Friday, September 14, 2007

The Stella Awards: I'll Sue Ya

In 1994, a jury in New Mexico awarded Stella Liebeck 2.9 million dollars in damages after she suffered third degree burns from spilling a hot cup of McDonalds coffee on herself. In her honor, The Stella Award was created to showcase lawsuits that appear frivolous, and yet are often successful. "Tort Reform" anyone?

This original "Hot Coffee" incident (not to be confused with that other "Hot Coffee" fiasco) provided ample fodder for US comedians for years. However most of us never heard the true story of what really prompted Stella's lawsuit and how it all really ended:
  • Stella was 72 years old when the coffee incident occurred. Her grandson drove them through the McDonalds drive-thru and then parked the car so that Stella could add cream and sugar to her coffee. In the process, she dumped the entire cup into her lap.

  • She had third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and groin. Her medical treatments lasted two years and included skin grafts.

  • She attempted to settle with McDonalds for $20,000 to cover her medical costs. McDonalds offered her $800.

  • She secured a lawyer and filed a lawsuit alleging that McDonalds had sold a product that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured." They offered to settle out of court for $90,000, which McDonalds again refused.

  • As the case against McDonalds began to build, the out of court settlement was raised to $300,000. A pre-trial mediator recommended that McDonalds settle for $225,000, which they again refused.

  • Ultimately the jury decided that McDonalds was 80% responsible for the incident and Stella was 20% responsible. They awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2,700,000 in punitive damages - calculated as twice the amount that McDonalds receives from their coffee sales on an average day.

  • McDonalds appealed and eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, although some sources state that it was less than $600,000.
Here's Weird Al's "I'll Sue Ya" with animation by Thomas Lee.

Video Object here.

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