I was watching a college football game the other day when a legal issue broke out. (I hate when that happens.)
Here's the deal: The University of Alabama was playing Ole Miss (that's the University of Mississippi for you folks from outside the South), and Bama appeared to be in good shape late in the game. Ole Miss, however, wasn't ready to pack it in.
The Rebels drove into Crimson Tide territory as the clock wound down and launched a long pass toward the end zone with only a few seconds left. The Ole Miss receiver outwrestled an Alabama defender and came down with the ball inside the 10-yard line for a remarkable catch. It looked like the Rebels would get one more play and a chance to tie or win the game.
But officials decided the play should be reviewed via instant replay. After about a five-minute delay, the referee announced that the play was being reversed because replay showed the Ole Miss receiver had gone out of bounds and been the first person to touch the ball when he came back in bounds, making him an ineligible receiver.
Alabama held on to win, and needless to say, Ole Miss fans weren't happy. Bottles, cans, cups and other debris rained onto the field from the student section. Press reports said the debris included a number of high-heeled shoes, evidently tossed by unhappy sorority girls.
So where does the legal issue come in? Believe it or not, the circumstances were similar to those involved in the lawsuit against yours truly, the Legal Schnauzer. Instead of objects being tossed onto a football field, my situation involved objects being tossed onto my property.
And that's what made me think of the legal possibilities presented by the unhappy Ole Miss fans.
Consider this scenario: Let's say an Ole Miss coed, we'll call her Suzy Sorority, heaved both of her high-heeled shoes onto the stadium turf and walked away barefooted after the Rebels heartbreaking loss. Let's say Suzy's father is the esteemed barrister J. Harwell Sorority, Esq., Ole Miss law school class of 1975.
"Welly," as he's known to his drinking buds, says, "Suzy Q, where are your shoes, Dahlin'?"
"I threw 'em on the field, Daddy," Suzy says. "I tried to hit that big ugly linebacker from Bama."
"Did you nail him?"
"No, but I almost got their zillionaire coach, that Saban guy."
"Gosh, Dahlin', that would have been even better."
"I know, Daddy, but now I don't have my high heels, and Justin wants to take me to the country club this weekend."
"You mean you didn't get your shoes back?"
"Well no, Daddy. How was I gonna get 'em back?"
"I can't get your shoes back, Sugah Plum, but I can get something bettah--lots of Benjamins."
And so J. Harwell Sorority sues the University of Mississippi for conversion. For good measure, he sues the officials for fraud, the Southeastern Conference for negligence, and the University of Alabama for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
You might ask, what's this "conversion" business? Why that's the charming little tort I got sued for, thanks to my neighbor, Mike McGarity, and his distinguished attorney, William E. Swatek.
Conversion might best be described as a civil form of theft. For example, if you loan your bicycle to someone and they refuse to return it, you probably would have a case for conversion. If you mistakenly take someone's coat from a restaurant and then refuse to give it back when they identify it, you would be in danger of a lawsuit for conversion. Here is a description of the tort.
You will notice that when the taking of property is legal, as it was in Suzy's case and in my case, it can't be conversion unless the owner demands a return. And of course, Suzy did not ask for the return of her shoes, and my neighbor did not ask for the return of what he claimed were his whiffle balls, etc. But that did not stop Welly from filing a lawsuit--and it didn't stop Bill Swatek either.
And what about damages for Suzy? Well, she paid $75 for the shoes, so Welly says in his complaint that they cost $750. And punitive damages? Welly decides 60 times the compensatory damages would be about right, which would be $45,000. Add the two together, and Welly figures that Suzy is due $45,750 from the University of Mississippi for "converting" her shoes. And that doesn't take into account the claims against the officials, the SEC, and the University of Alabama.
"We could be lookin' at 4 or 5 mil total, Punkin'," Welly tells Suzy.
"Heck, Daddy, I would have chucked my high heels a long time ago if I'd known that," Suzy says.
Sound preposterous? It wouldn't to real-life judges in Alabama. I will show you how, at least in terms of "conversion," they would say the Suzy Q case is perfectly fine.
Hang in there with me. We're dealing with a lot of Don Siegelman and Paul Minor news at the moment. But when we get into specifics about the Legal Schnauzer case, you'll learn more about the absurdities of "conversion" in Alabama's courts.