Trinidad Carnival 2014 is over and in listening to how much money the winners of the various contests had won, I immediately thought about the “Stella” awards. The Stellas are named after 81-year-old Stella Liebeck who, in 1992, ordered a cup of McDonald’s coffee at a drive through, put it in between her knees while sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s stationary car, and attempted to remove the lid in order to add cream and sugar. The coffee, 180 to 190 °F (82 to 88 °C), spilled from the cup, causing third degree burns. She was awarded US$2.86 million by a New Mexico jury. That case inspired the Stella awards for the most frivolous, ridiculous, successful lawsuits in the United States.
Last year’s Stella winners are excellent examples of how some courts can make financial mountains out of legal molehills. These are all taken from the Stella Awards 2013 list. Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas, was awarded $780,000 after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running inside a furniture store. The misbehaving little toddler was Ms Robertson’s son. Nineteen-year-old Carl Truman of Los Angeles won US$74,000 and medical expenses when his neighbour ran over his hand with a Honda Accord. Mr Truman apparently didn’t notice there was someone at the wheel of the car when he was trying to steal his neighbour’s hubcaps.
Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pennsylvania, was leaving a house he had just finished robbing by way of the garage. He could not open the garage door and could not get back into the house because he had locked the door when he closed it. The family was on vacation so Dickson was locked in the garage for eight days. He lived on a case of Pepsi he found and a big bag of dog food. He sued the homeowner’s insurance claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The jury awarded him US$500,000. A Philadelphia restaurant had to pay Amber Carson US$113,500 after she slipped on a soft drink and broke her coccyx (tailbone). The beverage was on the floor because Ms Carson had thrown it at her boyfriend during an argument.
The stellar Stella winner was Mrs Merv Grazinski who bought a 32-foot Winnebago motor home and on her first trip set the cruise control at 70 mph and went to the back of the vehicle to make herself a sandwich. The vehicle crashed and overturned. The lady sued the company for not including this warning in the manual. The jury awarded her $1,750,000 plus a new motor home. The company had to change the instructions to cover this eventuality.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the judges of the soca or Carnival song contests have millions to play with. In two of the competitions the winner gets TT$2,000,000.
In another, the Calypso Monarch contest, the winner gets TT$1,000,000 and the calypsonians association is angry because it believes that the government should provide another million so that the “Monarch” should be on par with the other winners.
Interestingly, when you compare those awards with awards by real judges in real courts in Trinidad and Tobago there is a huge discrepancy. For example the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Keith Rowley, was awarded $475,000 in damages for libel.
This was one of the highest ever in a defamation case in the country. The judge stressed the damage the libel had done to Dr Rowley, “Not only has it been a continuing stain on his political life, but it has affected his personal and family life, having to address his children’s concerns and embarrassment about the allegations.” It is not the fault of the judge that a soca monarch gets more than four times the amount awarded to Dr Rowley despite the severity of the offence.
One of the unions reported a matter that was determined in the Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago. A worker was summarily dismissed after just three weeks and there was no meeting or any indication that the worker was unsatisfactory. She was just given a letter of dismissal. The worker had been paid one month’s salary at the time of her dismissal ($7,000) and in conciliation in the Industrial Court a further $20,000.00 was agreed. This is .001% of what the “monarchs” receive. In another case the employer wanted to “reorganise” and cut the worker’s pay from $4,500 per month to $3,000 per month plus commission. The job was also changed from permanent to a one-year fixed term contract. The Industrial Court awarded $50,000 in damages. Shanique Myrie was awarded US$37,500 or TT$235,000 for all that she went through.
This is in no way to question the judgments or the awards by any of the judges in any of these matters. They are all bound by rules, criteria and precedents. If there is a moral to this particular Lenten story it is that if you have a case in any court in Trinidad and Tobago, the first thing to do is to demand a change of judges. Ask for the people who judge the soca awards. You’re sure to start with at least two million dollars. If the case is against the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, ask for those who judge the National Calypso Monarch competition. Your name will be sure to start a new set of awards to replace the “Stella”.
• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that prisoners in Idaho have sued eight brewers for causing them to be criminals. In such a case you just have to grin and beer it.
• The Dana Seetahal column returns next Saturday