Did a vacuum-flush commode once suck a woman's insides out?

Incredibly, I had never heard of The Straight Dope until recently, a pernicious effect of reading only daily newspapers. In Triumph of The Straight Dope I was surprised to run across the question “Did a vacuum-flush commode once suck a woman’s insides out?,” which Cecil answers by referring to an incident in Vancouver. He assures us that it happened but mentions that some have called it a hoax.

Well, it happened, just as Cecil said it did. The woman was a tourist from my state, attending the Expo in Vancouver and staying aboard a cruise ship being used as a floating hotel. When she came home she sued the cruise line, which I was hired to defend.

Although I learned a lot about vacuum toilet systems in cruise ships, we never did figure out exactly what happened. There is no question that several feet of the lady’s intestine came out – the hospital took pictures. But the engineers insisted that their system couldn’t cause it. Maritime surveyors in Rio, the ship’s next port of call, hadn’t found anything wrong. The toilet seat is vented at the back to prevent such a thing. We guessed that perhaps the woman didn’t use the seat or was big enough to block the vents; but she didn’t seem that fat and insisted that she had used the seat.

After fighting about jurisdiction for a couple of years, during which time the case was tossed back and forth between federal district courts in a couple of states, we settled it. We weren’t eager to let a jury hear about – and see the pictures of – this frightening accident without having a convincing explanation why it wasn’t our fault. And it didn’t help that some years earlier the ship had sunk at the docks in Piraeus.

The lady did not sustain extremely serious permanent injury, though she did have some digestion issues relating to losing several feet of intestine. And I made some money out of it, learned about ships, and got a trip to Vancouver. All in all, things work out.