The Wild, Wild West

In honor of returning my rental textbooks, I thought I’d run through the top ten craziest legal cases of 1L. Cases with weird fact patterns or characters were a highlight among tons of boring ones. Some have endured as legal “chestnuts” (super famous, every-law-student-has-read-it), some have been made into movies and television shows, and some are just straight up odd. In no particular order, I present to you: the wildest of the wild 1L west!

1. Webster v. Blue Ship Tea Room, Supreme Judicial Court of MA (1964)

This is a contracts case involving a woman and an unwanted fish bone. Ms. Webster was eating fish chowder at the Blue Fish Tea Room in Boston, Massachusetts when she swallowed a large chunk of bone; it got lodged in her throat, and she had to have two surgeries for its removal.

Webster sued the Tea Room for breaching the Implied Warranty of Merchantability under U.S.C. 2-314, which states that merchants must sell goods that would “pass through the trade without objection” (among other things). Webster claimed that leaving such a large chunk of bone breached the U.S.C. and therefore, should be on the hook (pun totally intended) for her medical expenses.

SHE LOST. The Court looked at old recipes for fish chowder, which said bones are normal for the chowder’s “hearty composition,” and since Webster was from New England, she should have known a bone might be there. This case killed me because a) the outcome stinks, b) the Court spent literally half the opinion discussing the consistency of soup, and c) the other half seemed dedicated to fish puns.

It also has a special place in my heart because the policy question on our contracts final asked, “which case was decided wrongly and why?” I chose Blue Ship Tea Room because the bone “did NOT pass without objection down Ms. Webster’s throat”…I really do crack myself up sometimes.

2. Pierson v. Post, NY Court of Appeals, 1805 (The Fox Case)

This is a “chestnut” of property law, a super famous oldie about possession. It’s also incredibly dumb, in my opinion – but I’ll let you judge. Basically, Post was hunting a fox and Pierson (who didn’t like Post) saw the hunt, slid on in, and killed the same fox. Post then sued Pierson for TRESPASS because he claimed he “owned” the fox.

First of all…did this really need to go to court? Second, it’s a wild animal dude. You don’t “own” it. Ugh.

Anyway, Pierson won. Post didn’t “own” the fox just because he was in pursuit (yay!) – ownership doesn’t start with wild animals until they are mortally wounded, trapped, or captured. Of course the court couldn’t just say that – they referenced about twenty ancient philosophers in reaching that conclusion. But Pierson v. Post is still relevant over 200 years later, so I guess they did alright.

3. Hawkins v. McGee, NH Supreme Court (1929) (the Hairy Hand case)

Okay this one is g r o s s. It’s another contracts case, about a boy who badly burned his hand and suffered from terrible scarring. In a consultation with a plastic surgeon, the surgeon (McGee) promised to deliver the boy (Hawkins) a “one hundred percent good” hand. But in surgery, McGee removed scar tissue from Hawkin’s hand and replaced it with skin grafts from Hawkin’s chest…after healing, Hawkins had legitimate chest hair growing from his palm.

Needless to say, Hawkins prevailed on this one. The surgeon promised a 100% good hand and he did NOT deliver. This is a pretty famous case about damages, one that most law students would know!

4. Regina v. Dudley and Stevens, Queen’s Bench (England), 1884

Dudley and Stevens, the infamous CANNIBALS. I’ve discussed this one before – it was the first case we read for criminal law, and a nice little preview to the horrors of the course. Dudley and Stevens were both sailors on an English yacht, along with two other crewmembers named Brooks and Parker. All four were lost at sea after a storm wrecked the yacht, and floated in an open boat for twenty four days. They had very limited food and rainwater, and after a week straight without sustenance, Dudley and Stevens slit Parker’s throat because he was super weak and seemed likely to die. Brooks didn’t participate in the killing, but all three men ate Parker for four days until they were rescued.

Big “yikes” energy there.

The Court ruled that Dudley and Stevens’ murder was NOT excused by necessity, creating a precedent that still applies today. It doesn’t matter if Parker ‘would’ have died anyway, or if killing him saved three men – courts don’t believe in killing an innocent to save yoself.

A side note: the Queen’s Bench originally condemned Dudley and Stevens to death (they were REALLY trying to discourage cannibalism) but ultimately commuted their sentences to just six months of imprisonment. Weirdly, they both returned to sea, and weirder still, were viewed by most of England as heroes!

5. State v. Guthrie, WV Supreme Court of Appeals, 1995

Be careful who you tease…Guthrie and Farley both worked as dishwashers at a restaurant and one evening, Farley started messing around and snapping Guthrie with a dish towel. Guthrie asked him to stop, but Farley continued and eventually hit Guthrie in the nose. He had no idea that Guthrie suffered from multiple psychiatric problems, including panic attacks, chronic depression and body dysmorphism that resulted in an obsession with his nose. (At trial, his father testified that Guthrie would stand in front of the mirror for hours staring at it).

Guthrie immediately became enraged, pulled a knife out of his pocket, and stabbed Farley in the neck. Farley died at the scene, and Guthrie was charged with, and convicted of, first degree murder. Guthrie that he had an intense panic attack right before he stabbed Farley, and the Court ruled that the slight second between grabbing the knife and performing the stabbing constituted “premeditation.”

6. Riss v. City of New York, NY Court of Appeals (1968)

If you thought YOU ever had a bad relationship, check this one out. Riss v. NY is a tort case where a man named Burton Pugach hired men to attack his ex-girlfriend, Linda Riss. Riss notified the police that Pugach was stalking and threatening her, but they couldn’t help and Pugach’s thugs ultimately threw acid in Riss’s face. She sued the City of New York for inadequate protection, but failed (the Court ruled police officers have a duty to protect everyone, but not any one person in particular).

The crazy case doesn’t end there, though. Pugach was convicted for his part in the scheme and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. When he got out, Riss MARRIED HIM. In 1997, Pugach was indicted again on charges of sexually abusing and threatening a mistress…but at trial, Riss testified that he was a “wonderful, caring husband.”

Literally, WHAT?! The real life story of these two is the subject of a book, A Very Different Love Story, and a documentary called Crazy Love. You can watch the first official trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B62xvVk9VEI.

7. Dohrmann v. Swaney, IL Court of Appeals, 2014

My notes from Dohrmann simply say “$5M/middle name: gross inadequacy of consideration can invalidate a contract.” But the story is WAY weirder than that. The plaintiff, a 40-yr-old doctor, made friends with a 73-year-old widow who lived in the same apartment building. SOMEHOW, the widow ended up signing a contract that gave Dohrmann her apartment, personal property, and cash if Dohrmann incorporated her surname into his sons’ names (she had no kids of her own, and wanted the family name to live on). Combined, her assets totaled over $5.5 million.

Sketchy, right? It gets sketchier. The widow was 89 years old when she signed the document and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s less than two years later. Plus, Dohrmann simply added “Rogers” as a middle name for each son – he didn’t change their last names or anything. $5.5M for two middle name changes seems…a little steep.

The court agreed. It ruled the contract invalid because of the huge discrepancy in “consideration” (what one party gives vs. what the other party gives). Also, I did a lil internet stalking and found one of the sons on Facebook – he’s from Chicago, and we have a mutual friend.

8. Frigaliment Importing Co. v. BNS Int’l Sales, Southern District of NY, 1960 (the Chicken case)

The main question for this court was, “what is a chicken?” A CHICKEN! Frigaliment was a Swiss company trying to buy “chicken” from an American company called BNS Int’l; given the language barrier, most of the negotiations were conducted in German. Basically, the Swiss company used the English word “chicken” in the contract instead of the German word “huhn” (which means “fowl” in general) because they only wanted to buy young chickens for broiling/frying. The American company thought “chicken” meant “chicken,” and sent Frigaliment all types of birds instead of just young ones. Frigaliment got mad and sued BNS.

The court’s job was to literally “use external factors to determine the proper interpretation” of the word “chicken.” The dictionary was involved. They ruled for BNS and a broad definition of “chicken.” Eat more…

9. Yates v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, 2015

Kind of like the chicken case, Yates begs the question “is a fish an inanimate object?” And the Supreme Court said no! Here’s the story:

Yates, a commercial fisherman, caught undersized red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico when his boat was randomly inspected by federal authorities. He was ticketed for the too-small fish and told to report in with authorities for measurements after docking. But this cat threw the small fish overboard – and then replaced them with slightly larger, but still undersized, fish.

Worse still, the federal authority onshore quickly realized the fish weren’t the same size and sued the fisherman for “destruction of any record, document, or tangible object to obstruct a federal investigation.” Yates argued the given statute didn’t apply to throwing fish overboard; the government argued that it did.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Ginsburg and ruled for the fisherman. She didn’t waste the opportunity for prime fish puns, cementing the Queen’s place in my heart. In dissent, Justice Kagan pointed out that a fish is a “discrete thing with a physical form” and therefore, IS a tangible object – and quoted Dr. Suess’ “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” as evidence.

10. Vosburg v. Putney, Wisconsin Supreme Court, 1891

This is another oldie, but the first case we read in Torts because it’s still important! The facts on this one are really simple – Vosburg and Putney are students in the same school and one day, Putney lightly kicks Vosburg across their classroom aisle. It was such a light tap that Vosburg didn’t even really feel it. But a few months later, he felt a sharp pain in his shin, fell very ill, and was taken to the hospital.

Turns out, Vosburg had previously injured his shin in the same place and it hadn’t fully healed; worse still, bacteria was introduced through the injury. When Putney kicked him, it activated the bacteria (which literally ate his flesh and bone) and caused him to lose use of the leg altogether.

Thus, the Eggshell Plaintiff Rule was born. No matter how small an action, or unanticipated its consequences, a guilty plaintiff MUST pay for all resulting damages. It seems kind of unfair to poor Putney, but someone has to pay those medical bills. The same concept applies today; when awarding damages you “take the plaintiff as you find them,” no matter how diseased.

11. Vann v. Vehrs, Second District of IL, 1994

As a bonus case, I present my own father’s legal battle with an ex-fiance! Obviously we didn’t read this in class, but finding it in a legal database made me feel very famous. AND it’s still good law in Illinois.

Long story short, my dad was engaged to a lady who wouldn’t give the ring back after they broke things off. He didn’t really care, but after proposing to my mom, rumors got around that this lady was still telling people THEY were engaged, and was WEARING THE RING!

My mom was like, uh uh. Get that thing back. My dad asked, she wouldn’t, so he took her to court! He won at trial and she appealed – he won again in the appellate court and she finally gave up the ring. (the Court said an engagement ring is a gift given in anticipation of marriage, and if the marriage doesn’t happen then the receiver has no right to keep it). The date of that decision was April 19, 1994 – less than a month after I was born. No idea where the ring is now.

And THAT, my friends, is about as wild as it gets. We read so many freakin cases that I’m probably missing a few good ones – maybe I’ll do a round 2. But for now, knowing that the next two years will yield more insane fact patterns truly keeps me going.