A couple weeks ago, we talked about how Halloween can cause some real-life frights at the workplace. Well, the workplace isn’t the only place where Halloween has wreaked legal havoc. Yes, Halloween rears its head in various types of cases. It’s time to consider some of these ghoulish matters.
The Incredibly Insulting Tombstones
Picture it, the peaceful Village of Bloomingdale, IL. Unable to afford to store their large recreational vehicle in a storage, facility, the Puttrell family brought their RV and parked on their home’s driveway, where it remained over a year. As you can imagine, the neighbors weren’t happy about this and eventually petitioned for the Village to adopt an ordinance banning residents from parking RVs on their property. As Halloween was quickly approaching, the Putrells responded to their neighbors’ efforts by erecting tombstones in their honor. These tombstones weren’t simply decorative, though—they carried messages for those who sought the ordinance.
For example, one tombstone was dedicated to their neighbor Bette and read:
Bette wasn’t ready
But here she lies,
Ever since that night she died,
Feet deep in his trench,
Still wasn’t deep enough
For that wench’s stench
Another tombstone read:
Old Man Crimp was a
Gimp who couldn’t hear
Sliced his wife from ear to ear
She died . . . he was fried
Now they’re together
Again side by side!
As you can imagine, the tombstones didn’t do much for neighborly relations. When the Putrells failed to remove the tombstones after Halloween, the neighbors complained. Eventually, a scuffle between the Putrells and a neighbor lead to a police officer demanding Mr. Putrell remove the tombstones or face arrest for disorderly conduct.
The Putrells complied but instituted a lawsuit asserting, among other things, a First Amendment claim for violating their free speech rights. The neighbors argued the tombstones constituted “fighting words,” which would render them unprotected by the First Amendment. The court ultimately found the speech was indeed protected speech but the officer’s mistake ordering the Putrells to dismantle the tombstones was reasonable under the circumstances and, thus entitled to qualified immunity.
The Court, of course, took some time to take some parting shots at plaintiff’s counsel:
“In closing, a few words in defense of a saner use of judicial resources. It is unfortunate that this petty neighborhood dispute found its way into federal court, invoking the machinery of a justice system that is admired around the world. The suit was not so wholly without basis in fact or law as to be frivolous, but neither was it worth the inordinate effort it has taken to adjudicate it–on the part of judges, jurors, court staff, and attorneys (all, of course, at public expense). We take this opportunity to remind the bar that sound and responsible legal representation includes counseling as well as advocacy. The wiser course would have been to counsel the plaintiffs against filing such a trivial lawsuit. Freedom of speech encompasses “‘the freedom to speak foolishly and without moderation,” but it does not follow that every nominal violation of that right is—or should be—compensable.”
The Dark Haunted House
In a case out of Lousiana, a plaintiff attended a haunted house and encountered a monster. The monster scared her to the point where she ran into a cinderblock wall and crushed her nose. Ouch! The scared attendee brought suit against the haunted house, arguing the dark walls and lack of lighting created an unreasonably dangerous condition and defendants had a duty to protect her. The court noted the conditions the plaintiff argued were a dangerous condition were the very attributes of a haunted house:
“The very nature of a Halloween haunted house is to frighten its patrons. In order to get the proper effect, haunted houses are dark and contain scary and/or shocking exhibits. Patrons in a Halloween haunted house are expected to be surprised, startled and scared by the exhibits but the operator does not have a duty to guard against patrons reacting in bizarre, frightened and unpredictable ways.”
Haunted houses everywhere breathe a sigh of relief.
Little Bo Peep’s Smoking Sheep
The Ferlitos decided to attend a Halloween party as Little Bo Peep and her sheep. Being a real “do-it-yourself” type (those costumes are always the most fun, aren’t they?), Mrs. Ferlito, Little Bo Peep, made her husband’s costume by hot gluing Johnson and Johnson cotton batting on a pair of long underwear. She also used the cotton batting to create a headpiece. The end result was a costume covering Mr. Ferlito in the cotton batting from his head to his ankles.
The Ferlitos, dressed up in their costumes and headed to a Halloween party. At some point during the party, Mr. Ferlito lit up a cigarette, which set his costume ablaze. The Ferlitos filed suit alleging, in part, Johnson and Johnson failed to warn them the cotton batting was flammable. The court found a manufacturer’s duty to warn only extends to forseeable uses of the product, which was not the case here. Furthermore, both parties conceded cotton batting burns when exposed to flame.
We wish you a Happy Halloween. But, should you find yourself involved in some spooky circumstances, please call us. The Law Firm of Alejandro Pérez, PLC has experience in advising and litigating a variety of civil litigation matters.
About the Author: Alejandro Pérez is a partner at Jaburg Wilk. Fully bilingual, Alejandro assists employers of all sizes with labor and employment law issues. In addition to representing clients in litigation, Alejandro provides advice and counsel on HR decisions; conducts sensitive workplace investigations; drafts and reviews employment policies, handbooks, and agreements; and trains workforces on a variety of aspects of employment law.
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