What You Need to Know About Punitive Damages | Jan Dils, Attorneys at Law, L.C.
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What You Need to Know About Punitive Damages

I was struggling to find something to write about today. I went to lunch to clear my mind. I drove to my closest McDonalds to fill up on some Chicken McNuggets and fries. As I was sitting in line, waiting to get my food, I knew what I was going to write about when I returned to the office.

The world was a much different place in 1992. The war in the Persian Gulf was behind us, the Summer Olympics were on their way to Barcelona (whatever happened to Dan vs. Dave,) and we were introduced to Crystal Pepsi. However, it was another beverage that made headlines in 1992. One hot cup of coffee would change the way a nation looked at lawsuits.

Even if you weren’t alive in 1992 you probably know something about the lawsuit involving McDonald’s and an older lady who spilled coffee on herself. It’s just another case of someone making millions because of their own negligence, right? Well, not exactly. What most people know is the bad early 90’s comedian version of that lawsuit. It’s far from the truth. There is a good chance that most of what you know about that case is wrong. However, Jay Leno and the writers of Jerry Seinfeld didn’t take the time to fact check the case. Laughs were more important.

In February 1992, Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee onto herself and suffered 3rd-degree burns on 6% of her body. She was hospitalized for 8 days and had to receive skin grafts. The coffee Stella was served was 158 degrees. At the time, a Cincinnati burn center warned that anything over 130 degrees is dangerous.

Stella originally offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover the cost of her medical bills. McDonald’s refused that offer, and the case went to trial. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales. Eventually, Ms. Liebeck settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Most people just assume the facts of that case were that someone spilled coffee on themselves and received millions of dollars. While we aren’t sure early how much she received, she did not ask for a million dollars originally. She was awarded punitive damages (which damage amount was altered, too). Punitive damages is the key thing to take away from this case. Do you know what punitive damages are? Honestly, until I worked for a law firm I did not know much about punitive damages. Think of them as a way to punish a person, group, or organization for negligence. According to the Cornell University School of Law, punitive damages are awarded in addition to actual damages in certain circumstances. Punitive damages are considered punishment and are awarded when the defendant’s behavior is found to be especially harmful. In this case, the punitive damages were awarded because McDonald’s showed negligence and had ignored hundreds of prior complaints about their coffee. Punitive damages are traditionally awarded in situations in which a person or organization acted with gross negligence or they had some sort of intentional misconduct.

A personal injury case, especially one that may involve punitive damages, can be difficult. The right attorney can help you navigate your way through the maze. Call us today for a FREE consultation. Our toll-free number is 1-877-526-3457. If you can’t talk now, fill out this form so that we may call you at a better time.