2019: The Year in Legal Weirdness
By John G. Browning
As we prepare to bid a fond farewell to 2019, let’s take a look back
at some of the most bizarre moments that the year had to offer. 2019 may
be inching its way toward the record books, but it sure gave us plenty
to chuckle about.
The “We Saw This Coming” award goes to the owners of Ark Encounter in northern Kentucky, who last May filed a 77-page lawsuit in federal court against its own insurance companies for failing to pay nearly $1 million in property damage claims. Ark Encounter is a 510-foot-long, life-size replica of Noah’s Ark, billed as the largest timber-frame structure in the world, and part of a biblically themed tourist attraction in Williamstown, Kentucky. The lawsuit alleged that a 2018 landslide severely damaged the access road leading to the attraction and that the insurance carriers have refused to pay. While the ark itself was not damaged, the suit claimed that the landslide was caused by—wait for it—heavy rains and flooding. Let’s hope the trial doesn’t last 40 days and 40 nights.
The “Tastiest Defense” award goes to Jason Stiber, of Westport, Connecticut, who in May ended a yearlong battle over a $300 ticket for distracted driving. On April 11, 2018, Stiber was pulled over in Westport for allegedly driving while talking on his cellphone; Westport Police Cpl. Shawn Wong insisted he saw Stiber’s mouth moving. Stiber said of course his mouth was moving—he was eating a McDonald’s hash brown, not holding a cellphone. Although a local magistrate initially ruled against Stiber, he appealed to a trial judge. Armed with his McDonald’s receipt, time records showing Cpl. Wong was in the 15th hour of a 16-hour double shift, phone records showing he wasn’t on the phone, and evidence that his car was equipped with hands-free Bluetooth for phone calls, Stiber ultimately persuaded Judge Maureen Dennis to dismiss the case. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a hash brown is never a cellphone.
The “This Isn’t Supposed to Happen” award goes to senior circuit Judge Keith Cutler of Salisbury in the United Kingdom. Judge Cutler was supposed to preside over an April legal proceeding when he received an official summons for jury duty—in the same case! Although he promptly brought this to the attention of the jury service bureau, he initially received a form letter denying his request to be excused and telling him to take it up with the presiding judge—himself. It took repeated efforts to finally cut through the red tape, but Judge Cutler was ultimately spared from serving as “judge and jury in his own court.”
Finally, the “Best Settlement” award goes to three leading figures in the world of online gaming: Stardock president and CEO Brad Wardell and Paul Reiche and Fred Ford, creators of the Star Control series of games. For nearly two years, Stardock and Ford and Reiche had been locked in a tangled web of lawsuits over the rights to the games. Unhappy with the protracted litigation and the “depressingly combative” approach of their respective attorneys, Wardell sat down with Ford and Reiche and just ... talked. They discovered common ground, including the fact that Wardell’s hobby is beekeeping and Reiche’s hobby is brewing mead (which is made from fermented honey). The parties swiftly resolved their legal and creative differences, agreeing (among other things) to dismiss all pending lawsuits with prejudice. And in a unique twist, the settlement also calls for Wardell to furnish Reiche with a specific amount of honey from his apiary and for Reiche in turn to provide Wardell with a specific amount of mead brewed from Wardell’s bees’ honey. A creative settlement and happy clients—we can all toast to that.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.