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The most frivolous lawsuit award goes to ...

By BOB TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2000


The Olympics are over. But there's one more medal to hand out in the nation's stiffest competition of all.

The most frivolous lawsuit.

As it did in the Olympics, Florida once again proves it is home to gold.

So many lawsuits fought for the honor of most frivolous.

But first, the runners-up from other states.

The silver medal goes to a man who sued McDonald's because it failed to warn customers about the dangers of eating and driving. According to the man's complaint, a customer who had purchased a milkshake at the restaurant's drive-up window spilled the cold drink in his lap, then collided with the plaintiff's car.

The bronze medal goes to an Idaho college student who fell out of his third-floor window while "mooning" his friends, then sued the college for not providing warnings about the perils of upper-story windows.

These are the easy lawsuits to lampoon. They remind us this is not the legal community's finest (pick one: hour, year, decade).

Before unveiling the gold, a little perspective. In the business world, new litigation that often should be considered frivolous -- or sheer overkill, at the least -- crops up almost daily. Many of these suits seek class-action status and are brought on behalf of investors against companies whose stock prices have not lived up to expectations.

Tampa Bay area companies are awash in such lawsuits. Just look at the past few weeks.

Three law firms in New York and Philadelphia ganged up to sue Tampa's Sykes Enterprises for misguiding investors. Sykes already is buried under class-action suits from earlier accounting missteps.

Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, America's class-action king, and Baltimore law firm Charles J. Piven are suing St. Petersburg's Insurance Management Solutions Group for misleading investors about its securities.

These cases do not include the multitude of past class-action lawsuits filed against St. Petersburg's Danka Business Systems, Clearwater's Digital Lightwave Inc. and Tampa's PowerCerv Corp., among others.

No question, some business-related lawsuits truly try to right a wrong.

But more and more suits are just copycats going along for a piece of the settlement pie.

The bay area has its own historic collection of frivolous litigation.

In 1994, Joe Hindman admitted he stole from parked cars on his way to work, lifted thousands of dollars from the purses of fellow workers in the office and kept a handgun hidden in his briefcase. But when GTE Data Services fired Hindman from his computer programming job two years ago, he sued.

Hindman claimed the firing was illegal discrimination against the disabled, since he argued his behavior was due to a chemical imbalance caused by the anti-depressant Prozac. The case was dismissed in 1995.

Earlier this year, a Florida jury awarded $5.2-million to the family of a slain Dutch tourist after finding that Alamo Rent-A-Car failed to warn the victim and her husband about a high-crime area near Miami. The death was a tragedy, but the tourists had rented the car across the state in Tampa.

(Notes litigation expert Walter Olson: What kind of legal trouble would Alamo have gotten into if it had warned its customers to stay out of certain neighborhoods?) Alamo has appealed.

Ed O'Rourke sued Tampa Electric, along with six bars and stores that sold him alcoholic beverages, over a 1996 incident. He allegedly was hit by 13,000 volts of electricity after breaking into a fenced, gated and locked utility substation and climbing up a transformer in a "drunken stupor." The suit further alleged that local bars and stores negligently served O'Rourke liquor even though he was "unable to control his urge to drink alcoholic beverages."

So many suits. So many frivolous contenders.

That brings us to the gold medal winner. Right here in Manatee County.

The lawsuit was chosen by an Internet poll of several thousand voters among five cases picked from James Percelay's book, Whiplash! America's Most Frivolous Lawsuits. The poll was conducted by M-Law, Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch.

In the mid-1990s, a blind man was given the gift of a Seeing Eye Dog. But on a maiden voyage to DeSoto Square Mall in Bradenton, the dog allegedly stepped on the foot of a woman.

After learning that the blind man had no money, the woman sued the dog's owner, Palmetto-based Southeastern Guide Dogs, for "loss of earning capacity . . . and mental pain and suffering." The case: Susan Faith and Reverend Ian Faith, plaintiffs, v. Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc., defendant.

Kimberly Marlow, Southeastern Guide Dogs' development director, recalls the suit well. The non-profit group had to gather extensive documents in anticipation of a trial.

But the suit never made it to court. After being ridiculed in newspapers and on CNN, the plaintiff dropped the lawsuit. And the plaintiff's law firm donated $1,000 to Southeastern Guide Dogs.

If only more frivolous suits went away this easily.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at (727) 893-8405 or trigaux@sptimes.com.

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