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Do you remember the McDonald's coffee lawsuit, now decades old? In that 1994 case, a woman was scalded by a hot cup of coffee while in her car and was awarded nearly $3 million after a jury trial.
That case has helped to fuel the myth that any injury can get you millions in a personal injury or product liability lawsuit -- but it's a myth. Let's consider the details of that case and the legal realities.
If a plaintiff can show a defendant owed her a duty of care and that breach of this duty caused an injury which is compensable, then the plaintiff can recover for negligence. Compensatory damages are awarded to cover medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering and more. On rare occasions, when the defendant's negligence is egregious and must be punished, a plaintiff is also awarded punitive damages.
That is what happened in the famous McDonald's case. The plaintiff was actually only awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages to cover medical care. The spilled coffee caused her burns that required multiple skin grafts, and it is actually the scalding temperature of the coffee that got McDonald's punished.
Evidence showed that McDonald's knew of its too-hot coffee problem and had ignored prior complaints, which led to a jury award of 2.7 million in punitive damages, or two days of McDonald's coffee revenue. That award was reduced on appeal. Ultimately McDonald's settled the matter for over half a million dollars, not millions.
Damages awards can get reduced on appeal and can be difficult to actually collect, depending on the defendant. But what's very instructive about that case is that ultimately it ended in a negotiated settlement - and that is the reality for the vast majority of personal injury cases.
Settlements and Such
Injury lawsuits often end in negotiated settlements, rather than trials. Where it is clear that negligence occurred and the parties can agree to a reasonable amount of damages, then it makes more sense to settle, saving money and time for all parties.
The law encourages settlements generally, whether in civil or criminal cases, and personal injury is no exception. If parties can agree to terms that will resolve their dispute, then the legal system is less taxed and judges and juries are not asked to intervene.
Settling may mean doing less courtroom work, but lawyers still do investigate cases before negotiating a settlement. When the facts are more or less clear to everyone, then an agreement can be reached. Cases that never become clear or parties that never agree on what is reasonable will go on to trial.
But going to trial is costly, stressful, and risky. In a negotiated settlement everyone compromises, which means everyone can win (or lose, depending on your view).
Talk to a Lawyer
If you are considering a personal injury lawsuit, speak to a lawyer before you make any decisions about suing or settling. You need legal representation even if you are only negotiating and do not plan to go to court. Many lawyers consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to discuss your case.