The Stella Awards and Frivolous Lawsuits

RV Senior Man - Thumbs UpEver heard the story about the guy who sued Winnebago over its cruise control? According to the story, he set the cruise control while driving and then left his seat to brew some coffee.  Of course, he crashed.  And, as the story goes, he was mad that the instructions didn’t warn him not to do this, so he sued.

If you’ve heard about this, you’re not alone.  It’s part of a viral email note about five crazy lawsuits that received the so-called “Stella Awards.”  The names and personal information about the five “winners” change from time to time, but the circumstances always stay the same. People around the world forward this email to me many times a year.

The awards are named after the woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s.  Her name was Stella Liebeck, and I’m sure that whoever started this award named it after her because if there is one lawsuit that everyone in America has heard about, it’s her infamous case.

The problem is, all the stories are fake.  That’s right, they’re urban legends.  It’s easy to believe them, though, because so many real lawsuits are just as outrageous.

While I’ve done my own research on this, the leading debunker of urban legends, Snopes.com, has also exposed this email as a fraud, and you can see their take on it here.  After revealing that the “Stella Awards” are pure fiction, Snopes also takes the time to point out that there is no shortage of outrageous lawsuits in the courts that are real.  Many of the real lawsuits they cite were brought to their attention by yours truly over the years.

Of course, there are a lot better places for information about how junk lawsuits are affecting America than through phony emails.  This blog is just one, and some of the ridiculous lawsuits we have highlighted include:

Some of my other favorite sources for information about ridiculous lawsuits include Overlawyered.com, AbnormalUse.com and CenterForAmericaTV.org.

The next time you see the Stella Awards email note, remember to check back here.  The lawsuits you will find us talking about on this blog and on the websites I just mentioned prove that truth is often stranger than fiction.

 

The Great Non-Debate: When George McGovern and Jack Kemp Got Together To Make A TV Ad

McGovern:Kemp TV adWith the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton dominating headlines, let’s go back in time and take a look at a time when one of the most conservative presidential candidates of the past 50 years got together with one of the most liberal presidential candidates of the past 100 years to talk about the need to address an issue still plaguing America today.

The conservative was former Congressman Jack Kemp. The liberal was former US Senator George McGovern. They agreed on very little when it came to public policy, but that was before McGovern retired from politics and bought a country inn.

After McGovern retired and decided to run a business, he quickly learned how difficult it can be to keep up with government regulations and fend off personal injury lawyers who don’t like the way one operates. By 1992, he finally had enough and surprised his friends and foes alike by writing a column for the Wall Street Journal in which he explained all the problems he experienced. His inn eventually went bankrupt, and he blamed excessive government rules and regulations – the kind he supported in Congress – as big reasons for the failure.

He also blamed one other thing: frivolous lawsuits.  Even after the bankruptcy, he said “we are still dealing with litigation from individuals who fell in or near our restaurant.  Despite these injuries, not every misstep is the fault of someone else.  Not every incident should be viewed as a lawsuit instead of an unfortunate accident.  And while the business owner may prevail in the end, the endless exposure to frivolous claims and high legal fees is frightening.”

His friends in the trial bar were not happy with that column.  Nor were his former colleagues in Congress who relied heavily on political contributions from trial lawyers to finance their elections.  But McGovern wasn’t afraid to speak the truth, and job providers around the country rejoiced at having this unlikely ally speaking out on their behalf.

McGovern was so passionate about the harm done by excessive litigation that he also made a TV ad with Jack Kemp to urge Americans to join him in the fight against lawsuit abuse.  It’s one of my favorite political ads but was seen by relatively few Americans since it had a very limited run on the air. I obtained a copy when I became president of a Michigan-based legal reform group in the late 1990s and have posted it to YouTube here so you can see it, too.

George McGovern died shortly before before the last presidential election. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for a political leader who is willing to tackle a problem that continues to plague everyone from inn owners and other job providers to non-profit community groups to this very day: lawsuit abuse.

“Psychic” Sues Governor Of New York For Reward Money

PredictionA self-described psychic from Texas is suing the State of New York and Governor Andrew Cuomo for reward money Cuomo offered during a manhunt for two inmates who escaped from a prison in upstate New York last summer. This is a bizarre case that could be even more bizarre if information I discovered while doing research on this case turns out to be more than a coincidence.

On June 7, Governor Cuomo announced on Twitter that a $100,000 reward was being offered by the state for information leading to the arrest of escaped inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat. The manhunt made national news and caught the attention of an Eric Drake in Texas.

Drake says he’s a psychic and says he called the governor’s office after hearing about the reward to provide information that he claims helped locate the men. He doesn’t say with whom he spoke or even know if anyone connected with the investigation ever received the information he provided, but considering the “clues” he professes to have provided, it probably wouldn’t help his case anyway.

In a 31-page lawsuit, he could only point to vague opinions he gave that day such as “The two inmates separated for some reason” and “the police were walking right by or over them were they were hiding.” These two general statements eventually turned out to be true, but they are hardly the kind of leads on which investigators could act.

Most of Drake’s rambling lawsuit is devoted to offering “evidence” of his supposed psychic powers. In an effort to prove he’s legit, he says he foresaw his mother’s death, predicted the death of President Obama’s grandmother just before election night 2008, and gave Washington, D.C. police information that would have helped them catch the snipers who killed 17 people in 2002 if they just hadn’t ignored him.

Now, for the bizarre coincidence. While looking into this case, I found out that an Eric Drake from Texas has been named a vexatious litigant on more than one occasion. A vexatious litigant is a legal term that describes someone who has abused the justice system by repeatedly filing frivolous lawsuits and who has had their right to sue again taken away from them by a judge. This phenomenon may come as a surprise to anyone who follows the US legal system, but it actually does exist. Too bad it’s not used more often.

Anyway, authorities in Texas haven’t yet confirmed whether the Eric Drake who has sued Cuomo is the same Eric Drake mentioned here and here as a vexatious litigant, but it seems like an amazing coincidence. It’s just my opinion, but after reading the lawsuit against the governor of New York by Eric Drake, it looks just like the strange cases filed by the vexatious litigant in Texas, who also represented himself.

I’m not usually one to make predictions, but there’s one thing I can foretell with certainty in this case: the taxpayers of New York are going to have to pay to defend this ridiculous lawsuit. A judge there has allowed the case to proceed without the usual filing fee. Why?Because, says the judge, “the plaintiff has only about eighty dollars in his bank account.”

Announcing The Finalists In Our 18th Annual Wacky Warning Labels™ Contest

WWL15_Smoke_Alarm_Warning_CFAThe five wackiest warning labels of 2015 have just been announced as part of the Center for America’s 18th annual Wacky Warning Labels™ Contest. They are:

• A label on a ceiling-mounted smoke alarm that warns: “Silence Feature is intended to temporarily silence the horn while you identify and correct the problem…It will not extinguish a fire.” Submitted by Charlene Fairleigh, Eugene, Oregon)

• A warning on a one-inch tall water-absorbent grow toy that looks like the Easter Bunny that says: “This toy is in no way intended to represent living people. Any resemblance is purely coincidental and not intended to harm anyone.” Submitted by Jacob Eckberg, Hopewell, Virgina

• A label on a patio door that cautions: “Door may swing open or closed in windy conditions. Door could hit person causing injury.” Submitted by Elizabeth Stout, New Orleans, Louisiana

• A label on a bag of frozen catfish pieces that warns: “Contains fish.” Submitted by James Andrews, College Station, Texas

• A warning at a bowling alley that says: “Bowl at your own risk. Risk of bodily injury is associated with this game.” Submitted by Conor Friedersdorf, Venice, California

We find these silly warning labels on products sold throughout America because, in this era of excessive litigation, labels must do more than protect consumers from possible injuries, they have to protect product makers from frivolous lawsuits.

Tune in to John Stossel’s show on FOX Business News Friday, July 24 to see which labels earn the three cash prizes. The winners are selected by Stossel’s studio audience, and the grand prize winner receives $1,000!

Why Dennis Kucinich’s Olive Pit Lawsuit Matters

My commentary about this outrageous lawsuit appeared today in the Daily Caller and is reprinted below:

Did you see the report in the Daily Caller Wednesday about Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich suing a cafeteria on Capitol Hill for $150,000 over a sandwich he purchased there nearly three years ago?  Kucinich claims he hurt his tooth by biting an olive pit that was part of his vegetarian sandwich, and now he wants to settle this in the courts.  Ughh!

There is so much wrong with this lawsuit that I hardly know where to begin, but here are some of the reasons why Americans should care about this.

As taxpayers, we all pay for premium dental coverage for Kucinich and all members of Congress.  Surely, it has to be some of the best dental care in the world.  Has the Congressman opted out of this coverage?  Or, does he still have the coverage and want to reimburse taxpayers for the cost of his dental care?

We don’t know because Kucinich’s attorney has stated that this is a “private matter.”  Neither he nor Kucinich will comment.

Well, when you’re a member of the United States House of Representatives and file a lawsuit like this, it’s not going to remain a private matter.  It shouldn’t be a private matter.  There are a lot of reasons why Americans deserve to know more and why we should be disturbed about this lawsuit.

Even if the Congressman wants to seek reimbursement for the cost of his dental work to save taxpayers from having to foot the bill for this, there are better ways to accomplish that.  Let’s say for argument’s sake that the cafeteria was somehow responsible.  Did he try talking with them about some sort of settlement before suing?  If that didn’t work, did he try low-cost facilitative mediation (which is much different from court-ordered mediation)?

I suspect he didn’t offer to take this to mediation in an effort to save the cafeteria or the food suppliers he also sued from the aggravation and expense of having to hire a lawyer to defend themselves.  If he had, that would make him look at least somewhat sympathetic to America’s struggling job providers who must deal with frivolous lawsuits on a regular basis, and he would probably be declaring that from the rooftop of Congress.

At least one lawyer has said that the pit in the sandwich should have been foreseeable and therefore not the grounds for a lawsuit.  I agree, but of course, this is what lawyers argue about and is the legal theory on which Kucinich will hang his hat.

There’s a larger point to be made here, however.  There used to be a time when lawsuits over minor injuries were filed only a last resort. Not anymore, and that’s part of the problem in our country.  It’s a major reason why every American pays a “lawsuit tax” of nearly $2,000 per year – even if we’re never sued.

Many of us have bitten into food, hurt a tooth, and chosen NOT to sue.  These things happen.  It’s part of life.  You get the tooth fixed and move on – especially if you have dental coverage.  If you don’t have coverage, there are options like mediation if you really must push the issue.  And even if you’re going to push it, how do you arrive at damages worth $150,000?  Really?

As the creator of the annual Wacky Warning Label Contest, one of the first things I did after hearing about this lawsuit was check the label on the jar of pitted olives in my refrigerator.  These olives have big red pimentos in them where the pit used to be.  Do you think there’s a warning?  Of course there is.  It says: “May contain pits.”

I wish obvious warnings like that weren’t necessary in the United States, but lawsuits like the one filed by Congressman Kucinich unfortunately show us why they are.

A Texas-Sized, Bold Idea For Eliminating Frivolous Lawsuits

The competition between the 50 states for every new job out there just got very interesting.

The governor of Texas has “upped the ante” in the effort to attract job providers to his state by proposing an idea for ending frivolous lawsuits.  Some believe it could attract thousands of new jobs to the Lone Star state.

Governor Rick Perry’s plan is to create a “loser pays” system in the courts.  It’s used throughout the world, but plaintiff lawyers have worked hard to keep it out of Texas and every other state in the nation.  Under loser pays, plaintiffs who sue someone and lose have to pay the legal bills of their opponent.  It would discourage nuisance lawsuits and put an end to the lottery approach to litigation in which plaintiffs have very little to lose but much to gain by filing frivolous lawsuits.

As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in this editorial, Governor Perry’s plan isn’t a pure loser pays system, but it’s designed to target the lawsuits everyone wants to eliminate in the first place – frivolous lawsuits, or, what they define as “groundless.”

The current system costs way too much.  Meritless lawsuits can drive small companies out of business and have brought some families to the brink of bankruptcy – even when they “win” against the plaintiffs.  Lucrative out-of-court settlements are often won by plaintiffs’ lawyers simply because individuals and businesses do the math and realize that simply defending themselves in court will cost tens of thousands of dollars or much, much more to prove their innocence.

At the same time, Governor Perry has proposed changes that would make the courts more accessible to Texans with legitimate claims without the high costs associated with a drawn out trial. Lawsuits with claims between $10,000 and $100,000 would have expedited trial settings and limited discovery in order to get litigants in and out of the court quickly and allow swifter recovery for damages.

Americans, in general, know we live in the most lawsuit-happy nation on earth, but few of us know just how much more we’re being forced to pay for everything from medical care to consumer goods than folks in other countries because of all these lawsuits. According to researchers at the Pacific Research Institute, the average American could save a whopping $1,962 each year if the number of lawsuits in the U.S. were just the same as other industrialized countries (see page 76 of the pdf at this link). A loser pays system would eliminate the meritless lawsuits that drive up costs and drive away jobs.

Of course, the personal injury lawyers who’ve made a fortune off the current system will spend whatever they believe it takes to defeat this plan.  However, a few years ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry was able to enact bold reforms to reduce lawsuit abuse against medical professionals there, and it attracted waves of new doctors and improved health care.  Perhaps the time is ripe for an American version of loser pays.