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Holiday torts: Nothing says ‘Merry Christmas’ like lawsuits or criminal counts

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’Tis the season for the Christmas tort. For today’s lawyers, Christmas remains a horn-of-plenty for the practice of law, but mayhem and madness have been part of Christmas since its very founding.

Consider the all-too-familiar scene of a family traveling during the holiday only to arrive in some small, unfamiliar town without a single available room. In the case of Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem was big on census-taking but not much on hotel regulation; they ended up not only being given a stall in a barn but giving birth in a manger as animals and three mysterious foreigners just meandered through. It was the perfect start for a holiday that throws every possible surprise and sucker punch at those traveling or hosting guests.

Even before the arrival of the holiday, we had one recurring story that seems as inevitable each year as mistletoe — which is extremely poisonous, by the way. In Brooklyn, a substitute teacher decided that the best possible lesson on “convincing” for a class of six-year-olds at Public School 321 was to explain why there is no such thing as Santa. The children were convinced enough to tell their parents, who convinced the school to get rid of the teacher.

Other holiday injuries take the form of hospital visits, fires and, of course, thrown backs. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 14,700 people end up in hospital emergency rooms each year from holiday-related decorating accidents, and too-dry Christmas trees cause almost $16 million in fire damage each year.

The annual carnage actually is a sign of the holiday’s success. The Pew Research Center has found that a surprising 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas and only 51 percent treat it as a religious holiday.

Of course, some holiday celebrants end up in less-than-jolly surroundings. Curtis L. Metz of Illinois was charged with drunk driving after slowly evading the police by driving around a barricade and alongside a Christmas parade in Beloit, Ill. Police did not want to conduct a chase through the parade and just arrested Metz and his passenger at the end. Metz received his fifth drunk-driving charge with added charges of fleeing police and five counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety.

In some cases, the greatest problem with family gatherings is … well, the gathering of the family. That seemed to be the case with David Brannon, who got into an argument over what the family should eat at Christmas. He proceeded to throw various items, including a Christmas ham, at his victim. He was carted away for what is likely to be a holiday meal of cream-of-chicken over toast in the London, Ky., jail.

Even the man who made turkey and goose into traditional Christmas meals showed how the most carefully planned holiday meals can go awry. A letter from celebrated author Charles Dickens, who brought the birds to the centerpiece of our dinners in his famous Christmas stories, explained how he did not get the turkey dinner he planned in 1869: The 30-pound turkey he ordered for his Christmas meal burned to a crisp in a fire on the Great Western Railway.

Dickens may have been spared a worse fate, however, since food poisoning also is a common Christmas tort. This year, the Philippines is grappling with hundreds of people poisoned by a traditional wine drink made from coconut sap. The “lambanog” ingestion included free wine supplied by the government.

Of course, some people may prefer jail to get away from Christmas. Cameran Lewis Baun, 29, was arrested last year after allegedly going on a crime spree during which he burned Christmas decorations, including an outdoor Snowman. (Perhaps he misheard the “Frozen” lyrics which refer to “Do you want to build a snowman?”)

Even Santa can get ornery during the holidays — especially gangster-like Santas. In Russia, families watched this week as two St. Nicks whaled on each other in a rolling, not-so-jolly rumble. One was heard exclaiming that “this is my territory,” and police believe organized gangs were involved in a “mafia-style territorial dispute.” 

At least those Santas could suit up this year. In British Columbia, a town’s traditional Santa figure, Gary Haupt, was stripped of his suit and status after allegedly sharing provocative photos of himself — fully dressed and in the suit — on Facebook.

Even the selfless act of gift-giving can leave you with a mugshot rather than a family picture at this year. Richard Ellis Spurrier, 67, said he was overwhelmed by the spirit of the season and started giving away marijuana. Police, appearing to view pot as a gateway drug for more serious offenses, nevertheless charged Spurrier with possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

Indeed, even wishing someone a cheerful holiday can be a greeting made at own’s own peril. Whitney Cummings, who starred on ABC’s “Roseanne” reboot, was called to the human resources department to deal with a complaint last year from an intern who objected to her saying “Bye, guys, Merry Christmas” to fellow employees as she left the studio.

Given these cases, one perhaps can understand why the Puritans made it a crime to celebrate Christmas in Boston. They refused to open their churches or to close their stores for what they derisively called “Foolstide.” However, the Puritans were never that much fun to start with.

Remember, part of the joy of the holidays is found in having survived it. So, on behalf of my fellow torts and criminal defenses lawyers, I offer a reminder that nothing says “I love you” like a retainer contract for holiday mishaps.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law and teaches torts at George Washington University. He is spending his Christmas in Chicago after driving 12 hours with his wife, four children, and a large dog named Luna packed in a van.

Tags arrest Christmas Christmas traditions Happy Holiday Holidays Lawsuits Pew Santa Claus

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