Stella Case No. 043, Originally Published: 23 April 2003
Geremie Hoff, 55, went to the Elizabeth Arden’s Salon at the Saks Fifth Avenue store in St. Louis, Mo., to get her hair straightened in August 2001. She says that later, on a trip, some of her hair fell out and her scalp was “flaky.” Some weeks after that, “her hair stuck out like a bird’s nest,” says her attorney, Paul Devine.
That caused Hoff to “shut down,” Devine says. “She spiraled into a depression because, right or wrong, looks were important to her.” Because of that alleged depression, Hoff says, she took early retirement from her teaching job at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and quit her side job of taking tour groups to Italy.
The salon’s lawyer noted Hoff left a tip after her hair treatment, indicating she was satisfied at the time. Her “alleged losses were unrelated to anything we did,” says attorney Lawrence Hartstein. And any hair that had fallen out had regrown before her next scheduled trip to Italy, and she didn’t retire from the university until a year after her visit to the salon. Also, he noted that Hoff admitted she sometimes colored her hair herself, and that may have contributed to any problems she may have had with her hair.
Still, Hoff sued the salon, not specifying a specific amount that would compensate her for her “emotional distress.” Her attorney, however, said her lost income alone was worth $45,000.
A St. Louis County jury decided that the hair stylist should have tested the straightening solution on a strand of Hoff’s hair before applying it to the rest of the hair on her head. On that basis it awarded her $6,000. The salon is responsible for the whole amount, since the lawsuit didn’t name the hair stylist. Not exactly a bad hair day, even though it took Hoff nearly two years to get her verdict.
- “Hair-Uncurling Experience Prompts Suit,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8 April 2003
- “Jury Awards Creve Coeur Woman $6,000 in Suit over Hairdo,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9 April 2003
Award given, though substantially less than the suit demanded.
My 2020 Thoughts on the Case
I don’t completely dismiss Ms Hoff’s lawyer’s comment: “right or wrong, looks were important to her,” since yes, hair is definitely an aspect of self image. Still, I can’t help but to think of her in comparison to women (in particular) who lose their hair completely due to medical conditions. She, and they, have a choice: stand tall and proud, or mope and cry. Which do you admire more? And Hoff had a significant advantage: no matter how bad the damage — which, again, she may have contributed to by coloring her own hair — it’s much more temporary than what so many cancer patients endure every day with grace, even if “looks are important to them.” Her distress, in other words, was self-created.
A quick 2020 update before getting to the letters from the period. A long-time reader who is an attorney has a case update for the Shaggy Dog Story:
Dan in California: That case happens to be local to me in San Jose, California. I looked up the result in the court’s online index. Andrew Burnett’s suit against Sara McBurnett and the San Jose Mercury News was indeed dismissed. Both defendants filed anti-SLAPP motions, and he was also ordered to pay the attorney fees incurred by both defendants. I can’t see in the court’s online index how much Ms. McBurnett was awarded, but the newspaper was awarded $11,898.15 in attorney fees and $215 in costs. Total time from case filling to final attorney fee award: 7 months.
Thanks, Dan! OK, let’s jump into the Wayback Machine for the letters from 2003:
In response to my editorial on the major attempted power grab by the American Bar Association, here, the number-one question readers sent was, “What about Miranda rights? Would the police be prohibited from telling suspects what their rights are — a practice that’s dictated by the courts?”
That wasn’t addressed in the source material I read, but I suspect that such dictated forms of “advice” would be exempt.
Richard in Illinois: “As one who regularly advises college students on academic matters, I could also be at risk under such a law since some of my advice deals with issues pertaining to student loan agreements, admissions requirements, graduation requirements, and other matters related to the essentially contractual agreement between student and educational institution regarding the student’s education. What a terrible idea this is!”
Michael in Massachusetts: “As a law student in one of the states that does require a lawyer at [real estate] closings, I think that the requirement for lawyers is one of the silliest things out there. I’m surprised there are so many other states with similar restrictions — I thought this was just another product of the old Mass. blue laws. While some complex real estate transactions may warrant a lawyer, I would guess that the vast majority do not, and use nothing but standard forms. If a broker did make the closing himself, he’d be charged for practicing law without a license. The ABA proposal is an incredibly bad idea; it could keep people from even commenting on the law and trying to figure out what an interpretation is. I suspect I wouldn’t be a law student if the ABA-proposed rule was in place — I’m only one now because of over 12 years, as a non-lawyer and non-law-student, of trying to read, understand, and explain laws, cases, and contracts to other people.”
Joseph, a lawyer in Pennsylvania, disagrees: “The reason that real estate brokers hate to have lawyers involved in real estate transactions is that it makes it harder for the brokers to overcharge both the buyer and the seller. Send me a copy of a settlement sheet on a real estate transaction without a lawyer, and I will probably be able to show you several ripoffs. For instance, have you ever paid $150 or $200 for ‘conveyancing’ in a real estate transaction, because the broker never told you that ‘conveyancing’ means typing the deed?”
I agree that it’s often smart to have a lawyer look over complex contracts, but that’s not the question. The question is, should people be required by law to hire a lawyer for even the simplest transaction? The ABA says yes; I say no. Why shouldn’t it be up to the consumer to decide? The ABA proposal does nothing but pander to the idea that people can’t be trusted to be responsible for their own actions. That’s not part of the solution to the legal crisis in this country, it’s part of the problem.
A reader overseas notes that his country has gone the other direction.
Hugh in the U.K.: “Until relatively recently, the legal profession had a monopoly on conveyancing (transfer of property deeds) in the U.K., but following the removal of this monopoly, I have not heard of any of our own legal profession having to claim social security (‘welfare’ in the USA ) as a result.”
Stephen in Ottawa, Canada: “I read with great interest what the ABA is trying to accomplish, and I firmly believe that the American people should be up in arms over it! You barely scratched the surface of the problems that will cause to your entire societal structure, and what you did demonstrate was frightening!”
Sandra in Oregon: “If lawyers make the laws, lawyers judge the laws and their application, lawyers execute the laws, and lawyers represent both sides in a dispute, it would appear that there is a huge conflict of interest here already. Yet they want more power? It’s a perfect example of absolute power corrupting absolutely.”
Marsha in Colorado: “I must have read your Old Boys Club essay very slowly because it set my teeth on edge. What can I do to help? What can I do to prevent such a move from taking place? I have to work a full-time job as most people do, but I would be more than willing to donate some time or whatever resources I might have at my disposal to help fight this cretinous idea. How much more money and power do they want? The idea that the very people who will benefit the most from such a move are the people who stand ready with the power to make it so turns my stomach. Not in my lifetime, not if I can help it. Just tell me what I can do, Randy.”
First, be informed! Reading TSA is a good first step, but you also need to keep an eye on the proposals being discussed by your legislators, and then making your voice heard to them very loudly and clearly. The ABA wants this law passed in every state. That means each state’s legislature needs to take some action on it before it can become law.
That’s where you need to go to work! Not just lobbying those elected to represent you, but also your friends, neighbors, and co-workers; they need to understand the risk to their basic rights and also make their thoughts known to their legislatures. The only way we can fight such a powerful force is to demonstrate to the people we elected how strongly the majority of their constituents feel about these issues.
Last, Jeff in California pointed me to a short article on the cost of lawsuits. Trial lawyers like to say that there is no problem with lawsuits in this country, but an article in Fortune magazine points out that civil lawsuits soaked up 2.33 percent of the USA’s Gross National Product in 2002 — “an all-time high, and up from 1.54 percent in 1980.”
Adjusted for inflation, the cost of civil lawsuits to every man, woman and child in the country went from $87 in 1950 to $721 in 2001; it’s estimated to reach $1,000 by 2005. That makes the current lawsuit load on the classic “family of four” about $3,400 this year; according to the Heritage Foundation, the median federal income tax load for that family is $4,496. So understand that clearly: your cost of lawsuits, reflected in your insurance premiums and the inflated cost of goods you buy, may soon be more than your federal income taxes!
Sources: “By the Numbers: Very Expensive Suits”, Fortune, 19 February 2003, and the “Family of Four Project”, Heritage Foundation’s web site
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