business

Test Your Tort Knowledge

How much did that spilled hot cup of coffee really cost McDonald's? The final result of that and other such cases might surprise you

By Lorraine Woellert

There's no end to attention-grabbing lawsuit stories. It seems people will sue over anything -- and win. But these stories often entail more than what gets told. For example, much hue and cry erupted in 1994 when a woman was awarded $2.9 million after she spilled McDonald's (MCD ) coffee on her lap. But case's details (McDonald's had had some 700 complaints about the temperature of its coffee, and the woman required skin grafts for her third-degree burns) -- as well as its final outcome (a judge lowered the award to $600,000) -- didn't garner the same kinds of headlines.

And while Corporate America likes to complain about being besieged by aggressive plaintiffs' lawyers, businesses are to blame for their own share of questionable lawsuits (see BW Cover Story, 3/14/05, "How to Fix the Tort System"). Take a look at some of the cases below. Was justice served?

In October, 2000, a Knoxville (Tenn.) woman sued McDonald's, seeking $110,000 in damages, claiming she was disfigured by a scalding pickle that fell from her hamburger. She claimed that the pickle was unreasonably dangerous. The woman's husband also sued, for $15,000, claiming he had been deprived of his wife's companionship during the ordeal. What happened?

A. The couple won their case, just like that lady with the coffee in her lap

B. The judge tossed the couple out of court after upbraiding them for their frivolous lawsuit

C. McDonald's settled to avoid a lengthy trial

D. None of the above

Answer: C. Details of the settlement were kept confidential, but McDonald's did not admit liability.

A Nebraska couple sued their obstetrician for negligence after their son was born brain-damaged. The obstetrician had failed to diagnose a dangerous condition during the pregnancy, which was later discovered by another doctor. The boy suffers from cerebral palsy and other physical disorders, and requires lifelong care. What did the jury award the couple?

A. $12 million

B. $5.6 million

C. $1.25 million

D. Nothing

Answer: B. The jury found the doctor negligent and awarded the family $5.6 million. But because Nebraska has a cap on medical malpractice damages, a judge reduced that amount to $1.25 million -- the maximum damages allowed under state law. The family had presented evidence maintaining that economic losses and the cost of their son's care over his lifetime would exceed $12 million.

In January, 2000, a woman in Austin, Tex., sued a furniture store after she broke her ankle by tripping over a toddler who was running amok in the aisles. She claimed the store was negligent. How much did she win?

A. $780,000

B. The case was settled out of court

C. Nothing

D. None of the above

Answer: D. This case is folklore, an urban myth that tort reformers have adopted to aid their cause. It has found its way into print, where it has been presented as fact.

An 81-year-old woman stranded by a flat tire stepped in front of a truck on a Missouri highway and was killed. The trucker's insurance company, Great West Casualty, charged the elderly woman with negligence and sought $2,800 from her estate to cover damages to the truck sustained during the accident. What did the company get?

A. $2,800

B. $1,400

C. A public flogging for its insensitivity

D. Nothing

Answer: C. The parent company withdrew the claim and apologized to the family.

In 2003, several class actions were brought against bottled-water maker Poland Spring. Plaintiff's lawyers claimed the bottled water did not, in fact, come from a spring and was unsafe to drink. The class included some 10 million Poland Spring customers. When a Kane County (Ill.) judge signed off on a settlement, who fared best?

A. Poland Spring

B. Consumers

C. The lawyers

D. All of the above

Answer: C. Poland Spring was vindicated because the judge found evidence against the company "weak." One plaintiff's attorney even admitted after he toured a Poland Spring facility that the water came from a spring and was safe. Consumers won $8 million in rebates and discounts off future purchases of Poland Spring water. But the lawyers scored the biggest take, collecting $1.35 million in fees.

Caterpillar (CAT ) sued Disney (DIS ) in 2003, accusing the studio of portraying bulldozers in a bad light. Caterpillar tried to block the DVD release of George of the Jungle 2 because it contained scenes in which evil industrialists use its machines to destroy the jungle, while George and his animal friends fight back with coconuts. Caterpillar claimed that the film diluted its trademark and violated the rules of fair competition. What did the judge decide?

A. Disney made Caterpillar look bad

B. The industrialists made Caterpillar look bad

C. Caterpillar might look bad, but it wasn't harmed

D. There's nothing wrong with bulldozers destroying the jungle

Answer: C. A Peoria (Ill.) judge found that "even the most credulous viewer or child" would know that the bad guys operating the machinery, not the machinery itself, were causing all the environmental damage. The court said it was unlikely that any consumer watching the film would then decide not to buy Caterpillar equipment.

Woellert is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

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