Fact Check

Stella Awards

A bouquet of outrageous lawsuits demonstrates the need for tort reform?


Claim:   Six outrageous-but-real lawsuits showcase the need for tort reform.

Status:   False.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2001]

This is what's wrong with the world:

1. January 2000: Kathleen Robertson of Austin Texas was awarded $780,000.00 by a jury of her peers 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.

2. June 1998: A 19 year old Carl Truman of Los Angeles won $74,000.00 and medical expenses when his neighbor ran his hand over with a Honda Accord. Mr. Truman apparently didn't notice someone was at the wheel of the car whose hubcap he was trying to steal.

3. October 1998: A Terrence Dickson of Bristol Pennsylvania was exiting a house he finished robbing by way of the garage. He was not able to get the garage door to go up, because the automatic door opener was malfunctioning. He couldn't re-enter the house because the door connecting the house and garage locked when he pulled it shut. The family was on vacation, so Mr. Dickson found himself locked in the garage for eight days. He subsisted on a case of Pepsi he found, and a large bag of dry dog food. This upset Mr. Dickson, so he sued the homeowner's insurance claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The jury agreed to the tune of half a million dollars and change.

4. October 1999: Jerry Williams of Little Rock Arkansas was awarded $14,500.00 and medical expenses after being bitten on the buttocks by his next door neighbor's beagle. The beagle was on a chain in its owner's fenced-in yard, as was Mr. Williams. The award was less than sought after because the jury felt the dog may have been provoked by Mr. Williams who, at the time, was shooting it repeatedly with a pellet gun.

5. May 2000: A Philadelphia restaurant was ordered to pay Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania $113,500.00 after she slipped on a spilled soft drink and broke her coccyx. The beverage was on the floor because Ms. Carson threw it at her boyfriend 30 seconds earlier during an argument.

6. December 1997: Kara Walton of Claymont, Delaware successfully sued the owner of a night club 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 $12,000.00 and dental expenses.

Origins:   This "and you wonder what's wrong with the world today?" whinge appeared on the Internet in May 2001. 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.

The earliest version concluded with a seventh item that has since been snipped away, likely after someone noticed it was the venerable microwaved poodle legend. Its inclusion would have immediately called into question the truthfulness of the other six cases for any number of folks familiar with urban legends. The remaining six were still false, but they weren't as obviously false as the following poodle tale and thus wouldn't have set the alarm bells ringing:

7. And just so you know that cooler heads do occasionally prevail: Kenmore Inc., the makers of Dorothy Johnson's microwave, were found not liable for the death of Mrs. Johnson's poodle after she gave it a bath and attempted to dry it by putting the poor creature in her microwave for, "just a few minutes, on low," The case was quickly dismissed.

A version of the list that began circulating in the spring of 2002 has yet another urban legend included as its final item, the venerable cruise control legend:

In November 2000, 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.

Some versions bear the following footer, although many omit it:


Mary R. Hogelmen, Esq.
Law Offices of Hogelmen, Hogelmen, and Thomas
Dayton Ohio

There is no law firm of Hogelmen, Hogelmen, and Thomas in Dayton, Ohio, as a call to directory assistance quickly confirmed. This detail was included to give the mailing credibility in the eyes of those who received it: if a law firm had pulled this list together to build grassroots support for its tort reform program, then it went without saying a pack of lawyers had properly researched each item and were guaranteeing the information provided. But of course this detail was as false as everything else in the e-mail.

Speaking about implied credibility, we note that the "outrageous lawsuits" list has made it into the newspapers at times, which only works to add to the perception that the information given in it is reliable. In June 2002, the New York Daily News presented it solely as an e-mail it had received, making no statements as to its likeliness to be real or detailing any attempts that publication might have made to verify any of the entries. (Had such attempts been made, the Daily News would have quickly found the article you're now reading, which originally appeared on this site a full ten months prior to the Daily News piece.)

Fake or not, a list of outrageous awards bestowed upon those whose actions — nay, misbehaviors — had brought them to grief would fall upon very receptive ears because current feeling is very much against large jury awards for frivolous claims. This e-mail preaches to the choir in that it "confirms" what is already deeply believed.

Numerous states have enacted measures to reform their civil law systems in response to the problem of frivolous lawsuits and runaway jury awards. Tort reform usually amounts to placing a cap on punitive damage awards, making the state's joint-and-several liability law more equitable, and limiting judge and court shopping (which means cases are tried in front of whomever they've been assigned to rather than the judge the plaintiff figures will be most sympathetic).

Though the cases described in the e-mail are fake, real lawsuits of equal silliness can be found in abundance. An equally impressive list could easily have been compiled by anyone with access to a news database and a few moments to spare. For instance:

  • In March 1995, a San Diego man unsuccessfully attempted to sue the city and Jack Murphy Stadium for $5.4 million over something that can only be described as a wee problem: Robert Glaser claimed the stadium's unisex bathroom policy at a Billy Joel and Elton John concert caused him embarrassment and emotional distress thanks to the sight of a woman using a urinal in front of him. He subsequently tried "six or seven" other bathrooms in the stadium only to find women in all of them. He asserted he "had to hold it in for four hours" because he was too embarrassed to share the public bathrooms with women.
  • A San Carlos, California, man sued the Escondido Public Library for $1.5 million. His dog, a 50-pound Labrador mix, was attacked November 2000 by the library's 12-pound feline mascot, L.C., (also known as Library Cat). The case was heard in January 2004, with the jury finding for the defendant. In a further case which was resolved in July 2004, the plaintiff in the previous suit was ordered to pay the city $29,362.50, which amounted to 75% of its legal fees associated with that case.
  • In 1994, a student at the University of Idaho unsuccessfully sued that institution over his fall from a third-floor dorm window. He'd been mooning other students when the window gave way. It was contended the University failed to provide a safe environment for students or to properly warn them of the dangers inherent to upper-story windows.
  • In 1993, McDonald's was unsuccessfully sued over a car accident in New Jersey. While driving, a man who had placed a milkshake between his legs, leaned over to reach into his bag of food and squeezed the milkshake container in the process. When the lid popped off and spilled half the drink in his lap, this driver became distracted and ran into another man's car. That man in turn tried to sue McDonald's for causing the accident, saying the restaurant should have cautioned the man who had hit him against eating while driving.

Although the cases cited above were all eventually dismissed, they still managed to work their way at least partway through our court system. When we hear such stories, it's hard not to be rabidly in favor of tort reform — these kinds of cases make it appear that the idiots have taken over the asylum and only the rapid institution of some rules is going to bring things back into a semblance of sanity. Yet this solution is not all skittles and beer; many see such changes as potentially denying those in need of legal remedy their day in court and refusing them their right to be heard. The cap on jury awards is also viewed by some as unfair to the seriously injured, who may well require a large sum to afford the cost of living with whatever disability someone else's negligence or recklessness left them with. Capped awards are also scant deterrent to large corporations who could easily afford the judgments against them and therefore have little reason to mend their ways. Big Business is poised to benefit under tort reform in that it will no longer need to fear the courts.

It can also be argued that the need for tort reform is overblown. Only rarely do ridiculous lawsuits result in windfalls for the plaintiff; these cases are almost always either thrown out or the judgment goes for the defendant. Some celebrated "outrageous" suits wherein judgment went for the plaintiff prove upon closer examination to be far less "outrageous" than originally presented in the media. (For example, the "woman scalded by hot coffee" suit, which at first blush looked like the height of frivolity proved to be a perfectly legitimate action taken against a corporation that knew, thanks to a string of similar scaldings it had quietly been paying off, that its coffee was not just hot, but dangerously hot. The Consumer Attorneys of California provides a good description of this case).

Tort reform thus has both its advocates and its adversaries. On the one hand, we bridle at the thought of the terminally clueless being rewarded for their folly — that strikes us as just plain wrong. We also fear for the continued wellbeing of the small- to mid-sized business which can ill afford to fend off one frivolous lawsuit after another and thus stands in danger of being litigated to death. Also, even when litigants do not prevail, costs associated with their suits rain down onto the average citizen through his taxes (some of which underwrite the judicial system) and through increased prices for goods produced by firms who had to mount legal defenses. Yet on the other hand, we don't want to see those who have legitimate cause denied their right to sue (or in the case of the seriously injured, their right to sue for an appropriate amount). We also don't want to see corporations run unchecked, free to turn out whatever dangerous product they like because the combination of capped awards and their deep pockets render them bulletproof.

It's a complicated issue, one not made any easier to make sense of by lists of fake cases of horrendous miscarriages of justice. One has to wonder why someone is so busy trying to stir up outrage and who or what that outrage would ultimately benefit.

Additional information:   George W. Bush's first act upon becoming the Governor of Texas was to reform that state's civil justice system. In January 1995, just after being sworn in, he convened a session of the Legislature to tackle tort reform. Within weeks he signed bills to limit punitive damages to $750,000, cut down on "venue shopping" for favorable judges and juries, and made it easier for judges to impose sanctions on plaintiffs who file frivolous suits.

Sightings:   The "woman in a store trips over a toddler, then sues the store" fiction was incorporated into an episode of the television drama Boston Legal ("Tabloid Nation," original air date 8 April 2008).

Last updated:   11 April 2008

  Sources Sources:

    Associated Press.   "Men's Room Invasion Prompts Suit."

    The Fresno Bee.   1 April 1995   (p. F8).

    Coile, Zachary.   "Bush's Formula to Win Over Business."

    The San Francisco Examiner.   2 October 2000   (p. A1).

    Elias, Paul.   "So What's a Little Litigation Between Friends?"

    The Recorder.   14 December 1999   (Court Watch; p. 4).

    Heller, Jonathan.   "Man Seeks $1.5 Million from City; Says Library Cat Attacked His Dog."

    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   5 May 2001   (p. B2).

    Littlefield, Dana.   "Suit Over Library Cat's Attack Bites Back at disabled Dog Owner."

    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   31 July 2004   (p. NC3).

    Perkins, Joseph.   "We All Pay When Others File Frivolous Lawsuits."

    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   18 May 2001   (p. B7).

    Perry, Tony.   "A One-Man Campaign for More Women's Restrooms."

    Los Angeles Times.   18 August 1995   (p. A3).

    Riffel, James.   "Jury Rejects Claims of Disabled Man Against City for Cat Attack."

    City News Service.   30 January 2004.

    Vogt, Andrea.   "Ludicrous Lawsuit Against University of Idaho Rears Its Ugly Head."

    Lewiston Morning Tribune.   2 August 1994   (p. A1).

    New Jersey Lawyer.   "Moral of a Burger Suit: Don't Eat and Drive."

    15 November 1993   (p. 3).

    [New York] Daily News.   "Mighty Quinn."

    25 June 2002   (Sports, p. 63).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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