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Our torts system is an extremely important part of the laws of our nations and states. The ability to sue another person is an important right, because it gives citizens who have been wronged by others the chance to see justice done. Yet lawsuits, and particularly personal injury lawsuits, get a bad rap in popular culture. To most, they represent the worst things about human nature and the law.
Personal Injury Law Myths
People don't like lawyers. People don't like lawsuits. To most people in America and beyond, personal injury lawsuits look like a means of personal gain. We may be suspicious of the people who file them, wondering if they are embellishing or even fabricating their claims to make more money. We may be sympathetic to the people being sued, or even fear that we ourselves could be sued for no particular reason.
Perhaps we think the nation has too many lawyers, or too many lawsuits. America has a "litigious society," some critics allege. We are too quick to sue each other instead of just working things out like adults, and, all too often, these critics say, people get sued who shouldn't.
There may be no better example of this type of thinking than the reputation that the infamous "hot coffee" lawsuit has in popular culture. You may have heard of this lawsuit. Here's how the story goes, a woman orders a coffee at McDonald’s. She puts the coffee on her lap (instead of in the cupholder) and drives away. The coffee spills on her lap and burns her a bit. She sues and wins millions.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, it's also all wrong—as are the other erroneous perspectives on personal injury law that we discussed.
The Truth About Personal Injury Law
Here's what really happened in the hot coffee lawsuit. The story does indeed start with a coffee at McDonald's. The person who filed the lawsuit, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, did indeed spill the coffee on herself—though, she was in a parked car at the time, and she was never driving (her grandson was). The issue at the heart of the case, though, was just how hot that hot coffee was, more than 190 degrees Fahrenheit. That's hot enough to cause horrific burns, which is exactly what happened. Liebeck suffered extensive third-degree burns on her legs and genitals, went into shock, and ended up slowly recovering in a hospital. Liebeck needed skin grafts and was permanently disfigured.
Liebeck wanted to settle her case, but McDonald’s refused to help much with her $20,000 in medical bills. Ultimately, the case landed in court. Liebeck eventually settled for less than $600,000, and McDonald’s lowered the temperature of its coffee—something it really should have done before Liebeck ever sued, because there were more than 700 cases of McDonald’s coffee burns reported before this!
Liebeck's story helps illustrate the real purpose of personal injury lawsuits. Personal injury lawsuits are there to help innocent people recover money to cover real damages, like medical bills and lost wages.
To be successful, personal injury lawsuits need to prove negligence on the part of the other party. So, there's no reason to be worried that you will be sued for no reason.
Personal Injury Lawsuits and You
Personal injury lawsuits are not about personal gain. They're about justice.
With some luck, you'll never have to worry about personal injury law — though, hopefully, you'll now have a more accurate view of how it actually works. But if you aren't so lucky, you may find yourself injured through no fault of your own. You’ll need to seek out a trusted local personal injury attorney and fight back. You’ll try to win back compensation for your terrible losses and unfair expenses.
And if that happens, you'll be glad that personal injury law is what it is—a tool for justice.