If you have been visiting Tilting the Scales for any length of time, you know by now that we are big fans of quirky lawsuits and the incredible facts from which they are spawned.  In fact, over the past couple of years, we have spent countless hours scouring the web for the most ludicrous cases we could find.  So, imagine our delight when a friend e-mailed us the 2009 Stella Awards with a subject line reading, “Those @#$%* Lawyers!!”  As I read the e-mail, a big smile immediately came to my face because I knew that Tilting the Scales would have material through 2010 when the next Stella Awards were presented.  What a treasure trove of unbelievable cases!

This year’s Stellas did not disappoint.  One case involved a Philadelphia restaurant that was ordered to pay Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania $113,000 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.  Another case involved the unfortunate tale of one Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pennsylvania, who was leaving a house he had just finished robbing by way of the garage.  Mr. Dickson ended up accidently locking himself in the garage and as the family that owned the house was on vacation, Mr. Dickson found himself locked in the garage for eight days and had to subsist on warm Pepsi and a bag of dry dog food.  He then sued the owner’s insurance company claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish.  The jury agreed to the tune of $500,000.  My favorite case, however, is that of 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 driver’s 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 $1.7 million plus a new motor home.  Wow! Who are these idiots and just what were these juries thinking?

As I started researching these cases, I quickly realized that they were completely fabricated.  Someone, with too much time on their hands, and perhaps a fanatical tort reform agenda, simply made them up.  But although these stories were false, real lawsuits of equal stupidity are filed each and every day.  For example, a university student sued his school after a fall from his third-floor dorm window.  The student had been mooning other students when the window gave way.  His lawsuit contended that the university failed to provide a safe environment for students or to properly warn them of the dangers inherent to upper story windows.  Or there’s the case of a San Diego man who sued the city and Jack Murphy stadium for $5.4 million for emotional distress.  The man claimed the stadium’s unisex bathroom policy at a Billy Joel and Elton John concert caused him embarrassment because he was forced to share the public bathrooms with women.  The man claimed that after trying 6 or 7 bathrooms in the stadium and finding women in all of them, the man was forced to “hold it in for 4 hours.”   These cases, although real, were eventually dismissed.

Although nothing stops a ridiculous lawsuit from being filed, it is rare for a ridiculous lawsuit to result in a plaintiff’s verdict, let alone a runaway jury award.  Frivolous cases are usually dismissed on summary judgment or result in a verdict in favor of the defendant.  Moreover, those cases which may appear on first blush to be ridiculous (e.g. the McDonald’s lawsuit), often are not so ridiculous when the true facts come to light (e.g. McDonalds knew its coffee was served dangerously hot, had settled hundreds of scalding cases and the woman involved suffered very serious 3rd degree burns.  By the way, while the reports correctly stated that the initial damage award was approximatly $2.9 million, few reports admitted that the final judgment, after appeal, was for $160,000 in actual damages and $480,000 in punitive damages). So, while there is always room for improvement in our legal system, do not despair!  Juries, for the most part, do a remarkable job of getting cases “right” and we/I should not be so quick to believe an obviously frivolous scenario resulting in a windfall for some moronic plaintiff.  

The Stella Awards were inspired by Stella Liebeck.  Although you might not remember her name, you remember her case.  Stella was the 79-year-old woman who spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee onto her lap and burned herself.  She sued McDonalds and was awarded $2.9 million in damages by a New Mexico jury.  Ever since, the “Stella Awards” have been synonymous with ridiculous and outrageous lawsuits.