It’s All in the Name
By John G. Browning
Sometimes, the name someone goes by or the name of a specific
location tells us all we need to know about that person or place. For
example, one look at the ocean swells churning and frothing around the
rocks at a particular spot off the Oregon coast will tell you how it got
the name “Devil’s Cauldron.” On other occasions, a name is meant
ironically, like a big guy whose nickname is Tiny. And if you’ve glanced
at the latest goings-on in the legal system, you’ve seen some striking
examples of both.
Consider, for example, the personal injury lawsuit recently filed by Brittany Pescia, of Londonderry, New Hampshire. Pescia claims that while visiting the defendant, a local bar and grill, she lost her balance and fell while trying to get past two rowdy, drunken customers. Because of her slip and fall, she says she sustained a cerebral concussion and mild traumatic brain injury. The name of the business where she allegedly fell? The Stumble Inn Bar & Grill. But wait, there’s more. Robert Boulé, the owner of a bed-and-breakfast that sits along the Canadian border with Blaine, Washington, was recently charged with allegedly helping people cross into Canada illegally. Boulé was charged with violating Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act by helping at least 16 people cross into Canada illegally between April 2016 and March 2019. But maybe a quick check of the name of Boule’s establishment could have provided a clue into this alleged human smuggling operation; after all, it is called the Smuggler’s Inn Bed & Breakfast.
Of course, sometimes there is a certain irony in a name, especially in the criminal justice system. For example, the police in Butler County, Pennsylvania, no doubt chuckled at the name of the 44-year-old man they arrested for drunk driving on March 9, 2019. That’s because the man’s name was Daniel Sober. And with a blood alcohol level of 0.194%—more than twice the legal limit—it would appear that Sober wasn’t living up to his name.
Sometimes, it’s all about what you decide to call something. For example, children eager to participate in this year’s annual Easter egg hunt at the University of California, Berkeley likely believed it to be an innocent, fun event. But according to the liability waiver their parents were asked to sign, “The Activity,” as it was called, posed “risk of catastrophic injuries including paralysis and death.” Wow. Are the kids searching for Easter eggs or landmines? Leave it to lawyers to take all the fun out of things. And police in Papua, Indonesia, were forced to apologize recently when video surfaced of their “interrogation” of a suspected cellphone thief. What the police involved said was “questioning” actually consisted of draping a large snake around the suspect and threatening to put it in the man’s mouth and down his pants before the terrified suspect confessed.
Finally, when it comes to using names to publicly describe a judge you’re not happy with, you’re already treading on thin ice. So, it’s generally a bad idea to use a word comparing a female judge to a sexual demon. That’s the lesson that California’s 4th District Court of Appeals recently imparted to San Diego attorney Benjamin Pavone. Pavone was unhappy with a judge’s questions about the accuracy of the attorney’s fees request he had made in connection with an employment case he had won. In his appeal, Pavone described the ruling as “succubustic.” The appellate court reacted by referring Pavone to the State Bar of California for misconduct and “demonstrated gender bias,” noting that a succubus is defined as “a demon assuming female form which has sexual intercourse with men in their sleep.” The court found that Pavone’s language was not only biased but violated California law mandating that attorneys “maintain the respect due to the courts of justice and judicial officers.” Pavone contends that his criticism could have been “more strictly academic in nature.” (And for the record, the correct term would have been “succubine,” not “succubustic”[sic]).
Names during legal matters can be descriptive (and in some cases, oddly appropriate), and they can be ironic or even euphemistic. But one thing is certain, names matter.TBJ
JOHN G. BROWNING
is a Dallas attorney who handles commercial litigation, employment, health care, and personal injury defense matters in state and federal courts. He is an award-winning legal journalist for his syndicated column, “Legally Speaking,” and is the author of the Social Media and Litigation Practice Guide and a forthcoming casebook on social media and the law. Browning is an adjunct professor at SMU Dedman School of Law.