With Mardi Gras parades and celebrations underway in New Orleans, On Remand looks back to the history of Mardi Gras and some of the strange laws and lawsuits that could only be found in The Big Easy.
On February 27, 1827, a group of students began the Mardi Gras tradition by dancing through the streets of New Orleans in masks and jester costumes to celebrate “Fat Tuesday,” the last day before the forty days of solemnity and penance of Lent. “Throws” — the beads, doubloons, cups, and other items krewe members toss from floats — first made their appearance in 1870. (Earning said throws by flashing some skin is a much more recent trend.) Today, New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras with alcohol, balls, king cake, more alcohol, and elaborate parades. With the open container laws in New Orleans, and the threat of being trampled by the parade crowds or struck by a throw, Mardi Gras should be a boon for personal injury lawyers. It’s dangerous out there, so let’s assess the risks.
First, the story of a coconut and its victim. Zulu, one of the legendary Mardi Gras krewes, introduced its signature throw, the coconut, in 1910. The coconuts – painted and adorned with various designs – are one of Mardi Gras’ most prized throws. But not everyone wants one. At the Zulu parade in 2006, as elderly parade attendee Daisy Palmer allegedly turned her attention from one float to the next, Namaan Stewart, a rider on the previous float, launched what a bystander called “The Coconut Artillery” – five coconuts rapidly tossed in succession. Tragically, Palmer was struck (although she was unsure whether the coconut was part of Stewart’s arsenal). The coconut inflicted immediate and lasting injuries: a bloody cut, a loss of interest in Mardi Gras, and nightmares of flying coconuts. . .
Palmer sued the organizers of the Zulu parade, the alleged artilleryman (Stewart), and the krewe’s insurance companies for damages. But, in addition to the questionable damages, the suit had another hurdle: Louisiana R.S. §9:2796. The statute prohibits lawsuits against krewes or their members for loss or damage in connection with Mardi Gras parades, except in the case of gross negligence. Worse yet for Palmer’s case was the “missile” provision of the statute, specifying that a parade attendee:
. . . assumes the risk of being struck by any missile whatsoever which has been traditionally thrown, tossed, or hurled by members of the krewe. . . The items shall include, but are not limited to beads, cups, coconuts, and doubloons. . .
Ultimately, the judge found that Palmer failed to show gross negligence by either Zulu or Stewart, and dismissed the case on summary judgment.
Coconuts, which weigh about three pounds fully grown, were not always on the list of approved missiles. After being conked by multiple coconut suits, Zulu found itself uninsurable. Fortunately, the Louisiana State Legislature stepped in to save the coconut. It passed the “Coconut Bill” in 1988, adding the tasty drupe to the statute.
While coconuts have been on the “approved missile list” for the last 25 years, several other items appear on the list of “prohibited throws” (Sec. 34-28). You won’t find Nemo at Mardi Gras. Thankfully, New Orleans saw fit to prohibit launching marine life and other animals – dead or alive – from Mardi Gras floats. And if drunken revelers wind up in the sack, guess what they might not have handy? Protection. Condoms and other prophylactics are also on the list of prohibited throws.
Flying coconuts, beads, and fish are not the only Mardi Gras threats, and spectators are not the only victims. Harry Shearer, the actor best known as the voice of a number of Simpsons characters and for playing bassist Derek Smalls in the rockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” suffered from his participation in Mardi Gras 2012. That year, Shearer was a guest on a float in the Bacchus parade. After Shearer was securely strapped in on the float and unable to move, he was blasted with loud music from a speaker behind him. Unaware that conditions on a Mardi Gras float are not unlike those in an “enhanced interrogation,” Shearer asked the DJ to turn down the volume or provide earplugs. His requests were ignored. After enduring four hours of loud music, Shearer was released, but months later, still suffered from ringing in his ears and hearing loss. A year later, he sued. The defendant’s response? Spinal Tap, not Mardi Gras, might have caused Shearer’s hearing trouble. Well, Spinal Tap did use an amp that went up to 11. Or is Mardi Gras the place “where eardrums go to die?” Above the Law’s readers may never know as the pleadings are not available online and Breaking Media would not approve my expense request for tickets to New Orleans to complete my “research” for this column.
So, if you’re headed to celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans, pack your helmets, prophylactics, and earplugs. At the very least, be sure to have Brian Tannebaum’s business card with you in case of trouble.
Zulu Coconut Lawsuit Thrown Out On Appeal [The Times-Picayune]
Harry Shearer Claims Negligent Bacchus Float DJ, Not Playing With Spinal Tap, Damaged His Ears [The Times-Picayune]
Samantha Beckett (not her real name) is an attorney with more than ten years of experience working in Biglaw. When not traveling back in time, she is most likely billing it. Her writing has been featured in state and federal courts across the nation and in the inboxes of countless clients, colleagues, and NSA analysts. She can be reached at OnRemand@gmail.com.