Hot Coffee: Don’t Let Misconceptions Keep You From Pursuing a Personal Injury Claim

“I don’t want to be one of those people who gets injured and acts like she hit the lottery.”

“I’ll be fine, and I’m not looking to get rich.”

“I don’t want to milk the system.”

“I don’t want to hire a personal injury attorney – they’re just going to demand a huge settlement.”  

These are common sentiments often expressed by people who have been in accidents.  Unfortunately, these sentiments are often based on misconceptions regarding personal injury law.  And because of these misconceptions, people are often reluctant to even speak with a personal injury attorney.  

The press tends to sensationalize the extraordinary cases, where a multi-million dollar award for punitive damages tends to overshadow the underlying facts or the legal issues that were at stake. Meanwhile, you don’t hear about the thousands of cases that are resolved every day for much more modest amounts.  

The Most Famous Case

Everyone has heard about the “McDonald’s Hot Coffee” case, Liebeck v. McDonald’s. Most people can tell you that the plaintiff was awarded over a million dollars after being scalded by hot coffee. Characterized as excessive and even frivolous, the lawsuit and its jury award sparked a nationwide debate over reforming personal injury law. After all, why should someone get millions of dollars after burning herself with a cup of coffee?  

The facts of the case paint a different picture.  Stella Liebeck was a 79 year-old-woman at the time. The coffee was purchased at the drive-through – Ms. Liebeck’s daughter was driving, and she was the passenger. They parked the car so that Ms. Liebeck could add cream and sugar to the coffee.  When she removed the lid, she spilled it on her lap. As a result, Ms. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns to her pelvic region.

As you may be aware, third-degree burns are the most serious kinds of burns you can suffer – it destroys both the outer layer of the skin and the layer beneath. As a result of the burn, Ms. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days in order to undergo skin grafting. She subsequently required two years of follow-up medical treatment, as she was partially disabled as a result of the incident.  

The jury awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages, taking into account her own negligence in spilling the coffee on herself. The jury then awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, apparently based on evidence that McDonald’s had received more than 700 reports of customers burned by coffee and having settled some of those claims for as much as $500,000.00.  The trial judge then reduced the punitive damages to $640,000.00, and the parties subsequently settled before arguing their appeal.

The facts present a very different story, don’t they?  While you may agree that the $2.7 million in punitive damages was excessive, it’s hard to argue that Ms. Liebeck didn’t deserve compensation for her very serious injuries. In addition, it appears that McDonald’s was well aware of the potential danger, but didn’t take any action to prevent future incidents.  

Contact an Atlanta Personal Injury Attorney

Very few personal injury cases result in the national press, and you shouldn’t let sensationalized cases keep you from taking action to protect yourself.  Your future and your health are at stake. The attorneys at Slappey & Sadd help the people who need it most. If you’ve been injured and would like a free consultation, call us at 404-255-6677 or send us an email today.  

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