What makes for a frivolous lawsuit? Often the difference between a frivolous and non-frivolous suit is a matter of degree. But nuances typically don’t make for good late night comedy. It isn’t half as entertaining as Lindsay Lohan’s recent $100 million suit against E*Trade for allegedly misappropriating her name, characterization, and personality.
For business owners, understanding the difference between a frivolous and non-frivolous suit can make the difference between recognizing the merits of the case and a quick settlement or protracted litigation. It can save you money. Confuse the two and you have a litigation nightmare.
One of the most well known “frivolous” suits is the McDonald’s restaurant hot coffee case. A woman scalded herself after a cup of coffee purchased at the drive-through window spilled in her lap. Sure, she contributed to the spill by balancing the cup in her lap; but she won $2.9 million in damages. $2.7 million of that award represented punitive damages. In other words the $2.7 was intended to punish the company, while the remainder of the award was intended to compensate the woman.
It was an expensive cup of coffee. The media headlines howled and the Lenos and Lettermans of the world had their opening bits handed to them on a silver platter.
What most people didn’t know was that there was ample evidence in McDonald’s files showing that the company knew for years that it sold its coffee at significantly hotter temperatures than its competitors. Yet McDonald’s didn’t turn down the heat. Those few extra degrees of heat made the difference between third-degree and second-degree burns that could occur in the time it would take to wipe up a spill from your lap. That’s what the jury came to realize.
Coffee can be hot without being scalding and damaging skin. It was a matter of degree. The punitive damages were in response to what the court perceived was a callous company attitude. The company “knew” someone could get badly burned based on the information in their files. They did nothing and that constituted negligence. The damage award represented two days of coffee revenue. It was later reduced on appeal to six figures and the case settled.
McDonald’s is currently dealing with another “hot” lawsuit. This one involves a fried chicken sandwich that sent scalding grease flying across the customer’s face and lips the moment the he bit into it. To make matters worse, his lips blistered and seven months later they still had not healed completely causing him to lose some time on the job refurbishing and assembling outdoor amusement rides.
The case has been pending for 5 years. (Note my top 10 reasons for avoiding litigation: reason #1 – it can take forever.) The chicken sandwich suit had been dismissed, but was reinstated because of a procedural error. Certain evidence had not been admitted to trial. The judge had not allowed the introduction of testimony from a McDonald’s employee who saw the burns and said something like “that’s what happens when the sandwiches aren’t drained completely.”
Time will tell how the case of the chicken sandwich will ultimately be decided and whether a jury thinks the evidence supports a finding of negligence on the part of the company. In the meantime, the hot chicken sandwich case will no doubt to turned into another symbol of litigation excess and frivolity.
It’s one thing if you’re a defendant being faced with negative publicity surrounding an unpopular suit; but if you’re the plaintiff and filing a suit turns you into a lightning rod for negative publicity of the kind Ms Lohan is potentially facing, it makes you wonder why the suit was filed in the first place.