Another day, another subtly mocking headline about someone asking a court to give her a large amount of money as compensation for what sounds like a minor injury: “Southwest Passenger Sues For $800,000 Over Spilled Tea”. Distressingly, this one comes from the Consumerist, a pro-consumer blog that I generally love, but which seems strangely willing to perpetuate the perception that lawsuits filed over consumer issues are probably ridiculous.
The lawsuit at issue was filed by a woman who had hot tea spill into her lap while on a Southwest flight. Notably, the first row seat in which she was sitting did not have a tray table for her to put the cup on while she removed the tea bag. The plaintiff alleges that the tea was served at a temperature that was “too hot for use in an aircraft.” The second-degree burns and scarring that she suffered in her groin area do indicate that tea was indeed very, very hot.
Perhaps this case wouldn’t have gotten headlines at all if it wasn’t so reminiscent of what has become the most notorious example of a plaintiff supposedly being awarded millions for what many people still seem convinced was an obviously frivolous claim. I am speaking, of course, of the McDonald’s coffee case, the mentioning of which gives me an excuse to plug the documentary “Hot Coffee,” which I would urge you to see if you get the opportunity. People, by and large, seem to have two gut reactions to cases like these: (1) coffee or tea is supposed to be extremely hot and if you spill it, whatever injuries you suffer are your fault for not handling it with the proper level of care; and (2) even if it were the company’s fault, the injury is too minor to be worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
I don’t have special knowledge about this Southwest case, and in the end, it might turn out that the woman who filed it really is being entirely unreasonable. But there are several things to keep in mind before jumping to the conclusion that this plaintiff’s claims are absurd or that she is inevitably going to receive some large, undeserved sum of money:
- Thus far, the only thing that has happened is that a lawsuit has been filed. Anyone willing to pay the filing fee (usually several hundred dollars) can claim just about anything he or she wants in a legal complaint, and the fact that this plaintiff has asked for $800,000 does not mean she is going to get it. Like any negotiation, most plaintiffs shoot high when formulating their initial demand, and the $800,000 request probably establishes the upper bound of what’s possible if everything goes right for her. It probably is, however, an extremely long road from here to compensation for this plaintiff. Unless the case settles or is dismissed immediately, there will be discovery and motions. The plaintiff, and potentially her spouse and anyone who witnessed the spill or the injury’s impact on her, will likely have to spend an entire day being deposed by Southwest’s attorneys. She may have to undergo a medical examination by a doctor hired by Southwest. Her medical history, including possibly mental health records, will be provided to and reviewed by Southwest’s attorneys and experts. In many cases such as this one, including the McDonald’s coffee case, the trial only comes after years of extremely unpleasant and personally invasive investigation.
- The attorneys who filed this case believe in it enough that they have subjected themselves to the possibility of spending the next several years working on it for no compensation, with the further possibility that, if they lose, they won’t be paid a dime for their efforts. And not only are they risking the possibility that all of their work will have been for free, they will, for the next several years, be paying for things like expert analysis, document production, traveling, and other items typically required for building a case, all which can add up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. If they lose, that money will be gone.
- Most of the compensation that the plaintiff is requesting, $500,000 of the $800,000, is for punitive damages. Punitive damages are hard to get, and it probably is fair to say that it is unlikely the plaintiff will recover even a portion of those. They are only awarded in situations where the plaintiff can show that the defendant not only acted negligently, but with malice, intent, or extreme indifference. In the McDonald’s coffee case, for instance, the plaintiff managed to prove that McDonald’s had known for years that the temperature at which it served its coffee would lead to significant injuries if it were spilled and that, in fact, more than a few of its customers had suffered serious injuries as a result. Although there’s not any way to be sure at this point, it’s possible that the plaintiff in this lawsuit will discover that she is only the most recent in a long line of people who have been severely burned by beverages served to them by Southwest. Surely, there is some point at which Southwest would be exhibiting a level of indifference that would justify punitive damages. Similarly, there has to be a water temperature that people could generally agree would be too hot to safely serve on an airplane that can unexpectedly bump at any moment. Whether either of these scenarios exist in this case remains to be seen, but we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it’s impossible for punitive damages to be warranted here.
- In order to receive the other $300,000 that she is requesting, the plaintiff will need to prove that her economic damages bear some resemblance to what she is hoping to recover. While she is almost certainly requesting compensation for pain and suffering, and probably emotional damages too, obtaining those “non-economic” damages is always secondary to proving the monetary damages arising out of the physical injury first, and in order to successfully do that, she will need treatment records, medical bills, and doctor testimony. Contrary to what seems to be the popular belief, I will state, without caveat, that Plaintiffs do not get awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars based merely on subjective claims of having suffered. If this case goes to trial and the plaintiff prevails, it will be because she convinced a jury of her peers that she suffered a serious injury worthy of compensation.
Frivolous lawsuits do get filed, and perhaps this will turn out to be one of them. I am confident, however, that if it is, it will be revealed as such fairly quickly. More likely, there will be many parts to the plaintiff’s allegations about which reasonable people could differ. The process for sorting that out is one that few people would enter lightly, and it makes little sense to assume, based merely on the allegations contained in a complaint, that this case is another indication of an overly litigious society. I expect as much from corporate advocates. It is, however, unfortunate to see a blog dedicated to consumer advocacy denigrating one of the dwindling options that consumers still have available to them to hold large corporations accountable for their misdeeds.