Everyone's heard of Stella Liebeck, aka the lady who sued McDonald's after burning herself with their hot coffee. Whether or not the coffee was “too hot” is a matter of opinion. While it was hot enough that Stella would require multiple skin grafts juries would later decide that coffee served at the same temperature at other restaurants was not too hot to be safe. What is not a matter of opinion is that, overnight, America learned that the easiest way to become a multimillionaire was to have an accident that you could blame on a very rich company.
While it's hard to have sympathy for a big company, it's equally hard to admire someone who fakes a slip and fall accident and then sues the grocery store for ten years worth of wages. On the other hand, we all kind of hope that if we do have to suffer a debilitating injury, it happens at a five star resort hotel and casino, in full view of a bulldog of a civil tort attorney, and that the accident was obviously the venue's fault.
America has long been a litigious country. You can file suit against anyone for any reason, and some people do. Now, filing a suit for damages is an important part of America's justice system. If companies could do anything they wanted without repercussions just imagine what they would get up to. Then again, there are those who abuse the system in a blatant attempt at personal gain. Sometimes they even get away with it.
Here's a list of five of the most entertaining, odd, and frivolous lawsuits to ever make a judge knit his eyebrows, cover his face with his hand and sigh in exasperation. I'm not going to lie. Writing about these people kind of makes me worried I'll get taken to court.
5 5: Richard Kreimer And The Rights Of Stinky Homeless Men
Richard Kreimer is one of the most prodigious, successful litigants around. Most folks who file as many lawsuits on their own behalf as Mr. Kreimer do are prisoners with a grudge against the system, lunatics, or both. Mr. Richard Kreimer, on the other hand, is just your normal, everyday, millionaire bum.
OK, he's not actually a millionaire – the lawsuits he's filed have netted him a few hundred grand, not millions – but he is an actual bum. Or, rather, a homeless person. He comports himself too well to be called a bum and he earns more than most minimum wage workers.
Mr. Kreimer's lawsuits aren't frivolous because of their subject, but the amounts he's been awarded are pretty high given the infractions, and he does make a living off of them.
Richard’s legacy stretches back to 1991, when he was kicked out of a Morristown, NJ public library because he smelled bad. He sued the town for that, and the police of the same town for police harassment, and got a combined $130,000 in those two suits alone. Since then he's racked up his tally to more than 20 lawsuits and hundreds of thousands of dollars as of 2011.
He's still homeless. He still spends most of his time in the train stations – most of his lawsuits have been against police harassment and illegal application of anti-loitering statutes in NJ's public transit system – and most of the money he makes goes towards his medication.
Ultimate Result? Richard Kreimer is a walking, talking, stinking, weird-acting human-rights sting operation. He just waits to be picked on and treated illegally and unfairly and sues the bejeebus out of the perpetrators. He's proof that you can be weird, and poor, and homeless, but if you know the law you can't be picked on. He also kind of looks like George Carlin.
4 4: Ron Piazza And A Mirror Too High
On the flip side of the serial litigant coin are the profiteers who abuse the law for their own personal gain. An excellent example is the lawsuit currently embroiling California McDonald's franchise owner Ron Piazza, perhaps the only person in the world to ever say he actually enjoyed working behind the counter at a McDonald's.
Many years ago, Ron started working at the McDonald's he now owns. When he purchased the fast food joint he remodeled the kitchen, ensuring it was totally in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He probably knew that if it wasn't, he could be sued. At some point the mirror in the bathroom was defaced and Ron had it replaced, only it was two inches higher than the ADA standards allowed. That means that any disabled person who used that bathroom was entitled to a specific dollar amount every time they tried to use the mirror.
One particular couple visited that McDonald's, bought some food to get a receipt to prove that they did indeed go there, used the restroom, and left 27 times in three months. After those three months Ron was informed his mirror was too high. He fixed it. Only then did he receive a letter from an attorney telling him that he was being sued for a whole lot of money.
Ultimate result? As of yet there hasn't been a publicized resolution to the case, but Ron has stated that it's already certain to cost him more than a year's revenue, regardless of the outcome. If the plaintiffs should win, he may have to close the place and lay off his workers. While the world could use a bit more of ‘sticking it to The Man,’ it’s important to remember that sometimes The Man is just a hard-working guy.
3 3: Karen Norman And The Drunk Driving Death Debacle
One fateful night in December of 1992, Karen Norman took a long drive off a short pier. In reverse. This had the predictable results of (a) ruining her upholstery and (b) drowning Karen in the cold waters of Galveston Bay. Compounding this tragedy was the fact that Karen's family felt that Karen died because she was using her seat belt, and that it was too difficult to remove in Karen's delicate state.
That delicate state was one of inebriation: Karen was driving drunk. Very, very drunk. The Normans therefore sued Honda for millions of dollars, saying that the Honda's seat belt was just too difficult to remove when you're underwater, drunk and panicking. While everyone knows you're not supposed to drive drunk, I think that this would make Karen's parents the first people to argue, in front of a court of law, that if you are driving drunk that you should not wear your seat belt.
The Normans alleged that the seat belt was a dangerous design and that Honda was therefore responsible for Karen's death. This was, it seems, bolstered by the fact that her friend Josel managed to escape from the car and swim to safety. Josel, you see, was not wearing his seat belt. He also forgot to wear his big boy pants because he ignored Karen's cries for help as he swam to the boat ramp, but that's neither here nor there. What is quite here is that a Jury decided Honda was indeed responsible to the tune of $38 million.
Ultimate result? The award was overturned by an appeal judge when Honda successfully argued that their design was the best of all possible designs. As tragic as Karen Norman's death was, at least this particular drunk driver only killed herself.
2 2: Larry Harris' Electrifying Defense
Aurora, Illinois is not just the home of wacky garage rockers Wayne and Garth. It is also the home of the late Larry Harris, whose death could easily have earned a spot in a Wayne's World style comedy. Larry Harris, you see, died while attempting to burgle a bar. That bar belonged to Jesse Ingram, a man who took his business' security very seriously. So seriously that he responded to a series of three break-ins by electrifying a windowsill.
Now, you may say to yourself, “That sounds like a trap – like he was trying to lure some poor burglar into their own gruesome yet poetically justified demise.” But that's because you don't yet know that Jesse also posted signs just outside the electrified area warning any potential burglars of the danger. Pshaw, scoffed Larry Harris, alcohol has made me immune to electrocution! And so, predictably, he was the first person in Illinois to suffer death by electrocution as punishment for burglary.
Legal scholars debated the case for a while. Did Jesse have the right to defend his business with deadly force? What if it were not a burglar, but someone who was, say, fleeing a roaming pack of Nazi bikers that tried to seek refuge inside the bar? The state decided that it was Larry's own darn fault that he was served up extra crispy, and refused to press charges against the bar owner for homicide in the defense of his bar. They ruled Mr. Harris' death accidental, noting the drugs in his system.
Despite this, the Harris family felt that Mr. Ingram was responsible for Larry's death and so they decided to sue. And they lost, miserably, when the state decided it was Larry's own darn fault for being an incredibly stupid criminal. Just kidding! They held the bar owner partially responsible and awarded the Harris family $75,000 – half of the $150,000 total reward.
Ultimate Result? The bar owner's widow (Jesse passed before the award was announced) and the building owner's widow (this is a horrible world) are forced to pay for Larry Harris' criminal stupidity. But I bet no one ever breaks into that bar again.
1 1: Megan Thode And The Passing Grade
Megan Thode had a very interesting case against Lehigh University last year. She received a C+ grade in an internship course which she said was so low that it was preventing her from becoming a licensed therapist. This consequently was costing her lost wages for the rest of her life, to the tune of $1.3 million – the amount she was suing the school for. She was also suing to have the grade changed to a B.
This case is not interesting because of the sensationalism over Megan's claims of sexual discrimination and gay rights retaliation, though that did make for an entertaining media circus. What is interesting about this is that it highlights how education is a business. Megan Thode is right – without passing she makes less money. She wasn't in school to learn to be a therapist because she wanted to improve people's quality of life, treat the ill or comfort the distraught. She wasn't interested in learning for the sake of learning or performing research to advance the field. Megan Thode gots ta get paid, G, and if she can't do it over the course of 30 years then by golly she'll do it in court. The school had promised her an education that would give her a career and they hadn't delivered. Time to sue!
Aaaand, time to fail.
Ultimate result? Megan got zilch. Which is kind of a good thing. Give a grad student $1.3 million and it'd be gone in a few years, and who is going to hire someone who only passed their practicum thanks to a lawsuit?