News of the Weird March 10 2009

LEAD STORY: Belgian workers take sick leave nearly four times as often as U.S. workers, mostly attributed to Belgian law, which grants full salary the first month and then government-guaranteed 80 percent pay indefinitely. A recent study, noted in a January Wall Street Journal report, found that only 5 percent of Belgian leave-takers were proven malingerers, but that the biggest medical problem now is easily diagnosed "depression" (exacerbated by the worsening economy), leading to free-form medical leave-taking and creative treatments often unchallenged, such as for the man who frolicked on the soccer field, bought an Alfa Romeo, and reconnected with old friends (all of which, said his doctor, lessened his depression).

Fine Points of the Law: On successive days in January in the courthouse in Sheboygan, Wis., 17-year-old Alan Jepsen and 17-year-old Norma Guthrie were each charged with sexual assault for having consensual sex with their respective 14-year-old, opposite-sex companions. However, Jepsen was charged with a felony (maximum, 25 years in prison), and Guthrie was charged with a misdemeanor (maximum, 9 months).

In January, a judge at Britain's Bristol Crown Court dropped the case against a 20-year-old man accused of robbing a driving instructor because the victim/witness was "too believable" in her testimony to the jury. Judge Jamie Tabor explained that the victim had only seen the defendant for a split second, but that she appeared so sincere and courageous that the jury probably regarded her courtroom identification of the man as more authoritative than the mere glimpse deserved.

Compelling Explanations: Australia's Queensland Rail agency disclosed in January that it would quickly offer refunds to passengers on a Cairns to Brisbane train that crashed just outside Cairns, but reiterated at the same time that it would not pay refunds to survivors of a November 2008 Brisbane to Cairns train crash that killed two and injured nine. The difference, according to a Queensland Rail general manager, was that the 2009 trip was just getting underway from Cairns when it crashed, but that the 2008 trip, also near Cairns, was "95 percent over" by the time the deadly crash occurred (and thus, the survivors had basically reached their destination).

Not My Fault: Timothy Hoffman, 26, was awarded $76.6 million by a jury in Viera, Fla., in January for becoming paralyzed in a 2003 incident when, on a dare, he dove headfirst into the Indian River, which, unknown to him, was about a foot deep at that point. One reason for the large judgment may have been that the defendant, C&D Dock Works, one of whose employees may have been the one that issued the dare, is bankrupt and did not defend itself at the trial.

Paul Sanchez, 67, an "occasional" golfer, filed a lawsuit in Brentwood, N.H., in February against the Candia Woods Golf Links for a 2006 incident in which his approach shot hit a yard marker in the fairway, bounced back, and struck him in the eye. Sanchez claimed the course owners were negligent in placing the sign in the fairway and also should have warned him that balls would bounce off of it.

Ironies: 1) The $500,000 top prize in Alaska's January statewide lottery, to benefit the organization Standing Together Against Rape, for victims of sexual assault, was won by Alec Ahsoak, 53, who coincidentally is a twice-convicted sex offender. 2) Sweden's Hallands Nyheter newspaper reported in January that a police officer had endured four operations at a private clinic in Gothenburg to correct a birth condition that made one leg shorter than the other, but operations on the longer leg cut off too much, so it is now shorter than the leg that used to be the shorter one.

I Demand My Rights: In January, an appeals court in Newark, N.J., reinstated Doris Sexton's worker-compensation lawsuit against a county-owned nursing home where Sexton had claimed that breathing a co-worker's perfume one day in 2004 had made her permanently disabled and tethered to an oxygen tank. A lower court had decided that it was far more likely that her disability was caused by Sexton's 43-year, pack-a-day cigarette habit.

Inadvertently, Raed Jarrar, 30, made his August 2006 airline flight from New York to Oakland, Calif., pay off handsomely for him, despite some inconvenience and harassment. Jarrar, an Iraqi-born U.S. resident married to an American citizen, was wearing a T-shirt with Arabic lettering at the JetBlue gate at JFK Airport when the airline denied him boarding. After negotiating, he was allowed to board provided he cover the shirt and sit in the back row. In January 2009, JetBlue and two officials of the Transportation Security Administration agreed to pay Jarrar $240,000 to settle his racial profiling lawsuit. (The T-shirt read "We Will Not Be Silent" and was in both English and Arabic.)

Least Competent Criminals: Not Ready for Prime Time: 1) John West, 20, and Ashley Sorensen, 20, were arrested in Auburn, Calif., in January after allegedly stealing the tires and rims off a car. The pair had put the tires on their own car and then violated a cardinal rule by returning to the crime scene to see if the owner had called the police. (She had, and she pointed out the pair's car to officers.) 2) A man who demanded the bank's money in Nicholasville, Ky., in January left empty-handed after an employee at the counter informed him that the building is now a regional water district office and not the bank that used to be there.

Recurring Themes: Dogs Causing Trouble: 1) On the Open Road: A 70-pound pit bull jumped on a car's gearshift at a car wash in Pryor, Okla., in November, sending the car out of the bay, to circle the lot briefly. And a boxer-shar-pei mix similarly jostled the gearshift of a van in Port Jefferson, N.Y., sending it through the front window of a coffee shop. 2) On the Firing Line: Oregon State Police said a gunshot into a boat on Tillamook Bay was probably caused by a Labrador's jumping on a 12-gauge shotgun while the boat was unattended. And a 19-year-old man had several toes shot off on a hunting trip in January in Forrest City, Ark., when his dog jumped onto a shotgun in the front seat of his truck.