February 27, 2006

It's Water Under the ... um ... er ...

PITY SHANNON PETERSON. The Denver condominium owner works as a special-education teacher, and as such has a work schedule that requires her to rise in the early morning, bathe and get ready for work, and so on. Unfortunately for Ms Peterson, her upstairs neighbors say the noise from the complex's plumbing is so bad that they can't sleep through her early-morning baths.

Clearly, the neighbors' best course of action was to file a civil suit against Ms Peterson.

Yes, according to the Denver Post, senior citizens Marvin and Goldie Smith have sued Ms Peterson in Denver District Court, charging her with "reckless and negligent use of her bathtub."

What? No, I'm not kidding you. That's what the Post's story said. It also said that Ms Peterson "can't believe she's being used for bathing before leaving for work."

And the Post's story continues:

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"I've done everything I can think of to work this out," she said. "I've had maintenance men remove all my tile and insulate the pipes. I've had sound engineers measure my unit and others in the building. Nothing's abnormal. Even the homeowners' board investigated and told the Smiths they should install sound barriers in their unit."

So the Smiths called their son, Sheldon, a partner in the Holland and Hart law firm. He sent a letter, threatening Peterson that her "intransigence ... and tortuous conduct have resulted in incredible sleep deprivation for Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Your obstinacy has ruled the day. That will now cease."

He then ordered Peterson to stop running water in her bathtub before 8 a.m. But the homeowners' association stepped into the fray and wrote Smith a letter that his request didn't comply with the building's rules.

Contacted by telephone, Sheldon Smith said Peterson "refuses to cooperate. She complains about everything."

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I don't know about you, but I'd complain like there was no tomorrow if my neighbors slapped me with a civil suit because I was practicing proper hygiene. I mean, God Almighty -- where does one begin?

Well, here's the obvious first question. Consider: the elder Smiths filed a civil suit against their downstairs neighbor because of bad plumbing, even though said neighbor had arguably done far more than she was legally and morally required to do in trying to fix the problem. Further, it was a problem that was not even arguably hers. Given all this, was anyone surprised to learn the Smiths' son was a lawyer? Anyone?

I jest, of course. Still, this has to be one of those cases that makes attorneys everywhere groan over their morning coffees. Yeah, I know the story merely discusses a filing and not a result, and I know the story doesn't provide links to all the paperwork. That said, all that can't take away from the fact that a practicing lawyer, certified to appear in a professional capacity before a court of law, accepted this case and sued a person because of that person's alleged "reckless and negligent use of her bathtub."

And in the unlikely event the suit itself hasn't caused you to groan, the quote from the cease-and-desist letter certainly ought. Let's look at those lines again:

"(Your) intransigence ... and tortuous conduct have resulted in incredible sleep deprivation for Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Your obstinacy has ruled the day. That will now cease."

Eh? What the hell does that mean? Don't the second and third sentences contradict each other? What kind of cease-and-desist letter is this?

I mean, wouldn't the silky-smooth/iron-fist-velvet-glove idea (Approved Legal Tactic 17A) have worked a heck of a lot better in this situation? You know, something to the effect of, "We would consider it most unfortunate if we had to pursue legal action to obtain a satisfactory remedy for our long-suffering clients. We trust you'll take appropriate steps to make such action on our part unnecessary."

I agree, it also might not have worked, but at least it wouldn't have left the recipient dreaming about ways to injunct the letter into the sending attorney's alimentary canal. Ordering a private citizen to not take baths in one's own home until a certain hour would cause anyone to become annoyed -- and in this case, so annoyed that the recipient freely spoke with a reporter, whose story then became national news. I would imagine that such a result was not what Counselor Smith was anticipating when he first sent his note.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 27, 2006 10:29 PM | TrackBack