It’s time once again to take a look at some ridiculous claims made against rental stores by people primarily responsible for their own injuries. These people went so far as to file suit against the rental stores, much like Stella Liebeck did against McDonald’s when she was burned after spilling hot coffee on herself. Liebeck was awarded almost $3 million in damages for an accident that was, for the most part, her own fault.
Since then the “Stella Award” has been bestowed upon people who file any wild, outrageous or ridiculous lawsuit. Humorist Randy Cassingham authored a book in 2005 titled ‘The True Stella Awards: Honoring real cases of greedy opportunists, frivolous lawsuits and the law run amok.” Cassingham has a website and a newsletter where he continues the discussion.
To our knowledge, no lawsuits against rental stores have been named Stella Award winners, but the three claims stories told here certainly deserve recognition. This year, the claims have been limited to do-it-yourselfers who actually had a part in injuring themselves or damaging their own property.
The first example involves a house fire. A customer was renovating his family room and decided to refinish the hardwood floors rather than replace them. He rented a floor sander and, along with the machine, he received a demonstration, the owner’s manual and instruction to be sure to empty the dust bag of the sander after every use. The man used the floor sander for two days without incident. On the third day, he put the floor sander in the closet and hurried out the door, late for an appointment. A few hours later a spark ignited in the still-full dust bag, catching first the bag on fire, then the floor, walls and ceiling. The customer apparently knew he was at fault because he went to the rental store and paid to replace the equipment the next day. A year and a half later, he filed suit against the rental store for the damage to his home. After months of defending the rental store, the lawsuit was dismissed with no fault found against the rental operation.
The second lawsuit revolves around the use of a linoleum stripper. Like the claimant in the above story, this man wanted to save some money and do the work himself. He went to his local rental store and rented a linoleum stripper. He, too, was given instructions, a demonstration and the owner’s manual. Once he got home, he decided to use an extension cord to extend the reach of the machine. The linoleum stripper had a ground prong, but his extension cord did not. This would not have caused the electric shock the man experienced, but the lack of ground didn’t allow the circuit to trip, which would have prevented the shock from reaching the man. Had he used the correct type of extension cord for the machine, he likely would not have been hurt. The suit was dropped when no liability was found against the rental store.
The final instance concerns the hot mist that is emitted from a wallpaper steamer. A woman was removing the wallpaper in her kitchen and rented the steamer to make her job easier. The machine was inspected just before she rented it and everything was found to be in good shape and all warning stickers were intact. While the customer was using the wallpaper steamer, she stopped working to talk to her friend. The machine did what it was supposed to do and continued to emit steam. The woman suffered from a medical condition that caused her to lose some of the feeling in her legs. She had suffered significant burns before she even realized the wand was pointing at her leg and not the wall. She filed suit, but later was forced to drop it when it was proven that the steamer worked properly and it was user error that caused her injuries.
None of the rental companies involved in these three examples were negligent in any way, yet each had to be defended, some at significant cost. The American Rental Association (ARA) and ARA Insurance continue to support litigation reform that discourages the filing of claims without merit or that are otherwise unwarranted by existing laws or basis of fact.
Mary Ann Gormly, CERP, is risk management coordinator for ARA Insurance, Kansas City, Mo. For more information, call 800-821-6580 or visit ARAinsure.com.