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JFK and the Donkey-Riding Senator

Posted January 12, 2017

By Jonathan A. Karon

In my last blog post, I discussed the unique situation of our President-elect who is a party to numerous lawsuits. While researching that post, I learned that President Kennedy was named as a defendant in two personal injury cases after he was elected. I just had to find out what actually happened. So, below is the story of “JFK and the Donkey-Riding Senator”.

President Kennedy was sued in 1962 by four Mississippi delegates to the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. They claimed that they were standing in front of a hotel trying to hail a taxi to take them to a party thrown by a famous Washington hostess. JFK, who was running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, saw them and offered them his car and driver. They accepted and left for the party, without President Kennedy, who did not go with them. The car got into an accident.

One of the delegates was a Mississippi State Senator named Hugh Lee Bailey. His nickname was “the Donkey-Riding Senator”. He claimed that his injuries left him unable to ride a donkey and thus he would lose his nickname. He sued President Kennedy and sought damages of $250,000. (The other three delegates brought a separate lawsuit for their injuries).

The Donkey-Riding Senator was represented by Marvin Mitchelson, who later became famous for bringing “palimony” suits on behalf of former, unmarried, live in partners of the rich and famous. He made a creative (and somewhat dubious) argument to get around California case law that made it difficult for a guest to sue their host in these circumstances. He argued that his client were not guests, but had “paid” JFK for the ride by considering voting for him as the Democratic nominee.

President Kennedy tried to have the case dismissed on the basis of the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act, a law which stays (puts a temporary freeze on) lawsuits against active military personnel. His lawyer argued that as Commander in Chief, the law applied to him. Judge Emil Gumpert of the Los Angeles Superior Court didn’t buy it and held that the President could be sued the same as everyone else. After which, JFK settled with the Donkey-Riding Senator for $17,500.

Sadly, Hugh Lee Bailey, the Donkey-Riding Senator, seems to have been otherwise lost to history. I have been unable to uncover the details of how he acquired his nickname, his political career or most importantly, if he was ever able to ride a donkey again. To add insult to injury, the entire Mississippi delegation voted for Mississippi’s governor on the first and only ballot of the convention.

I would like to thank my Law Clerk, Cristina LoCurto, for her invaluable research assistance and I promise that my next blog post will be on a more useful (but probably much less interesting) topic.


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