Slideshow: 5 Thanksgiving Lawsuits

A time of family, food, and football, Thanksgiving is all about counting our blessings—none of which should be negligence, murder or harassment.

A time of family, food, and football, Thanksgiving is all about counting our blessings—none of which should be negligence, murder or harassment. Click through to read about 5 turkey-related incidents that ran afoul of court.

Hunting Season

Neil P. Jacobs and James Kent were hunting turkeys in the woods in New York in 2003; Kent’s hunting party had established a position, which Jacobs entered with his party while looking for an area in which to hunt. After hearing gobbling noises and seeing a flash of red, Kent shot into the underbrush. Instead of bagging his family’s holiday meal, he accidentally hit Jacobs. Jacobs brought a suit against Kent, alleging the defendant acted negligently and mistakenly shot him, moving for judgment on the issue of liability. 

The plaintiff contended that the sole cause of the accidental shooting was the defendant’s failure to identify his target. Turkey hunters must be able to see the entire bird and ascertain its gender before taking a shot. Kent moved to dismiss the complaint based on primary assumption of risk. The Court found that even though hunters assume the risks of hunting for sport, having to assume the risk of negligent behavior on the part of other hunters unreasonably increases that risk. Therefore, Kent’s cross motion was denied. The court also decided it could not determine as a matter of law whether the defendant’s actions fell under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, so the original motion was also denied.

Roadrunner

While driving on a parkway in New York in 2005, a wild turkey hit Mary Reilly’s windshield. The impact shattered the windshield, so Reilly put her signal on and slowed down in preparation to pull off onto the left-hand shoulder. Alan Watson was driving behind her and noticed something moving in the median of the roadway. When he returned his gaze to the road, he noticed Reilly’s car was slowing down. He was unable to stop in time and rear-ended her vehicle. Reilly filed Reilly v. Watson, alleging liability on the part of Watson.

In most rear-end collisions, the motorist in the rear is found liable, except in cases of mechanical failure, sudden stopping of the vehicle ahead, skidding on wet pavement or another unavoidable, reasonable cause. The jury did not find Watson liable because he provided the court with a non-negligent explanation of the accident.

Gobble Gobble Choke

Helen Silva was eating a plate of turkey, dressing and vegetables at Woolworth’s restaurant in the fall of 1938 when she choked on a small bone. She was able to eject the bone with the help of a bystander. She sued the restaurant for injuries, including embarrassment and medical fees of $36. Liability for choking is determined based on the nature of the object; if it is foreign to the dish served, there is liability on the part of the dish’s producer.

In this instance, the turkey bone was found to be natural to a plate of roast turkey, just as fish bones could reasonably and naturally be found in a plate of fish; the presence of the bone does not render the food inconsumable. A consumer of the turkey dish should therefore anticipate the presence of and take care to avoid swallowing bones. The original judgment of $500 to the plaintiff for general damages was reversed.

Deadly Dinner

On Thanksgiving 2009 in Jupiter, Fla., Paul Merhige arrived uninvited to a family celebration. Witnesses reported that he shot and killed four of his relatives, including 6-year-old Makayla Sitton. A lawsuit filed by Makayla’s parents, Jim and Muriel Sitton, charges Michael and Carol Merhige with negligence, alleging that they knew their unstable son would be attending the party but failed to keep him from doing so. The plaintiffs’ attorney even went so far as to suggest that the Merhiges had “some sense” that their son might become violent to the point of murder, but chose not to warn guests or attempt to stop Paul from killing.

Judge Meenu Sasser threw the lawsuit out, stating that the Merhiges could not be held accountable for the actions of their adult son. He also threw out a similar lawsuit filed by Patrick Knight, husband of a pregnant woman who was one of the four victims. Paul Merhige was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences after entering a guilty plea in the deaths of four of his family members. The Sittons are seeking an appeal.

A Holiday for All

In 2009, Promila Awasthi filed a lawsuit alleging that her bosses at Infosys's Fremont, Calif., office made fun of her and refused to pay her overtime when she worked American holidays such as Thanksgiving. They mocked her for supposedly lacking family values and being too American despite her Indian heritage. The harassment did not end even after Awasthi has resigned.

Awasthi alleges that management called her children “ABCD,” short for “American-Born Confused Desi” and “IBCD,” short for “Indian-Born Confused Desi,” which are both derogatory terms used to criticize Americanized people of Indian ancestry. She filed several causes of action including national origin/ancestry, gender, age, and religious discrimination in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act; failure to pay overtime and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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