Overlawyered & Overgoverned

An annual helping of tales from a litigious society.

How were we governed, regulated, policed, lawyered, and judged in 2000? Sadly, much the same as in 1999. Here are some of last year's month-by-month "highlights":

January: New York City announced that it did not intend to give back the brand-new $46,000 Ford Explorer it had seized from 34-year-old construction worker Joe Bonilla after his arrest on drunk-driving charges, even though Bonilla had been found not guilty of the charges.

A husband and wife filed a million-dollar lawsuit against the University of Miami School of Medicine for failing to warn them that their daughter might be born with Down Syndrome even though the school knew that they were first cousins to each other, a "high-risk" category that often prompts additional precautionary testing. (The couple's grandparents are also first cousins to each other.)

Serious fire code violations, including lack of smoke alarms in sleeping quarters and an improperly installed firewall, threatened to delay the ribbon-cutting of a $1-million public facility in Charleston, West Virginia. The facility was a fire station.

February: Escaped Bulgarian murderer Mincho Donchev, who lived for 10 years as a "mountain man" burglarizing vacation cabins in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, won a $412,500 settlement in his lawsuit against Snohomish County for excessive force in his arrest. A police dog had mangled Donchev's foot as officers tried to subdue him. At the time of the arrest, Donchev was armed with knives, handguns, and a pronged stick. Donchev's attorney said the money would help ease his client's re-entry into society on his release from prison.

Former Chicago city treasurer Miriam Santos, once a rising political star, "blamed her now-overturned conviction on extortion charges on pre-menstrual syndrome," reported UPI. "I am human and probably the first woman to go to jail for PMSing," she told a news conference.

ABC confirmed that it had paid $933,992 to Mark Sanders, an employee of the Psychic Services Network. A jury endorsed Sanders' complaint that the net-work's newsmagazine PrimeTime Live had harmed his reputation in 1993 when it covertly videotaped him and his colleagues working the phones and aired the resulting tapes in a show designed to depict the call-a-psychic business as "a scam and illegitimate."

March: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued before a federal appeals court that Conrail violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it denied a dispatcher's job to an employee with a heart condition that can cause him to black out. According to the Detroit News, the agency told the court "that 'while consciousness is obviously necessary to perform' train-dispatcher tasks, 'it is not itself a job function.'...The [job] involves directing trains and taking emergency action to prevent crashes."

Salon reported that New Age alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra, who says he won a $1.6 million settlement in his defamation suit against The Weekly Standard a while back, described the legal action as "an act of love" meant to lift the magazine to "a higher state of awareness."

Ed O'Rourke sued Tampa Electric, along with six bars and stores that sold him alcoholic beverages, over a 1996 incident in which he was blasted by 13,000 volts of electricity after breaking into a fenced, gated, and locked utility substation and climbing up a transformer in what he termed a "drunken stupor."

April: Four New Jersey kindergartners were given three-day suspensions after they pretended their fingers were guns and played at shooting each other in a game of cops and robbers. "This is a no-tolerance policy. We're very firm on weapons and threats," said district superintendent William L. Bauer. "Given the climate of our society, we cannot take any of these statements in a light manner."

A Norwich, Connecticut, couple sought $21 million in damages from Publisher's Clearing House, the magazine sweepstakes company, saying that its repeated notices marked "Document of Title" and "official correspondence from the Publisher's Clearing House board of judges" with messages such as "Congratulations! Your recent entry was a winner! And Approved for $21 Million!" convinced them that they would receive the grand prize in person on Super Bowl Sunday. They even got all dressed up to wait for the knock on the door, but it never came, resulting in devastating emotional distress.

Vili Fualaau, now 16, who figured in national headlines because of his affair with his former grade school teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau, is seeking damages from his suburban Seattle school district because it had not prevented the relationship. All parties described that relationship as consensual.

May: Rob Barry, who has sold peanuts for 19 years in the stands at Boston's Fen-way Park, said he may retire in response to an order from management forbidding him from tossing the packaged legumes across rows of seats to buyers. The Ara-mark company, which runs the food concession, is worried about being sued by a bystander hit by a flying goober bag.

The Internal Revenue Service agreed to stop dunning a New Mexico businessman who inadvertently dropped a fractional penny while calculating his tax return and as a result came up one cent short. Counting penalties and interest, the IRS had been trying to extract $286.50 for the one-cent error.

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