Rice Recipe Causes Nervous Breakdown

Classic weird legal news of the 1990s

Clive Streeter/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

People can sue for any reason, deserving or not. And they do. But of course, just because a person sues, that doesn't mean they're going to win, or even that a court will agree to hear their case. 

One of the classic weird legal cases that illustrates this point was that of Bobbie June Griggs who sued a South Carolina utility company claiming she had suffered injury (both emotional and physical) because it had published her rice recipe.

The Injury

The events began in 1989 when South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) invited people to submit recipes for its Third Annual South Carolina Rice Cookoff.  Bobbie June Griggs of Charleston decided to compete. She had a recipe that she'd been developing for ten years, and which she was extremely proud of. She called it "June's Creation." It featured canned tomatoes, meatballs, onions, and bell peppers on a bed of rice.

When the time for judging came, Mrs. Griggs didn't make the cut to be a finalist. Nevertheless, SCE&G published her recipe in the contest cookbook (Rice — A Lowcountry Tradition: The Official Cookbook for the Third Annual South Carolina Rice Cookoff) that it later put together to commemorate the event. In fact, it published all the submitted recipes.

This didn't sit well with Mrs. Griggs. After all, she reasoned, she hadn't given them permission to publish her recipe, nor had the utility ever indicated that it would publish all submissions.

Furthermore, she feared that the recipe's publication would prevent her from submitting it in other contests. So she asked them to remove her recipe from the book.

According to her later testimony, SCE&G agreed to do so, and then sent her a copy of the cookbook without her recipe in it. However, Mrs. Griggs subsequently discovered that copies of the original cookbook (the one with her recipe in it) were still being distributed.

 

That discovery was bad news. She began to feel stress and rage at the thought of her rice recipe, which had taken her so long to create, being summarily taken from her. Soon the emotions overwhelmed her, and then she suffered a nervous breakdown, forcing her to seek psychiatric help.

The Remedy of the Law

At this point, your average person might have dropped the issue. After all, it was just a rice recipe. However, Mrs. Griggs felt she had been done wrong, and she was driven to seek justice. 

So in 1992 she filed a civil case against SCE&G in the Charleston County court, bringing a variety of claims against them. These included "conversion, negligence, quasi-contract, and outrage" as well as "negligent infliction of physical injury and intentional infliction of emotional distress."

Her husband, Peter, joined in the suit by filing a claim of "loss of consortium." What this meant, in layman's terms, was that marital relations between him and Bobbie June had ground to a halt, and he blamed this on the utility.

SCE&G's lawyers promptly moved for a dismissal of the case. They argued that Mrs. Griggs's case revolved around a copyright dispute, and state courts lacked jurisdiction in that area.

Mrs. Griggs would need to file a claim of copyright infringement in the appropriate federal court if she wanted to sue them. The county court agreed and dismissed the case.

Undeterred, Mrs. Griggs appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court. However, it agreed with the lower court that state courts had no jurisdiction over a copyright dispute. So again, the case was dismissed.

A disappointed Mrs. Griggs told the Associated Press, "The little person doesn't stand a chance. It's easier to squash a little person than to say a big company is wrong."

Why a Civil Case?

Two courts had told Mrs. Griggs that her case was really a copyright issue. So why didn't she sue SCE&G for copyright infringement?

One can only speculate, but the reason is probably because she had never registered her recipe with the copyright office.

 

In the United States, according to copyright law you have to register a work before you can sue anyone for infringing its copyright. It's possible to register after the fact, but in such cases the amount of damages it's possible to seek is typically very low. So low that court costs could easily exceed any damages awarded. Which is why, if you've created a work that might have commercial value, you should always register it as soon as possible to gain the maximum legal protection.

Mrs. Griggs probably reasoned that if she was going to get any kind of real justice (and financial compensation), she needed to file a civil case against the utility in the state courts. Unfortunately for her, the state courts didn't agree with her strategy.

On To The Supreme Court

Mrs. Griggs, by her own admission, had already spent in excess of $9,500 in legal fees. It had become a very expensive rice recipe. But, as the saying goes, in for a penny, in for a pound. So in 1995 she appealed to the Supreme Court in Washington D.C.

Her lawyer presented several arguments to try to convince the Supreme Court to hear the case. First, he asserted that SCE&G "should have known that her discovery of its blatant deception would be physically and emotionally devastating."

Second, he argued that Mrs. Griggs couldn't file a copyright claim because a "single recipe can't be copyrighted." So she was forced to seek redress in the civil courts. 

In April 1996, the Supreme Court issued eight words in response: "The petition for writ of certiorari is denied."

In other words, case dismissed — again.

Mrs. Griggs had reached the end of the road in her crusade for justice. There was no higher court to appeal to. All she could do was vent to the press, saying, "I'm not surprised. Everything's political. The average person does not stand a chance coming up against a company in a case like this." [AP News Archive, 4/22/1996]

The Recipe

What about the recipe that stood at the heart of this case? With so much time and money spent over it, it must have been a remarkable dish.

But that's one of the oddest things about the case, because the recipe itself seems quite ordinary.

If you're curious, you can find the entire recipe here and try it out yourself. It consists of unseasoned meatballs in a tomato sauce with green peppers and onions, served over a bed of rice. 

Nothing about the recipe stands out as particularly inspired or original. At least, nothing worth spending thousands of dollars in legal fees over.

But then again, if people always behaved sensibly, what would happen to weird news?