117: Grinding the Law to a Halt

Stella Case No. 117, Originally Published: 17 January 2007

The beleaguered NBC television network has few hit shows, but Heroes — “an epic drama that chronicles the lives of ordinary people who discover they possess extraordinary abilities,” NBC says (read: run-of-the-mill citizens who happen to be superheroes) — seems to be one of them.

In the pilot episode last fall, one of the characters, a pretty blonde cheerleader, demonstrates her “extraordinary ability” by shoving her hand into a running kitchen garbage disposal. After pulling out her mangled and bloody hand it instantly healed. Apparently the mere ability to remember and perform dance/chant routines just isn’t enough to qualify a gal as a hero these days.

Save the Cheerleader (from the lawyers)! The scene in question with Hayden Panettiere playing the instantly healing Claire Bennet. “The” photo is so hard to find that someone had to get it from the court filing, and even then it’s pretty tiny, so let’s add more freeze-frames!

This is the True Stella Awards, so there must be a lawsuit. A squeamish viewer grossed out by the hamburgered hand? Nah. Emerson Electric Co. has the beef.

Viewers more interested in the hardware than the cute chick grinding up her hand may have noticed that the brand of the garbage disposal was visible on the cowl ring: “IN-SINK-ERATOR”. At least, they might notice it if they had a 70-inch TV and the ability to freeze the frame. Apparently that’s what Emerson did and, as the brand’s owner, it quickly filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Mo., against NBC.

The suit claims the TV show “implies an incorrect and dangerous design for a food waste disposer.” Further, the scene “casts the disposer in an unsavory light, irreparably tarnishing the product.” Even worse, NBC’s use of the product in the show is an act of “unfair competition, trademark infringement, and trademark dilution.” The suit demands that NBC never air the scene again, and pay Emerson damages.

Showing that the thing actually works damages the brand? Seems to me that if her hand wasn’t mangled Emerson would be miffed. If nothing else it’s a cautionary tale: “Don’t do this, or you could get hurt” — heck, it might help protect Emerson from a product liability lawsuit if some moron (not necessarily a cheerleader) sticks his or her hand down the sink with the disposal running.

But NBC wimped out: “While we do not believe there is any legal issue with the episode as originally broadcast, we nonetheless have decided to edit the episode for future uses,” an NBC spokesman announced. Nope: there are definitely no superheroes in the NBC executive suite. It’s unclear whether that capitulation was enough for Emerson or not — I couldn’t find a status on the suit.

It’s fiction, folks. What next: Smith & Wesson sues a crime drama because the bad guy “misuses” its pistols by using one to shoot someone? Smirnoff sues a reality show when a contestant drives after sipping their vodka?

But then, I do have to admit the IN-SINK-ERATOR brand actually was “irreparably tarnished” — by Emerson’s frivolous lawsuit.

Sources

  • “A Mangled Hand, a ‘Heroes’ Suit, and NBC”, CNN, 17 October 2006.

Case Status

As you know, the company behind the only garbage disposal designed and built in the USA went bankrupt by the end of the first season due to the TV show causing it “irreparable” damage. Oh… they’re still thriving? Hm. Let me check my notes. Ah, here it is! Settled, terms not disclosed, though as noted NBC edited the scene for future (and DVD (and streaming)) showings.

This was the final case of 2006, and the last case written by me. More on that next week!

My 2022 Thoughts on the Case

How did this start right out in federal court? Because Emerson made this about its trademark: “unfair competition, trademark infringement, and trademark dilution.” Because, as you know, NBC has its own line of disposal machines, and… well, that didn’t happen either. I consider it a publicity stunt: thrust your company’s name into the public eye while acting as an injured party. But it seems a little cash made the company’s hurt go away even faster than Claire’s wounds.

Amusing aside for fans of the show: remember the Puppet Master, the creepy villain who could make people do things from a distance? He was played by David H. Lawrence (the 17th), who is a buddy of mine.

Comments

(From the 31 January 2007 issue)

While the time While the time pressures of my regular job kept me from doing as many case write-ups as I would have liked, that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of cases to choose from. Here’s just a brief sampling of cases which were brought to my attention but I didn’t get a chance to research or write up in 2006:

  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs lost a laptop containing the personal identity details of 26.5 million active and retired soldiers. They planed to contact that huge group to alert them and give advice on how to safeguard themselves from identity theft, but lawyers got a court to order them not to do that, since that would mitigate any possible damage to the servicemen and -women, and thus limit any recovery for the $26.5 billion lawsuit they were preparing against the government.
  • A couple in Minnesota didn’t buckle their kid into a car seat properly and got in an accident, and the child was injured. Even though it was their own fault, they got their 8-year-old child to sue them so they could get a bigger payout from their auto insurance.
  • Anyone can post an ad on the “Craigslist” web site. According to a lawsuit filed against the site, some housing ads there are discriminatory. Even though Craigslist doesn’t review ads unless someone reports them as inappropriate (and physically could never do so, since there are 8 million new ads every month), the lawsuit claims Craigslist is to blame for the discriminatory ads.
  • A convicted murderer (who was sentenced to death) claims he was victimized by jailers during a suicide attempt, and claims the resulting “severe mental and physical injuries” has “brought about delirium or insanity.” Only $35 million will help him through that, though he didn’t explain how he expects to take it with him to the afterlife.
  • Cops in Milwaukee say they have to wear a uniform on the job, yet the city doesn’t pay them for the time it takes them to get dressed. They not only demand to be paid for that time, but to get back pay for all the time they took to get dressed in the past.
  • A family whose dog was run over doesn’t sue over the property value of the dog, but rather $1.625 million for “loss of companionship.”
  • Two men trespassed in a rail yard and climbed atop the train — an electric train! — and were shocked by the circuits. They sued and were awarded $24.2 million.

And they go on and on.

The most common comment/question I get from readers is, Yes, we can see that there’s a problem with lawsuits, but what can we do about it?

I’ve long said the solution is complex; a band-aid (e.g., limiting dollar damages) just won’t do, and in fact could cause more harm than good. But there is something that society must do, and even things we mere mortal citizens can do on an individual level. But to really explain it needs a lot more room than I can take here.

That’s where the True Stella Awards book came in: I was given 288 pages to not just relate the details of scores of cases, but to use those cases to create a big picture view of the problem and the potential solutions. I actually took 352 pages, and the publisher allowed me to go over my limit because they think the topic is important.

This problem needs to come out of the shadows; it needs to be discussed; it needs to be debated in public — a public much larger than the (as of midnight) 88,189 of you who get this newsletter. Indeed, the book’s primary purpose is to help drive that debate, with case after case of examples of patently ridiculous lawsuits and analysis. It’s all guaranteed to make you mad, but as the first reviewer says, “the facts of the cases are funny all by themselves.” (Booklist)

In other words, it’s an entertaining and fun read, not a bunch of legalese. You can still find it on Amazon *, and I still have a few of the first edition hardcovers in my main shopping cart, which I’m happy to sign for you. Much cheaper on Amazon, though!

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2 Comments on “117: Grinding the Law to a Halt

  1. While I agree that Emerson’s lawsuit is frivolous and stupid, I’m going to disagree that NBC wimped out by editing the brand name out of the shot for future airings, etc.

    Digitally editing that scene likely cost them way less than any court costs to defend against the lawsuit, for a scene that didn’t need to have the actual brand name in it.

    Sure, under the circumstances it was a trivial change. But it’s like Ford suing a cop show after a car chase because it showed a “bad guy” at the wheel of their product, driving it in an unsafe manner. That does not cause “irreparable harm” to an auto manufacturer. -rc

    Reply
  2. I wonder if we’d consider this a Stella case if there had also been a case of someone suing Emerson and/or NBC because they tried to do this and got badly injured.

    Social media wasn’t as big when this show first came out, but there were still plenty of dumb people 15 years ago. As the preponderance of “Cinnamon/Bird Box/Penny Outlet/Tide Pod/etc. Challenge” videos on social media shows, it’s not too farfetched to think that someone might “see it (maybe out of the original context) on the internet so it must be possible to do it.”

    I think most people know they don’t have magical powers to heal massive physical trauma in just a few seconds. And if they DO believe so, they deserve what they do to themselves — and I believe a judge would tend to agree. -rc

    Reply

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