Fact vs Fiction of High-Profile Negligence Lawsuits

Our Chicago personal injury lawyers are seeing an increase in coverage of injury cases throughout the United States, and urge the public to be aware that misrepresentation and distortion of facts and outcomes is abundant in American media.

A woman recently filed a negligence lawsuit against Southwest Airlines for injuries suffered when she spilled hot tea on herself aboard a flight to Houston last year. The lawsuit claims the tea was “too hot for use in an aircraft.” This case is reminiscent of the McDonald’s hot coffee case that grabbed headlines in 1992, and many attorneys believe it will influence the progress of the Southwest Airlines case.

The woman, a forty-three year old construction worker from Smyrna, was seated in the front row and did not have a drop down table. She was served tea on request, but before she could put the tea bag into the lidless cup, she spilled hot water on her lap. The accident allegedly caused severe skin blisters and second-degree burns. About $300,000 of the total amount she is seeking includes pain and suffering damages, which are intangible and difficult to measure.

Lawyers for the airline have claimed that the woman was negligent when she spilled the tea on herself. They claim that the woman knowingly selected a seat without a drop table and requested hot tea of her own accord.

The case is drawing much interest for its similarity to the McDonald hot coffee lawsuit. The New Mexico woman who spilled the cup of hot coffee on her lap was awarded $2.7 million, which was later whittled down to an undisclosed amount. The coffee was served to her at around 180 degrees, higher than the permitted temperature, and resulted in skin grafts across her body.

Experts say that it will not be surprising if the jury in the Southwest Airlines tea lawsuit is influenced by the outcome of the McDonald case, though the incidents and the facts surrounding them are significantly different.

The McDonald’s case stirred up a flurry of debates in the early 90s. Opposing interests saw it as a frivolous lawsuit, indicative of greed and abuse of the legal system. Many states went on to pass tort reform laws aimed at preventing reckless and expensive jury awards.

In 2011, the Tennessee legislature passed comprehensive tort reform legislation limiting the award for pain and suffering damages at $750,000 and the caps on the award for a catastrophic case at $1 million.

Many other states have similar caps for pain and suffering awards. Tort reform advocates say that many lawsuits target big businesses, suing them for huge sums of money. This is causing businesses to invest and expand only in those states which have caps, to limit liability. Another consequence is that states without liability caps may face a shortage of physicians, especially doctors working in critical care.

Hundreds of civil lawsuits continued to be filed every year and some are dismissed as frivolous, perhaps unjustly. Although the conditions of each case are different, tort reform advocates tend to cite the hot coffee case to stir up unnecessary doubts about the reliability of the civil justice system. Many legal experts point out that the true facts of this case have been watered down by false propaganda. Reports say that from 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s coffee actually burned more than 700 people, causing severe skin blisters and burns. The New Mexico woman’s case, then, is not frivolous. She was merely standing up for herself when no one else was willing to do so.

Opponents of tort reform have filed lawsuits challenging the liability caps and the basis for fixing the limits. One recent lawsuit argues it is not legislators but juries that should determine how much an injury or damage is worth.

An example of how cruel tort reform law can be is evident in the recent case of a six-year-old boy who suffered permanent brain injuries because of negligence in medical care. The boy lost the ability to speak, walk, and feed himself and he now suffers from seizures. His mother justly sued the hospital that treated him. In addition to the jury award of $1.45 million for non-economic damages, she also won a $3.37 million award to cover future medical damages.

Tort reform completely altered her winnings, however. Missouri state law reduced the non-economic damages to only $350,000 and made half of the medical damages payable in yearly installments with an interest rate of 0.26 percent over a period of 50 years.

Fortunately, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned state law by declaring tort reform law unconstitutional jury tampering. The boy’s family will receive the full damages awarded by the jury for his medical care.

State damage caps have also been pronounced unconstitutional by supreme courts in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, Oregon, Texas and Washington. The victims of medical malpractice in the 33 other states where tort reform laws limit awards for non-economic damages, however, are still in danger of being shortchanged.

If you are faced with a personal injury, our personal injury attorneys can ensure that the true facts of your case are examined so that you get the compensation you deserve.