Throwback Thursday: 5 real lawsuits from holiday seasons past

Bizarre, NakedLaw

Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men? Bah, humbug! Or at least that’s the way it seems when you consider how holiday lawsuits have permeated many aspects of our society, from city hall to the shopping mall. Here, five real legal ghosts of Christmases past.

#5 Carols for criminals

It’s not unreasonable to assume that if you’re behind bars, you might lack Christmas spirit. So Joe Arpaio, the sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona, who oversees some 8,500 prisoners, decided to spread some cheer by playing an uninterrupted stream of holiday carols, from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Elvis to songs from a variety of ethnic and religious traditions, over the prison’s PA system.

The musical barrage, however, seemed to make the inmates more cranky than cheerful. Lawsuits starting streaming in, citing that the nonstop music was cruel and unusual punishment and unconstitutional since it forced prisoners to partake in religious events. The lawsuits were dismissed, but Arpaio voluntarily reduced the music to just four hours a day. 

#4 Holiday hoopla

In 2005 Wal-Mart removed the word “Christmas” from many of its in-store displays and replaced it with the more inclusive term “holiday.” Religious and conservative groups across the U.S. lambasted and then boycotted the store, claiming Wal-Mart was taking Christ out of Christmas.

The following year Wal-Mart caved to the pressure, reversing its decision and renaming the store’s seasonal decorating department the “Christmas Shop” instead of the “Holiday Shop,” among other changes. According to USA Today, one Wal-Mart spokesperson said, “We’re not afraid to use the term ‘Merry Christmas.’ We’ll use it early, and we’ll use it often.”

#3 Candy crush

In December 2013, Isaiah Martinez, a first grader at Merced Elementary in California, came to school with gifts for his classmates: candy canes with attached messages explaining the religious significance of the sweet treat. When Martinez’s teacher saw the religious messages, she tore them off the candy canes and allegedly told him, “Jesus is not allowed in school.”

Last September, his parents, backed by the conservative group Advocates for Faith and Freedom, filed a federal lawsuit against the school district claiming the six-year-old student’s freedom of speech was violated.

The case is reminiscent of another infamous candy cane legal battle that began in 2003 when a third grader in Plano, Texas, was prohibited from handing out candy cane pens imprinted with religious messages. That case is still wending its way through the legal system.

#2 Holiday party pitfalls

Company holiday parties are always magnets for lawsuits. In a recent California case involving Marriott International, an off-duty bartender for the hotel chain, Michael Landri, drank before and during the holiday party. Although Marriott provided partygoers with two drink tickets for beer or wine only, Landri was provided hard liquor. Landri arrived home safely but later left to drive an intoxicated co-worker home. That’s when Landri, with a blood alcohol level of .16, twice the legal limit in California, rear-ended another car at 100 miles per hour, killing the driver. Landri is now serving a six-year sentence for gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence.

The family of the driver killed in the crash brought a wrongful death suit against Landri and Marriott. A trial court ruled in Marriott’s favor, saying the accident did not occur during the scope of Landri’s employment, but an appeals court reversed the decision, holding that the company could be liable because the cause of the death, Landri’s intoxication, occurred within the scope of Landri’s employment by Marriot.

#1 ‘War on Christmas’

No holiday—err, we mean Christmas—season is complete without Fox News’ “War on Christmas,” and this year was no exception. With conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly leading the cause, Fox, beginning in 2004, began highlighting various ways in which “the right to celebrate Christmas is under attack.”

From religious floats being denied entry in holiday parades to cities lighting “holiday trees” to stores like Crate & Barrel and Best Buy instructing employees to greet customers not with “Merry Christmas” but “Happy Holidays” — a charge both stores deny —“Christmas is taking flak,” O’Reilly says.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn O’Reilly found new ways to ignite his “War on Christmas” shtick during the 2014 season.