For a number of years I wrote a column in the Reader called True Books. It was the continuation of something I wrote in the True Facts section of the old National Lampoon. What True Books did was present actual books in a deadpan way. Just the title, a dry synopsis, a "Representative Quote" and a then the final "Noteworthy Flaw" acting as a kind of punchline.
The books were all unexpected, off-kilter, odd. The one lodged is memory is a book of nutritional hoo-ha titled "Sharks Don't Get Cancer," where the noteworthy flaw was, "Sharks do get cancer."
The premise for the ongoing joke was that creating a book is a considerable effort, involving not only a writer but an editor and a publisher, maybe an agent, printers, proofreaders, a publicist, various friends, and thus the bar for a book being mere idiocy or folly was a little higher. There were certain expectations.
The same is true for lawsuits. Because you need not only a litigant, but a lawyer to draft and file the suit and a judge to accept it. Oh, individuals can file pro se lawsuits, without an attorney, but those are immediately viewed as suspect. Otherwise, a lawsuit carries a certain gravitas, and are viewed, particularly by the media, as Significant Acts.
Though they really shouldn't be. Anyone can file a lawsuit about anything. If there is a body of lawsuits so trivial and baseless that attorneys cannot be paid to submit them to a court, I've never heard of them.
So news last week of Judy Graves suing Elmhurst Hospital was treated as significant. Two years ago Graves, a woman in her 60s, was menaced by a red-winged blackbird, a particularly aggressive and territorial bird, and fell, injuring herself, according to the lawsuit.
She sued — when I first heard the report, on the radio, before they revealed who, and for one delicious moment I wondered if she might not be suing the birds. No, she is suing the hospital, for harboring them. She seeks $50,000 plus legal costs.
While "bird law" was a running joke in "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," there is a long tradition of going to law to seek redress against animals. To refresh my recollection I turned to one of my favorite books, E.P. Evans essential "The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals," 1906 summation of centuries worth of trials, the majority involving livestock—pigs, mostly, since they were in closest contact with humans.
Just the summary lines in the Contents are enough to send you leaping for the book. "Animals regarded by the law as lay persons" and "Criminal prosecution of rats" and "Bull sent to the gallows for killing a lad."
There was, as I remembered (I wrote about it in the "Noise" chapter of "The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances") a parson in Dresden placing a ban upon sparrows "on account of their unceasing and extremely vexatious chatterings and unchastity during the sermon, to the hinderance of God's word and Christian devotion" and the Bishop of Trier anathematizing swallows because they "disturbed the devotions of the faithful by their chirping and chattering, and sacrilegiously defiled his head and vestments with their droppings, when he was officiating at the altar."
Evans points out, rather reasonably that the Saxon parson "did not expect that his ban would cause the offending birds to avoid the church or to fall dead on entering it." Rather, "by his proscription he puts the culprits out of the pale of public sympathy and protection."
Which is sort of where the plaintiff puts herself in filing her suit. While the lure of a make-her-go-away settlement is always there, one can't help but imagine that the public—those that think of it at all beyond a smile and a shake of the head—hold little sympathy for someone lashing out at birds and the hospital that harbors them. (Graves' argument, to the degree she has one, is in that landscaping in an attractive manner Elmhurst Hospital "encouraged nesting and other habitation by wildlife, specifically including birds," which would be sufficient to indict just about any building anywhere beyond a warehouse in an asphalt lot. The lawsuit seems to suggest a certain peevishness.
But as the person in question is obviously litigious, I should rush to point out that I have no idea about her actual level of peevishness. She could be sweetness incarnate, sadly injured by her fall, caused entirely by flocks of red-winged blackbirds cruelly and deliberately encouraged by the heedless ornithophiles at Elmhurst Hospital. Perhaps a jury will rush to deliver to her the compensation she deserves.
These things happen, though rarely. One assumes the lawsuit will be thrown out on a variety of grounds — say, Elmhurst Hospital not being responsible for the criminal acts of third parties who trespass on its grounds, and as the blackbirds were not employees (another possibility marvelous to contemplate) they can no more be held liable than Henkels could be held liable if someone robs you with a kitchen knife. Land owners are not typically held liable to damage caused by wild animals.
Before we let "The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals" go, we need to mention one more tidbit, not related to birds, but too delightful to keep to myself. That is:
"a faded and somewhat droll survival of ecclesiastical excommunication and exorcism is the custom, still prevailing in European countries and some portions of the United States, of serving a writ of ejectment on rats or simply sending them a friendly letter of advice in order to induce them to quit any house, in which their presence is deemed undesirable. Lest the rats should overlook and thus fail to read the epistle, it is rubbed with grease, so as to attract their attention, rolled up and thrust into their holes. Mr. William Wells Newell, in a paper on 'Conjuring Rats,' printed in The Journal of American Folk-Lore (Jan-March, 1892), gives a specimen of such a letter, dated, 'Maine, Oct. 31, 1888,' and addressed in business style to 'Messrs. Rats and Co.' The writer begins by expressing his deep interest in the welfare of said rats as well as his fears lest they should find their winter quarters in No. 1, Seaview Street, uncomfortable and poorly supplied with suitable food, since it is only a summer residence and is also about to undergo repairs. He then suggests that they migrate to No. 6, Incubator Street, where they 'can live snug and happy' in a splendid cellar well stored with vegetables of all kinds and can pass easily through a shed leading to a barn containing much grain. He concludes by stating that he will do them no harm if they heed his advice, otherwise he shall be forced to use, "Rough on Rats."Whether or not the occupants of No. 6 Incubator Street responded by lawyering up against the rats is not mentioned.