Courting trouble

A tourist asks me what my greatest fear is. I reply that I live in dread of being sued for damages. At least being eaten by a predator is over fairly quickly. These legal disputes can drag on for ever while rapacious lawyers feed on your liquid assets like leeches. Thankfully, no one would waste time pressing a suit against me in the Congo, because the chief justice of the supreme court is pretty much in my pocket. I’ve been in his good books ever since he sent his wife to us for a rigorous programme of jungle aerobics. The exercises we made her do had the benign side-effect of tightening up her coochie, which reputedly put a permanent smile on the old bugger’s face.

This ugly business of suing people first came to my notice in England, when I was employed by the circus. I read about an actress winning a tidy sum from a newspaper which wrote she had “a big bum”. I was horrified by this. I must have said the same thing about at least a dozen women – and meant it as a compliment more often than not. When I mentioned this ignoble occurrence to a clown, he opened his mouth and licked his teeth like a lizard. “The English libel laws are like cunnilingus,” he quipped, “one slip of the tongue and you’re in the shit.”

Libel is less of a worry in America because their constitution permits you to talk utter crap to anyone who’ll listen. What you have to worry about there is people claiming – on the flimsiest evidence – that you are responsible for some mishap they suffered. I almost fell foul of this custom when touring there with the circus. We had just finished a show in New York and I decided to spend my day-off watching a baseball match at Shea Stadium. As I hurried to the ticket office, I accidentally bumped into an enormously fat woman who had crossed my path. Luckily, I managed to check myself sufficiently to avoid knocking her over, but she did wobble a fair bit. She was being escorted by an equally gross and exceptionally evil-looking fellow, whom I took to be her husband.

“Watch where yer goin’ yer big hairy baboon!” he snarled.

“Are you addressing me or your wife?” I asked in reply, seeking clarity on the facts before commenting on his outburst.

This perfectly straightforward question caused him to swing his fist wildly at me. Fortunately, I managed to intercept the blow with my head, which caused him to drop to his knees and bleat like an injured moose, clutching his hand in agony. It turned out that he’d broken several bones, but he could hardly blame me for that. Or so I thought. A month later, when we were giving a show in San Francisco, a letter was delivered to us by courier. It was from a legal firm representing the man and presented a list of grossly-inflated compensation demands. These items included medical expenses, emotional distress, post-traumatic stress counselling, loss of earnings and cosmetic surgery (for both the man and his wife).

The ringmaster wanted to take legal advice, but I argued strongly against it. I told him to leave the matter in my hands and let me bear the consequences. All I did was return the letter to sender after writing the following sentence at the bottom with a fountain pen:

The demands made in this communication are frivolous and without merit.

I never found out what the denouement was, because we left the country a week later. As a precaution, however, I arranged for all my US assets to be transferred to Dr Whipsnade’s name.

These wretched lawsuits seem to get sillier and sillier. The latest one that made me want to thump my chest was a claim for $6 million by an exhibitionist street performer who calls himself “The Naked Cowboy”. He alleges trademark infringement by a maker of confectionaries that used the nude cowpoke motif in an advertisement. This is preposterous. If a man can copyright stripping off his clothes and putting on a cowboy hat, the law is an ass with carrot up its backside. How I wish someone would find an old photo of Wyatt Earp in the buff to prove that this bare-bodied busker was not the originator of his cockamamie modus operandi. The living descendants of Mr Earp could then sue Billy the Nekkid for the very transgression he accuses others of. “Let every poisonous snake enjoy a dose of its own venom,” as we say in the jungle.

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