As usual, the annual "fake" Stella Awards, which supposedly lists the most extravagant lawsuits of the year, has recently made the rounds on the Internet and in email in boxes. Like last year, this year's top lawsuit is nothing more than popular urban myth.
The public is urged to take stories like those enumerated in the Stella Awards with a grain of salt and note that stories about most "frivolous" lawsuits are usually nonsense.
1. What are the Stella awards and who are they named after? The Stella Awards were inspired by Stella Liebeck. In 1992, Stella, then 79, spilled a cup of McDonald's coffee onto her lap, burning herself.
2. What really happened in that case? The Albuquerque, NM jury did award Stella almost $3 million after she spilled coffee on her lap, causing third-degree burns, a week's hospitalization and skin grafts. The jury had learned that McDonald's served its coffee much hotter than other restaurants, that it had received more than 700 previous complaints and had paid more than $500,000 in earlier settlements. Stella originally asked for just $20,000 to cover her medical bills and other expenses, and that McDonald's serve its coffee at a more moderate temperature. McDonald's offered her $800. Shortly before trial, a mediator recommended McDonald's pay $225,000. The company said no. Jurors awarded $160,000 in damages and $2.7 million in punitives, hoping to change the company's behavior. The judge lowered the punitives to $480,000, and the case settled for an undisclosed amount, presumably less.
2. What's the winning award every year? The "winner" every year goes to Mr. Grazinski who is alleged to have purchased a brand new thirty-two foot Winnebago motor home. On his first trip, after entering 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 Winnie left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Mr. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising him in the handbook that he could not actually leave the driver's seat when the cruise control was engaged. He was awarded $1,750,000 plus a new Winnebago.
3. Why do the fake Stella's exist year after year? The "Stella Awards" is a collection of urban legends and fake legal cases designed to perpetuate the myth that there is a 'lawsuit crisis' in America. Advocates of limited legal rights have been circulating these make-believe cases for years, using fake examples to undermine public confidence in our legal system.
4. Could the real Stella's case even have taken place in NC? Probably not. We have contributory negligence. I'll explain.
5. Are the courts full of outrageous case? No. At least not in N.C. where I'm in court everyday.