There are countless urban legends and internet myths that tell of people filing seemingly frivolous lawsuits and winning millions of dollars in settlements. You’ll read headlines about inmates suing over the type of peanut butter they’re served (he wanted crunchy) or about a woman who spilled hot coffee on herself and sued the restaurant, but rarely will these stories tell the full truth about the lawsuits. In most instances, the most frivolous cases that have no basis in law are dismissed and the people never see a dime. And for those who have legitimate complaints in an otherwise soft news story? Well, the urban legends just happen to leave out a few tiny yet crucially important details. And those tiny details might be the reason the case was won: Those tiny details make a world of difference.
Yes, many people file frivolous lawsuits in the United States. There was the time a man tried to sue God, claiming that He was terrorizing his city by pushing His beliefs on him. He claimed that since God was omnipresent, that He was in the county’s jurisdiction and didn’t need to be served. While many might hear that story and roll their eyes while mumbling about a ridiculous justice system, they ignore the fact that, of course, the case was thrown out almost right away. No one in the justice system took this man seriously.
Sure, they make for interesting stories, but they can do more harm than good. In some cases, real victims have been painted as stupid and greedy when in actuality, they had a legitimate case on their hands. These are five real cases behind commonly heard urban legend lawsuits.
4. Woman sues the phone book for botched plastic surgery.
The story goes that a woman decides to get plastic surgery, uses the phone book to locate a surgeon and when the surgeon screws up, she sues the phone book – and wins big. $1.2 million big, plus an additional $375,000 for her husband due to ‘loss of spousal services’. This sounds ludicrous; shouldn’t she sue the doctor for the botched surgery, not the phone book she found him in? In fact, a few key elements are missing from this tale when it’s told amongst friends who want to declare the justice system corrupt and incompetent.
The woman, Michelle Knepper was looking for a board certified plastic surgeon for liposuction, and so she turned to the phone book and found an advert for one. She had the work done, but he completely botched the procedure by removing too much fat, which left her nerves exposed; the woman now lives in almost constant pain. Still, you might be asking yourself why it’s not the doctor’s fault? It was, in fact, and she sued him along with the media company who provided the ads for that particular phone book – not the phone book itself. The company knowingly wrote a misleading ad that made the doctor sound qualified in an area he wasn’t. You see, the doctor Knepper called that fateful day was board certified alright, but he was only ‘board certified’ in dermatology, not plastic surgery as the advert implied. The company did this to help the doctor drum up more business which in turn padded their pocket books when his business increased.
3. Family of drunk driver sues Honda for accident.
The story goes – a drunk woman accidentally backs her car into Galveston Bay and dies, causing her family to sue the makers of the car. And yes, according to the legend, they win.
The real story? Karen Norman accidentally backed down a boat ramp and into the bay, just as the legend goes. Her passenger wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and managed to make it out of the car just fine. Karen, however, was wearing her seatbelt. The passenger said he heard her calling out for help, repeating that she could not get out of her seat belt. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it out alive. And she did, indeed, have a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.
Yes, the family sued Honda, but this isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. The family claimed that there was a defect with their design that led to their daughter being unable to escape from the car. Karen was driving a 1991 Honda Civic that had an automatic seatbelt that would fasten itself around the occupant when the door was closed. The only way to disengage the seat belt was to open the door or use an emergency release button, which the family said was positioned in a way that their daughter couldn’t reach it.
Initially, the jury found that Honda was somewhat negligent in Karen’s death, and awarded partial damages to be paid to the family. However, this is where most accounts of this lawsuit end. The appeals court, in fact, reversed the decision because the family couldn’t prove that the design was defective, and the family received no compensation in the end. But hey, if you leave those pesky facts out, it almost sounds like Honda was sued because their daughter drove drunk, and they walked away millionaires. The real story though, doesn’t quite lend itself to rants about crooked justice systems.
2. Woman sues haunted house for being too scary.
The story goes that a woman and her granddaughter visit a haunted house, get scared, and then sue the haunted house for being too frightening. Not quite reasonable, as anyone would expect a haunted Halloween attraction to be scary, obviously. So how can a woman sue an attraction for doing an extremely good job at exactly what it’s supposed to be doing?
Well, that’s only part of the story. Cleanthi Peters and her 10 year-old granddaughter did sue Universal Studios over their annual Halloween Horror Nights attraction, that part is true. However, what many people fail to mention is that while Peters and her granddaughter were running out of the haunted house, away from Leatherface wielding a chainsaw, they slipped on a wet spot on the floor. Instead of asking if they were okay, Leatherface didn’t break character and simply stood over them, scaring them even more. Not that we blame Leatherface, since he’s not paid to show sympathy to the guests. But if, in fact, there was a wet spot near the exit of the attraction, then this lawsuit was less about the haunted house being scary and more about Universal Studios needing to make sure guests don’t fall on their way out – especially considering that a man with a chainsaw will be chasing them.
1. The infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit.
This is easily the most infamous tales of frivolous lawsuit that people like to throw around. The story goes that a woman orders coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru, spills it on herself and sues the fast food restaurant because it was hot. And people love to bash this woman because, well, everyone knows that coffee is hot. And if you spill something on yourself, then responsibility for that should fall on your own shoulders, right?
There is, in fact, much more to this story than a woman who spilled coffee on herself and became a millionaire.
Stella Liebeck was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car – not driving, as many of the re-tellings of this story state. She ordered coffee from McDonald’s, that is true. But the car wasn’t in motion as she added cream and sugar to the styrofoam cup holding her beverage. When the coffee spilt, it caused Stella’s sweatpants to adsorb the coffee, keeping it close to her skin. She ended up with third degree burns covering 6% of her body and required skin grafts. It all seems a little dramatic for a spilt cup of coffee.
But it’s all true. The reason for the severe injuries was that McDonald’s coffee was kept at around 185 degrees, even though beverages present a severe burn hazard whenever the temperature gets over 140 degrees. Had the coffee been served at 155 degrees, the damage wouldn’t have been so bad. At 180 degrees, it caused a full thickness burn to human skin in a matter of two-point-seven seconds. In their defense McDonald’s argued that customers bought their coffee to consume elsewhere, despite that fact that their own research proved that most people drink it immediately
So yes, the jury did award Stella money, claiming McDonald’s was negligent and served coffee that was much hotter than it needed to be – home brewed coffee is usually around 150 degrees. But you might be saying that she’s still at fault for spilling it, and the jury agreed with you there too. She was held partially responsible and was only awarded a portion of the settlement. And no, she wasn’t a millionaire after the lawsuit. She was awarded $640,000 and while that sounds like a lot, most of it went toward medical bills.
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