May 13, 2009— -- Coffee too hot? Or perhaps the dry cleaners lost a favorite pair of pants? Maybe, like one Colorado inmate who hurt himself rappelling down a jail wall claimed, sheriff's officials made escaping a little too easy.
Those are a few of the allegations in controversial lawsuits that have been filed recently.
Hundreds of lawsuits are filed every day in the United States, for claims ranging from legitimate to ridiculous. A survey of 34 state court systems found 433,000 new tort cases in 2006, down from 547,000 in 1997, according to the National Center for State Courts.
A woman famously sued McDonald's in the early 1990s after she spilled scalding coffee on her legs. A jury awarded her more than $2 million, which was reduced by a judge. A Michael Jordan look-alike sued Nike and Jordan for $862 million because he found it distressing to be mistaken for the basketball star. He dropped his suit after a wave of negative news articles.
"When people bring suits they often sue for the moon," says Phillip Howard, chairman of Common Good, a legal reform coalition. "Some people will bring suits over any accident or perceived slight and the broad effect of that is that people in society go through the day looking over their shoulders."
Here are a few of the more controversial recent lawsuits.
Darius Dugger wanted his sandwich without onions, pickles and tomatoes.
Dugger is seeking $100,000 in damages after a Burger King franchise allegedly messed up his order, making him sick, according to the Virginian Pilot newspaper.
Dugger claims he suffered a "severe allergic reaction" to the condiments, costing him thousands of dollars in medical bills and forcing him to miss work.
His "specific request for the omission of onions, pickles and tomatoes had not been complied with," the lawsuit claims, the paper reported.
Lawyers for Dugger and the Burger King franchise did not return calls for comment.
A similar lawsuit against McDonald's was recently dismissed. Jeromy Jackson sued the fast food chain for $10 million after he said he had a severe allergic reaction to the cheese on his quarter pounder, according to the Charleston Gazette.
He claimed he was assured his burger wouldn't have any cheese. In a lawsuit filed in 2007, he alleged he "was only moments from death" by the time he reached the hospital.
One of the most famous lawsuits, which became the poster child for those who advocate for reforms to lower jury verdicts, was a result of McDonald's coffee.
Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, N.M., was severely burned by the chain's coffee in February 1992. Her lawyer argued that the hot coffee was unreasonably dangerous.
Liebeck, then 79 years old, had set a cup between her legs while sitting in a parked car. She spent a week in the hospital, and then returned a month later for skin grafts to heal the second- and third-degree burns, according to the Legal Times.
A jury awarded Liebeck more than $2 million. The judge reduced the total award to about $640,000. The two sides settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Former Washington, D.C., Administrative Judge Roy Pearson made headlines in 2007 when he sued a local dry cleaner, claiming it had lost a prized pair of pants he planned to wear on his first day on the bench in 2005. Pearson initially asked for $67 million but later reduced that to $54 million.
The bad blood between the customer and store dates back to 2002, when Pearson claimed a first pair of pants had disappeared from the dry cleaners. The owners of the dry cleaners, Jin and Soo Chung, gave Pearson a $150 check for a new pair of pants and Pearson was banned from the store, the Chungs' lawyer said.
Three years later, Pearson said he returned to Custom Cleaners and another pair of trousers went missing. It was May 2005 and Pearson was about to begin his new job as an administrative judge. He said in court filings he wanted to wear a nice outfit to his first day of work.
Pearson said he brought one pair of pants in for alterations and they disappeared — gray trousers with what Pearson described in court papers as blue and red stripes on them. The dry cleaning bill was $10.50.
First, Pearson demanded $1,150 for a new suit. Lawyers were hired, legal wrangling ensued and eventually the Chungs offered Pearson $3,000 in compensation. Then they offered him $4,600. Finally, they offered $12,000 for the missing gray trousers with the red and blue stripes.
Citing the District of Columbia's consumer protection laws, Pearson said he was entitled to $1,500 per violation — each day that the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service" signs were up in the store. It had been more than 1,200 days.
He multiplied each violation by three because he sued Jin and Soo Chung and their son. With an additional $1 million for emotional damages and more for legal fees, that brought Pearson to his original $67 million claim.
The trial proved nearly as dramatic and unusual as the plaintiff's claims. On the witness stand, Pearson broke down in tears while testifying about his experience with the missing trousers. Because he served as his own lawyer, Pearson wept during a question-and-answer session with himself.
In his opening statement, Pearson told the court, "Never before in recorded history have a group of defendants engaged in such misleading and unfair business practices."
Perhaps Raelyn Campbell was inspired by Pearson's pricey pants.
Campbell, from Washington, D.C., sued Best Buy in late 2007 after the store allegedly lost her laptop.
Campbell said the laptop was stolen from the store, but the company misled her about its whereabouts for weeks before finally admitting that it was missing.
Best Buy offered Campbell $1,110 and a $500 gift card in compensation, which she rejected, according to a blog she devoted to the lawsuit.
The case was eventually dismissed.
A married man sued 1-800-Flowers for $1 million in Aug. 2007 for revealing that he was cheating on his wife.
Leroy Greer said in a lawsuit filed in a federal court in Texas that he bought flowers for his girlfriend through 1-800-Flowers. He asked to keep his purchase private.
But, the lawsuit says, 1-800-Flowers sent a thank-you note to his house and his wife saw it. When she called the company, 1-800-Flowers faxed her a copy of the receipt from Greer's secret purchase.
The receipt revealed that Greer had sent another woman a dozen long-stemmed red roses, along with a note that read, "Just wanted to say that I love you and you mean the world to me!" according to court documents.
The couple was already going through what Greer's attorney described as an amicable divorce.
After learning of the affair, Greer's wife asked for a $300,000 divorce settlement in addition to child support, said Kennitra Foote, Greer's attorney.
"That thank-you note is going to cost him money," Foote said.
Greer asked for $1 million for breach of contract and deceptive trade practices.
A 1-800-Flowers spokesman said the company does not comment on pending litigation. In a statement, spokesman Steven Jarmon said, "We take all matters relating to our customers seriously; however, we are not responsible for an individual's personal conduct."
When newspaper reader Keith Hempstead found out that the Raleigh News & Observer was cutting its staff and its coverage, he didn't just get mad. He filed a lawsuit.
Hempstead, a real estate lawyer in Durham, N.C. and former newspaper reporter, claimed that the paper cheated him and other subscribers by changing its coverage after they signed up for service.
"I'm not doing it out of spite, I'm doing it because I still love the newspaper," Hempstead said last year.
His suit complained that fewer sections, thinner newspapers, and fewer newsroom staff are "changes that will substantially reduce the quality to what it is currently."
"I wanted to get the newspaper's attention," said Hempstead, "because I knew canceling my subscription wasn't going to hurt them."
The publisher of The News & Observer, Orage Quarles, dismissed the validity of the lawsuit.
"My response is pretty simple," Quarles said in an e-mail sent last year to ABC News. "We think it's a frivolous lawsuit and believe the judge will see it that way too."
Scott Anthony Gomez apparently found it a little too easy to escape from the Pueblo County jail.
He escaped once in 2006. When he was caught, he warned prison officials that "there were many ways to get out of the facility," according to the Los Angeles Times.
When he set out to escape again, he fell as he tried to rappel down the side of the building using bedsheets.
He sued the local sheriff, saying authorities caused his injuries by making it too easy to escape.
"Defendants . . . did next to nothing to ensure that the jail was secure and the plaintiff could not escape," says Gomez's lawsuit, according to the Times.
Last year, a judge ordered him to pay $66,000 in restitution to Pueblo County for costs associated with his two escapes, according to the Pueblo Chieftan newspaper.
A New Jersey couple that was suing a doctor for medical malpractice added an unusual defendant: They sued the doctor's lawyer for asking what they call "inhumane" questions during a deposition.
Andrew and Phyllis Rabinowitz claimed in court papers filed in July 2007 Judith Wahrenberger caused them emotional distress by asking during a deposition if Phyllis could have been involved in the death of their infant daughter.
"This lawyer, out of nothing more than malice and a black-hearted attempt to hurt these people, had the inhumane desire to ask whether they were involved in the death of their child," said Bruce Nagel, the couple's lawyer in both their medical malpractice lawsuit and their suit against Wahrenberger. "There's got to be limits in everything. This was beyond indecent."
Wahenberger's attorney called the suit "frivolous" and said he would move to dismiss it. A leading legal ethics expert also said the case was unlikely to succeed.
Allen Heckard, of Portland, Ore., apparently found his resemblance to basketball superstar Michael Jordan a little "distressing."
Heckard sued Jordan and Nike co-founder Phil Knight in 2006 for $862 million "for defamation and permanent injury," because he found it "distressing" to look like and be confused with Jordan.
"I'm constantly being accused of looking like Michael, and it makes it very uncomfortable for me," Heckard said at the time, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Heckard, then 51, is 6 inches shorter than Jordan, who was 43 at the time the suit was filed.
Asked how he decided to sue for $862 million, Heckard reportedly said, "Well, 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."
He dropped the suit but won the 2006 "Stella Award" given by a Web site with the same name. The award is named after the McDonald's coffee case, for most ridiculous lawsuit that year.