A frivolous lawsuit is a lawsuit that has a negligible to non-existent chance of being won, often filed with the intent to harass, intimidate, or annoy the defendant.  While it’s never wise (or productive) to stir up frivolous litigation, there are also cases where the personal injury victim should stand his or her ground and demand the opportunity to pursue fair compensation – even if insurers or defense attorneys try to discourage that attitude.  

The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: Frivolous or Justified?

Big business and mega funded insurance lobbyists have spent millions to spread the idea that many personal injury lawsuits are frivolous.  While it’s true that frivolous lawsuits occasionally arise, the vast majority of personal injury victims are sincerely that – victims – who are simply trying to recover adequate compensation for the often tremendous costs associated with medical care in the U.S.  (Did you know that, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield, the average cost of a hip replacement, which is sometimes necessary after a slip and fall accident, is over $30,000 in Boston, and nearly $74,000 in New York City?  Or that the average cost of a knee replacement can be as high as nearly $70,000?)

Whether it’s for the sake of winning a trial or getting an exciting story, defense attorneys and even journalists can be quick to exploit this common misconception about personal injury litigation, sometimes instilling ideas that the plaintiff is being greedy or extravagant.  

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The most notorious example is probably Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restraurants, better known as the McDonald’s hot coffee case.  This case was widely misconceived as a frivolous lawsuit by people who didn’t know the facts of the case. This included that McDonalds had received more than 700 complaints by people who were scalded by coffee burns in the ten years before this incident but never lowered the temperature of its coffee. And that 79-year-old plaintiff Stella Liebeck spent eight days in the hospital, needed skin grafts, and required two additional years of medical care after spilling scalding McDonald’s coffee into her lap. Liebeck was permanently disfigured by the accident.

Despite these facts, ABC News derided Liebeck’s case as “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.”  Even today, controversy over the merits of Liebeck’s case continues to linger.

Defense Attorneys Refuse to Settle, Jury Awards Damages to Plaintiff

After being severely injured by a defective product, Liebeck attempted to settle with McDonald’s – the largest fast-food franchise in the world – for $20,000, an amount equivalent to just under $34,000 in 1992 when her injury occurred.  However, attorneys for McDonald’s refused to raise their offer beyond $800 – equivalent today to just $1,353.51 – an amount barely sufficient to cover even a tenth of Leibeck’s $10,500 in already-incurred medical expenses.  

In response, Liebeck’s attorney filed a lawsuit alleging gross negligence, hoping to settle for $90,000.  This and subsequent offers to settle were all refused by McDonald’s, leading to a trial which culminated in the jury, despite finding Liebeck 20% at fault for her injuries, awarding $200,000 in compensatory damages (of which Leibeck saw $160,000 due to the 20% reduction).  The jury also awarded an additional $2.7 million in punitive damages, which were reduced by the judge to $480,000, bringing Leibeck’s total award to $640,000, equivalent to about $1,082,645 in 1992.

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Decades have passed since Liebeck, but the case still imparts two valuable lessons to injury victims who are considering litigation today:

  • If you were genuinely seriously injured by another party’s careless or unlawful actions, you have a right to pursue fair compensation for your medical bills and losses of income.  If you know for a fact that you were harmed because of another party’s misconduct, there may be powerful evidence to prove that the defendant was responsible for your injuries.  Don’t assume your case is “unwinnable” until you consult with an experienced attorney.
  • Resist the pressure to accept the very first offer made by a business or insurance company.  These offers are almost always held intentionally low, and as such, often prove insufficient to meet the injury victim’s medical expenses.  Even the accident victims themselves don’t always realize the extent of their injuries – or the extent of the associated costs.  Compensation can help to pay not only for medical expenses you’ve already incurred, but also for future expenses, which are often considerable.  In Liebeck’s case, the anticipated medical expenses, totaling about $2,500, cost nearly a full quarter of the expenses she had already accumulated.

If you or one of your loved ones was injured in an accident in Pennsylvania, you should talk to an experienced Philadelphia personal injury lawyer like Brent Wieand about the possible paths toward getting compensated for your losses.  To talk about your options in a free and confidential case evaluation, call Brent at (800) 481-5206 today.

***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes.  It is not legal advice and should not be used as legal advice.  Brent’s law office is located in Philadelphia, PA, and serves clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.***