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Most bizarre legal cases throughout history

13th March 2017

Judge with gavel

From the infamous Jaffa Cake legal battle to the more unusual story of a citizen’s arrest by Batman in Bradford, bizarre legal cases make the headlines on a weekly basis.

Those considering taking a job as a lawyer will inevitably be faced with strange legal cases. Over the years, there have been some incredible cases, including a man seeking $54 million in compensation after a dry cleaning company lost his trousers and a fabricated feud between QCs over baked goods.

Here are a few of Law Absolute’s most memorable and bizarre legal cases throughout history.

Nix v. Hedden – Is the tomato a fruit or vegetable?

Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable

In 1893, the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato is a vegetable. The whole situation came about during a case between the Nix family, one of the largest sellers of produce in New York City, and Edward Hedden, a collector at the Port of New York. The Nix family sued Hedden to recover fees they had spent on transporting the tomatoes, because legislation at the time stated tax must be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit. Allegedly during the trial, both sides put forward definitions of fruit and vegetables to argue their cases. Botanically, any seed-bearing structure formed from a flowering plant, is a fruit. The court unanimously decided that the scientific classification doesn’t change common language, and that a tomato is a vegetable because the public generally think of it as one.

Batman’s good deed

When Yorkshireman Stan Worby walked into Bradford Police Station dressed as Batman with an apprehended suspect in tow, it was assumed he was completing a citizen’s arrest. This is often a grey-area that puts self-appointed deputies at risk of civil liability. A few things needed to be cleared up. Did he have probable ground to apprehend this man? How did he find himself in this situation? Depending on the circumstances, Batman could have found himself being charged with kidnapping or assault. But, as it turns out, Stan Worby (Batman) and the suspect were friends and were both charged with burglary after police stopped a vehicle with suspected stolen goods.

Jaffa Cake – Cake or biscuit?

Jaffa Cake court ruling

In 1991, during a case to evaluate whether VAT is payable, the court had to decide whether Jaffa Cakes were in fact cakes or biscuits. In the UK, VAT is payable on chocolate-covered biscuits, but not on chocolate-covered cakes. Jaffa Cakes manufacturer McVities defended its classification of Jaffa Cakes as cakes at a tribunal after it was suggested Jaffa Cakes were biscuits due to their shape and size, and were often eaten in place of biscuits. To prove its point, McVities created a giant Jaffa Cake. The court found that the Jaffa Cake is a cake.

Causing a splash 

Driving through puddle

In 2014, a 22-year-old driver faced a court summons and a £5,000 fine for driving through a puddle and splashing a mother and her two children in Essex. It was reported in The Telegraph that the two children were left soaked in dirty water and Debbie Pugh, their mother, claims the driver drove deliberately through the puddle at high speed. Little did the driver know that there was a police car behind him and officers saw the situation unfold. He was reported for driving under violation of Section 3 of the Road Traffic Act, on grounds of driving without reasonable consideration.

Bakery fued

Chocolate eclairs

Two QCs took a Dublin newspaper to court in 1987 after it falsified a story about the two fighting in a bakery. The Sunday World claimed Desmond Boal and Robert McCartney visited a bakery and, upon realising there were not enough chocolate eclairs for the two of them, proceeded to argue over who saw them first. The paper admitted the story was fabricated and the matter went to court. From the witness box, the journalist responsible for the story stated they “thought it was true at the time” and it was only a “trivial humorous item”. Boal and McCartney successfully received £50,000 each for substantial damages.

Liebeck v. McDonald’s – The hot coffee lawsuit (US)

Hot coffee lawsuit US

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through. She was in the passenger’s seat of her grandson’s car, which did not have cup holders. In the process of trying to add cream and sugar, Liebeck put the coffee between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid to remove it but accidentally spilled the entire cup. As she was wearing cotton trousers, they absorbed the coffee and fused to her skin, causing third-degree burns.

After eight days in hospital and undergoing skin grafting, Liebeck lost 20 pounds and needed extra care for three weeks. She was left partially disabled for the next two years. Liebeck sought to receive $20,000 from McDonald’s to cover her medical expenses, but they only offered $800. She then filed a lawsuit against the chain, accusing them of gross negligence for selling coffee that was “defectively manufactured” and “unreasonably dangerous”. After two more attempts to settle, and McDonald’s refusing twice, the case went to trial. During the hearings, it was revealed that the chain had received more than 700 reports of people being burned by their coffee. The jury found McDonald’s was 80% responsible for the incident and awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. She also received $2.7 million in punitive damages, calculated by the jurors as two days’ worth of coffee sales for McDonald’s.

Pearson V. Chung – The Pants Lawsuit (US)

Dry cleaning

In 2005, Roy Pearson, a former D.C administrative judge, filed a civil case against his dry cleaning company over a lost pair of trousers. Pearson allegedly left a pair of grey trousers, distinguishable by a unique trio of belt loops, at Custom Cleaners. After a delay due to the trousers accidentally being sent to another dry cleaners, the trousers were returned a few days later. But Pearson refused to accept the trousers, claiming they were not his, despite confirmation from the dry cleaners’ records, tags and Pearson’s receipt.

Pearson demanded $1,000 to cover the cost of the “lost” trousers, but the Chungs, the owners of the dry cleaners, refused.  As a result, he filed a lawsuit based on the issue of ownership of the presented pair of trousers and that the company’s signs “Same Day Service” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” were misleading. The Chungs offered settlements three times in the sums of $3,000, $4,600 and $12,000, all of which Pearson rejected. Pearson demanded $54 million in damages for inconvenience, mental anguish and fees for representing himself. He lost after four years of trying every legal avenue to win.

An article by The Washington Post in 2016 revealed Roy Pearson may face sanctions: “On June 3, a three-person hearing committee for the D.C Board on Professional Responsibility found Pearson committed two ethics violations of interfering with the administration of justice and presenting arguments not supported by facts or law.”