The law has developed with society. As a result, some laws are a reflection of a past time when the issues facing society were different. These laws can be unfair, amusing, or even outrageous by today’s standards. However, few governments have taken the time to purge their statutes of obsolete laws. Instead, they leave them on the books, but decline to enforce them.
The problem with this practice is that these laws can be enforced at any time, even if governments choose not to do so at this particular time. This can create a compliance minefield for small businesses.
Small businesses have limited resources to spend on legal issues. As a result, many hire lawyers only when absolutely necessary. Instead, a sound legal strategy by small businesses is to develop a compliance plan to avoid legal issues. That way, small business owners can minimize the risk of lawsuits and enforcement actions, and their accompanying legal fees. Likewise, a detailed compliance plan can help small businesses avoid damages awards, fines, and penalties to the greatest extent possible.
When obsolete laws remain on the books, small businesses face a difficult decision — compliance costs money and opportunities, but non-compliance can place the business at risk. Depending on the nature and scope of the law, businesses often must choose among:
- Challenging the law and getting it invalidated by a court.
- Lobbying the government responsible for the law to repeal it.
- Requesting an opinion letter from the agency responsible for enforcing the law that states the agency will not enforce it.
- Following the law, hoping that it will not be enforced.
- Ignore the law, risking an enforcement action or lawsuit.
Unfortunately, no solution fits all situations. Some weird facts and laws faced by businesses justify spending the time and money to have the law invalidated or repealed. Other weird facts and laws are just understood by everyone, including the government to be obsolete and do not require any action at all. But small businesses must look at each case to decide how to handle its own behavior with respect to the laws.
Here are ten weird facts and laws for small business owners to know:
Weird Facts and Laws that can Land You in Jail
There are many obsolete criminal laws. However, most relate to personal, rather than business, conduct. For example, in New Jersey, it is illegal to ride a bicycle without a bell, horn, or another device that can be heard by pedestrians 100 feet away. In Illinois it is illegal to walk, ride, or drive through a herd of livestock at greater than walking speed.
However, some obsolete laws can be used against small businesses to levy fines or even impose jail time. Violate these laws and your small business could have to cover legal expenses such as attorney fees, fines, and bail bonding.
For example, summer and fall bring fairs, carnivals, and other outdoor street events to many cities around the country. However, many states have strange laws that cover entertainment businesses including:
- Running a contest or game to capture a live turkey, chicken, or greased pig is illegal in Minnesota.
- Massachusetts can fine you for performing or playing a remixed version of the Star Spangled Banner in public.
- Baltimore, Maryland has outlawed fortune-telling. Fortune tellers can be fined up to $500 and jailed for up to one year.
Weird Facts and Laws About Personal Injury
Many states produce weird personal injury laws when trying to protect a valued industry. For example, states with ski resorts often have laws shielding the resorts from liability for skiing injuries absent some egregious behavior by the ski resort in maintaining its grounds. Likewise, states with casinos and amusement parks often limit the liability of casino operators and theme park operators for injuries that occur on the property or even the parking lots.
Some more obscure examples include:
- Llama exhibitors in Georgia are immune from being sued for injuries to llama riders. However, personal injury attorneys can file lawsuits on behalf of spectators injured during llama exhibitions.
- In Louisiana, food businesses are presumed to be immune from suits by customers arising from jambalaya prepared in a traditional manner using iron pots and wood fires. To overcome the presumption, the jambalaya must be shown to have been unwholesome.
- A court case in Mississippi held that a casino is not liable to a patron who died of alcohol poisoning after being served while drunk.
- At least nine states protect health clubs from injuries or deaths caused by misuse of an automatic electronic defibrillator (AED) while attempting to revive a customer during a medical emergency.
Weird Facts and Laws that Cover Day-to-Day Operations
Some of the weird facts and laws that govern small businesses are not limited to obscure or rare circumstances. Rather, many of these laws could be invoked every day, but agencies choose not to do so. For example:
- In Vermont, a business cannot prohibit tenants from using solar collectors or clotheslines.
- North Carolina allows non-profit, charity Bingo games to run for an unlimited time, but restricts commercial Bingo games at bingo halls and casinos to five-hour sessions.
- In Indiana, liquor stores are allowed to sell warm soda and water, but not chilled or iced soda and water.
- Ohio has a law that requires mine operators to maintain an adequate supply of toilet paper in restrooms provided for miners.
For these types of laws, a business may wish to schedule a legal consultation to determine the history of enforcement. If a law is infrequently enforced, or if the agency has issued guidance indicating that the law will not be enforced, your business may save some money by ignoring the law. However, in the absence of such evidence of non-enforcement, your business will have to weigh the costs of compliance against the costs of an enforcement action or lawsuit by the enforcing agency.
Weird Facts and Laws that Affect the Family
If your small business is involved in the adoption or surrogacy process, you likely know that states vary widely in how they safeguard both parents and children involved in adoption and surrogacy.
Many of these laws have good intentions and represent a policy decision about how much to encourage, or discourage, adoption and surrogacy. However, some are redundant and could ensnare an unsuspecting business in a legal mess. For example:
- Pennsylvania draws a very fine line around the types of fees and charges adoption agencies and surrogates can charge. Adoption and surrogacy businesses and individuals that step over the line may be charged with a misdemeanor for selling, bartering, trading, or dealing infants.
- In at least four states, adopted children do not have a right to access their original birth certificate so they can identify their biological parents.
- In some states, a foster parent cannot adopt their foster kids unless they give up their right to foster additional kids and undergo a different adoption background investigation despite already undergoing a fostering background investigation.
Violating these state laws could not only risk fines, but could be grounds for losing your license to run an adoption agency. Rather than accidentally violating these laws, and losing your business, your better option is to consult a child adoption attorney so you can maintain compliance with state laws.
Weird Facts and Laws in a Divorce that can Affect a Business
Unfortunately, a business owner’s or employee’s personal life can intrude on your small business. One circumstance in which this occurs is in divorce law.
Many small business owners do not know that a divorce attorney can impose a variety of requirements on your business to collect information and past due payments from an employee. Some examples include:
- Your business can be subpoenaed for information about your employee’s pay records, disciplinary history, and even work schedule if the spouse wants to know where the employee was on certain dates and times.
- Small businesses can be ordered to garnish the employee’s wages and turn that money over to the spouse to cover past-due child support or alimony
Weird Facts and Laws that can Help Your Business
Not all weird and obscure laws harm your business. There are some that you can take advantage of to help your business. For example:
- In bankruptcy cases under chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, a bankrupt business’s assets are sold or auctioned. If your competitor declares bankruptcy, you may be able to buy your competitor’s inventory, equipment, tools, vehicles, and real estate at fire-sale prices. You may even be able to buy your competitor’s trademarks for business and product names, retiring them for good or adding them to your product and business lines.
- In Texas, computer repair technicians must have a private investigator’s (PI) license. Presumably, this is because of the sensitive data that might appear on a computer. However, if your business has a PI license, you might be able to make some money on the side by opening a computer repair business.
- Billboards are illegal in Hawaii. This gives advertising agencies an opportunity to get creative in how they help businesses reach customers.
Weird Facts and Laws in Bankruptcy
If, on the other hand, your business is the one hiring bankruptcy lawyers to file a bankruptcy petition, you might find the entire process both stressful but bewildering. When your small business files for bankruptcy protection, certain assets are eligible for protection from asset sales. Although bankruptcies are administered by the federal government, states are allowed to determine the assets exempted from liquidation. Some of the more unique examples include:
- Coal, in Maine.
- Church pews, in Michigan.
- A burial plot, one firearm, and a family bible, in Arizona.
- One cow, in Louisiana.
Weird Facts and Laws that Businesses Can Use to Sue Their Lawyer
In 2019, there were about 1.35 million lawyers in the U.S. These lawyers are not immune from rules that regulate how they practice law. Violating these rules can get a lawyer disciplined by the state bar association and may trigger a letter from a legal malpractice lawyer. Some weird examples of how lawyers violated these rules include:
- A lawyer in Virginia was suspended for six months for lying to the state bar about getting drunk and falling asleep during a legal seminar.
- A New Jersey lawyer was disciplined for texting a client to “have a nice time in prison” when the client was unable to pay the lawyer’s bill.
- Similarly, a lawyer in Iowa was disciplined for posting that his client was “an idiot and a terrible criminal” on Facebook.
Weird Facts and Laws Governing Intellectual Property
If your business invents something new or creates a clever brand, it can use patent or trademark law to protect it from competitors. However, intellectual property is a very specialized area of law and it has a few weird nuances that your business’s intellectual property attorney can explain. For example:
- The U.S. Patent Office does not care if your invention actually works. Rather, it issues patents based on whether the invention is novel and non-obvious. Whether it works is up to you.
- However, if the Patent Office finds anything similar, your invention is not novel or non-obvious. This is true no matter how old the other invention is. If your invention in 2020 is similar to a drawing of something used in the U.S. Civil War, the Patent Office will reject it.
- The U.S. Trademark Office used to be able to refuse registration of any vulgar or obscene trademarks or trademarks that are racially disparaging. However, both these restrictions have been struck down under the Constitution’s First Amendment, allowing businesses to apply for a trademark even if the words or logo is offensive.
Weird Facts and Laws Created by Local Governments
While you will not likely need to hire a lawyer for violating these laws, local ordinances are often created in response to a specific incident or news story.
Since local governments are not as closely watched as state and federal governments, and because local lawmakers can usually be influenced by just a few voters, some of the most peculiar laws come from local ordinances. Here are some examples:
- In Waterloo, Mississippi barbers are not allowed to eat onions before noon, in Waterbury, Connecticut barbers are not allowed to sing or hum, and in Elkhart, Indiana barbers are not allowed to threaten to cut off children’s ears.
- Bars in Arvada, Colorado must have lights bright enough to read text and nightclubs in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware cannot serve alcohol while the dance floor is open.
- Restaurants in Wisconsin can only serve margarine instead of butter if the customer requests it and restaurants in North Dakota cannot serve beer and pretzels at the same time.
While these laws are obscure, outdated, and often go unenforced, they are laws that have real consequences. Consulting a lawyer, no matter how silly a law might seem, can help your business avoid a costly legal battle. Worse yet, if you miscalculate, your business could lose its licenses and face fines, and you, as the business owner, might even be subject to jail time.
When it comes to regulatory compliance, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Prevention, in these cases, means working with a lawyer to examine the laws that cover a business, talk to the agencies responsible for enforcing the laws, and developing a compliance plan to comply with the laws.