It may seem superfluous to put a notice that reads “Do not Attempt to Stop Chainsaw Blade with Hand,” on that particular piece of equipment, but it could save Stihl, Poulan, Makita and the others who make these machines a fortune in an injury lawsuit. There are plenty of other warning labels that may seem unnecessary until you consider the human capacity for stupidity, which appears to be infinite.
Crazy Lawsuits and the Stella Awards
When a woman was scalded by McDonald’s coffee she unwittingly gave her name to frivolous personal injury lawsuits
Spilled Hot Coffee Yields Multi-million Award
Scalding from coffee was no laughing matter
Stella Liebeck was 79 years old in 1992 when she received burns from hot coffee that spilled in her lap. She sued McDonald’s, who supplied the coffee, and was awarded $2.9 million by a jury in New Mexico, although the eventual settlement, which has not been revealed, was probably less.
Ever since, the case has been characterized as an outrageous example of tort law gone wild. But there’s more to Ms. Liebeck’s situation than is usually reported.
At the time, McDonald’s was brewing coffee at around 190 degrees F (88 degrees Celsius). Coffee made at home is usually at a temperature of about 130 degrees F (54 degree Celsius).
Dale Wiley of the Springfield, Missouri, News Leader wrote that “At that temperature, she was burned within two to seven seconds, and the cotton sweatpants she wore held the water close to her body. Stella suffered third-degree burns over six percent of her body, including her inner thighs, and burns of some kind over 16 percent of her body.”
She needed skin grafts and spent eight days in hospital. The Daily Mail reported that “many news outlets overlooked the critical facts of the case including the nearly 700 other complaints that McDonald’s had received about their hot coffee.”
Hot Coffee Documentary
Outrageous Lawsuits Named after Stella
Unfortunately, Stella Liebeck’s misfortune is forever associated with laughable lawsuits
In no way could Ms. Liebeck’s suffering and subsequent lawsuit be described as frivolous or a money grab. She originally only asked for $20,000, which just about covered her lawyer’s fees and medical bills. She said McDonald’s offered $800, which she rejected. The fast food company decided to go to judge and jury trial, and that turned out to be a bad decision.
However, Stella’s legal triumph is now tied to cases in which people take a run at companies with deep pockets in hopes of a big pay off. The folks at The Stella Awards kept track of what they call “wild, outrageous, or ridiculous lawsuits” and handed out trophies to the ones they judged the most egregious.
The group’s website was started by Randy Cassingham who wrote the 2005 book, The True Stella Awards. From 2002 until 2007, awards were handed out but the website administrators say “We are currently not soliciting new cases and not issuing new annual awards issues.” However, a trawl through the archives delivers some head-slapping doozies.
Some Notable Stella Cases
Randy Cassingham collected some astonishing lawsuits over the years launched by people who thought they spotted an opportunity to fatten up their bank accounts
Doctors at a California hospital rushed to the aid of a very sick woman. The woman’s daughters who witnessed the attempts to save their mother’s life sued, claiming the experience exposed them to needless emotional distress. This case went all the way to the California Supreme Court before it was denied.
Administrative Law Judge Roy L. Pearson Jr. got really upset when a Washington, D.C. dry cleaner lost a pair of his trousers. He sued the mom-and-pop operation for $65 million; one pricey pair of britches. The Stella Awards notes that “Representing himself, Judge Pearson cried in court over the loss of his pants, whining that there certainly isn’t a more compelling case in the District archives.” The Superior Court judge must have had a heart of stone because he called the case “vexatious litigation” and awarded damages to the dry cleaners.
A drunk crawled under a parked truck and fell asleep. “When the inevitable happens (yep: squished), who’s responsible? According to a lawsuit filed by his mother, everybody - except, of course, him.”
The world has been deeply shocked by news of priests sexually abusing children. But, according to the Stella Awards one “priest was upset that one of his victims came forward and told a newspaper the story of being repeatedly raped - so he sued his victim for not keeping his mouth shut.”
There are plenty more of this ilk and, given the number of lawyers willing to work on a contingency basis hoping to score big if they get a sympathetic jury, there will be plenty more to come.
Fake Stella Awards
The Internet is brimming with stories that claim to be Stella Award winners but aren’t
Have you heard the one about the man who bought a Winnebago and put it into cruise control while he popped in back to make a cup of coffee? He is supposed to have won $1.7 million from the Winnebago Company over the resulting crash because he was not warned it might be dangerous if he left the driver’s seat of his vehicle while it was hurtling down the highway. It never happened.
Burglar Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pennsylvania is said to have been trapped in a garage. After ransacking a house he left through the door to the garage, which closed shut behind him and locked; that’s when he discovered the automatic garage-door opener was broken. He had to wait eight days for the vacationing family to return and release him. The story goes that he was so grateful to the family that he sued them because the experience had caused him terrible mental anguish. A sympathetic jury is said to have awarded Terrence Dickson half a million dollars. The yarn is a complete fabrication.
The Winnebago dude and the trapped thief usually come bundled with four other untrue stories that purport to illustrate how out of control tort law has become in the United States. They buzz from in-box to in-box and seem designed to generate support for tort law reform.
Unnecessary Warning Labels
Legal liability prompts manufacturers to label products with what seem like goofy warnings
Forbes notes that “In 2007 the median jury award in product liability cases was just north of $1.9 million, estimates Jury Verdict Research, which tracks results of personal-injury claims.” So, there’s a strong incentive to issue redundant warnings to counter the impulses of dimwits:
A children’s toy called a Rubber Band Shooter carries the notice “Caution: Shoots rubber bands.” The kid who buys this would be mighty disappointed if it didn’t.
Most people expect to find eggs in a carton of eggs. But, one supplier found it necessary to stick on a label saying “May contain eggs.”
“Remove occupants before folding for storage” appears on a portable stroller. “Honey. Have you seen little Bobby Joe?”
A sign at a railroad station is of special interest to those who wish to avoid posthumous lawsuits, it reads “Beware! To touch these wires is instant death. Anyone found doing so will be prosecuted.”
For those who are a bit confused about their gender, a box of Midol PMS relief tablets includes the advice “Ask a doctor before use if you have difficulty urinating due to an enlarged prostate.”
And, a curling iron carries the warning “For external use only!” But, why would anybody..? Oh no. Surely not.
Yes. A bag of peanuts may contain peanuts.
“Hot Coffee Lawsuit Did Have Merit in Court.” Dale Wiley, News Leader, October 8, 2009.
“The Truth Behind the ‘Hot Coffee’ Lawsuit.” Meghan Keneally, Daily Mail, October 21, 2013.
“Stella Awards.” Snopes.com, April 11, 2008.
“Dumbest Warning Labels.” Brett Nelson and Katy Finneran, Forbes, February 23, 2011.