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Remember the woman who spilled hot coffee on herself and then sued McDonald’s? Her name is Stella Liebeck, and a New Mexico jury awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. Of course, lots of people spill coffee without demanding millions, so Stella’s case made her a sort of poster grandmother for tort reform. A list of frivolous cases, supposed winners of the Stella Award, even circulates on the Internet. Though these cases are fictional, the popularity of this Internet joke inspired Randy Cassingham to highlight stories of real lawsuit abuse on his Web site. He has now collected these stories in a book, The True Stella Awards: Honoring Real Cases of Greedy Opportunists, Frivolous Lawsuits, and the Law Run Amok. Cassingham, who is not a lawyer, draws his material chiefly from online news. He’ll occasionally read a court decision, but reasons that “most people don’t have the stomach to plow through the legalese.” Whenever possible, he prefers to rely on more “layperson-friendly sources.” In light of Cassingham’s limited research and lack of legal training, it’s not surprising that the Borders bookstore near Washington, D.C.’s Farragut Square shelved his book in the humor section. But this collection is worth pondering for reasons beyond the entertainment value of the goofy suits. The book shows how an educated non-lawyer examined the legal system, became disgusted, and proposed radical changes. Although he doesn’t always appreciate the legal complexities involved, Cassingham is a telling example of a “reasonable man” trying and failing to find sense in our tort system. But on to some stories. THE LEGAL ZOO • For its own good, the experts at the Los Angeles Zoo made plans to move one of the zoo’s elephants to a Tennessee facility. But a local resident objected in court that the pachyderm would be separated from its friend, another elephant. Said her lawyer: “We believe there is a special relationship between the two.” • An 11-year-old New Jersey boy was running to catch a school bus when he collided with a teacher. The next day he cried and apologized, which should have been the end of it. Instead the teacher later sued the boy on the grounds that he “negligently and carelessly” ran into her at an “excessive rate of speed.” • While cleaning his swimming pool a California lawyer noticed a palm frond hanging down from a power line. So he reached up with the skimmer pole to pull down the frond. He was electrocuted, and his grieving widow sued Leslie’s Swimming Pool Supplies. Apparently, the long metal pole didn’t carry a warning not to stick it into power lines. • A bus driver for the New York City Transit Authority failed an eye exam because he was red-green colorblind and thus couldn’t distinguish traffic lights. Surprise: The transit authority wouldn’t let the man drive a bus. He sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that he deserved a “reasonable accommodation” to hold the job. WAR BY ANECDOTE Cassingham’s analytical approach — a sort of war by anecdote — may sound familiar. A description of silly lawsuits, followed by plans for tort reform, isn’t novel. Philip Howard of the New York office of Covington & Burling made a national reputation with similar books. The anecdotal approach has its weaknesses. If these cases are just abnormal outliers, it’s not clear that they warrant more than a chuckle. And even such dubious cases as the colorblind claim may exist because legislatures have chosen to encourage these causes of action. Cassingham offers a list of reforms to deter future Stella Liebecks, including requiring losing parties to pay the legal expenses of victors, turning punitive damages over to “society,” and prohibiting confidential settlements after suits are filed. But legislatures have not exactly rushed to adopt these sorts of proposals, and Cassingham’s cures may be harsher than the actual illness. Nevertheless, the accumulated impact of these stories leaves an indelible impression that our legal system is not the best of all possible worlds. As Cassingham notes, a frivolous filing imposes costs, even if it is ultimately tossed out. And the system may be slow to respond, given the basic assumption of the procedural rules that the filing of a lawsuit is something serious. So at the end of The True Stella Awards, readers are left with scorn for some plaintiffs and concern for the legal system, but no easy solutions. And that’s not particularly funny.
Robert L. Rogers can be contacted at [email protected].

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