Searching for cases became an idle interest. Like most U.S. institutions, courts coddle the rich, and the public record mostly reflects this. But shards of the unhinged ingenuity that defines so many American endeavors poke through. Trial lawyers are storytellers, and competitive ones at that. Each side accumulates details supporting their arc, explaining away those that don’t, editing along the strict stylization of law. “At trial, I’m the playwright, director, actor,” a lawyer who specializes in tractor-trailer crash claims once told me. “The whole thing’s a production.”
Nowhere is this more obvious than the civil system, where the performers are often private attorneys whose skills range from Michael Clayton to — more often — Lionel Hutz. If this sounds overstated, consider that every personal-injury lawyer with a bad highway billboard has written hundreds, if not thousands, of court documents.
Some of the prose comes laced with moral outrage. In the late ’70s, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders sued the Pussycat Cinema, a porn outfit, over its recent flick, “Debbie Does Dallas”: “a gross and revolting sex film,” a decision in the lawsuit declared, “whose plot, to the extent that there is one, involves a cheerleader at a fictional high school, Debbie, who has been selected to become a ‘Texas Cowgirl.’” Others have more humor. After Hormel Foods claimed that a hog named “Spa’am” in “Muppet Treasure Island” linked its fare with “evil in porcine form,” a judge concluded that it merely poked “a little fun at Hormel’s famous luncheon meat by associating its processed, gelatinous block with a humorously wild beast.” (The cheerleaders won; Hormel did not.)
At their funniest and most poignant, complaints showcase both the limits of recourse against the powerful and how our own competing, often misguided self-interests can collide disastrously with reality. In 2002, a Montana man sued MTV’s parent company, claiming plagiarism. The network’s new show about guys who punch one another and bike into Porta Potties, he argued, had copied his name: Jack Ass. In 2008, a woman sued Wikipedia’s parent organization over an entry that called her the “dumbest” literary agent. Later, FarmVille’s creators were accused of tricking players into making payments by way of taking an IQ test. (All three cases were dismissed.)
The justice system can seem like a faceless monolith. But beneath the veneer of legal solemnity, the paper trail left by trucking disputes or chicken-fat injuries amounts to a kind of living library, an archive of corporate overreach and personal foibles, transcribed in every register imaginable by people — biased people, with weird hangups and charming habits — telling the stories of their lives through their most tragic, selfish or trivial problems.