Are You Amused by the Annual Stella Awards?

For those unfamiliar with the Stella Awards for the most outlandish lawsuits and verdicts in the U.S., they are named after 81-year-old Stella Liebeck who spilled hot coffee on herself and successfully sued the McDonald’s in New Mexico where she purchased the coffee. You may recall the story in which, she took the lid off the coffee and put it between her knees while she was driving. Who would ever think one could get burned doing that, right? Well, that’s not exactly the true story. The true story, as detailed by the Oklahoma Bar Association as a service to the legal community, is that Stella was not driving, and she was in a stopped vehicle trying to add the cream and sugar to her coffee. She could not remove the lid, so held the cup between her knees to free both hands for the task. And while the smirky comment in the awards intro implies that any sane and rational person would have or should have anticipated a spill might be possible under the described circumstances, the fact is that if the coffee hadn’t been kept at a temperature so high — much higher than competitors — the 3rd degree burns would have been completely avoidable. A McDonald’s management person/expert essentially testified that they kept their coffee hotter than the industry standard to sell more coffee, they knew it was hot enough to scald but that the few burn cases were “statistically trivial.” If you take a look at the photos of Stella’s burns, you won’t conclude they are trivial in any way, shape or form. And it is doubtful it was trivial to the other 700 burn victims who had already contacted McDonalds prior to that incident.

Ok, so the new awards are out. And the first place award happens to deal with an alleged case in Oklahoma.

Mrs. Merv Grazinski, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who purchased a new 32-foot Winnebago motor home. On her first trip home from an OU football game, having driven on to the freeway, she set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the driver’s seat to go to the back of the Winnebago to make herself a sandwich. Not surprisingly, the motor home left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Also not surprisingly, Mrs. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not putting in the owner’s manual that she couldn’t actually leave the driver’s seat while the cruise control was set. The Oklahoma jury awarded her, are you sitting down, $1,750,000 PLUS a new motor home. Winnebago actually changed their manuals as a result of this suit, just in case Mrs. Grazinski has any relatives who might also buy a motor home.

My colleague at the Oklahoma Bar association informs me that the story about the Oklahoma RV is an absolute and complete fabrication. Nothing even remotely like this happened, no plaintiff with that name filed a law suit in the time period, and no jury heard such a case. Hmmm . . . something is fishy here, isn’t it?

My colleague goes on to point out that the one about the lawyer who insures a cigar, smokes it, recovers an insurance claim for fire damage, and then gets arrested for arson, was not a lawyer but a “cigar aficionado” when the story first circulated. He even provided the link to Snopes to prove it is just another urban legend.

One of my colleagues maintains that the Stella Awards and its ilk are a slanderous attack on the entire legal system promulgated by those who want to influence public opinion. Me? Well, I know that just because I may be paranoid, it doesn’t mean people aren’t actually out to get me! So I don’t dismiss this view out of hand. Nor do I deny that I enjoy reading about these wacky lawsuit stories. But let’s be clear. Unless you have the actual cites, they’re nothing more than amusing stories. Not facts. And you should never pass them along with the representation that they may be facts, because when they come from a lawyer or someone in the industry, laypersons assume they are real.

So be amused. That’s ok. Just don’t be hoodwinked, or guilty of building or passing along the next urban legend! Make sure you add your own caveat before hitting SEND.

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