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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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