Mac and cheese giant sued by consumer


“Americans will sue each other at the slightest provocation.”

— Newsweek, December 2003

“We are striving for something better. We want corporate America to be straightforward and truthful in advertising their products.”

— Will Wright, attorney for Amanda Ramirez

Conversations and proposals about “tort reform” — changes to the way that civil lawsuits for damages and injuries are brought — are frequent and longstanding. They are usually accompanied by stories about “frivolous” lawsuits, often communicated by people who either don’t have all the facts or who have a specific interest in the outcome. That’s not to say that there aren’t frivolous lawsuits, but rather that the scope is the subject of honest debate.

Among the most common examples raised in those discussions is what is usually referred to as the “McDonald’s coffee case” — a lawsuit filed three decades ago by Stella Liebeck.

Stella was 79 when the coffee incident happened in 1992 and had third degree burns on 6% of her body. What is almost never reported about that case is that McDonald’s had more than 700 prior incidents involving coffee injuries, that the jury found Liebeck partially responsible and reduced her award accordingly, and that she had tried to settle the case for $20,000 — an amount that would have covered the cost of her skin grafts.

Despite those facts, Stella’s name became attached to the Stella Awards, a recognition of frivolous lawsuits that ran from 2002 to 2007 and produced a book. But even the Stella Awards note prominently on their website that Stella’s case is badly misrepresented, calling the coverage of her case “grossly unfair.” (And yet, they continue to use her name as a symbol of lawsuit abuse.)

The cases included on the Stella Awards official website have been researched, but those that purport to come from them in various emails or internet posts that you may see are almost universally fake. The woman who sued a department store after tripping over a toddler? Entirely made up. The man who sued when his neighbor’s dog who bit him because he was shooting it with a pellet gun? He never existed (nor did the dog). The man who was awarded tens of thousands of dollars after his hand was run over by a tire he was stealing the hub cap off of? No such lawsuit was ever filed.

Many others are based on reality but have their facts contorted. There is the story of the woman who sued a school district for lack of supervision after they suspended her daughter for giving out sexual favors on a school bus. The true story is that the girl was sexually assaulted and the mother only sued after the school district suspended her again for failing to report the sexual assault.

Then there’s the case of the man who sued a ladder manufacturer after he set his ladder up in some frozen manure and then the ladder slipped when the temperature warmed up. Sounds ridiculous until you learn that the ladder didn’t slip, it broke — with 550 fewer pounds of weight on it than it was rated for. Frozen manure doesn’t snap a ladder in half.

This week, news spread of a Florida woman named Amanda Ramirez who brought a class-action lawsuit against Kraft, alleging that they broke consumer advertising laws when they sold their Velveeta Shells ‘n Cheese with a label that proclaimed the product could be prepared in just three-and-a-half minutes. That is only the microwaving time, Ms. Ramirez alleges, and the actual time to prepare the product to be ready to eat is much longer.

One of her attorneys, Spencer Sheehan, is a prolific filer of such lawsuits, bringing them at the rate of almost three per week, according to NPR. Those lawsuits frequently end with an undisclosed out-of-court settlement. Another of her lawyers, Will Wright, was more realistic in media interviews, when he said that Kraft was likely to file a motion to dismiss and then they would see how the judge “feels about our case.” He defended the filing by noting that consumers deserve not to be misled by false claims on product packaging.

Whether you think that the lawsuit is completely frivolous, or whether you think that Kraft should be more honest, we’ll likely know the outcome of the case sometime in 2023. In the mean time, know that your Velveeta Shells ‘n Cheese is going to take a bit more than just three-and-a-half minutes.

By David Hejmanowski

Case Study

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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