039: A Shocking Conclusion

Stella Case No. 039, Originally Published: 5 March 2003

Jessie Ingram was tired of the burglaries. During 1997 he suffered three break-ins in over just a month, so he decided to take stronger measures to keep burglars out. He set up a trap at his bar George O’s Place in Aurora, Ill., that would give anyone who came in through the windows a shock by electrifying the interior window frame. He even put up signs warning would-be intruders of the danger.

Nope, not a photo of the crime nor Harris: just an illustration.

Just five days later, Larry Harris, 37, high on cocaine and alcohol, broke through one of the windows — one that had one of the warning signs. Once past the bars, he triggered Ingram’s trap …and was electrocuted. Police investigated, but since state law allows for lethal force to be used to protect homes and businesses from intruders, a Grand Jury refused to indict Ingram for any crime.

“I know my brother wasn’t an angel,” William Harris said after his brother’s death, “but I don’t feel like the way he died was justified.” So William and his mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Ingram, as well as the property owner who leased the bar to Ingram.

The Harris’s lawyer, John Winters, said it “wasn’t clear” why Harris would climb through the window at 2:00 a.m. while stoned and drunk, but there was “little evidence” he was responsible for the three earlier break-ins. “We’re never going to know Larry’s intent, but we know Jessie’s intent,” he said.

Jessie Ingram died last year, but the case dragged on. During a two-week trial in February, the judge did not allow the jury to hear that Harris was drunk, high on illegal drugs — and had a record of multiple burglary convictions. The jury awarded $150,000 in compensation to the Harris family, but since it held Harris himself 50 percent at fault, that dropped the actual award to $75,000. The bar owner was judged 40 percent liable, and the property owner, who may have had no knowledge whatever that her tenant had installed an unusual anti-burglary system five days earlier, was judged 10 percent liable.

Ingram’s widow Barbara Ingram is “devastated” by the award, says her attorney, Fred Morelli. Barbara is on the hook for $60,000. “She’s the victim, and she gets victimized again,” he said. The $75,000 award is “more than [Harris] would have earned in his entire life.” He vowed to appeal the verdict.

When someone takes it upon themselves to commit a felony, shouldn’t they be 100 percent liable for what happens next?

Sources

  • “Family of Electrocuted Thief Gets $75,000,” Chicago Sun-Times, 25 February 2003
  • “No Charges Filed in Intruder Death,” Associated Press, 28 August 1997

Case Status

I looked for updates but didn’t find any more mention of an appeal, let alone a decision on one. My guess is either Mrs. Ingram’s court-imposed debt was covered by insurance, or she decided that it would cost as much or more to go through an appeals process, which I doubt the insurance company would pay for, and who-knows-what might come on top of the $60,000.

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

I’ve been using the file I sent to the book publisher years ago as the source of the “final version” of each story for these reposts (there have been corrections here and there — spelling, grammar, and probably occasional errors of interpretation), and was surprised that this story wasn’t in that file. Yes, there were reader objections to it being included in the TSA lineup, but that’s OK: I wouldn’t disqualify a story because of that. You’ll see those objections in the letters section of the next case, but I have no memory of why it wasn’t included in the book; may have just been an oversight.

But for the first time since starting this reposting project, I grabbed a copy of the book off the shelf to confirm: nope, not in there. So this is the first in a new category: Not in the Book.

As for the case itself, I agree it’s not an obvious, cut-and-dried case of frivolity. But: 1) I’m loathe to encourage any sort of reward for anyone committing a high level felony (or their survivors), and 2) I’m loathe to give someone a break because they did something they (or their survivors) say they otherwise wouldn’t have done “if only” they hadn’t made the choice to alter their mind with alcohol and/or other drugs. That compounds their own irresponsibility, rather than excuses it.

Comments

[To be abundantly clear, the following is still from the 5 March 2003 issue.]

A reader pointed out something interesting: the American Trial Lawyers Association has taken note of the True Stella Awards, but in a rather disingenuous way. A page on the ATLA web site titled “Debunking Urban Legends About the Civil Justice System” (subtitle: “The OTHER Side of the Story You NEED to Hear!”), correctly points out that the classic years-old Winnebago “Stella Award” urban legend is false.

But then their argument gets a bit, well, hazy. They conclude that “In fact — bizarrely — even the self-proclaimed creators of the ‘Stella Award’ agree that Snopes.com is right when it says the Winnebago case and its fellow ‘nominees’ are fake! They claim they had nothing to do with the [bogus cases] e-mail currently in circulation.”

From day 1, the TSA’s “bogus cases” page has noted that the urban legend Stella Awards email that has been going around for years did not originate from the True Stella Awards. In fact, they were debunked by Snopes long before I even registered the StellaAwards.com domain. (So you don’t have to look it up, that was on 5 February 2002, though I didn’t get the newsletter started until late September 2002.)

As I’ve made abundantly clear, it’s because of those fake “awards” that I created the True Stella Awards, since “It makes no sense to use false examples of real problems when there are so many true examples that illustrate the actual problem.”

It’s also been made clear on the site that I didn’t originate the term “Stella Awards” — I’m rather trying to legitimize that term by decrying the made-up stories, and presenting real cases to illustrate the growing lawsuit abuse problem. ATLA, in return, is working to cloud the issue by implying that it’s “bizarre” that TSA doesn’t take credit for the fake cases I didn’t write! I don’t just “claim” I had nothing to do with the urban legend email, I tirelessly work to make “the mainstream media” understand the difference.

Innuendo and slurs don’t advance public discussion of the very real problem of lawsuit abuse; overwhelming evidence does, and that’s what TSA publishes (case after Case after CASE!) — complete with the sources used so that it’s independently verifiable that I’m not making them up.

I’m certainly not afraid to link to the ATLA site so you can review their words — and again make up your own mind. Why, then, is ATLA so afraid to tell the real story without twisting the facts, or even link to the TSA site (at least the “bogus” page!) so people can have all the available facts about what TSA is doing? They don’t simply because it would quickly become obvious it’s not at all “bizarre” that TSA had nothing to do with the silly urban legends. Rather, it would quickly become clear that trial lawyers will say anything to keep the frivolous lawsuit gravy train on track. Follow the money!

ATLA’s “debunk” page: http://www.atla.org/homepage/debunk.aspx

[2020 Note: That isn’t a hot link because the ATLA site is offline. See below for more.]

The bottom of that page has a contact email address for ATLA if you’d like to write to ask why they don’t tell the whole story, as well as a toll-free number to call them should you decide it’s not in your best interest to provide a pro-lawsuit organization your private email address.

TSA’s “bogus cases” page: https://StellaAwards.com/bogus/

My 2020 Take on ATLA

Even though the ATLA site is offline permanently for reasons discussed below, the Internet Archive comes to the rescue!

The first time the Archive noticed the ATLA page was 21 November 2002, and their snapshot shows [Posted April 10, 2002] (happy birthday to me!) It talks about the urban legend, and liberally quotes Snopes’ 2001 take-down, which is valuable in its reporting of how it morphed in the early days.

The Archive did another snapshot of the page one week later, and text above appeared, apparently having been added shortly before (no update date is specified). Worst case, that’s only about seven weeks after TSA went live: apparently they saw how it was quickly becoming very popular, getting rapid subscription growth and even sponsors, and the poor dears felt terribly, terribly threatened.

And there it sat until the above editorial, which went out by email (and was posted on TSAs site) on 5 March 2003 after the reader alerted me to the “bizarre” misdirection, which was still there when the Archive took a snapshot on 2 March 2003.

The most amusing part to me is that per the Archive, they removed the misdirection (possibly because a lot of readers emailed or called!) very quickly after the challenge published in TSA.

How quickly? Within hours, readers said. The Archive didn’t snapshot the page again until 6 June, but the page notes it was Updated March 6, 2002 — in other words, the very next day after TSA called them on their misinformation.

Three years later, infighting hit the breaking point: ATLA became the American Association for Justice. Around the same time, the Washington Post reported, a group of attorneys formed an organization which “might compete” with AAJ, calling itself The American Trial Lawyers Association, or TheATLA. It allegedly solicited thousands of AAJ members to join, and AAJ (yes!) filed suit, arguing TheATLA was “confusing” its members (who surely wouldn’t want to be considered easily confused), as well as infringing the ATLA trademark, which AAJ of course still held.

Why the name change? Because the label “trial lawyers” had become a liability …maybe helped in part by the ongoing popularity of TSA. Why the fuss? “Millions of dollars of membership fees from plaintiff’s attorneys could be at stake,” the paper reported, “as well as bragging rights in a profession filled with famously massive egos.” As per usual, just follow the money.

Back to the Post article: “We intend to protect that trademark as any business group would,” vowed AAJ president Kathleen Flynn Peterson, who is of course a trial lawyer. “Trademark infringement is a serious issue.” Indeed so, but AAJ abandoned the trademark shortly thereafter, according to Justia, which is where I got the logo for the graphic above. Funny, but I notice it doesn’t include the ® symbol. Maybe they needed a better lawyer….

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6 Comments on “039: A Shocking Conclusion

  1. “During a two-week trial in February, the judge did not allow the jury to hear that Harris was drunk, high on illegal drugs — and had a record of multiple burglary convictions.”

    My question is WHY did the judge not ALLOW pertinent information related to the break-in?? The “award” given by the jury is, to me, totally the FAULT of the Judge for DISALLOWING VALID INFORMATION in the case!!!

    Reply
    • My guess would be (IANAL) that they were confining the trail to actual provable facts. I think the accused’s history is only relevant in certain circumstances.

      And by “relevant” I mean in the legal sense. Relevant, admissible, etc.

      Reply
  2. One of the reasons i like reading these Stella Award posts, Randy, is how you carefully guide me through the hazy maze of details & names & opinions to reach a conclusion based on real evidence. You’re a good teacher!

    I appreciate your kind words. -rc

    Reply
  3. I do think death is an inappropriate punishment for burglary. There was no self-defense involved. They could have set the shock level lower, but chose not to. That’s immoral, in my book.

    Reply
  4. One good argument for the laws regarding booby-traps is the argument when it comes to emergency responders. While in this case, it got tripped by a burglar, there is a decent chance a firefighter responding to an alarm would trip the same trap.

    While I don’t agree with the 50/50 split, and really not with the burglar getting anything, it definitely makes sense for the bar owner to get penalized just for the risk to potentially innocent people that could have a valid reason to go into the building.

    Reply
  5. “Prior bad deeds” often are not admissible, and are considered prejudicial, in criminal proceedings.

    Yet they can also indicate a pattern of behavior. -rc

    Reply

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