April Fools! It's No Joke When Silly Pranks Turn into Serious Lawsuits

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Although its origins are unclear, the celebration of April Fool's Day on April 1 has been around for centuries. While pranks, practical jokes, and hoaxes among friends probably won't get you into any trouble (assuming you know your friends well), remember that the legal concept of liability never takes a holiday—not even on April Fool's Day.

Not everyone has a sense of humor

Lawsuits show that not everyone has a sense of humor about being the butt of an April Fool's joke. Two involve radio stations using a play on words for a prize giveaway. On April 1, 2005 in California, Shannon Castillo thought that she had won a new Hummer, the tank-like sports utility vehicle, from KBDS-FM, but when she showed up to collect her prize, she was handed a toy replica. When Castillo realized the whole thing had been a joke, she turned the tables and sued the station for $60,000, the cost of a new Hummer.

In another radio station prank on the same day in Tennessee, Norreasha Gill was the 10th caller in WLTO-FM's contest to win "100 grand." Gill believed she would be receiving $100,000, but when she arrived, she was handed a 100 Grand candy bar. When she threatened a lawsuit, she was offered $5,000, but she turned it down and is suing the station instead, claiming that DJ Slick, who ran the hoax and is no longer with the station, intended to "cheat, defraud, and play a malicious joke on the plaintiff."

Practical jokes aren't just limited to radio giveaways

Practical jokes using wordplay go beyond the radio. In 2002, Jodee Berry, a Hooters waitress, won the company's beer sale contest and expected to receive a Toyota as a prize. Instead, she was presented with a toy Yoda, a doll from the Star Wars movies. Berry quit her job and sued Gulf Coast Wings, Inc., the Hooters franchise for which she had worked, for breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation. The case settled out of court, and Berry's lawyer, David Noll, was quoted as saying that his client could now "pick out whatever type of Toyota she wants."

Of course these are all examples of impersonal hoaxes in which a large entity conspired to play tricks on many people with only the "winner" being the real punchline. What about practical jokes and pranks by the average citizen?

Know and understand your target audience

The single most important thing to remember is that you should always know your targets so that you can accurately predict their reactions. Anonymous practical jokes are simply too risky these days from both a safety and legal perspective. Not knowing how someone might respond to physical contact, threats, or property damage greatly increases the likelihood of both real injury and a future lawsuit—even something like rigging up a water fountain so that it sprays water on an unsuspecting victim can cause physical and emotional injuries as well as spark a lawsuit.

Employers can get into trouble

Employers can be held liable for employees' practical jokes. Employers are in a particularly difficult position because they must stay on top of any improper employee horseplay but also don't want to spoil all fun in the workplace—extreme lack of supervision or over-protective control can both have negative impacts on employee morale as well as legal liability.

So with all of these doomsday scenarios, is April Fool's Day as we know it destined to die? Probably not, at least on a more personal prank scale, but if courts continue to award compensation to non-laughing victims, the first of April just might start to rival Christmas and Valentine's Day for the title of Most Expensive Holiday. And that's no joke.