Beyond family chain letters: How mental anguish actually works in a lawsuit

Beyond family chain letters: How mental anguish actually works in a lawsuit

If we were to ask you to describe a frivolous personal injury lawsuit, you would probably include exorbitant non-economic damages, such as multi-million dollar claims of emotional distress.

Most people learn of these payouts from obnoxious chain emails or cable news talk shows with headlines like: “THIS IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH OUR COUNTRY!!!”

These anecdotes are often completely made up (like the infamous story of a burglar who got stuck in his victim’s garage for eight days and sued for mental anguish), but their legal foundation is sturdy.

Injuries are rarely limited to physical harm and our legal system has a number of ways to quantify a spectrum of damages. Even humiliation, or an injured reputation can result in monetary settlements.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to sue for humiliation, but in light of our mission to keep legal discourse lighthearted and accessible, let’s look at some of the more ludicrous cases involving non-economic damages.

Rain man gets photoshopped

In 1998, Dustin Hoffman sued Fairchild Publications for $5 million after it ran a fashion spread that placed his face onto a woman’s body.

He won the case based on the grounds that “the photographs were manipulated and cannibalized to such an extent that the celebrities were commercially exploited and robbed of their dignity, professionalism, and talent.”

We wonder whether or not the judge would have valued Hoffman’s dignity differently if the case was argued after the release of Meet the Parents 3: Little Fockers...

American Pie actress offended by raunchy ad

One of Tara Reid’s tatas was exposed by a wardrobe malfunction while she stopped for photos at the entrance to P. Diddy’s 35th birthday party. As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, a Las Vegas condominium capitalized on the event with a full-page ad in a local publication that read, “Dear Tara Reid, Come Let It All Hang Out.”

Her lawyers argued the ad inferred her titular accident was a publicity stunt and Ms. Reid sued based on her prolonged humiliation.

The case was settled out of court, and as of yet, Tara has not applied the same logic to Rotten Tomatoes, which rates her acting career at an embarrassing 38%.

A drive-thru diss

In 2008, Taco Bell made a charitable offer to Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent. The fast “food” chain announced that if Mr. Cent drove up to any of its locations, rapped his order, and changed his name to 79, 89, or 99 cent -- a $10k donation would be made to the charity of his choice.

Instead of playing along for those in need (and c’mon, probably boosting his own reputation), 50 sued the “Mexican” restaurant for $4 million. He argued that because he gets substantial sums of money for endorsing products, Taco Bell’s offer cheapened his brand.

Fun fact: Today, the award-winning “rapper” is so broke that he’s being sued by his stylist for unpaid bills, so maybe there is justice in the world.

Carey vs. Carey

Almost a decade before her messy divorce from a Scientology billionaire, Mariah Carey dragged an adult film star to court because…*drumroll*...their names are similar.

It all started when Mary Carey -- who had a lot of name recognition before the other Carey sued her -- wanted to trademark her stage name. Mariah’s team of attorneys demanded that the adult film star withdraw her application because “confusion between [Mariah and Mary] is likely.”

But in a win for everyone whose name sounds vaguely similar to a porn star’s, Mariah came out on top. And now that she’s the mother of twins with similar sounding names, this case is sure to come back to haunt her.

Lawsuits for us little people

Most people don’t have the luxury of filing a lawsuit for topical abuse of their reputation. If you’ve suffered humiliation in the wake of a physical injury, you could be entitled to non-economic damages. Stop by our Seattle office to learn more about your options, our waiting room has a wonderful selection of Vegas magazines and 20 year-old fashion spreads to keep you entertained...