The comic book “Third Planet v. Crowne Plaza Hotel” opens with a full-page, full-color illustration of a middle-aged man in wire-rimmed eyeglasses holding a bowling ball. Multiple fire extinguishers and various articles of silverware fly through the air.
Turn the page and the first brightly-colored panel depicts a low-slung store. The store is topped by a massive sign depicting space explorers in skin-tight spacesuits venturing out from their rocket ship. Beside them is the store’s name: “Third Planet Sci-Fi and Fantasy Super Store.”
The caption informs the reader that Houston’s Third Planet “is believed to be the longest continuously running sole proprietorship comic book store in the nation.”
When not busy with the store, its owner, R.J. Johnson — the bespectacled hero we met on the title page — “spends his time racking up professional bowling titles in the senior circuit.”
But has Third Planet met its nemesis?
Looming over the one-story store, the reader discovers, is an 18-story Crowne Plaza hotel. “Sadly,” a caption alleges, “the Crowne Plaza has long been a location for illicit activities.” Hotel guests have allegedly set vehicles in Third Planet’s parking lot on fire by throwing lit cigarettes from the hotel’s balconies.
If we can believe the comic book, glasses, mugs, plates and silverware have rained down on Third Planet’s roof (“Krack!!! Smash!!!”). We’re told that Johnson repeatedly complained to hotel management, but his complaints were ignored.
In March 2019, the comic book alleges, no fewer than 14 metal canister fire extinguishers were thrown from the hotel onto Third Planet’s roof. A splash page depicts them landing with a “Booooom!!!”
The following page bears the laconic caption: “Then came the rain.” We see Johnson placing buckets beneath his leaking ceiling.
The comic book I’m describing is part of a serious legal document, Plaintiff’s Third Amended Petition, filed in Harris County District Court in the case of Criss-A-Less Inc. v. ASDN Houston LLC.
Other parts of the petition are entirely conventional, using ordinary legal prose to assert claims for negligence, trespass and nuisance.
It seeks reimbursement for the cost of a new roof and ruined merchandise, and a permanent injunction “to prevent further incursions onto Plaintiffs’ land or property.”
Most legal documents are extremely short on visual appeal, consisting entirely of blocks of gray text on a white background.
Third Planet’s inclusion of a full-color comic book in the middle of its petition is wildly novel. But the one-sided tale the comic book tells, of the blameless locked in struggle with the blameworthy, is absolutely typical of the legal pleadings that initiate civil lawsuits.
The law is a storytelling profession. We lawyers might speak of framing the narrative, or more technically of developing a theory of the case, but what those and related phrases mean is that we tell a story. At trial, talking to a judge or jury, the advantage always goes to the lawyer who has the better story to tell.
Ideally, the story will sweep judge and jury along until they realize only one possible ending is acceptable: the good guys must win.
By presenting their allegations in comic book form, Third Planet’s lawyers scraped away the legalese and stilted language to reveal the essential nature of the stories lawyers tell when they initiate civil lawsuits.
The manner in which Third Planet presented its claims is novel. But then, so are the claims themselves. The case asks: can a hotel be held liable for damage done by its guests to a neighboring property?
I’ve never heard of a court answering “yes” to that question, but it’s not much of a stretch. In recent decades courts have been increasingly open to the idea that business owners sometimes have a duty to protect their customers and employees from the criminal acts of third parties.
For example, if a convenience store has been robbed at gunpoint six times in six months, it can be predicted with some confidence it will be robbed again. Given that track record, the law imposes on the store’s owner a duty to take reasonable steps to safeguard its employees and customers.
One question raised by Third Planet’s lawsuit is whether a similar duty, based on notice and the foreseeability of harm, should be extended outward to the store’s neighbors.
Such a result would require a change in the law. But tort law changes when lawyers find an especially colorful way to tell a compelling story. And Third Planet’s petition is nothing if not colorful.
If I were the hotel’s operators, I’d be worried about setting a damaging precedent. The case is set for trial in Houston next April, but settlement may be the most likely outcome.
Joel Jacobsen is an author who in 2015 retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at email@example.com.