else? Bring on the experts! Nothing like an in-court reenactment to drive home a point (will resist the obvious “if they do not fit, you must acquit” joke):
Both the plaintiff and the defendant’s expert demonstrated the “tensions” that are placed on men’s underwear. This was done by holding the allegedly “defective” underwear and placing it under various “stresses” while comparing it with similar briefs made by other manufacturers, as well as other old, worn out Hanes brand briefs owned by plaintiff.
The uncontroverted expert testimony was that once a man’s genitalia are adjusted in his briefs, “vertical tension” is far greater than horizontal tension and there is no tendency for the fly to “gap.”
Based on the expert testimony, the judge concluded that “it was clear to the court that plaintiff’s underwear would not have ‘gaped’ open as contended by plaintiff because the tension load on men’s underwear is vertical and not horizontal.” The court speculated that it was more likely that plaintiff’s problems were caused by the “plaintiff’s manner of getting into his underwear,” which was to put them on at the same time as his pants.
The surprising legal lesson of this case is that expert testimony about tighty-whities fit can apparently pass scrutiny as scientifically valid under Daubert.
— Freed v. Hanes Brands, Inc., Case No. 2009 SC 003087 (Fla. Escambia County Ct. Oct. 12, 2009). Thanks to Cecile Mendizabel and others.
A $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.
Ohio Court of Appeals Judge Mark Painter combined humor and common sense in Gibson v. Donahue, where the plaintiff was injured being thrown from her horse, which was spooked by two Irish Setters that the defendant allowed to run free in an area restricted to equestrian use.
Talk about creative lawyering. The defendant tried to escape liability by relying on an Ohio statute intended to provide tort immunity for riding stable owners and horse show operators for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of equine activity (a statute Painter said “is noteworthy mainly for using the word ‘farrier’ ten times”).
Judge Painter observed that the case was one of first impression, “probably because no one before has been audacious enough” to try to extend the statute to a situation like this one.
Defendant did have a slim statutory leg to stand on. The statute extends immunity to “an equine activity sponsor, equine activity participant, equine professional, veterinarian, farrier, or other person.” However, Judge Painter said that for defendant’s construction to prevail, the statute would have to be read as applying to “any other person in the whole world.” Construed as defendant argued, “[a] person who negligently crashes an airplane into the crowd at an equine event would thus be immune to liability.”
By the way, a farrier is a blacksmith. Remember that if you’re a law student in Ohio. It might be on the bar exam.
— Gibson v. Donahue, 772 N.E. 2d 646, 648, 650 (Ohio Ct. App. 2002).
Would a reasonably prudent dog batter a postal worker, negligently knock over a vase with a wagging tail or trespass on property to urinate or defecate?
Maybe we’ll find out, now that a court has held that a dog in a dog-bite case was to be judged by a “reasonable dog” standard.
In Kirkham v. Will, an Illinois intermediate appellate court held that, in deciding whether the defense of provocation applied in a dog-bite case, the appropriate test to apply was the “reasonable dog” standard; that is, how a reasonable dog would have reacted to the plaintiff’s presence under similar circumstances.
How a reasonably prudent person would have behaved under a given set of circumstances is one of the great imponderables of tort law that jurors, law students, lawyers, judges and law professors struggle with every day. Despite manifold attempts to define the standard, answers remain elusive.
We entrust the decision to jurors because they presumably know how reasonable people would act. Are they competent to determine how reasonable dogs would act? I can see it now, ads for expert witnesses in “Canine Behavior.”
— Kirkham v. Will, 724 N.E.2d 1062, 1065 (Ill. App. Ct. 2000). Thanks to Darius Asly.
Family friendly depiction of the injury.
Doe v. Moe, a May 2005 Massachusetts appellate case, gives a whole new meaning to the idea of safe sex. A guy sued his long-time girlfriend (ex-girlfriend?) for negligence when an ill-advised change in position during consensual intercourse resulted in him suffering a fractured penis. (The opinion gives details about how the accident occurred.)
In a case of first impression, the court struggled to arrive at an appropriate and workable standard of care to apply to private consensual sexual conduct. The court noted:
There are no comprehensive legal rules to regulate consensual sexual behavior, and there are not commonly accepted customs or values that determine parameters for the intensely private and widely diverse forms of such behavior.
Accordingly, the court concluded that the general negligence standard of reasonable care under the circumstances was inappropriate for consensual sex-physical injury cases.
Instead, the court said the plaintiff needed to show conduct rising to the level of “wanton or reckless.” The court opined that while the trial record might support a finding that the defendant’s conduct exposed plaintiff to a risk of harm, it did not support a finding of wanton or reckless conduct.
The case does raise an interesting legal issue. With so many different preferences and positions and idiosyncratic fantasies and fetishes, is there such a thing as a standard of “ordinary and reasonable care” for sex?
— Doe v. Moe, 827 N.E.2d 240, 245 (Mass. Ct. App. 2005). Thanks to David Keller and Professor Howard Wasserman.
It's a dog-eat-divinity student world.
A dog-bite case against the dean of the Yale Divinity School by a divinity student gave U.S. District Judge Gerard Goettel a chance to “let the dogs out” in an opinion leaving no possible wordplay on dogs unpenned or unpunned.
The main issue was whether the Yale Divinity School could be held strictly liable under the Connecticut dog-bite statute as a “keeper” of the dean’s offending canine, Rocky, a Labrador, because the dog was permitted to roam free in common areas of the divinity school residences and chapel.
The court held the dean strictly liable, but let the school off because it didn’t “control” the dog’s activities.
Here’s a compendium of Judge Goettel’s fun canine puns:
“In this dog eat dog world, anything is fair game for litigation in the federal courts.”
“As compensation for her injuries, plaintiff seeks to take a bite out of the defendants’ pocketbooks.”
“[The plaintiff], now an Episcopal priest with her own ministry, obviously has a bone to pick as her injuries required substantial medical care, and Rocky is clearly in the doghouse.”
“In dogged pursuit of damages for her trauma, she filed this suit ….”
“Hounded by Connecticut’s [dog-bite statute] ….”
“The [individual defendants] do not deny that they were keeping Rocky who apparently was not licensed to anyone but had a nose for trouble.”
“Plaintiff’s analysis is essentially the tail wagging the dog.”
“Rocky’s having access to common areas, without more evidence indicating an intent to give refuge to the dog or to control the dog’s activities on the part of the School is not a sufficient basis to collar the Divinity School.”
As for Rocky, we don’t know his fate, but the judge did offer a weak defense for the nice face-biting doggie in a footnote:
1. There is no indication that Rocky, like the dog in Oliver Goldsmith’s Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog, “to gain some private ends, went mad and bit the [wo]man.”
— Post v. Annand, 798 F. Supp. 189, 190–91 & n.1, 192 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). Thanks to Lillian Gustilo.
Won a defamation judgment for being called ugly.
A 1996 English libel case reminds me of the old Rodney Dangerfield joke: “My psychiatrist told me I’m going crazy. I told him, ‘Doc, if you don’t mind I’d like a second opinion.’ He said, ‘Alright, you’re ugly too.’”
In Berkoff v. Burchill, an English court of appeals held that describing a person as ugly can constitute actionable defamation. No wonder people are flocking to England to take advantage of the country’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws. It’s highly doubtful calling someone ugly would be actionable defamation under U.S. law.
(By the way, this practice, known as “libel tourism,” resulted in enactment of a 2010 U.S. law that prohibits U.S. courts from enforcing foreign defamation judgments if they were rendered under legal protections less protective of speech than U.S. standards. Berkoff’s suit, against an English newspaper, was not a case of libel tourism.)
The English case arose from a Sunday Times article in which defendant Burchill reviewed the movie The Age of Innocence. Burchill described the film director, Steven Berkoff, as “hideous-looking.”
Nine months later, Burchill once again called Berkoff’s pulchritude into question, this time in a review of the movie Frankenstein. Describing “the Creature,” Burchill said: “It’s a very new look for the Creature—no bolts in the neck or flat-tap hairdo—and I think it works; it’s a lot like Stephen Berkoff, only marginally better-looking.”
Berkoff sued for defamation. The issue was whether calling someone hideous-looking is a defamatory statement capable of injuring a person’s reputation. The appellate court answered affirmatively.
The court said a jury could “conclude that in the context the remarks about Mr. Berkoff gave the impression that he was not merely physically unattractive but actually repulsive” and that this could injure Berkoff’s ability to make a living by “lowering his standing in the estimation of the public … [by] making him an object of ridicule.”
Is truth a defense? He looks okay in this picture (photo by Getty, borrowed from The Telegraph).
— Berkoff v. Burchill,  4 All E.R. 1008 (Ct. App. 1996). Thanks to Heiner O. Mommsen.
U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski is well known for sprinkling pop culture references throughout his opinions, particularly in the famous Syufy opinion, which wove in the titles of more than 200 movies. (See “Coming Soon to a Footnote Near You”)
A less noticed, but just as fun pop culture-laden opinion was his dissent to an order denying rehearing en banc in White v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc., a case where the Ninth Circuit upheld a “right of publicity” claim by former game show hostess Vanna White against Samsung for using a robot resembling her game show persona in a television commercial.
Complaining that, “[u]nder the majority’s opinion, it’s now a tort for advertisers to remind the public of a celebrity,” Kozinski excoriated the court for over-extending intellectual property rights in an opinion jammed full of pop culture references.
(That’s one thing to love about Kozinski’s writing: he can be pithy, insightful, and amusing in less than twenty words.)
Pop culture ran amuck in a single footnote (footnote 6) that includes references to (in order): grunge rocker Tad Doyle, the Hell’s Angels, Marvel Comics, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Breakfast of Champions, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, The Coca-Cola Kid, The Kentucky Fried Movie, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, The Wonder Years, Wonder Bread, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Janis Joplin, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, dada, Monty Python, Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, the Talking Heads, Andy Warhol, REO Speedwagon, 38 Special, Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys.
— White v. Samsung Elec. Am., Inc., 989 F.2d 1512, 1512 n.6, 1514 (9th Cir. 1993) (Kozinski, J., dissenting from order denying rehearing en banc). Thanks to Katherine Shipman.
Where do scandals go when they die? They travel upwards, of course … to a U.S. Court of Appeals. At least if they’re scandals involving the saga of President Bill Clinton’s sexcapades.
U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski faced an appeal in a defamation suit filed by former lounge-singer Gennifer Flowers against Hillary Rodham Clinton, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. With that cast of characters (including Judge K), you know it’s going to be an interesting opinion.
This is an opinion to be admired as much for its lucidity as its colorful take on the events. Here’s a taste from the opening paragraphs (some paragraph breaks inserted):
Long after the public spotlight has moved on in search of fresh intrigue, the lawyers remain. And so we find ourselves adjudicating a decade-old dispute between Gennifer Flowers and what she affectionately refers to as the “Clinton smear machine”: James Carville, George Stephanopoulos and Hillary Clinton. Flowers charges that said machine destroyed her reputation by painting her as a fraud and a liar after she dis-closed her affair with Bill Clinton. We decide whether Flowers’s claims are timely and, if so, whether they survive a motion to dismiss.
Background and Proceedings Below
In the heat of the 1992 presidential primary campaign, the Star—that ubiquitous supermarket source for celebrity scandal—ran a story claiming that Bill Clinton had carried on an affair with an Arkansas woman named Gennifer Flowers. Clinton and Flowers both denied it at first, but a few days later Flowers (doubtless realizing that honesty is the best policy after all) sold her story to the Star.
Clinton continued vigorously denying the allegations and appeared on 60 Minutes with his wife to say they weren’t true. The following day, Flowers responded by holding a press conference where she played recordings of intimate phone calls from Clinton that she’d secretly taped. Later news reports suggested that the tapes may have been selectively edited.
According to Flowers, Hillary Clinton and her two “henchmen,” George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, conspired to protect Bill Clinton’s presidential candidacy from Flowers’s damaging revelations. Flowers claims that during the 1992 campaign and in later political memoirs and interviews, Carville and Stephanopoulos defamed her and painted her in a false light by claiming that she had lied in her story to the Star and “doctored” the tape-recorded phone calls.
Hillary Clinton, the alleged mastermind of the conspiracy, not only orchestrated the defamatory exploits, but also exposed private information about Flowers and organized break-ins of her residence. Flowers claims that, as a result of all this schemery, her reputation has wilted and her blossoming career as a Las Vegas lounge singer has been nipped in the bud.
It’s like the beginning of an intriguing political spy novel you want to keep reading. In the not-as-exciting climax, the Ninth Circuit panel felt compelled under the law to reverse the district court, which had dismissed all of Flowers’ claims.
Meanwhile, Kozinski gave us another Syufy-type mystery (see “Coming Soon to a Footnote Near You!”) by burying an amusing reference in one of the citations. I won’t spoil the mystery. See if you can find it.
— Flowers v. Carville, 310 F.3d 1118, 1122 (9th Cir. 2002) (Kozinski, J.). Thanks to Elise Hendrick .
Justice Michael Musmanno, a Lawhaha.com Hall of Famer
Any fan of judicial opinion writing needs to study the opinions of the Honorable Michael A. Musmanno (1897-1968). He led a remarkable life. Before joining the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Justice Musmanno enjoyed an illustrious career as a lawyer, U.S. Congressman and author. Highlights of his career include serving as the presiding judge at the Nuremberg war crime trials and as a defense lawyer in the Sacco & Vanzetti trial.
His opinions are marvelous concoctions of deep-hearted passion and brutal common sense, delivered in highly literate and often hilarious prose.
U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, another notable opinion-writer, reported to Lawhaha.com that Musmanno has been his model since law school and that he consciously tries to emulate Musmanno’s writing. He laments that today’s law school graduates have never heard of Musmanno and return only blank stares when his name is mentioned.
Here are a couple samples of Musmanno’s writing sent by Chris Nace:
In Bosley v. Andrews, a woman sued a neighbor whose cows trespassed on her farmland to eat her crops. After being chased away in the morning, the “bovine buccaneers,” as Musmanno called them, returned for lunch. “This time they came, eight of them, with reinforcements. They brought along their boy friend, a 1500-pound Hereford white-faced bull.” The bull took chase after the plaintiff, causing her to suffer a heart attack.
A majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the woman’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress damages, following the traditional rule that such a claim cannot be maintained in the absence of a “physical impact” with the plaintiff (the bull never actually touched the plaintiff).
In dissent, Musmanno skewered the majority for what he saw as an unjust result, closing his opinion by stating that the majority’s approach “is unsupportable in law, logic, and elementary justice – and I shall continue to dissent from it until the cows come home.”
In Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals v. Bravo Enterprises, Inc., the plaintiff sought to enjoin a bullfight, but the majority held that the organization lacked standing. Musmanno began his impassioned dissent:
If there is one commodity of which there is no need for a further supply, it is violence. If there is one school that the world can afford to miss, it is one for the tutoring of methods of violence, brutality and cruelty. … [W]e can well do without a bullfight which is nothing less than an open air lyceum in the art of torturing helpless animals.
Add Justice Musmanno to your list of “four dead people with whom you would most like to have dinner.”
— Bosley v. Andrews, 142 A. 2d 263, 267–68, 280 (Pa. 1958) (Musmanno, J., dissenting); Pa. Soc’y for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals v. Bravo Enterprises, Inc., 237 A. 2d 342 (Pa. 1968) (Musmanno, J., dissenting). Thanks to Chris Nace.
In a classic slip and fall case, plaintiff Joseph Rosenberg slipped on asparagus while dancing at a wedding reception with his sister-in-law and fellow plaintiff, Ruth Schwartz.
The issue was whether the defendant caterer had negligently spilled the asparagus on the dance floor. The trial judge had dismissed the lawsuit on theory that the offending asparagus could have been unwittingly transported onto the dance floor after becoming entrapped in the apparel of the dancers.
As with many of the judicial opinions posted on Lawhaha.com, brief excerpts don’t do this case justice. My favorite part is how the legendary Justice Michael Angelo Musmanno of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court bluntly and rather contemptuously rejected the trial judge’s theory of how the asparagus (which according to testimony formed a puddle three feet in diameter) got on the dance floor (some paragraph breaks inserted):
The trial judge, an ex-veteran congressman and thus a habitue of formal parties and accordingly an expert in proper wearing apparel at such functions, all of which he announced from the bench, allowed testimony as to the raiment worn by the banquetters.
All the men were attired in tuxedos, the pants of which were not mounted with cuffs which could transport asparagus and sauce to the dance floor, unwittingly to lubricate its polished surface. Ruling out the cuffs of the tuxedo pants as transporters of the asparagus, the judge suggested the asparagus, with its accompanying sauce, could have been conveyed to the dance floor by ‘women’s apparel, on men’s coats or sleeves, or by a guest as he table hopped.’
The Judge’s conclusions are as far-fetched as going to Holland for hollandaise sauce. There was no evidence in the case that anybody table hopped; it is absurd to assume that a man’s coat or sleeve could scoop up enough asparagus and sauce to inundate a dance floor to the extent of a three-foot circumference; and it is bizarre to conjecture that a woman’s dress without pockets and without excessive material could latch on to such a quantity of asparagus, carry it 20 feet (the distance from the tables to the dance floor) and still have enough dangling to her habiliments to cover the floor to such a depth as to fell a 185 pound gentleman with 35 years’ dancing experience who had never before been tackled or grounded while shuffling the light fantastic.
It can be stated as an incontrovertible legal proposition that anyone attending a dinner dance has the inalienable right to expect that, if asparagus is to be served, it will be served on the dinner table and not on the dance floor.
Judgment reversed with a procedendo.
Chief Justice Bell dissented:
One cannot help wondering if plaintiffs had, in the alleged 35 years of dancing, ever been to any dance, let alone a wedding banquet dance. … A dancer cannot, with legal sanction, look only into the captivating eyes of his lovely partner.
I certainly dissent.
— Schwartz v. Warwick-Philadelphia Corp., 226 A.2d 484, 485–87, 488 (Pa. 1967). Thanks to Janet Heydt.
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.
The intersection of church and tort law is an interesting area. For the most part, courts–wisely so–have been reluctant to entangle tort law with church and religion except in cases of intentional physical batteries. In Bass v. Aetna Ins. Co., the court had to decide whether “trotting under the Spirit of the Lord” in church, with the result of running into and injuring the plaintiff, was actionable or a protected “Act of God.”
Plaintiff attended the Shepard’s Fold Church in Louisiana, where moving or running in the aisles “in the Spirit” apparently is a common practice. During a revival, a fellow worshiper ran down the aisle where plaintiff was kneeling and praying and knocked her down, causing injury. Plaintiff sued for negligence.
At trial, the defendant testified he was “‘trotting’ under the Spirit of the Lord” and was not in control of his actions at the time of the collision. He raised “Act of God” as a defense and also asserted the plaintiff assumed the risk of the collision and was contributorily negligent. For non-legals, an Act of God under law is a harm-causing force of nature, such as a tornado or flood, the consequences of which humans generally are not held responsible for.
The trial court dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiff assumed the risk of the collision by praying in the aisle with her eyes closed, a decision affirmed by the court of appeals. But the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed.
The West headnote writers summed up the holdings succinctly:
 Negligence: Notwithstanding that worshiper testified he was trotting under the Spirit of the Lord, “Act of God” defense did not apply in action by worshiper who was injured while praying in the aisle against second worshiper who was running in church inasmuch as “Act of God” meant force majeure.
 Religious Societies: It is not contributory negligence to bow one’s head while praying in church, whether in the pew or in the aisle.
— Bass v. Aetna Ins. Co., 370 So. 2d 511 (La. 1979). Thanks to a fellow Torts professor.
Cardozo wrote the famous majority opinion in Palsgraf.
Several lawhaha visitors sent in Mark Fass’s article in the New York Law Journal about an alleged curse on the family of Helen Palsgraf, the most famous torts plaintiff in history. Every lawyer remembers Mrs. P from law school. To test this theory, visit an elderly, dying lawyer in a coma and shout “Palsgraf!” Immediately, he will recite: “A man carrying a box wrapped in newspaper boarded a train at the Long Island Railroad Station … cough, cough … ack.”
The box contained fireworks. When it was dislodged by employees of the Long Island Railroad trying to help the man on the train, the fireworks exploded, allegedly knocking a scale onto Mrs. P. Mrs. P’s saga led to the legendary, and incredibly confusing, opinions by Judge Benjamin Cardozo (that’s Cardozo in the picture–handsome fellow he was) and Judge William Andrews studied by students year in and year out at law schools great and small.
Now Fass reports that Mrs. P’s accident began a curse on the Palsgraf family, at least that’s what some of her descendants believe. One descendant fell off a ladder in 1965 and sued the manufacturer, but never made it to trial because the ladder was stolen. Another lost her thumb when a ping-pong table collapsed. A lawsuit led to a small settlement. Another descendent tripped while jogging over a broken curb, but was discouraged by lawyers from filing suit.
The most intriguing Palsfraf mishap reported by Fass involves a descendant who lost control of his truck on an icy hill in 1968. The truck slid towards the edge of cliff. Guess what saved the life of Mrs. P’s closest living relative? The truck’s wheels got caught on a track of … you guessed it, the Long Island Railroad. (Cue Twilight Zone theme.)
— Mark Fass, Palsgraf Railroad Injury Proximate Cause of Family Curse?, New York Law Journal, Dec. 10, 2004.
As a Torts prof, I loved this tidbit sent in by Elise Hendrick. Good old Mrs. Palsgraf. You can try, but you can’t keep her down.
Elise was listening to oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Exxon Co. USA v. Sofec, 116 S.Ct. 1813 (1996), and came across the following exchange between George Playdon, counsel for Sofec, and Justice Scalia. The two were engaged in a colloquy about the maritime supervening cause doctrine:
Scalia: I’m not sure that you need a “doctrine of supervening cause.” Is a doctrine of supervening cause anything other than Palsgraf? When you say, you know, that the negligence … the causality … had long since terminated. Once you say you’re out of the scope of the risk, what do you need a doctrine of supervening cause for? And isn’t that basically your case?
Playdon (chuckling): I smile—I never envisioned thirty years ago that I’d have the opportunity …
Scalia: Of arguing Palsgraf!
Playdon (stammering, laughing): Obviously, Palsgraf is a foreseeability doctrine, just like Hadley v. Baxendale is a foreseeability problem.
Elise speculates that this may have been the first time the implausible case of Mrs. P has been mentioned in court since Palsgraf was decided in 1928.
— Thanks to Elise Hendrick.
Poopi the poodle and her owners sued their veterinarian after Poopi underwent anesthesia for teeth cleaning and woke up with a three-inch scar on her abdomen. The vet mistakenly tried to spay Poopi, even though she had already been spayed as a puppy.
Poopi’s owners sought emotional distress damages for themselves as well as for Poopi, including expenses for Poopi’s psychological care. Plaintiffs conceded that under Ohio law dogs are considered to be personal property, but argued that the court should “do the right thing” by distinguishing pets from inanimate objects. They quoted from a law review article that equated the death of a “companion animal” to “the wrongful killing of any other family member.”
The Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed the trial judge, which had rejected the claim, although one member of the appellate panel concurred “reluctantly” and suggested that the legislature consider allowing damages for tortious injuries to pets.
Now that the suit has been wrapped up, perhaps Poopi should consult independent counsel about the possibility of pursuing emotional distress of having to go through life named “Poopi.”
— Oberschlake v. Veterinary Assoc. Animal Hosp., 785 N.E.2d 811 (Ohio Ct. App. 2003).