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A Leg in the Hand ....
Subtitled: Compute the damages in this case and earn MCLE credits for headache endurance.

I am the guy Arthur C. Clarke had in mind when he said, “We have reached the point in man’s development where any reasonably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I am no more capable of coping with the 21st century than George III would have been. And every day, the newspapers insist on reminding me of this.

I am a technopeasant. The Lord of the Manor may understand PET scans and DNA and the internet, but to me and my fellow serfs, it’s all magic. So help me, if somebody showed up at my door tomorrow with a tank truck and said he was there to refill the electricity reservoir, I’d let him into the basement and get out my checkbook.

That’s how I became a lawyer. I know it’s different now, but in the mid-sixties, when I was planning my life, it was pretty simple. If you were a smart kid who wasn’t good at math or science, they stamped pre-law on your college application and moved on to the next kid. So help me, if I’d had a decent high school guidance counselor, I’d be doing play-by-play for the Visalia Oaks today.

Unbeknownst to me, I wasn’t so much failing to understand Algebra II as I was getting a leg-up on Remedies. You can draw a straight line from the B- I got in chemistry (a catastrophe of tsunamic proportion at the time) to my present position, where my inability to distinguish exothermic from endothermic reactions is almost never noticed.1

But every so often, I’m required to deal with the world in which I live. Every now and again, the third millennium rears its ugly head and I have to deal with cases which involve technology more challenging than doorknobs and dumbwaiters. Always with untoward results.

I mention this now because my newspaper today is just chock full of frightening scientific news from other parts of the country, and I’m scared to death it’s going to spread to California and end up on my docket.2 According to the Reuters News Service, “An Alaska woman, shocked to receive part of her dead father’s leg in the mail instead of the gourmet “LobsterGram” she was expecting, has filed suit against the Houston, Texas firm that sent it, alleging mental anguish.”

And well she might. Certainly that sounds like something which might induce mental anguish.

Seems LaMara Lane opened what she thought was a food gift sent to her North Pole, Alaska3, home and found instead . . . well, to use the scientific term4, the fibula paterfamilias.

“How,” you’re probably asking yourself, “could something like this happen?” This, of course, is precisely the question Ms. Lane wants you to ask. On the football field of litigation, you’ve got a first and goal at the res ipsa loquitur one-yard line when people hear your facts and ask, “How could something like this happen?”

And the answer, of course, is, “Technology run amok.”

First of all, we have the whole “LobsterGram” thing. I think all I need to say about this is that in 1950, when somebody showed up at the door with a “container designed to keep things cold,” your first thought was not that someone had sent you frozen lobster. Therefore, if it turned out not to be expensive crustaceans, but rather the frozen leg of your deceased father, your mental anguish was not compounded by having to recalculate your dinner plans. So, at the very least, modern technology is responsible to some degree for the depth of Ms. Lane’s mental anguish.

Not to mention the fact that modern technology has enabled this poor woman to live in North Pole, Alaska. This is where Santa Claus lives, with the reindeer and the elves and Mrs. Claus and no – as far as I can determine from the literature – qualified grief counselors. Had modern technology not enabled her to live in this God-forsaken outpost, she could have phoned a helpful psychologist in West Covina or Walnut Creek, and mitigated her damages.

But, science having over-achieved to the point where we can live in places only slightly more hospitable than a barrel of liquid nitrogen, the meter kept running on Ms. Lane’s pain. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

And, of course, the real culprit is this whole DNA thing, which is what spawned this cause of action in the first place. Here’s how that works. Seems
Ms. Lane’s father died in North Dakota and left his $200,000 estate to Ms. Lane, who was his only child, but whose mother he had never married.

Ms. Lane’s aunt challenged the will because she didn’t believe Ms. Lane was in fact the decedent’s daughter.5 She got a North Dakota judge to order the body exhumed and tested. This being 2003, we didn’t have to settle for just comparing photographs of Ms. Lane and the putative father and inquiring whether Ms. Lane had a tendency to bloat when she ate dairy. We could do DNA testing.

Apparently Ms. Lane’s father had used up most of his DNA before dying, or maybe he just didn’t have much, and nobody had pulled up in a tank truck with a hose and offered to refill his DNA reservoir, because the company that ran the test wasn’t able to just scrape off a couple of cells like they do on CSI: Miami.

Instead, they needed an entire drumstick. They had to saw off part of dad’s leg.

At this point, the Reuters story gets a little hard to sort out. Carolyn Caskey, the President of Identigene,6 the Houston company which did the sawing and examining, says, “We have a court order that says send it to this place and this woman; I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.”7

The North Dakota judge who allegedly ordered the leg of dad sent to Ms. Lane, is not quoted in the story. I’m betting his position is gonna be, “The results, you dipstick; I said send her the results, not the leg.”

I dunno. I have to admit to a set of biases here. I’m generally pro-judge and anti-sending-legs-through-the-mail, so maybe I can’t claim objectivity. But I kinda feel like maybe if you get a court order which seems to require you to send body parts to somebody not known by you to be in the habit of generally receiving body parts, you might want to seek clarification.

Fortunately, I don’t have to sort this one out. Which is good, because I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. Can you get mental anguish damages for this sort of breach of contract? If so, how much is the mental anguish of having a blood relative’s body part mailed to you worth? How much is the pain of NOT getting a free lobster dinner after getting your stomach all set for it worth? How reasonable is it to rely on an order from anyone who has chosen to live in North Dakota? These are all questions which would bring my poor little mind boggling to a screeching – not to mention shouting, cursing, and breaking furniture – halt.

But, as long as modern technology allows people to live in otherwise uninhabitable places like North Pole and North Dakota and Houston,8 and can figure out whether they’re left-handed, Lebanese or limacine by analyzing their saliva, we’re gonna have to deal with more and more of these cases. We better get used to them.

Especially since modern technology seems to have made some major breakthroughs in other areas. I read today that, “A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a man to two years in prison for a multimillion-dollar scam involving McDonald’s promotional games such as ‘Monopoly” and ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” According to the Associated Press, “Jerome Pearl, 45, of Miami, also must pay restitution of $786,500 at $50 a month.”

This may be bad news to Mr. Pearl, but on behalf of the rest of humanity, I am absolutely thrilled that we’ve apparently overcome this limited life-span thing which has been dogging humanity lo these many years. Even assuming the court’s order were – for some reason – interest-free, Ray Ikola tells me Mr. Pearl would have to live to the ripe old age of 15,775 to pay off this judgment.

I figure with that kind of time – assuming I can keep people from sawing off my legs and mailing them to my daughters – I can figure out Power Point.

1 At least not to my face.

2 Although I will forward all the scientific fol de rol to our newest justice, Ray Ikola, who has both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and a Ph D. in electrophysics. He was a little nonplussed the other day when I asked if he had a pointed hat and a wand to go with his robe, but I’m sure he’ll be a great asset to our court – especially if the electricity reservoir runs dry or we need to change any base metals into gold.

3 Honest.

4 I got it from Ikola. He’s just gonna be handy as hell to have around.

5 And because she didn’t get diddly, and she was his sister, for crying out loud. (These are legal terms, so I didn’t need Ikola’s help on them.)

6 And, at the risk of beating a dead horse, let me point out that there were no companies called “Identigene” when I was being steered to law school. I think if you get flesh and blood of your own flesh and blood from a company called Identigene, you have to expect Luddites like me to nod knowingly and say, “I told you modern technology was out of control.”

7 I’ve been to Houston: She’s on firm footing with the “Twilight Zone” simile.

8 Houston mosquitoes are the third-largest land animals on earth. If they could just tame the damned things, they could have them carry body parts to Alaska.

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by William W. Bedsworth on Tuesday, October 14, 2003 at 18:06 Comments Closed (0)

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