Frequently Asked Questions about Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice, and Insurance Disputes
Below are some initial questions many clients have when they first contact BenGlassLaw. The questions below may address many initial concerns you may have. If you don't find the answers here, you can either use the ChatBox on the left or send attorney Ben Glass a confidential message.
- Page 1
I heard about that lady who received millions of dollars from McDonalds after she spilled hot coffee on herself. Wasn't that an example of an outrageous jury award?
Of all of the "infamous" cases of the jury system gone crazy, the McDonald’s "hot coffee" case must rank number one.
Every time I hear the topic brought up, those discussing it talk about the "millions" some lady got because she spilled coffee on herself while driving her car. It is cited as an example of someone else ripping off the system and of someone not accepting personal responsibility for their actions.
Jurors come into court today not wanting to be "fooled" like that jury in the McDonald’s case. The truth about this case is rarely told and certainly has not been reported in the media. The reason for the failure to accurately report the case is undoubtedly because McDonald’s is such a heavy hitter, advertising-wise. The case never would have gotten so far had McDonald’s accepted responsibility for its decision to put profits in front of safety. When the McDonald’s jury first heard what the case was about, they thought it was silly. It was not until McDonald’s executives testified that the jury got angry with the indifferent attitude of this huge corporation.
What The Jury Heard: The plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, was not driving. She was a passenger in a stopped car. She was doing what most of us commonly do after buying coffee at the drive-up window, she was adding cream and sugar to it. What she did not know was that her McDonald’s coffee was served at a temperature that was 45-50 degrees hotter than the industry standard. No one else served coffee that hot! If you are a coffee drinker, think back to the McDonald’s coffee of several years ago. You could not drink it right after it was served. At that temperature a liquid will cause third degree burns in a matter of seconds. There was no time to clean up a spill. Stella suffered third degree burns to her thigh and buttocks. Ten percent of her body was permanently scarred. She went through several skin grafting operations. McDonald’s executives testified at trial that they knew that the coffee could not be consumed at its serving temperature because it would injure the mouth and throat. The evidence at trial was that McDonald’s served their coffee at that temperature to save money because (1) they could use a cheaper grade of coffee; and (2) it cut down on the number of free refills they had to give away. They bragged about the excellent insulating qualities of the coffee cups. In the ten years preceding the injury to the plaintiff, McDonald’s knew that over 700 people, mostly children and their own employees, had been injured by coffee and hot chocolate that was too hot. McDonald’s safety engineers testified at trial that McDonald’s considered these other injuries, some of which were second and third degree burns, trivial. McDonald’s simply calculated the cost of paying claims and worker’s compensation benefits to people burned by their coffee and compared that with the enormous profit to be made from coffee.
What the Plaintiff did before her trial: After her operations, Stella asked McDonald’s to pay her medical expenses of approximately $20,000. McDonald’s refused and then offered her $800 for her claim. She originally had no thought of suing McDonald’s, but they insulted her. After filing her suit, a court ordered mediator recommended that McDonald’s pay her $225,000 to settle the claim. McDonald’s again refused.
The jury's verdict: After the jury heard the arrogant McDonald’s executives describe third degree burns as "trivial," they awarded her $200,000 for her medical expenses and pain and suffering and $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages. The $200,000 was reduced slightly to account for her share of responsibility. Punitive damages are used to deter future wrongful conduct. The jury awarded in excess of two million dollars in punitive damages.
The media made this seem high, but all the jury did was award the plaintiff one penny for every cup of coffee sold by McDonald’s world-wide in one day! McDonald’s did not appeal the verdict. The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award by over $2.2 million dollars. The total award $640,000. McDonald’s then settled the case (presumably for something less than $640,000) and insisted as a part of the settlement that the plaintiff not disclose the exact amount of the settlement.
McDonald’s has since lowered the temperature of its coffee to acceptable levels! Sounds a little different from the way it is portrayed in insurance company advertising, doesn’t it?
I have heard about people who file frivolous lawsuits. What about businesses--are all of their cases legitimate?
Every so often we hear the cry of big business that the jury system should be changed, because too many frivolous lawsuits are filed. We have all heard the stories about the burglar who supposedly sued for falling through a roof, and the psychic who recovered millions when she lost her psychic abilities in a CAT scan. You should read such accounts with healthy skepticism. What you will not read about in the general press are the stories about the ridiculous lawsuits that big businesses file against each other.
I served on a jury, and the jury figured that the plaintiff's medical bills were probably all covered by insurance. Was this correct?
In Virginia, as in most states, evidence about whether or not a plaintiff’s medical bills have been paid by insurance is kept from a jury during a trial. There are many reasons for this law. Sometimes, however, juries attempt to account for the fact that insurance has paid the medical bills and adjust their award accordingly. If you are on a jury in a personal injury case, you should not do this. The reason is that insurance is not simple and different insurance "rules" may apply to the claims at hand.
For example, in a recent case in Fairfax County, the jury disobeyed the court’s instruction to not consider insurance. They compensated the plaintiff for 20% of her medical bills because they assumed that she had insurance (as many of us do) that covered 80% of the bills. What they failed to be aware of, however, was that in this case the plaintiff had to pay back her insurance company out of any award, so she really was not insured at all! Almost all insurance policies these days require the injured person to pay back any amounts the company paid for the medical bills if the plaintiff wins his lawsuit. This jury's award for her medical expenses did not even cover what she had to repay to the insurance company! Insurance policies differ and not every insurance policy requires this type of reimbursement. What the courts have done, however, to make the issue fair for everyone, is to simply take insurance out of the consideration of the jury.
After an accident, the insurance company for the driver who hit me says they will pay my medical bills and give me a " little something " for pain and suffering. They have asked me to sign a medical release. Should I take them up on their offer?
No, especially if you are still under the care of the physician. Once you settle with the insurance company, that will be the end of your claim, even if your injury gets worse. There may be other sources available to pay your medical bills while your claim is pending with the insurance company. An experienced personal injury attorney will be able to help you understand your rights. Most personal injury attorneys will meet with you for free to help you decide whether you need an attorney.
By the way, you should never, ever sign the medical release that it sent to you by an insurance company. While releases are sometimes important to the claim every release that we have ever seen from an insurance company is overbroad--contains no time limit--can be sent to anyone at all--and allows the insurance company to re-release the information to others. There is no requirement that you sign their release and an experienced attorney can draft a release for you that protects your rights.
What is a life care planner?
A life-care planner is an expert who evaluates what type of medications, medical care, and expenses you will incur as a result of your catastrophic injury. With a devastating injury, a planner can predict whether you will need 24 hour a day nursing care, frequent visits to the doctor's office, possibly future surgery, ongoing medication and medical equipment.
A life-care planner takes into account your current medical condition, looks at your medical records, and determines what type of medical care and medical needs you will have for the forseeable future. Once this evaluation is completed, we then provide our economist with this report and the economist can then calculate the amount of money needed to provide for all of your medical care needs. This is used to support our claim for past damages, and also for future damages.