Break the Chain Objection, Overruled

Created 3/7/2002, last update 9/29/2002 (11/19/2003) It's a commonly held belief in the U.S. that our legal system is frequently misused by fortune-seekers who seek to become rich through frivolous lawsuits. This collection of examples of such cases is extremely popular, but is there anything to it?

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The "Stella" awards rank up there with the Darwin awards. Stella Liebeck is the 81 year old lady who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonalds. This case inspired an annual award - The "Stella" Award for the most frivolous lawsuits in the US.

The following are this year's candidates:

1. January 2000: Kathleen Robertson of Austin Texas was awarded $780,000.00 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running amuck inside a furniture store. The owners of the store were understandably surprised at the verdict, considering the misbehaving tyke was Ms. Robertson's son.

2. June 1998: A 19 year old Carl Truman of Los Angeles won $74,000.00 and medical expenses when his neighbor ran his hand over with a Honda Accord. Mr. Truman apparently didn't notice someone was at the wheel of the car whose hubcap he was trying to steal.

3. October 1998: A Terrence Dickson of Bristol Pennsylvania was exiting a house he finished robbing by way of the garage. He was not able to get the garage door to go up, because 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, so 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. This upset Mr. Dickson, so he sued the homeowner's insurance claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The jury agreed to the tune of half a million dollars and change.

4. October 1999: Jerry Williams of Little Rock Arkansas was awarded $14,500.00 and medical expenses after being bitten on the buttocks by his next door neighbor's beagle. The beagle was on a chain in it's owner's fenced-in yard, as was Mr. Williams. The award was less than sought after because the jury felt the dog may have been provoked by Mr. Williams who, at the time, was shooting it repeatedly with a pellet gun.

5. May 2000: A Philadelphia restaurant was ordered to pay Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania $113,500.00 after she slipped on a spilled soft drink and broke her coccyx. The beverage was on the floor because Ms. Carson threw it at her boyfriend 30 seconds earlier during an argument.

6. December 1997: Kara Walton of Claymont, Delaware successfully sued the owner of a night club 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 $12,000.00 and dental expenses.

And the winner is: Mr. Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City.

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 couldn't actually do this. He was awarded $1,750,000 plus a new Winnie. (Winnebago actually changed their handbooks on the back of this court case, just in case there are any other complete morons buying their vehicles.)

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There is no shortage of examples of people who have used the legal system to cash in on a bad situation. Unfortunately, these tales are not among them. The only one that has a shred of truth to it is the one that lends its name to this list. In February 1992, Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was severely burned after spilling hot McDonald's Coffee on her lap. Far from being a frivolous award, the investigation into her case revealed upwards of 700 similar documented cases of similar burns proving that McDonald's knew its coffee was dangerously hot. Liebeck and her lawyers sought a $20,000 settlement, but McDonald's refused. Instead, the court awarded her $160,000 compensatory damages (reduced from $200,000 because they found Liebeck to be 20% at-fault) and $480,000 in punitive damages.

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The "Stella Awards" is an informal moniker that has since been applied to any frivolous lawsuit (much as the term "Darwin Awards" came to be applied to any story of a death from less-than-responsible behavior). There are many real cases that are worthy of this honor, but the seven cases cited above are not among them. Despite what seems like an undeniable degree of detail, they are the stuff of urban legend.

In the wake of this letter's incredible popularity, Publisher Randy Cassingham offers the True Stella Awards mailing list, where he offers fully researched, true cases of ridiculous court cases. If you wish to be entertained by tales of loony litigation, check him out - but break this chain first.

What Do You Think?

Category: General Junk
References: Snopes.com, Association of Trial Lawyers of America, The TRUE Stella Awards

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