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Stella Awards: Don’t Believe the Hype

*Heavy Sigh*

I love my relatives, I really do.  But they’re good ol’ fashioned country-fied Christian-folk with not a whole lot of knowledge about the internets.  I think they know it’s not a series of tubes, but beyond that, well…

This bit of internet flotsam made it to my Inbox today from my dear Aunt.  You may have seen it before:

It’s time once again to review the winners of the Annual “Stella Awards.” The Stella Awards are named after 81 year-old Stella Liebeck, who spilled hot coffee on herself and successfully sued McDonald’s (in NM). That case inspired the Stella Awards for the most frivolous, ridiculous, successful lawsuits in the United States.

Here are this year’s winners:

7th Place: Kathleen Robertson of Austin , Texas, was awarded $80,000 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running inside a furniture store. The owners of the store were understandably surprised at the verdict, considering the misbehaving little toddler was Ms. Robertson’s son.

The rest of the email and my response after the jump…

6th Place: 19-year-old Carl Truman of Los Angeles won $74,000 and medical expenses when his neighbor ran over his hand with a Honda Accord. Mr. Truman apparently didn’t notice there was someone at the wheel of the car when he was trying to steal his neighbor’s hubcaps.

5th Place: Terrence Dickson of Bristol , Pennsylvania , was leaving a house he had just finished robbing by way of the garage. He was not able to get the garage door to go up since the automatic door opener was malfunctioning. He couldn’t re-enter the house because the door connecting the house and garage locked when he pulled it shut. The family was on vacation, and Mr. Dickson found himself locked in the garage for eight days. He subsisted on a case of Pepsi he found, and a large bag of dry dog food. He sued the homeowner’s insurance claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The jury agreed to the tune of $500,000.

4th Place: Jerry Williams of Little Rock, Arkansas, was awarded $14,500 and medical expenses after being bitten on the buttocks by his next-door neighbor’s beagle. The beagle was on a chain in its owner’s fenced yard. The award was less than originally sought, because the jury felt the dog might have been just a little provoked at the time, by Mr. Williams who had climbed over the fence into the yard and was shooting it repeatedly with a pellet gun.

3rd Place: A Philadelphia restaurant was ordered to pay Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, $113,500 after she slipped on a soft drink and broke her coccyx (tailbone). The beverage was on the floor because Ms. Carson had thrown it at her boyfriend 30 seconds earlier during an argument.

2nd Place: Kara Walton of Claymont , Delaware , successfully sued the owner of a nightclub in a neighboring city when she fell from the bathroom window to the floor and knocked out her two front teeth. This occurred while Ms. Walton was trying to sneak through the window in the ladies room to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge. She was awarded $12,000 and dental expenses.

1st Place: This year’s runaway winner was Mrs. Mere Grazinski of Oklahoma City , Oklahoma . Mrs. Grazinski purchased a brand new 32-foot Winnebago motor home. On her first trip home (from an OU football game), having driven onto the freeway, she set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the drivers seat to go into the back and make herself a sandwich. Not surprisingly, the RV left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Mrs. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising her in the owner’s manual that she couldn’t actually do this. The jury awarded her $1,750,000 plus a new motor home. The company actually changed their manuals on the basis of this suit, just in case there were any other complete morons around.

Normally I let these things roll right off my back, but I can’t let this one go, because it supports a meme — the awful court system and the need for “tort reform” — that has sadly taken root in America.  So here follows my response to Auntie:

I’ve long advocated for a “laugh test” as a qualifier to get a case before a jury.  If you lay out your claim and it makes a majority of people giggle, you shouldn’t be able to sue.  This goes along with my new legal status of “Shit Happens”.  Sometimes no one is to blame, because Shit Happens, therefore, no lawsuit.  (I guess in that case you could sue God, but He’s notorious for not obeying subpoenas.)

Still, it’s unfair to pick on poor Miss Stella of the McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit fame.  They did serve to her a cup of coffee at over 180-degrees F.  That’s not a beverage; that’s a weapon.  She placed the beverage between her legs to hold it and that’s how she got burned – third degree burns that required surgery.  McDonald’s was at fault – no one should reasonably expect their coffee to be paint-peeling hot.

Some complain that the jury award for Miss Stella was way too high.  But they forget that damage awards are meant to be disincentives for the company that did wrong.  If McDonald’s were only fined $5,000, do you think they’d even bat an eye?  No, they’d do cost-benefit analysis and determine that cooler coffee would cost them more profits than paying out $5,000 every now and then.  So the award needs to be high enough to hurt the multinational billion-dollar corporation in order to force them to change.

A great review of the Stella case can be found at…

After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds refused.

During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonalds’ knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.

McDonalds also said during discovery that, based on a consultant’s advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. He admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.

That’s why I cringe every time I see this email and hear the calls for “tort reform”.  This email is supposed to make us hate the jury trial system and see these monetary damages as “out of control”, when, in fact, they are nearly always fair and just.  It’s just that Multinational Inc. doesn’t see it that way, and they want to spend a lot of campaign cash to create “tort reform”, which is another way of saying “cap the damages so low that we can get away with poisoning, burning, mutilating, or killing our customers without feeling any financial punishment.”

Oh, and by the way: this email and the cases it mentions (except for Stella) are complete fakes that have been floating around the internets since 2001 (…):

Origins: This “and you wonder what’s wrong with the world today?” whinge appeared on the Internet in May 2001. All of the entries in the list are fabrications: a search for news stories about each of these cases failed to turn up anything, as did a search for each law case.

The earliest version concluded with a seventh item that has since been snipped away, likely after someone noticed it was the venerable microwaved poodle legend. Its inclusion would have immediately called into question the truthfulness of the other six cases for any number of folks familiar with urban legends. The remaining six were still false, but they weren’t as obviously false as the following poodle tale and thus wouldn’t have set the alarm bells ringing:

7. And just so you know that cooler heads do occasionally prevail: Kenmore Inc., the makers of Dorothy Johnson’s microwave, were found not liable for the death of Mrs. Johnson’s poodle after she gave it a bath and attempted to dry it by putting the poor creature in her microwave for, “just a few minutes, on low,”  The case was quickly dismissed.

A version of the list that began circulating in the spring of 2002 has yet another urban legend included as its final item, the venerable legend:

In November 2000, Mr. Grazinski purchased a brand new 32 foot Winnebago motor home. On his first trip home, having joined the freeway, he set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the drivers seat to go into the back and make himself a cup of coffee. Not surprisingly, the Winnie left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Mr. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising him in the handbook that he could not actually do this. He was awarded  $1,750,000 plus a new Winnebago.

Sincerely yours,
“Radical” Russ Belville
America’s Next Great Progressive Talk Radio Star

A lie makes it halfway ’round the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.  And that was before the internets!