Morning Coffee Makes You Rich, Right?

“My sister had a case where she stubbed her toe and they gave her $50,000”. This statement or something like it perpetuates the idea that obtaining a large amount of money for a relatively minor injury occurs often and easily. The quintessential example of this is the “Hot Coffee” case.

If you haven’t read the case in law school you can read the wikipedia article on the case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants. Without all the facts, you might believe the popular myth that you can get a million dollars from spilling coffee on yourself. It’s true, she spilled the coffee on her thigh and inner leg area. It is also true that she was awarded $2.86 million in damages. That’s the extent of what most people can remember about the case.

But what really happened? Stella Liebeck had third degree burns on her legs, lost 20 pounds while in the hospital while undergoing multiple skin grafts, and initially only asked McDonalds for $20,000 to cover her medical costs of about $18,000. McDonalds offered $800. The plaintiff (Ms. Liebeck’s attorney) asked the jurors to award 2 days of coffee sales (in 1994) to Ms. Liebeck for her extensive injuries. $2.7 million.

They did! Case closed! Not really. The Defense appealed the decision and the award was reduced to about half a million. While an appeal of that decision was pending, the case settled for an undisclosed amount. Even if you think your case might be worth ‘big money’ there is always potential a judge can strike it down later on even if you win.

But judges are reasonable, right? They know how much the case is worth, right? Maybe, and most do, but this bit of news should trouble us all. A judge took a bribe to reduce an award in a negligence case. A rare event to see something like this in the news, but still concerning.

So what is the takeaway? There is no slam dunk case and you never know what a jury (or judge) is going to do. What you can do is find an attorney who knows the nuances and facts that lead to substantial awards. An attorney who is up to date on legal issues and trends will be more likely to ignore antiquated notions like the one likely told to plaintiff lawyers in Liebeck’s case that New Mexico courts had never found for a plaintiff in a products liability case. Until they gave out a 2.8 million dollar award.