These 4 Cases Didn’t Side with The Plaintiff. Do You Think The Outcome Was Fair?
A favorite RD feature is back, with four rulings that infuriated their losers. Do you agree?
The Case of the Broken Lottery Machine
You might say that Pauline McKee is a slot machine veteran. At 87, she had been working the slots for more than six decades. But the “Miss Kitty” machine at the Isle Casino Hotel in Waterloo, Iowa, was new to her. That’s where McKee was playing on July 2, 2011, when, at around 10 p.m., she wagered 25 cents on a spin and won $1.85. But that wasn’t all. A special message also popped up on the game’s screen: “The reels have rolled your way! Bonus Award—$41,797,550.16.” McKee and her daughter, who was playing nearby, excitedly called over a casino attendant. The supervisor on duty took a photo of the screen, told McKee she needed to make a few phone calls, and gave McKee $10 to continue to play while they waited for more information. The supervisor even paid for McKee’s hotel room for the night.
The next day, McKee received a note from the general manager of the casino, who described the situation as “unusual.” She comped all the rooms McKee’s family had stayed in—McKee, a widow and grandmother of 13, had come to Waterloo from her home in Antioch, Illinois, for a family reunion—and explained that she’d contacted the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission (IRGC) to inspect the machine.
IRGC sent Miss Kitty’s hardware and software to Gaming Laboratories International, a testing lab. The logs on the machine showed that the game misinterpreted a notice from the casino’s central system as an award bonus. Miss Kitty was capable of displaying a max bonus of $10,000, but bonuses weren’t technically listed as possible prizes in this Miss Kitty’s rules—which McKee hadn’t read but were accessible by tapping a button on the screen. In other words, the computer had malfunctioned, and the jackpot McKee thought she’d won was, as the IRGC put it, “not valid.” A sign posted on the front of the machine was plain: “Malfunction voids all pays and plays.” As a result, the casino refused to pay the $41.8 million.
On January 26, 2012, McKee sued, claiming, primarily, that the casino had breached a contract by not paying her the bonus. That October, the district court announced it wouldn’t move forward with the case since the rules of the game, which McKee had access to, formed the relevant contract. Ultimately, McKee appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. “Whether the casino intended it to happen or not, Mrs. McKee didn’t do anything wrong,” said her attorney, Steve Enochian. “She played the slots like the casino wanted her to, so it needs to pay.”
Did the casino owe Pauline McKee $41.8 million?
In April 2015, before a jury could hear the case, the Iowa Supreme Court dismissed her claim. And it wasn’t because paying would have sent the casino into bankruptcy, as its attorney, Stacey Cormican, noted to the press. Since Miss Kitty’s rules didn’t “provide for any kind of bonus,” Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote, “McKee had no contractual right to a bonus.” So the casino awarded her the $10,000 max, right? No. A thousand? A hundred? No. She only ever received what she had won on that spin—$1.85. As McKee complained to the Chicago Tribune, “That’s terrible.” These are the secrets lawyers will never tell you.
The Case of the Pet Raccoon
Kellie Greer was walking in Cottage Grove Park near her Seattle home in June 2010 when she spotted two newborn raccoons. She’d already come across a dead adult raccoon in the road, which she assumed was their mother. Still, she waited several hours to see whether an adult raccoon would return for the babies, and when none did, she brought the tiny orphans home. One died that night, but the other held on. Kellie called the Progressive Animal Welfare Society and 15 animal rehabilitation centers in the area. None, she says, had space for the raccoon. So she and her husband, Chris Greer, decided to keep her. They named her Mae.
For seven years, Mae was part of the family, along with two kids, two cats, koi, and chickens. They walked her on a leash, trained her to use a litter box, and built an enclosure for her in their backyard. They called her “human-friendly.” In fact, she regularly posed for photos with the neighbor kids, Seattle police officers, and even Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) game wardens, whom the family ran into on annual fall camping trips to Icicle Creek park.
During one trip in November 2017, the Greers stopped for gas in Coulee City. While Chris pumped, Kellie walked Mae around the parking lot. A WDFW officer, Glenn Steffler, pulled in behind the Greers and asked whether they had a permit to possess a wild animal; it’s illegal to keep raccoons as pets in Washington. Chris fibbed and said yes.
But Steffler checked the records and discovered the truth. A week later, another officer knocked on the Greers’ door. Kellie invited him in. There was Mae, lying on the sofa.
“I need to take her,” the officer said.
“Today?” Kellie asked. Yes, he said.
Mae ended up at Center Valley Animal Rescue in Quilcene. She had a broken tooth and had been too domesticated to ever return to the wild. If she couldn’t be used for educational purposes at the rescue center, she might be euthanized. On December 5, 2017, the Greers sued for custody of Mae. At the Thurston County Superior Court hearing in April 2018, Chris turned to the WDFW’s attorney and said, “We don’t understand why you want her now.”
Should Mae the raccoon be returned to the Greer family?
When the hearing officer decided against the Greers, they wept in the courtroom. They appealed—and lost. “This raccoon is not in good shape,” announced the judge nearly a year after Mae had been taken from the Greers. This was the final ruling and, according to WDFW attorney Neil Wise, the right precedent. Otherwise, he said, “What’s to stop everybody from grabbing animals out of the wild and making pets out of them?” Once no animal shelter would take her, the ruling made clear, the Greers should have simply left Mae to die.
The Case of the Halal KFC
In 2016, Afzal Lokhandwala’s business was booming. He owned eight Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchises around Chicago, most serving large Muslim populations. They knew that Lokhandwala was also a practicing Muslim, and they knew that all the chicken-on-the-bone he sold was halal. To be certified as halal—i.e., “permissible”—the chicken had to be slaughtered, distributed, and prepared according to Islamic religious standards.
Lokhandwala emigrated from India in 1989 and landed a job as an assistant manager at a South Side KFC. He worked his way up to manager, then to franchisee, opening his first KFC in 2003. His franchise director, Ken Taft, helped him find a halal-certified, KFC-approved poultry slaughterhouse, and KFC had “full knowledge and approval” of his marketing the chicken as halal on signs in his restaurant. In fact, Lokhand wala says, several KFC execs visited his restaurant “regularly.”
In 2006, Lokhandwala opened a second franchise, and with KFC’s approval he advertised that the restaurant was halal in the newspaper and on TV. He opened a third franchise four years later. In 2012, he opened five more, in Muslim communities.
But in October 2016, Lokhandwala received a letter from KFC’s corporate headquarters saying that his halal advertising could confuse customers who had been to other KFC shops that didn’t offer halal chicken. Then, in December, a KFC lawyer informed him that he was violating a 2009 KFC policy that prohibited franchises from making religious claims about KFC products. He was told to stop marketing his chicken as halal.
Lokhandwala had not been aware of this policy, and it had never been mentioned when he was negotiating with KFC about opening the five franchises based entirely upon offering halal chicken. Had he known, he says, he never would have purchased those stores. He was now at risk of losing $1 million a year in sales.
In August 2017, Lokhandwala sued KFC, claiming breach of contract and asking the court to stop KFC from preventing him from advertising its chicken as halal. Already, he claimed, sales were down 20 percent. An attorney for KFC, Daniel Weiss, filed a motion to dismiss all claims because the franchise agreement gave the company “the absolute right” to prohibit any advertising of its product.
Should KFC let Lokhandwala continue to advertise halal chicken?
U.S. district judge John Robert Blakey dismissed the case outright on January 23, 2018. “Under the franchise agreement, defendant has every right to bar plaintiff from advertising his products as halal,” Blakey wrote, “even if defendant allowed that advertising in the past.” Lokhandwala was dumbfounded. “You’d think that a company in the business of selling product to as many people as possible would want to reach out to certain communities,” notes his attorney, Michael Goldberg. “It made no sense.” These serious court cases have hilarious names.
The Case of the Towering House
Pierce and Barbara McDowell had lived in their historic home on South Second Avenue in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for 24 years. Built in 1924, it is on the National Register of Historic Places, one of several such buildings in their McKennan Park neighborhood, which is itself a registered historic district recognized for its “well-maintained houses” with “cohesive character.”
The McDowells welcomed new next-door neighbors, Josh and Sarah Sapienza, in 2013. The next year, the Sapienzas submitted plans to the Sioux Falls Board of Historic Preservation proposing to raze their 1920s Tudor house and build a new 4,000-square-foot structure. The architect who’d drawn the renderings had taken into account the state’s special requirements for new construction in historic areas. The board approved the plans.
The Sapienzas’ contractor, Dick Sorum, revised the plans in accordance with the city’s zoning restrictions for height and setback from adjacent properties, but he didn’t realize that historic regulations were different. Sorum took his plans to the city’s historic-preservation office, but the employee he needed to get approval from was out, so he left the plans there. They were never formally approved by the preservation board.
Two months later, in August, Pierce McDowell and Josh Sapienza met for drinks. Later, Pierce sent Josh a text: “I have to forewarn you that my wife is really suffering about all of this. The home is just way too big for the lot … not your problem or fault … just a tough gig for us.” On October 22, the city issued a building permit; the plans did conform to its standard height and size requirements. Still, no one coordinated with the historic-preservation office, even as the foundation was poured in November.
Over the next six months, as the house was constructed, the McDowells were shocked by how close the new structure was to their property and, specifically, to the chimney of their own historic wood-burning fireplace. They called the fire department, which inspected the house, only to turn around and ticket the McDowells for a code violation, ordering them not to use the fireplace or risk responsibility for damages that might occur.
The McDowells hired attorney Steve Johnson, who, on May 8, 2015, sent the Sapienzas a cease-and-desist letter. Still, construction continued. The 4,000-square-foot house ultimately stood 44.5 feet high, exceeding the regulations for historic buildings and towering over the other houses in the neighborhood by an average of more than eight feet. The McDowells sued, claiming the Sapienzas had been negligent and asking the court for injunctive relief—either make the house compliant or knock it down. A circuit judge agreed.
Of course, the Sapienzas appealed, arguing to the state supreme court in October 2017 that they’d followed the rules—they got all board approvals and all the proper permits. Their attorney, Dick Travis, asked the court: “What more could Josh and Sarah Sapienza have done?”
Should the Sapienzas be required to revamp—or demolish—their new home?
“This is a difficult case,” noted Justice Steven Zinter, one of a five-judge panel that heard the case. Chief Justice David Gilbertson asked whether the lower court’s ruling was basically “a demolition order,” and the Sapienzas’ lawyer suggested that his clients compensate their neighbors for the fireplace and lost property value rather than tear down their entire house. But in January 2018, the supreme court affirmed the circuit court’s ruling: Even if the McDowells could be compensated, that “would not remedy McKennan Park’s continuing and long-term loss of its historic character.” In May, a giant crane knocked down the Sapienzas’ home. As Sarah Sapienza watched the demolition, she maintained that she had paid a steep price for a flawed process, telling a reporter, “The city made a mistake; the historic board made a mistake. I did not make a mistake.” Before you start a court case of your own, take a look at these secrets lawyers will never tell you.