By Paul M. Barrett
Lampooning the lawsuit industry has become an industry unto itself—and not exclusively for grins and giggles. Frivolous litigation wastes public resources and distracts from true injustice. Fresh evidence from the cases of the napping baseball fan and Jesse “The Body” Ventura:
Untimely snoozer, television loser: Andrew Rector fell asleep during a game at Yankee Stadium on April 13. To his subsequent chagrin, his catching of zzz’s caught the attention of a TV cameraman. Ridicule ensued, not least because the home team was playing arch rival Boston in a tight contest the Yankees ultimately won. I mean, the guy fell asleep during a Yankees-Red Sox game!
So that’s embarrassing, if hardly rare. Baseball’s slow pace allows for the incidental televising of all manner of strange and amusing fan behavior. It’s part of the show. How to respond? Endure the teasing and move on?
Nope. This is America, land of the free and home of the indignant.
In a suit filed in state court in the Bronx, Rector accused Major League Baseball, the Yankees, and ESPN (DIS) of damaging his reputation. He wants $10 million for defamation and mental anguish. Ten million dollars.
What kind of lawyer would file such a pearl of jurisprudence? “The complaint was written in highly idiosyncratic and often ungrammatical English by Valentine A. Okwara, a lawyer from Jamaica, Queens, who was admitted to the bar in New York in 2013 and has a degree from the University of Buckingham in England,” the New York Times reported. Time, perhaps, to tighten bar standards. Spokesmen for ESPN and the Yankees declined to comment, while MLB deigned not to respond to inquiries.
Ventura’s shot at American Sniper: After careers as a feather boa-clad professional wrestler known as the Body and as the entertainer-governor of the normally sober state of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura turned himself into a cable television conspiracy theorist. Yet he, too, is worried about his reputation. A federal jury in St. Paul is hearing Ventura’s defamation suit against the estate of a former member of the Navy SEALs who alluded unflatteringly to the ex-governor in a memoir.
In his book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Chris Kyle, the former SEAL, recounted a bizarre California barroom altercation with Ventura. The clash stemmed, Kyle wrote, from comments by Ventura criticizing U.S. policy in Iraq and disparaging the SEALs. Ventura denies the fight ever took place. After publication of Kyle’s best-selling book, Ventura claims that he suffered humiliation and lost employment opportunities.
There are several reasons Ventura’s suit is a bad idea. First, as a “public figure” for legal purposes, he will have to prove that Kyle published a falsehood with “actual malice,” meaning that the author pretty much knew he was wrong. That will be difficult. About a year after Ventura filed suit, Kyle was killed in Texas in a bizarre shooting by a young man the former sniper was mentoring. Ventura, in effect, is facing off against Kyle’s widow, Taya, on behalf of the Kyle estate. Not pretty.
Whatever did or didn’t happen in that California bar, is this a fight we really want to see played out in a courtroom—especially given the Body’s proven ability at drawing public attention? Why not just get out there and call Kyle a liar and let the court of public opinion decide?
Then there’s the question of why Ventura wants to revive questions of military service. As a young man, he served in the Navy as an underwater demolition operative—a dangerous and physically rigorous job, no doubt. But on occasion, Ventura has implied that he belonged to a SEAL unit—a more elite designation. Can the Body imagine that his litigation against the most celebrated SEAL of recent years will fail to revive skepticism about his own veracity about military valor?
One wonders whether law schools train attorneys sufficiently in responsible gate-keeping: You know what, Mr. Client? Let’s take a pass on this one.