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Lawyer's Suit Fails, but Case Wins Award--for Looniness

Courts: Legal action brought by Grateful Dead fan over office mate's fake Jerry Garcia tombstone is first of three to be singled out by Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

December 09, 1996|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Grateful Dead has helped turn a move toward tort reform into a long, strange trip for those who hand out the "Loony Lawsuit of the Month" award.

That's because the inaugural winner was a Los Angeles attorney--a self-avowed "Deadhead" who sued another lawyer in his office for intentional infliction of emotional distress for joking about the death of Grateful Dead bandleader Jerry Garcia.

And the bestowing of the mock award to Wilshire Boulevard lawyer Joel R. Bander has helped prompt a flood of other loony-lawsuit nominations that has caught contest judges by surprise at the Torrance headquarters of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

Only now--four months later--is the 9,000-member group announcing its second winner and selecting its third.

When it comes to strange litigation in Los Angeles, it's a matter of so many cases, so little time for those collecting and verifying lawsuit tips arriving by fax and phone.

There's the case of the Ontario shopkeeper sued by the alleged gang member who asked to use her phone to call 911 after being attacked by rival gangsters in the alley behind her shop. The allegation: The shopkeeper failed to provide adequate security for the victim, who used the alley as a hangout.

There's the case of the Baldwin Park girl who broke up a fight and was sued for $50,000 by one of the combatants. And the Beverly Hills physician sued by a patient for not providing medical equipment for treatment--after the patient refused to sit down and learn how to use the device. And the Torrance man who dutifully offered his name as a witness at a traffic accident and was sued by one of the victims who figured he must have been involved in the crash.

But the second Loony Lawsuit winner was an Orange County case filed by a psychiatric patient who married her psychiatrist--and then sued him for psychiatric malpractice after their divorce. And the next recipient will be the San Fernando Valley case filed by a woman against a Northridge store after she pulled a blender from the bottom of a stack of merchandise and other blenders fell on her.

Cases like those sound silly, and many are dismissed without ever going to trial. But each one costs taxpayers $500 to be filed in court--and rack up an additional $8,000 in administrative costs if they actually make it to trial, said Sarah Chaeure, executive director of the 3-year-old Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse group.

Those being sued must pay for their own defense lawyers. And sometimes they agree to a settlement to avoid the expense of a trial. The Ontario shopkeeper, for example, paid the gang member $6,000 to put an end to the lawsuit, Chaeure said.

Such cases gall supporters of the court-reform group--many of whom are small-business owners who say they have suffered through nuisance lawsuits of their own.

"I don't have a legal background," said Chaeure, a 32-year-old former marketing executive who lives in Redondo Beach. "We look at this from a consumer's point of view."

In handing out the award, "we're not saying the person suing is loony, we're saying the lawsuit is," she said.

The case of the disgruntled "Deadhead" was picked to launch the awards in July because it involved two lawyers, said Chaeure, who works in donated office space near the Torrance Airport that is decorated with things like a "legal lunacies calendar" and a mock baby bottle that is labeled "no crying zone."

"It was the perfect illustration of people wasting state and taxpayers' resources," she said.

Bander sued office mate Malek S. Shraibati, alleging that he intentionally inflicted emotional distress by placing a cardboard tombstone labeled "R.I.P Jerry Garcia (Too Many Parties, Perhaps?)" in the high-rise office suite they shared.

Bander, a Grateful Dead fan who regularly attended the rock 'n' roll band's concerts, said he was already upset by Garcia's Aug. 9, 1995, death in a drug rehabilitation center when he saw the tombstone on an office bookshelf the next day.

"Plaintiff's status as a Deadhead was well-known to friends and professional peers," Bander said in court papers. He described Garcia as "a folk hero and musical genius" whose death in Northern California stirred a public reaction similar to "the deaths of presidents, John Lennon and Elvis Presley."

Superior Court Judge Edward M. Ross dismissed the case late last month because of Bander's failure to prosecute it in a timely manner.

*

Shraibati said he is grateful the lawsuit is dead. "It's unfortunate someone was going to use the legal system for something this frivolous," he said.

Shraibati said the phony tombstone was "a general comment on Mr. Garcia and the abuse of drugs." He suggested that Bander dropped the lawsuit because of the publicity it received and its recognition as Loony Lawsuit of the Month.

Not so, Bander said. The lawsuit was legitimate, he said, but it shaped up to be a lengthy case that would interfere with his regular caseload.

Ray Boyd, a North Hollywood security company owner who serves as a director of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said he called Bander to verify details of the case before it was named the first Loony Lawsuit winner.

"I asked him if he was coming to the awards dinner," Boyd said.

"He threatened to sue me."

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