[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in January 2019.]
Lawsuits are common in today’s society. Sometimes they’re filed in order to compensate victims for injuries or injustices – such as in tort cases. Other times, though, the suits are hard to make sense of. So what happens when a lawsuit is frivolous? These four crazy cases will show you.
We live in an era when lawsuits are not rare, to say the least. New cases are filed every day – whether by disappointed customers, disgruntled employees, or injured neighbors. Or, as we’ll see, by prison inmates with a knack for legal maneuvering. According to the Federal Judicial Caseload Statistics, 277,010 civil cases were filed in the United States in 2018 alone. Some of these cases are classified as torts, or wrongful personal injuries that merit legal compensation. These cases usually fall into one of three categories: auto, medical malpractice, or product liability. Many cases are serious in nature, and some of the stories behind the suits are downright tragic.
In 2012, $251 billion, or 2.2% GDP, went to tort costs in the United States. Florida, California, Michigan, Illinois, New York, and Montana were among the states that produced the most tort cases. Alaska and Hawaii, on the other hand, ranked as the two lowest tort liability states.
Just take a look at the documentary series, Where There’s Blame There’s a Claim. It follows the lives of those affected by tort cases, and offers a compelling examination of the tragedies and hardships that come with a journey through the legal system. And there are a lot of people affected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2017 there were 161,374 unintentional injury deaths and 30.8 million emergency room visits for unintentional injuries in the United States alone.
Fortunately, with increased safety precautions and stricter state requirements for litigation, the number of tort lawsuits is on the decline. According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans seem to be filing fewer lawsuits than in the past. In fact, as of 2015, fewer than two out of 1,000 people filed for this class of lawsuit. But frivolous and downright laughable cases still surface every year. Need some proof? Just consider the teenager who sued his mom for confiscating his phone, or the woman whose sweet tooth was so demanding that she sued Tootsie Roll Industries over the number of Junior Mints that come in a box.
Just how wasteful are frivolous cases? Well, according to eLocal Lawyers, $1.6 billion
was spent to settle frivolous lawsuits outside of court in 2010. That’s a lot of cash for
cases that may have turned out to be less than legitimate.
Of course, as Where There’s Blame There’s a Claim shows us, most lawsuits are definitely not a laughing matter. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some rather weird exceptions. Occasionally our courts come to resemble comedy clubs more than solemn venues for adjudicating serious legal disputes. If you need some convincing, consider these four wacky situations that found their way into courts in the U.S.
“Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” It’s a lesson often taught to those looking for success. While the intentions are good, sometimes dressing the part isn’t always enough. In 2018, Internet prankster Cody Roeder learned this lesson the hard way.
Roeder, a YouTube star hoping to extend his 15 minutes of fame, posed as the CEO of the beloved burger chain, In-N-Out. He visited two locations, demanded samples, pretended the food was “contaminated,” and downright acted like a fool. Roeder may have walked the walk and talked the talk, but In-N-Out employees saw right through him – and swiftly alerted the authorities.
The stunt was enough to get Roeder banned from all In-N-Out locations. But the company didn’t stop there. In addition to seeking a shiny new restraining order, the chain is also suing him for over $25,000 in damages. It’s hard to say if the stunt garnished enough views on YouTube to be worth it … but coming from someone who loves a good In-N-Out burger (Animal Style, of course), I’m going to have to go with a hard no.
Who can forget the great sandwich shortage of 2013, when Subway was discovered to have been serving sandwiches at sizes smaller than promised? While many hungry patrons took to the Internet to complain about the sandwich shop’s shortcomings, New Jersey’s Jason Leslie ratcheted up the pressure by spearheading a carb crusade. Leslie – a self-proclaimed Subway devotee – was shocked to find out that the 50 sandwiches he consumed per year fell short on the footlong scale. Being a frequent shopper since the age of 18, the 32-year-old felt jilted by his sandwich paramour.
So, he did what any litigious, scorned lover would do: He lawyered up.
The resulting lawsuit accused Subway of ripping off their customers for more than $125 million worth of missing bites, claiming that the products were anywhere between a half-inch to an inch shorter than advertised. The case was all about semantics, and lawyers stated that if the subs were labeled “Big Sandwich” instead of “Footlong,” diners would not have contested.
Original estimates show that Subway shortchanged each customer roughly 45 cents worth of dough per sandwich. Since the discoveries, Subway has implemented measuring tools and quality control practices to ensure customers receive a bigger bite.
Lawyers for Subway argued that, in reality, the pre-measured dough used for each loaf of bread was the same size every time. They explained that the natural variability that occurs with baking accounted for some finished products to be wider and shorter than others, while still containing the same mass. Still, Subway found it expedient to settle the case for close to a half-million dollars, making for one truly overpriced 5-Dollar-Footlong and proving that maybe size really does matter.
Yes, you read the headline right. And if you’re scratching your head right about now, you’re not alone. Maybe you talk to yourself. Maybe you dance with yourself (à la Billy Idol). But have you ever sued yourself? If you’re Virginia inmate Robert Lee Brock, the answer is yes.
This resident of the Indian Creek Correctional Facility, who was sentenced to 23 years for breaking and entering, and grand larceny, was known to voice his grievances from time to time – for example, by lodging complaints about prison conditions on several occasions. But in 1995, he took everyone by surprise when he filed a seven-page, $5 million complaint against . . . himself. The grounds? In his own words, “I partook in alcoholic beverages in 1993, July 1st, as a result I caused myself to violate my religious beliefs. This was done by my going out and getting arrested.”
Since he did not have an income, Brock asked the state to pay the damages. Predictably, the case was thrown out. In addition, Brock was barred from filing any more frivolous lawsuits . . . but not before the judge commended him for presenting “an innovative approach to civil rights litigation.”
No compilation of frivolous lawsuits would be complete without mentioning Jonathan Lee Riches. He is another inmate trying to cash in from his cell, and has earned the dubious title of “Most Litigious” on this list. In fact, his legal shenanigans have been so over the top that it's impossible to mention just one.
The persistent Mr. Riches has tried to sue just about everyone, and his ridiculous collection of lawsuits shows no one – and nothing real or imagined – is safe. He has filed lawsuits against countless individuals and things, including Adolf Hitler, the Eiffel Tower, the Garden of Eden, Somali Pirates, the dwarf planet Pluto, George W. Bush, Daylight Savings Time, and Britney Spears. He’s attempted to sue Martha Stewart, saying he would donate any damages collected to Rachael Ray. He even tried to sue NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon for “Recklessly Drivin’ My Life Crazy.” All told, he’s filed almost 4,000 different lawsuits. It’s amazing he didn’t take Steely Dan up on the band’s “Deacon Blues” invitation to “sue me if I play too long.” He might have won!
Others targeted by Riches include Google, Pope Benedict XVI, Bill Gates, the Queen of England, the Trojan Horse, the Great Wall of China, and George Clooney. He’s even published a book, Comes Now the Plaintiff: Selected Lawsuits (and Poems), containing a list of those he’s sought legal action against. It’s available to preview on Amazon.
This shocking, and quite comical, deluge of lawsuits caught the attention of many. In 2009, Riches claimed the Guinness Book of World Records attempted to list him as the most litigious individual in history. The result? You guessed it. He tried to sue them, too. However, Sara Wilcox, the spokesperson for the popular records book, denied this claim, stating that the category was never intended for inclusion. Of course, the case was dismissed.
Riches continued his legal spree until 2010, when he got a taste of his own medicine. After dealing with his antics countless times, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kentucky sued him for wasting judicial resources.
Perhaps doing time left him with a little too much free time.
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