The world’s weirdest cases
A meticulous collector of amusing and curious anecdotes from the world of law, Professor Gary Slapper’s Case Notes column has long been a staple of The Times’ Law section. His collection of legal oddities is on display in a new column, Weird Cases. As a taster, we asked him to select 20 of his favourite bizarre disputes, prosecutions and lawsuits from the archive.
1. In 2004, Timothy Dumouchel, from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin sued a television company for making his wife fat and transforming his children into “lazy channel surfers”. He said: “I believe the reason I smoke and drink every day and my wife is overweight is because we watched the TV everyday for the last four years”. The case kept at least two of America’s then 1,058,662 lawyers occupied for a while, but did not go to the Supreme Court.
2. In 2005, a Brazilian woman sued her partner for failing to give her orgasms. The 31-year old woman from Jundiai asserted in her case that her 38-year old partner routinely ended sexual intercourse after he reached an orgasm. After a promising start the action ended in something of an anticlimax for the claimant when her case was rejected.
3. In 2004, a German lawyer, Dr Juergen Graefe, acted for an elderly pensioner from St Augustin, near Bonn, who was sent a tax demand for €287 million, even though the woman’s income was only €17,000. Dr Graefe fixed the problem with one standard letter to the authorities, but as German law entitles him to calculate his fee based on the amount of the reduction he obtained, his fee came to €440,234 (£308,000). It will be met by the state. There is no evidence that he pushed his luck by writing a thank-you letter.
4. In 1972, at Wakefield Crown Court in Yorkshire, Reginald Sedgwick was prosecuted for stealing Cleckheaton railway station. The defendant, a demolition contractor, was alleged to have destroyed the disused stone building and cleared the site of 24 tons of track with dishonest intentions. He admitted the deed, explained that it was done for an untraced third party, and his lawyer demolished the prosecution’s case, securing an acquittal.
5. In 2005, the Massachusetts Appeals Court was asked to rule on when a sexual technique was dangerous. Early one morning, a man and woman in a long-term relationship were engaged in consensual intercourse. During the passionate event, and, without the man’s consent, the woman suddenly manoeuvred herself in a way that caused him to suffer a penile fracture. Emergency surgery was required. The court ruled that while “reckless” sexual conduct may be actionable, “merely negligent” conduct was not. It dismissed the man’s case.
6. In 2005, Marina Bai, a Russian astrologer, sued NASA for £165 million for “disrupting the balance of the universe”. She claimed that the space agency’s Deep Impact space probe, which was due to hit a comet later that year to harvest material from the explosion, was a “terrorist act”. A Moscow court accepted Russian jurisdiction to hear the claim but it was eventually rejected.
7. In 2007, a court in India was asked to decide whether a vibrating condom is a contraceptive or a sex toy. The condoms contain a battery-operated device, and, for the avoidance of doubt, are marketed as “Crezendo”. Opponents argue it’s a sex toy and thus unlawful in India, whereas the manufacturer says it’s a contraceptive and promotional of public health.
8. In 2006, a young man from Jiaxing, near Shanghai, found himself in legal trouble after failing to take advice before putting his soul up for sale on an online auction site. The posting was eventually removed by the auctioneer and the seller was told that the advert would be reinstated only if he could produce written permission to sell his soul from “a higher authority”.
9. In 2004, Frank D’Alessandro, a court official in New York, sued the city for serious injuries that he sustained when a toilet he was sitting on exploded leaving him in a pile of porcelain. He claimed $5 million compensation. Reflecting on the demanding physical therapy in which he must now engage every morning before work, D’Alessandro declared: “It’s a pain in the ass to do all this stuff.”
10. A Las Vegas law prohibiting strippers from fondling customers during lap dances was ruled by the Nevada Supreme Court in 2006 to be valid. The issue was whether the local law was unconstitutionally vague and therefore unenforceable. The law states that “no attendant or server shall fondle or caress any patron” with intent to arouse him. Lawyers discussed at length whether grinding (of dancers’ bottoms into men’s laps) amounted to a fondle or caress, and whether the brushing of breast into patrons’ faces was prohibited conduct. The local law was declared valid because the court thought enforcers would be able to know a fondle or caress if they saw one.
11. In 1964, the Exchequer Court of Canada was asked to decide whether the expenses of running a “call girl” business in Vancouver were deductible from gross income for the purposes of income tax. The madam and seven call girls were all convicted and imprisoned. And then taxed. Claims for tax deductions in respect of the ordinary parts of the business, such as phone bills, were allowed. Other types of expenses were disallowed because the business couldn’t prove them with receipts, including $2000 for liquor for local officials and $1000 paid to “certain men possessed of physical strength and some guile, which they exercised when set to extricate a girl from difficulties”.
12. In a notorious case heard by Baron Huddleston in November 1884, Captain Thomas Dudley and Edwin Stephens were prosecuted for the murder of a cabin boy, Richard Parker. When the yacht they were sailing from Southampton to Sydney capsized, they found themselves on a dinghy 1,600 miles from shore. After 20 days adrift, they killed Parker, eating his liver and drinking his blood to survive. They were rescued four days later by a German vessel and were convicted of murder at Exeter Assizes, although their death sentences were later commuted to six months imprisonment without hard labour. Their defence of “necessity” was rejected.
13. Cathy McGowan, 26, was overjoyed when a DJ on Radio Buxton told her that she had correctly answered a quiz question and had won the competition prize: a Renault Clio. Ecstasy collapsed into despair, however, when she arrived at the radio station and was presented with a 4-inch model of the car. In 2001, she sued and a judge at Derby County Court ruled that the now defunct station in Derbyshire had entered into a legally binding contract with Miss McGowan and ordered its owners to pay £8,000 for the real vehicle.
14. In 2005, Pavel M., a Romanian prisoner serving 20 years for murder, sued God, founding his claim in contract. He argued that his baptism was an agreement between him and God under which, in exchange for value such as prayer, God would keep him out of trouble..
15. In May, 2004 in Connecticut, Heather Specyalski was charged with the homicide of Neil Esposito. He was thrown from a car that prosecutors said was being driven by Specyalski when it spun out of control and crashed. The defendant argued that she couldn’t have been driving because she was in the passenger seat performing oral sex on Esposito, whom she alleged was at the wheel. Esposito was found with his trousers down but prosecutors argue this could have been because he was “mooning” or urinating out of the car window while in the passenger seat. The jury acquitted Specyalski of manslaughter, sparing her a possible 25-year prison sentence.
16. Sentencing a young woman at the Magistrates’ Court in Port Adelaide, Australia, in 2003, a magistrate said:
“You’re a druggie and you’ll die in the gutter. That’s your choice… I don’t believe in that social worker crap. You abuse your mother and cause her pain. You can choose to be who you are. You can go to work. Seven million of us do it whilst fourteen million like you sit at home watching Days of Our Lives smoking your crack pipes and using needles and I’m sick of you sucking us dry”.
He then concluded:
“It’s your choice to be a junkie and die in the gutter. No one gives a shit, but you’re going to kill that woman who is your mother, damn you to death.”
He gave the woman a prison sentence, unaware that that was unlawful in the type of case in question. Her appeal was successful.
17. In 1874, Francis Evans Cornish, while acting as a magistrate in Winnipeg, Canada, had to try himself on a charge of being drunk in public. He convicted himself and fined himself five dollars with costs. But then he stated for the record: “Francis Evans Cornish, taking into consideration past good behaviour, your fine is remitted”.
18. In 1980, Lord Justice Ormrod, Lord Justice Dunn and Mr Justice Arnold ruled in the UK’s Court of Appeal that a wife from Basingstoke who rationed sex with her husband to once a week was behaving reasonably. Lord Hailsham later revealed that the ruling had provoked some newspapers to try to interview the wives of all the judges in the case.
19. A father from Zhengzhou, in China, was refused legal permission to name his son “@” after the keyboard character. Permission was declined on the legal basis that all names must be capable of being translated into Mandarin.
20. In September, 2004, Judge A K M Patabendige, in Walasmulla, Sri Lanka, jailed a man for a year for yawning in court. N V P Ajith, a defendant in a criminal case, stretched out and yawned in a way that so infuriated the judge, the punishment for contempt was immediate.
Professor Gary Slapper is Director of the Centre for Law at The Open University. His new book, How the Law Works, is published by HarperCollins
Is no18 the one where Ormerod LJ, a doctor who turned to law after WW2, remarked that between a man and a woman the law should be slow to describe anything as “inordinate”? I served my articles in Basingstoke, as it happens, but I doubt I met the lady.
Richard Spencer, Laggan, Scotland
So funny, it’s refreshing! Can we use them in our law essays?^^
Niels, Cambridge, England
Muhammad Munim, london, uk