In the great American tradition, hundreds of thousands of Americans go to court each year –sometimes for the wackiest of reasons. Here are the “Best of the Bizarre” lawsuits that made news in 1999 as deemed by Houston’s Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.
1. Doesn't Hold Water
The parents of a man who was found dead in a killer whale’s pool at Sea World Orlando sued claiming the theme park caused his death by portraying the dangerous 5-ton orca as safe and huggable.
Twenty-seven-year-old Daniel Dukes was found dead in the early morning hours draped over the back of the largest killer whale in captivity. Dukes, scratched and bruised, was clad only in his underwear. Authorities concluded he suffered hypothermia and drowned.
Dukes, a drifter, was trespassing when he took a dip in the frigid cold 50 degree water.
("Not a Whale of a Lawsuit," San Antonio Express-News, Sept. 26)
("Seaworld Death a Puzzling Case," San Antonio Express-News, July 26)
2. Bizarre Twist
The parents of Columbine High School gunman Dylan Klebold have stunned authorities by filing court papers blaming them for failing to prevent the teen’s murderous rampage.
According to the New York Post,
Columbine HS Killers
in a bizarre twist of the blame game, Susan and Thomas Klebold served notice of their intent to sue the Jefferson County sheriff’s department and school district.
They contend that if investigators had told them about their son’s Internet rantings and his friend’s violent tendencies, they would have kept the two boys apart and prevented the mass murder.
Others contend Klebold’s parents should have been aware of their son’s activities, including shotguns in gym bags and pipe bombs in the closet.
The Tale of the Columbine Tapes, Time, Dec. 20
3. The Drunk of the Irish
In Orlando, a lawsuit was filed against a rental car company by the estate of a woman who was killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. The woman was riding in a rental car driven by her boyfriend, an Irish tourist, who was legally drunk. He was eventually charged with manslaughter and driving under the influence.
The suit alleges that the rental car company should be liable for the woman’s death because the company “either knew or should have known about the unique cultural and ethnic customs in Ireland which involve the regular consumption of alcohol at pubs as a major component to Irish social life.”
4. Toilet of Terror
Canadian tourist Edward Skwarek has sued the Starbucks coffee chain for $1.5 million alleging that a highly personal part of his anatomy was crushed when it got caught between the toilet seat and bowl at a Manhattan Starbucks outlet. Skwarek was reportedly in a seated position on the commode. When he turned to retrieve the toilet paper, the seat shifted. As he leaned forward again the toilet seat clamped his penis. The 37 year-old Skwarek is asking for $1 million for what he describes as dire and permanent injuries to the affected organ. His wife Sherrie is also demanding $500,000 as compensation for depravation of his husbandly services.
(Four Page Complaint, Nov. 29)
5. The Man Kan't Spel, Sues Instead
The Sacramento Bee reports that Lee Williams, 23, is seeking $25,000 in damages from a tattoo parlor for misspelling the word “villain” on his right forearm. The problem is, the incorrect spelling “villian” came from Williams himself, who was unsure as to the spelling of the word upon entering the parlor. After much debate he settled on the incorrect spelling. In fact, Williams did not even notice the error until years later, when a friend made fun of him.
Claiming the tattoo cost $1,900 to remove and left a scar on his forearm, Williams is now asking for $25,000 for his own mistake.
6. Work-A-Day Grind
A Florida phone sex operator won a workers’ compensation settlement claiming she was injured after regularly pleasing herself at work. According to Reuters and ABC News, (Nov. 19) the 40-year-old employee developed carpal tunnel syndrome – also known as repetitive motion injury—in both hands from giving herself an orgasm as many as seven times a day while speaking with callers.
7. Class Doesn't Click for Students
According to the San Antonio Express-News, a dozen students who took a Microsoft computer certification course at the Houston branch of Southern Methodist University are suing the school, contending they were misled the course would be easy.
The 12 enrolled in June 1997 and all failed certification tests that would have made them eligible for jobs overseeing Microsoft computer systems.
Jason Crowson, the group’s attorney said: “They were told all they had to know how to do was point a mouse and click.”
8. Come Again?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has begun pursuing discrimination claims for back pay on behalf of illegal aliens who had no lawful right to take or hold the jobs in the first place.
A meatpacking company paid $8,500 for insisting that an applicant get Immigration and Naturalization Service documentation that his registration card was legitimate.
(National Legal Center for Public Interest July 1999 Newsletter)
, about 4/5 of way down page.
Most recently, the EEOC extracted a $72,000 settlement from a Holiday Inn Express hotel on behalf of nine illegal immigrants from Mexico who were fired as housekeepers in alleged retaliation for leading a successful union organizing drive.
Texas Congressman Lamar Smith called the new policy “absurd:” “These rules would, for example, require employers to hire back individuals who had been fired when it is illegal to have hired them in the first place.”
9. Low Bridging
A lawsuit was filed by the families of two aviators who died trying to fly a small single-engine plane under the South Padre Island Causeway, a low lying bridge. At the time of the crash, neither was legally certified to fly. Although the plane was owned by one of the two men.
The pilots made one successful pass under the causeway, but crashed on the second attempt. Autopsies revealed illegal substances in the bloodstreams of both men.
The lawsuit claimed that either the city, the airport or the fixed base operator should have done something to verify that the pilot and passenger were up to flying at the time they took off for the half-hour trip to South Padre.
(“Causeway airplane crash thrown out of court”, Advance News-Journal, Sept. 15)
10. ADA Protection Sought for Basketball Boozer
Chicagoland prep star Rickey Higgins was kicked off his high school basketball team when he was caught driving under the influence. It was his second alcohol-related offense.
Higgins, 17, is now suing his high school under the Americans With Disabilities Act seeking $100,000 in compensation and reinstatement to the team.
His lawyer, Steven Glink, contends the boy “has been diagnosed as an alcoholic and that is a recognized disability under federal law”.
(“Ineligible Athlete Sues High School”, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 9)
(“Teen alcoholic sues to get back on basketball team”, CNN, Sept. 20)
Late Night Hit
Can a direct hit by a T-shirt cause $25,000 in damages? Stewart Gregory of Cincinnati, Ohio, is suing NBC, the “Tonight Show” and host Jay Leno, saying he was “battered” and “forcefully struck” in the face on September 11, 1998 when the warm-up comic who preceded Leno on the show blasted a freebie T-shirt into the audience with an airgun. Gregory claimed he was hit in the eye by the T-shirt, traveling at a near supersonic 800 feet per second.
Gregory, who is representing himself without a lawyer, seeks damages in excess of $25,000 for his “pain and suffering, disability, lost wages, emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment”. He is also seeking punitive damages.
(See “Does Carrey need to Exorcise?” (second item), Salon, Dec. 7.)
Parenthetically, 800 feet per second is 545 miles per hour, the speed of a jetliner. Experts say a “hard object” the size of a T-shirt traveling at 800 feet per second would have done a lot more than injure his eye, it would have torn his head off.
Darn Right Absurd
"A fourth of all lawsuits filed in the United States are either frivolous or fraudulent."
Former U.S. Senator George McGovern citing the American Board of Trial Advocates, in a speech before the American Legislative Exchange Council, San Antonio, April 1994.
"There is no easy definition for the phrase 'frivolous lawsuit,' but I imagine any claim for damages where the injuries are minimal or where the basis for the defendant's liability is hard to believe, might qualify as frivolous."
Paul F. Waldner, President-Elect,
Houston Trial Lawyers Association
Viewpoints, Houston Chronicle
August 31, 1996
"Unfortunately, wacky lawsuits are just the tip of the lawsuit abuse iceberg" said Houston CALA director Jon Opelt. "Junk lawsuits waste tax dollars and tie up court time. That means the rest of us pay when others use our courts for frivolous reasons. What's more, it means people with legitimate claims have to wait longer to have their case heard."
Opelt noted that often court cases take 2-3 years to be disposed in Harris County.
"We support the rights of injured parties to use the legal system responsibly in seeking fair compensation. However, some of these lawsuits are darn right absurd," said Opelt.
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Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse
2500 City West Boulevard, Suite 300 • Houston, Texas 77042
E-mail: sosueme@ • Administrative: (713) 267-2302 • Fax: (713) 267-2267