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One of the hallmarks of the American legal system is that if you’ve been injured, you have the right to have your grievance heard in a court of law. Of course, one of the downsides of the American legal system is that if you haven’t been injured, you also have the right to have your grievance heard in a court of law, but not every newsroom or TV show has a legal consultant on hand, so they often leave out key details and nuances about particular cases. And they have a hard time determining which ones are which, and occasionally these sensational headlines that focus only on the dollar amounts can sometimes give people the wrong impression about the merits of the case. So today we’re gonna discuss some of the most frivolous lawsuits that actually might not have been so frivolous after all.
(bright music) And, of course, if we’re discussing lawsuits that have been labeled as frivolous, but actually might have a kernel of truth to them, there is no better place to start than the err frivolous lawsuit. That is, of course, the McDonald’s coffee cup lawsuit. So let’s start this discussion with the story of Stella Liebeck, the woman who spilled scolding hot McDonald’s coffee on her lap and sued the restaurant. Now, here are the facts, as you might not have ever heard them before. On February 27th, 1992, Stella Liebeck, then a 79 year old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a cup of McDonald’s coffee at the drive-through window.
Liebeck was sitting in the passenger seat of her parked car as her grandson stepped inside to grab some cream and sugar.
Since the car had no cup holders, Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled to open the lid. She then spilled the entire cup of scalding hot coffee on her lap, causing third degree burns on her thighs, buttocks and groin.
– All I remember is trying to get out of the car. I screamed, not realizing I was burned that bad.
I knew I was in terrible pain.
– She was actually hospitalized for eight days and underwent skin grafting. Liebeck was permanently disfigured after the incident and was partially disabled for two years. Some of the trial exhibits that were used in this particular case, shine the light on just how devastating her injuries were.
Now, of course, Liebeck sued McDonald’s, accusing the company of gross negligence and for selling coffee, that was, quote, unreasonably dangerous and defectively manufactured.
At trial, it was uncovered that McDonald’s had been serving coffee between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, much higher than the industry norm and which expert testimony revealed could cause third degree burns in as little as two seconds. Other internal documents obtained from McDonald’s showed that between 1982 and 1992, the company had received more than 700 reports of people being burned by their coffee with McDonald’s having settled claims from said injuries for more than $500,000.
In this case, the jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, but reduced that by 20% to $160,000 to account for her own negligence in spilling on herself. The jury also awarded her $2.7 million based on her attorney’s suggestion to penalize McDonald’s for two days worth of coffee revenue, or about $1.
35 million per day. The punitive damage awards was by the discovery that 700 people had been previously burned by hot coffee, demonstrating that the company had actual knowledge that the coffee was being served too hot, but failed to remedy the issue.
The judge reduced the punitive damages to three times compensatory damages, or 480,000, for a total judgment of $640,000. This decision was appealed, but the parties settled for an undisclosed amount of probably less than $600,000. Now, if prior to watching this video, you thought that this was a case about a clumsy, greedy woman, trying to get rich quick over her own mistake, you’re probably not alone.
Thanks to a perfect storm of short news reports and outraged political conservatives who use the case to advocate for sharp limits on tort lawsuits, so-called tort reform, the general public was really misinformed about the nature of this case.
– [Commentator] She spilled hot coffee on her lap while sitting in our car and claimed it was too hot. – [Narrator] Every day we hear about another outrageous lawsuit. – As a result, the general public wrongly believed Liebeck spilled coffee while she was driving her car. She was, in fact, just a passenger in a parked car, and that the injuries were minor.
She was, in fact, permanently disfigured.
Late night comedians in sitcoms have also heavily parodied the case, contributing to the false image of this particular lawsuit.
– You get me one coffee drinker on that jury, you’re gonna walk out of there a rich man. (audience laughs) – And despite what you might’ve heard, Liebeck did not Sue McDonald’s for millions of dollars. In fact, she didn’t want to sue them at all.
She originally requested only $20,000 to cover her medical bills and lost income. McDonald’s responded with an insulting $800 settlement offer. Liebeck’s counsel had also offered settlement amounts ranging from 90,000 to $300,000, but McDonald’s also rejected all pre-trial efforts to settle the case.
– I was not in it for the money. I was in it, because I want them to bring the temperature down, so that other people will not go through the same thing I did.
– The most that Liebeck asked for at trial was $800,000, and it was the jury that awarded her $2.7 million, which she never actually received, because the punitive damages were chopped. And her critics claim that Liebeck shouldn’t recover anything, because she spilled coffee on herself.
But the jury did, in fact, find Liebeck partially responsible for her injury, applying the principles of comparative negligence in which liability is a portion based on how much it fault each party was for the injury. The jury found that Beck was 20% at fault for her injury, and her compensatory damages were reduced by 20%, the amount that she was at fault, but in the past decade, the Liebeck case has received renewed attention in the form of the 2011 documentary “Hot coffee” and a 2013 retro report video from the New York Times.
But the false perception about this case continues to this very day.
– That Stella Liebeck needed to defend a reputation is the saddest piece of this whole story.
– But now what do you think, completely frivolous or is there some merit to it? Let’s move on to the next case about the famous man who was trapped in a phone booth and hit by a drunk driver, but sues the phone company.
As you might recall, the 1980s were a unique period in our history when people wore parachute pants, and MTV actually played music.
That was also when the tort reform movement, which claimed America was under assault by unscrupulous lawyers, bringing frivolous lawsuits first began to pick up steam. And few were as instrumental in cementing this image of out of control lawsuits into the American consciousness than president Ronald Reagan, but more on that in a moment, because in 1974, Charles Bigbee following a night shift as a custodian in the city of Los Angeles used a public telephone booth to call his girlfriend. As the two spoke, Bigbee saw a car driving erratically towards him, but while bystanders and a man in a neighboring phone booth were able to get out of the way, Bigbee’s phone booth jammed, trapping him inside for the near fatal collusion.
And this is how president Reagan described that case in a speech to the American Tort Reform Association. – Now it’s no surprise that the injured man sued, but you might be startled to hear whom he sued, the telephone company and associated firms.
– Reagan claimed that this loony case was an example of a broken tort system. Sounds pretty bad, right? Well, it might surprise you to know that Reagan left out a few key details about this case, which would not be the first time.
– A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages.
My heart and my best intention still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.
– So here’s what president Reagan actually left out. First, two years prior, a driver had destroyed a phone booth that had been placed in the identical spot. Now the phone company replaced the booth, but didn’t include a guard rail or a warning, and the replacement phone booth had a malfunctioning door. Accordingly, the phone company was on notice that the placement of the phone booth might be dangerous, and didn’t take what most would consider reasonable measures to remedy the risk.
And contrary to Reagan’s implication, Bigbee did not merely sue the phone company. Bigbee sued everyone he felt had contributed to his accident including the alleged drunk driver, as well as the horse racing track he believed served the alcohol to the driver. And this is typical of lawsuits where you name all of the parties that you believe are responsible and let the facts take the jury where they will. And the jury can apportion faults among all of the different defendants.
And, finally, Reagan left out just how badly Bigbee was injured.
Bigbee had to have his right leg amputated four inches above the knee. And while his left leg required skin grafts to be saved, Bigbee would eventually require an artificial leg, a wheelchair, and a knee brace for his left leg. And because insurance would not cover everything, Bigbee’s unpaid medical bills amounted to more than $1,500, 20% of his yearly janitor salary of 7,300. Bigbee was physically unable to work and became severely depressed and was hounded by collections agents. But in the end, frivolous or not, Bigbee settled for a mere $25,000 with the alleged drunk driver paying half and the racetrack vendors paying the other half.
But since this is America, and we love our cars almost as much as we love our guns, let’s talk about the supposedly frivolous case of the man who won $1.25 million after stealing his own car.
This is a case that you just read the headlines, and it seems completely insane. Man steals his own car and wins $1.25 million.
Well, reading below the headline reveals a harrowing story of discrimination and police brutality. In 2015, Dr. Lawrence Crosby, then a 25 year old doctoral student, was fixing a loose molding on his car. A woman witnessed Crosby, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt at the time, fixing his car and assumed that he was trying to steal the car.
She proceeded to follow him in her car from his home to the university before she called them police to report that she saw a black man in a hoodie steal a car.
In the arrest video, Crosby can be heard telling the police that he was trying to fix his own car. The police dash cam video shows Crosby getting out of his car with both hands up, holding a cell phone in one hand.
Officers approached Crosby with their guns drawn. Police then ordered Crosby to get down on the ground. And when he did not immediately comply, a group of officers rushed Crosby and threw him to the ground.
Crosby said that the officers piled on top of him, proceeded to hit and knee him. And as an officer screamed to stop resisting, Crosby, who had his own dash cam video, can be heard saying, “I’m cooperating, Sir, you’re on video.” That’s an FYI. Officer’s quickly learned that Crosby owned the car and was in good standing. And even though Crosby had not actually stolen a car that belonged to him, Crosby was still arrested and charged with disobeying officers and resisting police.
To repeat, even though Crosby was cleared by the police for stealing his own car, the police still arrested him for resisting arrest for a crime that he, in fact, did not commit.
A judge later throughout the charges, and the following year, Crosby filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Evanston, Illinois, citing false arrest and excessive force. In the suit, Crosby demanded that the city and the arresting officers pay at least $50,000 for compensatory and punitive damages, fees, costs, and such other relief. In January 2019, the city council voted eight to zero to settle with now Dr. Crosby for $1.
2 million. After the settlement, Dr. Crosby stated that he was working on mending his reputation, having found himself often defending his actions and explaining what happened that night once the case became a now original headline. And it makes sense. If you just read the headlines, one could have gotten the wrong idea about what happened, but moving forward, Dr.
Crosby said that his first steps post settlement would be holding an implicit bias forum for students and faculty at Stanford University where he earned his undergraduate degree. Okay, fine.
You’ve probably heard about police brutality before, so that one might not be that surprising, but have you heard the one about the aunt who sues her 12 year old nephew for $127,000, because he hugged her? Well, there’s an old saying that when it comes to family, blood is thicker than water, but in the rough and tumble world of litigation, it’s not that uncommon for aggrieved relatives to sue one another for personal injury. But what is uncommon is when the plaintiff is an adult suing a very small child.
And so goes to the story of Jennifer Connell, the woman dubbed the aunt from hell, who sued her nephew for $127,000 over a birthday hug gone wrong. You probably heard some of the facts of this case when the story first went viral. In 2011 an Upper East Side aunt attended a birthday party for her then eight year old nephew, Sean. The precocious lad was riding around on his brand new bicycle, his first two wheeler, when he saw his beloved aunt.
And when he spotted her, Sean, who was technically the son of a cousin, but refers to Connell as his aunt, dropped his new bike on the ground and ran to his aunt at full speed.
He leapt into her arms exclaiming, “Auntie Jen, I love you.” Auntie Jen was caught off guard by the leaping nephew, causing her to fall and break her wrist. Two years later, she sued young Sean for hundred $127,000. Now, if this sounds ridiculous, you would not be alone in thinking so. When word of the case broke out, people blasted the aunt who was a human resources manager on social media, dubbing her the aunt from hell and the worst aunt ever, and Auntie Christ.
And the news media also piled on, portraying her as a greedy money grubber, bringing an inherently ridiculous case against a child. The trial didn’t help her image. Auntie Jen testified that her injury harmed her social life by making her unable to hold the plate of hors d’oeuvres. She further testified, quote, “I live in Manhattan in a third-floor walk-up, “so it’s been very difficult. “And we all know how crowded it is in Manhattan.
” She argued that young Sean had been negligent when he jumped into her arms and broke her wrist, and, therefore, that she was entitled to $127,000 as compensation for her medical bills. Now, the jury disagreed deciding that she deserved zero compensation after a mere 20 minutes of deliberation. Now this seems like a textbook case of overzealous litigation. Well, here’s the rub, and hold on, because it involves both legal nuance and insurance law. I know everyone keeps asking for more insurance law and extremely nuanced legal points, so, you know, here you go.
Under Connecticut law, she literally had no choice. Auntie Jen first submitted her claim to the homeowners liability insurer of Sean’s parents. In response, the insurer offered her a mere one dollar settlement offer. And when Auntie Jen wanted to litigate her damages claim, her attorney’s informed her of an inconvenient fact about Connecticut law. It’s illegal to name a homeowner’s insurance policy as a defendant in a personal injury case.
The only way she could get a homeowner’s insurance policy to pay her medical bills was to get a judgment against the person who injured her.
So, regardless of how silly it might’ve appeared to outside observers, Auntie Jen was required as a matter of law to sue the party that she thought injured her, which in this case means suing a young child. Auntie Jen did not win her case, but just because a party loses a lawsuit doesn’t mean that it was filed without any legal basis. A minor can be held liable for injuring another under Connecticut law. In 1960, the Connecticut Supreme Court had held that a 17 year old girl could be held liable to her minor siblings arising out of her negligence in a car accident.
And an outlining the legal standard of care for minors who injure third parties, the Connecticut Supreme Court wrote, “A minor is liable for injuries negligently inflicted “by him upon another.
“It is true that in determining the negligence of a minor, “the law applies to him a standard of conduct, “which will vary according to his age, “judgment and experience, “but the law does not grant him a complete immunity “from liability for his torts, even in negligence.” So this lowered standard of care for minors is consistent with what happened in Auntie Jen’s case. At trial, the judge instructed the jury that had Sean been 18 at the time of the incident, he probably would have been expected to act like a reasonable adult. However, because the boy was only eight years old at the time, the jury had to consider only what a prudent eight year old boy would have done.
And on that basis, the jury held that young Sean was not liable for any damages. After the case, Ms. Connell appeared on the Today Show with her then twelve year old nephew to clear the air. She explained that her relationship remained sound and she deeply regretted that Connecticut law forced her to take this route.
– I was informed that Sean had to be named. I was never comfortable with that.
– As for young Sean, he stands by his aunt.
– Sean, what do you want people to know about your aunt?
– That I love her and she loves me.
– Either way, this will probably make for some awkward family reunions in the future.
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