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The Stella Awards

Netlore Archive: Introducing the Stella Awards for the most frivolous lawsuits in the U.S., purportedly named after 81-year-old Stella Liebeck, who was awarded damages for injuries sustained after spilling a cup of McDonald's coffee in her lap in 1994.

Description: Email hoax
Circulating since: 2001
Status: Mostly false (see details below)

Email text contributed by T. Mindo, Oct. 23, 2001:

Subject: FW: The "Stella" Awards - The American Justice System At Work

Read this if you want to get p.o.'d...

In 1994, a New Mexico jury awarded $ 2.9 million U.S. in damages to 81-year-old Stella Liebeck who suffered third-degree burns to her legs, groin and buttocks after spilling a cup of McDonald's coffee on herself. This case inspired an annual award - The "Stella" Award -for the most frivolous lawsuit in the U.S.

The cases listed below are clear candidates....................

1. January 2000: Kathleen Robertson of Austin Texas was awarded $780,000 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running amuck inside a furniture store. The owners of the store were understandably surprised at the verdict, considering the misbehaving little prick was Ms. Robertson's son.

2. June 1998: A 19 year old Carl Truman of Los Angeles won $74,000 and medical expenses when his neighbor ran over his hand with a Honda Accord. Mr. Truman apparently didn't notice there was someone at the wheel of the car, when he was trying to steal the neighbor's hubcaps.

3. October 1998: A Terrence Dickson of Bristol Pennsylvania was leaving a house he had just finished robbing by way of the garage. He was not able to get the garage door to go up, because the automatic door opener was malfunctioning. He couldn't re-enter the house because the door connecting the house and garage locked when he pulled it shut. The family was on vacation. Mr. Dickson found himself locked in the garage for eight days. He subsisted on a case of Pepsi he found, and a large bag of dry dog food. Mr. Dickson sued the homeowner's insurance claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The jury agreed to the tune of half a million dollars.

4. October 1999: Jerry Williams of Little Rock Arkansas was awarded $14,500 and medical expenses after being bitten on the buttocks by his next door neighbor's beagle. The beagle was on a chain in it's owner's fenced-in yard, as was Mr. Williams. The award was less than sought because the jury felt the dog may have been provoked by Mr. Williams who, at the time, was shooting it repeatedly with a pellet gun.

5. May 2000: A Philadelphia restaurant was ordered to pay Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania $113,500 after she slipped on soft drink and broke her coccyx. The beverage was on the floor because Ms. Carson threw it at her boyfriend 30 seconds earlier during an argument.

6. December 1997: Kara Walton of Claymont, Delaware successfully sued the owner of a night club in a neighboring city when she fell from the bathroom window to the floor and knocked out her two front teeth. This occurred while Ms.Walton was trying to sneak through the window in the ladies room to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge. She was awarded $12,000 and dental expenses.

7. And just so you know that cooler heads do occasionally prevail: Kenmore Inc., the makers of Dorothy Johnson's microwave, were found not liable for the death of Mrs. Johnson's poodle after she gave it a bath and attempted to dry it by putting the poor creature in her microwave for, "just a few minutes, on low." The case was quickly dismissed.

Analysis: If item #7 sounds more than a bit familiar, that's because it's a well known urban legend dating back to the 1970s called "The Microwaved Pet." It never happened — nor, so far as I've been able to ascertain, did incidents #1 through #6. Indeed, all of the items read more like carefully-constructed jokes than descriptions of actual court cases.

The story of burn victim Stella Liebeck, after whom the "Stella Awards" were purportedly named, is true, though the facts of the case are misrepresented in the email. No such awards existed when the message first began circulating in 2001, but they have since 2002 thanks to This Is True publisher Randy Cassingham, who launched StellaAwards.com with the aim of "bringing some legitimacy to the debate over ridiculous lawsuits."

The longevity of the bogus email can be accounted for partly by the humor quotient, partly by public outrage over what is perceived as a glut of frivolous lawsuits in recent years, and partly by the fact that the fabricated stories have been regularly repeated in the media both in the U.S. and abroad, lending a false impression of authenticity.

Sources and further reading:

Stella Journalism
Media Watch (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), 10 June 2002

The 2003 True Stella Awards Winners
Compiled and verified by Randy Cassingham

The 2004 True Stella Awards Winners
Compiled and verified by Randy Cassingham

Decidedly NOT the Stellas
Review of bogus Stella Awards winners

Interview with Randy Cassingham

Last updated: 02/01/05

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