The Stella Awards were inspired by Stella Liebeck. In 1992, Stella, then 79, spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee onto her lap, burning herself. A New Mexico jury awarded her $2.9 million in damages, but that’s not the whole story. Ever since, the name "Stella Award" has been applied to any wild, outrageous, or ridiculous lawsuits — including bogus cases! StellaAwards.com searches for true cases, and readers can subscribe by e-mail for free to get the case reports as they’re issued.
Issued February 2008
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#3: Sentry Insurance Company. The company provided worker’s compensation insurance for a Wisconsin "Meals on Wheels" program. Delivering a meal, a MoW volunteer (who was allegedly not even wearing boots) slipped and fell on a participant’s driveway that had been cleared of snow, and Sentry had to pay to care for her resulting injuries. Sentry wanted its money back, so it sued the 81-year-old homeowner getting the Meals on Wheels service. It could have simply filed for "subrogation" from her homeowner’s insurance company, but by naming her in the action, it dragged an old lady into court, reinforcing the image of insurance companies as concerned only about the bottom line, not "protecting" policyholders from loss.
#2: The family of Robert Hornbeck. Hornbeck volunteered for the Army and served a stint in Iraq. After getting home, he got drunk, wandered into a hotel’s service area (passing "DANGER" warning signs), crawled into an air conditioning unit, and was severely cut when the machinery activated. Unable to care for himself due to his drunkenness, he bled to death. A tragedy, to be sure, but one solely caused by a supposedly responsible adult with military training. Despite his irresponsible behavior — and his perhaps criminal trespassing — Hornbeck’s family sued the hotel for $10 million, as if it’s reasonably foreseeable that some drunk fool would ignore warning signs and climb into its heavy duty machinery to sleep off his bender.
But those pale compared to…
The winner of the 2007 True Stella Award: Roy L. Pearson Jr. The 57-year-old Administrative Law Judge from Washington DC claims that a dry cleaner lost a pair of his pants, so he sued the mom-and-pop business for $65,462,500. That’s right: more than $65 million for one pair of pants. Representing himself, Judge Pearson cried in court over the loss of his pants, whining that there certainly isn’t a more compelling case in the District archives. But the Superior Court judge wasn’t moved: he called the case "vexatious litigation", scolded Judge Pearson for his "bad faith", and awarded damages to the dry cleaners. But Pearson didn’t take no for an answer: he’s appealing the decision. And he has plenty of time on his hands, since he was dismissed from his job. Last we heard, Pearson’s appeal is still pending.
©2007 by Randy Cassingham, StellaAwards.com. Reprinted with permission.