Know The Facts

February 18, 2010

Time for Tort Reform?

To summarize first here are the initial facts as newspapers printed the story. An elderly woman was given a hot cup of coffee that dropped into her lap. She claimed she had been injured by the hot coffee and was given an award by a jury that totaled in the millions. The media intimated the award was outrageous for just spilt coffee, than had talking heads continue the story by making fun of the victim as well. But there’s far more to the story than that.

It turns out the coffee was scalding hot, beyond that of the ordinary hot cup of coffee. The coffee poured into the woman’s lap, and as a result of severe burns, she was unale to walk and had to use a wheelchair for mobility. She had severe pain as well. According to the details spelled out in the case in legal archives, Stella Liebeck, age 79 at the time, was severely burned as a result of the hot coffee spill. She wasn’t dirving at the time, just attempting to remove the plastic lid from the cup. Her sweatpants absorbed the coffee, holding most of the scalding coffee close to the skin. An examination by a vascular surgeon determined Liebeck had full thickness, or third-degree burns, over 6% of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days for treatment, including skin grafting.

Liebeck asked McDonalds to pay her medical bills, attempting to settle her claim for $20,000. McDonalds refused, citing other cases of people who had been burned by the coffee. In other words, they knew the coffee was too hot, but used this knowledge as part of a defense, that folks recover; and it isn’t so bad. McDonalds had said their coffee was at 185 degrees, and people wanted it like that.

The case was appealed, and as a result took some time to resolve. The initial jury award was $200,000 in compensatory damages, reduced by 20% because Liebeck was found 20% responsible for what happened. The jury also gave an award of $2.7 million in punitive damages. That amount equals two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales, according to calculations of coffee sales by this large fast-food restaurant chain. A trial court eventually reduced punitive damages to $480,000, which was three times the compensatory damages given at the time of the first jury trial. This followed the judge calling McDonald’s conduct “reckless, callous and willful.”

What many people don’t know, or fail to understand, is that plaintiff attorneys don’t usually win their cases nor are most of those cases frivolous.

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