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The Multi-Million Dollar Lawsuit Lie

Thursday, November 30, 2017

You may have seen the news story and been angered: the lady who spills coffee on her lap and sues McDonalds for millions of dollars.  It sounds absolutely ridiculous, and the news media loved reporting on it.  But the media did not tell the whole story, instead sensationalizing details to further its narrative of runaway suits filed by greedy people and their lawyers.  As it turns out, there were many facts about the case that the media ignored, one of many ways they lie to the public about the legal system.

Ad Damnum Exaggeration

Of course, it sells newspapers to report on a $1,000,000 lawsuit, particularly when the injury seems minor.  However, it is important to understand that the amount sued for (called the ad damnum) is often much higher than the actual claim for a very good reason.  In many states, including Virginia, the plaintiff cannot recover more than the amount sued for, and frequently the value of the claim is not fully known when the lawyer files suit.  For instance, $10,000 in medical bills at the time suit is filed might easily increase to $100,000 due to an unexpected surgery.  If the lawyer only sued for $10,000, the client could not recover all of their medical bills.  For this reason, all good lawyers recommend that the ad damnum amount be far more than they could ever expect to recover for their client.  The amount the plaintiff asks for at trial is the real amount of the claim.

Misleading on Injuries

Everyone occasionally burns their tongue on a drink that is a bit too hot.  Based on that experience, a burn from coffee sounds like such a minor injury that no medical treatment would be necessary.  The media used that assumption in the McDonalds coffee cup case to make the claim seem even more ridiculous – a suit for millions of dollars when the plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, only had a burn from coffee.  But the plaintiff’s injuries were unquestionably serious:  she had 3rd degree burns over 16 percent of her body, including her inner thighs and genitals.  In places, the scalding coffee burned Ms. Liebeck’s skin away to the layers of muscle and fatty tissue.  She spent 8 days in the hospital, receiving numerous skin grafts, and never completely recovered.

The Story Doesn’t End Where You Think It Does

It may surprise you to learn that Ms. Liebeck did not actually receive $2.7 million, the amount of the original jury verdict so gleefully reported by the media.  In fact, the judge later reduced her jury award to $600,000 through a process called remittitur.  While the matter was being appealed, the parties settled out of court, likely for far less than $600,000.  Our system has layers of review built in to minimize the risk of outlier decisions, but the media often reports the decisions that make for a good sound bite while never following up to let you know how the case actually ended.

Our legal system is not perfect, but overall does a decent job of producing reasonable outcomes.  If you’re looking to get rich for nothing, a lawsuit is not usually the way.  If you simply want fair and reasonable compensation for your injuries, give us a call.

Frank A. Wright, Jr.