Mardi Gras coconut sets off a legal drama


Mardi Gras 2006: Daisy Johnson Palmer, a retired teacher, was watching the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade pass the corner of Canal and Dauphine streets when she was struck in the head by a flying object that she believes was a coconut.

That coconut, if that’s indeed what it was, sparked a negligence suit and an only-in-Louisiana legal drama that continues to this day — one that has commanded the attention of two district judges, an appellate court panel, and now, possibly, the Louisiana Supreme Court.

It also has generated reams of deeply weird deposition transcripts that mix Perry Mason earnestness with a touch of Marx Brothers. From Palmer’s deposition:

Q: Why don’t you describe the nightmares?

A: I just — I dream that I’m being hit by the coconut that —

Q: And is that the best description you can give?

A: And I just see the coconuts and — and I dream I’m, you know, at the parade and the coconut is coming toward me, striking me in my eye.…

Getting coconuts in the hands of Mardi Gras revelers is a century-long trademark of Zulu, the traditionally African American carnival krewe that famously — or infamously, depending on one’s perspective — takes to the streets in blackface each Mardi Gras.

The “Zulu coconut” is easily the most prized of all of New Orleans’ carnival baubles: Typically painted in a lively Afro-Caribbean style, it stands out as an object of folk art amid the bag-loads of junky beads chucked to crowds.

Over the years, a number of people has sued after allegedly being beaned by coconuts, prompting the krewe to adopt a no-throwing rule (coconuts are usually handed to revelers).

Palmer, in her 2006 filing, said she suffered from head injuries, the nightmares, depression and “a loss of interest in Mardi Gras.”

Her efforts have been stymied by a longstanding state law known as the Mardi Gras immunity statute, which protects krewes from lawsuits over injuries resulting from the stuff traditionally thrown from floats —including “beads, cups, coconuts and doubloons.”

The coconut was specifically added to that list by the Legislature in 1987, after a Mardi Gras at which Zulu did not give them away at all — because lawsuits had frustrated the krewe’s attempt to get insurance.

The immunity statute has an important wrinkle, however: Krewes and riders can be subject to lawsuits if they engage in a “deliberate and wanton act or gross negligence.” That is one of the reasons Palmer’s lawsuit — despite being denied a trial at the district and appellate court levels — may still have legs.

In an appeal to the state Supreme Court last month, Palmer’s attorney, Edwin R. Fleischmann Jr., argued that the coconut toss had to be gross negligence, in part because it violated Zulu’s no-throwing policy.

The suit charges that it was Zulu’s vice president, Naaman Stewart, who threw the coconut — one of five he allegedly threw “in quick succession” toward the back of the float. Zulu rules also specify not to throw things behind their floats, presumably because viewers might not be paying attention.

Those allegations, Fleischmann wrote to the high court, “displayed an absence of the slightest care for the spectators behind his float.”

Stewart — a defendant in the suit, along with Zulu’s insurer — has denied striking Palmer with a coconut, though video apparently shows him throwing a number of coconuts into the crowd. Stewart has also noted that these were new “lightweight” coconuts that are hollowed of meat and milk, unlike the traditional version.

The defendants have asserted that the no-throwing rule does not apply to the light coconuts. Even if it did, defense attorney Thomas R. Hightower Jr. wrote, the immunity law should apply.

“An internal policy cannot override a statute,” Hightower wrote.

Along the way, the lawyers have cited from Louisiana’s plentiful case law, in which people say they have been hit by flying stuff. In a 2000 case against the Louisiana Irish-Italian Assn. Inc., a reveler alleges to have been struck in the face by a lollipop and a cabbage. Float riders in New Orleans’ Irish-Italian parade have traditionally thrown vegetables to crowds to help them make a stew.