The auto insurance industry and other big business interests have mobilized massive publicity campaigns to create the false perception that courts are inundated with “frivolous lawsuits.” We are warned that unjustifiable verdicts and settlements trigger higher insurance premiums and costs of goods for the rest of us. Examples of the allegedly frivolous lawsuits are usually either outright fabrications or based upon a complete distortion of the true facts and circumstances of a case. According to the so-called “Stella Awards” posted on the internet, six “crazy” lawsuits are identified in support of the claim that frivolous lawsuits are common; one example: a woman who allegedly sued a furniture store when she tripped over her own toddler in the store. Snopes.com, a well-respected website that investigates and either confirms or disproves the basis for urban myths and other claims, debunked the “Stella Awards,” noting that: “All of the entries in the list are fabrications – a search for news stories about each of these cases failed to turn up anything, as did a search for each law case.”
These bogus accounts are not limited to the internet. Even the U.S. News & World Report and a number of newspapers have referenced the fictitious cases cited by the “Stella Awards.” In an October 2004 article in Washington Monthly magazine, Stephanie Mencimer traced and debunked another pervasive frivolous lawsuit myth:
In 1977, the venerable insurance company Crum & Forster sponsored one of the first print ads that included what would become a staple of anti-lawsuit rhetoric: the fictional lawsuit horror story. The ad told the story of a guy who collected a $500,000 jury verdict after he was injured using a lawnmower as a hedge clipper. The agency later conceded that it had no factual basis for the story, but that didn’t keep it from circulating widely in the media and in conservative political speeches.
The “Stella Awards” were named after Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff in the infamous McDonald’s “hot coffee” case. The actual facts of that case are well stated in this article by the Consumers Attorneys of California. I also recommend that you watch the excellent documentary “Hot Coffee” by Susan Saladoff, another objective account of what really happened in that case.
The key fact that supported the jury’s finding of liability, and the judge’s conclusion that that McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, wanton, and reckless” behavior, was that McDonald’s intentionally held its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees, a temperature that would cause third-degree burns (the worst type) immediately upon impact with the skin. McDonald’s admitted at trial that its coffee was “not fit for consumption” when sold because it would cause scalding if drunk or spilled. The only reason McDonald’s held coffee at such high temperatures was to ensure they had enough hot coffee lined up to quickly serve customers and maximize profits.
McDonald’s did not warn its customers that the coffee was 30 to 40 degrees hotter than industry standards and posed a risk of serious injury. Before Mrs. Liebeck was injured, there were over 700 reports by other customers that they received severe burns from the coffee. Another key fact, never mentioned in the outraged reports on the verdict, was the severe degree of burns suffered by Mrs. Liebeck. The burns were far beyond the scalding one would expect as a penalty for accidentally spilling coffee. She received third degree burns over 16 percent of her body, which required hospitalization for 8 days and extensive skin grafting and debridement. She was on disability for more than 2 years as a result of her injuries. She offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, forcing the case to trial.
Not every lawsuit has merit, and some are undoubtedly frivolous. But such lawsuits are extremely rare and invariably dismissed before reaching court, as they should be. I think we can all agree, however, that any discussion related to the merits of lawsuits should be confined to the actual facts of real cases. The “tort reform” movement regularly invokes fabricated or exaggerated anecdotes to push its big-business agenda and deprive innocent parties from receiving fair compensation for their injuries – that is an injustice worthy of reform. Please see the following post to learn how the insurance companies are the ones who abuse the system on a massive scale: “Frivolous defenses” and other insurance company schemes to deny, delay and defend claims.