From the desk of Dora DePaoli: So this is justice American style?

June 11, 2002

Much of the public must be entertained by seeing people air their legal woes on national television as seen by the success of "Judge Judy," "People's Court," and "Texas Justice." On one of those programs a fellow sued for $10 in damages.

I watched Judge Wapner a few times years ago. One of my relatives loved the legal squabbling. I found it embarrassing. Who in their right mind would share those unpleasant tidbits about themselves?

In the mid-1990s, 30,000 inmate lawsuits were filed in New York alone. Among the lawsuits were those by prisoners complaining: that the prison canteen supplied "creamy" peanut butter when a prisoner bought "crunchy"; that guards wouldn't refrigerate a man's ice cream snack so that he could eat it later; another fellow sued because his toilet seat was too cold, and an inmate-paralegal in the prison law library said he should make the same wage lawyers make. Another said prisons should offer salad bars, and that a limit on the number of Kool-Aid refills is "cruel and unusual punishment."


Having our legal system tied up with frivolous lawsuits has always seemed such a waste of time and taxpayers' money. Just recently I heard that "Stella" awards are given out to some of the most ludicrous.

The "Stella" awards originated in 1994 when a New Mexico jury awarded $2.9 million in damages to 82-year-old Stella Liebeck, who suffered third-degree burns to her legs, groin and buttocks after spilling a cup of McDonald's coffee on herself.

Other nominees include:

Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas. In January 2000 she was awarded $780,000 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running inside a furniture store. The owners of the store were understandably surprised at the verdict, considering the misbehaving little boy was Ms. Robertson's son.

Jerry Williams of Little Rock, Ark. In October 1999, he was awarded $14,500 and medical expenses after being bitten on the buttocks by his next-door neighbor's beagle. The beagle was on a chain in its owner's fenced-in yard. The award was less than sought because the jury felt the dog might have been just a little provoked at the time by Williams, who was shooting it repeatedly with a pellet gun.

Terrence Dickson, of Bristol, Pa. In October 1998, as Dickson was leaving a house he had just finished burglarizing by way of the garage, he was unable to get the garage door to go up since the automatic door opener was malfunctioning. He could not re-enter the house because the door connecting the house and garage locked when he pulled it shut. The family was on vacation. Dickson found himself locked in the garage for eight days. He subsisted on a case of Pepsi he found and a large bag of dry dog food. He sued the homeowner's insurance, claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The jury agreed to the tune of half a million dollars.

In June 1998 19-year-old Carl Truman of Los Angeles won $74,000 and medical expenses when his neighbor ran over his hand with a Honda Accord. Truman had apparently not noticed there was someone at the wheel of the car while he was trying to steal his neighbor's hubcaps.

In December 1997, Kara Walton of Claymont, Del., successfully sued the owner of a nightclub in a neighboring city when she fell from the bathroom window to the floor and knocked out her two front teeth. This occurred while Ms. Walton was trying to sneak through the window in the ladies room to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge. She was awarded $12,000 and dental expenses.

But the winner is Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City. In November 2000, Grazinski purchased a new 32-foot Winnebago motor home. On his first trip home, having joined the freeway, he set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the driver's seat to go into the back and make himself a cup of coffee. Not surprisingly, the Winnie left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising him in the handbook that he could not actually do this. He was awarded $1.7 million plus a new Winnie. (Winnebago actually changed its handbooks after this court case, just in case there are any other complete morons buying its vehicles.)

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