I suspect many of you regularly receive emails from friends forwarding items that the person finds interesting, amusing, perplexing or downright infuriating. I know I do.
Recently, a friend sent me such an item. The message from my friend began “This is unbelievable!!!” Now that is an attention-getter. My friend was referring to the content of an attached report about something called the “Stella Awards.” According to the report, the awards are named after the plaintiff in the case brought against McDonald’s involving burns caused by spilled coffee.
The introduction included the following statement: “These are awards for the most outlandish lawsuits and verdicts in the U.S. — you know, the kinds of cases that make you scratch your head. So keep your head-scratcher handy.” Filled with curiosity, I had to keep reading.
The report described seven cases with unusual facts (putting it mildly) where a jury had awarded monetary damages. The report concluded, “If you think the USA court system is out of control, be sure to pass this one on!” Well, I do not, so I did not. However, reading about these cases left me with a need to inquire further.
One involved a person named Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pa. Dickson reportedly received a verdict in his favor awarding him $500,000. The twist was that Dickson had burglarized a house then got stuck in the garage when he could not get the garage door to open. The door to the interior was locked, so he spent eight days in the garage surviving on Pepsi and dry dog food. I can see how some folks would be astonished when reading this. As one of my friends likes to say, “You can’t make this stuff up!” Or can you?
I recalled the words of an attorney friend who regularly says, “What is your authority?” When we make claims, we should be able to back them up. Here, the report did not reference a case number or the court in which the case was supposedly tried. So I did what most of us do now — I went to Google and typed “Terrence Dickson, Bristol, Pennsylvania.” In the words of the PXG Golf commercial: “Kaboom, Baby!”
My screen was full of references to Dickson. A law review article written by Northwestern Professor Shari Seidman Diamond declared that his case, as well as the others on the list circulating through email channels, was bogus. Snopes.com reported the same findings. It appears my friend who sent me the email was spot on in saying “This is unbelievable.”
One conclusion that can be drawn from this is if one has to fabricate to support a claim of the court system being “out of control,” perhaps the claim lacks support in actual facts.
Keep in mind these were reported as verdicts. This is very different from the filing of cases. Any claim can be filed. The claims are subject to testing through the judicial process. Those that are outlandish can be terminated and certain sanctions can be imposed. Perhaps the subject of sanctions will pop up in a future column.
We can look at the Dickson example to illustrate another point. The discredited report indicated that Dickson sued the homeowner’s insurance company. In the real world, we would expect a suit for premises liability to be brought against the homeowner. The insurance company would provide the defense.
Further, my research into Pennsylvania law informed me that the owner of property does not owe the same duty to a trespasser as that which is owed to a person rightfully on the property. The property owner must be free of willful and wanton behavior. I suspect locking the door from the garage to the interior of the house would not fall into that category, and Dickson would have had a hard time avoiding dismissal or summary judgment.
There are a few more points we can make here. A little skepticism can be healthy. Sadly, not everything that hits our screens is true. We should be willing to challenge and inquire thoroughly. The “What is your authority?” question is worth keeping at the ready.
Additionally, the fact that we personally do not like the outcome does not mean that the case itself is frivolous. Typically, we do not hear all the facts that were presented to the jury. We do not know the instructions of law given by the judge.
Finally, we remember that the judicial system includes the citizens who sit as jurors. When we serve, we have a duty and opportunity to ensure the integrity of that system.