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  Imaginary Cases & Urban Legends: The Stella Awards Debunked



The "Stella Awards" is a collection of urban legends and fake legal cases designed to perpetuate the myth that there is a 'lawsuit crisis' in America. Advocates of limited legal rights have been circulating these make-believe cases for years, using fake examples to underme public confidence in our legal system.

Facts About Stella Liebeck's Case

The fictitious "awards" are named after an elderly woman who was severely burned due to the negligence of a greedy corporation. A number of lies about her case have spread via email, but in fact:

  • Stella Liebeck wanted only to be reimbursed for the cost of her medical treatment alone and to settle the case, but McDonald's opposed her request and took the case to trial.
  • Stella was severely injured. At 79 years old, she suffered third degree burnsto her legs and genitals, was hospitalized for over a week, and had to have multiple skin grafts.
  • McDonald's lost—a jury of American citizens heard the evidence and decided against the company.
  • During discovery, McDonald's produced documents showing more than 700 claims by other people burned by its coffee over a 10 year period and still refused to sell its coffee at a safe temperature.
  • More facts about the McDonald's Scalding Coffee Case are available by clicking here.

The "Stella Award" Is Meaningless

Searches for news stories or the actual legal cases have turned up nothing. Even claims many of the Internet stories are fabricated. Among the imaginary cases:

  • A woman who supposedly sued a furniture store after tripping over her own son. No such case or plaintiff exists.
  • A man who, assuming the vehicle would drive itself, sued Winnebago after setting the cruise control at 70 mph, left his seat and went to the galley to make a cup of coffee, and then was surprised when it crashed. Neither the incident, nor any lawsuit exists.
  • A woman who sued a restaurant after she threw a drink on her boyfriend and slipped on the floor. Again, there is no record of any such lawsuit.
  • A woman sued a nightclub after falling through a bathroom window and knocking out her teeth while trying to sneak in to the club without paying a cover charge. Neither the case nor the plaintiff is real.

How to Spot a Fake

While phony emails like the "Stella" chain letter are a common problem on the Internet and even in mainstream newspaper articles, they all share one characteristic—no citation to a source.

More Than Harmless Jokes

Urban myths like the "Stella Awards" aren't just cute or harmless jabs at trial lawyers and our legal system. They clearly are part of a massive disinformation campaign designed to undermine Americans' confidence in our legal system and to benefit powerful corporate interests at the expense of average people harmed by corporate wrongdoing and indifference.

What You Can Do

Write back to whoever forwards you a questionable email

  • Voice your skepticism
  • Debunk the myth

In your letter, you can debunk the myth or ask the sender for more details, especially if no case names or citations are mentioned. Most often these details cannot be provided because they do not exist.

Republished with permission of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.  Posted January 2005