Tort law allows plaintiffs harmed by another party to receive compensation for their injuries. In many cases, tort law also acts as a way to deter the defendant or “wrongdoer” from harming others again. Typically, these cases are not criminal. This means the defendant won’t likely serve jail time, but will have to pay the plaintiff damages if the defendant is deemed guilty by a jury.
There’s probably lots of tort cases you’ve heard of in your lifetime. Shows like Judge Judy and The People’s Court often show minor tort and civil cases. These lawsuits can be very entertaining since the argument is open for interpretation, and the cases are extremely unconventional. As you’ve probably seen from these programs, some cases have no legal grounds. This is called a frivolous lawsuit. But what happens when a lawsuit is so frivolous that it makes national news? Here are some of the most unusual tort cases that did make national news.
What Are Frivolous Lawsuits?
You may have heard the term “frivolous lawsuit” to describe lawsuits and cases based on completely ridiculous claims. The term was first used and discussed with a government official when President Ronald Reagan addressed the American Tort Reform Association. In his address, Reagan uses a particularly bizarre lawsuit as an example:
In California, a man was using a public telephone booth to place a call. An alleged drunk driver careened down the street, lost control of her car, and crashed into the phone booth. Now, it’s no surprise that the injured man sued. But you might be startled to hear whom he sued: the telephone company and associated firms.
Typically, we would assume the injured man would sue the driver, not the telephone booth company. Reagan goes on to explain that the telephone company was liable for the design of their booths, but it’s likely the plaintiff did this to get a larger settlement from a big corporation.
What Reagan failed to mention in this address was that Charles Bigbee, the plaintiff, did sue the drunk driver as well. However, Bigbee had to sue anyone that could have possibly been liable in this case. This incident left him with an amputated leg and a hefty hospital bill. His disability insurance would only pay $272 a month, which in 1974, couldn’t even cover his living expenses.
The reason why Bigbee sued Pacific Telephone and Telegraph is because the booth was faulty.
Another witness waiting for the booth outside was able to jump out of the way in time before the car hit. Unlike the witness, Bigbee was crushed upon impact because of the faulty door. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph had several previous incidents with their faulty doors, but refused to fix them, making Pacific Telephone and Telegraph negligent in this case.
Reagan’s address to the American Tort Reform Association ended up changing the public’s perception on tort law and personal injury cases. Media perception and corporate lobbying groups began to negatively gage the public’s perception of “frivolous” lawsuits. This is how a false perception of personal injury cases began.
The Myth of Frivolous Lawsuits
There are cases that will have absolutely ridiculous claims. For instance, there was a recent lawsuit against Kim Kardashian and Kanye West that claimed the family was conspiring with the terrorist group Al-Qaeda. This case was proven false very quickly. It is important to note, however, that the plaintiff had filed several other suits against celebrities, and was likely suffering from a mental illness. Filing a frivolous lawsuit can cost the plaintiff up to $25,000 dollars, and they can be counter-sued for harassment.
Despite this, many lobbying groups continue to fight against frivolous lawsuits and call for tort reform. These groups stand on the grounds that frivolous lawsuits and false personal injury cases jeopardize America’s legal system.
These groups claim frivolous lawsuits clog the court system and are only fueled by lawyers willing to say yes to just about anything. This, however, is far from the truth. In fact, tort law and personal injury cases are the only ways individuals can seek retribution and ignite systematic change. Personal injury lawyers must also go through ethics training to avoid frivolous cases and behavior.
How Tort Law and Civil Cases Work
Civil court is one of the only places where American citizens can have a say against larger entities. It gives any individual a chance to have a say, even against the largest entities. Tort cases are a prime example of this. If a large corporation or entity breaks the law and hurts their consumer in some way, the consumer can sue the wrongdoer. While it can feel like large corporations are influential enough to get away with murder, civil court allows even the smallest voices to have a chance to speak.
Tort lawsuits pay damages in three ways: economic, noneconomic, and punitive:
- Economic damages cover things such as lost wages and medical.
- Noneconomic subsidizes a plaintiff’s pain and suffering.
- Punitive damages, which can often be the largest, punish and deter the defendant from repeating the same crime.
This is also how the media misleads the public’s perception in paid damages. Media outlets will often run stories about these million-dollar payouts but combine all damages the defendant must pay, not the actual amount a plaintiff will receive. This can dramatically confuse the public’s perception of a case.
In many ways, thanks to tort cases, some of the most common safety protocols came from so-called frivolous lawsuits. A great example of this is the large safety warning labels on products. However, the media often spins tort cases into outlandish stories that only tell part of the truth. This is how the myth of frivolous lawsuits began.
5 Famous Not-So-Frivolous Lawsuits
If you’re still not convinced that frivolous lawsuits aren’t mythological, that they are only clogging the system, check out some of these famous cases. When you really breakdown and research the background on many frivolous lawsuits and tort cases, you’ll find that they’re just average people seeking basic compensation.
McDonald’s Hot Coffee Story
This frivolous lawsuit is probably one of the first that comes to mind when you think of the term. The popular story known to most is that a woman was driving around with hot coffee in her hand, spilt it on herself, then sued McDonald’s because it was “too hot.” She won the lawsuit and was awarded $3,000,000.
The real story, however, is far from frivolous. Stella Lieback, a 79 year old woman went through the McDonald’s drive through with her grandson. While they parked, Liebeck held the coffee between her knees so she could add her cream and sugar. She spilled the coffee along her groin and thighs. Her grandson immediately took her to the hospital from the pain she endured.
At the hospital, doctors found that over 16% of Liebeck’s body was burned from the coffee. She even had third-degree burns because it was so hot! She spent 8 days in the hospital where she had several skin grafts among several other procedures.
The family later found out that this was because McDonald’s was keeping their coffee between 180-190 degrees. Upon further investigation, Liebeck’s lawyer found that over 700 people suffered similar burns from McDonald’s coffee. Many doctors agreed that this temperature is incredibly lethal, no matter the substance.
Liebeck only asked McDonald’s to cover her $10,000 medical bill. However, when the family reached out to McDonald’s, they only offered her $800. After suing McDonald’s, a jury decided to award Liebeck $200,000. Because she was still at-fault for initially spilling the coffee, Liebeck was only awarded $160,000.
The jury then decided to charge McDonald’s with $2,700,000 in punitive damages. Punitive damages punish the defendant and deter others from acting similarly. The judge determined this number by calculating McDonald’s coffee sales from just 2 days.
Since this case, McDonald’s has now lowered the required temperature of their coffee by 10 degrees (held between 170-180 degrees). In the years following, McDonald’s began to fund citizen lobbying groups against so-called frivolous lawsuits like this.
“The Train Didn’t Kill Me” Lawsuit
In 2000, a young woman laid down on the train tracks of the New York City subway, allegedly trying to kill herself. When the train did not successfully do that, the young woman suffered extreme injuries instead. She won $14,000,000 dollars after taking New York City Transit Authority to court.
As you might imagine, this story is much more complicated than that. Seong Sil Kim was a new mother, likely suffering from postpartum depression. Kim claims she had no idea how she got on the tracks, just that she woke up and found herself suddenly there.
Six minutes before the accident, a witness called 9-1-1 and the operators were notified immediately. The train that hit her was supposed to be moving under 10 mph to comply with Transit’s “extreme caution” protocol. Expert witness, Mr. Bellizzi found that it would’ve been impossible for the train to be moving that slow when it hit Kim. In fact, the train’s conductor later admitted that he was going between 10 to 15 mph rather than the 10 mph or less as advised under Transit’s “extreme caution” protocol.
Kim suffered a right hand amputation; multiple skull and facial fractures; fractures to her arms, legs, and toes; along with permanent scarring all over her body.
The jury sympathized with Kim’s mental state and injuries. The jury awarded her $14,000,000. But because the jury found her 30% liable, Kim only received $9,900,000 for her damages. In the following years, Transit Authority appealed the case, which reduced the damages to $5,000,000 for “insufficient evidence” on Transit’s negligence.
The 2 Million Dollar Thumb
While at work, a construction worker had his thumb slammed into a door. He sued the building manager and won $2,000,000 from the case. As you might assume, there’s a little more to the story.
Cedrick Makara was a city claims examiner. While on break, Makara used his job’s on-site bathroom, which did not have a doorknob. Makara placed his hand through the hole in the door to open it, before another employee trying to get through. His thumb was severely damaged and Makara was out of work for 6 months.
The building managers, Newport Realty, had left the doorknob broken for an unreasonable amount of time, according to Maraka’s lawyers. When Marak sued the building manager, the jury awarded him $200,000 for medical expenses, $750,000 for his wife, along with $2 million for his pain and suffering.
Now, even with some more background, the lawsuit’s award seems quite steep. However, Marak was not only out of work for 6 months, he permanently lost the full use of his thumb. This means that he can no longer work in his field. In addition to losing his profession, Marak’s thumb prevents him from doing a lot of basic things like throwing and catching a ball.
When juries award plaintiff’s due diligence, they must consider the impact on the individual’s entire life. Often when damages reach into the millions, it’s likely because the impact has permanent and life-long consequences.
Aunt Sues Her 12 Year Old Nephew Over A Hug
An Upper East Side aunt sued her young nephew for breaking her wrist when he hugged her too hard at his 8 birthday party. Recollections of the incident in the media say the aunt blamed the nephew because he knew of her body’s delicate state, yet still jumped into her arms for a hug upon her arrival.
Now, it is true that the aunt, Jennifer Connell, sued her own family. However, it wasn’t the family Connell wanted to sue — it was the family’s home insurance. After her health insurance only offered one dollar for medical bills, Connell had to find other means of compensation.
Connell ended up having to sue the home insurance company instead. If you’ve read your homeowner’s insurance policy, then you know that any accidents that happen in the home should be covered. When Connell’s health insurance offered a laughable reimbursement, she had to sue her nephew to get the insurance companies to pay attention.
Connell faced horrendous criticism online. The hashtags #AuntieChrist and #AuntFromHell went viral on Twitter. Connell only needed $127,000 from insurance for medical bills, but the case was dismissed within 30 minutes. The reason why she had to sue her nephew, specifically, as explained to Connell by her lawyer, is that you cannot specifically name an insurance company as a defendant in the State of Connecticut.
Explosive Fireball From An Explosive Product Lawsuit
Two contractors were working with explosive materials in an enclosed space. After misusing the product, the home then exploded into a massive “fireball” according to witnesses. One contractor sued the company of the explosive materials for damages.
Most of this story is true, Gregory Roach and his co worker Gordon Falkner were installing carpet in a homeowner’s basement. The product they used to glue the carpet was Para-Chem’s Parabond M-280 All Weather Outdoor Adhesive, which is incredibly explosive. The basement’s water heater triggered the product and immediately burned the house into flames. After the horrific explosion that ended up travelling all the way to a neighbor’s tree, Roach spent the next 55 days in a medically-induced coma.
Roach was horribly disfigured- 96% of his body became scar tissue. He endured 19 surgeries, over 4 months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, costing him $3,000,000 in medical bills. To this day, he still does not have much of his hearing or sight.
As an expert in his field, many would assume that Roach should have known better than to use an explosive product like this indoors. However, Roach’s lawyer found that Parabond had insufficient warning labels on their products. In fact, Parabond had taken off most of the warning and safety labels that were once on their products. The jury then awarded both Roach and Falkner $8,000,000 in damages.
This case ended up making great change for the better. Para-Chem began to relabel their products to ensure any consumer would know the risks of using Parabond M-280. Many other companies with similar products also relabeled their products, making it safer for consumers to use.
Media Perception On Civil Lawsuits
Seeing headlines like this in the news or in social media can definitely shock you. However, these headlines are meant to shock you, and more importantly, trigger an emotional response. It’s easy to look at a headline with only part of the truth and assume you’re being told the whole story based on what your initial reaction is. With the growing use of social media, more news outlets use outrageous headlines as a way to generate clicks, likes, and shares easily.
So-called frivolous lawsuits are oftentimes either misinterpreted, or simply don’t provide all of the information. It’s hard to include all of the information about a case in just two paragraphs.
It’s even easier to take the small bits of information and turn it into a punchline. For decades, the famous Hot Coffee case is ingrained within American pop culture. From Toby Keith lyrics to a Seinfeld episode, you’ll find references to the Hot Coffee case.
In the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case, headlines began shortening the story to simply “Woman wins $3,000,000 lawsuit over hot coffee.” Now that you know the full story, it’s clear that there is so much more to this “frivolous” lawsuit than just that. Despite these cases having strong legal merit, the media’s portrayal of the case can grossly warp the actual story.
Tort Reform Is Bad For Our Democracy
To fight frivolous lawsuits, many advocacy groups are protesting for tort reform. Since Reagan’s address to the American Tort Reform Association, tort law has changed drastically. Many of these changes actually harm people like Stella Liebeck, who really did deserve everything she won, and ended up changing McDonald’s (and countless other chain restaurants) protocols for the better.
Numerous state laws limit the economic and non-economic damages plaintiffs can claim. This can be particularly challenging for cases like Jennifer Connell or Cedrick Makara, who had life-altering accidents.
In theory, putting these limits on how much economic damages plaintiffs can claim from defendants would lessen health insurance costs, as less people would make frivolous claims. However, the price of health insurance has actually gone up even with the state-mandated caps. In fact, 2019 actually saw the highest spike since April, 2014.
Tort reform advocacy groups often don’t see the larger picture, and the media can drastically affect the plaintiff’s arguments. These caps and tort reforms are good for large insurance companies, and corporations like McDonald’s or Para-Chem, as they now get to continue to ignore the well-being of their consumers.
Tort Reform Lobbyists dramatically affect the lives of American citizens that would otherwise deserve all the damages. Tort reform limits how much plaintiffs can claim and what grounds they can sue wrongdoers. Civil lawsuits allow even the smallest voices to have a say against large entities, and can even ignite change the way Gregory Roach and Stella Liebeck did.
The Impact Tort Reform Has On Individuals
Bigbee, the man from President Reagan’s address, spoke and testified at a Congressional subcommittee hearing on tort law in 1986. In his testimony, Bigbee goes on to speak about his accident and how it impacted his life over a decade later. He spoke of how unfair it was for the president to “distort” his story the address to the American Tort Reform Association.
Since Regan’s address, Bigbee’s case became a pinnacle example of frivolous claims and large rewards. Bigbee had this to say about the damages he’d received:
With your help, people like myself and anybody that’s injured will be justly compensated. It’s not asking for a gift; it’s asking for the truth. And when the truth be told, I don’t see any other way they can render a decision.
It took Bigbee over 10 years to cope with the loss of leg, but he will forever have to live without the use of his leg and has frequent nightmares of his accident. He finishes his address by mentioning the emotional and physical obstacles the accident left on him. Bigbee now has limitations which affect his professional life. He must also deal with the mental strain that disappointment puts on him everyday.
Bigbee’s testimony shows that these accidents can have an extensive impact on the victims. Both Bigbee and Liebeck faced constant media ridicule and public criticism until they died. Organizations like American Tort Reform Association are a lobbyist group, not a government-run organization despite its appearance. In fact, many fortune-500 companies and organizations like McDonald’s actually fund the Association.
To find out more about tort law, or for more clarity on some of the terms we used today, you can find more information at the University of Cornell’s Law School’s open access page or Stanford’s open education Tort Law Encyclopedia. To see even more cases like the ones mentioned in this article, check out the American Museum of Tort Law’s website.