Lawsuits filed by consumers against big business took off in the 1990s in the golden era of tort ligitation. In 1994, a 79-year-old woman won $2.86 million for spilling scalding hot McDonalds coffee on her lap.
Since then, lawsuits targeting big businesses have become common. Thankfully, most have at least some grounding in the law.
But some are frivolous and are quickly thrown out. And others that seem frivolous manage to result in damages being awarded.
Advocates often use such lawsuits to argue for tort reform. Sometimes it feels like they have a point.
This is a fiercely debated, much cited case in favour of tort reform.
Stella Liebeck, 79, spilled her super-heated McDonalds coffee on her lap while drinking in her car. She suffered third-degree burns and stayed in the hospital for eight days as she went through skin grafting.
She filed suit (Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants) in 1994 in what was called the 'poster child of excessive lawsuits.'
Result: The jury awarded her $2.86 million. The judge reduced it to $640,000 and the parties settled before a decision on appeal.
Richard Overtun really liked his beer. But when he found that it was just getting him drunk without scoring him any hot women like it happened in Bud Light ads, he got angry.
In 1991, he sued the beer maker Anheuser-Busch for $10,000, claiming that he'd suffered emotional distress and financial loss.
Result: The case was dismissed.
John Leonard tried to buy a fighter jet with Pepsi points.
He collected 7 million points in 1999, and then asked for his prize-- a Harrier fighter jet like the one in a Pepsi TV ad. Pepsi refused, so he sued Pepsi for breach of contract and fraud.
It is nearly impossible to collect 7 million points, so Leonard went about it creatively. He collected only 15 points. But, according to contest rules, points could be purchased for 10 cents each. So, he sent Pepsi a check for $700,008.50, including a $10 shipping and handling for the fighter jet.
Result: The court granted Pepsi's motion for summary judgment, finding in part that no reasonable person could think the commercial actually offered the jet. Leonard actually appealed to the 2nd Circuit, which affirmed the lower court's decision.
This one is tragic, and goes to the heart of the debate over personal responsibility as consumers.
Family members of Columbine High School shooting victims took on major movie and video game companies in 2001. They said that If it hadn't been for the likes of Basketball Diaries, Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Mech Warrior and 25 other games and movies, the massacre wouldn't have occurred.
Result: The case was dismissed. Plaintiffs were asked to compensate the companies for their legal expenses.
In 2005, Anna Ayala said that she'd found a well-manicured 1.5-inch human fingertip in her Wendy's chilli. She took the story to the press, and then filed a lawsuit against the fast food giant.
When authorities started investigating the source of the missing fingertip, Ayala dropped her suit. It soon became clear that she'd planted the finger herself. Wendys filed a criminal complaint.
Result: A state judge sentenced Ayala and her husband, Jaime Placencia, to lengthy prison terms in 2006.
Roy L. Pearson, Jr. sued his dry cleaners for $67-million dollars for losing his pants.
Pearson claimed that Custom Cleaners had lost his grey pants, which he said cost $1000. He sued the owners in 2005, demanding $67-million for inconvenience, mental anguish and attorney's fees.
Result: The judge sided with the dry cleaners and refused to penalise them.
Two Wisconsin men have filed a suit this year alleging that PepsiCo had stolen their idea to sell bottled water. They are asking for $75,000.
Charles A. Joyce and James R. Voight claimed that they'd told someone about their idea for bottled water in 1981. They said that 15 years later, Pepsi developed its Aquafina water based on their idea.
Result: A judge granted them a $1.26 billion default judgment, but later allowed Pepsi to vacate the ruling. It will be tried again.
Roy Werbal spent much of his life thinking that Froot Loops and Crunch Berries contained real fruit.
When he found out to the contrary, he filed a suit in 2009 (Werbel v. Kellogg USA) against cereal-maker Kellogg. 'Had he known that 'Froot Loops' contained no fruit, he would not have purchased it,' states his complaint.
Result: Pending. It is the seventh such lawsuit in California against cereal, and the previous ones have been dismissed.
Is Apple in bed with the Mafia?
Gregory McKenna of Florissant, Mo. alleged that two iPods that he purchased on eBay contained illegal receivers. The Mafia used these to send him threatening messages, he said in the suit filed in 2009.
McKenna claimed that the reason why the Mafia was after him was because he had refused to work as a fashion model for them. He has asked for $14.2 million in damages.
Result: Apple moved to dismiss the suit in October; the judge's decision is pending.
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