Personal Injury Cases

We have all heard about the big dollar cases like the old lady who spilled coffee on herself and then sued McDonald’s only to be awarded millions.  When we hear about cases like that we wonder, why on Earth would McDonald’s owe someone money for having spilled coffee on themselves?
We will use this blog to explain how a personal injury case works and while doing so explain how a jury reached a verdict in the McDonald’s case.
The explanation of duty in  personal injury claims has been well defined by case law, “A principle of natural ethics, universally recognized by civilized men, imposes on each individual the duty to so regulate his life activities as not to injure another, either intentionally or carelessly. The law of torts rests on that ethical principle.”  In other words everyone has a responsibility(duty) to conduct their activities in such a way to not purposefully or carelessly harm someone.  In the McDonald’s example, McDonald’s has a duty to not intentionally or carelessly harm their customers.  So in the famous case, McDonald’s owed their customer, the elderly lady, a duty not to harm her.
Breach of Duty
After we establish that a person or company has a duty to a person, then the question becomes, did they do something to breach the duty to the person who has filed suit against them.  In other words, did the person or entity being sued act in some manner that failed to meet the duty of care owed.  In McDonald’s case this is where everyone asks, how did McDonald’s breach their duty to the elderly lady?   All they did was serve her coffee and SHE spilled it on herself.  How did McDonald’s do anything wrong?  Well, if you dig into the case a bit, you can see why a jury felt that McDonald’s breached their duty of care to this customer.  The Plaintiff’s attorney did some good digging and found out that McDonald’s had conducted internal studies on the temperature of their coffee and realized that customers liked it served literally scolding hot.  Their studies showed that their coffee, if spilled, could cause severe third degree burns and if they just reduced the temperature a bit, the risk of burn was much less.  Despite these studies they continued to serve their coffee at this high temperature.  Thus, the jury determined that McDonald’s breached its duty of care by serving their coffee at an extremely high temperature.
Proximate Cause
OK, so a person or company has breached its duty, what now?  This is the but for test.  But for the breach of the duty, the person would not have been injured.  In other words, did the breach cause the injuries complained of.  Many times defendants will point to a pre-existing injury to try to show their breach did not cause the injury at hand.  Back to McDonald’s, this one was easy, there was no doubt that their coffee caused the burns.
Last but not least, is the question did the person suffer damages.  Many times every day someone is negligent in their dealings with someone, but there aren’t any resulting damages.  A basic example, is when you bump into someone, that is negligent, but most of the time the person is just fine and so there are no damages.  In the McDonald’s case, the elderly lady suffered severe third degree burns to her vaginal area.  So when you ask, why millions of dollars?  Well, think about having to have procedures and grafts to that part of your body to repair the most severe types of burns and you can probably figure out how the jury came back with such a high number.
In conclusion, in a personal injury case there needs to be a duty, a breach of that duty that is the proximate cause of  damages suffered.  If you or a loved one suffers a personal injury, contact the attorneys at Banks & Brower, LLC for a free evaluation of your case.