4 Lawsuits That Aren’t As Frivolous As They Sound

Yeah, stick it to that elderly woman covered in third-degree burns!
4 Lawsuits That Aren’t As Frivolous As They Sound

I remember a time when “lawyer” was basically the easy comedy stand-in for the most morally corrupt job imaginable. They were stuck commiserating with the Polish, sewn into the punching bag of every street joke. If your occupation ever gets saddled with a joke like “What’s the difference between a lawyer and a bucket of shit? The bucket,” it’s a pretty good sign that you’re not killing it in the popularity department. Nowadays, though, you hear a lot less of that. Partly, I think, because there’s such a wealth of horrendous people loudly spouting bullshit that they’re not so prominent a target. 

Another might be that one of the biggest boogeymen attributed to law and lawsuits in the late 20th century, the frivolous, predatory lawsuit, has fallen by the wayside. Given that the “victim” of these so-called cash grabs was usually a massive corporation, I doubt they’d even be able to muster up more than a middle finger from most people today. Often, it was that same access to an unending PR budget that let corporations control the narrative of these lawsuits being “dumb” as opposed to just nightmarish in a strange way, which they very often were.

To that end, here are four frivolous lawsuits that actually weren’t…

McDonald’s Hot Coffee


Now imagine that steam rising from your ruined genitals.

The crown jewel of the fake frivolous lawsuit and possibly one of the most diabolically successful PR spins of all time is the woman who was burned by hot McDonald’s coffee. She was the butt of jokes for years, whether from late-night hosts or politicians pushing for tort reform. The result of her seeking out compensation for what were genuine injuries resulted in a nationwide point-and-laugh campaign that feels like something that deserves punitive damages in itself.

See, the descriptor “hot” is shockingly broad. You can use it to describe both a delightful bowl of soup and molten steel, which is quite a spectrum. The reason that the woman in question sued was because the coffee McDonald’s served was closer to smelting temperature than anything that should be casually handed to someone in an insulating cup. Specifically, it was close to 190 degrees. A fast-food restaurant handing someone a cup of 190-degree liquid isn’t a safe idea in the first place, doubly or triply so when the person in question doesn’t know the contents of the cup are on the cusp of literally boiling.

So, when the cup fatefully tipped over (while parked, onto Stella Liebeck, who was in the passenger seat), she didn’t receive the minor, yowch-inducing scald of your usual mishandled coffee. She received third-degree burns across her legs and genitals, which is the absolute bottom of the list of preferred burn targets, and required hospitalization and surgery. She didn’t even ask for anything more than the payment of her $20,000 medical bills at first, but escalated to a lawsuit when Mickey D’s counter-offer was $800. Forget a white-picket fence, is there anything more American than a hospital bill and a team of corporate lawyers trying to fuck you sideways at the same time?

Phone Booth Company Sued Over Drunk Driver


Hey man, Ive gotta go. A Chevy Tahoe that reeks of tequila is hurtling toward me.

A guy is in a phone booth when a drunk driver plows into it, and he sues the phone booth company? What in tarnation?!?! The first time you hear that, if you have even an iota of critical thinking in your sopping wet little brain, you’d think, “There has to be more to the story.” Unfortunately for the victim, people much prefer the entertaining tale of a dumb, greedy idiot over a more boring tale with nuance. It didn’t help that Ronald Reagan, the president at the time and a dumb asshole, made fun of the guy for being “looney.”

The actual sequence of events is something pulled out of a literal nightmare. Charles Bigbee, the man in question, was using the phone booth when he saw a drunk driver heading right for him. So what did he do? Brace for impact with dollar signs in his eyes? No, he tried to get out of the fucking phone booth, but the door was broken, trapping him inside. It was also found that the phone booth company both knew this booth location was dangerous, having had a booth in the same spot destroyed by a car only 18 months earlier, and that the door in question was faulty. But hey, restoring a death-box hurts the bottom line! The company settled, and while the exact amount isn’t known, I’m pretty sure Bigbee would have preferred continued ownership of his fucking leg, which he lost in the crash.

Too Scared at a Haunted House


I can also tell you from personal experience: They get really mad if you call 911 when something jumps out at you.

Man, what a pattern emerges! It’s almost like these opposing lawyers and the PR firms working with them know exactly how to omit details about their cases without ever crossing the line into lying! The spincrafters came out in full force when Cleanthi Peters sued Universal Studios for injuries sustained while visiting one of their haunted houses. The PR ghouls were so effective, in fact, that it’s difficult to even find the word “injury” in coverage. WIRED, in fact, referred to the case as a “new low of litigiousness.” Hope Universal Studios sees this, bro. 

The best research I found on the actual details of the case comes from the website of attorney J. Price McNamara, who was similarly frustrated by the amount of bullshit on the internet about it. I’ll even forgive him for the shot he takes at this very website for a slightly misleading title. Look, buddy, we gotta do what we gotta do, and this isn’t the fucking Gray Lady. Nobody’s checking the traffic on your legal briefs. He notes there’s mentions of Peters slipping in a puddle of water while being perhaps over-vigorously pursued by an ersatz Leatherface, which he notes “could have constituted grounds for a personal injury lawsuit. Period.” He also tracked down a footnote in a book mentioning Peters had sued for $15,000, but the suit was settled out of court.

Woman Sues for Loss of Psychic Powers


Actually, my tarot cards say this is a good idea.

Our last case is one where it was the plaintiff herself who torpedoed her chances to be taken seriously on what should have been an open-and-shut malpractice case. Judith Haimes received a CAT scan at Temple University Hospital, where they used a dye that she had already informed them she was allergic to. Predictably, she had an allergic reaction to the dye, producing a wealth of health problems including chronic headaches.

What stuck the reporting on the suit nearer the funny pages was the unrelated fact that Haimes considered herself a bona-fide psychic, and claimed it had also brought her sixth sense to a stuttering halt. Though I’m sure her lawyer recommended she maybe leave the spirit world stuff out of the case, she made it part of her defense, which made her a punchline for plenty of publications and, again, Ronald Reagan, who can seriously fuck right off.

Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.

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