No. The “Stella Awards” email is fake news and has been used for decades to convince voters across the country that jury verdicts are out of control. The email claims to be sharing a list of the year’s most outrageous personal injury cases and verdicts. It should be noted, however, none of the cases are real. All the cases that are mentioned in the email are fake.
These emails and other false propaganda helped corporate America, big business, and the insurance lobby pass sweeping tort reform across the country that hurt normal citizens, made consumers less safe, and saved big business lots of money. As a result of this fake news, the same citizens who love their constitutional rights like those found in the Second Amendment had no problem with legislatures stripping them of valuable rights that should be protected by the Constitution; most specifically the right to trial by jury in the Seventh Amendment.
Recently, it came to our attention that people are again receiving emails about this year’s “Stella Awards.” The email most received begins as follows:
If you liked the Darwin Awards, you’ll also like these. Same neighborhood…
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.
While you may not immediately recognize the name Stella, you have probably heard of the McDonald’s hot coffee case in which 81-year-old Stella Liebeck was awarded $2.86 million for burns she suffered after she took the lid off of a McDonald’s coffee and spilled it on her lap. What you likely do not know is that the judge reduced the award to $640,000. Then, to avoid appeals, McDonald’s and Stella settled the case for an undisclosed amount.
Regarding the merits of the case, evidence showed that McDonald’s served their coffee at substantially higher temperatures than surrounding vendors and that McDonalds had settled over 500 cases involving coffee burns. Additionally, Stella suffered severe third-degree burns on her thighs and groin requiring skin grafts and months of recovery. To justify the high temperatures at which the coffee was served, McDonald’s claimed that it was to ensure that drive-through customers would still have hot coffee by the time they reached their destinations. However, evidence showed at trial that McDonald’s had done research which indicated that customers intend to consume coffee immediately even while driving. Despite previously burning hundreds of people and knowing the risk of serious injury, McDonald’s continued serving scolding hot coffee.
Although the true story behind the McDonald’s hot coffee case paints an entirely different picture, news outlets, corporations, and insurance companies alike have made it the centerpiece in their arguments that jury awards are out of control. The use of this distorted description at the beginning of the Stella Awards email is likely meant to stir emotion in an attempt give the rest of the email credibility. Be aware, however, that the cases following it are entirely fabricated (everything in the email and the portions below is false):
Here are the Stellas for this year.
7. 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.
6. 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.
5. Terrence Dickson, of Bristol, Pennsylvania, 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.
4. 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.
3. 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.
2. 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.
1. 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 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?
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.
Even though the described cases never occurred, unassuming people shared these emails with friends and some news outlets shared the list with their viewers. Interestingly, around the same time that this email first went viral in the early 2000s, corporations and insurance companies began lobbying governments in an effort to stop what they characterized as “runaway jury awards.” This lobbying effort, along with an eroded public opinion of personal injury litigation, has led many states, including Ohio, to enact a variety of limitations on damage awards in personal injury cases. The reform measures have a severe chilling effect on injured people bringing rightful claims.