Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Ben Chavis had no idea what he was getting into when he crossed Mary E. Stansel. Friends say the 49-year-old former aide to Sen. Howell Heflin is a "woman of great commitment" who fights for what she believes. She is also a lawyer who has sued Eastern Air Lines for negligence, the National Bar Association for defamation and an 81-year-old woman for fraud, leaving a trail of subpoenas and discovery requests from Alabama to Washington.

Stansel's 1991 lawsuit against octogenarian Ruby Gerald -- described by her lawyer as "an invalid suffering from crippling arthritis" -- shows just how litigious she can be. Stansel claimed the heating and air conditioning of the house Gerald sold her didn't work and sued, seeking $50,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The judge wanted to resolve the case through arbitration. But Stansel didn't like the terms and tried to name two real-estate agents as co-conspirators. Rather than sit through a trial, the ailing Gerald agreed to pay her "less than $10,000," according to one source. "This was a matter that never should have gotten to litigation," says Gerald's attorney, Joshua Muss.

Officials at the National Bar Association had similar thoughts about the suit Stansel brought against them in 1990. Stansel had been active in the black lawyers' group for years when its president alleged that she was misrepresenting herself as co-chair of the NBA's convention committee. He ordered her to "cease and desist." Stansel sued for $400,000, claiming that he'd asked her to serve as co-chair and that his statements had caused her "personal and professional embarrassment and humiliation." "It was a trivial matter," said executive director John Crump. But the bar group paid her $5,000 -- far less than it would have cost to fight the case.

Eastern Air Lines wasn't so easy. After getting whacked on the knee by a beverage cart during a 1983 flight, Stansel sued, charging that the cart caused her "serious and permanent injuries," a loss of income and "interference" with her "normal lifestyle." She demanded $540,000. This one actually got to trial -- a three-day affair in which Stansel's attorney argued that Eastern flight attendants had negligently operated the beverage cart. Unmoved, the jury awarded her nothing.

Stansel, who has appealed, did not respond to Newsweek requests for comment. Friends say none of this proves that she files frivolous claims; the knee injury later forced her to leave her job with Heflin and take workers' compensation. But Stansel had problems with Heflin, too. She served as the Alabama Democrat's liaison to black constituents -- and considered suing for discrimination when she was passed over for a promotion. Heflin escaped partly on a technicality: members of Congress are immune from discrimination suits. But as Chavis and the NAACP have learned, anybody who slights Mary Stansel is likely to see her in court.