Below is my column in the Hill Newspaper on an annual list of Christmas torts and mishaps. Santas feature prominently this year.
Christmas is finally upon us and lawyers will soon be nestled all snug in their beds while visions of contingency cases dance in their heads. ’Tis the season for holiday mayhem and many families will serve up not just Christmas tortes but Christmas torts. Indeed, the miracle of the holiday can be found in the many mishaps that result in no carnage or charges. The holidays are made for sugar plums and slip-and-falls. With crowds, long distance travel, dry Christmas trees and hectic shopping added into the mix, the conditions are ripe for accidents. Ice, snow, alcohol, strained family relations, faulty lights and stress do the rest.
According to the National Fire Prevention Association, roughly 200 homes burn each year due to Christmas tree fires, at an annual cost of $14 million. The University of Alabama Center for Advanced Public Safety analyzed 10 years of state car crash data and found that the most perilous are the “shopping days before Christmas.” The six days before Christmas accounted for 18 percent more auto accidents than the Thanksgiving period and 27 percent more than the days around New Year’s. According to AAA, roughly 30 percent of all car accidents occur in parking lots.
Santas feature prominently this year in holiday incidents. Over a dozen rowdy Santas were arrested in Hoboken, N.J., at “SantaCon.” They were not the only inebriated elves out of control. In England, Father Christmas appeared on the streets of Warrington as excited children poured out of their homes. People, however, were soon pulling children back as the red-faced Santa screamed, “I can’t stop! The clutch has gone,” as his vehicle sped past the children, unable to stop.
At least, the Warrington Santa was allowed on the road. In Brighton, England, Santa was barred from riding his motorized sled last week after lawyers demanded a roll bar and seat belt. The sleigh moves at five miles an hour. Instead of the Santa that has appeared for 40 years, children saw a creepy, translucent Snow Queen dummy.
Of course, sometimes Santa himself can be his greatest menace. In Gulfport, Fla., a charity decided to have Santa arrive by parachute for children awaiting presents. The problem, as shown in a viral video, is that the Santa proved less nimble with chutes than with reindeer. Gerald Krokus first hit a tree and then a light pole. The perplexed children then watched Santa carted off by EMT elves with a broken leg.
Santas are not the only hazards on the road. According to a AAA, 20 million Americans who purchased a live Christmas tree in the last three years did not properly secure it to their vehicle. Road debris, including poorly secured Christmas trees, cause more than 200,000 crashes that resulted in 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths over the past four years. Two-thirds of those accidents are caused by poorly secured items on top of cars.
I certainly made my contribution. Years ago, my wife and I set out for our annual holiday drive to Chicago with a van filled with four kids and a dog. We quickly packed a new luggage carrier solid with the gifts for our young children for the trip. We were on the highway at midnight when we heard a massive bang as our overstuffed carrier broke open in the middle of a two-lane highway. All of the wrapped presents were strewn across the highway and ground into holiday chum by 18-wheelers moving at 90 miles an hour.
Unable to find a flashlight after pulling over, I borrowed my six-year-old son Jack’s pretend video camera to use its light. I assured him that nothing would happen to his cherished gift. That is when the cord of the camera caught in the automatic closing van door and smashed it on the asphalt. I returned with a single pair of gift pajamas with a tire mark, and we drove the 12 hours to Chicago trying to figure out how we would buy a van full of toys in the next 24 hours.
Many of the holiday torts incidents occur indoors due to either poor cooking or poor company. There is the preparation of food for large numbers of people with a mix of ad hoc and alcoholic measures. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) in England has actually launched a new education campaign to get people to “avoid the Turkey trots” by taking basic protective measures. The FSA found that 69 percent, or 11 million people, cooking frozen turkeys for their Christmas dinner fail to use sanitary measures, leading to high risks of food poisoning.
In many cases, the problem is simply one of close proximity. Some families, like Santa, should only visit but once a year, if that. In Red Lion, Pa., Karen Elaine Harrelson, 52, was arrested for allegedly assaulting Kayla Renee Still with the family Christmas tree. The fight apparently started over Harrelson lighting a cigarette inside the house. It ended with Harrelson picking up her grandmother’s Christmas tree and throwing it at Still. She was charged with “terroristic threats” as well as assault.
Some holiday scuffles, however, can be downright adorable. In Dandridge, Tenn., the annual Christmas show was interrupted when Teegan Benson, 2, stole the baby Jesus from the manger. As recorded on another viral video, she was then stopped by her friend, Collia Weems, 3, who was playing Mary. The struggle over the baby Jesus left both crying as Collia declared, “Teegan jacked the baby Jesus, I had to jack him back.” Whatever assault occurred was forgiven in the interests of holiday cheer, and the play was enhanced by plot twist that was a combination of “Taken” and “A Christmas Story.”
For all of these incidents, the holidays find us more at our best than our worst. Whether it is an out-of-control Santa or cascading Christmas gifts, we overcome much in coming together. That’s the point. As Garrison Keillor said, “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”