The Stella Awards – Truth or Fiction?

Photo (cc) by Victor Chapa

I just got an email that’s been circulating off and on for years now. It concerns the Stella Awards – a fictional award for the most frivolous lawsuits supposedly filed during the last year. Following is the email I received:

Stella Awards

It’s time again for the annual Stella Awards. For those unfamiliar with these awards, 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 coffee. You remember, 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? That’s right; these are awards for the most outlandish lawsuits and verdicts in the U.S. You know, the kinds of cases that make you scratch your head and say WTH? So keep your head scratcher handy.

Here are the Stellas for the past year:

* SEVENTH PLACE *
Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas, was awarded $80,000 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running inside a furniture store. The store owners were understandably surprised by the verdict, considering the running toddler was her own son.

* SIXTH PLACE*
Carl Truman, 19, of Los Angeles, California, won $74,000 plus medical expenses when his neighbor ran over his hand with a Honda Accord. Truman apparently didn’t notice there was someone at the wheel of the car when he was trying to steal his neighbor’s hubcaps.

* FIFTH PLACE*
Terrence Dickson, of Bristol, Pennsylvania, who was leaving a house he had just burglarized by way of the garage. Unfortunately for Dickson, the automatic garage door opener malfunctioned and he could not get the garage door to open. Worse, he couldn’t re-enter the house because the door connecting the garage to the house locked when Dickson pulled it shut. Forced to sit for eight, count ’em, EIGHT days and survive on a case of Pepsi and a large bag of dry dog food, he sued the homeowner’s insurance company claiming undue mental anguish. Amazingly, the jury said the insurance company must pay Dickson $500,000 for his anguish. We should all have this kind of anguish.

* FOURTH PLACE *
Jerry Williams, of Little Rock, Arkansas, garnered 4th Place in the Stella’s when he was awarded $14,500 plus medical expenses after being bitten on the butt by his next door neighbor’s beagle — even though the beagle was on a chain in its owner’s fenced yard. Williams did not get as much as he asked for because the jury believed the beagle might have been provoked at the time of the butt bite because Williams had climbed over the fence into the yard and repeatedly shot the dog with a pellet gun.

* THIRD PLACE *
Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, because a jury ordered a Philadelphia restaurant to pay her $113,500 after she slipped on a spilled soft drink and broke her tailbone. The reason the soft drink was on the floor: Ms. Carson had thrown it at her boyfriend 30 seconds earlier during an argument.

*SECOND PLACE*
Kara Walton, of Claymont, Delaware, sued the owner of a night club in a nearby city because she fell from the bathroom window to the floor, knocking out her two front teeth. Even though Ms.Walton was trying to sneak through the ladies room window to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge, the jury said the night club had to pay her $12,000 ….. Oh yeah, plus dental expenses.

* FIRST PLACE *
This year’s runaway First Place Stella Award winner was: Mrs. Merv Grazinski, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who purchased a new 32-foot Winnebago motor home. On her first trip home, from an OklahomaUniversity 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.

So, are they real? With the exception of the person that the awards were named after – Stella Liebeck – no. Not only are they made up, this email or versions like it have been circulating world-wide going back to at least 2004.

While I found many instances of websites publishing this silly list as if it were fact, there are also many that woke up long enough to smell the coffee. For example, here’s what TruthorFiction.com had to say…

TruthOrFiction.com has checked court records and news archives for the cities mentioned, and have not found any documentation for any of these stories.

The court case involving Stella Liebeck is true and is widely known because of it being the little old lady who got millions because of what seemed like a small incident.

She spilled hot coffee on herself after the drive-through at a McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car. The spill caused severe burns over 6 percent of her body. She spent a week in the hospital, underwent several skin drafts, and ended up with permanent scarring on 15 percent of her body. According to the Washington State Trial Lawyer’s Association, Liebeck sued McDonalds only after the company refused to pay her medical expenses. The WSTLA says her bills added up to $11,000, but McDonalds offered to pay only $800. A mediator recommended a $250,000 settlement, which McDonald’s turned down. One of the issues in the trial was that Liebeck’s lawyers said there had been several hundred similar cases that McDonald’s had ignored and that the company had refused to reduce the temperature of the coffee machines. A jury gave Stella Liebeck $160,000 but also fined McDonald’s a punitive damage of $2.7 million. A judge later reduced that amount to $480,000 then McDonald’s settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Well, there you have it: another internet myth debunked. The next time you get this as a forwarded email, hit “reply all” and ask why nobody in the chain was willing to take .1 seconds (the time it took to find this out with a web search) to verify this crap before wasting your valuable time.

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