We've all heard the one about the woman who spilled scalding coffee and successfully sued McDonald's. But we've also heard reports of burglars suing homeowners after injuring themselves during a robbery. And don't forget the stories of Winnebago owners winning lawsuits after they left the driver's seat because the vehicle's cruise control was activated. Most of us laugh off these stories as urban legends made to show the absurdity of frivolous lawsuits. You might be surprised, however, by how many of these are true.
In February 1992, Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee to go from McDonalds. Liebeck was sitting in the passenger seat of her nephew's car, which was pulled over so she could add sugar to her coffee. While removing the cup's lid, Liebeck spilled her hot coffee, burning her legs. It was determined that Liebeck suffered third degree burns on over six percent of her body. Originally, Liebeck sought $20,000 in damages. McDonalds refused to settle out of court. However, they should have. Liebeck was ultimately awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced to $160,000 because she was found to be twenty percent at fault. She was also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages.
In September 1988, two Akron, Ohio-based carpet layers named Gordon Falker and Gregory Roach were severely burned when a three and a half gallon container of carpet adhesive ignited when the hot water heater it was sitting next to kicked on. Both men felt the warning label on the back of the can was insufficient. Words like "flammable" and "keep away from heat" didn't prepare them for the explosion. They filed suit against the adhesive manufacturers, Para-Chem. A jury obviously agreed since the men were awarded $8 million for their troubles.
In 1992, 23-year old Karen Norman accidentally backed her car into GalvestonBay after a night of drinking. Norman couldn't operate her seat belt and drowned. Her passenger managed to disengage herself and make it to shore. Norman's parents sued Honda for making a seat belt their drunken daughter (her blood alcohol level was .17 - nearly twice the legal limit) couldn't open underwater. A jury found Honda seventy-five percent responsible for Karen's death and awarded the Norman family $65 million. An appeals court threw out the case.
In May 2003, Stephen Joseph of San Francisco sued Kraft foods for putting trans-fat in their Oreo cookies. Joseph wanted an injunction to order Kraft to stop selling Oreos to children. Once the media caught wind of Joseph's lawsuit, the media blitz became too much for him to handle. He decided to drop the suit.
In 1997, Larry Harris of Illinois broke into a bar owned by Jessie Ingram. Ingram, the victim of several break-ins, had recently set a trap around his windows to deter potential burglars. Harris, 37, who was under the influence of both alcohol and drugs, must have missed the warning sign prominently displayed in the window. He set off the trap as he entered the window, electrocuting himself. The police refused to file murder charges. Harris's family saw it differently, however, and filed a civil suit against Ingram. A jury originally awarded the Harris family $150,000. Later, the award was reduced to $75,000 when it was decided Harris should share at least half of the blame.
In 1991, Richard Harris sued Anheiser-Busch for $10,000 for false advertising. Harris (no relation to the above-mentioned burglar) claimed to suffer from emotional distress in addition to mental and physical injury. Why? Because when he drank beer, he didn't have any luck with the ladies, as promised in the TV ads. Harris also didn't like that he got sick sometimes after he drank. The case was thrown out of court.
In 1998, Kellogg sued Exxon because customers might confuse the gas station's "whimsical tiger logo" with Kellogg's mascot, "Tony the Tiger." It didn't matter, of course, that Exxon had already been using this logo for 30 years. A federal court tossed the suit. Kellogg appealed the case claiming the Exxon tiger walks and acts just like Kellogg's "Tony."
In 2003, Richard Schick sued his former employer, the Illinois Department of Public Aid. Schick sought $5 million plus $166,700 in back pay for sexual and disability discrimination. In fact, Shick was so stressed by this discrimination that he robbed a convenience store with a shotgun. A jury felt his pain and awarded him the money he was seeking. The decision was then reversed. Unfortunately, the $303,830 he was still awarded isn't doing him much good during the ten years he's serving for armed robbery.
In 1995, Robert Lee Brock, a Virginia prison inmate, decided to take a new approach to the legal system. After filing a number of unsuccessful lawsuits against the prison system, Brock sued himself. He claimed his civil rights and religious beliefs were violated when he allowed himself to get drunk. After all, it was inebriation that created his cycle of committing crimes and being incarcerated. He demanded $5 million from himself. However, since he didn't earn an income behind bars, he felt the state should pay. Needless to say, the case was thrown out.
In 1996, Florida physical therapist Paul Shimkonis sued his local nudie bar claiming whiplash from a lap dancer's large breasts. Shimkonis felt he suffered physical harm and mental anguish from the breasts, which he claimed felt like "cement blocks" hitting him. Shimkonis sought justice in the amount of $15,000, which was denied.
Reading about these cases often induces more chuckles than seriousness. Their mere existence proves that Ripley's Believe It or Not applies to the legal world too. And the one about the Winnebago driver? That is just an urban legend.