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Stella Awards

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 4:06 pm
by Febnyc
Of interest to all ambulance, negligence attorneys:

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:

5th Place (tie): 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.

5th Place (tie): 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 (tie): 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 homeowners' insurance claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The jury agreed to the tune of $500,000. This is so outrageous that it should have been 2nd Place!

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 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

2nd Place: 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 and dental expenses.

1st Place: This year's runaway winner was Mrs. Merv Grazinski of
Oklahoma City, OK. 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 & 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. (Or more lawyers.)

After a career in the reinsurance industry I have some of my own to match these. For instance - A man decided to use his lawnmower to trim his hedges. As he was lifting the mower to the top of the hedge he lost his grip and the mower fell, severing part of his foot. He successfully sued Toro, the manufacturer, for substantial damages - claiming that the instruction manual did not rule out using the mower in that fashion.

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 4:14 pm
by jbuck919
That's 2006? The first place winner sounds exactly like a story that is ancient history and is the reason that it is now called "speed control" rather than "cruise control."

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 8:02 pm
by Corlyss_D
Juries should not be triers of fact in tort cases. They rarely hold plaintiffs to a reasonable actor standard.

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 8:11 pm
by Ralph
Corlyss_D wrote:Juries should not be triers of fact in tort cases. They rarely hold plaintiffs to a reasonable actor standard.

Yeah, just get rid of the constitutional right to trial by jury.

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 8:12 pm
by Ralph
What these reports of high and often unfounded verdicts (assuming these aren't hoaxes) don't report is the appellate process. Folks would be surprised how often these top-of-the-6PM-news stories end with an award vacated or substantially reduced.

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 8:44 pm
by Ralph
Sorry, Frank:

Legal Urban Legends Hold Sway; Tall tales of outrageous jury awards have helped bolster business-led campaigns to overhaul the civil justice system.

Los Angeles Times August 14, 2005 Sunday

August 14, 2005 Sunday
Home Edition

SECTION: BUSINESS; Business Desk; Part C; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1696 words

HEADLINE: Legal Urban Legends Hold Sway;
Tall tales of outrageous jury awards have helped bolster business-led campaigns to overhaul the civil justice system.

BYLINE: Myron Levin, Times Staff Writer


Merv Grazinski set his Winnebago on cruise control, slid away from the wheel and went back to fix a cup of coffee.

You can guess what happened next: The rudderless, driverless Winnebago crashed.

Grazinski blamed the manufacturer for not warning against such a maneuver in the owner's manual. He sued and won $1.75 million.

His jackpot would seem to erase any doubt that the legal system has lost its mind. Indeed, the Grazinski case has been cited often as evidence of the need to limit lawsuits and jury awards.

There's just one problem: The story is a complete fabrication.

It is one of the more comical tales in an anthology of legal urban legends that have circulated widely on the Internet, regaling millions with examples of cluelessness and greed being richly rewarded by the courts. These fables have also been widely disseminated by columnists and pundits who, in their haste to expose the gullibility of juries, did not verify the stories and were taken in themselves.

Although the origins of the tales are unknown, some observers, including George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, say their wide acceptance has helped to rally public opinion behind business-led campaigns to overhaul the civil justice system by restricting some types of lawsuits and capping damage awards.

"I am astonished how successful these urban legends have been in influencing policy," Turley said. "The people that created these stories did so with remarkable skill."

The tales are making the rounds at a time when business lobbyists and conservative politicians seem to have gained the upper hand in their drive to rein in lawsuits -- a campaign that they call tort reform but that trial lawyers and consumer groups say is an assault on the legal rights of ordinary people.

According to the American Tort Reform Assn. -- which is backed by insurance, drug, auto and other major industries -- 49 states have enacted at least one measure on the group's wish list over the last two decades, including limits on punitive damages and caps on awards for pain and suffering in medical malpractice claims.

In February, President Bush signed a federal law that will make it harder to bring class-action suits in state courts.

And some polls suggest that there is public support for further change.

For example, a survey conducted for the American Tort Reform Assn. in 2003 found that by a ratio of 2 to 1, respondents believed that lawsuits were harming the economy and stifling job creation. In a survey released in June by Common Good, a conservative legal reform group, 83% of respondents said it was too easy to file invalid lawsuits, and 55% agreed with the statement that "many people use the justice system almost like a lottery -- they start lawsuits to see if they can win millions."

Such fears, fanned by anecdotes like the Grazinski tale, have no empirical basis, said Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, a consumer group that opposes the agenda of the business groups. "The data tends not to support the allegation that there is an out-of-control crisis with the legal system," she said.

She and others point to surveys by the National Center for State Courts and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics showing an apparent decline in personal injury suits and in the size of jury awards to successful plaintiffs.

But advocates of reining in lawsuits say there is no need to invent fictitious examples of legal abuse. "All false stories should be exposed," said Victor Schwartz, general counsel of the tort reform association. But "you don't have to go to the surreal" to find dubious verdicts, he added.

The group's website includes a link to what it says are real but "Looney Lawsuits," including a recent case in which a Portland, Ore., jury awarded $1.6 million to a woman who was seriously disfigured in a botched liposuction surgery. The jury imposed the judgment on the publisher of a phone directory after concluding that the company had knowingly allowed a dermatologist to falsely advertise himself as a board certified plastic surgeon.

Whether it's the rich detail of the phony yarns that resonates or the fact that people are prepared to think the worst of the legal system, the bogus tales have attracted crowds of believers.

The first time he heard of the Grazinski case, Cornell University law professor Theodore Eisenberg was a guest on a Rochester, N.Y., radio talk show. Annoyed by Eisenberg's defense of the justice system, a caller flung the Winnebago windfall in his face.

"You're saying the system's not crazy," Eisenberg recalled the man saying, "but what about this case?"

Besides the Grazinski saga, there's the mythical case of Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pa., who got into an argument with her boyfriend in a restaurant, threw a drink at him and then broke her tailbone when she slipped on the wet spot on the floor. Naturally, Carson sued -- and won $113,500.

Then there's Kara Walton, a Delaware woman so eager to avoid a $3.50 cover charge that she tried sneaking into a nightclub through a bathroom window but fell and lost a couple of teeth. Walton sued and won $12,000 plus payment of dental bills.

A database search shows the Grazinski, Carson and Walton tales have been cited as true by a wide range of media outlets, including CNN; U.S. News & World Report; the American Spectator; the Oakland Tribune; the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram; the Deseret News of Salt Lake City; the Akron Beacon-Journal; the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record; and the Augusta, Ga., Chronicle.

Some later issued corrections. Chuck Thomas, a columnist for the Ventura County Star, offered a mea culpa in a follow-up column, anointing himself winner of the "Chucklehead Award."

Wide acceptance of the myths has been an eye-opener for Sheila Davis, public relations manager for Winnebago Industries in Forest City, Iowa. Davis says she has repeatedly had to explain that, no, there was no Grazinski lawsuit, and, no, the company did not have to change the owner's manual to avoid a swarm of copycat claims.

"Unfortunately, we do have some people who write about it and don't call us," Davis said.

The cases are often listed together on Internet postings as winners of the "Stella Awards," -- supposedly a dubious achievement list of the nation's most outrageous and ridiculous lawsuits. Although entirely fictitious, the Stellas take their name from the real-life case of 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, whose hot-coffee case against McDonald's became the poster child for frivolous claims.

According to popular accounts of the lawsuit, Liebeck coaxed nearly $3 million from an Albuquerque jury in 1994 after being scalded by McDonald's coffee she spilled on herself while riding in a car. These are the story's best-known elements, but filling in the missing facts puts the case in a different light.

Trial testimony showed that at 180 to 190 degrees, McDonald's coffee was much hotter than that served by other restaurants or by people in their homes. The fast-food chain had received at least 700 complaints about hot coffee in the previous decade and had paid more than half a million dollars in settlements, according to trial testimony cited by the Wall Street Journal.

Liebeck's injuries were hardly minor. She suffered third-degree burns on her thighs and groin area, was hospitalized for a week and had to undergo painful skin grafts. Before filing a lawsuit, she wrote McDonald's requesting that it lower the temperature of its coffee and cover her uninsured medical bills and incidental costs of about $20,000. McDonald's offered $800.

Later, as the case neared trial, a mediator recommended that McDonald's pay a settlement of $225,000. The company refused.

Jurors ultimately awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and about $2.7 million in punitive damages. "The facts were so overwhelmingly against the company," one of the jurors told the Journal. "Their callous disregard was very upsetting," another said.

Soon after the verdict, the trial judge slashed the punitive damages by more than 80% to $480,000. Then the case settled for an undisclosed amount.

"The irony about the McDonald's case is that it actually, in my view, was a meaningful and worthy lawsuit," George Washington University's Turley said. Yet advocates and pundits have "made it synonymous with court abuse."

Unlike the popular version of the McDonald's case, the Stella Awards push mythmaking past mere exaggeration.

Barbara Mikkelson of Agoura Hills, who with her husband, David, operates a website dedicated to debunking urban legends (, says the Stellas have sometimes appeared with an e-mail chain letter in which the mythical law firm of Hogelman, Hogelman & Thomas exhorts people to "assist our law offices in a tort reform program" by publicizing "insane jury awards." Mikkelson noted that with the way information travels on the Internet, it would be impossible to determine the original authors.

Randy Cassingham, a Colorado resident who also debunks the Stellas on his website, says he is angry about the tales -- not only because they are false but also because they divert attention from what he believe are real abuses in the legal system.

According to Cassingham, the Stellas allow trial lawyers to say, "See, there is no problem with frivolous lawsuits. Our opponents have to make up cases to make a point."

Although business groups are obvious beneficiaries of the fables, Schwartz of the tort reform association said his group had had nothing to do with them and was careful to verify all of its claims. "We try to be absolutely accurate in anything we're presenting," including examples of outrageous suits, Schwartz said.

In fact, Schwartz said, over-the-top self-promotion by some trial lawyers have made the best case for the need for change. "Their ads making things seem as if it's just free money" have done "more to convince the American public that we have jackpot justice than anything put out by any tort reform organization -- including the 'looney lawsuits' stories," he said.

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 8:51 pm
by Ralph
And then there's "Terrence Dickson":

Legal myths: Hardly the whole truth

USA TODAY January 31, 2005, Monday,

January 31, 2005, Monday, FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 930 words

HEADLINE: Legal myths: Hardly the whole truth

BYLINE: Jonathan Turley

Have you heard about the guy who injured himself while using his lawn mower as a hedge clipper, and then won $500,000 in a lawsuit against the lawn mower company? How about the woman who threw a soft drink at her boyfriend, slipped on the wet floor, and then won $100,000 in a lawsuit against the restaurant? These are only two of the common examples of lawsuit abuses that are fueling the call for "litigation reform." They are also completely untrue -- part of a growing collection of legal mythologies that are appearing widely in the national media.

Image is everything in tort reform, such as President Bush's visit earlier this month to a "judicial hellhole" in Illinois where tort cases supposedly flourish. He has made tort reform a priority of his second term and is expected to repeat these calls in his State of the Union address Wednesday. It is all part of a well-funded campaign to limit damages against companies and physicians across the country.

Horror stories offered by industry groups play to a weakness in the media for "you-are-not-going-to-believe-this" stories. Of course, it is not surprising that the stories are unbelievable -- because many never occurred.

Take the ubiquitous hedge-clipper man story. It has appeared in print, on TV programs, in law school classrooms and in political speeches for decades. Former vice president Dan Quayle used it in his call for reform (though he reportedly referred to the man cutting his hair with a lawn mower). In reality, the story originated in an ad campaign by the insurance firm Crum & Forester, which later admitted that it knew of no such case. Yet, proving that facts should never stand in the way of a good story, it remains perhaps the most cited example of abuse -- the best $500,000 that the insurance industry never paid.

Bad lawyering

Even true stories often prove not to be examples of bad law, but bad lawyering. Take the list of the "wackiest consumer warnings," released this month by the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch to show the need for reform. Included are such things as a warning on a toilet brush that reads, "Do Not Use for Personal Hygiene" or a sign on a scooter that reads, "This product moves when used." These are not fabrications, but none of these warnings make any more legal sense than they do practical sense. No company has to warn consumers not to use a toilet brush on their teeth or hair.

Legal legends can be irresistible, even for the most respected newspapers, magazines and networks.

U.S. News & World Report owner Mort Zuckerman used the story of the soft drink lady in Pennsylvania in an article denouncing lawsuit abuse. He is not alone. The tale of Amber Carlson and her soda has appeared in countless television and print sources. Zuckerman also cited the case of a woman who knocked her teeth out while sneaking through a nightclub's restroom window to avoid paying a $3.50 cover charge -- and then won $12,000 from a jury. It is also false.

Both stories have been attributed to the Stella Awards, an annual listing of loony lawsuits. But the Stella Web site points out that they both are complete fabrications. Yet they continue to appear in print and on the Internet.

Other examples of fabricated "true cases of lawsuit abuse":

* Kathleen Robertson of Austin received $780,000 from a jury after she tripped over her own son in a furniture store.

* Carl Truman, a 19-year-old in Los Angeles, was awarded more than $74,000 when his hand was run over by a neighbor. The neighbor did not see Truman, who was in the process of stealing his hubcaps.

* Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pa., was given a $500,000 award after he was inadvertently trapped in the garage of a house that he was burglarizing.

* A Mr. Grazinski won more than $1,750,000 and a new Winnebago after he put his new motor home on cruise control at 70 mph and then went into the back to fix himself some coffee -- only to crash on the highway.

Merely legal legends

These are the legal versions of the urban legends about alligators living in the New York City sewers. Everyone knows that alligators brought back by kids as pets from Florida have been flushed down the toilets, only to thrive below the streets of New York City.

Legal legends fit the stereotype of litigation so well that their falsity becomes secondary. Of course, law is not alone in such fabrications. Consider my favorite story about Pia Zadora's dismal performance as the lead in The Diary of Anne Frank. Zadora was so bad that, during the scene where Nazis break into the house screaming, "Where is Anne Frank?" audience members screamed, "She's in the attic!" It is a brilliant story, but I was crushed to learn recently that it is also completely untrue: Zadora has never played Anne Frank, and there is no such scene in the play.

I loved the Zadora story for the same reason people such as Zuckerman loved the fabricated lawsuit stories: They capture a critical idea with an element of humor or absurdity. There is, however, a great difference between using urban legends to dish on some actress and using them to make massive changes in the law. So, as we begin this latest debate over tort reform, one small piece of advice: If you hear about a case that is almost too good to be true, it probably isn't.


Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and has testified before Congress on tort reform. He is also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 8:58 pm
by Corlyss_D
Ralph wrote:There's just one problem: The story is a complete fabrication.
:lol: :lol: :lol: Skunked again! Damn! Well, it did make for good reading. Some of the protagonists should have appeared in the Darwin Awards by now.

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 10:01 pm
by RebLem
Ralph, now that you have thoroughly and admirably cleaned Corlyss's clock, please return it to her. :roll: :roll: :roll:

Posted: Mon Feb 19, 2007 10:45 pm
by Ralph
RebLem wrote:Ralph, now that you have thoroughly and admirably cleaned Corlyss's clock, please return it to her. :roll: :roll: :roll:

She's not into horology.

Posted: Tue Feb 20, 2007 3:14 am
by jbuck919
If anyone wants more on the cruise control thing, it is of course in Snopes, which apparently prevents cut and paste (never seen a text I couldn't even select before):