IN HIS FASCINATING book "Stabbed With a Wedge of Cheese and Other Cultural Oddities" (Wm. Morrow, 1992), Charles Downey included a chapter on believe-it-or-not litigation in America.

Consider some of the really strange suits we've seen in the United States:

- In 1981, Tom Gerner came up with a name for his dental group in Plattsburg, N.Y. - "McDental." In 1987, McDonald's asked Gerner to drop the name, then filed suit.McDonald's was also concerned about a list of charges for filling teeth, making bridges and doing extractions posted in McDental's waiting room.

It reminded executives of one of their menus. Maybe McDonald's was afraid that the same trepidation associated with a trip to the dentist would be translated to junk food.

- Five campers in the southern Utah desert found a hand grenade and wanted to watch it explode. So they hid behind their cars and threw the grenade into their campfire.

At first, only the primer detonated, making a small pop. When the campers approached the campfire, the grenade exploded a second time, spraying everyone with fragments.

The campers then sued the U.S. government, because the injuries occurred on federally owned property. Appropriately enough, the suit was thrown out by a federal judge in Salt Lake City.

- An extremely obese man who wanted to lose weight checked into a hospital for a stomach-stapling operation. After surgery, he sneaked into the hospital kitchen and ate a hearty snack, popping the staples.

The patient sued the hospital for a quarter of a million dollars, claiming the medics should never have allowed him access to their refrigerator. The patient lost the case.

- In Florida, a man wanted permission to keep two alligators in his home as pets. When officers from the state department of fish and game visited his home in November 1989, they found both alligators in bed with the man.

Because both of the man's legs were bleeding from gator bites, the officers denied the man's application to keep the alligators.

Then they confiscated the alleged pets and gave the man a citation. In turn, he sued to get his property back. He won two lower-court hearings, but an appeals court finally declared it illegal in Florida to keep alligators in one's bed.

- In San Franciso, a cab driver captured an armed mugger in an unorthodox manner - he used his taxi to chase and pin him against the wall of a building.

The mugger had just beaten and robbed a Japanese tourist. In court, the robber pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

But he sued the cab driver and his company for using excessive force and breaking his leg in the capture. The court ordered the cab driver to pay $25,000 for injuries suffered to the mugger's legs.

- When a California woman lost her dog, she offered a $25,000 reward. A couple showed up at the woman's door with the bones of a dog they found in the neighborhood, but the woman refused to pay. The finders of the bones sued - but the judge ruled in favor of the pet owner.

Is this a great country or what?

With cases like these, no wonder many business owners are cautious. One firm that makes and services towel machines for rest rooms now carries the following statement on its machines: "Warning: Do not attempt to hang from towel, or insert your head into the towel loop. Failure to follow these simple instructions can be harmful or injurious."

They must have had an unpleasant lawsuit.