TORT REFORM? - Phony Stella Awards Making the Rounds

There is an e-mail and webpostings making the rounds that appears to recount the "Stella Awards" for the year. These are awards named after 81-year-old Stella Liebeck, who spilled hot coffee on herself and successfully sued McDonald's (in New Mexico).

The purported winner this year is the following:

This year's runaway winner was Mrs. Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City , Oklahoma. Mrs. Grazinski purchased a brand-new, 32-foot-long Winnebago motor home. On her first trip home from an OU football game -- having driven onto the freeway — she set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the driver's seat to go into the back to make herself a sandwich. Not surprisingly, the RV left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Mrs.Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising her in the owner's manual that she couldn't actually do that. The jury awarded her $1,750,000 plus a new motor home. The company actually changed its manuals on the basis of this law suit, just in case there were any other complete morons around.

But this case is an urban legend. I think we need tort reform. But these fraudulent examples are hardly going to make the case for it.

Update: I orginally fell for the hoax after receiving an e-mail from a senior law school faculty colleague of mine. I then essentially forwarded the e-mail to VC readers in a post of mine. I apologize for the error, which I have corrected in the above -- revised -- post.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Tort Reform Hoax
  2. TORT REFORM? - Phony Stella Awards Making the Rounds
Arvin (mail) (www):
Well, they're not even half right:
9.9.2008 5:35pm
Unfortunatly (or not), it would appear that these are urban legends, and untrue. At least they are reported that way on various articles debunking the story. Sorry.
9.9.2008 5:36pm

all made up
9.9.2008 5:36pm
Quarterly Prophet (mail):
9.9.2008 5:38pm
Big E:
VC post of the year.
9.9.2008 5:39pm
Timothy Knox (mail):
For the genuine Stella Awards, go to The site is run by Randy Cassingham, who puts great effort into getting the details right, with citations and sources when possible. Check out the the actual site, and I think it will still support your point (though perhaps less dramatically).
9.9.2008 5:40pm
Paul Cassell (mail):
As the readers accurately point out, the purported e-mail (which I received from another law professor) is a set of bogus examples.
9.9.2008 5:44pm
Big E:
No fair changing the post without acknowledging it. It makes the earlier posters look like they don't know what they're talking about.

Original Post:
TORT REFORM? - Stella Awards Seems to Indicate a Need
9.9.2008 5:45pm
Andy L.:
Then again, I guess we don't need tort reform afterall.
9.9.2008 5:46pm
Mike& (mail):
Who among us has not been "Snooped"? One of the perils of the modern age, for sure.
9.9.2008 5:47pm
Ted Frank (www):
Let the record reflect that Overlawyered refuted these years ago.

There are plenty of real-life bogus lawsuits that justify tort reform without the need to resort to urban legends.
9.9.2008 5:47pm
Bpbatista (mail):
I think the fact that people believe that such a ridiculous lawsuit and result is possible is itself some evidence of the need for tort reform.
9.9.2008 5:47pm
Paul Cassell (mail):
As Big E points out, I changed my post. For less than a minute, I had another post up reciting the bogus "Stella awards." I thought that information was coming from the Stella Awards website, but I was mistaken. Then I corrected my error as quickly as possible -- first by deleting my original post, then by substituting a proper post. My apologies for the mistake -- which the first 6 VC readers promptly caught (and, which I caught before reading those posts).
9.9.2008 5:50pm
Adam J:
Timothy Knox - Of course, the real 2007 Stella awards doesn't really make a case for tort reform, since it doesn't even include a case where a plaintiff received any ill-deserved damages. In fact, in the #1 case the plaintiff lost and had to pay damages for bringing a spurious case.
9.9.2008 5:56pm
BladeDoc (mail):
Damn those RSS feeds -- they're too fast!
9.9.2008 5:59pm
Arvin (mail) (www):
On a more substantive note, I'm not sure that anecdotal evidence provides much in the way of support of tort reform anyway. Are these stories part of a trend? Outliers? I have to imagine that there are also many stories about people who sued for an actual wrong and got justly compensated, or people who filed a fluff suit and got thrown out. But it would be wrong to point to these and say, see, therefore no tort reform needed.
9.9.2008 6:16pm
bereaved parent:
We definitely need tort reform with major limits on awards. That way when a doctor kills my daughter by giving her a post surgery morphine order with a dosage intended for an adult instead of a 2-year-old, he can be secure in the knowledge that his insurance premiums will be safe.

Talk to me about tort reform when your child is killed by gross negligence.
9.9.2008 6:19pm
Or when a doctor writes you a prescription for a painkiller and you neglect to read the bottle and then feel lightheaded and decide to go drive and wreck into a house. Talk to me about tort reform when you're unable to sue the bastard like you can now!
9.9.2008 6:25pm
BZ (mail):
Sorry for your loss, parent. There are other options besides limiting awards.

For example, 50% of malpractice is caused by 2% of doctors. Florida voters enacted an initiative which denies licenses to doctors with three or more confirmed malpractice incidents. They also enacted an initiative providing for more information for potential patients, so that doctors have to reveal adverse medical incidents.
9.9.2008 6:27pm
Caps on malpractice awards aren't real tort reform, they're political payback to the ama
9.9.2008 6:32pm
Ak - you could show at least a little sympathy for "bereaved parent"
9.9.2008 6:33pm
Unfortunately, its the fraudulent examples which often do make the case for a need for tort reform.
9.9.2008 6:39pm
trad and anon:
But this case is an urban legend. I think we need tort reform. But these fraudulent examples are hardly going to make the case for it.
Of course they will. Lots of people will read them and never come across the refutation. The result--more popular support for tort reform!
9.9.2008 6:49pm
bereaved parent:
AK -

I did not administer my daughter's morphine. That was administered by hospital staff following her surgery. I don't blame just the doctor - I also blame the nurse who did not realize that the dosage was too high and a system that does not have adequate checks when giving narcotics to toddlers.

I never had a chance to "read the bottle."
9.9.2008 6:53pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
Tort Reform

When it truly happens, then this forum shall be glad that we have Heller rights, so that the denied plaintiffs can just shoot the bastards.

The contempt of the jury is so strong here in practice, rather than the academic praise for jury rights.

Next we'll have the Supreme Court denying a jury to view a video because the jury might come to a different conclusion on the value of that video and the majority of The Court.
9.9.2008 6:53pm
Curt Fischer:
My deepest sympathies to bereaved parent on the loss of their daughter. I cannot imagine the pain of such a tragedy. For that reason, I hope that bereaved parent might help me understand what they (or perhaps others in similar circumstances) hope to accomplish by bringing tortious action against the negligent doctor(s), nurse(s), and/or hospital involved:

Is it to seek financial compensation to offset (somewhat, somehow) the pain of losing your child? If so, how do you decide what financial amount is appropriate to seek?

Is it to penalize the negligence involved in your daughter's loss? In this case, how to decide the best course of action? That is, how to weigh the possibility of seeking a financial penalty against seeking say the professional "disbarment" of the involved nurse or doctor?

Are there other reasons for bringing legal action in such a tragedy? I don't know anyone who has befallen such a horrible event, so I am keenly interested to understand the viewpoints they have.
9.9.2008 7:38pm
Unfortunate, considering the plaintiff's case in McDonald's had merit. As usual, the only facts reported are that woman spills coffee in lap, and not, for example, that the jury heard evidence that McDonald's knew of the significant number of burn incidents that resulted from producing coffee at a particular temperature and made the conscious choice to not only keep their coffee at that temperature, but to knowingly and willing accept future injuries of the same frequency
9.9.2008 7:53pm
Big E:
It seems odd that on a site that argues so strongly for the 2nd amendment that everyone seems to be willing to sacrifice our 7th amendment rights.
9.9.2008 8:02pm
Because often money is the only thing that will cause things to change. How often can an average person successfully fight to get a doctor's license to practice revoked? Never?

However, a large monetary award can convince the hospital to be more careful of who it hires, and revise its procedures to eliminate negligence. If all that happened was the doctor had to stop practicing, what is it to the hospital except the hassle of hiring a replacement?
9.9.2008 8:29pm
Cornellian (mail):
The jury awarded her $1,750,000 plus a new motor home.

That should have told you immediately that there was something suspicious about the story. Since when does a jury ever get to "award a new motor home." No such remedy for a tort claim.
9.9.2008 8:44pm
Funny, I got the email years ago and always thought it was true.
9.9.2008 9:46pm
Everyone knows that she was on the way home from an Oklahoma State football game...not OU.
9.9.2008 10:21pm
Curt Fischer:
I understand the point that shooting for the financial penalty is probably easier. Is it more effective though? I don't know. Does anyone?

Has anyone (say maybe a staffer at a large malpractice insurance firm) studied how effective these penalties can be? Do they really serve to adjust hospital hiring behavior? If so, I can understand how legal action can be beneficial.

But my (admittedly totally superfluous) understanding is that such cases are often perceived as "bad luck" by administrators, at least until a clear pattern emerges around a certain doctor or nurse. Insurance premiums go up, perhaps, but what else?
9.9.2008 11:21pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
On the contrary, the damages are owed to the public, not to Mrs. Grazinski. The motor home was robust enough to permit her to survive, thereby preventing the elimination of a moron from the gene pool. This is contrary to public policy.
9.10.2008 12:52am

Here's what I propose. Since financial compensation for injuries isn't effective enough, let's go back to Hammurabi, does that sound good?

There are a broad variety of damages available in tort cases, from past and future economic losses (including past and future medical bills, future loss of earning capacity) to "soft" or non-economic damages (pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, impairment, and disfigurement). Since money cannot really compensate for all of those, let's just get rid of them. We'll just let the plaintiff inflict a similar injury on the defendant in any case of a civil wrong.

Or maybe, we should just have a daily shootout in the town square. Survivor keeps the loser's stuff.

The fact is that people who suffer injuries caused by others deserve compensation. While the green poultice doesn't set things right, at least it helps the victim enjoy what's left of their life. It beats the hell out of dueling it out on mainstreet.

9.10.2008 1:05am
Curt Fischer:
Judging from PhanTom's snide comments, I suspect some readers may have thought my questions to bereaved parent to be pedantic or leading or something. If so, I apologize. It certainly wasn't my intention.

I'm genuinely interested in the motives of people in bereaved parent's situation. (Of course it is a lot to ask that someone share their feelings on such an intense, personal matter in a public forum like this, so I will certainly understand if bereaved parent decides not to.)
9.10.2008 1:36am

sorry. I'm in trial right now and had a long voir dire this morning. The defense attorney launched into a tirade about jury verdicts and compensating for pain and suffering with money.

You got the response I couldn't give in court.

9.10.2008 1:54am
Is this all the VC is now? Just spamming e-mail forwards written by a 13 year old AOL user?
9.10.2008 2:04am
A variation of this RV scenario was in The Darwin Awards (2006).
9.10.2008 2:14am
Grover Gardner (mail):
I love the linked article by Walter Williams:

Thirty, 40 or 50 years ago, no one in their right mind would have believed the Merv Grazinski urban legend possible, but not so today.

"..thanks to urban legends like the one I fell for."

The wife of a hockey fan who crashed his car after drinking too much at a Minnesota Wild game has sued the team, saying her husband who was paralyzed in the Feb. 8, 2002, auto crash shouldn't have been served so much alcohol.

The real story:

Kris Lodahl, 37, was paralyzed in the February 8, 2002 crash. His wife, Rebecca, 39, is suing under a state law that holds bars and other establishments liable for serving someone who is obviously drunk, said her attorney, Harry Sieben Jr.

She is seeking at least $50,000 in damages, claiming "loss of guidance, counsel, aide, comfort, assistance, protection and support of her husband," as well as mental anguish and financial loss.

Fifty thousand?!? Calling Dr. Tort Reform! Then there's this:

Two carpet installers who admit they read the label of an adhesive they used, admit they understood the adhesive was flammable and should not be used inside, used it inside anyway, caused an explosion, were burned badly, sued and won $8 million dollars.

Can't even find this one--it's either been scrubbed from the Akron Beacon site or it never existed.

A convicted robber is suing the convenience store clerk who shot him as he fled after a holdup. Willie Brown, 44, claimed the clerk acted 'maliciously and sadistically' in firing five shots as Brown ran out of Zipps Deli with money from the store's cash register.

Did he WIN? Did the suit even make it to court?? Can't find an answer. If not, what's the point of citing it? We could sit here all day citing frivolous suits that never get off the ground--so what?

In Galveston, Texas, a jury awarded $65 million to the parents and estate of a woman who drowned after her car rolled off a boat ramp. She couldn't disengage her seat belt. The jury found Honda of America Manufacturing Co. Inc. and Honda R &D Co. Ltd. 75 percent responsible for the death of Karen Norman, even though her blood-alcohol level measured at nearly twice the Texas legal limit (.17). Fortunately, an appeals court threw out the award, which a trial judge had previously reduced to $43 million.

So, no story here.

The radio comedians Bob and Ray used to do a spoof of the old radio fright shows with a sketch introducing "traveller and adventure Commander Neville Puttley, who's here to tell another story guaranteed to keep you in--(scary organ sting)--ANXIETY!"
9.10.2008 2:30am
Adam J:
Curt Fischer- The award of damages for medical torts is good for the market- this is economics 101. If hospitals aren't responsible for the negligent injuries they cause they have no incentive to protect against the injuries- in fact they have monetary incentives not to protect against negligence- safety protocols cost money. Tort damages act to internalize costs which doctors could otherwise shift to patients.
9.10.2008 11:04am
WhiteCoat (mail) (www):
Health care isn't just any "market."
Damage awards may be good for the market - until the market players decide that they're fed up with the risk and leave.
That may be fine for your local grocery store, but what happens when your hospital closes? Or your local emergency department? The number of emergency departments in the United States has declined steadily in the past 10 years while the number of visits has steadily climbed.
Reimbursements from payers steadily decline, causing even more closures.
More visits, less available care.
Less available care means more hospital transfers and less ambulances available for emergency calls.
I have personally seen bad patient outcomes from this type of scenario occur over and over again.
When your family member has an emergency and no ambulance is available, then you have to travel 30 minutes to the closest available emergency department because the others are on "bypass," will you still be smug with your "market forces" statement?
9.10.2008 11:34am
Eric @ New York Personal Injury Law Blog (www):
The concept of tort "reform" runs contrary to libertarian and conservative theory. Yet the ideas come from the right:

Tort "Reform" at the Volokh Conspiracy (What Are They Thinking?)
9.10.2008 1:55pm
Curt Fischer:
Adam J,
I understand and agree with your point about market incentives. However, the fact is, that the enforcement of this incentive relies on the will of harmed patients to sue those who have wronged them, after the fact.

Suppose, as is apparently the case with bereaved parent, that a person's child is killed by medical negligence. If that person decides not to sue the hospital or doctor, and instead just to move on with their life, would you call that person irresponsible? That is, in your view do wronged patients have a duty to extract penalties from those who have wronged them?

What about the wronged? What is their sense of purpose? I doubt that many are so motivated by a sense of duty to enforce abstract market incentives.
9.10.2008 3:53pm
Larry Reilly (mail):
It doesn't matter whether one is preaching to the choir or passing along lies to the choir. It doesn't matter whether one corrects what the choir has been instructed. The choir will continue singing the gospel. Eh?
9.10.2008 11:28pm