I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
No business can fully predict all of the idiotic ways in which their products and services will be misused by customers, and there are armies of personal injury lawyers ready to exploit the folly of potential clients.
It may seem superfluous to put a notice that reads “Do not Attempt to Stop Chainsaw Blade with Hand” in the instruction manual for that particular piece of equipment, but it could save Stihl, Poulan, Makita and the others who make these machines a fortune in an injury lawsuit.
The American syndicated columnist Randy Cassingham has collected reports of some astonishing lawsuits over the years launched by people who thought they spotted an opportunity to fatten up their bank accounts:
- Doctors at a California hospital rushed to the aid of a very sick woman. The woman’s daughters, who witnessed the attempts to save their mother’s life, claimed the experience exposed them to needless emotional distress. This case went all the way to the California Supreme Court before it was denied.
- A drunk crawled under a parked truck and fell asleep. When the inevitable happened (yep: squished), who’s responsible? According to a lawsuit filed by his mother, everybody—except, of course, him.
- The world has been deeply shocked by news of priests sexually abusing children. But, writes Randy Cassingham, one “priest was upset that one of his victims came forward and told a newspaper the story of being repeatedly raped—so he sued his victim for not keeping his mouth shut.”
- Karen Norman, 23, was drunk when she accidentally backed her Honda car into Galveston Bay. She was unable to unlock her seat belt and drowned. Ms. Norman’s parents sued the car company on the grounds that its seat belt could not be operated under water. A jury agreed and awarded the Normans $65 million, but they didn’t collect because the case was thrown out on appeal.
In a litigious society such as America’s, there are lots of lawyers happy to take on a case that looks hopeless. They charge no fees up front but take a substantial portion of any award a sympathetic jury might award. And here’s a shocking revelation: Some lawyers don’t always behave ethically.
The Stella Awards: Stella Liebeck's Story
Stella Liebeck unfairly and unwittingly became the poster woman for preposterous lawsuits. In 1992, the 79-year-old sued McDonald’s Restaurants for burns she received when hot coffee was spilled in her lap. She was awarded $2.9 million by a jury in New Mexico and, ever since, the case has been characterized as an outrageous example of tort law gone wild. But there’s more to Ms. Liebeck’s situation than is usually reported.
Dale Wiley of the Springfield, Missouri, News Leader, notes that the coffee was kept at 88ºC so that it would taste good. (Coffee made at home is usually at around 54ºC.) When the coffee spilled on her in the drive-through wrote Wiley, “At that temperature, she was burned within two to seven seconds, and the cotton sweatpants she wore held the water close to her body. Stella suffered third-degree burns over six percent of her body, including her inner thighs, and burns of some kind over 16 percent of her body.” She needed skin grafts and spent eight days in the hospital.
But Ms. Liebeck was memorialized by the Stella Awards that Randy Cassingham handed out between 2002 and 2007 for outrageous lawsuits. Since then, others have masqueraded on the internet as purveyors of crazy litigation, but they sometimes report on long-debunked cases.
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Legendary Fails That Actually Never Happened
The internet is brimming with stories that claim to be loopy lawsuits but aren’t.
- A favourite is the one about the man who bought a Winnebago motor home and, while driving it home, put it into cruise control while he popped in back to make a cup of coffee. He is supposed to have won $1.7 million from the Winnebago Company over the resulting crash because he was not warned he could not leave the driver’s seat of his vehicle while it was hurtling down the highway.
- You see those yellow triangles with the “slippery when wet” signage everywhere. If they had been in place in a Philadelphia restaurant it would have saved it $113,500. That’s the amount awarded to Amber Carson who crashed to the floor and broke her coccyx when she stepped in a soft-drink puddle. The hazard was lying there because she had earlier thrown her drink at her boyfriend during an argument.
- Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pennsylvania is famous for having survived for a week in a garage by eating dry dog food. He was locked in the garage of a house he had broken into to burgle. The family was on vacation and Dickson was not released from his self-created prison until they came home. The burglar sued the family because of the mental anguish he had suffered and was awarded $500,000.
Those three stories have one thing in common; they never happened. Oh, and they were all reported as true by the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2009.
Stories such as these rarely die; they gain credibility with each re-telling on social media. It doesn’t help the debunking efforts when allegedly quality news organizations such as The Telegraph repeat them as fact.
The Real Deal
It’s odd that these fake stories gain so much traction when there are plenty of wacky stories that are true. Snopes.com is an independent fact-checking group the exposes misinformation. It and others give us a list of bogus litigation that have been investigated and found to be true:
- A San Carlos, California, man wanted compensation because the Escondido Public Library’s 12-pound cat attacked his 50-pound dog. A jury turned down the man’s demand for $1.5 million (Snopes).
- Paul Shimkonis was in Diamond Dolls nudie bar in Clearwater, Florida. He was experiencing a lap dance delivered by the humongously well-endowed and silicon-enhanced Tawny Peaks. During the entertainment, Shimkonis alleged Ms. Peaks swung her breasts into his face so hard “I saw stars. It was like two cement blocks hit me.” Whiplash and mental anguish was the claim. Rubbish was the judge’s response (Palm Beach Post).
- Virginia prison inmate Robert Lee Brock filed a seven-page lawsuit in which he sought $5 million in damages. He stated that he “allowed himself” to get drunk and in doing so he violated his own civil and religious rights by ending up in prison. He named himself as the defendant and, because he was incarcerated and could not earn any money, it was for the state to pay the damages. Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, no doubt smiling at the time, rejected Brock’s claim but praised his “innovative approach to civil-rights litigation” (Time Magazine).
So, why invent nonsensical stories when such farcical true ones are readily available Writing for The Conversation, a couple of psychologists offer an explanation: “From the perspective of believers, myths act as proof and reinforce existing beliefs. This is important because they help to validate a person’s worldview and in doing so legitimatizes their fears as real and genuine.”
To clue in the utterly clueless, companies have to put warnings on products that might seem redundant to people with a couple of brain cells to rub together:
- “Product will be hot after heating.” (Marks & Spencer bread pudding)
- “Do not pour liquids into your television set.” (Television owner’s manual)
- “WARNING: Do not use in shower. Never use while sleeping.” (Hair dryer)
- “Do not use orally after using rectally.” (Electronic thermometer)
- “Remove child before folding baby stroller.” (Baby stroller)
- “Do not turn upside down. (Printed on the bottom of a box of Tesco’s Tiramisu dessert)
- “Not dishwasher safe.” (TV remote control).
- “Top Ten Frivolous Lawsuits.” Deborah Ng, Legalzoom.com, October 2009
- “Trust Me: You Can’t Believe Everything You Read.” Samantha Bennett, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 2003.
- “Revealed: The Most Outrageous US Lawsuits.” The Telegraph, February 16, 2009.
- “Why Urban Legends Are More Powerful than Ever.” Neil Dagnall and Ken Drinkwater, The Conversation, May 15, 2017.
- “Wacky Warning Labels.” University of Delaware, undated.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor