This is a mug shot of Anna Ayala, the woman who planted a human finger in a Wendy’s chili. Learn more about her bizarre case in a few pages.LVPD/Getty Images
By Clint Pumphrey
One of the benefits of living in a democratic country with a well-established judicial system is the opportunity to use the courts to achieve justice and set wrongs right. But there is a drawback: Some folks go to court about things that make most of us shake our heads.
In fact, these so-called “frivolous lawsuits” have led some activists and politicians to push for tort reform. Tort — along with contract, real property and criminal law — is one of the four major areas of law, and it describes disputes in which one person is harmed by another. Tort reform, then, would reduce the litigation of and damages awarded in these types of cases.
Is such a change needed? Take a look at these odd cases and judge for yourself.
10: Bubbles Aren’t Always Fun
Early on the morning of July 7, 2001, a prankster dumped detergent into Canal Park’s Fountain of Wind in Duluth, Minn., creating a mountain of bubbles. Several hours later, passerby Kathy Kelly walked into the suds and slipped into the fountain, sustaining a laceration to her left lower shin. Due to her diabetes the cut later became infected, resulting in $43,000 of medical expenses.
Kelly sued the city because it had not cleaned up the suds or posted warning signs, despite the fact that municipal workers had received a call concerning the hazard some four hours earlier. In March 2004, a jury found the city 70 percent responsible and Kelly 30 percent responsible for the injury, awarding $125,000 to the plaintiff. The fountain is now encircled by a railing.
In the thick of the recession, a college student talks to recruiters at a 2009 job fair.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
9: No Job? No Problem!
For many Americans, joblessness is an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of a bad economy. Bronx, New York native Trina Thompson, on the other hand, blamed herunemployment on the school she attended. In 2009, the 27-year-old sued her alma mater, Monroe College, for $72,000 when she was unable to find a job three months after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in information technology.
Thompson specifically blamed the school’s Office of Career Advancement for not working hard enough to place her in a job after graduation, despite her solid attendance record and 2.7 grade point average. According to the lawsuit filed in Bronx Supreme Court, Thompson sought to recoup the $70,000 she had spent in tuition, plus $2,000 for the stress of her job search.
8: Trespass at the Owner’s Risk
It’s hard to believe that anyone could win a lawsuit for being injured while trespassing on someone else’s property. But that’s exactly what happened to two Lancaster, Pa., teens who were severely burned atop a parked railroad car in 2002. While out skateboarding, Jeffrey Kline and Brett Birdwell illegally entered property owned by Amtrak and Norfolk Southern Corp. and climbed on top of a boxcar in hopes of getting a view of the city. An uninsulated wire suspended above the train jolted Klein with 12,500 volts of electricity, causing severe burns over 75 percent of his body. Birdwell received burns over 12 percent of his body when he ran to assist his friend, whose clothes were on fire.
In the October 2006 trial, a jury said that, although they were trespassing, the 17-year-old boys bore no responsibility for the accident. Instead the blame fell entirely on Amtrak and Norfolk Southern for failing to post signs warning of the danger from the electrified wires that power locomotives. For medical costs, pain and suffering, and “loss of life pleasures,” the teens received a combined $24.2 million.
7: Don’t Blame Me
In 2009, 20-year-old Chelsea Hess met some friends at a sports grill in Bluffton, S.C., and was servedalcohol, even though she was not 21, the legal drinking age in the state. Intoxicated, she drove away from the restaurant just after 1 a.m. and soon lost control of her car, rolling it off the road. Hess, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown 20 feet (6 meters) from the vehicle, sustaining serious injuries that caused her to become a paraplegic.
Instead of taking responsibility for her actions, Hess filed a lawsuit against the sports grill and the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) in December 2011. She accused the sports grill of negligence for selling her the alcoholic beverage without first verifying her age and ensuring that she was not already inebriated. Hess also blamed SCDOT, claiming that a defect in the shoulder caused her to flip her 2000 Mitsubishi. The department’s failure to maintain the shoulder or mark the damaged area, according to the lawsuit, amounted to negligence. In response, SCDOT reasoned “that any injuries and/or damages sustained by the Plaintiff were due to and caused by the sole negligent, grossly negligent, reckless, careless, heedless, willful and wanton acts and/or omissions of Plaintiff.”
6: Look-alike Lawsuit
Some people might be honored to resemble a famous athlete — but not Allen Heckard. The Portland, Ore., man said he had been mistaken for basketball legend Michael Jordan almost every day for 15 years — and was sick of it.
In 2006, he sued the former Chicago Bull along with Nike cofounder Phil Knight (for promoting Jordan) for a combined $832 million, claiming personal injury and emotional pain and suffering. Heckard, an African-American with a shaved head and an earring in his left ear, did look a little like Jordan, but he was also 6 inches (15.24 centimeters) shorter and eight years older than his more famous counterpart. He soon dropped the lawsuit. It was pretty clear that Heckard’s case didn’t have a leg to stand on after he explained why he chose to sue Jordan and Knight for $416 million each: “Well,” Heckard reasoned, “you figure with my age and you multiply that times seven and, ah, then I turn around and, ah, I figure that’s what it all boils down to.”
Wendy’s patrons leave a San Jose area location on May 13, 2005. After the finger incident, the restaurant chain began giving away free Frosties to offset bad press.
Don Feria/Getty Images
5: Fingered as a Scam
In March 2005, Anna Ayala filed a claim against a Wendy’s franchise owner in San Jose, Calif., asserting that she had found a fingertip in a bowl of chili. The bad publicity that resulted cost the fast-food chain approximately $21 million in lost sales and cut business at some northern California locations by as much as 50 percent. But authorities found no evidence of missing fingers at the accused restaurant or anywhere along Wendy’s supply chain.
Suspicion soon turned on Ayala, who was eventually arrested and found guilty of attempting to extort money from Wendy’s. She served four years of a nine-year sentence, and, as a condition of her probation, was banned from ever returning to the restaurant that she sued. And where did the finger come from? It was traced to Brian Rossiter, a co-worker of Ayala’s husband, who lost it in a work accident and gave it to the couple to settle a $100 bet.
4: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
On July 31, 2004, Colorado teens Taylor Ostergaard and Lindsey Zellitti decided to stay home from a dance and bake cookies for their neighbors. Wishing for their good deeds to remain anonymous, the girls knocked on the doors of nearby houses and ran away, leaving packages with heart-shaped gift tags that read, “Have a great night. From the T and L Club.” At 10:30 p.m., the girls visited the home of Wanita Renea Young. Startled by the “shadowy figures” on her doorstep, the 49-year-old woman called the police, who arrived to find nothing to suggest that a crime had been committed. Still, the experience reportedly gave Young an anxiety attack and she was admitted to the hospital the following day.
Ostergaard and Zellitti apologized to Young, and their families even offered to pay her medical bills. But instead of forgiving the well-intentioned teens, the disgruntled woman sued them. A Durango judge awarded Young almost $900 for medical expenses but denied her demand for nearly $3,000 in punitive damages, including lost wages and new motion-sensor lights for her porch. When the ruling made national headlines, Ostergaard and Zellitti received donations from across the United States to help pay their fine.
3: Sue the Pants Off Them
In 2007, Roy Pearson, a Washington, D.C., judge, filed one of the most outrageous lawsuits of recent times when he sued a small mom-and-pop dry cleaner over a pair of pants. Pearson claimed that the shop’s owners, Jin and Soo Chung, misplaced his pants after he brought them in for a $10.50 alteration, and then tried to return a cheap, imitation pair of his $800 trousers. Though the Chungs felt they’d done nothing wrong, they ultimately offered to settle with the judge for $12,000.
Unimpressed, the judge sued the Chungs and their son, asserting that the “Satisfaction Guaranteed” and “Same Day Service” signs posted in the store represented an “unconditional guarantee” that entitled him to a considerably larger settlement. Pearson sought $1,500 per defendant for each of the estimated 12,000 days that the signs appeared in the dry cleaners. The judge’s claims also included emotional damages, the cost of a rental car used to drive to another dry cleaner and legal fees — even though Pearson represented himself. The total amount of the lawsuit? A whopping $67 million, which was later reduced to a still-outrageous $54 million.
Fortunately, a judge in the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the Chungs and ordered Pearson to pay the couple’s court costs, and their attorney fees as well. In a further blow to Pearson, a committee refused to reappoint him to his job as an administrative law judge, in part because of the questionable behavior he displayed in the Chung case.
2: Nice Try
Jail gives inmates a lot of time to think, and a Chesapeake, Va., prisoner used the hours to come up with an exceptionally innovative lawsuit. In 1995, Robert Lee Brock sued himself for $5 million, claiming that he violated his own civil rights when he was arrested two years earlier for breaking and entering and grand larceny.
“I partook of alcoholic beverages in 1993, July 1st, as a result I caused myself to violate my religious beliefs. This was done by my going out and getting arrested,” wrote Brock in the lawsuit he filed in federal court. But because he had no income in jail, Brock asked that the state pay him the multi-million dollar settlement. Judge Rebecca Beach Smith dismissed his claim as “ludicrous” but acknowledged his “innovative approach to civil rights litigation.”
McDonald’s golden arches catch sunlight.
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers/Getty Images
1: Spilling the (Coffee) Beans
A list of outrageous lawsuits would be incomplete without the case of Stella Liebeck, an Albuquerque, N.M., woman who spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lap while sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car. As a result, the 79-year-old suffered third degree burns on her groin, inner thighs and buttocks and spent seven days in the hospital. When she contacted McDonald’s about compensating her for the medical bills, the restaurant chain took her to court. After a weeklong trial, the jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages, which a court later reduced to $480,000. Both parties appealed, and they eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
While the ruling provoked outrage among many Americans, others saw her as a victim. The 2011 documentary “Hot Coffee” promotes the latter viewpoint, noting the alleged indifference McDonald’s executives displayed to the fact that their coffee caused burns, as well as the public’s misconceptions that emerged from the proceedings — namely, the belief that Liebeck was driving and the car was moving.
Love the verdict or hate it, there’s little question that Liebeck’s lawsuit resulted in one of the most famous cases of recent decades. It became the butt of many jokes for late-night comedians and was even parodied in a 1995 episode of the popular television show “Seinfeld.” The case also inspired the creation of the Stella Awards, which highlight particularly “wild, outrageous, or ridiculous lawsuits.”
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