Interviewer: What would say are some of the top misconceptions that people have about civil law?
Robert Cummings: I think the biggest one, and this is with personal injury, if somebody finds out that he or she has been harmed by either a company, a restaurant, or other party, the person believes that he or she is going to have that McDonald’s hot coffee case ultimately resulting in a multi-million dollar verdict or settlement. I think what a lot of people do not understand is that to recover in a civil case, there has to be a duty that the defendant owed you. That duty was breached. Through the breach of that duty, harm was caused to you by the defendant. It is that last part, the harm, the damages, where I think a lot of people are misinformed.
It is Necessary to Sustain Verifiable Damage or Injury in Order to Effectively Litigate a Civil Claims Lawsuit
The McDonald’s coffee case is a really interesting situation because a lot of people say, “Oh, she was burned by hot coffee at McDonald’s and she got eight million dollars.” But, there is a documentary called “Hot Coffee,” which goes over the McDonald’s coffee case and shows you the third degree burns that this woman received on her inner thighs, the excruciating pain, and the fact that McDonalds would not budge on accepting liability or settlement offers. This woman just wanted her medical bills paid, from what the documentary says. Ultimately, trial attorneys, through diligently litigating the case, found that McDonalds knew that keeping their coffee at a certain temperature would cause third degree burns, but nonetheless proceeded to maintain the coffee at such high temperatures. This documentary includes discussions with the jurors that awarded the amount, and the fact that McDonalds knew but persisted in the conduct is what lead the jury to award the large verdict. Overall, the case did not involve some woman driving and spilling hot coffee on her. Rather, it was that McDonalds was maintaining or keeping their coffee at a dangerous level with reckless disregard to the safety of their customers.
Therefore, the McDonalds “hot coffee” case involved substantial damages and injury. Many times, however, while there might be a duty and a breach, there are not sufficient damages to justify a civil lawsuit. The best example that I have heard is if a person is in a car with somebody, and while driving down a hill the breaks go out. Everybody is freaked out and screaming. But, the car gets to the bottom of the hill and slowly drifts to a stop. The car did not hit a tree nor did it hit a wall. The car did not careen off an edge. It just came to a stop. Everybody was startled, but there was no loss of limbs, loss of life, cuts, bruises, anything.
Now, was there damage? Yes. The fact that the people believed or felt that they were going to essentially die means that they were damaged, in a general sense. The issue comes in quantifying those damages. Just because you were in a situation and somebody did something wrong, if you were not damaged to a certain degree, it is hard for a plaintiff’s attorney to take the case on a contingency, deciding to fund the case on his or her own, without sufficient damages to justify the risk of ultimately not recovering the costs advanced on behalf of the client.
If you are Physically Harmed, Even If Slight, it is Best to Contact an Attorney Immediately
That being said, if you have been harmed, even if it is small back pain from a car accident, contact an attorney. Even slight injuries can pose significant risks in the long run. It is best to have a professional analyze your case so that, at a minimum, you can understand your rights.