What are the Stella Awards?

You may not immediately recognize the name Stella Liebeck, but you’ve probably heard of the McDonald’s scalding coffee case. In 1992, Stella, 79 at the time, spilled a cup of McDonald’s scalding hot coffee onto her lap, and a jury awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages.

But that’s not the whole story: McDonald’s served their coffee at scalding hot temperatures without letting customers know that it could burn them, and the coffee had a history of burning unsuspecting customers. Other establishments generally serve coffee at substantially lower temperatures than the 185+ degrees of McDonald’s coffee, which is hot enough to cause severe, third-degree burns. Also, a trial court subsequently reduced the punitive damages to $480,000.

Even though this case had merit (and McDonald’s now serves their coffee at a much lower, safer temperature thanks to Stella's lawsuit), the term “Stella Award” has been applied to outlandish, frivolous lawsuits.

A website at www.stellaawards.com keeps track of these cases, and Randy Cassingham has written a book titled The True Stella Awards, which is an Amazon.com best seller.

By presenting entertaining lawsuits, the independent website poses questions such as: Are the people involved in these cases using the courts to redress justifiable grievances that can't otherwise be settled? Or are they trying to extort money from anyone they can? Are the lawyers involved champions of justice? Or are they helping to abuse the system in the name of getting a piece of the action?

Here are the synopses of some of the “Stella Award” cases presented by the website:

Man says he is having heart attacks and got diabetes because he's obese. Why is he obese? Because McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC failed to tell him that he shouldn't eat their fast food multiple times per week. Meanwhile, a federal judge throws out a similar case filed by obese children, but legal observers warn that's not the end of the issue.

Man uses restroom stall in city building that doesn't have a door knob. When he sticks his hand through the hole, he gets hurt -- and, of course, sues. He wins almost $3 million. His occupation? City claims examiner.

After an accident, transit authority discovers its driver is color-blind. Federal law requires commercial drivers to correctly see color, so he is pressured to resign. That's not the end, though: he sues, claiming "discrimination" against color-blind people -- even though he claims he is not color-blind.

Sharper Image received a bad review from Consumer Reports magazine for its "Ionic Breeze" air filter. Rather than improve the product, it sued the magazine. The judge ruled it was a "Strategic Suit Against Public Participation" -- an illegal "SLAPP" lawsuit, and sanctioned Sharper Image.

The website also points out “bogus” Stella Award cases, or urban legends, including the following:

Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas, was awarded $780,000 by a jury after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running amuck inside a furniture store. The owners of the store were understandably surprised at the verdict, considering the misbehaving tyke was Ms. Robertson's son. Fabricated.

In November, Mr. Grazinski 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 $1,750,000 plus a new Winnebago. Fabricated.

Kara Walton of Claymont, Delaware, successfully sued the owner of a nightclub in a neighboring city when she fell from the bathroom window to the floor and knocked out her two front teeth. This occurred while Ms. Walton was trying to sneak through the window in the ladies room to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge. She was awarded $12,000 and dental expenses. Fabricated.

The Stella Awards and the bogus cases are good for a laugh, but personal injury law is a serious matter. When you’re injured because of the negligence of another person or company, you need a experienced lawyer who will work hard and pursue all your options. If you’ve been injured, call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation.