It’s no secret that the media can be a bit callous in pursuit of a good story, and in law stories especially there’s often an urge to simplify and dramatise complex cases so there can be a hero and a villain.

One issue with this is that the media’s natural, knee-jerk sense for ‘a good story’ can make an issue seem trivial. The most shocking of these, and the one we care the most about on a personal level, is at number one.

Before that, though, are four other famous legal cases that you’ve probably heard being made fun of, and the serious issues that lurk behind them. We want to show you the truth behind the stories, avoiding the sensationalism, because that’s what we believe in.

5. United States Vs. Approximately 64,695 Pounds Of Shark Fins

Flashed Shark

Image by Michael Coghlan

The Story We Were Told:

The strange nature of this case’s headline led the media to mock it extensively, and even today there can be references to the case found as prominent as famous tech blog boingboing.net.

The story as presented delves no further than the curious title, which does sound as though the shark fins themselves are on trial.

The Serious Issue:

The shark fins involved in the case were seized from a ship that, under the laws that existed at the time, operated within a loophole in laws preventing ‘shark finning’.

Shark finning is a practice that decimates shark populations for no reason. Removing the shark’s fin before dumping it unceremoniously back in the water would be cruel even if it didn’t practically ensure the shark’s death. Removing shark fins in this quantity corresponds to an almost unimaginable amount of animal cruelty.

In addition, the case name is not particularly exceptional. It’s actually very common for suits to be launched against inanimate objects and groups of inanimate objects in the US.

The Case:

This case was key to the introduction of the Shark Conservation Act. This act tightened loopholes on shark finning and practices related to shark finning, an important step in reducing this unfortunate practice. The lighthearted approach from the many compilation lists that approached the subject under titles such as “Funniest Legal Case Names!”, while understandable, does a disservice to this notable and upsetting legal case.

4. Laura Ziv Vs. Herve Pierini and Firmenich Inc.

Stop Bullying

Image by Quinn Dombrowski

The Story We Were Told:

A woman sued her boss because he allegedly compared her to Susan Boyle. Her touchy, instinctive reaction embodies a litigious culture that will sue at the drop of a hat.

The Serious Issue:

In fact, the case revolved around not one single incident but an alleged string of incidents taking a number of years. The particular alleged incident in question was said to have been highly (deliberately) embarrassing, and to have occurred following a lengthy and emotionally draining campaign of verbal abuse and workplace bullying. There were additional allegations that high job performance was ignored and that the plaintiff did not (as one example of poor treatment) receive bonuses promised despite exceptional performance. A possible reason for the poor treatment, that the plaintiff turned down an offer from the defendant that they considered immoral, was also proposed. It was even alleged that the defendant intended that Ms Ziv suffer a brain haemorrhage.

Workplace bullying is extremely important, as disparities in power can quickly become apparent and your very livelihood can be threatened. Workplace bullying can quickly lead to constructive dismissal cases, and for that reason alone it can prove (rightly) very expensive for companies that tolerate or ignore it.

The Case:

We don’t know how this case was resolved, so we cannot say for sure that the events occurred as they were alleged to have occurred. The facts as presented by most of the media, though, were terribly misleading, and downplayed the serious nature of a very important lawsuit.

3. I Am The Beast etc. V. Michigan State Police

Police Evidence

Image by Andy

The Story We Were Told:

This was the case of a man who changed his name to I Am The Beast Six Six Six Of The Lord Of Hosts In Edmond Frank MacGillivray Jr. Now, or Mr. Sssotlohiefmjn as we shall refer to him. Essentially, the media took a similar approach as they did in the case of the state vs. thousands of pounds of shark fins, albeit with much higher stakes. Specifically, the name of the case was mocked, and in this case what is being mocked is the chosen name of a veteran soldier who, like many veterans, suffered from mental health issues.

The Serious Issue:

The plaintiff alleged abuse suffered at the hands of police who had no interest in or care for his health and well-being. His story, if true, is sad and troubling. His version of events can be read as part of the full details of the case, available here.

We won’t argue that the full name of the plaintiff is anything but unusual. The name is almost certainly so odd due to mental health issues that the plaintiff has, and is not really something to laugh about. One of the serious issues here is the mistreatment of veterans, the difficulty ordinary people have when accessing a complex legal system, and the poor state of mental health services in America. On top of this, of course, is the serious nature of the allegations made by the plaintiff against the police. These allegations are so serious that to highlight and dismiss the case on the basis of the plaintiff’s name is more than unkind, it is dangerous.

The Case:

Ultimately, the court dismissed the case as it was impossible to sue the bodies involved, as the federal court had no jurisdiction over these state bodies. Since then, Mr. Sssotlohiefmjn has later testified that he suffers from bipolar schizoaffective disorder. We hope that services for those with poor mental health all over the world continue to improve, along with support for army veterans like Mr. Sssotlohiefmjn. We also hope that when they make serious allegations, they are taken as seriously as they deserve to be.

2. Chambers V. God

God Sistine Chapel

Image via. Waiting For The Word

The Story We Were Told:

Ernie Chambers made international headlines when he launched a lawsuit accusing God of “widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.” Clearly a frivolous lawsuit, representing a new low in an America obsessed with litigation.

The Serious Issue:

The issue Chambers (who, incidentally, had been a Nebraska State Senator and civil rights activist for a very long time) was trying to highlight was the attempt to pass laws to limit frivolous lawsuits. While this might seem like a non-issue, allowing the courts to decide what is and what is not frivolous raises the spectre of censorship, corruption and government oppression for many.

Imagine if some of the seemingly frivolous cases in this very article had been thrown out for seeming frivolous – the truth would never have been determined. In addition, what is frivolous for the wealthy is not necessarily frivolous for the poor, who Ernie Chambers has always tried to stand up for. The right to have a case judged on its own merits is very important.

The Case:

Ultimately the case was dismissed due to the fact that it’s impossible to serve notice on God, but the point was made. Even though most of the media focussed on either outrage or mockery, some readers understood what he was trying to say.

1. “Hot Coffee”

Hot Coffee

Image by Nicole June

The Story We Were Told:

A woman sued McDonald’s after she spilled coffee on herself, after buying it in a Drive-Thru of all places. She was awarded $2.7 million by a jury. This is the lawsuit people most often bring up if they want to push a Tort reform agenda.

The Serious Issue:

The coffee concerned was incredibly hot, far hotter than might reasonably be expected, and the elderly woman who was injured suffered horrendous burns. Stella Liebeck suffered third degree burns, disfigurement and mid to long-term disability. The coffee was served in a receptacle that made spills likely, and the car was entirely stationary when Liebeck attempted to remove the coffee lid. Even her demands were very reasonable, originally requesting just $20,000 to cover her expenses and lost earnings. McDonald’s offered her $800, then twice failed to arrive at mediations and repeatedly refused attempts at settlement. Perhaps most importantly, many other people had been injured by McDonald’s coffee, suggesting that the incident could not have been entirely her fault.

The Case:

A jury did award Stella Liebeck $2.7 million, but this was reduced to $640,000 by the trial judge and may have been reduced still further when the parties settled for a confidential amount of money. This is approximately in line with what both the plaintiff and a mediator attempted to negotiate from McDonald’s before the trial.

Think Twice Before Believing The Media

The media often have powerful interests feeding them misinformation one way or another, and have a vested interest in spinning the most sensational and outrageous story. At LoyaltyLaw, we’ll always dedicate the time to your case it deserves, and even cases that family, friends, or you yourself consider to be trivial are often both successful and important.

Before you believe a story about a seemingly weird or ridiculous lawsuit, be sure to look into the actual details!

Life and law is always more complicated than you think.