by Justice William W. Bedsworth
”Bottle-rocket-shot-out-of-anus lawsuit settled.”
Honest, that’s what the headline was in the West Virginia Record.
Remember those old movies where the newsboys walked around yelling, “Extra, extra, read all about it!” Well, this is a headline that makes you want to read all about it, isn’t it? I would have bought a newspaper that had that headline.1
And having bought it, I would have spent a measurable amount of time trying to figure out what that headline could possibly mean. It couldn’t be literal, could it? I mean, I’ve never been drunk enough to contemplate any action that is even remotely as asinine2 and self-destructive as firing a bottle rocket out of my anus.
In fact, I’ve never contemplated anything that would require any juxtaposition of the words “fire” and “anus.” While I’ve never given it a great deal of thought before, I realize now I have lived my life with an unwavering commitment to keeping fire away from my anus.
I’ve read a lot about waterboarding. I saw Dustin Hoffman’s reaction to the dentist drill torture in Marathon Man. But I’m pretty sure I would prefer either of those to having explosives “shot out of” my anus.
I mean, it took me awhile just to figure out the logistics. Near as I can figure—based on my understanding of bottle rockets, which, I must admit, includes no personal experience for the last sixty years and may not have kept up with twenty-first century technology—this would first necessitate putting some bottle-shaped object into your anus.
Let’s not spend a lot of time contemplating that. Let’s just move on to the next step, which is the insertion of a firework into the bottle. That requires two things: (1) the aforementioned bottle-shaped object must be big enough to accommodate the firework,3 and (2) you must be an idiot.
Idiocy can be easily achieved through substance abuse—which was alleged to be the case here—and I’ve already said I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about the large, bottle-shaped object, so let’s move on to step three: ignition.
This requires that you hold a lighted match beneath your nether regions for as long as it takes you to find the fuse of the bottle rocket and touch it off.4
And the upshot of all of that is that IF YOU’RE SUCCESSFUL—a use of the word “successful” that seems vaguely slanderous of the entire English language—IF YOU’RE SUCCESSFUL, a lit piece of cardboard flies out of your . . . how should I say this . . . asinine . . . showering sparks all over the place.
There is, of course, only one reason to do this: Because you are a drunken college student.
That was the allegation of the complaint, but it was not the gravamen of the lawsuit. Oh no, that would be way too easy.
But before we get into the allegations of the lawsuit, let me point out that this is an old lawsuit. It was filed several years ago, but the Canons of Ethics forbid me writing about a pending lawsuit, so I filed it away and forgot about it until now.5 And in the meantime, it settled. So we will never know for sure the truth of any of the allegations.
But the complaint lays out a set of facts that manages to be credible and incredible at the same time!
It alleges that plaintiff Joe “Curly” DeRita,6 a student at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, attended a fraternity party7 at the Delta Tau Chi house. There, a minor named Moe Howard got thoroughly blitzed.8 According to the complaint, “around 1:30 in the morning, Defendant [Howard] was highly intoxicated . . . and decided in his drunken stupor that it would be a good idea to shoot bottle rockets out of his anus on the [fraternity] deck, located on the back of the [fraternity] house.”
The complaint, which I am not a good enough writer to improve upon, continues, “Defendant [Howard] placed a bottle rocket in his anus, ignited the fuse, but instead of launching, the bottle rocket blew up in Defendant’s rectum.”
Well, of course it did.
But how did Howard become the DEFENDANT?9 Why is he anything but the guy lying in the emergency room waiting for the doctors to decide whether he should be seen first by the colorectal specialist or the psychiatrist?
Here’s why. Because, “this startled plaintiff [DeRita] and caused him to jump back, at which time he fell off of the [fraternity deck] and he became lodged between the deck and an air conditioner unit adjacent to the deck.” The fall was three-to-four feet down and resulted in lots of “pain and suffering, lost time with the Marshall University baseball team, lost earning capacity, medical expenses, and other damages.”
So when defendant’s . . . asinine . . . blew up, the startled plaintiff fell backward, hurting himself because the building he was visiting had no railing on its deck. “Calling Mrs. Palsgraf, Mrs. Helen Palsgraf, Long Island Railway Train Number 502 leaving on Track 2.”
And, other than providing the world with still another law school exam question, how does plaintiff intend to benefit from this lawsuit? How does plaintiff intend to recover from a minor who doesn’t have the brains God gave a walnut?10
Well, that’s where some lawyer gets to say, “Omigod, I actually have a Palsgraf issue.” It’s the next paragraph of the complaint: “There was no railing on said deck at the time of the incident.” Never had been.
So there’s Defendant Number Two: the incorporated fraternity. No telling how deep their pockets are, but at the very least, they appear to have a bigger beer budget than “Little Rocket Man.”11
And there were also Defendants Three, Four, and Five: the owner of the building to which the launching pad was attached, the university at which the fraternity members were matriculating, and the university’s intrafraternity council (probably not a gold mine for plaintiff, but what the hell, let’s do a little discovery and find out).
I would love to give you more details about this I-hope-once-in-a-lifetime lawsuit, but I’m afraid the settlement precluded any further development of the facts in the press. I can tell you that by the time the matter was settled, only the property owners were left as defendants. I don’t know what happened to the interscholastic rocketry athlete,12 and I don’t know the terms of the settlement.
What I do know is that a life in the law is never dull. Forty-eight years into my practice my fellow human beings continue to come up with ideas that bring my imagination to a boggling halt.
And lawsuits to match.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at email@example.com.