A Man's Home Is His Castle — So Long As It's Analog

Law, Science

Imagine that you lived in a world where a crazy neighbor could steal thousands of dollars from you. Imagine that you might, if you were lucky, limit the amount of money your crazy neighbor could steal — maybe limit it to thousands or tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands — but ultimately you couldn't stop it all, because the law viewed it as your crazy neighbor's right to steal from you, and your duty as a citizen to live with it.

Guess what, my friend — you do live in that world right now.

We've joked before about the lunatics who think that wi-fi signals impair their health and interfere with their Druidic rituals, despite an utter lack of scientific evidence to support their claims. When people are just pestering their local city council or school board, who probably deserve it, their lunacy is funny.

But when their lunacy takes the form of lawsuits, which costs their victims money and peace of mind in their home, it's not so funny.

We've already blogged about Arthur Fristenberg, who has previously found wi-fi junk science to be an excellent route to lots of attention. Now he's sued a young neighbor, and sought a preliminary injunction against her, for the tort of scrambling his brain with her awful wi-fi signals.

But last October, when a friend of his rented a house on the next block that backed up to Firstenberg's property, the familiar waves of nausea, vertigo, body aches, dizziness, heart arrhythmia and insomnia returned — all, he says, because she was using an iPhone, a laptop computer, a wireless router and dimmer switches.

Firstenberg, 59, wanted Raphaela Monribot to limit her use of the devices. "I asked her to work with me," he said. "Basically, she refused."

So he sued Monribot in state district court, seeking $530,000 in damages and an injunction to force her to turn off the electronics.

There's no science to support it. But you can hire a "doctor" to say anything:

Dr. Erica Elliott, who treated Firstenberg and testified at a hearing on a preliminary injunction, said she signed the wireless petition because she's convinced electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a real disorder that may affect the nervous system.

Mainstream scientists object to the notion that microwaves and radio waves emitted by consumer electronics could cause the reported health problems.

Oh, you "mainstream scientists" and your peer review and facts and scientific method. What do you know about how people feel about science? Thank goodness for people like Dr. Erica Elliott:

Dr. Elliott has been referred to affectionately as the "Health Detective," drawing from a wide range of disciplines, both mainstream and alternative, in order to diagnose and treat chronic illness.

No word on whether Dr. Elliot will offer expert testimony on your behalf if the CIA is beaming bad thoughts into your head, but I'm sure it won't hurt to ask.

Hopefully the judge here will do the right thing and, under New Mexico's equivalent of Daubert, throw the case out.

But even if the judge does so promptly, Raphaela Monribot will be out the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars it took to defend herself. She'll have suffered the stress of having a crazy neighbor use the court system to inflict his delusions upon her. She'll suffer that because she has the misfortune of living near a nutcase, and living in the same community as snake-oil salesman Dr. Elliott, who is willing to testify under oath conflating belief with science. She'll suffer it because our system offers very little disincentive to people like Fristenberg and Elliott to do it. Yes, Monribot could sue for malicious prosecution. That would be uncertain, expensive, and time-consuming.

In a more just system, when the judge dismisses this junk-science case, he or she would have the power to order Fristenberg, his lawyer, and his "expert" Dr. Elliott to pay Monribot's full attorney fees. And if they don't pay immediately? Well, Fristenberg has a house — and that's what court-ordered public auctions are for.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

15 Comments

14 Comments

  1. lynnor  •  Mar 29, 2010 @10:18 pm

    Hmmm….well, suing the neighbor doesn't seem to be the way to go. But I'm not going to completely dismiss his claim to the effects of EMF. An article in popular science was interesting:
    http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-02/disconnected
    And WHO has had presentations on the subject as well. I think it will be a growing concern, but affect a very small percentage of the population. Need something akin to a leper colony for the EMF sensitive?

  2. PLW  •  Mar 30, 2010 @5:42 am

    If you have emphysema, can you sue your neighbor for driving a car that billows exhaust? If you are immuno-suppressed, can you sue him for getting sick to often and coughing too much? It seems like there is some reasonable level of care a neighbor needs to take, but if you have such a serious and unusual illness, it should be incumbent upon you to take measures to protect yourself from harm from people who are just living their normal lives.

  3. piperTom  •  Mar 30, 2010 @6:15 am

    Our tort system (and much more) was designed by lawyers for their own benefit. The problem is centuries old and multi-dimensional, but here are two ideas to begin reform:
    ONE: Eliminate licensure for giving legal advice. It's a barrier to entry that restricts competition. It makes no more sense than requiring a license to give consumer advice. Absent such barriers, it should be fairly cheap for the neighbor to hire consul good enough to get this silly case tossed.

    TWO: The civil courts should not be allowed to take any case, absent evidence of a honest effort at private arbitration. When arbitration cannot be arranged, the first step must be to determine which (if either) party was acting in bad faith in the attempt — that party (or parties) must post bond or show insurance coverage for all costs of the suit.

    And, of course, "loser pays"!!

  4. Chris  •  Mar 30, 2010 @7:05 am

    That linked popsci article reads like someone really needed to write an article after doing that much research, but didn't actually manage to find anything.

  5. wekebu  •  Mar 30, 2010 @8:31 am

    I'm going to look for a fund for Raphaela Monribot. I'm sure she needs help. Can you imagine what this will cost to defend her rights?

  6. Dustin  •  Mar 30, 2010 @8:38 am

    In response to Lynnor, when tested the so called 'WiFi sensitive' people couldn't even actually determine when I wifi signal was present. I think what 'effects a small percentage of the population' is crazy, or perhaps hypochondria.

    http://wifinetnews.com/archives/2006/12/double-blind_mobile_phone_study_for_instance.html

  7. Chris  •  Mar 30, 2010 @8:49 am

    The far simpler answer is that these EM-sensitives are just people prone to sudden bouts of nausea, pain, etc. The odds that they would have one and not be in the presence of some sort of EM radiation is unlikely.

  8. jb  •  Mar 30, 2010 @9:23 am

    The problem with loser-pays is that all too often the wrong side wins. It's not just that the process is the punishment.

    The problem is that the doctrines of personal responsibility and assumption of risk have gone out the window.

  9. mojo  •  Mar 30, 2010 @9:49 am

    Old snow-slider dishes and radio antennas on the roof, pointing in Mr. Looney's direction. Not hooked up to anything, but he doesn't need to know that.

    If you can rig up some waveguide-looking junk, so much the better.

  10. Patrick Herlihy  •  Mar 30, 2010 @11:05 am

    Something is broken with a legal system that allows this, but also grants payment of legal defense costs to the Westboro idiots http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/carroll/bal-protest0329,0,3866909.story

  11. Ken  •  Mar 30, 2010 @11:23 am

    Patrick Herlihy, that's an award of costs, not attorney fees. It's available to any victorious litigant. Costs on appeal include things like filing fees, copying costs (which can be huge when there's a big record), etc. It doesn't mean that one side pays the attorney fees of the other. Winners at the trial court level can get the same thing.

    Thanks to our largely legally illiterate media, this is being incorrectly reported as an award of fees.

  12. George  •  Mar 30, 2010 @2:11 pm

    It's sadly amusing that these people are clueless about the presence of electromagnetic waves everywhere, whether coming from the sun, the galaxy, or a wifi router!

  13. GregS  •  Apr 1, 2010 @8:26 am

    This whole case is ridiculous. The amount of electromagnetic waves that a WiFi device emits is microscopic compared to that emitted by your local AM, FM, and TV stations, by the cell phone towers in your neighborhood, by the radios in the taxis and police cars and delivery trucks that drive by your house, and of course by the sun up in the sky. It's like complaining about the brightness from the light of a candle in his back yard while you're standing outside at noon on a bright sunny day.

    Judges should really have the power to toss out ridiculous cases like this immediately. I also think that "loser pays" would also go a long way to discouraging lawsuits like this.

  14. Benjamin  •  Apr 6, 2010 @7:50 am

    The defendant handled this nut case wrong. She should have told him she stopped using her Wi-Fi and iPhone and then continued to use them. It is not like her nutcase neighbor would be able to tell if she used Wi-Fi or her iPhone.

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