Stella Case No. 88, Originally Published: 16 March 2005
Out of school for the summer, Taylor Ostergaard and Lindsey Jo Zellitti, 17 and 18 at the time, were looking for a project. One evening they decided to make some home-baked cookies to bring cheer to their neighbors. They had to skip a dance to do it, but Taylor asked her father for permission for the cookie project. He gave his permission with two conditions: the chores had to be done, and he had to get some of the cookies!
By the time the cookies were all made the sun was just dipping below the horizon, so Taylor and Lindsey rushed out to deliver them, only stopping at the houses of their Durango, Colo., neighbors where lights were on inside.
Part of the idea was to do anonymous good deeds, so they put a message on each plate. Written on a big red heart, it read: “Have a great night. Love, The T and L Club.”
One of the nine neighbors they delivered to was the Young’s. Wanita “Renea” Young, 49, was home, and a light was on in her kitchen. The teens put a plate of cookies on her porch, knocked at the door, and scampered off — they were doing anonymous good deeds, after all, so it wouldn’t work if they were seen!
Renea says she was startled to hear someone at the door at night and called out, “Who’s there?” Of course, the two gals were already gone. With no reply forthcoming, Renea says she was so terrified that she called 911. The sheriff responded and found no signs of trouble, no vandalism, no trespass — just a plate of cookies. The next day she was still suffering from such severe anxiety she thought she was having a heart attack. She checked into the emergency room, but she was not having any heart problems.
When Taylor and Lindsey found out a neighbor had been frightened by their good deed, they were horrified. Quite understandably, they chose not to go knocking at Renea’s door, so each sent her a letter of apology. Taylor’s said in part she “didn’t realize this would cause trouble for you. … I just wanted you to know that someone cared about you and your family.”
The Ostergaard and Zellitti families offered to pay Renea’s medical bills — about $900 worth — if she would sign a release saying she wouldn’t sue. An over-reaction? Not in this day and age. Renea refused to sign the release. She said that she was not satisfied with the written apologies, in large part because they weren’t delivered in person, so she filed suit in La Plata County Small Claims Court. The suit demanded $3,000 to cover her medical expenses, a motion-sensor light for her porch, lost wages, and punitive damages.
Taylor and Lindsey quickly learned an important life lesson: good deeds often don’t go unpunished.
The teens brought letters to court from other neighbors saying they liked the cookies, they found the gift a lovely surprise — and noted that they weren’t terrified by the girls’ gift. Taylor’s parents also wrote to the court. “We feel that knocking on a door and leaving cookies is a gesture of kindness,” they said, “and would not create an anxiety attack in the general public.”
Judge Doug Walker heard the case. Since the families had offered to pay Renea’s medical bills, he awarded her the $900, but no more — no motion-sensor light, no punitive damages, no lost wages, no pain and suffering.
Taylor “cried and cried” when she and Lindsey lost in court, her mother Jill says. “She felt she was being punished for doing something nice.” The teens declined to make a statement to reporters.
But Renea was happy to talk. Despite her victory in court, she was far from conciliatory. She said the girls showed “very poor judgment” and shouldn’t have been “running around” at night since “something bad could have happened to them.” (You mean, some evil Cookie Monster could sue them or something?) As for her lawsuit, she said she hopes “the girls learned a lesson.” She also appeared on CNN, claiming the girls pounded on the door so hard they damaged it.
But even with final judgment of the local court, the story was far from over. The story came out in the state’s largest newspaper, and people from all over Colorado were outraged that someone would be so mean as to sue two teens trying to do something nice for their neighbors. They had even apologized, in writing, and offered to pay her medical bills!
Scores of people offered to donate to a fund to pay the legal judgment; several offered to pay it all. The girls said if they ended up with more money than the court awarded, they’d donate it to the “Never Forgotten” scholarship fund for students from Columbine High, the Denver-area school that was the scene of the 1999 mass-murder shooting spree by two students. If donors preferred, they’d use the money for their own college educations. So much money rolled in they added other charities, including two children’s hospitals.
Within days the new twist on the story spread throughout the country. Taylor and Lindsey were invited to appear on various TV shows, from Good Morning America to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. They turned down most of the requests. “We were afraid Mr. Leno might make jokes at our neighbor’s expense,” said Lindsey’s mother, Martha. But they did appear on GMA since they “thought it might be their one shot to tell the country they’re still not afraid to do good deeds.” She stressed the two families were not upset with the Youngs or the judge.
Taylor’s mother agreed with the low public profile. “The girls don’t need to go on these shows to defend themselves,” Jill Ostergaard says. “Their best defense is the way they live their lives every day.”
Sadly, Richard Ostergaard felt it necessary to go back to court the day after the judgment: he got a restraining order against Renea’s husband, Herb Young. Herb, he said, was making harassing phone calls to them. Herb says his phone has been ringing a lot too, and that he and his wife have been getting insults and threats from “crackpots.” They claim they have been told they “are what’s wrong with society” and that they “should be found dead in a ditch.”
“I don’t believe the girls meant for this to happen,” Herb says. “But they could have prevented it from happening if they had just shut their mouths when they came out of court.”
Yet remember, the girls refused to make any statement to reporters after they lost their case, and only relented and appeared on some talk shows after Renea started talking to the media. The initial newspaper report was built from court records — and Renea’s statements to the press. Yet they complained “their side” was ignored in the press.
“All this over cookies,” Renea says, completely missing the point. She says she’s “devastated” by the reaction to her suit, and is so stressed she can’t return to her part-time job at Wal-Mart.
Let’s hope she doesn’t sue over her continuing stress. A check of court records by the Denver Post found that the cookie case wasn’t the first time the Youngs had been in court. They had sued, or been sued, at least nine times, with at least two of the cases involving restraining orders, the Post says. They were sued by a bank, a creditor, a construction company, an employee, and more — and most of the time they lost.
“Our home is like a funeral parlor,” Renea complains. “They’ve robbed us of our laughter. My spirit, my soul, is damaged.” She says she and Herb may have to move out of town.
But hey: she won.
- “Cookie Klatch Lands Girls in Court”, Denver Post, 4 February 2005.
- “Outraged Readers Say Cookie Ruling Was Half-Baked”, Denver Post, 6 February 2005.
- “Dad of Teen in Cookie Suit Gets Order Against Neighbor”, Denver Post, 7 February 2005.
- “Everyone Chipping in to Help Cookie Duo”, Denver Post, 9 February 2005.
- “Cookie Plaintiffs Lament Bitter Aftertaste, Want to Tell ‘Their Side’”, Denver Post, 11 February 2005.
- “Couple Take Lumps since Cookie Suit”, Denver Post, 17 February 2005.
Award made, as noted.
My 2021 Thoughts on the Case
This case brought the biggest number of “cover this!” suggestions from readers EVER. Hundreds and hundreds submitted it on the “Submit a Case” form on the web site — despite the fact that that very page pleaded for readers to not submit it as I was already well aware of it. I was about to put it in “blink” tags to make it stop when it finally settled down.
I needed to wait to write it up because I wanted the back and forth arguments in the newspaper to end so I’d have the “final” story.
I roll my eyes today at Renea’s claim on CNN that “the girls pounded on the door so hard they damaged it.” Riiiiiiiiiight! She thought to sue for a motion-sensor light and lost wages, but didn’t claim compensation for actual damage?
Let’s hope they really did move far, far away.
Their case made #2 in the 2005 Stella Awards.
Comments and Letters
First, my own comment on the 2004 finals: I find it interesting that there are more examples of corporate abuse of the civil courts this year. And it’s not just corporations suing each other, it’s also them suing individuals.
How many “tort reform” proposals have you seen that addresses that?
As I’ve often said, “tort reform” is a good idea, but only if is systemic in nature; the “band-aid” approach most “reform” groups tout won’t solve the whole problem.
Another thing I’ve noticed: a lot of women are suing, as well as those filed by the dead man’s “family” (generally code for “the widow, and maybe the kids will get something when they turn 18”).
The previous case, about the 94-year-old woman who won the lottery, brought many letters.
Several readers asked if she really wanted the full amount, all $5.6 million, or did she more reasonably just ask for the “present value” of the prize? Indeed my source, the Boston Globe, reported: “she wants the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission to cut her a check immediately for the full $5.6 million, minus taxes.”
And obviously that would be a disaster for the lottery. The “present value” of a 20-year $5.6 million annuity is certainly nowhere near $5.6 million. If forced to pay that now, the lottery would almost certainly be bankrupted, if not by this payout then by the line-up of previous winners who would want to cash in on such a ruling.
Why is it reasonable to change the rules for anyone? She knew (or “should have known,” as lawyers like to say) what the rules were when she bought the ticket. After all: that particular rule was printed on the ticket!
Plus, she had other alternatives.
Steve in Virginia was one of many who pointed out: “Any number of financial institutions could legally arrange to give her a lump sum now in exchange for the stream of payments. A good financial advisor could help her find an honest and legitimate firm to do business with. She could also live high-on-the-hog by obtaining credit from any number of lenders who would be happy to extend it to her using the lottery winnings as collateral. The fact that her lawyer did not give her this advice him/herself would be surprising …if I hadn’t been reading your newsletter long enough to know better.”
Jim, an attorney in Pennsylvania: “The State of Massachusetts would have a very good likelihood of making the payments as agreed. If the woman assigns the payments to the lender, payment is a virtual certainty. Most lenders would jump at the chance to make a loan that good. As attorneys, our code requires us to be ‘zealous advocates of our client’s best interests’. That means we must explore other avenues. Here, the other avenues were available.”
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