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Stella.

I work in an office that deals with among other things other people’s litigation, so this has been making the email rounds:

It’s time once again to consider the candidates for the annual Stella Awards. The Stellas are named after 81-year-old Stella Liebeck who spilled coffee on herself and successfully sued McDonalds. That case inspired the Stella Awards for the most frivolous successful lawsuits in the United States.
This year’s candidates:

  1. Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas, was awarded $780,000 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.
  2. A 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 hub caps.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 sought because the jury felt the dog might have been just a little provoked at the time by Mr. Williams who was shooting it repeatedly with a pellet gun.
  5. 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.
  6. Kara Walton of Claymont, Delaware, successfully sued the owner of 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 and dental expenses.
  7. This year’s favorite could easily be Mr. Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Mr. Grazinski purchased a brand new 32-foot Winnebago motor home. On his first trip home having driven onto 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 RV left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Mr. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising him in the owner’s manual that he couldn’t actually do this. The jury awarded him $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 buying their recreation vehicles.

There’s only one problem—or rather, seven: they’re all utter fabrications.

Beyond, of course, the fact that Stella Liebeck’s being maligned yet again.

If you’ve hung out on any internet forum anywhere, you know how firmly “that lady who spilled the coffee and sued McDonald’s” is entrenched in the popular imagination. A lie, after all, can get halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on, so let’s give that laggard truth a push.

Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonalds’ coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a styrofoam cup at the drivethrough window of a local McDonalds.
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.
Further, McDonalds’ quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonalds coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur, but testified that McDonalds had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.

Sorry to dump the whole mess in your laps like that, but it’s necessary to go through this in some detail so it all sinks in. This was 40 to 50 degrees hotter than what you normally think of as “hot” coffee; just 20 degrees shy of boiling. McDonald’s knew that this practice caused hundreds of injuries. They had no intention of stopping. They offered to pay off Stella Liebeck much as they’d paid off earlier injuries; she said no. A jury awarded her $200,000, reduced to $160,000 because they judged her to be 20% at fault for the accident—and then they added on $2.7 million in punitive damages, a monetary hit designed to convince McDonald’s to stop burning hundreds of people with dangerously, illogically hot coffee. (And guess what? After the verdict, the temperature of coffee served in Albuquerque McDonald’s was around a much more sane 150 degrees.) And even though the punitive damages were reduced to $480,000, less than a fifth the original amount, McDonald’s—rather than accept a judgment which found their conduct reckless, callous, and willful—negotiated a secret settlement with Liebeck.

And yet she’s still the stupid dumbass crazy lady who got millions from McDonald’s for spilling some coffee. —Hell, even the real Stella Awards (an entertaining enough read, which focusses out of necessity on suits filed rather than insane amounts rewarded—you go where the material is, after all) admits her treatment has been grossly unfair. (But: the name doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon.)

This, then, is the atmosphere in which the debate over tort reform swirls. Quite literally: if you go back to the Snopes takedown, you’ll see that the New York Daily News printed a copy of that original, utterly fabricated email back in June of 2002. —Which, I suppose, is funnier to read over coffee than the Center for Economic Justice’s breakdown of exactly how much insurance companies made right after Texas instituted tort reform.

No one likes the idea of (someone else) getting something for nothing. Nor am I trying to deny that there aren’t excesses, fuck-ups, and egregious mistakes. (Though one should always keep Meredith’s Question in mind.) But to impose from the top down a one-size-fits-all solution like this is—leaving aside for the moment the fact that it’s a crooked solution rigged in favor of those with more money and more power—foolish and short-sighted (at best): sending an engineer to fix a problem of bricolage. I’m reminded of another attempt to impose via legislative fiat pre-ordained, one-size-fits-all solutions to complex judicial problems.

I mean—we all know what a great success mandatory minimum sentences have been.

  1. Digital Soapbox    Jan 21, 01:55 PM    #
    Wonderfully crafted phrase
    "A lie, after all, can get halfway around the world while the truth is putting it shoes on" from Long

  2. Blargblog    Jan 22, 09:26 AM    #
    A Small Monkeywrench in the Big Lie Machine
    Kip lets out the gas inflating all those litigous society horror stories the tort reformorons tell each other around the

  3. Lou    Aug 18, 12:04 PM    #
    Sure, the emails are funny. In relation to Stella's case though I think that you are missing the point.

    I wonder whether the jury took into account her contributory negligence. How 'smart' is it to place a cup of hot coffee between your legs. She should have known that the coffee was hot, it was just hotter than it should have been.

  4. --k.    Aug 19, 05:00 AM    #
    From the post above, offered without further comment:

    A jury awarded her $200,000, reduced to $160,000 because they judged her to be 20% at fault for the accident...

  5.    Dec 22, 06:30 AM    #
    Of course, you left out this section of the snopes article:

    Though the cases described in the e-mail are fake, real lawsuits of equal silliness can be found in abundance. An equally impressive list could easily have been compiled by anyone with access to a news database and a few moments to spare. For instance:


    In March 1995, a San Diego man unsuccessfully attempted to sue the city and Jack Murphy Stadium for $5.4 million over something than can only be described as a wee problem -- Robert Glaser claimed the stadium's unisex bathroom policy at a Billy Joel and Elton John concert caused him embarrassment and emotional distress thanks to the sight of a woman using a urinal in front of him. He subsequently tried "six or seven" other bathrooms in the stadium only to find women in all of them. He asserted he "had to hold it in for four hours" because he was too embarrassed to share the public bathrooms with women.

    A San Carlos, California, man is suing the Escondido Public Library for $1.5 million. His dog, a 50-pound Labrador mix, was attacked by the library's 12-pound feline mascot, L.C., (also known as Library Cat).

    In 1994, a student at the University of Idaho unsuccessfully sued that institution over his fall from a third-floor dorm window. He'd been mooning other students when the window gave way. It was contended the University failed to provide a safe environment for students or to properly warn them of the dangers inherent to upper-story windows.

    In 1993, McDonald's was unsuccessfully sued over a car accident in New Jersey. While driving, a man who had placed a milkshake between his legs, leaned over to reach into his bag of food and squeezed the milkshake container in the process. When the lid popped off and spilled half the drink in his lap, this driver became distracted and ran into another man's car. That man in turn tried to sue McDonald's for causing the accident, saying the restaurant should have cautioned the man who had hit him against eating while driving.
    Although the cases cited above were all eventually dismissed, they still managed to work their way to the highest levels of our court system. When we hear such stories, it's hard not to be rabidly in favor of tort reform -- these kinds of cases make it appear that the idiots have taken over the asylum and only the rapid institution of some rules is going to bring things back into a semblance of sanity. Yet this solution is not all skittles and beer; many see such changes as potentially denying those in need of legal remedy their day in court and refusing them their right to be heard. The cap on jury awards is also viewed by some as unfair to the seriously injured, who may well require a large sum to afford the cost of living with whatever disability someone else's negligence or recklessness left them with. Capped awards are also scant deterrent to large corporations who could easily afford the judgements against them and therefore have little reason to mend their ways. Big Business is poised to benefit under tort reform in that it will no longer need to fear the courts.

  6. Alas, a blog    Dec 29, 07:42 AM    #
    More stuff Amp has read this week
    A lot of these links have been hanging around on my desktop long enough that I've forgotten where I got them from; my apologies to folks who deserve one of them "via" links but aren't getting one here. Another excellent New York Times article about wor...

  7. Alas, a blog    Dec 29, 07:43 AM    #
    More stuff Amp has read this week
    A lot of these links have been hanging around on my desktop long enough that I've forgotten where I got them from; my apologies to folks who deserve one of them "via" links but aren't getting one here. Another excellent New York Times article about wor...

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