Frivolous Lawsuits…Why Sue?

What if your frivolous lawsuit could prevent someone else from suffering what you’ve experienced?

Almost every day in the news you’ll hear about a “frivolous lawsuit” that some idiot has filed because they slipped and fell while trying to rob a dry cleaning business or a gentleman who crashed his motorhome when he got up to make himself a sandwich while driving on the interstate. So what do we really mean by a “frivolous lawsuit?”

A case may considered frivolous if the lawsuit is based on absurd legal theories with many motions filed as a means of harassment. Another definition of a frivolous lawsuit is a case that has solid legal ground but is deemed frivolous due to the percieved value of the damages such as malpractice suits filed against doctors or products liability claims filed against the manufacturers of faulty medical devices or unsafe drugs.

The lawsuit in many of these types of cases is based on the fact that the manufacturer knew of the potential danger to the consumer, but chose to continue to distribute this particular product. It isn’t until these corporations suffer an economic penalty that they will take responsibility and either change their product to make it safer or pull it off the market. At times these economic penalties come in the form of judgements from “frivolous lawsuits.”

Perhaps one of the most famous (or infamous) cases is Stella Liebeck and her 1992 hot coffee lawsuit against McDonalds.

The media had a field day with this case. Stella, who was 72 years old at the time, ordered a cup of coffee at the drive-thru window at a McDonalds in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Contrary to media reports, she was not driving the car with a cup of hot coffee in her lap. Her grandson, who was driving the car, parked the car so Stella could add sugar and cream to her coffee. She placed the cup between her knees and when she pulled the top off, the entire cup of coffee spilled on her lap. Stella suffered third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks and groin.

A fact of this case that you did not read in the media is that McDonalds knew their coffee was hot enough to cause third degree burns. Between 1982 and 1992, McDonalds received more than 700 reports of customers who suffered burns from their coffee.

Another fact: Stella originally asked McDonalds for twenty thousand dollars to cover her medical bills. McDonalds’ original offer was $800.

We’d all like to say we’d know better than to place a cup of hot coffee on our lap. The case is not about the fact that the coffee was spilled – accidents happen. The case is based on the fact that McDonalds knew their coffee was hot enough to cause third degree burns. What if Stella had put that cup of coffee on a table instead and accidentally knocked it over and was burned by the scalding coffee? What if a child running through the restaurant had bumped into that same cup of coffee and was burned by the scalding coffee? Would these cases be considered frivolous?

The bottom line is this “frivolous lawsuit” accomplished a very important goal. McDonalds has lowered the temperature of their coffee so that it can no longer cause serious burns. I know the last time I had a cup of coffee at McDonalds; it was more than hot enough.