Every so often, there's a big news story about how America is drowning in an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits, and instead of going on with boring statistics and facts -- which nobody wants to read -- they tell sensational stories about burglars suing their victims or kids suing schools because they hurt their feelings.
The problem is that most of these stories are anywhere from half-bullshit to complete bullshit. But we want to believe them, because it feels good to believe that tons of people out there are stupider and greedier than we are, and those people are what's wrong with this country today. Not us. We like outrageous villains that don't hit anywhere close to home.
People like Stella Liebeck.
Probably the most famous "frivolous lawsuit" example of all time. No doubt you've heard of the lady that sued McDonald's because she spilled some hot coffee in her lap while driving. What a moron! you might have thought. How stupid do you have to be to not know coffee is hot? Americans these days! Blaming everyone but themselves for their mistakes!
"This is all your fault, coffee!"
It turns out there's a lot more to the story. First of all, the hot coffee wasn't just uncomfortable and embarrassing, it gave her third degree burns over six percent of her body, which required fucking skin grafts. You can see the burns yourself if you're not squeamish.
Secondly, coffee served at that temperature (180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit) will give a person third-degree burns in two to seven seconds, while home-coffee brewers normally serve coffee at much lower temperatures (130 two 140 degrees) which won't immediately burn you. Yes, Starbucks and other joints do serve coffee at the hotter temperatures -- because some customers prefer it -- but then again, they get sued for it also. Thirdly, she attempted to settle for $20,000 at one point, and McDonald's refused, which is when she started getting cranky.
"Not my problem."
You may have heard that she got millions of dollars, when the final award was $640,000. Then from that you take out the medical bills (hint: skin grafts aren't cheap).
But she has to take some responsibility, right? She may not have been driving, but she was trying to open the lid in her lap so she could add cream and sugar. That's kind of careless, isn't it? Why couldn't the jury see that?
Well, they did. That's why the compensatory damages portion ($200,000) was reduced by 20 percent, because they ruled it was 20 percent her fault.
Imagine if paternity tests could be ruled that way.
Even the Stella Awards website -- a site dedicated to rooting out silly lawsuits and named after Stella Liebeck herself as the symbol of what's wrong with our justice system -- admits all these facts are true.
So if you still want to argue about it, you have to admit this case isn't the joke most people play it off as in email forwards and know-it-all water cooler lectures.
Newsweek had a pretty shocking story about this in 2004: "In Kentucky, a mother sued her daughter's school after the girl had performed oral sex on a boy during a schoolbus ride returning from a marching-band contest. The woman blamed poor adult supervision, saying her daughter had been forced."
What a stupid, sue-happy lady, right? Blaming the school because she raised her daughter to be a tramp.
Via Wikimedia Commons
Woman's daughter, according to the news.
Actually, what really happened was that the school board first suspended the girl for 10 days, for clearly being such a tramp. Then, an investigation turned up the fact she was actually the victim of sexual assault -- she actually was forced.
Oops. The school got right on it -- by suspending her again; this time for not reporting the assault. So she was forced into performing oral sex, and then, as the icing on the cake, suspended twice for it. Justice!
"You kind of look like whores too. Suspensions all around!"
You can understand why a mother might want to take that to court, just to stick it to the people responsible, but part of her lawsuit also involved a demand that the school board set up employee training on how to deal with sexual assaults. Kind of a far cry from the picture of a greedy entitled American who doesn't want to take responsibility for her slutty daughter, isn't it?
Have you ever read about the case where a man sued a driver for running him over as he was trying to steal the driver's hubcaps? Or the woman who sued a nightclub because she fell while she was trying to sneak in the back window?
Lesson: Never pay bottom dollar for a fake ID.
There was a really popular set of six or seven of those going around in email forwards a while ago, sometimes purporting to be from the Stella Awards, which distances itself completely from those emails. Yet, if you've been at a party and had some guy go off on a rant about our crazy lawsuit-happy society, more often than not he was going by one of those emails. The vast majority of the "World's Gone Crazy!" lawsuit stories come from that pool of urban legend.
So, what if there's stupid email forwards going around, though. Nobody seriously pays attention to that shit, it just goes into the spam bin with the "Neiman Marcus cookie recipe" and the "tampons contain asbestos" crap. Right?
Also the ones about Procter & Gamble sponsoring Satanism.
Well, some people took it really seriously. Some newspapers even. The New York Daily News printed that email forward verbatim in 2002, and the owner of national news magazine U.S. News & World Report, Mort Zuckerman, cited examples from that same email about fictional lawsuits a year later to show us what's wrong with America today. When told it was fake, he published a sort-of correction that basically said, "Well, maybe these were fake but we all know this happens all the time, so what's the difference."
This is known as "implant" logic.
And that's exactly the thought process of everybody who endlessly repeats these stories. It's why the guy in the cubicle next to you is happy to tell you about the burglar who broke into a house, tripped over the coffee table and then sued the owners of the home into bankruptcy. Sure, he doesn't know exactly where that happened or where he read about it, but we all know that stuff happens, so what does it matter if that story is true? After all, this is a country where you can sue for millions if your coffee was too hot.