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Verify! Verify! Verify!

Journalists are a cynical lot. In fact, the first rule of good reporting is "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

So, when my email inbox started overflowing with forwards of "The Stella Awards" for outrageous lawsuit awards, my nose for news began to twitch.

"Stella" refers to Stella Liebeck, who the email claims won a $2.9 million lawsuit in 1992 against McDonald's for third-degree burns suffered while she drove with a cup of their coffee between her legs.

Well, that's sort of true, but just a few details are wrong:

First, the $2.9 million award was reduced to $480,000. Liebeck had only asked for $20,000 to cover her eight days in the hospital and multiple skin grafts. McDonald's rejected this offer and insisted on the trial, where punitive damages for "blatant misconduct " were also awarded by the jury.

Second, rather than revolving around Stella's admittedly "reckless" behavior, lawyers found that McDonald's kept it's coffee at 180-190 degrees, which the fast-food franchise admitted was nearly 50 degrees hotter than is "fit for human consumption" and it could burn through all layers of skin in a matter of seconds. The trial also revealed that McDonald's knew that its coffee had previously burned more than 700 people, but refused to lower the temperature of its brew.

And third, Liebeck was not driving. She was a passenger in her grandson's car. And the car was not moving when the accident occurred.

Okay, some minor details are wrong. But let's exam this year's winner of the "Stella Award" and I quote:

    Mr. Merv Grazinksi of Oklahoma City. In November 2000, Mr. Grazinski purchased a brand new 32 foot Winnebago motor home. On his first trip home, having joined the freeway, he set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the drivers seat to go into the back and make himself a cup of coffee. Not surprisingly, the Winnie left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Mr. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising him in the handbook that he could not actually do this. He was awarded $1,750,000 plus a new Winnebago. (Winnebago actually changed their handbooks after this court case, just in case there are any other complete morons buying their vehicles)."

According to Snopes.com, "all of [ten] entries in the list are fabrications; a search for news stories about each of these cases failed to turn up anything, as did a search for each law case."

Mary Mikkelson, who researches fulltime for the site which "debunks urban legends," couldn't even verify the sender of the list, Mary R. Hogelmen, Esq. of the Law Offices of Hogelmen, Hogelmen, and Thomas in Dayton, Ohio. She and the firm don't exist!

So, if your mother says she loves you, check it out. But don't stop there. Cynthia Wang, of People magazine warns, "Make sure it's your mother!" (With extra-terrestrials claiming to have cloned the first human, that's probably a good idea!)

But what if Snopes.com is itself a complete hoax to undermine the credibility of email forwards?!

Here's how you can be your own investigative journalist:

1. Run a search on www.google.com for information to collaborate or discredit the alleged facts.

I discovered that Snopes.com is named after a family of scoundrels in William Faulkner novels. The popular Web site has been featured in numerous newspapers such as USAToday. The site also provides numerous collaborating sources with links so you can check out its claims for yourself.

Mary Hammel Mikkelson is apparently an alumnus from Harvard University and lives in Agura Hills, CA. Her husband David works fulltime as a programmer for an HMO.

And, the only references to the alleged "Stella" cases were found in, surprise, sites reprinting "The Stella Awards."

2. Find out if the original sender of the email even exists

I searched www.anywho.com and www.switchboard.com, but the Mikkelson's must have unlisted phone numbers (or have returned to the mother ship!).

Undaunted, I went to http://phpwhois.org to find out who owns the www.Snopes.com domain. It's registered by David Mikkelson and owned by San Fernando Valley Folklore Society, 7841 Reseda Blvd., #222, Reseda, CA 91335.

Wanting to be sure the folklore society actually exists, I discovered that it's recognized as a reference source by such schools as Purdue University, University of California Berkeley, University of Memphis, and Western Washington University.

3. Check out www.snopes.com or www.urbanlegends.about.com

Or better yet, forward this to everyone on your email list. But first check out www.jameswatkins.com to make sure I'm not just an urban legend. And, remember, if your mother says she loves you . . . she may not be your mother!

Copyright © 2003 James N. Watkins

Related sites:
Alien lizards rule world . . . and other conspiracy theories

The truth about urban legends


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