The Washington Supreme Court has reinstated a decision that Dr. Robert Woo’s business-insurance policy should cover a settlement payment he made to a former employee after he installed tusks in her mouth, temporarily, while she was under anesthesia for a different procedure. ("Different procedure" was the phrase the AP used to clarify that the woman was not intentionally having tusks installed in her mouth.) The employee quit, saying she felt humiliated after finding out that Woo had taken pictures of her and her temporary tusks as a practical joke and that everyone in the office had seen them. Woo paid $250,000 to settle the woman’s lawsuit.
Fireman’s Fund refused to cover that payment, saying it was an intentional act and not part of Woo’s normal business activities. After Woo paid the plaintiff, he sued Fireman’s Fund. A King County jury agreed with him (or just didn’t like insurance companies) and awarded Woo the $250,000 plus another $750,000 on top of that.
I’m just sitting here reflecting on the fact that one million dollars can change hands in a dispute over a practical joke, but I’m not a millionaire after working reasonably hard for over a decade. Obviously I’m doing something wrong. Not sure who I resent more — the woman who got a quarter-million for not being able to take a joke, or the dentist who got three-quarters of a million for taking pictures of a lady with fake tusks.
The Court of Appeals reversed the award, saying the act was a prank and not part of the practice of dentistry, but the state supreme court reinstated it. According to the opinion, the "back story" was that the employee’s family raised potbellied pigs and that she frequently talked about them at the office, and that frequent pig-related jests were made as part of an attempt (in Woo’s version) to create a "friendly working environment." The majority in the 5-4 decision found (according to the report) that the joke "was an integral, if odd, part of the dental surgery" the assistant was having anyway, which seems dubious. The court may only have been holding that it was a close enough question that the jury’s decision should not have been interfered with. The dissenters wrote that the decision only "rewarded obnoxious behavior" (which I personally don’t feel is a bad thing) and in fact allowed him to profit handsomely (which does seem unreasonable).
Woo’s lawyer said his client, who he described as "a kindhearted, fun-loving man," was delighted with the high court’s decision.
Link: AP via SFGate.com