Silive.com; March 12, 2013
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Many Americans believe that their legal system is routinely exploited by money-hungry plaintiffs with cockamamie theories of civil liability.
Frequently cited as the ultimate example of legal lunacy is the monetary award obtained by Stella Liebeck for injuries sustained in February 1992, after she was burned by hot coffee purchased at a McDonald's drive-through window.
In fact, the case has given rise to the annual "Stella Awards," dishonorable commendations made to plaintiffs who have reaped financial windfalls from ludicrous claims.
Although still being recycled in mass e-mails, these eye-popping legal tales are pure fiction. A Staten Island woman's lawsuit filed last week in state Supreme Court brings to mind that celebrated case. Carol Liubicich Ayoub alleges that she was seriously injured by coffee, handed to her at the drive-in of a local Wendy's, that was "excessively hot" and "unsafely or improperly packaged."
Seeking unspecified damages, she asserts that Wendy's was negligent in failing to properly inspect the coffee container and "omitting to place proper warnings."
Although all the facts and circumstances of the case won't be known at least until discovery proceedings are complete, Ayoub's bare-bones complaint is already evoking derision from people who don't hesitate to dismiss it as sheer gall.
Ironically, it was that same summary reaction to Stella Liebeck's lawsuit that led to its being widely and wildly misunderstood.
Here are the actual facts of that case:
In February 1992, Liebeck was a passenger in her grandson's car when she purchased a cup of coffee at the drive-through window of a McDonald's restaurant in Albuquerque, N.M.
Her grandson then pulled his car forward and came to a full stop. With the cup braced between her legs, Liebeck managed to remove the lid only to have virtually all of the coffee spill on her lap. Her sweatpants absorbed the coffee and bound it close to her skin, causing third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, genital and groin areas.
Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days, during which she received both skin grafting and multiple debridement treatments.
Scarred, she was partially disabled for more than two years.
Liebeck initially offered to settle the claim if McDonald's would pay her out-of-pocket medical expenses which totaled about $11,000. When the company refused, she initiated her suit.
According to the evidence adduced at trial, McDonald's had previously received over 700 claims for injuries sustained as a result of burns caused by its coffee.
Moreover, the company routinely served the coffee at temperatures close to 190 degrees, about 40 degrees higher than other restaurants. Indeed, one of McDonald's quality-assurance managers conceded that its coffee was a burn hazard.
To that same end, an expert witness in thermodynamics, testifying for Liebeck, told the jury that liquids at 180 degrees would inflict a full-thickness burn to human skin in only a few seconds.
While the jury returned a verdict in favor of Liebeck, she did not receive anything close to the millions of dollars widely reported.
Instead, the jury found that her actual damages were $200,000 but, concluding that she was partially at fault, reduced that amount to $160,000.
Its award of close to $3 million in punitive damages was reduced by the trial judge to $480,000.
Instead of pursuing appeals that they had filed, the parties entered into a final settlement that has remained confidential by court order.
It's very possible, therefore, that Liebeck actually received less than the compensatory damages awarded by the jury and less than the reduced punitive damages awarded by the judge.
Obviously, neither side felt confident enough in its legal position to risk a winner-take-all showdown in an appellate court.
Regardless of how cleverly a lawsuit may be devised, it will not withstand appellate review unless it is consistent with established principles of law.
Even where a novel theory of recovery is affirmed by an appeals court, it's because its rationale is a logical or reasonable extension of existing principles. This is how appellate courts guarantee that the rule of law, not whim and caprice, dictate the outcome of a case.
This is not to say that there are no unwarranted recoveries in tort actions. When they do occur, however, it is almost always because jurors shape the facts to justify the verdict they want to reach.
First and foremost human beings, they are sometimes swayed by sympathy for a plaintiff, bias against a defendant, or built-in conceptions about the nature of the case.
Injustices and even seeming outrages can follow because, unlike its review of legal issues, appellate courts are generally powerless to disturb the factual findings of juries unless they are unsupported by any reasonable view of the evidence.
For the most part, however, where a lawsuit seems to produce an absurd result, there is probably a rational explanation founded in either the law or the facts.
Stella Liebeck's lawsuit is a good example. While one may still not agree with the outcome, it doesn't look nearly as bad when the true facts are known.