’Tis the season for the Christmas tort. For lawyers, Christmas remains a horn-of-plenty for the practice of law. Indeed, mayhem and madness have been part of Christmas since its very founding. Thus, each year we gather for the posting of the annual list of Christmas torts and crimes. Fortunately, the holiday is much more than the entries on the criminal or civil dockets. However, these cases remind us all that, even when chaos lurks around holiday gatherings, we somehow survive and return year in and year out. So Happy Holidays to everyone.
This year, we saw the ultimate Santa mishap when the jolly elf thought it would be fun to dispense with the reindeer and paraglide with a sled filled with presents near Sacramento. The problem its that the reindeer can steer away from obstacles and Santa ran into a power line. The miracle is that the sled hit the power lines just right and Santa was sitting in a way that avoid electrocution. Santa was red-faced but saved. The presents were delivered by more conventional means.
Other mishaps are more reflective of the season. Dr. Fauci insisted that Santa could not spread Covid-19 because he has natural immunity. Strangely, however Fauci later said that he vaccinated Santa — seemingly a conflict in the scientific data. Even worse is the fact that Santa is accused of being a super-spreader in Belgium where 61 of the home’s 169 residents and 14 staff members at an elderly home have tested positive after the elf visited. This will undoubtedly be the subject of a congressional hearing on what Fauci knew and when he knew it.
This year’s Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center had its own inter-species tort when an owl was found in a tree driven from upstate New York. This false imprisonment tort however addressed by a relocation to a forest and the owl appeared entirely without counsel.
The greatest tree moment remains the one caught on tape by Aubrey Iacobelli of Tallahassee, who found a raccoon in her tree. Aubrey showed a steely resolve in chasing the raccoon out of the house, even when it took to her chandelier. Both the raccoon and Aubrey were unharmed. I cannot say the same for the tree:
That non-injurious result is better than many other holiday mishaps resulting in 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.
The separation this year due to the pandemic may cut down a bit on the family reunions that often lead to criminal charges on the holidays. However, that was not the case at the Rogers house where Shirley Rogers, 55, got into an argument with her boyfriend when her sister “attempted to diffuse the situation.” Rogers then allegedly assaulted her sister with a Christmas tree ornament. That qualifies as both assault and battery for criminal and tort law.
The elimination of parades has also reduced some incidents. Last year, for example, 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.
Santa did get into hot water this year with an anti-toy-gun message at one mall. Of course, that is a tad better than last year when Russian families watched 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.”
In California, Santa is a bit more law and order, literally. This week officers dressed up as Santa and his elves arrested a car thief in a mall parking lot. That is the ultimate naughty list when you get cuffed by elves and booked by Santa.
Some accused felons often insist on the holidays that they were punished for spreading narcotic cheer. Last 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. This year, another accused drug dealer in Pennsylvania insisted that he was also just giving away drugs so he was not a drug dealer but a drug giver.
In North Carolina the Faison family is facing a complaint by their homeowners association after adding a cross to their Christmas decorations. They received a letter declaring”The cross represents the death of Jesus Christ who died for our sins so we can have eternal life. The Christmas season is associated with the birth of the Savior.” The association maintained:
“The Board believes that the Bible is very clear on the distinction between these two major events in Christ’s life on earth. The cross is appropriate for display during the Easter season, but not as a decoration during the Christmas season. Unless biblical references can be provided noting the cross as a symbol of the Christmas season for the board to reconsider, the cross is not considered to be a Christmas decoration.”
Notably, such actions are contractual rather than tortious or constitutional in character. So blame it on my contracts colleagues.
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.