What The Public Utilities Code, Toilets And A Porphyrogenetus Emperor Have In Common

Mobile West LLC v. City & County of San Francisco, 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 769 (1st Dist. Sept. 15, 2016) is not the kind of case that I typically write about in this blog.  After all, it has nothing to do with corporate, securities or limited liability company law.  Nonetheless, I found the case intriguing because it involved the interpretation of a single word.  At issue was the meaning of "incommode" in California Public Utilities Code Section 7901 which provides:

Telegraph or telephone corporations may construct lines of telegraph or telephone lines along and upon any public road or highway, along or across any of the waters or lands within this State, and may erect poles, posts, piers, or abutments for supporting the insulators, wires, and other necessary fixtures of their lines, in such manner and at such points as not to incommode the public use of the road or highway or interrupt the navigation of the waters.

The precise issue was whether the term "incommode" in the statute is broad enough “to be inclusive of concerns related to the appearance of a facility”.  The Court of Appeal held that "incommode the public use" means “to unreasonably subject the public use to inconvenience or discomfort; to unreasonably trouble, annoy, molest, embarrass, inconvenience; to unreasonably hinder, impede, or obstruct the public use.”

"Incommode" is formed by three Latin words - in (not), cum (with), and modus (convenience), or inconvenient.   As a noun, "commode" is sometimes used to refer to a toilet, or more specifically a chair with chamber pot.  Interestingly, a common euphemism for a toilet is "convenience" as in "the public conveniences must be ADA compliant".

The Romans also used "commodus" as the third part of a person's name.  Originally, it was probably a nickname for someone who was pleasant or pleasing.  Perhaps the most infamous holder of this name was Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus.  Belying his name but not his visage, Emperor Commodus was anything but pleasant or pleasing.  According to Edward Gibbon, "every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus".  Descending into paranoia and grandiosity, Commodus renamed Rome after himself - Colonia Commodiana. Fortunately, the name change didn't survive his untimely demise.  Like Agamemnon and Marat, Commodus met his end in the bath, where he was strangled by a wrestler named Narcissus.

Director Ridley Scott offers a particularly negative view of Emperor Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix) in his 2000 film, Gladiator.