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Microwaved poodles, McCoffee spills – and other phoney lawsuits

A microwave maker was sued by an old lady who cooked her poodle, following her attempt to dry the dog after giving it a bath. Another old lady won $2.9 million against McDonald's for spilling a cup of coffee on herself while driving. But not really...14 Mar 2003

A microwave maker was sued by an elderly lady who lost her beloved poodle to the sound of a muffled explosion, following her attempt to dry the dog (on low power, for just a few minutes) after giving it a bath. Another old lady won $2.9 million against McDonald's for spilling a cup of coffee on herself while driving. But not really.

These stories, and others like them, are circulated by e-mail and purport to be genuine legal cases, often labelled "The Stella Awards." But they are, at best, wild exaggerations and, more usually, entirely made up. And the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) is upset – because such fabricated stories, almost all of which refer to US litigation, do little for the good name of American trial lawyers.

The most recent story to top the Stella Awards concerns a Mr. Grazinski.

The story goes that, in 2000, he purchased a brand new 32 foot Winnebago motor home. On his first trip home, having joined 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 do this. He was awarded $1.75 million plus a new Winnebago.

Neither Mr Grazinski nor his lawsuit ever existed.

The real Stella versus McDonald's

The Stella Awards are named after a genuine litigant, Stella Liebeck. She really did sue McDonald's over coffee spillage. Yet the story that is circulated doesn't do her justice. She wasn't driving her car, she didn't win $2.9 million in damages, and she was severely burned.

The ATLA is keen to point out what really happened.

Mrs Liebeck, aged 79 on the day in question, purchased coffee at a drive-through McDonald's. She was a passenger in a stationery car when she removed the lid from the Styrofoam cup to add milk and sugar. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

Her tracksuit trousers absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin, causing full thickness (or third-degree) burns over 6% of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, genital and groin areas.

In court, it was revealed that 700 claims had been made by McDonald's customers who had been burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Further, McDonald's coffee was served at between 82 and 87 degrees Celcius (180 – 190 degrees Fahrenheit). A consultant testified that consuming liquid at this temperature would burn the mouth or throat.

Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 57 – 60 degrees Celsius (135 – 140 degrees Fahrenheit). At trial, McDonald's quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur, but testified that McDonald's had no intention of reducing the "holding temperature" of its coffee.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20% at fault in the spill. She was awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages – equating to two days of McDonald's coffee sales – but the court then reduced this award to $480,000.

What about the awards?

The Stella Awards do exist and do track America's most spurious lawsuits – but these are genuine cases (and consequently less amusing), so do not appear in the widely circulated e-mail that purports to be the annual Stella Awards.

So who made up the lies?

Well, the ATLA reckons it knows where the e-mails originate:

"All indications are that they're part of a massive campaign by corporate America and its allies to propagandise for tort 'reform' - limits on the legal rights of individuals to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable for causing death and injury."

The ATLA counsels that we should be suspicious of "stories that list outrageous cases without citations."

"Remember," it concludes, "things like the 'Stella Award' aren't just cute or harmless jabs at trial lawyers and our legal system. They clearly are part of a massive disinformation campaign designed to undermine Americans' confidence in our legal system and to benefit powerful corporate interests at the expense of average people harmed by corporate wrongdoing and indifference."

Surely that's not going to spark another spurious lawsuit?