The Stella Awards: Myths Driving Tort Reform
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Chances are, you’ve heard something about that “hot coffee spill” lawsuit against McDonalds. It’s often held up as an example of what’s wrong with the jury system. Like so many people, maybe you’ve criticized the case – or, perhaps, even laughed at the verdict.
We’d be willing to bet that, if you knew all the facts, you’d agree the case was no laughing matter.
There was certainly nothing funny about the lawsuit to Stella Liebeck, the woman who filed it more than a decade ago. In 1992, Ms. Liebeck purchased a cup of coffee at a McDonalds drive-through window. Her grandson, who was driving, pulled the car forward and then stopped so that his grandmother could add cream and sugar to her cup. As Ms. Liebeck removed the lid, the coffee – which was dispensed to her at a heat of over 180 degrees – spilled into her lap, almost instantaneously causing third-degree burns over six percent of her body, including in an undeniably sensitive area. Ms. Liebeck spent eight days in the hospital, having to endure painful skin grafting and debridement. All she asked of McDonalds was for it to pay $20,000 for her medical bills. But McDonalds refused – despite the fact that the fast-food giant was on notice of more than 700 claims of coffee burns to its patrons, over a ten-year period, including many that were similar to Ms. Liebeck’s. The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000, but reduced its award to $160,000, finding that Ms. Liebeck was 20% responsible for her injury. She was also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, but that amount was reduced to $480,000 by the court. After trial, the parties entered into a secret settlement to avoid an appeal.
Shame on McDonalds – and shame on those who don’t want you to know that full story. Because of overzealous “tort reform” efforts spurred by large companies who want to limit their own liability, Ms. Leibeck’s trauma is often reduced to a punch line in any joke about frivolous lawsuits. When the story is regurgitated, the full extent of her damages and her early offer of settlement are deleted, leaving only a bare-bones “hot coffee: want $2 million” meme. This outrageous oversimplification is then hoisted up as a reason to prevent these sorts of lawsuits from being filed in the future.
Enter, stage right, The Stella Awards.
Feeding the outrage over “greedy victims” forcing others to pay for their own “stupidity,” The Stella Awards stepped up and, from 2002-2007, presented annual “awards” to the most ridiculous lawsuits they could find.
The Stella Awards are most famous for a persistent chain-mailed list of fury-inducing cases – ones that even their own official website labels as bogus fabrications. These fake cases range from the mother who successfully sued a furniture store after she tripped over her own toddler, to the older woman who blithely decided that “cruise control” meant “auto-pilot,” and many other fake cases that have entered into the realm of urban legend. These pure-fiction stories of rewarded idiocy are too frequently circulated – even, most disappointingly, by news organizations – as factual proof that our system of civil justice has gone off the rails and needs “reform.” A website perusal of the six years of actual “Stella Awards” reveals a collection of lawsuits that were mostly dismissed, withdrawn, or listed with no resolution.
It’s important to know the essential facts about any given case before you join the uninformed chorus criticizing it. Our jury system is not infallible, and juries can and do make mistakes. Far more often than not, however, juries – the people we entrust to actually hear and weigh the facts that the public often overlooks – get it right. At Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore, we support the rights of all potential plaintiffs to have their cases heard, and we trust the judges and juries in Florida to fairly evaluate each case after hearing all the facts.
If you have been injured by someone else’s negligence – or by their willful disregard for your safety, just as McDonalds willfully disregarded Ms. Leibeck’s safety – contact us today for a free consultation. We’d be happy to help.