By Lindy F. Bradley, Esq.

As the days grow shorter and darkness falls a bit earlier, it can only mean one thing. Halloween is almost here! In the spirit of All Hallows’ Eve, Bradley, Gmelich & Wellerstein LLP presents you with a few spooky tales to make you shiver in your shoes and hide behind the nearest pumpkin!

He Called Me a What?!

Although Halloween seems an unlikely source for a defamation claim, it has happened. A woman in Florida sued her neighbor for defamation, harassment and emotional distress after her neighbor placed decorations on his lawn which implied that his neighbor’s house was an insane asylum. To add insult to injury, fake tombstones on his lawn included inscriptions which mocked his neighbor’s marital status and appearance.

This is not the first time that a neighbor has sued for an allegedly offensive tombstone.  In an older Federal case which went to trial, a local man placed a collection of tombstones on his lawn which did not go over well with his neighbors. In this case, the local man used his neighbors’ first names on the tombstones, so there could be no mistake as to which individuals the tombstones concerned. One of the numerous tombstones read:

“Bette wasn’t ready, but here she lies ever since that night she died.
12 feet deep in this trench…still wasn’t deep enough for
that wenches stench!”

Somehow, we don’t think Betty included her neighbor on her holiday card list. In fact, Betty contacted the police, indicating her certainty that she was the aforementioned “Bette.” She never discussed her humiliation or embarrassment directly with her neighbor, because she claimed to be afraid of him. The Police Department requested that the man remove the tombstones, and he sued the police officer who made the request. In defending the lawsuit, counsel for the officer presented evidence that the tombstone decorations were perceived as threats. The court agreed and deemed that a rational jury could conclude that the language on the tombstones constituted threats and that the neighbors feared for their own safety.

Should Halloween Be Brought To Work?

Many employers invite, and even encourage employees to come to work in their best costumes on Halloween. It is fun, festive and even funny. So, what could go wrong? In the event that an employee decides to don a racy, or potentially offensive costume, the answer is A LOT! It may even lead to claims of discrimination or harassment by employees offended by a particular costume. While a single outrageous costume may not constitute unlawful workplace harassment, it could be combined with other acts or actions which have occurred in the workplace to constitute an actionable claim. The easiest way to ensure both Halloween enjoyment at a work sanctioned dress up event, while still safeguarding a business, is to provide a clear set of guidelines for what is considered work place appropriate apparel, even on a dress up holiday. As a rule of thumb, costumes which are inappropriate for work include racist costumes, sexually explicit costumes, and costumes that hinder an employee from performing the specific tasks of their employment. It is also advisable to discourage knives, chainsaws and any other (real) sharp objects at the office! Employees might also want to avoid dressing up to mimic their supervisors or employers. That’s just good business!

When Someone Decides To Trick Instead of Treat

Another potential tort disaster is the Halloween prank. In a recent case in Massachusetts, a high school teacher and the school were sued after a student was injured during one such prank. The teacher in question asked a student to answer a knock on the classroom door, and when he did so, was confronted by a masked man with a chainsaw. The student was so startled that he fell backwards, tripped and fractured one of his kneecaps. Although the prank was initiated in good fun, the result was litigation.

Ye Olde Slip and Fall

And finally, just because it is Halloween, does not mean that the day is immune from the most common of injuries…the slip and fall. The plaintiff in this scary tale was a Walmart customer who came to the store when it was stocked with Halloween costumes and other accessories. He took a few steps into the costume aisle, when he slipped and fell on a Halloween wig, injuring his back and his hip. In affirming Walmart’s successful Motion for Summary Judgment, the court held that plaintiff had not established that the wig which caused him to slip and fall had been on the floor for such a period of time that Walmart knew or should have known about it. A hairy situation indeed!