Heard of the “hot coffee case” against a certain fast food restaurant? That’s only one of the personal injury cases the media has made famous. But how much do we really know about each case?
When another person’s carelessness causes you harm, you can file a legal claim to recover damages. While some countries still practice “an eye for an eye,” America’s justice system has always relied on personal injury tort cases to make things right for those harmed by other individuals or corporations. As personal injury attorneys in South Dakota, we’ve seen a lot of cases. Here are a few cases that received a lot of press nationally, with details you maybe didn’t know.
1. Liebeck v. McDonald’s
McDonald’s required its franchisees to sell coffee far hotter than other restaurants – so hot it caused 3rd degree burns in just 3 seconds. Sitting in the back seat of a parked car, 79-year old Stella Liebeck held a cup between her knees to remove the lid. When the coffee spilled, she received 3rd burns, requiring hospitalization and skin grafts. McDonald’s knew that 700 other people, including children, already had been scalded by its unusually hot coffee, but did not consider those injuries significant enough to change its behavior. Notoriously ridiculed as the force behind a “frivolous lawsuit,” Liebeck actually took McDonald’s to court only after it offered just $800 in response to her offer to settle her claim for $20,000.
Types of damages in personal injury cases vary, but two broad categories of damages in personal injury claims are compensatory and punitive damages. The jury found Liebeck’s compensatory damages worth $200,000, found McDonald’s 80% responsible, and told McDonald’s to pay Liebeck $160,000 for her injuries. Considering a history of disregarding customer safety, the jury also told McDonald’s to pay $2.7 Million in punitive damages. The judge agreed McDonald’s behavior was willful, wanton, and reckless, but reduced punitive damages to $480,000.
2. Bollea v. Gawker
Terry Bollea, more commonly known as “Hulk Hogan,” sued website publisher Gawker for torts including invasion of privacy. Gawker had posted a video clip showing Bollea engaged in sexual activity with a friend’s wife, allegedly recorded without Bollea’s knowledge by the friend (whom Bollea claims gave his blessing to the encounter). The case pitted arguments about freedom of speech against arguments about the right to privacy – both constitutional rights protected by the First Amendment.
A Florida state court jury returned a verdict for Bollea, assessing compensatory damages at $115 Million and ordering an additional $25 Million in punitive damages. The case demonstrated how highly jurors can value an individual’s privacy rights, even in the case of a celebrity famous when in character. Gawker appealed the judgment, but eventually the claim was resolved by settlement. Gawker agreed to pay $31 Million and take down three articles, including the one involving Bollea.
3. Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company
Auto companies today often market a vehicle not only by showing a movie star behind the wheel, but also by boasting about the vehicle’s safety features. It wasn’t always so. Before tort cases like this one, companies cared less about passenger safety.
Ford knew its Pinto was unsafe before it sold a single one. The gas tank ruptured on every single crash test over 25 mph. Solutions were expected to cost $1 to $8 per car. Executives performing a cost-benefit analysis, however, decided it was cheaper to settle lawsuits from injured people than to fix the design flaw. Hundreds of burn deaths eventually would be attributed to that decision. Lilly Gray’s death was one of them.
Gray was driving a Pinto rear-ended by another car at about 30 mph. The gas tank ruptured, her Pinto exploded in a ball of fire, and Gray died hours later. Her 13-year old passenger, Richard Grimshaw, survived with disfiguring scars. Their families filed a tort case against Ford. Jurors decided Ford should pay $2.516 Million to compensate Grimshaws, $559,680 to compensate Grays, and $125 Million in punitive damages.
Ford appealed and the court reduced punitive damages to $3.5 million, though it found Ford had knowingly endangered the lives of thousands of Pinto owners. After more than a hundred lawsuits and a federal investigation, Ford eventually recalled the Pinto.
If you’d like more information about American tort cases that have affected our lives, visit the American Museum of Tort Law at www.tortmuseum.org.
If you’re wondering, “How much is my personal injury claim worth?” or if you need other information from a personal injury attorney, contact Turbak Law Office today by calling 866-231-0914 and receive a free consultation from an attorney.