On October 4, 2018, a mother in Madras, Oregon—a rural area several hours southeast of Portland—filed a lawsuit on behalf of her underage daughter alleging that a McDonald’s employee negligently spilled a cup of boiling hot water onto the girl. The then 14-year-old suffered second degree “partial thickness burns” on her lower body, a type of burn known to cause intense scarring and blistering by “searing straight through the upper layer of skin and into the lower.” The mother and daughter are now suing the fast food franchise for $1.56 million. Does this sound like a meaningful and worthy lawsuit, or just another example of “frivolous” litigation?
This case might call to mind one of the more infamous cases in U.S. history; Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants—often referred to as “the hot coffee lawsuit.” In 1994, a woman named Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s after she spilled hot coffee on herself and was severely burned. One major news outlet has referred to the case as “the poster child of excessive lawsuits,” yet most people don’t realized that Ms. Liebeck actually sustained third-degree burns when the hot liquid burned through her muscle and fat, causing her to spend eight days in the hospital receiving treatment and skin grafts. Because of Liebeck’s lawsuit, it was revealed that McDonald’s keeps their hot beverages at 180 degrees Fahrenheit, which is well above the temperature that can cause serious burns and much hotter than the temperature at which most establishments serve coffee.
So are such cases where individuals are caused great amounts of undue pain and permanent scarring to be thought of as “frivolous”? Is this why some think that Americans file too many lawsuits; that we are “obsessed” with tort cases? The problem is, such statements don’t hold up to scrutiny. According to recent data, “tort cases represent only 4.4 percent of all civil caseloads” and the number of such cases is actually declining. Instead, it might stand to reason that some entities are spreading the myth of frivolous lawsuits to protect their own interests, such as insurance companies and large corporations. In fact, this is a practice that’s been perpetrated for decades across numerous industries—incidents of which you can learn about by viewing this short video.
Understandably, some people view the pursuit of financial restitution as unpalatable. But one must realize that it’s the only form of even-playing-field compensation that we have. Our civil justice system was built on this concept. While a plaintiff might suffer pain, paralyzation or disfigurement, the experience must be converted into a currency amount that is deemed appropriate compensation by a jury on a case-by-case basis.
Remember, there is nothing frivolous about protecting people’s lives.
Both an Emory School of Law graduate and MBA graduate of Goizueta Business School at Emory, Chris Nace focuses his practice on areas of medical malpractice, drug and product liability, motor vehicle accidents, wrongful death, employment discrimination and other negligence and personal injury matters.