Keep Our Families Safe
Everyone Paying Their Fair Share
We hear a lot of talk about people taking responsibility for their actions. Some of that talk is about the legal system, and how it sometimes seems to let people sue even in those rare cases when the people suing contributed to their own injuries.
Our civil justice system is all about making sure people take responsibility. Usually, plaintiffs are the innocent parties and defendants are called to court to account for their actions.
But in a few cases where plaintiffs’ actions need to be accounted for, a legal tool called comparative negligence – which is used in almost all states – makes sure people who sue take responsibility for their portion of fault. This was used in the now-famous McDonald’s hot coffee case.
Here is how comparative negligence works:
Say a woman is driving a down a road. She glances down to change the station on the radio, which causes her to hit the curb. The impact causes the tread of one of her defectively produced tires to peel away, and she loses control of the car, which flips over.
Her spinal cord is severed. She is paralyzed, and will require constant medical care for the rest of her life. This care will eventually cost millions of dollars.
Who will end up paying for those medical bills? It depends on how her courts decide who should pay when someone is hurt by a defendant’s misbehavior.
In a state that uses comparative negligence, if the woman takes the makers of the tires to civil court, the amount she is awarded by the jury is reduced by her percentage of fault.
In other words, the jury would determine how much compensation the makers of the faulty tires owed her and then take some of that compensation away, based on how much at fault she was because of looking down to tune the radio.
So if the jury found she deserved $1 million in compensation for her lifelong injuries, but also said she was 10% at fault for the accident, it would reduce the verdict by $100,000 (10%) to $900,000. This way she pays for the portion of the accident for which she was responsible.
Many people are surprised to learn that this happened in the famous McDonald’s scalding coffee case.
Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's parked car when she removed the lid of the coffee they had just purchased, spilling the entire contents of the cup into her lap. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over six percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting and debridement treatments.
At trial it was shown that hundreds of people had been burned by McDonald’s coffee, some in the same way as Liebeck had. And McDonald's quality assurance manager testified that the company required that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees – much hotter than other restaurants. He said that McDonald's coffee was not fit for consumption at that temperature because it would burn.
The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20% at fault.
So the next time you hear someone criticize the American legal system, remember that it has been around for quite a while, and ensures that everyone takes responsibility for their actions.