5 Famous Frivolous Lawsuits That Didn't Actually Happen
Everyone has heard about those crazy lawsuits where somebody earns an outrageous sum of money by making a complete mockery of the legal system. These are the stories you get in email forwards or from your bitter uncle at Thanksgiving, raging about people who sue microwave manufacturers because their cat exploded. It makes it sound like the legal system is a loophole-riddled mess designed to enrich morons and bury the rest of us in red tape. And, strangely, many of these urban legends are about poor, innocent corporations being victimized by evil, greedy poor people.
The problem is that, while there no doubt are real frivolous lawsuits out there, when you go to look up the details of these stories, you usually find that things played out very differently. At best, the situation was a little more complicated, and at worst, the person didn't even get the money at all. We've talked about these "frivolous lawsuit" myths before, so now let's look at infamous cases like ...
"A Woman Sues a Hospital for Loss of Psychic Powers!"
One of the few phrases that carry even less dignity than "frivolous lawsuit" is "psychic powers," so when you combine the two, you get the kind of story even presidents love to tell at parties.
Judith Haimes, self-described psychic and superpowered crime fighter (yes, really), tragically lost her supposed paranormal abilities when she had a CAT scan in 1986. Her loss was deemed worth $988,000 by the jury. The large compensation and the weirdness factor brought by the whole "crime-solving psychic" thing made the case an immediate entrant to the What the Hell Hall of Fame. We weren't kidding about the president thing, either: Ronald Reagan was known to use the story as a particularly glaring example of how our system has gone lawsuit crazy. That must make it true, since a president would never lie about anything.
They sure as hell seem to forget a lot, though.
First, Haimes never received the ghost of a red cent for her claim -- the judge threw it out. OK, you might think, but isn't the fact that she was even able to get a trial over this bullshit enough to prove that the system is broken?
Well, the part about Haimes claiming that she lost her police-helping psychic powers is, awesomely, 100 percent correct. However, that's not what got the case before a judge -- it was because she suffered a very real, crippling reaction, not from the CAT scan, but from the dye they injected her with at the hospital. See, just because Haimes was crazy and confused about her symptoms, it doesn't mean that she didn't suffer an actual physical reaction. If a machine malfunctions and cuts off your hand, it doesn't matter if you insist in your lawsuit that it's the hand you performed wizard spells with -- the judge is still going to evaluate the case because you're a human being who lost a hand.
"Sir, just answer the question -- what does it sound like when you clap?"
In this case, Haimes said she warned the hospital that she was allergic to the dye beforehand and they completely ignored her. So, they injected the dye, leaving her with chronic and disabling headaches. And when the hospital injects you against your will with an allergen that seriously ruins your shit, you're usually damn well set for a malpractice lawsuit ... especially if you can bring in a legitimate medical witness who can successfully argue that the dye had caused the headaches.
Too bad Haimes failed to do that.
Although her case was indeed enough to initially award her the $988,000 all the stories report, the judge -- unimpressed by the whole psychic schtick and the less than believable medical expert in her corner -- immediately ordered a retrial, instructing the jury to only consider Haimes' immediate symptoms. Since these still included "breathing difficulties, tightness of the throat, pain, nausea, vomiting, loss of bladder control, hives, and welts," which sounded even worse than the mental powers thing, the jury decided she should be awarded $600,000 ... which the judge threw out as excessive.
"I find the jury ... wrong!"
Although Haimes took it back to court, the second trial saw the case dismissed entirely, and in the end she didn't receive anything. See, because that's what happens when you can't bring evidence to prove what caused your injuries. Not that such a turn of events will stop politicians from using your example as a reason why other sick people shouldn't be allowed to file lawsuits.
"Families Sue Disneyland for Letting Kids See Characters Out of Costume!"
This popular "wacky lawsuit" story involves a family going to Disneyland, only to have their precious little children see park employees dressed as characters take off the heads of their costumes. Apparently, the sight of cast members removing their giant suffocating mouse helmets and sneaking a puff of precious, precious oxygen during their break has been enough to traumatize the kids of not one, but two families, to the point that it's worth suing over. Is this what the legal system has come to?!
If only the Mouseketeers were still legally considered law enforcement.
This is in fact based on two real lawsuits, but while both families certainly mentioned seeing headless Disney characters in their suits, that was never the central point of either case. Instead, the families preferred to focus on actual, fairly serious abuses they had suffered under the unforgiving white-gloved hand of the Mouse.
The first family -- the Boozers -- sued because the staff accused them of stealing a $2.50 piggy bank from a souvenir store. Despite the fact that they had a receipt, they were taken behind the scenes for questioning. Imagine the situation: The whole family, including kids aged 2 and 5, are dragged away from the bright amusement park environment to a barren backstage room, where they are interrogated and searched by large, angry men. For two and a half goddamned hours.
Behold, the Magic Kingdom.
Finally, a supervisor decided to actually look at this receipt he'd heard so much about ... which is when he found that not only had the Boozers paid for the piggy bank, but they'd been overcharged. Even then, the supervisor wouldn't yield: Instead, he searched their bags to try to find them guilty of something and scolded them over a bag of dried fruit until Mrs. Boozer started crying.
Then, just as they were released back into the world, shocked, scared, and humiliated, a bunch of headless Disney characters waltzed into the room. The kids needed therapy over the whole thing. Hell, we need therapy just from imagining the situation.
The second case saw the Matay family held up at gunpoint in the Disneyland parking lot and robbed of $1,650 in cash. Their lawsuit alleges that Disneyland officials failed to respond to a crime and, yes, held them up and questioned them for hours instead, even though Mrs. Matay was a goddamn ex-Mouseketeer. In a pattern that is beginning to emerge, the headless characters once again turned up, but the Matays' lawsuit dismissed this as unimportant.
"As long as most of the character is in costume, Disney's done their job."
Still, despite both cases having legitimate reasons behind them, the mention of the headless characters in the stories is what's remembered. Because who wants to discuss the legal powers of private law enforcement officers in a corporation-owned facility when we can laugh about stupid people crapping their pants at the sight of a headless Donald Duck?
"Two Guys Stuff a Hot Air Balloon into a Clothes Dryer, Then Sue When It Breaks!"
So you and your friend are hot air ballooning when you mistime a landing and end up in some bullshit lake. Swearing, you drag your deflated, dripping sack of flight onto dry land. Then you immediately stick it in a dryer in a commercial laundromat, because for the purposes of this narrative both you and your friend are complete morons. The dryer protests by exploding all over your stupid faces, thus teaching you an important lesson that literally everyone else on Earth could have figured out on their own.
Only you refuse to learn and sue the manufacturer instead.
And you win.
And then you buy an army of balloons.
Such was the tale of the two dudes who pulled off the ultimate "let's shove shit in a machine" stunt and were left $885,000 (or $85,000, or up to a million, depending on who you ask) richer in the aftermath. The case keeps popping up on lists of "frivolous" lawsuits, and indeed it's hard not to picture it as one. After all, who the hell sticks a giant hot air balloon in a relatively tiny machine that produces hot air and expects anything but trouble? It's like some kind of Jackass stunt gone wrong (or right, we guess).
All of the facts of that tale are sort of true, but ridiculously dumbed down to fit ye olde "law is stupid" rhetoric.
"Ha! They still use scales to judge people! My balloon won't even fit in there, idiot!"
The real story starts with Timothy Horan, a professional hot air balloonist who did a promotional favor for a businessman, who in turn agreed to clean his balloon (which was presumably not a euphemism). The businessman had contacts with a local hospital that had giant washers and dryers that were capable of spinning 2,000-pound loads. Both men reasonably assumed that this should have been more than enough for Horan's 128-pound balloon.
Horan went to the hospital with Fred Jessop, who worked for the businessman. They washed the balloon without incident. But when they put it into the dryer, the thing started groaning and oscillating wildly. Horan and Jessop immediately stopped the dryer to balance the load, repeating several times, until the machine finally started up without issue and ran smoothly.
That is, for a minute or so. Then it smoothly exploded.
Yeah, that kind.
The dryer blew apart without warning, firing shrapnel through the room ... and the two men. Our status as a family oriented website prevents us from giving a detailed description of what happened, so let's just say it involved nearly severed body parts, obliterated wrists, graphically sliced abdomens, and BLOOD EVERYWHERE OH GOD WHY! It can be argued that the only thing that saved their lives was that they were already in a hospital.
The two men were eventually awarded compensatory damages of $1,260,000 (suck on that, urban legends of "almost a million"), because the machine was designed to handle hardcore waterproof materials (just like the balloon), and there was literally no reason to think it would evaporate in a giant, spiky Michael Baysplosion.
Don't do it, woman! It's not worth your life!
"A Woman Sues a Haunted House for Being Too Scary!"
This one is an absolute staple on Internet "frivolous lawsuit" lists. In 2000, 57-year-old Cleanthi Peters sued Universal Studios for their Halloween Horror Nights haunted house, which she had visited and found too frightening. The experience had caused her emotional trauma and severe distress, which you may recognize as the exact things you'd expect a good haunted house to offer.
Despite its relatively meager monetary value (she only sued for $15,000), the story appears to be the very definition of a frivolous lawsuit, and has circulated the Web as such: Peters has been mentioned in Wired magazine, Theme Park Review (yes, carnies have their own magazine), and a massive number of lists of the most absurd lawsuits of all time.
"I'm crazy doorway man! Please don't sue me, but ... BOO!"
First, no matter how hard we look, we can find no outcome of the suit (and it was 13 years ago -- it's long resolved by now, one way or another).
Second, when you take a look at an article that actually reports the incident, the situation looks a little different. Peters had almost completed her tour in the haunted house when she met a cast member who was really, really into his job. Considering that his job was to dress up as Leatherface and attack people with a noisy prop chainsaw, we can't exactly blame him for enjoying his work. (We would.) Still, we doubt that we would have turned an encounter with a woman who's pushing 60 into a full-on horror movie chase scene, which is what this dude did.
In fairness, she was a little prejudiced against chainsaw-wielding madmen.
No, it's not that Peters found Leatherface "too scary." It's that he started chasing her down the hall. The pursuit ended when Peters slipped on a wet patch near the door, left lying helpless on the ground as the guy crouched over them, thrusting and revving his weapon. Notice how we said "them" there? Yeah, did we mention that Peters was accompanied by her granddaughter? Who was 10 freaking years old?
So at the end of the day, Peters didn't sue Universal because things got "too scary," as all of the "wacky lawsuit" list articles insist. It was a standard slip-and-fall case (the floor was wet due to a coolant system that sprayed water all over the floor) where the woman was in fact injured, with a side order of questionable and pants-soilingly terrifying conduct on the part of an employee.
"It's called acting, you crybabies."
"A Woman Chooses a Bad Doctor Out of the Yellow Pages, Then Sues the Phone Company!"
The story for this one goes that a woman in Vancouver, Washington, wanted liposuction, so she looked up a doctor in the phone book. This did not go well: Not only did she have complications afterward, but her "doctor" was just a random dermatologist with no training for the procedure. So -- malpractice lawsuit time!
The only thing is that, according to the story, Michelle Knepper didn't sue the doctor who played operation on her. Instead, she sued the phone company whose book she had used to find him. And won! Because our court system is such a free-for-all gravy train of frivolous lawsuits, not only did Knepper win a cool $1.2 million for herself, but her husband was awarded an additional $375,000 for "loss of spousal services and companionship." Another fatal blow against common sense, people!
The infamous "Not Getting Laid Right Now" tort.
Knepper didn't sue the phone company, but the media company (Dex Media) that was responsible for placing the ads in the phone book. The good people at Dex had deliberately misrepresented the qualifications of the doctor in question in order to drum up his business: The ad was placed under the "plastic surgery" heading and claimed that the doctor was board certified, but it didn't bother to specify that he was only board certified in dermatology.
That's a big deal, as it turns out, as those "complications" we mentioned earlier involved the underqualified doc removing too much fat, so Knepper's nerves were left exposed, and she continues to suffer near constant pain.
And now sometimes she shoots lightning out of her back.
OK, but why didn't she sue the doctor instead? Well, in fact, she totally did. And she sued the advertising company, which would of course help make sure other people don't get sucked into the same scam. But what kind of ridiculous, rage-inducing lawsuit story would that make?
Orrin R.K. blogs here and will do the following for your money. Nathan Blumenthal has a blog that you can read by clicking these words.
Related Reading: This isn't the first time Cracked has covered famously frivolous lawsuits that were totally justified. Click here for your next fix of legal humor. If you're more interested in the worst legal defenses in history, this article will acquaint you with stories of a businessman claiming that his employee is too ugly to molest and a cop arguing that the cocaine in his system came from his girlfriend's vagina. And if all this has caused you to lose faith in human lawyers, good news -- their robotic replacements are on the way.