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The Myth of Frivolous Lawsuits

Published on November 26th, 2007

I read a great article about the myth of frivolous lawsuits and how insurance companies have created the Stella Awards to mislead the public (and juries) about frivolous lawsuits.  If there is so many frivolous lawsuits, why does the Chamber of Commerce and the insurance industry feel the need to make up these ridiculous lawsuits?  Below is an excerpt of the article.

Recently one of my oldest and dearest friends, a man whose Harvard Ph.D. doesn’t begin to measure his intellect and wisdom, sent out one of those mass e-mails meant to amuse and appall. “OMG! It’s even worse than we thought,” his message began. It was followed by something called the annual Stella Awards, a list of the year’s seven “most outlandish lawsuits and verdicts in the U.S.”

In last place was the tale of Kathleen Robertson of Austin. A jury decided a furniture store owed her $80,000 for a broken ankle she suffered tripping over a toddler running wild in the store. “The store owners were understandably surprised by the verdict, considering the running toddler was her own son,” the e-mail said.

Numbers six through two are more ridiculous.

Then comes numero uno. Winnebago winner? “This year’s runaway First Place Stella Award winner was Mrs. Merv Grazinski, of Oklahoma City, who purchased a new 32-foot Winnebago motor home. On her first trip home, from an OU football game, having driven on to the freeway, she set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the driver’s seat to go to the back of the Winnebago to make herself a sandwich. “Not surprisingly, the motor home left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Also not surprisingly, Mrs. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not putting in the owner’s manual that she couldn’t actually leave the driver’s seat while the cruise control was set. “The Oklahoma jury awarded her – are you sitting down? – $1,750,000 plus a new motor home. Winnebago actually changed their manuals as a result of this suit, just in case Mrs. Grazinski has any relatives who might also buy a motor home.”

The e-mail concludes: “Are we, as a society, getting more stupid?” Guffaws around the world The answer may well be yes, stupid enough to believe that this sort of nonsense really happens.

My friend was not the only credulous one. A Nexis search for the name “Merv Grazinski” turned up scores of articles, the vast majority buying the Winnebago story as gospel truth. More than a few are lazy columnists, who were too dazzled by marvelous stories to do even the easiest research to determine whether they were true.

Among outlets falling for the hoax were the New York Daily News, CNN and U.S. News & World Report. American writers weren’t alone in their gullibility. Even more credulous mentions of the daffy Mrs. Grazinski (or Mr. Grazinski in some accounts) appeared in foreign papers. Readers in Canada, England, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and even Vietnam guffawed at the expense of us stupid Americans.

To its credit, the Austin American-Statesman debunked the story of Ms. Robertson and her toddler several years ago, when the “Stella Awards” started making the rounds. Los Angeles Times reporter Myron Levin went one better. He called Winnebago. “Wide acceptance of the myths has been an eye-opener for Sheila Davis, public relations manager for Winnebago Industries in Forest City, Iowa,” he wrote. “Davis says she has repeatedly had to explain that no, there was no Grazinski lawsuit, and, no, the company did not have to change the owner’s manual to avoid a swarm of copycat claims.”

Even ones such as the notorious McDonald’s scalding coffee suit are not nearly so silly as they become in manufactured legends. The Albuquerque jury did award Stella Liebeck, 79, (after whom the “Stellas” are named) almost $3 million after she spilled coffee on her lap, causing third-degree burns, a week’s hospitalization and skin grafts. But the jury had learned that McDonald’s served its coffee much hotter than other restaurants, that it had received more than 700 previous complaints and had paid more than $500,000 in earlier settlements. Liebeck originally asked for just $20,000 to cover her medical bills and other expenses, and that McDonald’s serve its coffee at a more moderate temperature. McDonald’s offered her $800. Shortly before trial, a mediator recommended McDonald’s pay $225,000. The company said no. Jurors awarded $160,000 in damages and $2.7 million in punitives, hoping to change the company’s behavior. The judge lowered the punitives to $480,000, and the case settled for an undisclosed amount, presumably less.

Here’s the lesson: The next time an Internet tale makes you think things are even worse than you thought, check it out. Especially when the tale suggests that the American system is stacked against wealthy corporations. One easy way: www.snopes.com, an excellent site that investigates urban myths. It took less than 30 seconds to ask for “Stella Awards” and receive the verdict: “False.”

Joe Pioletti
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